closing time

Next week, after 27 months/112 weeks /784 days – whoa that sounds long! – in Uganda, I will officially be graduating from PCV to RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer). My work commitments are complete, so now I’m just trying to soak up my final few days in country as I continue to reflect on everything that has happened during this wild ride.

Last words are always the hardest to write. This is a time of self-reflection, of trying to process what I’ve learned here, how I’ve grown, what will be hard to say goodbye to, and what won’t. Summing up and closing out an experience that shifted constantly between the highest of highs and lowest of lows has not come easily.

When in doubt, resort to lists!

Things I will miss about Uganda:

  1. Solitude
  2. Pineapple
  3. The strong bonds of understanding and camaraderie in the Peace Corps community
  4. The kids (Ugandan kiddies are the most adorable children in the world, after all. And they’re everywhere.)
  5. My little yellow house nestled under the banana trees
  6. The stars
  7. Local greetings
  8. The freedom of Peace Corps life
  9. How even the smallest victories make you feel on top of the world
  10. The rains

Things I will not miss about Uganda:

  1. Solitude
  2. Public transportation
  3. Local food (/tasteless carbs)
  4. The lack of seasons
  5. Being treated as a second-class citizen because I’m a woman
  6. “Seeeee you, mzungu!!” and other high pitched chants that follow me everywhere
  7. Corporal punishment
  8. Parasites
  9. The Anti-Homosexuality Act, and conversations about it
  10. Dust

There were plenty of days when I thought I wouldn’t make it. But it turns out, the good outweighed the bad. That first list was a lot easier to write than the second. At the risk of sounding trite, I’ve gained more from this experience than I could ever have hoped to leave behind.

I’ve learned that it’s always a best practice to hold your judgements, because you never know someone’s whole story. I’ve learned how to cut a mango like a pro, and the perfect trick for telling which are the best avocados before opening them. I’ve learned that you can’t fix everything. I’ve learned the difference between want and need. I’ve learned the long-coveted skill of serious bargaining, and I’ve learned how to answer just about every awkward, absurd, or amusing question that an adolescent could possibly come up with during a sex ed class. I’ve learned to be grateful for the tiniest of successes, and I’ve learned to embrace the frustrations and failures and grow from them. I’ve learned, really learned, about the preciousness of water, the value of a loyal friend, the problems with international aide, and the necessity of self-motivation.

Though I have yet to leave, all of my friends here ask me when I’m coming back. If I’m being honest, I’m not sure it will ever happen. There is a never ending list of places I want to see and dedicating 2 years to Uganda feels like enough, at least right now. However, Uganda will always be a home to me. I often can’t imagine leaving and heading back out into the fast-paced world. Still, I do feel like the time is right for me to move on: I’ve done my thing here, hopefully left a little mark, and I’m ready for a change. My first and true home is calling my name. When I get back to the states I’ll be seeking a bit more structure in my life, plenty of long awaited time with family and friends, and many trips to Whole Foods and the Adirondacks.

Thank you to everyone who has read this blog (nearly 5,000 views from readers in 35 countries – cool!), sent encouraging words, donated supplies or funds, hugs or quinoa, or supported me in any other way. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Much, much love & see you soon,
Taylor

To get lost is to learn the way.
[African Proverb]

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my favorite ugandans

I’m set to leave Uganda the first week of January, which means I’ve had to start my goodbyes.

Goodbyes are hard. They’re even harder when they’re the type that might be forever.

I’ve met so many remarkable people in this country – people who have made the transition to village life a little bit easier; who have welcomed me into their homes and made me part of their families; who have taught me about hard work, generosity, and finding joy in any situation.

Farridah, Danita, Angel, Baby Arriana, Claire, Sharon, Badrew, Patrick, Samuel, Stella, Selica, Nolleen, Junior, Gerard, Baby David, John, Obed, Lillian, Zipporah, Agnes, Godwin, Dan, Susan, Denis, Letasi, Patricia, Immaculate, Annet, and many, many more…

I love you. Thank you for two years I will never forget.

Here are some snaps of the Ugandans I’m going to miss the most.

