Fresh Peace Corps Volunteer

Disclaimer: the contents and opinions of this blog website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

This rap/song lyrics was adapted from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and I post this in nostalgia and in memory at the days spent at the Peace Corps training center in Central Uganda fresh of the plane on Ugandan soil. This was approximately 340 days ago when I first arrived in Uganda and was training with 45 other new trainees/volunteers I arrived with. I found this in a word document today and it looks like I wrote sometime in 2016 – I hope you get most of my dorky references!

FRESH PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER

Now this is story all about how

My life got flipped upside down

And I’d like to take a minute

Just sit right there

And I’ll tell you how I became a Peace Corps Volunteer

 

In downtown Philadelphia where we staged

To the conference room at Muzardi where I spent most of my days

Learning, mingling, getting rabies shots all cool,

We know how to do this- many fresh out of school

When a couple of viruses that were up to no good

Started making trouble in my cohorts stomachs, dude!

I got one little fever and the PCMO got scared

He said ‘we’re taking you to the hospital, you need some fluids and air’

 

We begged and pleaded for more free time day after day

But we trained ‘til 6:30pm and staff went on their way

They gave us important knowledge and also Per Diem

I swapped media for hours and said ‘I might as well kick it’

 

First week, yo this ain’t bad

Drinking Waragi sachets out of a juice glass

Is this what the PCVs in Uganda livin’ like?

Hmmmm this might be alright.

 

But wait I hear they go barefoot, climb trees, and are like Miles and all that

Is this the type of place that they’ll send this cool cat?

I’ll see at my site, when I’m finally there

I hope they’re prepared for us PCVs to get weird hair

 

Well when the matatu arrived at site, and I jumped out

There was my counterpart and supervisor standing there

With their hands out

I barely knew how to greet and I aint fluent

I just got here and I’m thinking,

Can I do this?

 

I asked a neighbour, ‘where’s the water here?’

One boy greeted me and took me there

I thought this kid was nice to take me to it

I thought, ‘I’m so thirsty, yo let’s do it!’

 

I unpacked many things by 7 or 8

And I told the kid, ‘Thanks, see you later!’

I looked at my new home

I was finally there

To start my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer

 

Be like water

These thoughts (that kind of resemble a poem) came to me at a trying time for me. I thought of how I could let everything pass through me and it felt like I was telling myself to be like water.

 

Be like water

Boil when you need to

Cool when you can

Allow yourself to find paths

through difficult obstacles

Crash into the surf

when you feel your undulating waves reaching their peak

Roll over yourself, mix with the salt, algae, sand and creatures

And when you can roll and tumble and play no more

It is okay to retreat to the sea

Be yourself

Let yourself move

Watch the moon

Listen to her

Bend to the moon

Let her light wash over you

Yield to her face

When you must change course, let yourself

Freeze if you have to

But when the time comes

Look for the sun

Sun will come

And you will remember what it means to teem with life

Let life grow within you

let  life  change  you

Let yourself be moved to places you have never gone to

Let Mother Earth create and recreate you and let the sun and moon change and guide you

Be like water

Three hundred and sixty-five days

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Three hundred and sixty-five days. I stepped foot (and kind of fell into a ditch) on Ugandan soil at our training center in Uganda on June 1st last year. I didn’t break an ankle, just was a little sore, and it truly encompasses many of my highs and lows here. We were all hauling baggage (mine was literal and figurative) that night and at least two people were like “omg are you okay?” And I was-a little sore sure- but still intact, and grateful for the support of those around me. One year later I still fall in dirt and mud all the time, but I always get back up whether or not someone is there to offer a hand or chuckle at me.

This year has been REALLY uncomfortable at times. Physically, mentally, emotionally. Boring, exhausting, amazing, stressful, overwhelming, anxiety-inducing… And I am more in tune with my feelings because I have no other choice but to feel and think and process because all my former distractions and coping mechanisms (well besides the internet lol) are not available to me.
I am learning and relearning and building and breaking in my head and heart often, and it only is molding me into the person I’m meant to be.

