Thursday, October 27, 2011

Poetry week of Oct 24, 2011

Resting  Oct 24th, 2011

Because there is no light, nowhere to go, nothing else to do…
Here in Africa….at night.
The air seems thin…not hot or cold.
Just air resting on my skin
…as I’m resting in the darkness.

I see my sons in their lives;
in their rooms, in restaurants, libraries, clubs & parks.
They are strong & bold,
but still …my beautiful, vulnerable boys….nonetheless.

I reflect on my life…
an unfinished Journey
confidence, joy, confusion, questions, sadness, love & redemption.
I wonder why I am here …alone ….by choice …or are we always alone?

I don’t understand why I had to do this
…all I know is that I was driven here,
by myself to find myself …I pray

I think of my heros …MLK, Mandela, Gandhi
and I know my struggles are small.
My pain is small. My impact on the earth is small.
However, to me it all looms large.

So it’s one step, one breath, one good thought at a time,
as I wait for the pieces to fall together,
and, at last, I see the picture of this puzzle
I pray

Enshrined in Light    October 24, 2011

So – I realized just now – outloud,
what I have known for a very long time…innately…
That I can breathe only because of my friends.

Friendship has kept my madness at bay.
Who they are  …each so unique & precious,
has carried me over rough waters,
& through times of celebration.
One-on-one & in Tag Teams,
my friends mourn, lift, inspire.

I am enshrined in a place that glows with their light.
Can I truly express the magnitude
of the cumulative impact of their deeds,
large & small?
The answer, my friend is No!

Living in a Movie     Oct 24, 2011

As soon as I landed,
it seemed I was in a movie.
….more like a documentary slash comedy.
The scenery is like nothing I knew from home:
loud, dirty, uncensored, raw, free.

The accents are odd
& the English does not resemble the words I hear.
…though they are speaking my language;
…if it’s really mine to claim, …here.

Mostly I am traveling along as an observer.
Pretending this is normal,
…that I am not an actor,
…in this drama slash documentary slash comedy.

I realize I am a side show, a fleeting focal point,
the odd white woman in a sea of various shades of darkness.
But frequently I am lifted.
when there is music
reminding me this is Africa.

There is no guise.
No time for western concepts,
…of sleek, smooth, polished lines.

My movie slash dark comedy slash drama
 is powerful because the images are so real,
A panoramic landscape of jagged & rough outcroppings.

My fellow actors are naturals.
Genuine natives with rich skin tones,
Bright white smiles, hearty laughs & silent eyes.
…and when the music plays the movie continues.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Karla the PCV at Swearing In Ceremony

October 16, 2011
Yessirreee -  I passed my language exam! OK I am now settled where I will live for the next two years. Wow what a long strange trip it’s been! …and this is only the beginning.

Swearing In
I am in my half of a 30 foot round brick & cement house with 3 rooms, a kitchen, a sitting room and a bedroom. I arrived on Friday Oct 14th after being sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer on Thursday October 13th at the home of the Deputy Ambassador to Uganda, Virginia Blaser. She shared with us that she applied to the Peace Corps just after college and was rejected for not having enough skills. So instead she entered the Foreign Service and has spent her career serving there. Given her opulent house in Uganda and then looking at mine, I think she has done very well for herself despite the rejection from Peace Corps!! In preparation of Swearing In I shaved my legs and colored my hair for the first time since leaving the States as we were staying in a hotel with toilets and real showers! It was nice to see my legs looking like mine and not like my brothers legs!! (No offense Kirby, Bronson & Robert but I want to be more feminine than you guys!) 
Deputy Ambassador Virginia Blaser
Swearing in was very moving and I didn't expect it to be…but in true Karla form, I cried several times. They read parts of JFK’s speech creating the Peace Corps in 1961 and they talked about the friends, family and careers we put on hold to come here. This really got to me because I feel so much support across the ocean over here in Africa. I really do appreciate all of you who are cheering for me and touching me across the world.  Several of the young and inspiring PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) gave speeches and I was glad to be in the present of a younger and committed group.  I think I have gravitated towards these young adults here and in the US because they remind me of my idealistic side that can get a little jaded over the course of a lifetime.
Host Organization Supervisors-mine is the lady in blue

Well as you know I had an African Kitenge (traditional dress) made with fabric from my host mom. She designed the outfit which has trousers worn under a tunic. I wore this to swearing in and felt really good in my ensemble. It really seemed to reflect my style. There were several of us who wore traditional African attire and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. 
Me and the other PCVs in African attire
Modeling - my next career?