Carpe Diem,
Tay

What makes sense today may be madness tomorrow.
[African Proverb – Nigeria]
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all protocols observed

[Introducing the wonderful Robin Munroe as my guest blogger…]

To my American sensibilities Ugandans are too formal and regimented at every public speaking opportunity. Whenever two or more are gathered for a common purpose there will be an agenda that includes at least these items:

• Official welcome by the Person-In-Charge (president, principal, head teacher, ring master, you get the idea)
• Opening prayer
• Opening remarks by the Speaker, including extension of appreciation to everyone and anyone remotely connected to the event, and concluding with the phrase “and all protocols observed”
• Reading of the last meeting’s minutes by the Secretary
• Remarks/corrections of the last meeting’s minutes
• Follow-up of Old business
• New business
• Closing remarks by the Speaker, including extension of appreciation to everyone and anyone within earshot
• Closing prayer
• Let’s eat! (in order to assure attendance most meetings conclude with refreshment)

Robert’s Rules of Order are strictly followed – at least I think they’re strictly followed, I’ve never actually read them. But woe be the attendee who attempts to approve or reject an idea that isn’t officially on the table.
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On those dreaded occasions when I am called to speak I tend to forget the obligatory appreciation formality and just jump right in there with a general greeting to the group. I’ve wised up in the past few addresses and begin by stating that most Americans are somehow shy when it comes to public speaking and are certainly less formal than Ugandans. Then I thank the audience for its indulgence with my not observing all the protocols because I don’t know them. As far as I know I haven’t shocked or offended anyone.

This past weekend was the Official Launch of my school’s Health Promoters Club. The members of the club are students who want to be involved in community public health and education, primarily malaria and HIV/AIDS prevention. The planning for the launch has been going on for weeks. As one of two staff patrons I was asked to suggest and invite a special guest of honor. My dear friend, Taylor, accepted the invitation to the delight of the Health Promoters Club. In her speech she honored, encouraged, and challenged the club members to realize Uganda’s destiny for great advances in public health and education.
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The club members decorated one of our large classrooms and arranged it to accommodate the launch. I am always humbled by the great pleasure the students derive from the simplest of materials. Colorful bed linens make attractive bunting and curtains. The room abounds with fresh flowers whose beauty disguises the utilitarian buckets that serve as vases. Decorative ribbon that once graced Christmas or birthday gifts is displayed, along with the ubiquitous, shockingly vibrant artificial flowers at the Guest Table. Off to the side is the PA system and student operators who troubleshoot the microphones and act as deejays.
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Most Ugandans vie for any opportunity to perform publicly, and the Health Promoters are no exception. In addition to the typical agenda items (all protocols observed), the launch had entertainment interspersed with the many speeches. The crowd favorite is students lip-syncing, called “miming,” to pop music. The performer holds a microphone to make the performance more realistic and acts out the lyrics. After about a half dozen they tend to get redundant but, again, the students procure so much joy from such a small thing, and that makes it bearable, if not enjoyable.
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There were several dramas performed as well. Much of the dialog was in Luganda so I’m only guessing at what the titles might be, but they could have been called: “Daddy, All the Best Families Have Pit Latrines,” “Use a Handkerchief for Heaven’s Sake,” and “Hiding a Positive HIV Status Can Be Fatal.”

The work this club is doing is inspiring and truly impressive. It’s an honor and privilege to be included in the celebration.

Peace,
Robin
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moonrise kingdom

At the beginning of the year one of my friend’s brothers asked her to describe what it sounds like at night here. This request intrigued me and I’ve pondered it for a long time, trying to pay attention and establish a kind of mindfulness once the sun goes down. Sounds, especially an entire atmosphere of intersecting and overlapping ones, are difficult to put into words. Here goes nothin’…

The background music of my life is birds. Sweet songs from dozens of tropical species, each in its own key, fill the days and seem to come even more alive at dusk. A few evoke the sound of chimpanzee chatter, another mimics the beep-beep-beep of a truck reversing, but mostly they are pleasant and harmonious. The spirited chirpers rustle the leaves of the banana and eucalyptus trees alongside the evening breeze and eventually settle into their nests on my roof. As they begin to calm the crickets crescendo. It’s impossible to tell if they are inside or out.

