we built a library

Dusty storage closet filled with books, no more! Nearly a year ago, I began the process of applying for a US AID literacy grant, and thanks to the hard work of all parties involved, Naama Secondary finally has its very first library! Check it out…

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It isn’t much, but it’s an improvement from keeping books locked up and out of sight, and forcing students to sit on the ground in the hot sun to study. Hopefully secondary benefits of the space will include students opting to spend extra time at school, teachers making themselves more available to students, and a rise in reading culture (which doesn’t really exist here).

The interior needs some sprucing up: I’m still looking to collect/make posters, and test my artistic skills by painting a big mural on one wall. That’s my project for April – hopefully it isn’t a complete disaster!

I’m also fundraising with a few other Peace Corps Volunteers to get a huge book shipment from a US-based organization called Books for Africa. If we can get that money together, my school alone will be receiving over 900 books. We’re thrilled about this because, first of all, you can never have too many books, but also because most of what we have right now is outdated textbooks published in East Africa. This means that (a) they are riddled with errors and biases, (b) we can offer very little in the way of diversity or choice, and (c) there is literally nothing around for kids to read for fun. Just think, what would your childhood be without evenings spent under the covers with a flashlight and Nancy Drew or Goosebumps or Little House on the Prairie??

If you are able to contribute any amount to this effort, it would be so much appreciated. Please follow the link below to our project page. (You will find it filed under my friend Robin Rentrope’s name.)

https://www.booksforafrica.org/donate/to-project.html?projectId=148

As we say in Luganda, “Webale nnyo” (Thank you very much)… in advance!

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With Love and Gratitude,
Taylor & The Students of Naama S.S.

A small house will hold a hundred friends.
[African Proverb]

christmas bliss

I spent the last month away from Uganda, but I don’t think that makes it irrelevant; it’s all part of the journey…

I was surprised at how quickly things felt normal again in America. I worried initially that this meant I wasn’t immersed enough in Ugandan culture. But I think it’s just that some things never change, especially when it comes to family. I couldn’t get enough of my siblings, good wine, driving, the snow… And what a luxury to spend an afternoon at a coffee shop chatting with girlfriends and blending in with the crowd!

A few times I was hit with reverse culture shock, which we are told is often more difficult than making the initial adjustments here. I think the first time was when I went to Target with my Mom on my second day home, and she was in a rush and hurrying me through every department. But I just couldn’t make a decision. Actually, I couldn’t even really comprehend the variety and quantity of what was in front of me. I think she was annoyed, but there were 18 types of yoga pants and there was no way I could choose one in three minutes. I didn’t even attempt the seemingly endless aisles of cosmetic products. Regardless to say, I left with nothing on that first trip. (A few weeks later I tried again, and successfully bought up all the Dove chocolate, new tank tops, and Burt’s Bees I could get my hands on!)

Smart phones must have taken off in the past year. Now you can do things like send silly pictures that disappear 7 seconds after they’re received and accentuate your text messages with graphics of palm trees or dalmatians or clapping hands (SO FUN). You can give your phone verbal instructions and it will do what you say. My brothers got a kick out of my pay-as-you-go flip phone that doesn’t even have a camera.

There were also more serious moments where I was sad and confused and couldn’t stop thinking about how unequally all the different components of privilege are parcelled out at birth. Though mostly I tried to avoid that type of stuff and just made fun of myself for not knowing about anything that’s considered cool anymore.

So cheers to my family & friends for bringing me up to speed on the last year in the first world. My trip came as close as it could get to perfect. More than anything, it made me feel insanely grateful for the all of the beautiful people in my life and for the beautiful country I get to run home to for good next year. Still, for now, I’m glad to be back. I have unfinished business here, so much more I want to do, and jumping back into the simple life in Uganda feels right. I feel refreshed and motivated and, better yet, like I’m exactly where I need to be.

