Three Months of Training

Beloved admirers of Bloganda, who have read our wholly awesome one post before we had ever arrived in Uganda, we are a bit shy to announce after such a long silence that we have finally finished our three months of training and are finally at our “site” where we will live and work for the next two years. This means many things, one of which is that we will now have a regular schedule and internet access, thus making Bloganda feasible again. Peace Crops encourages blogs because it accomplishes their goal “To share the culture of Uganda with Americans.” So, fellow Americans, we will try to provide a recap of the last three months of Peace Corps Pre-Service Training. Join us as we take you back…back…back into the distant past of November 4, 2015.

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Phase: Packing 

Dates: November 4 – November 9, 2015

Before we started packing for Peace Corps, we balked at the very short packing list the Peace Corps provided. The list doesn’t even include the variety of clothes we wear in one week; how could it contain the clothes we will wear for 27 months?

But when we started packing, we discovered that more than 4 shirts is nauseating. 5 shirts is overwhelming. Because those 5 shirts next to 5 skirts, 3 pairs of shoes, 1 french press, 1 deflated basketball, etc. feels like a consumerist’s fantasy, i.e., just what we were trying to escape.

To make it worse, we had so many last-minute purchases based on recommendations of other Peace Corps Volunteers: hand-grinder, french-press, rain coats, toiletry kits, basketball pump, all of which left us reveling in the irony, “Why do we need to buy so much stuff when part of the point of joining Peace Corps is to rid ourselves of “stuff”?”

Below is our best estimation of our final packing list:

  • Carry-ons included laptops, Kindles, Books of Common Prayer, writing journals, chargers, water bottles

Checked bags. We were allowed 2 each, 4 total:

  • Matt’s 62” (length + width + height)
    • 4 short-sleeved collared shirts
    • 3 long-sleeved collared shirts
    • 1 necktie
    • 2 t-shirts
    • 1 pair of jeans
    • 3 pairs of pants
    • 2 pairs of shorts
    • 1 pair of athletic shorts
    • 1 sleeping bag
    • 2 hats
    • 1 hacky-sack
    • 1 UV-filter water bottle
    • 1 toiletry kit
    • 1 umbrella
    • 1 towel
    • 1 rain coat
    • 1 shell with insulated lining
    • 1 Leatherman
    • 1 mosquito net
    • 1 clip-on headlamp
    • 1 steel flint
    • 25 8th graders’ letters addressed to themselves, which Matt is responsible for sending when they begin their senior year in high school
  • Victoria’s 62”
    • 4 skirts (below the knee)
    • 1 dress (below the knee)
    • 4 long-sleeved collared shirts
    • 4 solid-color “dress” t-shirts
    • 1 pair of jeans
    • 2 pairs of high-waisted trousers
    • 15 pairs of underwear
    • 7 bras
    • 2 sports bras
    • 1 sleeping bag
    • 4 pair of athletic pants
    • 4 athletic t-shirts
    • 4 pairs of shoes
    • 1 toiletry kit
    • 1 sleeping bag
    • 1 towel
    • 1 rain coat
    • 1 shell with insulated lining
    • 1 Leatherman
    • 1 headlamp
    • 25 prints of pictures from our wedding
  • Shared Duffle-bag (approx. 28”)
    • Sunscreen
    • Lotion
    • Ibuprofen
    • 1000-piece puzzle of a New England winter scene (gift for homestay family)
    • 1 deflated basketball
    • 1 basketball pump
    • 2 Bibles
    • 1 hand coffee-grinder
    • 1 french press
    • Framed J.R.R. Tolkien quote, “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost”
    • Picture of a helmeted mouse riding a fish
    • 1 solar-powered inflatable lamp
    • Computer solar-charger
    • Re-chargable solar batteries
    • 1 flashlight
    • 1 large cooking knife
    • 1 set of measuring cups
    • 4 orange-flavored water-enhancers
    • 1 pair of binoculars
  • 1 yoga mat Matt taped up in a black trash bag, packed on impulse within 2 hours of leaving for staging.

Phase: Staging (A 2-day orientation in the United States before flying to Uganda)

Dates: November 9 – November 10, 2015

Matt’s father and little brother dropped us off at a hotel in West Philadelphia, where we went to registration before jetting to our hotel room for deep breaths and room service, and finally, sleep. The following morning we learned we are one of three married couples in a cohort of 31 education volunteers. Our ages range from 21 to 65. Trainees hail from all over the U.S., and Peace Corps boasts that our racial diversity reflects that of the U.S., about 74% white and 26% people of color.

Our orientation consisted of both the boring and the surreal. Much of it was what we expected: overviews of Peace Corps’s mission and expectations of us as volunteers, general safety and cross-cultural tips, etc. One orientation leader solicited us for additional expectations we should have for ourselves, causing one colleague to offer, “We shouldn’t sneeze on each other” and “Don’t try to jump over a fence because you might hurt your leg.”

Then, we participated in an activity called “Albatross.” In “Albatross,” we were ushered into an empty conference room where we were told we could not talk. Two of our “orienteers” proceeded to interact with each other, and when it was all over, we were told to go back to our seats and describe what we saw, the descriptions of which we can only imagine resemble early drafts of David Lynch screenplays. We’ve included transcriptions of both of our interpretations below:

Victoria: A man sits in a chair with his back straight. A woman picks up a piece of food and places it onto her palm. With the food in hand, she kneels by a counter. On both knees, she crosses her hands over her chest, and bows at the waist until her head is a few inches above the floor. Getting up, she then walks over to the man and gets onto her knees. Both the man and the woman stare ahead until the woman turns to look at the man.

Matt: Woman standing, man sitting. Woman kneels and bows. Gets Cheez-It. Woman kneels and bows. Woman stands, walks to man, kneels. Man places hand on shoulder, woman bows. Woman rises, feeds Cheez-It to man. Woman goes to get drink.

We shared our various descriptions, and then distinguished between describing and interpreting (some people referred to the woman as subservient, or as a wife, for example).

Ultimately, Albatross demonstrates the importance of verifying in addition to describing, interpreting, and evaluating what we see when we are unfamiliar with a culture.

One of the trainers noted, “If you’re writing a blog, don’t write anything you wouldn’t want your host mom to read.” Bloganda has a credo!

Our last meal before leaving for Uganda was some type of Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia that came highly recommended by the Peace Corps staff hosting our training. Between 9 trainees, we ordered a family-style sampling of many courses on the menu. Waiting for our Uber outside, the air was crisp and we looked at the Christmas lights strung overhead while we shared our stories from application to acceptance in the Peace Corps.

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Phase: Traveling

Dates: November 10 – November 11, 2015

The last thing our trainers told us was if we were conflicted about whether or not to go to Uganda, we should stay in the U.S. “Just don’t get on the plane. There will be no judgment, no shame. But don’t go only to turn around and come back. It’s not fair to the Ugandans who are preparing for you to come to their schools. They’ll wonder what they did wrong…it’s just a bad scene. Sleep on it, and if you have any doubts at all, just don’t get on the plane.”

Nevertheless, on November 10, 2015, a bus with all 31 members of Peace Corps Uganda Education Cohort 4 departed Philadelphia at 2:30 AM to arrive at JFK Airport in New York City for a 15-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa departing at 10:30 AM. The flight was a blur of sleeping, movies, Kindle-reading, and in-flight meals. Before we knew it, local time was 8:30 AM, and we were in South Africa.

Cat-napping in a corner of the Johannesburg Airport, dehydrated from the long plane ride and lack of public drinking fountains, we woke to board our four-hour flight to Entebbe, Uganda and landed in what Winston Churchill described as “The Pearl of Africa,” our new home for the next 27 months.

