Sunday, March 25, 2012

Last Term


This last term I’ve reduced my teaching schedule to two streams of Senior 2 math. I happen to enjoy teaching math much more than physics and I wanted to spend my time doing other things such as more life skills classes, sexual education lessons and ICT instruction with the brighter students at my school.

I also spent three solid days assisting our Timetable Master with creating the new schedule of classes for the 2012 school year. You know how in America we have computer programs that can pretty much schedule classes, students and teachers for us? You simply input the courses the students want to take, the teachers that are available to teach those courses, the time slots available, etc. and in turn the program spits out a nicely organized schedule of lessons that fits everyone’s preferences (for the most part).

Well in Uganda, they haven’t quite made it that far yet. That is to say, there is no computer program. It’s literally done by one guy, the Timetable Master. This “Master” is responsible for scheduling over 600 students and 22 teachers into a standard five-day school week. Compounding the difficulty, the school is short on teachers in crucial subjects like math and physics (hence part of the reason I am here). Additionally, the teachers the school does have only come two or three days a week.

(Sidenote: why do the teachers at our school only come two or three days a week? Because they are “part-timers”. Meaning they allot part of their time to one school and part of their time to another school. Now why would a teacher who is assigned to Kamuge High School also go and work at another school? Because he/she can earn more money! The Ministry of Education pays a secondary education teacher a standard salary for teaching at a Universal Secondary Education (USE) school (usually around 400,000 shillings, or less than $200 a month). But, if the teacher goes off and part times at a private school he/she can earn extra money on top of this. USE teachers are not supposed to do this. But they do. And who can blame them? They get paid a sh*t salary and they’re just trying to earn more for their families. But in the meantime the students and school suffer.)

Moving on, all these reasons taken together make it very difficult to schedule classes in a way to everyone’s liking. It is an extremely tedious and frustrating task to put together such a schedule. And once it is done, it rarely gets modified throughout the year.

We were in the fourth week of classes and a new schedule still had not been drawn up. Why? Because it’s a crappy task that nobody wants to do. But it needed to be done. Finally I offered to help our Timetable Master put it together and with the assistance of Excel we cranked it out together.

Only to have everyone complain about how they didn’t get the days they wanted or the streams they wanted or the times they wanted. We went through several iterations and finally a final timetable was established… that nobody will follow. J But at least it’s there now.

Moth Invasion

We’ve been invaded by moths! Seriously, they’re everywhere. I don’t know why either. They weren’t here last year or the year before that. They just simply showed up. And they are everywhere. Outside, in my house, at my school, inside all the buildings at the school. It’s really bizarre. I forget that we are kind of in the wild here sometimes. I suppose these things happen. The locals don’t seem to pay much attention at all to them since they don’t cause any harm. They don’t seem bothered or concerned in the slightest.


The other day I was sitting beneath a few trees in the shade with four other teachers at my school. Mr. Otuna (my physics counterpart) was having small talk with Madam Aloro (our Director of Studies) when he posed a question that resembled something like this “How is my OB [so-and-so]?” He posed this question to Madam Aloro. OB stands for Old Boy. Here, if one says “my OB”, it means you attended school with this person at one time or another. Mr. Otuna and this “OB” were classmates and he was inquiring into the general well being of this person.

“He died! Two years ago! Didn’t you hear?” Madam Aloro swiftly replied. Mr. Otuna reacted with the most stoic expression I’ve ever seen in my life. He didn't make eye contact with anyone. He didn't move his head at all. He didn't say anything. His eyes just slowly drifted down to the grass and found a resting position where he began to stare. Madam Aloro continued on and on about how he died, what happened, what medical condition eventually led to the demise of this unfortunate soul whom I’ve never heard of or met before. And all the while Mr. Otuna continued to stare downwards and listen.