Love, Tay

Save all your love for your family.
[African Proverb – Ethiopia]

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hiv free

According to Peace Corps, HIV/AIDS work has been falling off in East Africa. No one’s quite sure why, but we think it has something to do with the idea that it’s an “overdone” topic. However, the fact remains that though people may be getting talked at about HIV, whether in schools or health centers or elsewhere, some pretty preposterous and dangerous myths still exist. Like, for example, that if you wash immediately after sex you can’t contract the virus. Or that positive people can be cured by sleeping with a virgin. Additionally, stigma associated with HIV continues to be a huge problem, discouraging people from getting tested and disclosing their status.

Recent years have actually seen a rise in infection rates in Uganda, a disheartening trend in a country thought to be the continent’s leading force in fighting this epidemic, and in a day where starting ARV therapy early (at CD4 count <250) reduces transmission rates by up to 96%. The American government’s response to this enigma was to push a whole lot of PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) funding at us.

I was appointed to the National HIV Strategic Planning Team, and our first task was to use a chunk of the money to train every PC Volunteer and a Ugandan from their community through a series of four regional workshops. Our first one was this past week.

The goal of the trainings is to give participants the most up to date information on HIV, as well as innovative ways of applying this information in their villages, even if they’re not health volunteers. The virus is incredibly complex and there’s always something new to learn: this was my first time hearing about ‘super infection,’ the introduction of a second strain of the virus when 2 positive partners have unprotected sex, which greatly complicates that patient’s case and may make ARVs ineffective.

At the workshop we also had the opportunity to roll out a new HIV toolkit that we’ve been compiling for months. Every volunteer received a year-long HIV/AIDS curriculum, supplemented by locally produced materials to make each lesson as interactive and exciting as possible. My favorite is Game for the World, an HIV-in-Uganda-specific critical thinking board game for youth. (The Game deserves its own post. Once I have the chance to play with some students next year, you’ll hear much more about it!)

So, workshop 1 was a success. Now we have 3 more to go between January and March. On top of planning these events, our Team are the HIV point people for PC Uganda – we provide support for all relevant projects, put together grants, mobilize volunteers, etc. We’re currently in the midst of writing a charter, and once that’s approved we’ll be recognized as an official programming body by Headquarters.

This project is going to take up a bunch of my second year, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m even replacing my time teaching science at the school with a Health & Life Skills class, and I’m hoping this brings a bit more sustainability and creativity to my work here. Excited for the change of pace!

Thanks for reading!
-T

There is no beauty
but the beauty of action.
[African Proverb – Morocco]

youngins

It’s so cliche to post photos of cute African kids, but I couldn’t resist…

Breakdance Practice
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Judy Attitudy
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Cute on Cute
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Playdate with Sheera
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The Next Jamie Moyer
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“Snap me!”
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Road Race
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School’s Out
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A Local Bar Patron
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Traditional Wear
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Jungle Book
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Pigtail Princess
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…Could they be any more adorable?!

Love, Taylor

Children are the reward of life.
[African Proverb]

a wednesday treat

Sometimes I have proud teacher moments. Like today, when three of my students came to my house to show me things they wrote for fun during their free time at school; they wanted me to correct their English errors and talk about creative writing with them. We had a chat and some peppermint patties, and it was the best part of my week.

Here’s my favorite, a poem by little Betty that made me smile ear to ear.

A Seed is a Promise

Dear listeners,
You know a lot about seeds. When you eat an orange, you see little white seeds inside.
Do you know where all these seeds come from?
All seeds come from plants. And in every seed there is a promise, a promise that a new plant will grow.
If you know what kind of plant a seed comes from, you know what it will grow into.
Have you ever planted a seed and helped it grow? If you have you have made the world more beautiful.
If you wanted to do something to make the world more beautiful, would you start in your own neighborhood? Or would you go far from home to begin?