This year has been SO rich, yet full of “am I DOING enough?,” at times quite painful, then overwhelmingly beautiful… I feel so grateful to get to experience what I am experiencing, because life shouldn’t be taken for granted. We are never more close to death than at the present moment, because we are alive. So here I am, vulnerable, with arms wide open, ready to brace myself for ditches and steps and life that is. I can’t wait for another trip around the great big burning star with my new friends and family I’ve made in Uganda.

The Last Two Months – In Photos!

Greetings! It’s been a while but I have many photos to share with you all. I enjoyed putting together this little glimpse of what I’ve been up to. I hope you enjoy the photos!

A Buganda-Bunyankore Introduction and Wedding!

First are some photos of the introduction I went to in Kampala with my counterpart. The introduction (like a big family engagement party) was for Justine’s brother Geoffry and his fiancee and now wife Jacky!

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My counterpart Justine and I in traditional Buganda attire. These dresses are gomesi dresses and are worn for all special occasions (weddings, introductions, funerals, special events).

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Jacky is in purple, and she’s with all her closest female friends and family members here

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We (on the groom’s side) all received a spouted millet drink in gourds – it was delicious!

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Jacky greeting her soon-to-be-husband Geoffry

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Female relatives of the groom-to-be bring gifts of items, good, and money to the woman’s family (seated opposite us so each side of the family is facing one another)

 On to the Buganda Wedding Party!

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The Wedding Cake!

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Something I learned was that male performers dance and act out skits at weddings, and people offer them coins and small bills. This grandma was not part of the planned skits but she was amazing and people started tipping her!

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Here’s the wedding lunch/dinner I received! The plate had lots of matooke, sukumawiki (kale), and spiced rice. The banana leaves contained beef (I think?) and chicken!

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Finally after waiting, the newly weds arrived! (I found out later that they got married in a church the day before! I had been wondering when they were going to seal the deal that whole night!!)

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The exchange of wedding cake between Geoffry and Jackie!

In Buganda tradition, it’s customary and a sign of respect for women and girls to kneel to men including those in their family.

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The kids got the dance floor all to themselves before the adults took over! I enjoyed a few songs with my colleagues and counterpart Justine, then we left because the kids had school the next day!

Bungee Jumping! 

A few weeks ago I went bungee jumping with my friend in Jinja (where the source of the Nile River is). Here are a few photos from the exhilarating and dizzying jump!

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The “OMG OMG” moment for me – we are literally just falling

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No this was not photoshopped- Uganda is beautiful!

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The backdrop literally looks like a painting! We were feet from dipping into the Nile River at one point!

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My face was the color of a tomato at this point!

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We survived. The blood rush was crazy! I was so relieved to be right side up because when you’re thrown around by your ankles for that long you start to think your head’s going to explode!

World Malaria Month 

Check out the video I made on some of the activities I worked with my organization to put on this month! The link is here!

Visiting Alex ❤ 

I visited my friend and former PST roommate Alex and met her dogs and just had a grand time.

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We know how to twin it up 🙂

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Blinder and Scorpion grew on me 🙂

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Happy Cows come from Uganda!

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Village Bar Sunset Views

NEW HAIR CUT Y’ALL 

Last time I cut my hair was in December 2016 and I cut it myself. I was determined to shorten my hair but the power was out and I was struggling and I cut it a bit shorter than I was hoping! Anyway, a few days ago Sparkles Salon helped me out and I’m very grateful!IMG_8307

 

GTOT- General Training of Trainers

This year I’m a WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) Health trainer for the new cohort of volunteers coming to Uganda in June. I attended GTOT with other trainers last week and learned a lot and got to prepare for the training ahead of us! Here’s the crew:

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Permagarden Progress!

Here are before and after photos! Before photo was taken in September 2016 and the before picture was taken a few days ago in May 2017! I received a lot of help from a few neighbors and I’m very grateful! Right now I have tomatoes, Irish potato, cassava, carrots, watermelon, eggplant, kale (sukumawiki), and green pepper growing!