It was a really sad moment. One that I just kind of took in as an outside observer. I think maybe it caught me by surprise because death is so common here. We hear about it all the time. People die of malaria or some other accident quite frequently here. It just kind of happens and people talk about it and move on. But I could see true remorse in Mr. Otuna that day. I could see him reflecting inside as he remained silent. And I could tell he was genuinely saddened. Nobody is ever quite prepared for the gravest of news. It’s what makes us all human. And this was truly reflected in him that day.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

It's Tough to be a Teacher

Note: I wrote this blog a month ago but have since delayed in actually posting it. It still applicable and paints an accurate picture of the situation faced by many in my community. Enjoy.

Today, we had our regular staff meeting, which takes place once per term. The agenda to the meeting usually goes something like this:

1. Opening Prayer

2. Communication from the chair (Head Teacher)

3. Reaction to the chair

4. Reading of the previous meeting’s minutes

5. Reaction to the reading of minutes

6. The way forward

7. Closing prayer

This meeting usually takes a minimum of three hours (some have taken up to 6 or 7 in the past). There are no breaks. And lunch is not served until the meeting has concluded.

This staff meeting was the first to be chaired by our new Head Teacher, Mr. Okello Stephen. I was impressed by his effort to solicit feedback from the staff on ways to improve the school and also to bring that feedback to the Board of Governors hoping to impact some change in the future.

One of the main things I took away from the meeting was how difficult it is for some teachers in Uganda. I haven’t been able to nail down exactly how much my fellow teachers make but I’m told it rests somewhere around 400,000 shillings per month.

One of the problems my counterpart, Mr. Otuna Silver, brought up was the cost of transport. He says he pays 4,000 shillings for a one way trip to the school and another 4,000 back each day. Multiply that 8,000 round trip times five days a week and you’ve got 40,000. Multiply that 40,000 times four weeks per month and you’ve got 160,000 shillings spent on transport alone! That’s 40% of his salary. Imagine making $50,000 dollars a year in America and paying $20,000 a year on transport costs alone. Paying $20,000 for you alone, simply to get to and from work, from point A to point B and back again. It really struck me.

Considering the fact that Ugandan taxis usually take about 30 minutes to go 6 miles, some of these teachers spend two or three hours a day commuting to and from school. Taxis don’t even start leaving until around 7am so many teachers cannot even get to the school until around 9, even though school begins at 8 each morning.

In addition, teaching is tough. Mark my words, whoever said “those that cannot do, teach”, did not know what the hell they were talking about. Seriously, it’s one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. I just want to stand up and shake every teacher’s hand and praise him or her for the good work they do because it is no easy task. It is truly a science - one that requires you to constantly monitor your stakeholders (students) in several different dimensions. You must constantly be assessing their reaction to everything you say, do and teach. You must be asking yourself these questions constantly: Is this the most effective way to teach this topic? Do my students understand it? Which ones do? Which ones don’t? Why to both the previous questions? What can I do better? How do I adapt my methods to reach 90% of the students instead of just 70%?

And in Uganda: How do I reach a classroom of 92 students effectively? How do I hold their attention for an 80-minute lesson (the standard time allotted for a math or physics lesson in Uganda)? How do I get them to stay quiet and remain attentive? How slow do I need to speak? Should I / can I use British English or American English for this word? Do they even understand a single word I just said? Most of the time the answer is some do, some don’t. I have come nowhere close to perfecting my methods, but I have learned how to adapt and in some ways, have improved.

Yes, I mentioned we have a new Head Teacher at Kamuge High School. My former supervisor and good friend, Mr. Bulolo Christopher has taken his mandatory retirement at age 60 and has passed the torch on down to the next lucky soul to take on the administration that is the Kamuge High School Head Teacher. We had our formal Handover Ceremony last Friday. This consisted of a three and a half hour meeting in which the new Head Teacher was introduced to all the members of the school, including support staff such as the groundsmen, guards, cooks, secretaries, etc. Then the outgoing Head Teacher gave the incoming Head Teacher a very thorough tour of the entire school (we literally walked the entire perimeter of a 10 acre plot).