Peace Corps staff members, including the Country Director, waited for us outside the airport 33 hours after we had left our hotel in Philadelphia. We threw our bags in a large truck and crowded on to a bus with fold-down aisle seats so as not to not waste any room.

Two to three hours later, after passing countless little shops (“dduukas”) and homes where people gathered as night descended, we could finally unload our bags and settle in for the next 19 days at a camp not too far geographically from Kampala for the first phase of our Pre-Service Technical Training.

Phase: Pre-Service Training – “Technical” Training

Dates: November 11 – November 28 , 2015

Stunned

When we wake up the next morning and can see Uganda in the daylight, we struggle for words. We are in the most beautiful place we have ever seen. Lush greens of equatorial flora are as much a part of the landscape as the small, concrete buildings that sprout from the grass. Everyone greets us with “Welcome to Uganda,” or, “You are most welcome.” Little children spot us from afar and call out “Hi!” and wave, expressing the boldness of young ones and the warmth of their home country’s culture of hospitality. The hellish travel itinerary we endured and the eight-hour time difference make an already dreamlike landscape even dreamier.

In the evening, Ugandan staff serve food that surpasses our expectations. The meals make up for any lack of spice with their heartiness and “good mouth-feel,” as Matt’s brother and sister like to say. Simple, organic, local vegetables, starches, meats, and fruits never leave us hungry, and the kindness and generosity of the staff is overwhelming beyond our ability to articulate, though that doesn’t stop us from trying (“Weebale, nnyabo!” quickly becomes our most frequently used Luganda phrase: “Thank you, madam!”).

We were quickly introduced to one of Uganda’s most distinctive foods, matooke, Matooke is a small, green, ripe plantain. The recipe for steamed matooke, the traditional and labor-intensive method of preparing matooke, is included below from the Peace Corps Uganda Cookbook, although it can also be boiled, fried, or grilled:

Wrap the matooke in banana leaves and [sic] at top. Line a saucepan with strips of banana leaves or stalks. Put in water, about 1/2 full and place wrapped matooke on top of the leaves. Be sure enough water is available to cover the matooke leaves. Cover the top of the saucepan and steam until cooked, about 2-3 hours. Unwrap matooke and allow some steam to escape. Mash matooke with hands by kneading the banana leaves wrapped around the matooke. Do this in a separate dish if there is still water left over from steaming.

Matooke is most enjoyable when served with some sort of sauce, usually the juice or soup from meat or beans.

Like the environment and the food, the living accommodations at the compound far exceed what we imagined. We have our own room in a one-floor, concrete building housing about 14 other Peace Corps volunteers. We share showers with hot water and flushing toilets. The housekeeper is older and literally kind beyond words: she speaks little English but seems constantly involved in some task to make us feel welcome. We take it as a sign that she shares Matt’s grandmother Ida’s name, who passed away shortly before we left for Uganda.

Our first full day, training led by Ugandan and American Peace Corps staff and current volunteers leaves us starry-eyed and reeling. Stiff icebreakers from staging pale in comparison to the experiential learning activity we do at the beginning of our training, sharing one quality about ourselves that is an asset we can bring to the group (for Matt, “three things: a critical lens, silliness, and assurance that all criticism is coming from a place of love” and for Victoria, “three things: shyness, desire to make you laugh, love of reading”). As we share, we throw a ball of string across the circle to each other, creating an apt if corny web of interconnectedness. We enjoy “break tea” twice a day, a 15-minute break for tea, instant coffee, and/or kuchoklya (spelled here phonetically), finger foods such as nuts, popcorn, samosas, or a sort of donut ball. The sun shines, good will flows, and vaccinations abound.

Vaccinations include Hep A & B, rabies, meningitis, and typhoid. We soon begin taking anti-malarial medication (one pill a day), a vital new habit in a country where the session on malaria informs us that we should have started our malaria prophylaxis before arriving in Uganda; when we ask the Peace Corps Medical Officer why Peace Corps did not have us start our medication until we are already in-country, he shrugs and says, “I don’t know.” When asked what the most dangerous animal in Uganda is, our cohort invariably fails to produce the answer: the mosquito.

A typical day involves waking up around 6:30 AM for a 7:00 AM breakfast with sessions starting at 8:00 AM and going until about 6:00 PM. Sessions can range from a half hour to two hours, but the sequence of a typical day might look like this:

  • Behavioral Management
  • Lesson Planning
  • Break Tea
  • Medical or Safety and Security
  • Lunch
  • Experiential Learning (hands-on icebreaker-type activity followed by team-building discussion)
  • Literacy
  • Break Tea
  • Inter-Cultural/Diversity
  • Mentor Groups (debriefing in small groups about how the day went, how are we feeling, etc.)

Choosing Our Destiny

As a literacy specialist, Victoria will teach “pupils” in primary schools between grades four and seven. As a teacher trainer, Matt will be a “tutor” and teach roughly 18-21 year-old (in some cases older) “students” at a Primary Teachers’ College. Although Peace Corps invited Victoria as a literacy specialist and Matt as a teacher trainer, we can choose to switch if we choose. To help us get a better understanding of which role would be best, Peace Corps has arranged for us to visit a primary school and a primary teachers’ college.

Our field trip is illuminated with faces of Ugandan children and pre-service teachers, but marred with some ugly/challenging issues that arise. At the primary school, children are quick to run to the light-skinned members of our cohort, but notably ignore those of us who are people of color. The problems and the history of the problems with these interactions aside, the children are, in fact, adorable. They have prepared a drum and dance performance for us and are wonderful. Matt waves at them, clasping his fingers to his palms as if to squeeze them from afar. A Peace Corps Trainer taps Matt on the shoulder to inform him that in Ugandan culture, that gesture is not a wave; it means, “Come here.”

Throughout our visits to the schools we heard several Peace Corps volunteers speak in their best imitation of a “Ugandan” accent. Is it worth sounding more immediately familiar to Ugandans (if indeed an accent accomplishes that) if it comes with the cost of doing an impression of them? As a fellow trainee pointed out, aren’t we desirable teachers in part because of our native-English speaking accents? If we were teaching English as a Second Language in China, would we speak to a Chinese student in a Chinese accent? Another trainee contested that this analogy is flawed because English is the official language of Uganda, and not the official language of China, so if anything, it is imperialist to teach the American accent in Uganda. If we want to integrate and empower the students in Uganda, we should use a Ugandan accent, the volunteer argued. But if we were teaching English in Scotland (where English is the official language), would we imitate a Scottish accent? The accent feels condescending to us, but clearly it’s a divisive and unresolved issue in Peace Corps Uganda’s pedagogy.

Following the field trip, we opt to stick with our prescribed roles of teacher trainer and literacy specialist, but now must decide where we want to teach and live for the next two years.

We are told Uganda is the only Peace Corps country with an “Ad-Bid” process, where schools “advertise” what they want their volunteers to be like, then we “bid” on the sites, ranking the ones that most appeal to us. Peace Corps tries to give us a site listed in our top three preferences.

Luckily for us, more than 30 potential sites are immediately whittled down to the only three that list a preference of having a married couple. We read through these three sites and ranked them, although we would be happy at any one of them.

Whirlwind Weekend

Over the span of several days, we meet with our country director, learn where we will be serving for the next two years, and make our first visit to Kampala, the capital of Uganda and Uganda’s only city.

Meeting with our Country Director

Meeting one-on-one with the country director for Peace Corps Uganda, we were touched by her tenderness and thoughtfulness. Matt expressed his lingering concerns with the morality of being a Peace Corps Volunteer, which she simultaneously validates as she dispels.“When this training is over and you get to your site, you will only have your two hands, two feet, a working mind, and a heart. You did not come here to drive; you are not in the driver’s seat. You are in the backseat,” she said.