Leaving Homestay in Wakiso
Leaving my host mom and brother was very hard for me. I think they were the only reason Pre-Service Training didn’t beat me; there were time I was just hanging on. Their home was my sanctuary – I am a little apprehensive about making it on my own here in Gulu District. Hopefully my new home will also deliver some wonderful people to support me in the process. I think my supervisor and my counterpart have great potential. We really enjoyed the last few days together. I learned how to cook pork like my host mom and I taught her how to make spaghetti American style. We also killed and plucked a chicken (actually I just watched) – I decided I won’t be able to do this on my own – so I will buy chickens already prepped & cleaned when I get the courage to cook meat.
I gave my host mom a gas cook stove as a thank you gift so she won’t have to cook over charcoal. The gas stove is actually less expensive, but many Ugandans can never save enough for the stove (approximately $42). She fell on her knees and thanked Jesus when I presented her with it.
The chicken after plucking and cleaning!

My wonderful host brother!

The best was to come, when I told her I had found a school sponsor for my 6 year old host brother. A wonderful and generous family in Nashville has offered to sponsor his school fees for the next 3 years. The total is approximately $75/ year with another $25/year for books, uniforms and miscellaneous supplies. Because I have lived there, I know this family’s values and the importance they place on education. Since my brother was born “disabled”, he was given up by his mom at 3 months. My bother has now fully recovered except for a stutter. This difference will cause him much trouble in Africa where any abnormality is treated as a curse and often results in ostracism.  I know his education, which he is working on very hard for a little 6 year old, is his chance at a better life. This is one reason I am here – to make a small difference one person at a time.

Traveling to Site
So because I had 10 large bags by now – having bought a portable gas stove, pots, pans, a set of dishes, utensils, numerous food stuffs, and African Crafts for gifts and for decorating my home;  I chose not to commute to Northern Uganda on Public Transport per Peace Corps recommendation. It would have involved several vehicle changes and would have taken all day – where in the confusion and stress I either would have lost some items or been robbed. This cost me and another volunteer who was sharing the ride $116 each ($232 total). This is more than most Ugandans make in a month. The Peace Corps supposedly only reimburses us for the cost of public transport which is approximately $17 each even if we bought two bus tickets each. I have a real bone to pick over this issue. Luckily I had the means to access my US account and withdraw some of my resources. After 10 weeks of physical and emotional boot camp where we were all at our wits end, it feels like abuse to have to make that journey alone on public transport which is notorious for pick pockets and baggage thieves.  (Seems inconsistent with the Peace Corps statement of placing our safety and security first.)
So we left at 7am and arrived at my site at 1pm to drop my bags. Then we went to drop my travel mate’s items off and headed out with our driver to located mattresses and an LP gas canister to power my stove. I also located a used mountain bike that I asked the shopkeeper to hold for me until the next day. We also bought jerry cans to carry our water and some plastic basins for washing clothes and dishes. Then we each were dropped at our sites. Hers is in Gulu Town, and mine is 8 kilometers south in a more rural village setting.

Village Savings & Loans
I arrived at School at exactly the time the staff Village Savings & Loan (VSL) meeting was beginning – and my supervisor ferried me in to watch the process. This is a system that we have been trained on that is used in developing countries to help people save and receive loans. Most people have no access to traditional banking systems, so this new process has slowly gained traction here in Uganda. Many of us PCVs will work at establishing these while at our sites. The concept is that even if they cannot read or write, small groups of people can meet in public and each put in whatever amount they have saved that week - all under the watchful eyes of the members - and the totals are tallied in a ledger by a secretary that can read. Several people must agree on the total amount per person and for the group as a whole. Then from the monies that are collected, people can receive loans that are due in 2-3 months. These loans can help with medical bills, school fees for kids, or help them get pigs or bee hives etc. These VS&Ls can really be the difference between raising ones standard of living and falling further into poverty.

Saturday 10-15-2011 Home Set Up Day
I forgot to mention it, but my supervisor is supposed to have the other side of my circular structure as her home. Of course it’s not ready yet, so she has been staying with me on my sitting room floor to make sure I am comfortable and taken care of in my new surroundings. It might sound awkward but it’s been nice, as I would otherwise have very few people to talk to since arrival. So yesterday I got up and rode my counterparts bicycle to Gulu Town. There are 3-4 big hills that are hard to climb and fun to coast down between here and there. It took me just over 30 minutes going at it pretty hard. I went immediately to the place where I had reserved my own bicycle and had them affix a basket and a mud flap to my bike.  It seems there is more mud here than all of the rest of the world!!  