back to summer camp

Last school holiday, in May, I escaped to Greece for some first world love with my Momma. This time around, I *toughed it out* in country, which ended up not really being so tough after all. Instead it involved a lot of adventuring with my first visitor (my Dad!!) and also the best week I spent in country: counselling at National Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). You can read my “girl power” post for reasons why I think this concept is important/necessary/awesome…

GLOW happens a few times a year; it’s a Peace Corps baby, funded, planned, and staffed by us. We nominate girls aged 14-18 from our communities, and bring them together for a week of American summer camp-style fun, with tons of exciting empowerment sessions sprinkled in, like Assertiveness, Malaria Prevention, Self Esteem, Teamwork, Reproductive Health, Goal Setting, Money Management, and Income Generating Activities.

As a counsellor I was assigned a group of ten girls and we Sparrows did everything together all week: eat, clean, sleep, play, dance, learn, reflect, grow… My girls were from the far corners of Uganda, no two came from the same district or tribe, no two spoke the same local language. As anticipated, they were shy and anxious at first; reflection sessions were quiet and I felt like I was pulling teeth to get them to talk about what they were learning and thinking.

Some of the girls had never left their village, most had never been to Kampala, and all were very far out of their comfort zones. I guess this made the transformation I saw in them that much more dramatic. Because after the second day, my group of timid crickets had turned into a sisterhood who walked everywhere arm in arm, laughed and cried together as we brought up more sensitive and powerful topics during reflection, and chattered away like they were at a slumber party long after the dorm lights were switched off. They were jumping out of their seats to participate in classes, leading dozens of their friends in camp-wide activities, and scheming on how they would share what they learned at GLOW with their own communities.

This last point is one of the most important goals of camp. We are empowering this small group of girls, but that’s just what they are: small. We want every woman in Uganda to learn how to be financially independent, confidently say ‘no’ to men they don’t trust, and separate the myths from the facts when it comes to family planning, their bodies, and their sexual health. We handpick campers for a reason, so that we work with young leaders who have the ability to spread their knowledge and insights and initiate a ripple effect.

On the last day my little Sparrows left me smiling, with two of them telling me separately that GLOW was the best week of their lives…

I already can’t wait for round 2!

Much Love,
Taylor

An army of sheep led by a lion
can defeat an army of lions led by a sheep.
[African Proverb – Ghana]

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things that no longer faze you after (almost) 9 months in africa…

• Traveling 6 hours just to sit around a friend’s house with her for the weekend.
• That your school’s night watchman is armed with a bow and arrow.
• Guys blasting music from boom box radios wherever/whenever they want. This applies to aforementioned night watchman, at 3 AM, right outside your house.
• An entire day alone with absolutely nothing to do.
• Dust.
• Attracting a little parade of kids who follow you like ducklings when you go running.
• Cow and goat carcasses hanging on the street corner, swarmed by flies, and chopped for customers with a machete which has probably never been cleaned.
• The way meetings invariably start 2+ hours late, and even then people are still trickling in. A friend’s relative who was visiting recommended that they serve food to encourage timeliness. Friend’s response: “Then the food would just be late. It’s cooked by a Ugandan.” Too true.
• How people go to church on Sunday and to the witch doctor on Monday. Most pastors also go to witch doctors. Mix and match, aye?
• Getting unreasonably excited and telling all your friends when your town’s supermarket starts stocking a new product. Recently it was raisins. RAISINS!!!
• Being served a giant mound of every carbohydrate imaginable when you eat local food.
• Seeing police, border patrol, and security guards bribed in the open.
• Relating to your friends’ Facebook statuses like this: “If you’re watching a movie with a sexy shower scene and you catch yourself staring at the shower head, you might be a Peace Corps Volunteer.”
• And this: “Uganda makes me feel like Donald Duck. No one understands what I say and everyone stares at me like I am not wearing pants.”
• Geckos darting all over the place in your house.
• Being asked how Barack Obama is doing these days, as if you’re old pals.
• Men dressed in hot pink skinny jeans, bedazzled shirts, or patent leather flats. Maybe all three at the same time. Fashion = irrelevant.
• Surprised reactions when people see you doing any kind of work – gardening, cooking, cleaning – “Eh! You can dig?” Yes, white people are capable of operating a shovel.
• The extra syllables added to ends of words: clothes is “clothes-as”, weekend is “weekend-ee.”
• Competing with your friends to see who speaks the best Uganglish.
• Women you don’t know stroking your hair and asking you to cut it off and give it to them.
• Creepy ssebos knowing every line to every Celine Dion song, and serenading you with them.
• Breast feeding in public. Including directly next to you on a taxi where you are crammed 6 across on a bench meant for 3.
• Goats on leashes. Trucks overflowing with village hitchhikers. Cows on rooves. A family of 7 on a single motorcycle.