The country director’s address to the cohort conveys a reflectiveness and self-criticism on the part of the Peace Corps that has not yet been communicated in the other training sessions. She began by playing [a TED Talk about why aid fails and how we should approach providing aid to low-income countries]. The country director said that she wrote her thesis on aid to developing countries and distilled three reasons why aid so often fails:

  1. Donors don’t come to the communities to which they are donating.
  2. Very little money actually makes it to communities through NGOs.
  3. […we didn’t catch this one. Trust us, the irony that we are about to provide aid to a low-income country and don’t know the third pitfall is not lost on us!]

She left us with six questions to ponder over the next six months before we will meet again as a cohort:

  1. Did aid do more damage than good for Uganda?
  2. Are the NGOs the main beneficiaries of development funds?
  3. Will local communities’ voices ever be heard?
  4. Can we change anything if we do not have money?
  5. What should Peace Corps Volunteers do to support communities?
  6. What can government do for development in Uganda?

Learning where we will serve for the next two years

The following night, we are told to convene after dinner for an additional session. We arrive to learn that we had all been summoned because our future sites would be announced sooner than expected: tonight!

To the training team’s credit, they pulled together quite the spectacle to announce such spectacular news. They unveiled our sites through a Jeopardy! skit where each answer was a site description, and each question revealed the trainee(s) who would be posted there. They then transitioned halfway to a parody of the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter, calling each trainee one by one to announce where they would be stationed.

While we were very glad to learn that we had been matched with our first choice, the real revelation of the evening came in identifying which fellow volunteers would be placed in our region and therefore in our language group. Our cohort of 31 shrunk suddenly to 10 as we gathered together and looked around to see who we would be spending six weeks with in language training.

Kampala Tour

On Sunday, the quietest day in Kampala, Peace Corps provided a coaster (a fancy bus) for all trainees to be brought to Kampala. Because a large crowd of 31 clueless Americans is unnecessarily attention-seeking in a city known for harassment and pick-pocketing, trainers were assigned to lead trainees in smaller groups based off language regions. Our language region, the central region of Uganda, is the largest language region at 10 trainees, so we were  split into two groups. In a group of five trainees led by two trainers, we got off the coaster at a mall, and other trainees traveled farther to begin their tour at other locations across Kampala.

First, we were taken to one of the Peace Corps-approved hostels in case we ever need to visit Kampala overnight for Peace Corps-related business (normally, Peace Corps volunteers are banned from Kampala). We walked to another mall where we bought some airtime. Airtime is needed to call, text, or use mobile internet in Uganda.

From the second mall of the day, we walked along a golf course to (you guessed it!) another mall. Our trainers were ecstatic to eat in a mall food court, probably because of the affordable abundance of western-style food. From the third and final mall we walked along a road bordered with lush greenery and heavily guarded luxurious houses and diplomatic buildings until we reached the Peace Corps headquarters. At three stories high with a well-manicured yard and a patio offering a long view of the valley and surrounding hillsides that comprise Kampala with an office with free Wi-Fi to boot, the headquarters seemed an oasis in the crowded capital city.

After trainees got their fill of Wi-Fi and soaked up a Sunday afternoon view of Kampala, we walked to a cafe and arranged a “private hire” (analogous to a taxi in the U.S.) to take us to the taxi park (the taxis in Uganda being more like small buses in the U.S.) where we were responsible for arranging our own ride back to the training facility. Once at the taxi park, we were removed from the Sunday easiness of the other parts of Kampala, and we were in the thick of thousands of people bustling to some unknown destination, hawkers offering plastic toys and noisemakers, and motor-vehicles scooting around corners with abandon.

Our visit to the taxi park coincided with a Ugandan football match. The game was on almost every TV, radio, and phone. With news of a Ugandan goal, the scattered citizens collectively erupted and we were fortunate to be in the midst of their joy, albeit holding our backpacks atop our bellies as if empathizing with pregnant women. After walking by cauldrons of fried grasshoppers and other street foods, our trainers found a taxi, and we all crammed in five or six of us to a row where three or four might be seated comfortably. After about an hour of travel, we arrived at our training facility just in time for afternoon break tea.

Thanksgiving

We celebrated Thanksgiving on Monday November 23 at the Peace Corps headquarters because on Thursday Pope Francis was visiting Uganda. We found it odd that after living for 26 years without ever factoring the Pope’s location into our daily routine, the pope was visiting the place we were living for the second time in three months. He arrived for our last week in Washington DC, and now, he was in Uganda. We aren’t so bold as to compare his visit to Haley’s comet appearing on the birth and death of Mark Twain, but it still felt somehow extraordinary.

A volleyball net, tents, and tables for food were all set up for our day of leisure. We lounged and helped where we saw we could while three Peace Corps volunteers and a host of Ugandans prepared a lunch that could feed all 31 trainees, our trainers, and all Peace Corps staff at the office.

While the food included melted marshmallows on top of sweet potatoes mixed with pumpkin pie mix, Thanksgiving was underscored by melancholy. We missed our families.

One trainee in our cohort gave a speech comparing all of us trainees to “Robot 31,” a metaphor full of mechanical language about the 31 members of our cohort who were designed to work together and succeed as Peace Corps volunteers. Another trainee sang some songs on his acoustic guitar and recited the Dr. Dog monologue from “Livin’ a Dream.”

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Learning Uganda Life Skills 

One of our Ugandan trainers took us to a field on the side of our training compound one day to demonstrate how to take a bucket bath, use a pit latrine, wash clothes by hand, and cook with a “sigiri”. For bucket bathing, our Ugandan trainer covered herself with water and put soap all over clothes, demonstrating how to soak, soap, and rinse in real time. She even showed us how to use a towel to cover ourselves after bathing when walking back to our room.

Fortunately, she didn’t show us in real time how to use a pit latrine. A pit latrine is the most human waste receptacle in Uganda. A deep hole is dug into the ground, then the hole is covered with a layer of cement with a rectangle in each stall to squat over. For those who have never used a pit latrine, this squatting position may seem awkward, but it is a more pleasant experience than it appears, and in some cases may even be preferable to a toilet. We learned how to clean the pit latrine using ash to cover the waste, which helps to keep away pesky bugs and masks the smell.

Washing clothes by hand can take many forms. Here, a shallow basin with a diameter of about two feet is filled with water. One can then use bar or powdered soap. The most thorough way is to fill a bucket with water, add some pieces of clothing, and then use bar soap to scrub the clothes with special attention to “problem areas” (armpits, collars, cuffs, crotches, etc.). Once soaped up, the clothes are transferred to a bucket with powdered soap and water. You can leave clothes to soak here, even overnight. After soaking, the clothes are scrubbed and rinsed in a basin with clean water. Scrub and rinse the clothes in clean water until the water runs relatively clear before hanging clothes outside in the sun.

Admittedly, we are novices at hand-washing our clothes. Our method of scrubbing lacks vigor and technique – most Ugandans hold the piece of clothing in one hand using the other to raise it towards their elbow before crashing down to the fist and soapy basin before rising again. At its worst, our technique resembles a bored baby clapping together two tambourines.

In Uganda, food is commonly prepared in a sigiri. A sigiri looks somewhat like a clay flower-pot pot flipped over. Charcoal (called “amanda” in Luganda) is put inside the clay arches on the bottom of the sigiri and lit. Once at the desired temperature, a large pan is put on top and the food preparation begins. Cooking with a sigiri is sort of like cooking with a crockpot. If you need to cook something for a long time, it is more cost-efficient to use a sigiri than to use a lot of gas from your stove. Most sigiris are used outside, or in an outdoor kitchen, due to the smoke.

Later, we learn from medical staff how to prepare water to avoid any viruses, bacteria, or other generally nasty stuff. They recommend either boiling or filtering water, or even combining those processes, boiling water and then filtering it. We are advised to add a small amount of bleach to our water after boiling or filtering, because these methods may not kill all viruses. In a pinch, without any filter or heat source, we can add germicidal tablets Peace Corps provides in our medical kits to our water.

