Friday, September 23, 2011

A looooong overdue post.

Greetings from “way the hell over there”!

It certainly has been a long time since I last posted, July I think, so I figured I’d get you caught up with recent events. First off, I’ll answer my most frequently asked question as of late, namely, “Where the hell have you been?” The short answer is of course, “Uganda.” The long answer is just a bit longer…

In August, my Dad and Sister came to visit! On August 2nd, I picked them up in Entebbe, the town where the international airport lives, and on August 29th, I dropped them back off at Entebbe, hugged them goodbye and watched through lifeless glass as tears streamed from my sisters eyes. “Hey!” I said, fighting off emotions myself, “We’ll see each other soon! You’ll be Peace Corps one day, and it’ll be me visiting you!” And there I continued to stand, hassled by security (apparently, I look like a terrorist… assholes), and watched as my family cleared customs and disappeared behind barriers guarded by AK47s and sub-machine guns.

The visit was an incredible success. Dad and Cat both fell in love with Uganda. Sure, the roads could use some work (On the first LONG trip, Cat shed a few tears of discomfort). Yeah, pooping into a pit isn’t always the most pleasant (At my site, Cat had a case of violent #2’s followed so closely by a puke session that we could in all honestly give her credit for “Pooking”, i.e. going #3. And in true PCV style, she also earned her “Brown Badge of Courage” on her final night in the country. YEAH CATHERINE!!!). But they LOVED the people, the fresh fruits and vegetables and the sites. We spent many a day in Kyenjojo where they met three of my physics students (Dad took everyone to lunch at the ritzy hotel in town and we followed it up by taking about 1000 pictures of Moses playing super-model), and we also spent a day with the women’s group I’ve been working with. Riding home from the deep village with the women, Cat couldn’t stop talking about the day:

“Those women are so incredible… They are so strong, and beautiful… They are building something from nothing… They are so happy!... ”

This was the point in the trip were Cat really broke out of her shell. Dad and I had been encouraging her to take advantage of her time here, to speak to everyone she could, to learn as much as she could about the situation. Until that point, she had been somewhat introverted, but after that day, she was speaking to people freely, haggling over prices of her market purchases and enjoying her time much more fully.

Dad went wild on the visit. After 14 days in the country, the man had taken around 30 gigs of pictures! THIRTY GIGS! More than all of the pictures I’ve taken to date, in just two weeks. I told him to keep it up, to take more. This was the trip of a lifetime, and he, as well as I, wanted to document it right. The motto of the trip was; You can always delete a bad picture, but you can’t retrieve a picture you never took (actually, the motto was: “If you want that expensive bottle of liquor, buy it!” Which we followed to a T). I believe he is in the process of sifting through the masses to choose the best of the best.

I leave the details of the trip to Cat and Dad to tell you all back home. Surely they have pictures posted on Facebook and will be showing them to friends and family from their computers (I want them to take the best and make a photo album with them). I will, however, post pictures sometime in the next 2 to 7 years. No worries…

Moving on… In early September we had our All Volunteer Conference at a small hotel outside Kampala. Originally, due to budget cuts (Thank you Mr. Obama and Congress, you worthless imbeciles…) All-Vol. was canceled, but after numerous complaints from PCVs around the country, funds were scraped together and two days were allocated to the event. Miraculous! All-Vol. serves as the ONLY time in the year where volunteers can meet, mingle and exchange information about how they are handling problems and their sites and be inspired by tales of other volunteers from afar. It is probably one of the most beneficial events PC can put on next to teaching us language in our initial training, and nearly every volunteer agrees with this. Unfortunately, as I greeted one of the high ups in PC-Uganda (i.e. someone who makes around $110,000 dollars a year) telling them just how happy I was about the event materializing, my enthusiasm was met with a dull, “Well, enjoy it. It’ll be the last one for a long, long time.” Why? “Budget restrictions and Kampala Policy.”

Budget Restrictions and Kampala Policy… subjects for future posts.