I could go on and on…

It will suffice to say, that amidst the challenges, there are laughs each and every day in Uganda!

Love, Tay

Kola nuts last longer in the
mouths of those who value them.
[African Proverb – Ghana]

girl power

There are dozens of indicators of whether a country is on the road to development, but the most far reaching one is, believe it or not, the education and empowerment of young women. Investing in girls by giving them knowledge and skills to make better decisions and improve their own lives has been shown to have an amazing ripple effect – impacting income, health, economic development, and environmental sustainability, which combined create a more productive and stable society for us all.

Here are the numbers to prove it:

• A girl who completes basic education is three times less likely to contract HIV.
• Just a 1% increase in women with secondary education boosts their country’s annual per capita income growth rate by 0.3 percentage points. e.g. in India, a 1% increase of girls in secondary school would mean a GDP increase of $5.5 billion.
• A child born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to survive past the age of 5.
• Girls who receive education beyond primary school marry four years later and have 2.2 fewer children, on average, than girls with less education.
• Women invest 90% of their earnings back into the family, compared with 30% for men.

Last weekend I was invited to be a part of a Female Gender Workshop at Miryante Orphan’s home in Kibogo District. A handful of us PCVs gathered with handpicked peer leaders Saturday to organize sessions, that we would deliver to 80 girl participants the next day. My friend Lantana and I took on Reproductive Health with 4 phenomenal Ugandan girls aged 13-16: Phiona, Rosette, Agnes, and Allan. (Others did Malaria Prevention, Mad Science Volcanoes, Why is the Sky Blue?, Decision Making, Team Building, and Water & Sanitation.)

The six of us got to know each other and then made a game plan, some teaching aids, and did a practice run before we had a massive slumber party and were awoken a few short hours later by the roosters.

The participants arrived mpola mpola (slowly by slowly)and after songs and games, it was onto classes. The girls taught small groups of their peers for a total of six sessions throughout the day. After Lan and I jumped in with just a few additions during the first class, our girls completely took over and didn’t look to us even once more for assistance. By the afternoon, they were answering complex questions about anatomy, pregnancy, and family planning; cold calling their ‘students’ to make sure they were understanding the lesson; and just totally in their element, and totally killing it. By the end of the day, I was bursting with pride for my confident, bright, whimsical, independent, creative little group of soon-to-be movers and shakers.

Love,
Tay

Where a woman rules, streams run uphill.
[African Proverb – Ethiopia]

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the nakayima tree

This past weekend I met up with a few friends for an unconventional adventure, even by African standards: a hike to an ancient witch tree! We had read about it only briefly, but decided not knowing what to expect would make it all the more exciting. A matatu ride in a new direction brought us to Mubende town where we snacked on some gonja (roasted plantain) and proceeded to look very lost. Along the way, we must have asked a dozen people to point us in the right direction, and every single one was appalled that we were not taking a vehicle or motorcycle: “Eh! But it is very far. You take boda boda.” Eventually we would convince them that our little mzungu legs could indeed carry us 4 km – Yes, even uphill. Yes, even in the dry season. – and they would send us on our merry way.