Meeting Our Starters 

Part of our pre-service training included a luncheon with our “starters.” Peace Corps Uganda uses what they call a “Starter, Carrier, and Finisher” model at each school. Each Peace Corps volunteer serves for two years. The first volunteer at a school is called a “starter” because they start the literacy project at the school. This often includes securing resources for needs that have been identified, such as a library. After two years, another volunteer, the “carrier,” replaces the starter. The idea is that the carrier will carry on the good work the starter began and will further the literacy work at the school. Then, after two years, the “finisher” will replace the carrier and will finish Peace Corps’s presence at the school, securing the sustainability of the literacy project. Because we are both carriers, it is important to meet our starters to find out the status of the projects they have started and to learn about day-to-day life at our site.

While this meeting is useful, it can also be intimidating. As we were to be advised by the Chargé d’Affaires at our swearing ceremony, “don’t compare someone else’s chapter 27 to your chapter 1.” Our starters have done a lot of really good work forging many strong relationships and leaving an impression on our community that we won’t fill immediately. All we can hope is that this meeting provided us with more information to make informed decisions as we choose to follow and deviate from the paths they started as we see fit.

Phase: Pre-Service Training – “Teacher Bootcamp”

Dates: November 28 – December 14, 2015

The Lion King

After we packed our bags and left the compound to arrive at the Primary Teachers’ College for Teacher Boot Camp, our next phase of technical training, we were ushered into a large auditorium. Students at the college were assembled and suddenly began to sing, quietly at first, then growing louder, a song that seemed strange yet familiar. We were excited to witness a traditional song and dance like the ones we saw when visiting other schools until we finally recognized the song they were singing: “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King. The volume grew and students rose from their seats, singing as they approached the front of the auditorium and commenced to sing and dance through the whole song, soon joined by the Peace Corps Volunteer that coordinated the effort.

While we were touched by the effort of the students and volunteer that coordinated such a spectacle, we were reticent to smile during the performance. How might this performance enforce a stereotypical view of Africans in general or Ugandans in particular? Lion King takes place in Africa, but the country is never specified, reinforcing a mono-African idea based around talking animals. Although we don’t have the country in which The Lion King is set, the use of Swahili pretty firmly rules out Uganda as being connected at all to the movie.

Couples’ Housing

Heading into “Teacher Bootcamp,” we were unsure if we would be housed together. The rooming situation for most trainees was separated by sex, and trainees slept in rooms with 6-8 bunk beds. While this would be good in some ways (we could make friends!), it was not ideal (why can’t we make friends and stay together?). At the last minute, Peace Corps staff secured couples housing at the expense of their own accommodations. Obviously, we felt guilty. We didn’t realize that our own desire for couples housing would require the sacrifice of others. But after lobbying so hard for housing together, we didn’t want to stir the pot more than we already had. The apartment was on the second floor, tucked into the countryside, with a lovely view of fields of grazing cattle and the occasional monkey. This apartment became a respite throughout our two weeks at a Primary Teacher’s College (PTC), where we were able to have a safe space to digest the day’s events.

Bootcamp Schedule

Weekdays at “teacher bootcamp” began with a 7:00am breakfast, and by 7:30am the Literacy Specialists were on the bus to drive 15 minutes to a nearby primary school. School began for both Literacy Specialists and Teacher Trainers by 8:00am. Both began with a morning assembly and a tea break from 10:00-10:30am. At the primary school, classes were 30 minutes and one hour at the primary teachers’ college. The first week of teacher bootcamp, we were assigned to teach, co-teach, and observe literacy lessons on the “big 5” components of literacy:

  1. Phonemic Awareness – Recognizing individual sounds
  2. Alphabetic Principle – Associating sounds with letters
  3. Vocabulary – Learning new words
  4. Fluency – Reading smoothly, with expression, at an appropriate rate of speech
  5. Comprehension – Understanding what you read

Literacy specialists also administered the Early Grade Reading Assessment, or EGRA, a series of questions that assess understanding of the “Big 5,” to a few pupils. Literacy specialists use the results of EGRA to form Reading Intervention Groups, small groups wherein a smattering of the elements of the “Big 5” are practiced each day. Literacy specialists also conducted a “read aloud” with the entire classroom where the teacher chooses a book, introduces vocabulary, uses a comprehension strategy while reading the book fluently with lots of expression.

The second week, we were assigned to teach, co-teach, and observe content lessons across all subject areas per the Ugandan curriculum:

  • ICT (Computer Skills)
    • Matt taught: File Management
  • SST (Social Studies)
    • Victoria taught: Coastal Plains & Swamps
  • Math
    • Victoria taught: Dividing Fractions
    • Matt taught: Addition of Fractions
  • Science
    • Victoria taught: Uses & Symbols of Electric Circuits
    • Matt taught: Newton’s 2nd & 3rd laws
  • English grammar
    • Victoria co-taught: Sentence Structure
    • Matt taught: Direct & Indirect Quotations

After each lesson we gave and received feedback from current volunteers, fellow trainees, and Ugandan teaching staff at our respective schools. Feedback followed the “glows” and “grows” model. We practiced making compliment sandwiches of positive bread and critical meat.

After lunch each day, we would then attend technical training sessions until 5:00 or 6:00pm each day before an evening of lesson planning.

The Sickness

On the Sunday before our first day of teacher bootcamp, Matt went to bed early because he wasn’t feeling well. Around midnight he was sweating, hot to the touch, shivering, and complaining about how cold it was. After administering a malarial test with negative results and taking his temperature, revealing a fever, we called the Peace Corps medical staff several times. They were very kind and patient and by 7:00am the next morning a car was ready to take Matthew to visit the medical office back at headquarters in Kampala.

Matt had blood and urine samples taken, drank fluids, and slept as much as he could. He was given some medication and sent back to the PTC that evening. After another late night of high fevers and shivers and more phone conversations with medical staff, Victoria administered a hot compress to relieve the fever and the medical staff changed his prescription several times over the next several days. Bedridden, Matthew missed the first week of teacher bootcamp.

Henry’s Birth!

We missed the first of what we are sure will be many important life events during our service in Teacher Boot Camp when a phone call from Matt’s brother informed us that Matt’s sister had given birth to our first nephew, Henry! Through sheer serendipity, Matt had his iPhone on him with cellular data turned on to receive a FaceTime session from Matt’s sister, still in the hospital. We took several screenshots to accrue a reserve of images to ogle over the coming internetless weeks.

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The FaceTime session was meaningfully speechless. What can we say? All are healthy and happy and living reminders of why we are alive. We commiserated and celebrated with our colleagues, who were sympathetic to the surreal situation of seeing our new nephew whom we could not meet for the next two years.

Phase: Future Site Visit

Dates: December 14 – December 17, 2015

After Teacher Boot Camp came to an end and we celebrated with our colleagues, students, and pupils, the time came to spend a weekend assessing our future homes so we could take care of any outstanding issues before moving in. En route, we crossed the Equator at two white painted “moon gates” on either side of the road. Our driver let us out of the car for a photo opportunity:

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Before arriving at our future site, we were warned that because it was the holiday that our site would be very empty. However, we were pleased to find our campus bustling with teachers from all over the country marking the PTC exams. Anxious to practice the few phrases in Luganda we had learned, we made the mistake of assuming that people speak Luganda. Because the teachers were from all over the country, they spoke many languages.