 

I work with the space I have

I’ve been trying to use the small space I have to come up with ways to work out in my small omuzigo. And yes, it’s a huge challenge, and sometimes I trip over things, but I’m trying!

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I’m grateful for this yoga mat – with it I can dance, do some cardio, and do yoga 🙂

Until next time friends, family, and readers.

With love and gratitude,

Alexa

Malaria Prevention and Research

The last few weeks have been filled with determination and malaria prevention work. Saturday March 11th is when one of the girls at our school, aged 13, died of untreated malaria. She was a primary 5 (like 5th grade). She was sent home by a teacher at the school on Thursday for feeling sick and having a fever. She was advised to go to the health center. She instead she went home and stayed there, where she was living with her grandmother and another girl. Friday, she continued to stay at home and no one asked her to go to the health center or took her there, themselves. By Saturday, she was gasping for breath/convulsing (words lost in translation to me) and by the time someone got her to the health center it was too late. She died. She had been tested using a rapid malaria test while there and her blood tested positive for the malaria parasite.

She died of untreated malaria.

She died a completely preventable death.

imageThat Thursday through Saturday I was at a training/research event away from my site, and by the time I was headed home, I received a text message from my counterpart that we lost one of our students. I felt sad about this, but didn’t know what happened until Sunday. On Sunday I went to her burial with my coworkers and teachers at the school. On the way to the burial, I learned that community members and fellow students were spreading rumors that the girl had passed ghosts/witchcraft on her way home on Thursday, specifically from horn of a bull. They said that she died from ghosts that lived at the school. The rumor was spreading like wildfire and I was angry when I found out that the parent and grandma of this girl were saying that the school has ghosts, is a bad place, and essentially killed that girl, when (I believe) it was their own ignorance and neglect that caused her death.  I understand they were grieving, but deflecting blame for her death to ghosts and witchcraft, and misinformation/myths further encourage the spread of malaria because people don’t focus on the real proven cause of death – the malaria parasite, and learn about prevention or treatment. By that Sunday afternoon after attending her burial, my anger and sadness of the situation turned into motivation and I already had my hands on a copy of the Malaria Think Tank (under Peace Corps Uganda) barrier analysis tool kit sent to me by a friend who created it. Due to other work related things and DEAR Day activities that came up, I started the following week in Mid-March every day interviewing students at the school about malaria prevention, their behaviors,  and their thoughts surrounding sleeping under an ITN (insecticide treated net) in the study. It’s been eye-opening, enlightening, and also concerning for me to realize that a low percentage of students at the primary school are “Doers,” as in, they sleep under an insecticide-treated net every night. I’ve completed 59 interviews thus far, utilizing a few hours each school day with the available teacher who’s been helping me translate the questions into Luganda. We finished 31 interviews in the first school week, plus this past Monday and Tuesday when we knocked out about 28 interviews in two long days!! I’m proud that I’ve been able to do so many, but I know that it’s best to get a sample size of around 90 participants. I’m glad I started doing these interviews while the students at school are sensitive to the fact that this girl, their fellow classmate, and friend, died a preventable death. She died of malaria, which is not something that needs to be a “way of life” in the community, as it usually is treated. I am hopeful that with the support of my co-workers and counterpart, I can work on malaria prevention with a motivated community throughout this month (World Malaria Month) and beyond.

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Source: World Malaria Report 2014

Much love and well wishes,

Alexa

5 Reasons to Visit Uganda

There are so many reasons to visit the beautiful country of Uganda. Disclaimer – the views on this blog and this post are my own and do not reflect the views of Peace Corps or the U.S. Government. Also, I’m a foreigner myself, and I’ve only lived in Uganda for 9.5 months at this point, and in a very rural area. Despite not having traveled very much or lived here for long, I wanted to put together a little list for you all and to share some of the things I love about this country.