It was a hot one, but we were distracted by the dramatic views down into the valley and across the rolling hills. Since we really had no idea where we were going or even what we were looking for, we would turn a corner and someone would joke that we were standing in front of the tree. We weren’t sure we would even know when we arrived – but we definitely did. The tree was at the tippy top of the mountain and was massive, with wise folds in its trunk and enormous buttress roots crawling with worshippers.

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A woman dressed in black robes showed us around the site and explained the legend of the tree. Basically, it is believed to hold the spirit of the powerful goddess Nakayima. We weren’t too impressed with the backstory, but it was obvious that the place is a big deal; a pilgrimage site of sorts. There were people sleeping in concentric circles around the base, doing their washing off to the side, cooking for their families, appearing very much settled there. They stay for as little as one night and as long as a year, advised accordingly by the goddess in their dreams. We even saw one Jajja laying on a mat connected to an IV drip. Mixing modern medicine and witchcraft – gotta love it!

When you pray to the goddess, for health, safety, stability, etc., of course you must also present an offering. We didn’t witness an animal sacrifice but saw goat skins drying in the sun and a cow head plopped in the field, so we’re thinking that’s a pretty typical thing. We settled instead for leaving coffee beans in a basket and making a wish…

We ended the day by watching the Uganda/Angola World Cup qualifier with a bunch of locals. Our Cranes scored twice in the last ten minutes to win and there was much hugging and dancing in the streets : )

Love, Tay

The Earth is the mother of all.
[African Proverb – Nigeria]

tasks to tackle in term two

I’m feeling refreshed and rejuvenated from my vacation in Greece – travelling & mothers are chicken soup to the soul. The princess treatment is over, and now it’s back to work! Term II starts at the beginning of June and I’ve taken on some outside projects in addition to teaching…

>>First and foremost, I’ll be working on a big grant to build a library for the school. Right now we have only a shell of a building and a lot of work needs to be done. Just as vitally, we need books. All we have right now is 3 dictionaries, 1 thesaurus, and stacks of dusty textbooks, which are outdated and filled with errors (all are published in East Africa) – not one novel, encyclopedia, biography, or collection of poetry. I want my students to be able to do research on their own and read for pleasure. A girl can dream, right?

>>Secondly, I’ve been given a Base Pack by Peace Corps and appointed a “Regional Pack Captain.” This is a new incentive system we want to enact on a broad level; our job as captains is to give them a trial run in our own schools. This is what a Base Pack looks like:
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As you can see, it’s a backpack filled with sports and games equipment, all of which is unavailable in Africa: cones, bean bags, frisbees, tennis balls, skipping ropes, etc. The idea is to choose a measurable behavior your students need to improve on, and then use something out of the base pack as a reward when certain thresholds are reached. We were visited by the company’s staff, and given tons of unique ideas for getting students engaged, motivated, and working together using what’s in the packs.

Luckily, this isn’t something that’s overly structured yet. We have basic guidelines but can pretty much run in any direction we want with it. Some other captains want to improve attendance or enforce timeliness. I’m probably going to focus on encouraging class participation, as a way to address assertiveness and confidence issues.

>>Lastly, I’ve been asked to teach a class on female reproductive health and RUMPS (ReUsable Menstrual PadS) for an event at a school in Western Uganda in June. RUMPS are a huge initiative here right now. I’m excited for the opportunity to get involved with this type of training and possibly bring it into my school in the future.

A bit of an explanation: Because most Ugandan families can’t afford sanitary pads, girls typically stay home when they are on their periods. Skipping school one week every month means that they are missing ¼ of class time, putting them further behind their male peers who already have so many more advantages in this culture. RUMPS are simple, cheap, and sustainable: cloth pads with changeable linings that the girls can sew themselves (we do that with them during the training) using local materials that total to about $0.50.

I’m happy to say I’ve got my work cut out for me this summer. Thanks for reading!

Ciao, Taylor

What you help a child to love can be more important than what you help him to learn.
[African Proverb]