Our first morning, we made the 30-minute walk with our starters to the primary school where Victoria will be teaching. We met the principal and members of the School Management Committee and the Parent/Teacher’s Association (PTA) who took us on a tour of the school. All were excited about the newly developed library Victoria will be working on to integrate into the school’s culture. A handful of Primary 7 (or P7, equivalent to 7th grade in the U.S.) pupils were at the school studying during the holiday break for the difficult Primary Learners’ Exam that all P7 pupils must take to determine whether or not they can attend secondary school (equivalent to 8th grade and above in the U.S.) and what caliber of secondary school they will be eligible for.

Throughout our future site visit, we slept a lot. Even a month in, it felt like were still catching up on jet lag and the exhaustion of our rigorous training schedule. Fortunately, our starters prepared every meal for us, and because of the marking of exams, we were able to eat lunch at the college. We ate homemade banana bread in the morning, and feasted on beef dumplings, fried green beans, and roasted chicken and vegetables our first evening. On our last night, we ate mozzarella pizza – our first pizza in Uganda – prepared in a toaster oven with cheese bought from a supermarket in town. During our dinners, our starters queued up entertainment on their laptops such as No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, Community, and the movie Clue.

Our starters showed us around the campus and the local village, a 45-minute walk from our site, and then on to the local town, which has almost everything we need available, about a 1.5-hour walk from our house. At these shopping centers, we were introduced to local vendors and shown the markets, supermarkets, tailor, and their favorite western-style restaurant that serves burgers and the like. This was a welcome change from the never-ending flow of delicious if repetitive matooke, rice, and beans.

Phase: Language Training

Dates: December 17, 2015 – January 31, 2016

After our Future Site Visit, we travelled to reunite with 8 of our colleagues for six weeks of language training. While language training is normally only four weeks, ours was extended due to the altered school year schedule with the presidential elections in February. Peace Corps Uganda uses a “satellite” method for language training. This means that the 31 trainees were divided into their language groups and sent into a community within their respective region to learn the language in a classroom setting and to hopefully continue learning through immersion while living with a host family. The aspiration is that we will learn not only the language, but also the culture, which go hand-in-hand because as we were told on multiple occasions, “language is culture.”

Host Mother

During our language training, we were placed with one homestay mother. As soon as she met us, she addressed us as “her twins,” and she told us to call her nalongo, or “twin mother.” Toward the end of our stay, attending the last burial rights for her mother’s clan, she officially gave us the Luganda names Waswa and NakatoWaswa means older male twin, and Nakato means younger female twin. At first, we interpreted our names to be our host mother’s enduring practical joke, but later we learned the significance of twins in Buganda culture and how referring to married couples as twins is a common term of endearment.

Our host mother has several children around our age or older, some with children of their own. Her house is part of a small compound comprised of four different houses, two of which are under construction, and a large lawn lined with hedges and crowned with rose bushes in each corner. The inside of her house has a floor made of shiny tiles, white walls, many portraits and drawing of dogs, and creamy rose-patterned curtains. We had our own bedroom and shared the guest bathroom, which included an indoor drain for bucket-bathing.

We spent Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day with our host mother. On Christmas Eve, per our request, to adhere to a Wagilia (Polish word for Christmas Eve) tradition, our host mother prepared tilapia. After dinner, we watched a forgettable action movie with our host brother. Watching movies spilled over into Christmas Day where we watched Creed (the latest installment of the Rocky series) and The Martian. In the midst of the fight scenes in Creed, we met our host grandmother for the first time. Only the woman who produced our mighty host mother could truly be a matriarch. We were more than eager to stumble through our broken Luganda to try and please her.

We had a great New Year’s. Our host nephew was baptized, so we had a huge party on New Year’s Day and met lots of our extended host family. With an 11-hour time difference between Uganda and California, we were able to FaceTime with Matt’s brother and sister-in-law early in the morning our time, after midnight their time, which was a fun surprise.

Life with our host mother was great. We were constantly exhausted with language training and the self-care grind of 1-2 bucket baths a day plus doing laundry by hand, but our host mother cooked/prepared all of our meals with fresher ingredients than we’ve ever had in the U.S., so that just left the dishes for us to do.

Our host mother is a successful, independent, worldly woman who lived and worked in London for 10 years. She has children living in the UK, China, and Uganda. One of her daughter’s even married a former Peace Corps volunteer! She has a dry sense of humor, and we experienced a true rush on the rare occasions when we were able to make her laugh. She lives alone and is a respected member of the community. She keeps very busy despite being technically retired, making regular visits to her chicken farm (including the occasional all-nighter slaughtering), visiting with her elderly mother, and keeping an immaculately run household. To relax, she enjoys watching the local language news channel, and once in a blue moon, she says she breaks out her sewing machine to make a much sought-after piece of clothing. We are really grateful for our extended time in homestay because it allowed us to get closer to this amazing person.

The Classroom

Our schedule for language training started with a 6:30am wake-up. Around 7:00am we ate a breakfast prepared by our host mother of some combination of sliced pineapple, bananas (either big or small, bogoya or amenvu), sliced mangoes, a hard-boiled egg, white bread, butter, tea, or instant coffee. Just after 7:30am we would walk to school, which started at 8:00am. From 10:00-10:30 we would stop for a break-tea of instant coffee, tea, and instant drinking chocolate as well as some type of an “escort” (snack), which varied from vegetable samosas to chapati (similar to naan or a hearty, oily tortilla) to popcorn. On Saturday, class ended at 1:00. There was no class on Sunday. On weekdays, lunch was served from 1:00-2:00pm by the staff at the otherwise empty primary school. Class ended between 4:00 and 5:00pm. After class, we were required to return to our homestay by 7:00pm on weekdays and at 7:30pm on weekends.

Language training took place in the rectangular main hall of a village primary school. The school had a tin roof, full windows lining one of the longer walls, and chalk boards on both of the shorter walls. The room was divided, with benches on one half, and a cleared space, with the exception of a large table, on the other half. The large table was used for morning break tea and lunch every day. There was no electricity at the school, so we learned by daylight. For the restroom, we used pit latrines. In the mornings, while still experiencing an extended rainy season, it was often wet (if not actually raining) and cool (sweater weather). Often by break tea, and usually by lunch, it was very warm. In the afternoons, the sun heated the tin roof and the school became a veritable oven, restricting the most taxing language exercises to the morning.

Our language trainers were two middle-aged men who quickly became bazira baffe, “our heroes.” Their ease with one another radiated peace and humor in the classroom. To borrow a phrase Victoria learned in her previous place of work, they emanated a “calming competence.” To make a generalization about the handful of people we have met from Uganda, Ugandans speak quietly. Even the voices of those in positions of power are often light and soft. For us, this was and continues to be a most welcomed respite from the loud and hyper-masculine voices that are the stereotype of authority in the U.S. If the meek have not yet inherited the Earth, they have Uganda.

For one of our written assignments from class, we had to write a story about something we had experienced in Uganda. Below are our stories and translations:

Victoria’s in Luganda:

Waliwo omukazi muto ava Kenya. Yabeera kumpi ne Kampala. Bwe twasoma kumpi ne Kampala, yatugamba emilundi mingi, nolwekyo, twafuuka mikwano. Ekiro kimu, nga Matthew nange twatambula kugenda kifo kyaffe, yatubuuza singa twasobola kutambula kugenda kugula amanda naye kubanga njuba eyali eyatandika kugwa. Twakkiriza ne tumugoberera. Twatuuka ku luguudo. Twamugoberera ku duuka we yagenda munda ne yabuuza omutunzi singa yatunda amanda. Naye, omutunzi teyatunda amanda. Nolwekyo, twatambula kugenda duuka ndala. Nga twatambula, twayogera ebintu bingi nga kye filimu twayagala kulaba ne ebitusesa. Twatuuka ku duuka ndala, nolwekyo, yagenda munda. Yakomawo ne amanda. Namuyamba kutwala amanda. Bwe tukomawo, obudde bwali bukette enzikiza. Twayogera “Sula bulungi!” awo nagezako kusaaga ku enzikiza, naye sasobola kwogera Luganda bulungi, nolwekyo twaseka ebitalimu.