All-Vol. was a great success. After two days, the volunteers that had attended were well acquainted with the new PCVs (Educators that hit the field in April, exactly one year after I myself hit the field), had met the Newest group of Peace Corps Trainees, had seen multiple presentations covering education, economic development and water and sanitation, and were well partied-out by the end. From there, we all headed back to site…

Back in Kyenjojo, I was haunted by the memories of my sister and dad’s being here. I definitely miss them, and readjusting to living alone after being with family for so long was difficult. I am now back in the groove.

School started this year with an attempted strike by the teachers of Uganda which was as affective as the strike that we ended the second term with (read: not affective at all). Why the strike? The teachers want to be paid more. How much more? They want 100% increases in salary (i.e. a secondary school teacher who only shows up to class 50% of the time wants to be paid as much or more than a Ugandan doctor or Lawyer, who also probably only show up 50% of the time to their jobs…).

As expected by all, even the teachers, the self-destructed almost immediately. UNATU, the Ugandan Teachers Union failed to rally the schools and keep them in the loop, so some schools remained closed while others continued teaching. The government won’t turn its head if only a few schools out of hundreds refuse to work, so by day two, most schools had reopened and teachers were back to not showing up to class and the students were back to not learning while being forced to sit in crowded classrooms all day…

I taught through the one day of strike, so I guess you could call me a SCAB. My reasoning, and I explained this to the teachers, was that I was not paid by the Ugandan government, and therefore I had no reason to be angry. That, and I have so much more to cover in my classes that I cannot afford to miss days of school (Neither can they. Their classes will simply suffer now and down the road). There are a few teachers at my school that I have the utmost respect for, and in their cases only, I understand and support their desire to strike, namely:

(a.) A Universal Secondary School (USE) teacher’s salary is too low for a person to send their children to private schools in order to avoid the horrendous education that USE schools provide. (A good Kampala school can cost 800,000 per three month term, meaning a secondary school teacher desiring a good education for their kid would work full time simply to pay the school fees of ONE CHILD… what happens when that parent has 3 or 4 children?)

(b.) If the government refuses to pay teachers and schools, then the teachers cannot work, and the schools shut down. This is obvious as refusing to refill your cars gas-tank while trying to take a cross-country trip. Something’s got to give…

Speaking to the teachers that I do care for after the strike, I applauded their efforts and encouraged them to try the strike again another time but with better organization (while gently mentioning that a 100% increase in salary was a bit ambitious, though looking back, they could have unknowingly been using the “door in the face” method of negotiation). I also mentioned, as in spilling the words into the air where they could float freely and not put anyone under my finger, that for it to even be cost effective for the government to respond to the strike that teachers would have to better fulfill their end of the deal (i.e. improving their attendance, anything over 50% would be an improvement, and doing more than simply reading notes to the kids each class and testing at the end of the term).

It is safe to say that after swimming in it for 18 months, I hate the Ugandan education system with every atom of my being. Underfunded (with the remaining funds plundered by fat, pin-stripe suit wearing cavities…) and therefore understaffed and with an almost comical lack of teaching materials, the test-based system is a multi-tasking demon: while robbing students of the joy of learning it devours from teachers the joy of teaching.

I continue to feed a ravenous hunger for books. Among my recent top-reads was “Dark Star Safari” the tale of Paul Theroux as he travels overland from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa. The story of Paul’s journey was especially intriguing to me for more than the fact that I will be doing my own overland trip from Cape Town to Cairo beginning in December. You see, this was not Paul’s first trip to Africa; in the early 60’s, he had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in what is now Malawi before becoming a professor at Makarere University here in Uganda. He returned to Africa after more than 30 years abroad, and was confronted by the discontinuity between Pre-developed and “developed” Africa, one that I liken to a wise grandfather and a spoiled-rotten grandchild, respectively.

He summarizes his findings at the beginning of the book as follows:

“Africa is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it – hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you can’t tell the politicians from the witch-doctors. Africans, less esteemed than ever, seemed to me the most lied-to people on earth – manipulated by their governments, burned by foreign experts, befooled by charities, and cheated at every turn. To be an African leader was to be a thief, but evangelists stole people’s innocence and self-serving aid agencies gave them false hope, which seemed worse. In reply, Africans dragged their feet or tried to emigrate, they begged, they pleaded, they demanded money and gifts with a rude, weird sense of entitlement.”