I left my counterpart’s bike with the shopkeeper man since she can take a Boda-Boda (AKA motorcycle taxi) to retrieve it. I am forbidden to ride Boda-Bodas by Peace Corps which aside from a bicycle, is the only public means of transport to my site. I then went to visit the Peace Corps Volunteer in charge of the Gulu PO Box and she invited me in for tea…Very civilized. She is a German born woman who married an American (shout out to Eva & Jim!) and has lived stateside for many years. This is her second trip to Uganda as a PCV. She is working in a teacher’s college. We then went for lunch and I purchased some nails, a hammer, some produce and climbed on my bike with 6 packages and all the aforementioned items. Needless to say the trip back was much harder. It was hot, I was carrying an extra 25-30 pounds and I was tired from the morning ride in. My new bike was great but I was running out of steam so I ended up walking the uphill parts. This was not unusual as 95% of Ugandans walk their bike up hills. So I didn’t feel like a total loser. Upon my return home I drank lots of water and began hanging my mosquito net and curtains. I unpacked all my things and cleaned and set up house. I went to bed with my supervisor in the next room and slept from 9:30pm until 7:45am – whew that felt great!!!

Sunday Afternoon 10-16-2011 Relaxing in My Home
So here I am – catching up on my blog and thinking of all those at home.  I heard from my youngest son just before Swearing In. He is doing well and seems to be enjoying his freshman year. He just finished mid-term exams and spent his fall break in DC with his brother.  I hear from my husband – whom I talk to almost daily – that my oldest son is also enjoying his junior year and doing well socially and academically. I love & miss my sons so very much and know they are becoming the great men they are destined to be.  My husband, who is still training for the Marine Corps Marathon at the end of October despite a hip injury, is skydiving this weekend with a friend from Louisville KY. Seems not much can hold him back. I am proud of him and of how he is handling this challenge of separation. He has an amazing internal core strength that assures me things will be fine. When we talk via Skype I also get to see my dogs. Cayenne is looking as beautiful as ever and I hear is enjoying running at the river campus. She will be 2 in December and is feeling strong.
I also think of my parents, sibs, in-laws and all my girlfriends and their husbands who are so important to my mental health. The amazing ladies of my life have sent me packages that were here when I arrived. They have also gotten together and sent packages to my sons at college since I cannot be there to do that myself.  I cry happy tears when I think of you all. I am even more thrilled that my friends are planning Easter in New Orleans with my Family. This means so much to me that all my special connections are carrying on as a big family - even when I am not on the same continent.

It’s a wonderful feeling to finally unpack my things and find the small surprises that awaited me in my luggage. I located my IPhone and hooked it up to my speakers and am listening to music from America for the first time in 3 months. It’s amazing what memories music can trigger. I have also used my REI French press for the first time today – THANKS to Meg for that parting gift!!! NOTHING like real coffee. Though the Starbucks Vias are much easier to clean up after, given I have to haul water for all washing and bathing.  Speaking of living a different life – my pit latrine and bathing area are still under construction. They should be ready in a day or two, so I have been using the Girls dormitory facilities.  Good thing my house was ready, along with my full size bed (waiting on you Hubby), and my wardrobe (though the bed and wardrobe was still sticky from the varnish).  I also received a kitchen table that won’t fit through my kitchen door…a little Ugandan planning challenge!  I am still waiting to receive my kitchen cupboard, my peg boards for hanging things and my pit latrine chair!! Yes, I asked the carpentry dept. to make me a chair that I can set over my latrine so I can feel like an American when I am taking care of business!! Some things a girl just can’t give up!!!