Much less graceful are the cows and goats who have been out pasturing all day and are now rounded up by their owners. They show no shame in letting their boisterous protests be heard by the entire village. The goats’ cries are especially unforgiving, bordering on violent; before I grew accustomed to them I used to swear it was children screaming something horrible. The lucky few grazers allowed to stay out after dark often find their way to the space directly outside my bedroom window, and their sneaky rustling and snorting has given me more than a few frights.

Around the same time, the roosters graciously stop their incessant, all day long cock-a-doodle-do rehearsal. You see they have to rest up for the first pronouncement of “I’m the king of the world, not you, you pompous chicken” long before the first hint of a new day.

There are also human contributions to the sound track. Streams of children recently returned from school run past my house to the borehole to fetch water for their evening baths. Their laughter and lyrical conversations float in through the windows. They are perpetually energetic and contagiously happy: they use their jerry cans as drums to accompany their chanting and singing as their little bare feet pitter-patter softly on the dirt, down the hill, and out of hearing range.

The market area just down the road comes alive once the work day is over, with street food sizzling and conversation humming. The evening call to prayer echoes from the local mosque. Families who own radios blast music in an effort to include those who don’t. If there is a football match a symphony of vuvuzelas buzzes from the field next door, and the crowd’s animated reactions follow the progress of the game up and down. Or, if a wedding or other celebratory gathering is happening, the amplified chatter of MCs and the throbbing base of dance music vibrate throughout my house.

And then, quiet.

I’m fast asleep by the time all of the chaos collapses into slumber, but whenever I wake in the middle of the night I’m always struck by the completeness of the silence. It pairs well with the raw darkness and star-strewn Milky Way sky that never misses a night.

xo – Taylor

Walls have ears, and little pots too.
[African Proverb]

it’s crunch time

I’m back from my final round of Peace Corps leave, and ready to tackle my last few months as a volunteer. What I thought would be a relaxing winding down period has suddenly turned into my busiest time here. This is what I’m currently working on…

1.) I was funded by a U.S.-based organization called The Pollination Project to travel throughout Uganda and teach Reproductive Health and RUMPS (Re-Usable Menstrual PadS). This has been the most rewarding work I’ve done in country, and I’ve been waiting a long time for this project to be sponsored. I’m so thrilled that it finally has! Receiving this grant means that I can hugely expand my reach and my numbers: my goal is to work in 8 communities and with at least 1000 ladies between now and December.

Pollination is writing a feature and it’s due up on their website next week. I’ll be sure to pass along the link when it’s ready.

2.) I am also directing National Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) in December, so planning for that is up to full speed. I’ve counseled at this empowerment-leadership camp before, but being a director means taking a much more active role. I love being able to put my own spin on camp, and turn the week into something unique and powerful for the girls. Updates to come!

On another note, some of you have been asking me for suggestions of things you can send that would help my community, and I finally have a list. For camp we need fun craft-type things that aren’t available here. If you’d like to contribute, we’ve put together a Wish List below. We’ll have about 100 campers and 20 staff, but any quantity of any of the items on this list would be so much appreciated. Even if it’s just a pack of old Crayolas you have lying around the house, or a quick trip to the Dollar Store… We’ll take any and everything : )

  • glitter glue / glitter pens
  • stickers
  • markers
  • ** tie dye (ALL colors: red, orange, yellow, light green, dark green, light blue, turquoise, dark blue, purple, pink…we need a ton of this!) **
  • foam stick-ons
  • scrapbooking stuff
  • glue sticks
  • string
  • beads
  • construction paper
  • ribbon
  • glow sticks
    …and whatever else your creative minds can think up!

(You can find my address in the Contact Me section.)

Thank you for reading, and thank you for supporting Camp GLOW. We love you!!
-T

You cannot know the good within yourself
if you cannot see it in others.
[African Proverb – Zululand]

normalcy

I know that my blog postings have been falling off this year, as many people have been subtly reminding me week after week. I apologize to anyone else who has noticed.

My somewhat weak explanation: I feel like I don’t have too much to report anymore. Once you get used to the new beauties and difficulties, life starts to feel pretty ordinary no matter where you are. Also, over these past few months I haven’t been working on too many new projects; I’ve been in a more steady routine at my site, spending most of my work time at school, and filling the space in between with camping trips, visits to the orphanage, Game of Thrones marathons, and Jillian Michaels workouts.