The tour was then followed by an hour-long session in which the outgoing Head Teacher read line by line each item in the current inventory of the entire school! Every desk, chair, table, piece of laboratory equipment, building, etc. I almost started laughing out loud when this started. “Are you freaking serious??!!” But that’s how they do things here. It’s just different.

The new Head Teacher had a chance to respond to all of this. Which was lovely. Then the Director of the Board of Governors stood up and talked for… a while. He went into great detail about how important the position of Head Teacher is. He elaborated how he and the board would not hesitate to take drastic action if the new Head Teacher did not perform well or began to “backslide”. I found this particularly interesting. But overall the tone of the meeting was very upbeat.

In a way I was kind of lucky. I had no idea how this whole Handover Ceremony would go and I was really curious what it entailed. Unfortunately it was just like every other meeting: started late, went on forever and with no solid conclusion or outcome. But we ate well!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"Sshh, sshh! This is my favorite part!"

What are some of my favorite (or maybe we call some of them memorable?) experiences in Uganda? It’s funny you should ask because it just so happens I have prepared a few to share with you. So here they go…

Swimming in the Nile River

Undeniably one of my most favorite experiences here. I did this way more times than Peace Corps or my organization probably would have been happy with (on account of the diseases that lurk in the river). It was easy because Jinja is so close to my site and has some great spots to take a dip. I can remember this one occasion where I was swimming with about three or four other volunteers. We were jumping off this rock that was about 15 feet up from the water level when a gentle rain began to trickle down on us. The sky turned to a dark murky gray color with some orangish tint. I remember just sitting on that rock looking around and being so appreciative for where I was and what I was doing. It was majestic. There were plenty of times when we swam on sunny days, but there was something special about this one.

Eating under the pure Ugandan starscape with my neighbors

Again, words cannot describe how special these moments were for me. There is something about the Ugandan sky at night. It is so dark when the moon isn’t there. Shootings stars abound. When the moon is there, it’s mystifying. Beautiful. Hypnotizing. The way the clouds hang and bask in the moonlight. Or drift slowly on to forever. The silence. The stillness of the air. We would break bread and discuss the day’s events as this production took place over our heads.

Leading and motivating Uganda’s youth

Whether it was in a classroom, during an informal meeting in my office or while in the middle of a life skills lesson, I couldn’t have been more impressed or filled with more happiness from my students. These moments were difficult to predict and short lived, but they were myriad.

And then there were other opportunities when I gave speeches on important issues such as women’s rights, human sexuality, malaria awareness and youth economic empowerment. I will remember the passion I felt in those moments and how all those eyes stood trained on me. A nice thing about being the mzungu in Africa is that everyone listens to you once you start talking.

Performing a number three

There is nothing quite like getting food poisoning while literally locked inside a house with an indoor air temperature of 85 degrees without running water and power. It forces one to come up with more creative solutions to the ensuing events which occur when one puts something in their body that the body decides just does not belong there. Sitting bare ass on my little green bucket purging my system while at the same time hunched over hurling into a cheap black plastic bag, this was my first sick night in Uganda.

Why was I locked inside the house do you say? Well, this happened in training and every night the host family I was staying with would lock the door at 10pm and it would not be unlocked until sunrise. It was a very strict rule and no doubt a measure to keep the family safe from prowling evildoers.

So you had to improvise on solutions to outdoor problems at night. Repeating the bucket/bag process three or four times throughout the night, this was my solution. Words cannot describe the smell of that bucket the next morning. But it was epic.

Watching the sunrise on New Year’s Day from the beaches of Zanzibar

Ok, technically this one did not occur while I was in Uganda. But it highlights another important and truly precious aspect of my service: the 28 other brilliantly insane men and women I came to Uganda with on Feb. 10, 2010 and served beside for two years. Dancing on the beach at 5:30am to Daft Punk’s “One More Time” with seven or eight other members of my group, we brought in the new year. My group mates have been a phenomenal contributor to my mental health and happiness here in Uganda. And I’m so happy they were here with me.