Victoria’s English Translation:

There was a young woman from Kenya. She lived near Kampala. When I studied near Kampala, we discussed many things, so we became friends. One night, while Matthew and I were walking to our place, she asked us if we could walk with her to buy charcoal because the sun was starting to set. We agreed and we followed her. We arrived at a road. We followed her to a store where she went inside and asked the storekeeper if she sold charcoal. But the storekeeper did not sell charcoal. So we walked to another store. While we walked, we discussed many things like what movie do you like to watch and what makes you laugh. We arrived at another store, so she went inside. She returned with charcoal. I helped her carry the charcoal. When we returned, it was getting dark. We said “Goodnight!” then I tried to joke about the darkness, but I couldn’t speak Luganda well, so we laughed at nonsense.

Matthew’s in Luganda:

Eka mu Uganda, maama waffe afumba emmere yonna. Naye, ekiro ekikeesa ssekukkulu, maama waffe yamala ne atukkiriza okufumba ekyemisana. Kubanga tetumannyi kufumba ebijjulo bingi, twalonda wo kufumba macaroon ne enva z’ennyannya. Maama waffe yalekera ennyannya, obutungulu, ne katungulukyumu era yagenda kukola ebilala. Twafumba ne tukuba kifanaanyi kya ekijjulo nolwekyo yasobola kulaba bwe yakomawo. Nga twali tumala okulya ekyemisana, twawulira ddoboozi lya gate. Twatunulida ku ssowaani nga njereere era twalaba nga tetwafumba emmere emala. Twawulira nga tuswadde ne nga tuli bakodo. Tuli ba mukisa maama waffe ategeera nnyo nti era tuli baana!

Matthew’s English translation:

At home in Uganda, our mother cooked all the food. But, on Christmas Eve, our mother finally allowed us to cook lunch. Because we don’t know how to cook many meals, we decided to cook pasta and tomato sauce. Our mother left the tomatoes, garlic, and onions and left to do errands. We cooked and took a picture of the meal so she could see when she returned. While we finished eating lunch, we heard the sound of the gate. We stared at our empty plates and saw we did not cook enough food. We felt selfish and ashamed. We are lucky our mother understands that we are children.

Cooking Day

As a cross-cultural exchange, we planned as a group to cook an “American” meal for 20 people as a group all week, which included buying all our ingredients in local language at the market as part of our training. We got five chickens from our host mother’s chicken farm and got a big surprise when they were delivered still alive! Matthew killed the fourth chicken and simultaneously succeeded yet failed miserably. Matthew mimicked the Ugandan who killed the first three, which included holding the knife in his left hand (Matthew is right-handed). The Ugandan had made it look easy! Matthew shut his eyes and sloppily sawed with a less-than-sharp knife while our veteran chicken-killing friend lost it laughing watching Matthew.

 

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Christmas Gifts on the Second Day of the New Year

Matthew’s father’s party crackers arrived shortly after the New Year and we shared all eight with our eight fellow language learners. They loved their crowns, riddles, and various small metallic trinkets. We brought the M&Ms home to share with our host mother who said she hadn’t had them in ages. How we missed the taste of sweet, American, artificial food coloring! We carried the M&Ms in a paper towel to class and were amazed when we’d finished at the multicolored Rorschach inkblot they left behind. Later, we received another package from Matthew’s father containing a hearty supply of dried seaweed snacks. These care packages illustrated Matthew’s father’s criteria for gifts, some of which we’ve managed to identify:

  • Thoughtful
  • Reminder that material things don’t matter
  • Funny or random

Thanks, Dad!

Language Proficiency Interview (LPI)

All Peace Corps volunteers are required to meet a minimum standard of language proficiency called “Intermediate Low.” The oral examination that determines our proficiency is called the “Language Proficiency Interview.” As the name suggests, the LPI is an in-person conversation (tape-recorded) in the local-language (for us, Luganda), and the complexity of the conversation is directed by the language learner (can last anywhere from 5-30 minutes). The “interview” is supposed to replicate a casual conversation, so if the language learner discusses something like politics, then that is where the conversation goes. Toward the middle of the conversation, the language learner is presented with a scenario written in English. These scenarios vary from shopping in the market, ordering in a restaurant, meeting a member of your community for the first time, etc.

While our requirement to meet a minimum standard sounded as if it should correspondingly require minimum effort to achieve, it was quite difficult. First, we thought that because our language training was extended for an additional two weeks, we would have extra time to prepare for the LPI. However, in order to be able to compare scores across cohorts, the LPI is always administered after four weeks of language training. One week before the LPI, a mock LPI was administered. On the mock-LPI, Matthew scored an “Intermediate Low,” meeting the requirement, and Victoria scored a “Novice High,” which was just below the minimum requirement.

On the night before the actual LPI, sensing our nervous energy, our host mother made a meal of some of our favorite food: fried chicken, beans, fried rice, and chapati. Arriving to the school around 10:15, we realized that the first person scheduled for 9:00-9:30am had just started his LPI. Unprepared for the delay, we waited with useless adrenaline.

One week after taking the LPI we learned, via text message, that we both scored Intermediate-Mid (one sub level higher than the minimum requirement!) on the LPI. Victoria promptly replied to the text message “Osaaga?”, which means, “Are you joking?” and she was assured her Intermediate-Mid was not a joke.

A description of Intermediate-Mid is below:

“Speakers at the Intermediate-Mid level are able to handle successfully a variety of uncomplicated communicative tasks in straightforward social situations. Conversation is generally limited to those predictable and concrete exchanges necessary for survival in the target culture; these include personal information covering self, family, home, daily activities, interests and personal preferences, as well as physical and social needs, such as food, shopping, travel, and lodging.

Intermediate-Mid speakers tend to function reactively, for example, by responding to direct questions or requests for information. However, they are capable of asking a variety of questions when necessary to obtain simple information to satisfy basic needs, such as directions, prices, and services. When called on to perform functions or handle topics at the Advanced level, they provide some information but have difficulty linking ideas, manipulating time and aspect, and using communicative strategies, such as circumlocution.

Intermediate-Mid speakers are able to express personal meaning by creating with the language, in part by combining and recombining known elements and conversational input to make utterances of sentence length and some strings of sentences. Their speech may contain pauses, reformulations and self-corrections as they search for adequate vocabulary and/or pronunciation and/or grammar and syntax, misunderstandings can occur, but Intermediate-Mid speakers are generally understood by sympathetic interlocutors accustomed to dealing with non-natives.”

Mini-camp

For one day, our language group went to a youth development center and helped facilitate what Peace Corps calls a “mini-camp.” This “mini-camp” focused on leadership, specifically of the entrepreneurial variety. After observing sessions on gender equality and communication, our language group divided into four groups to each lead a session on some aspect of leadership. We teamed up to lead a session on “self-confidence.” We tried to facilitate a discussion about how self-confidence is the awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses. We discussed different personality types and different intelligences. The youth then discussed how a strength can be a weakness and vice versa. Our session ended with the same activity we enjoyed so much from technical training, throwing a ball of string across the circle while everyone states a weakness and strength. While our session on self-confidence felt at times like an imitation of a self-help seminar, we received really interesting feedback from the youth. One, a self-identified hip-hop MC, said he didn’t like stating his weakness to a group of people because then they can use it against you.

The highlight of the day was a session lead by a group associated with the Zulu Nation on hip-hop lyrics, beat-boxing, dancing, and graffiti. We attended a session on beat-boxing and writing hip-hop lyrics. In an enlightening description of beat-boxing, we learned the “P-T-K technique.” The “P” is a sound with your lips like “puf”, the “T” is a sound of your tongue against teeth like “ts”, and the “K” is a sound out of the side of your mouth like “kch.” Any combination of P-T-K is a “basic” beat-boxing technique.