My little house, and my little garden patch out front, are now my home. I love traveling on weekends to visit with friends or to collaborate on projects, but I love even more the feeling when I walk back into my house and experience a rush of comfort and ease. It was a long journey to get from “house” to “home,” to finally feel comfortable here – a transformation complicated by rat infestations, almost break-ins, loneliness, boredom, a leaky roof, intestinal worms – but I made it! Now I can hardly imagine leaving this country in less than 6 months.

Sorry this isn’t very heavy on the words. But here are some photos from my (very normal) life recently. Enjoy!

Love, Tay

Milk and honey have different colors,
but they share the same house peacefully.
[African Proverb]

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three goals

The official mission of Peace Corps is, believe it or not,

“to promote world peace and friendship.”

Call me an idealist, but I love this. I love that this is my job.

However, a little more concrete, and more often referred to, are the Three Goals. I haven’t written about them yet, but they are a big deal to our bosses in Uganda and to Headquarters back in DC – as you can see by their proper noun status. Everything we do in country is supposed to fall under one of these three statements.

1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

Education! Health outreaches! Youth work! Reproductive health workshops! Literacy! These are my day to day activities, and all of this is considered Goal 1. We treat our projects not just as a way of transferring information, but as a way of “capacity building” (major PC buzz word), or equipping locals with skills and filling them with knowledge that will eventually create personal and national independence.

2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

I accomplish Goal 2 by simply living in my community, giving visibility to my identity as an American, and talking about it. Easy, right? Getting my host family hooked on PB&Js, showing my students how to play frisbee, chatting with my co-workers about the customs of Halloween and Thanksgiving… all of that goes here.

I am the first American that most people in my village have ever seen, let alone have had a relationship with. (I’ve had quite a few babies burst into tears at the sight of me.) Every conversation is important because everything I do or say, or don’t do or don’t say, is interpreted as This is What All Americans Are Like. We just don’t come around these parts enough for that not to be the case.

There are both positive misconceptions (There is no one suffering from poverty in America. / There are no bad men in America.) and negative misconceptions (All Americans are fat. / Americans brought AIDS to Africa to keep its population in check.) about Americans. And it’s part of my job to talk about them all.

3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

As the complement to Goal 2, they also want to see us telling people at home about our experiences here. It’s a way to bring the world a little closer together. Not everyone can live abroad for 2+ years, but everyone should understand as much as they can about their fellow Earthlings.

This blog is an example of Goal 3; it even goes in my quarterly reports to my boss, which is kind of cool. Other ways I accomplish this: calling or emailing friends, sending local dried pineapple to my brother Sean, guiding my Dad around Uganda during his visit, and writing back and forth with an elementary class from my hometown.

These second graders are the best pen pals I’ve ever had. They draw me pictures and ask me adorable questions like: Why are there so many bananas? Do you miss junk food and wifi? Why are your students sharing chairs and desks? We may have some Peace Corps Volunteers in the making in that classroom!

By the way, every time you read this blog, you are helping us achieve Goal 3. Thanks for that : )

-Taylor

However far a stream flows,
it never forgets its origin.
[African Proverb – Nigeria]

exploring rwanda

We recently had our second to last school break, and me and my two best Peace Corps girls, Lantana and Josephine, decided to take a little vacation to little Rwanda. We tore some pages out of an East Africa guidebook and caught the night bus from capital to capital: Kampala, Uganda to Kigali, Rwanda. Ten hours later, we arrived at the border, where we were ushered to the front of the line, and Border Patrol let us walk right through, except that they confiscated Joey’s plastic bags because they are illegal and “bad for the environment.” – How great is that?!
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We spent our day in Kigali at the National Genocide Memorial. It was quite a somber thing to do on a vacation, but also an important one.

The genocide of the Tutsi people by the Hutus took place just 20 years ago. In 2 weeks, over a million people were slaughtered for no reason other than for being who they were. The memorial was extremely graphic and emotional, with a room of torn and bloody clothes that people were massacred in, victims’ skulls cracked with hammers and split by machetes, and an entire exhibit dedicated to the children of the genocide, with vivid descriptions about how they were killed, who tried to save them, and what their last words were.