Now that I am living on 20 acres in the rural Ugandan country side I am receiving fresh milk each day from the cows located at the school. A half liter a day is approximately 18 cents! So I will have some in my coffee in the am and a cup of hot chocolate in the evening. The men arrived this afternoon with my first delivery. They said they will be by to deliver it daily at 8 am. Of Course I have to boil it and drink it within a 24 hour period because of no refrigeration – but I still feel luxurious with this amenity!! Not to mention I have electricity in every room of my home – so I can keep my PC and electronics charged as long as the service is working. J
I also unpacked my American Flag – courtesy of Wal-Mart. It is hanging on my door to my kitchen and I feel my home is my little American outpost. I have boiled my water and have a pitcher with drinking water and a thermos for hot water or milk. Ironically my thermos was made by a company in Nashville TN called Megatrade International Inc. They sell thermoses in 84 countries. See their zip code is 37204 – same as my house in Nashville – WEIRD as my Worlds Collide!!!

Note on Packages & Gifts
I no longer need feminine products, rubber bands, taco mix, brownies, or coffee – so please hold off on them and only send things that you feel I might need. (A letter is nice too!) I don’t think I will need anything else for a long time. I also have deodorant, sunscreen, pens, soup and oatmeal/grits to last me a long while…and I am pretty sure there are still more in transit. Thanks to Lisa, Mary and Margo for the ones waiting for me when I arrived in Gulu.  I have to admit it’s nice to know I have a team that can mobilize in a minute when I call on you all!!! I will definitely let you know when I receive your packages…so don’t fret – one PCV waited over a year for his package to get to him in Uganda. I think it went to Asia first! So that’s all for now – My next challenge is getting into my new work environment. I am ready to start doing things instead of training. Keep me in your thoughts and prayers! Love Karla

Monday, October 3, 2011

Technical Immersion, Final Training Weeks, African Observations

On Tech Immersion in Kasese District
OK I am convinced Peace Corps has a hidden agenda to make training so grueling and so stressful that by the time you find yourself alone in a remote village you think its bliss. My 10-week Training has alternately been exhausting (we go all day Mon-Sat, walk an hour each way to get to class, live in Ugandan homes without indoor plumbing, and are expected to do homework and hand-wash our clothes in buckets, - basically borderline abusive) and then exhilarating.  The exhilarating parts come in fits and spurts and mostly it’s a grind to attend hour after hour of classes. I admit the classes have me prepared to live here for 2 years. If I had been placed in the field without training, I would have never made it. So yes the content is valuable – I just think it could be consolidated and delivered more efficiently so as to get both Saturday and Sunday off. Maybe it’s an age thing…but in my defense the 20-somethings look tired too!

Technical Immersion
Kids & Coffee Beans
So the exhilarating parts come when we actually get to interact with Ugandans in the field. I have visited really interesting places and love getting to see the real deal. Classroom theory can only hold your attention so long.  I returned last Friday from western Uganda where a group of 10 of us visited a coffee cooperative in the highlands outside of Kasese…not far from the Congo border.  The most amazing thing is that in this remote area that has no electric power and only 2% of the people can read, the entire culture is being changed by a coffee cooperative. The cooperative does typical things like educating farmers on ways to improve their crop yield, but they also deliver comprehensive social services by sending trainers up into the mountains to talk about gender equality, rights of women and children, domestic violence, and addiction. They teach all people to draw their vision of a better life and then draw the steps they need to take to get there. They also draw pictures of the opportunities and threats that might arise along the way. It was phenomenal to see every peasant we met take out their notebooks to show us their drawings.  The cooperative has 3,500 farmers and its own micro finance organization. (

Highlands of Western Uganda
Ok, did I mention that the western region of Uganda is the area with more tourist attractions like game preserves and also one of the most picturesque! We passed through Fort Portal which is known for its tea estates – we saw miles of green tea fields – it was something to see. 

Final Training Weeks
Alright – On to my final weeks of training – We had a mock language proficiency interview to prepare us for the actual test coming at the end of this week. I am not going to win any awards in speaking Acholi, but I plan to pass by the skin of my teeth. So keep your fingers crossed for me!!! We also had a round robin verbal exam where we moved from one table to another answering question regarding things such as safety, community development, HIV Aids, malaria, cross cultural issues, personal medical topics, economic development principles, etc  - basically all we learned over the last 9 weeks. It was empowering to see how much we have covered, and that I have retained a great deal of it.  

This week we will say goodbye to our host families with an event on Saturday Oct 8th. We will have American picnic games for the kids as well as a demonstration on how to make American Pizza. We will also have a lunch with traditional Ugandan and American meals. Vegetable Spaghetti will be the American fare. I helped do the research on locating tomato paste – like almost everything here it comes from China!!! African Fare will be Matooke (green bananas steamed or boiled and then mashed) Posho (some kind of corn based starch with the consistency of very hard mashed potatoes), G-nut sauce (a peanut sauce they put over the Matooke and Posho), meat cooked in a sauce to put over rice, and most likely avocados and pineapple which grow everywhere here.