For the portion of the session on writing hip-hop lyrics, music played and we were told to write about how we feel as we listened to the music. After five or so minutes listening to music and writing, Matthew produced the following rap (translations of Luganda in parentheses):

Katonda wange (my God), Katonda (God) of my mommy,

Did you ever dream these abantu (people) be around me?

Bageezi (wise), ba kisa (kind, of kindness), I feel like I’m in Misa (Mass),

Mind racing so fast that you think it was a cheetah,

God blessed me, God test me,

Pray police they don’t arrest me,

Mu Uganda (in Uganda), nsoma (I study/read), bulijjo mpandiika (always I am writing),

Mu kyalo (In the village) bampita (they call me) Mzungu (white man, European) oba (or) Pita (Peter)

I’m present, gyendi (I’m fine), I feel like I am here

They taught me sitya (I don’t fear) means “boy don’t ever fear”

Please pass the mic to mikwano jyange (my friends)

Nmaze (I’m finished), but kati (now), I’ll see you all on Sunday.

The facilitator of the activity, a Ugandan MC, was really hyped to hear a white American rapping using Luganda. Matthew recited the rap again with other MCs over beat-boxing during the speeches that marked the closing of the day.

Homestay Farewell Ceremony

Matthew was also the Master of Ceremonies for the Homestay Farewell Ceremony. This meant that he practiced formal Luganda introductions in front of an esteemed audience of community members, local council members, and a representative of the Peace Corps Country Director, all of whom are fluent in Luganda.

For the homestay farewell ceremony (and the later swearing-in ceremony) the trainees in our language group went to the market and bought what we thought was kitenge, an often brightly colored and ornately patterned clothing material. We ultimately decided on kitenge pattern we did because there was enough fabric for all of us to have clothes made. One of our trainee’s homestay mothers brought us to a tailor that she knew would give us a good price. The female trainees all had shift or fitted dresses made. The male trainees all had “Mandela-shirts” made, which resemble large T-shirts with a V-shaped opening at the neck. We also had ties tailored using the same material for our language instructors. The pattern we choose looks something like what a Harry Potter character in Slytherin or Mortal Kombat villain would wear. Ultimately, when we showed our host mother our kitenge outfits, she confirmed that they were not made of real kitenge. Real kitenge is printed on cotton, whereas ours are some form of polyester.

The trainees began our portion of the ceremony by singing a song in Luganda that most primary pupils sing to their parents:

Twajja tuli mbuzi

Kati tugunjuse.

Bazadde mwebale

Okutuweerera.

Oba nga mutunnyoma

Tujja kusoma nnyo

Tutuuke waggulu

Eri mu siniya.

English Translation:

We came as goats,

now we are educated.

Thank you parents

for paying our school fees.

If you despise us

we will study very much

so that we can reach high

to be in secondary.

Then, trainees at the farewell ceremony each gave a speech in Luganda thanking our homestay families for the hospitality and generosity they gave us for the entirety of language training.

Below is our Luganda speech we delivered to our homestay mother:

Maama waffe yatusomesa ebintu bingi, nga:

  • Okusabira abafu
  • Ssente mugenyi
  • Okwoze engoye ne sanyu
  • Engeriz’okufumba enva z’ennyannya
  • Nti enkoko zili nga abantu
  • Tetwambadde kitenge kitufu
  • Waliwo engeri biri eza ensonyi: obuwombefu ne obutawakitiibwa
  • Jjako esimu yo mu kkanisa
  • Singa obuulira omufumbi nti buli kijjulo, ayinza okuloowoza nti olimba
  • Wefumbire bulungi, newankubadde obeera w’eka
  • Naaba bw’owulira obubi
  • Emmere ewooma siya bakabaka booka
  • Musobola okufumbiriganwa ne wankubadde nga muli balongo
  • Ebinyeebwa bijja kukuleetera embalabe
  • Abakazi basobola okukola okusinga abasajja bwe bakola
  • “Mpulira embuzi” ne “mbuulira emboozi” biya njawulo

Tujja kukusubwa. Weebale maama waffe nalongo, okutusomesa bionna n’ebilala.

English translation:

Our mother taught us many things, like:

  • To pray for the dead
  • Money is a visitor
  • To wash clothes with vigor
  • How to cook tomato sauce
  • That chickens are like people
  • We are not wearing real kitenge
  • There are two types of shyness: humility and disrespect
  • To turn off your cell phone in church
  • If you tell a cook that every meal is the best, the cook will think you are lying
  • Cook well for yourself, even if you live alone
  • Bathe when you feel uncomfortable
  • Good food isn’t only for kings
  • You can be married even if you are twins
  • Peanut-butter gives you pimples
  • Women can do anything and more than men can do
  • “I hear goats” and “tell me a story” are different

We will miss you. Thank you twin mother for teaching us many these things and more.

We then performed a kiganda dance. Our understanding of a kiganda dance is that it is a traditional Buganda dance. The dance involves keeping your upper body still with arms raised parallel to the ground, while you move your feet in a way to accentuate the movement of your hips. The specific dance we learned and performed, was about harvesting matooke. So, wearing grass skirts around our hips, we entered the stage in a line, and when the drumming stopped the females got onto their knees and the men got into pushup position. The women then made four chopping motions with palms together on either side of their knees, ending in the center, and, similarly, the men did four pushups facing either direction, ending in the center. We then danced in a circle until we formed two even lines. The two lines of dancers faced one another, walked to the center, and gave one another a high five, before dancing backwards to their original position. The lines of dancers then crossed one another, to take the place of the dancer opposite to them. The pairs of dancers then took turns crossing one another. Once all pairs crossed, we did a freestyle dance. This freestyle was aptly named, as we were able to perform any dance we wanted. Most of us immediately started using our arms and shoulders to flail around the stage. At one point, Matthew did the robot. Then, all dancers except for the best pair lined up and filed offstage using the traditional kiganda step. The last pair of dancers continued with something between a freestyle interpretation of the end sequence from Dirty Dancing and the traditional kiganda dance step. The way our host mother put it probably sums up our dance the best: we danced to make the Ugandans laugh. We certainly made ourselves laugh.

To surprise our beloved language trainers, we delivered a speech in Luganda and presented them with the gifts of kitenge ties and cards containing a transcript of the speech below:

Okusooka, tusonyawe singa tetulina ebigambo bilungi kugamba okulaga bwe tubaagala kubanga twagala okuboolesa bye twayiga. Naye, tujja kugezako. Nolwekyo, basomesa baffe, twagala amaka gaffe kumanya nti:

  • muli bakisa
  • muli bageezi
  • muli bamannyi
  • mutusesa
  • mugumikiliza
  • muli bagabi
  • Oluusi, muli abazadde baffe
  • muli mikwano gyaffe
  • muli ssuubi
  • muli bazira baffe!

Twajja tuli mbuzi, naye mutulunda bulungi! Tujja kubasubwa! Myebale nnyo, nnyo, nnyo, nnyo, nnyo, nnyo, nnyo, nnyo, nnyo!

English Translation:

First, forgive us if we don’t have the right words to say how much we love you because we want to show you that we learned. But we will try. So, our teachers, we want our families to know that:

  • you are kind
  • you are wise
  • you are energetic
  • you make us laugh
  • you are patient
  • you are generous
  • sometimes, you are our parents
  • you are our friends
  • you give us hope
  • you are our heroes!

We came as goats, but you raised us well! We will miss you! Thank you very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very much!

The ceremony concluded with a traditional Ugandan meal for lunch.