It is unbelievable to me that the Rwandan Genocide happened so recently, in my own lifetime. We need to remember it, to learn about it and from it, to talk about it. If you haven’t seen the film Hotel Rwanda, you should; it’s a good place to start.

It was difficult to walk around Kigali after seeing the memorial, and not think about what each person I encountered must have experienced in 1994, how it must have damaged them, how it must shape their current world… At one point Lantana said that she would be surprised if every person in the entire country didn’t have PTSD…

Thankfully, not all of our vacation was as heavy as that first day. After Kigali we headed to the Parc National des Volcans and stayed in a guest house at the foot of the mountains. Climbing Volcano Bisoke (3900 m) was one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done – I like to think mostly because of the altitude – but it was incredible and well worth the struggle. We walked straight up into the cloud-choked jungle for hours and hours, spotting mountain gorillas, antelope, and foot-long earthworms, before collapsing at the summit, where a 300 meter-wide crater lake, complete with tiny beaches, awaited us.
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A little bit of rain made the descent even harder: the steep paths that we had scrambled up had now turned into a giant mud slide. We finally made it out, with shaky legs and mud halfway up our thighs. It was such an amazing day!
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Our final stop was Chameleon Hill, Lake Mutanda. We slept in rainbow cabins built along a cliff overlooking the lake and the entire volcano chain. We relaxed, had nice meals, and got to know Joey’s parents (it was thanks to them we got to stay at this fancy place!). The views were breathtaking, and it was so cool to be able to look out at the massive volcano that we climbed just a few days before…
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Lots of Love from a Refreshed PCV,
Tay

The man who waits for a perfect opportunity, will wait a lifetime.
[African Proverb – Nigeria]

thoughts on solitude

As you might have gathered, you spend a lot of time alone in Peace Corps. A lot of time alone with little to occupy you except your own thoughts. Sometimes, for lack of anything better to do, you might burn a stick of incense from end to end and make fun swirly patterns with its smoke (yes, I’ve done this). You also might watch a colony of ants zigzag up and down your walls carrying crumbs for two hours straight (done this, too). We may dream about down comforters, ice cubes, and oven baked cookies, but one thing we never want for is more time.

That’s why Peace Corps is the perfect time to diversify yourself, to pick up a new hobby, or master an old one. I’ve found a new love in gardening here. I’m currently reading my 102nd book in country. I make a lot of things from scratch, like natural cosmetics and household cleaners. And I spend loads of time being silly with my neighbor kids: many rainy weekends have been passed watching Disney movies, dancing to local radio hits, and creating scrap paper masterpieces with my favorite little amigos.

One of my more eccentric colleagues, Ellen, took up unicycling. Julian has reached near-fluency in one tribal language, and is tackling a second. Michael is writing a song about each of the 40 volunteers in our training group. Courtney started beat boxing and break dancing with her town’s B-Boyz. Kim makes jewelry. Lantana brews Kailua. Eric carves soap figurines.

I have some pretty cool friends, huh?

The other thing you tend to do with all that solo time is, well, think. A kind of famous PC blogger once wrote, “I’ve had every thought someone can have. Probably twice.” That might be close to true. Because there are very few distractions, and sometimes you just can’t pick up another book, you’re often stuck staring at the ceiling and reflecting on whatever bouquet of emotions are left over from your roller coaster ride of a day. This can be dangerous, or it can be enriching.

Dangerous because a lot of days are really rough, and you don’t want those to affect your mindset too much. Enriching because, thankfully, there are plenty of good days to balance out the not-so-good, and make it all worthwhile. When there’s no one around to influence which end of the spectrum you choose to dwell on, it’s all up to you. It’s hard at times, to keep reminding yourself of the good stuff, but it’s also empowering when you’re able to stay positive and keep yourself going.

It puts you in touch with yourself at this crazy new level, solitude does. I feel like I finally understand the whole philosophy that you are the only person in control of your own happiness… I am, and I love it!

Peace,
T

Traveling is learning.
[African Proverb – Kenya]