Discussing local, national and international politics and news in the staffroom

It was always interesting to get the Ugandan perspective on things. Many times, in fact most of the time, we agreed on the issues. Ugandans want the same things we want and enjoy many of the same things we do, those things are universal. But often times we would disagree, sometimes passionately. On issues such as religion and homosexuality, I had to walk a very fine line with my colleagues to not jeopardize any credibility I may have established in other aspects of my work.

I was continually surprised by the topics that got brought up, many of them sexual in nature. Ugandans don’t beat around the bush on this matter, at least the ones in MY staffroom didn’t. There was no partitioning or separation of conversations. The staff room is simply one big room with acoustics to allow anyone to hear anything from anywhere in the room. Everything that everyone said was heard by all. It was a very public and open discussion, which added to my surprise at the candidness of some of my coworkers.

Climbing Mt. Sabinyo and later, Mt. Muhuvura in Kisoro

These two treks were probably the most physically demanding feats I’d ever accomplished. I can remember walking away from the mountains not being able to really feel my legs. But I also remember the astonishing views at the top after traversing across some pretty shoddy and terrifyingly-close-to-the-edge ladders.

Running a half marathon in the bustling urban center of Kampala

Not the most physically demanding thing I’ve done (I think I overtrained) but one where I walked away with a sense of accomplishment and fortuitousness for not having been injured by any or all of the hazards that pockmarked that path of organized chaos.

Hosting my dad and sister in this strange land

Nothing felt more comforting and nurturing than to have my very own family members come to Uganda and visit me, if for only a brief amount of time. Showing them this beautiful and interesting environment and introducing them to the people in my life here was so incredibly special and fun for me. Thank you for coming and for your continued support throughout this entire tour.

My morning runs

I couldn’t write this entry without mentioning a crucial part of my mental – running in the village. This place is just absolutely beautiful some days! I’m thinking of one particular instance when I was on a long run and I came upon a swamp that was just completely blanketed in early morning fog. It was creeping slowly over the landscape and I just kind of disappeared into it as I got closer. Twenty minutes later when I had come back the sun had burned it off only to expose this narrow road bisecting this vast expanse of water and earth, providing the only sane means of traversing such a mucky and hazardous area.

Getting malaria, mango flies, tear gassed and floored

Floored on the chaotic streets and dirt roads of Kampala and various villages by motorcycles and bikes. Tear gassed in Budadiri for God knows what. I still don’t. Mango flies from eggs hatching in my t-shirts. And malaria from that damn anopheles. And these things are pretty normal here.

The truth is I could name about a hundred other experiences that were memorable and really great in there own special way. That would take awhile. Really everything that I experience and do here is truly unique. And to pick out these select few has been an arduous and ambiguous process. Again it feels like I have gotten much more out of this than I was able to give but I guess the balance of those give/take scales depends on whom you ask.

A Peace Corps Summary

Sitting in the improvised office at my school, it has finally hit me that I’m going to be leaving this place soon. The reference books have all been returned to the library. Posters are coming down. Project materials are being put away or given to others and I’m beginning to sort out the rest of the random material objects that I’ve acquired over the course of two years living here.

How would I describe my service? In a word… enriching.

So many different aspects of my life have been enriched. I came to a completely foreign world with nothing but a desire to learn more about humanity and a hope to enact some positive change in someone’s world. I know I’ve fulfilled the former; it is, however, more difficult to speculate on the latter.

I’ve witnessed and experienced a poverty that 99% of Americans will never know. Then again, I’ve been captivated by a people so rich in kindness, humility and hospitality, the degree of which I have never seen before in my life. I’ve felt angry, confused and frustrated at the world here. And I’ve also felt overwhelmed with the warmth, love and humor that the people here have given to me.