Phase: All-Volunteer Conference

Dates: January 31 – February 6, 2016

After we bid farewell to our host mother, we journeyed together to a swanky conference center for the “All-Volunteer Conference.” As the title “All-Volunteer Conference” implies, the conference is intended for all volunteers, and Peace Corps usually separates trainees and volunteers. But, because of the Ugandan presidential elections, our cohort was invited to attend. Because the elections are taking place of February 18, the start of school in Uganda was pushed back until after elections, February 22. Therefore, as trainees, Peace Corps decided we were better off participating in the conference and we could arrive at site just before school starts.

The first act our cohort of trainees took was to hold elections for the Volunteer Advisory Committee (or as referred to in the alphabet soup of the Peace Corps, the VAC). The VAC is responsible for being the link between the concerns of their cohort and Peace Corps staff at headquarters. Our cohort elected two representations, one of which was Matt!

The remaining structure of the conference included one day of mandatory Peace Corps sessions updating all volunteers on policies and priorities across all education, health, and agriculture sectors. The remaining two-days included open-sessions, sessions designed and led by current Peace Corps volunteers on a variety of topics. We attended sessions on spelling bees, Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) Day, chakras and coloring meditations, creative writing, emotional intelligence, cooking, and even jerry-can weightlifting.

The conference then ended with a 1970s-themed prom featuring a lot of classic rock and the Rhianna song, “We Fell in Love in a Hopeless Place.” The prom even included voting for a prom king, queen, and princess.

Phase: Supervisor’s Workshop

Dates: February 7 – February 11, 2016

After all of the other volunteers returned to their respective sites, our cohort remained at the conference center for Supervisor’s Workshop. The purpose of the supervisor’s workshop was to align expectations of the trainees and their supervisors. Many of the sessions included ice-breakers and a review of Peace Corps policies. In one of the more animated cross-cultural sessions, we read a scenario about a volunteer who goes to work at a school and wears wrinkled clothing. All of the volunteer’s Ugandan coworkers use indirect communication to suggest the volunteer’s clothing is problematic. They ask things like, “Did your electricity go out last night?” or “Did it rain at your house yesterday?” or “Did you see the cow that chewed your dress?” In a presentation to our cohort about how to handle this situation more directly, openly, or freely, Matthew and his supervisor acted out the scenario.

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Phase: Swearing-In Ceremony

Date: February 11, 2016

Dressed in our fake kitenge, patterned by language region, under a huge American flag tent, we sat before the Country Director, Deputy Ambassador, and Representative of the Ugandan Ministry of Education as many speeches were given. The speakers kept assuring us that “all protocol has been followed.” In one of the more moving speeches, one of our fellow trainees told us to “remember the moment we realized that the world was made up of more than ourselves.” We were touched that she referenced “an impromptu debate about Shakespeare” we had had just a couple nights before with her about whether Desdemona in Othello is a hero or a victim. Our fellow trainee said that Desdemona is her favorite female character in Shakespeare’s works and that she is a hero because she goes knowingly to her death. In doing so, she can remain a faithful and obedient wife and therefore “pure,” which is her only avenue to power, instead of choosing to live a life like Iago’s wife, Emilia, with a compromised interpretation of her purity, therefore compromising her power. While listening to our fellow trainee with a strange interest, we fought hard to reconcile this new information with our original interpretation of Desdemona as a murdered idiot who could have totally avoided her death.

The final act that made us Peace Corps volunteers was to recite with our right hand raised, the following oath. Apparently it is the same oath government members, and even members of the military make:

I, Matthew Briggs/Victoria Szydlowski, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

We thought the oath was going to be something similar to the pledge we took a few hours before:

I, Matthew Briggs/Victoria Szydlowski, promise to serve alongside the people of Uganda.

I promise to share my culture with an open heart and open mind.

I promise to foster an understanding of the people of Uganda, with creativity, cultural sensitivity, and respect.

I will face the challenges of service with patience, humility, and determination.

I will embrace the mission of world peace and friendship for as long as I serve and beyond.

In the proud tradition of Peace Corps’ legacy, and in the spirit of the Peace Corps family past, present, and future – I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Phase: Site!

Date: February 12, 2016 – present! 

After packing all of our things for hopefully the last time until Close of Service, we met our supervisors on a bench outside of the Conference Center reception area at 10:30am. Most of our fellow volunteers left hours ago with their supervisors, either anxious to arrive early at site, or out of necessity because they had a 6-10 hour drive ahead of them (despite being the size of Oregon, travel always takes longer in Uganda due to the indirect network of roads and their quality). We are lucky to have a site that will be only a several hour drive away from most Peace Corps events located in the Central region.

A car from our site picked us up at 11:00am. We loaded our luggage into the exterior bed of the truck and drove to our site through backroads to keep us away from Friday traffic in Kampala. Around 12:00pm, we pulled into a gas station and were swarmed by many vendors selling street food. Through all open windows, the vendors pushed their offerings of street meat (grilled beef on a stick), gonja (grilled plantain wrapped in newspaper), bottled water, and sodas. Matthew bought one stick of street meat and our supervisors treated us to a healthy serving of gonja, which tastes both something like and nothing like a sweet bread.

Passing several men at the side of the road holding fish, our supervisors stopped to inquire and negotiate the price. In probably one of the savviest negations we have seen, our supervisor asked the driver to start the car twice and started to drive away until a reasonable deal was struck. We finally drove away with four fish tied to the back of the truck. We made one more stop at a mango stand on the side of the road where we were gifted four delicious mangos.

We were a little slow on the uptake after being treated to food three times on our journey thus far, but it wasn’t until we were checking out at the supermarket that we realized our supervisors were paying for everything. They bought us a complete starter pack of groceries: rice, bread, peanut butter, Royco (a spicy beef-flavored bouillon cube powder), curry powder, pasta, tea, honey, sugar, and cooking oil. We then went to the Friday market for the fresh stuff: onions, tomatoes, garlic, green peppers, carrots, potatoes, eggs, and green beans.

In the glow of generosity, we arrived at our house, and are settling in mpola mpola (Luganda for slowly) even as we finish this first in-country installment of Bloganda.

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10 thoughts on “Three Months of Training

  1. YES! I have been awaiting news of your adventures, and thinking on occasion that I’d missed you. (And oh, how I miss you both!)

    It seems that you are welcoming each new change and each adjustment to that which you thought was everyday life. It’s great to see your determination to envelope yourself in the local customs, traditions and language. I imagine at times this seems daunting, however from an outside perspective it seems you are settling in nicely. Love you guys so much, and I can’t wait to hear more!

    -e

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  2. I’m so happy I found this. It was a fantastic read on a tame overnight shift. I love the extent that Peace Corp integrated family in your experience so far. It seems as though you are both in the process of starting your own family, and at the same time being integrated into your Ugandan family. Your experience is truly once in a lifetime. Your likeness is brought out in Victoria’s writing. At times I found myself reading this in Matt’s voice. I can’t wait to read more, your story has captivating. Matt, we want to extent our condolences on the loss of your grandmother, I’m sure she was a wonderful woman. We would also like to send our felicitations on the birth of your nephew. He is a handsome guy just like his uncle. Much love from the Cleary-Cote family. Keep in touch we love hearing from you guys.

    -Jordan

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  3. My dear Sister and a Brother in Law,
    Thank you so much for writing this! I laughed. I cried. I feel comforted as I sense that you have taken a good path. And I feel enriched.
    Love,
    Iza

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  4. Hey Matt and Vic,

    Thanks for sharing your tales of Uganda so far! Your descriptions almost make me feel as though I’m there alongside you. I’m glad to hear that you’re eating/dancing/rapping your way through life with your classic gusto, and embracing all the ups and downs. I’m so proud of you both 🙂 Keep on posting!

    Missing you in Mt. P,
    Rachel

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  5. Thank you for sharing this incredible story! It’s so good to hear you are both well and having such a great adventure. Sending love from the US.

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