Entitlement is the name of the game. From little kids and adults coming up to me and saying, “You give me my money!” to the heads of state who are happy with the current scheme of things (one in which for the last many years, upwards of half of Uganda’s yearly budget has been funded solely by foreign aid... and still is). The more I read about foreign AID and its negative effects, the more I am appalled by the (a.) fact that money continues to flow in, straight into the pockets of corrupt leaders doing absolutely nothing for their people and (b.) if you view the lack of good governance here as a “Strike”, then I am nothing more than a SCAB once again… I’m filling a roll that another able-minded Ugandan could fill but won’t because they would never sink so low as to become a teacher due to lack of necessary funding from the pin-stripe suits on high.

For months now, I’ve justified my presence in Uganda with the statement: “Well, I’m not giving money, I’m giving an education, and there can’t be anything wrong with that!” But again, I’m just a very-very-very small excuse for the government to not take responsibility and continue making a mess of things. A battle of morals rages within me.

Later in Dark Star, Theroux, with startling accuracy, defines his stance on foreign AID.

“It is for someone else, not me, to evaluate the success or failure of charitable efforts in Africa. Offhand, I would have said the whole push was misguided, because it had gone on too long with negligible results. If anyone had asked me to explain, my reasoning would have been: Where are the Africans in all this? In my view aid is a failure if in forty years of charity the only people still dishing up the food and doling out the money are foreigners. No Africans are involved – there is not even a concept of African volunteerism or labor-intensive projects. If all you have done is spend money and have not inspired anyone, you can teach the sharpest lesson by turning your back and going home.”

This update has gotten just a bit out of hand in length, and for that I apologize. This is what happens when I slack on posting!

I write to you now from Kampala. I took a bus in yesterday morning after saying “enough is enough, I need to see medical.” For at least a week now, I’ve had a pain in my left year when I touched it, layed on it, etc… At times it felt like something was crawling around in there. Using a cue-tip, I got a bit of dirt out, but the pain progressed and being deep inside the ear, I was worried that I might be doing damage by letting it go. Well, the diagnosis was simple: “AH! You have BIG ball of wax in there!” which I took as good news, for it was better than hearing, “It seems a cockroach has turned your tympanic membrane into a pillow!” The fix was also simple: squirt some peroxide in there, let it work on breaking up the funk and then flush the ear out with rocketing streams of warm water with the syringe. After 5 or 6 pulses, a few of which brought mist to my eyes, I heard an “AH! GOT IT!” And after one more pulse a piece of wax the size of the tip of my pinky finger fell into the collection container. Shockingly, considering the size of the plug, I don’t feel that I can hear any better, but the pain is gone, and I have a new nasty photo to show you of what our bodies can produce.

My trip to Kampala lined up with another far more exciting trip planned for this weekend: The Rhino Fund’s RACE DOWN THE NILE! Just like last year, me and a team of 5 other racers will battle it out with a number of other boats for the grand prize (last year it was a round-trip flight to Nairobi!). All proceeds go to the Rhino Fund, an organization formed in hopes of reintroducing white rhinos into Uganda’s game parks (It warrants mention that this organization was not spearheaded by the Uganda Wildlife Authority further showing the “FreeMoneyYESplease!"-mindset.) This year’s event is special in that it will be the last time the race will occur at Bujagali falls. By next year, a new dam will have opened, and all of the falls will be under water. As an additional celebration, there will be two-man kayak races too. I’ll let you all know how things go. Our team consists of 5 burly gentlemen and 1 strong lady, so our hopes are high!

Alright. This update has gone on FAR too long. I apologize for my lack of brevity, but I had a lot to cover. And how about this: if you’ve made it this far, I’ll sit down to drink a few beers with you after I return Stateside. Your treat!

Know that I am still doing well in Uganda. Am I struggling? Yes, and no. Physically, no. Mentally, yes. I’m still having a great deal of fun, but service has been eye-opening. My blind idealist mind-set, born and raised on organic bunny-hugger propaganda is currently at war with my realist mind-set born of experiences on the ground. Ignorance is bliss, and these days I find myself thoroughly sickened and deeply saddened by what I see in the (3rd) world around me.

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!).