I’ve felt an incredible sense of accomplishment and success during some of my projects. And at other times I’ve felt like a miserable failure. I’ve been humbled by what I couldn’t accomplish in two short years, but looking back in retrospect, astonished by just how much I could and did.

My world outlook has become… unstable. That is to say it has become more complex and less set in stone. I came here with the simplistic philosophy that the rich should help the poor. I’m leaving with this core belief still intact, however, there have been countless experiences and conversations that have required me to attach several addendums. Some of them I’ve elaborated on this blog, others you’ll just have to ask me about next time you see me.

I’ve become immensely more appreciative, I would even say patriotic, of the United States, simply by virtue of the fact that WE DO have it so good in our homeland. Almost everyone who goes abroad comes back with this notion. But to experience the “not good” – poverty, terrible roads, disease, bad government, power outages, disgusting plumbing failures or total lack thereof, constant harassment, near death traffic incidences (there have been numerous) and general feelings of loss and isolation – gives the idea a whole new meaning, one that cannot fully be perceived without having gone through it firsthand.

At the same time, I’ve developed a sincere appreciation for the things that are good about Uganda – the people, 24/7 warm weather, healthy meals, laid back lifestyle, fresh produce and a verdant and diverse physical environment.

All of these separate emotions and perspectives taken collectively only seem to complicate the world for me and make it virtually impossible to form a solid opinion on anything. And maybe this is a good thing. However it persists to annoy.

Overall, I will leave Uganda feeling amazing. I feel truly fortunate to have been provided such an opportunity to live out one of my dreams for the past two years. To be able to work and live in this contrast environment and gain a whole new understanding (or misunderstanding) of the world we live in. To have the opportunity to share myself with my community and hopefully leave something behind that they will remember. And to learn from and interact with a whole new people I could never have imagined. I’ve loved this life.

Friday, January 13, 2012


A little over a week ago, I arrived back in Uganda after spending ten days in Tanzania. Eight of those ten days were spent on the beautiful island of Zanzibar. This was my (along with about 20 other PCVs) holiday vacation.

We spent two nights in Dar Es Salaam, one night in Stone Town, and six nights in a small beach town on the east coast named Bwejju. IT. WAS. FANTASTIC.

Highlights of the trip:

*eating seafood (including octopus, squid, prawns & fish) everyday, seriously, this was probably the best seafood I've ever had

*the night seafood market in Stone Town - literally dozens of tables STACKED with seafood octopus, squid, prawns, all different kinds of fish on skewers, different types of pita bread, killer hot sauce, a plate costs $6

*the sugar cane juice - made by squeezing the liquid out of sugar cane stalks and mixing it with some type of citrus fruit (mostly limes I believe), half the fun of getting this was watching them make it with the crazy machines they used to squeeze out the juice, it was great

*being in a majority Muslim part of the world - this was my first time being in a Muslimish part of the world and I really appreciated the different setting from the mainly Christian Uganda atmosphere I am used to

*Zanziball - a bocce ball like beach game played with coconuts created by our group the first day we arrived

*chilling with a fantastic groups of people for 10 days - we seriously have a great group and I'm going to miss them and these times so much when our service is over

*watching the sunrise from the beach outside our bungalow on New Year's Day - we didn't get home til 4am that night so we figured we'd stay up a few more hours and watch the first sunrise of 2012

*swimming & skinny dipping in the Indian Ocean! - enough said

*morning runs on the beach

*going snorkeling - I've been snorkeling before, so this was mostly a highlight because in order to get out to the area to snorkel, we had to board this super ghetto dhow boat, which I had never seen or heard of before. it was awesome. aside from the fact that our pilot spoke almost no English, was half insane, half completely hilarious and nearly getting a concussion from the flying boom attached to the uncontrollably flapping sail, it was great! but seriously this boat (and boat ride) was amazing. one of those times where you really take in the beauty of this earth and how lucky you are to be in this moment.