Me carrying water for bathing, cooking, washing
I of course will greatly miss my host sister and brother. We have become a close family. They have taken care of me and I have tried to reciprocate in ways that I can. Today Florence surprised me with a bolt of Congolese made Kitende fabric and then escorted me to a tailor to have a custom African dress made for me. I plan to wear it on Saturday to the host family thank you event.  I will post pictures later of my incredible fashion moment!

My Brother filling water at spring nearby
On Tuesday Oct 11, we will move to Kampala for 3 days of PC policy and safety training. We will be joined by our assigned organization supervisors and we will jointly plan what each Peace Corps Volunteer will focus on over the next couple of years. Basically this is to help educate our host organizations on what they can expect from us and to reiterate what is required from them. On Thursday Oct 13, we will sworn-in as official Peace Corps Volunteers and will drop the word “trainee” from our titles. Basically its graduation from bootcamp! Then there is a celebration before we leave the next am for our various sites.  Each person now has all the luggage they flew over with plus what they accumulated from 10 weeks of various Ugandan shopping experiences. Imagine the Beverly Hill Billies moving out across Uganda.

African Observations
Yes it sounds like Africa here. There are more exotic birds squawking everywhere you go, than you would imagine. There are hug storks and large yelling birds and gentle lovely little songbirds. Some birds make you think you are in a Jurassic Park movie – they resemble pterodactyls.  There are roosters, hens, pigs, cows and goats everywhere. In my homestay we have 10 plus chickens, roosters and chicks that are kept inside at night next to our kitchen. We also have 5 piglets that are rapidly becoming fat pigs. They shriek when it’s feeding time. You would be amazed at the ruckus they create.  Much of the sounds of Africa are man-made. Ugandans like all media played on high volume. So you can hear everyone’s TVs, radios, church service etc. If the electricity is on, the entire neighborhood is competing to burst your eardrums!! Makes it a blessing when the electricity goes out!!

Whats really surprising to me is how well dressed many Ugandans are every day. The ladies wear skirts and professional blouses and the men wear trousers and nice shirts. Whereas we Americans often look like hippies or just barely presentable in comparison.  
What is also amusing is that all the used clothing from the US and Europe ends up here. I even saw a Tennessee Titans sweatshirt walking down the streets of Wakiso a couple weeks back. All our t-shirts for family reunions and bank openings are alive and well in a Ugandan home.  My host mom uses a 3XL Penn State Nittany Lion t-shirt as our bathing room floor mat. I am sure my in-laws would be surprised at this situation. (Yes its typical to use old clothing as an area rug or door mat.) My host brother broke out a European Ski team jacket yesrday when the temperature fell to about 60 degrees. That’s really cold here and therefore necessitates a parka! However fairly often you can see an African woman wearing a shiny sequined prom dress or ball gown; and though we think it’s rather funny, they are considered very stylish and smart looking.  
Boys with homemade pool table

Another Ugandan custom is that men can have multiple wives and have even more mistresses on the side…they are called side-dishes. Most American men I know would not want that many women, but maybe it’s because US women have rights and opinions.  Here it is very unusual for women to own property and men can divorce you if you become “stubborn”. I am pretty sure I would not have made it to my 1st year anniversary if I had married a Ugandan.  Where I come from “stubborn women” are revered J.  Also if a Ugandan man divorces his wife, he keeps the children. They are considered his property.  This makes it very hard for women to complain or to fight back against mental or physical abuse. Needless to say this is not Kansas anymore Toto!!

A BIG Thanks
So that’s my latest update on my Ugandan Vision Quest. I am still glad to be here and happy to report my husband is still very supportive of my journey to Africa to find myself. We talk every other day and are enjoying learning of the other’s daily activities. I hear my sons and dogs are also well, so I am secure in knowing we are all growing into ourselves very nicely.

Finally thanks to my friends and family for the numerous packages that are waiting for me when I leave the comfort of my training class and venture out alone to my 3 room hut at School in Koro Abili in Gulu District.  Feel free to send your own list of items, as surprises are also fun. Also keep sending me emails and letters – I don’t want to be forgotten while I am scampering across Uganda.  Peace to you all - Karla