Every time I travel it's the small things I enjoy the most. We didn't have to do much of the tourist type stuff. It was the people, the food and the unique experiences to that period of time that made the trip great.

Christmas Staycation

I spent Christmas at my site, in my home, with my neighbors and my friend John. Last year I was not in Kamuge for Christmas and I was curious how the holiday would pass in my village. It appeared to pass just like any other day, but our festivities in my home made it one that I will remember for a long time.

As some of you know I have five neighbor kids whom I get along with really well. So for Christmas we celebrated together. For gifts, I used a lot of the school supplies that had been sent to me from friends and family back home (thank you guys!) as well as some candies I had bought here locally. John purchased cookies and other treats for his contribution.

We created separate "gift zones" for each of the five kids: Junior, Sam, Omolo, Patience and Joann (that's Jo-ahn). We designated a spot for each kid on the table and put their respective gifts there along with a Post-It note with each of their names on them.

Getting the kids organized and together was somewhat of a challenge that morning as they spent a long time preparing for church, bathing, putting clean clothes on, cleaning their shoes, etc. It took a long time. And all the while John and I were telling them that we needed them to get together and come inside the house. So they knew something was up but they were definitely all pretty confused as to what specifically.

Finally, we got them all together and let them in to see their gifts. Their faces immediately turned to huge smiles and they all began clapping and cheering simultaneously in excitement. They were so happy. It was truly a special time for all of us. Just to see their faces light up and explode with joy. And to such minimal gifts. Literally we gave them school supplies (pens, pencils, highlighters, rulers), candies, cookies, and that's it. But it was more than enough for them.

We ate very well that entire weekend. Our meals consisted of huge servings of meat, pork, millet bread, and rice. After our Christmas meal, the kids brought out a huge plate of cookies for dessert. These were the very cookies that we had gifted to them just a few hours ago! And here they were offering them back up to us and each other. Such selflessness! I was and continue to be overwhelmed with the kindness that they show.

It was a great day in Kamuge. But to us Americans, Christmas came and went in a flash. At no point did it ever really feel like the festive season or Christmas at all. Maybe it was the lack of cold weather, Christmas trees/music/movies/lights, egg nog, fireplaces, etc. But we didn't notice or feel it at all. I think that made it easier to be gone away from the states for Christmas. We just didn't think about it. Still, it was a great day and one that I will cherish for years to come.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


In mid-December, I fell sick. On an ever so enjoyable taxi ride into Mbale Town, I began to feel incredibly cold and weak. This was unusual considering it was at least 80 degrees outside and we had at least 20 people crammed into this taxi that is designed to carry 14. Luckily I was with my friend John who provided his sweater and some friction to try to warm me up. It wasn't very successful.

Upon reaching Mbale, I proceeded to jump out of the taxi, fully don the sweater, and topped it off with my jacket. Sitting in the scorching Ugandan sun. I was still freezing. The problem was I had a fever of 104 F at the same time. We decided to go to the hospital.

After running a urinalysis and blood work. I tested positive for malaria. And I was actually happy that they had figured out what it was. Based on what they had told us about malaria in training, I knew I had an unpleasant 24 hours ahead of me.

The first line treatment they recommend to us for malaria here in Uganda is Coartem. I started my first dose immediately. The next 24 hours consisted of me laying in bed at a cheap hotel alternating between periods of extreme cold and extreme heat. Sweating in bed. Freezing in bed. Taking ice cold showers to reduce my fever and sitting in front the fan almost completely naked, and then bundling up completely with full clothing and two comforters. Shivering uncontrollably. Feeling extremely weak with headache. And then feeling better again.

I guess that's how malaria goes. It gets good then it gets bad again. I started coming out of it during the second night only to come down with stomach problems and more fever. By the third day I was pretty much rid of symptoms, but still weak. One more token Peace Corps experience to check off the list!