Uganda is a landlocked company in East Africa and is the home to 37.8 million people who come from diverse regions and cultures, languages, and and religions. Uganda is also home to so many great and wild animals like mountain gorillas, lions, leopards, elephants, giraffes, zebras, chimps, birds (so many birds) and so many more. Uganda is also home to the source of the Nile River, excellent coffee, snow-covered mountains and deep crater lakes. Uganda is also arguably the #1 bird watching spot in Africa. Great reasons to visit, right? Well, here are some more!

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1. Uganda is a country where over 56 different languages are spoken. Fifty-six.  Are you a lover of language? Particularly over the Bantu variety? Come on over! An interesting fact about Uganda is that the official languages are Swahili and English, which is interesting and also slightly controversial if you ask my language teacher Herbert (who teaches Luganda, which is the most common vernacular language spoken in Uganda).

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Source Some of the more commonly spoken languages

2. Uganda is located in the heart of Africa. Yes, yes, Uganda was once deemed the “pearl of Africa” but if you look on a map of the continent of Africa, you’ll see that Uganda is cozied up in the middle, right where a heart might be. Okay I might be stretching that visual… but what I’m getting at is that Uganda has the “location, location, location” factor, and is surrounded by other East African countries that also have a lot to offer. Want to head to Virunga, an active stunning volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or go to… Oh I don’t know… to Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia or Kenya? Uganda’s got your back. On top of being situated in a location with accessible travel to several East African travel destinations, Uganda itself also has so much to offer in terms of accessible and affordable eco-friendly/safari and other natural attractions. Many friends and fellow volunteers have toured and gone on safaris around different areas in Uganda and from them I’ve heard only overwhelmingly positive experiences.

Uganda

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3. Uganda is a smaller African country, but don’t let it’s size fool you. In this country the size of the state of Oregon in the U.S. there are the 4 official regions and total there are a total of 111 districts! Each region boasts a distinct and vivid landscape and is very accessible with tarmac roads given that Uganda is still a developing country. The Central region is home to matooke (unsweet banana), the capital, Kampala, the Buganda kingdom (and it’s rich history) and Lake Mburo National Park. The Eastern Region is home to the source of the Nile in Jinja, known for sugar, coffee, and maize production and of course all the fun things you can do on the Nile, the West/SW is home to the rare mountain gorillas (of 880 left in the world, half (about 440) live in Uganda), chimps, coffee, and particularly Queen Elizabeth National Park, where you can find elephants, lions crocs, giraffes and more!

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4. If you’re reading this, it probably means you have a friend or family member *ahem* in Uganda. (Or a new friend- Hi I’m Alexa!) They are a great reason to visit too! Want a friend to venture out on a safari with you to Kidepo or to Queen Elizabeth National Park? Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro or dive into Lake Bunyoni? You got one. *Thumbs pointing at this girl*

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me on the left cheesin’ with my friend Mona posing in front of the Nile River in Jinja

5. I saved the best for last… You should visit Uganda because… it’s Uganda. Ugandans, the beautiful people of this country, have already made such a welcoming impression on my heart. My Ugandan friends, home stay family, Peace Corps staff and supervisors, neighbors, co-workers, students, taxi guys, etc. etc. are some of the most generous and kind people I’ve ever met. Not only is the country beautiful, but the people are too! I hope you’ve enjoyed this short list and next time you consider travelling to East Africa to keep Uganda in mind! Also, you can check out Trip Advisor’s Top 10 Attractions in Uganda 2017 here. Cheers!

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Headed to an introduction with my counterpart Justine in traditional gomesi dresses

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Learning to make mandazi with my neighbors

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My neighbor Elisha dancing with his school’s dance troupe

 

My First WASH Project

I originally wrote this post in January and the draft disappeared somehow but then I reappeared today when I was about to try to write this post again! So here goes – a little post about WASH. What it means and a little about my first WASH project at site tongue in cheek.

Wash…. W.A.S.H…? what does it mean and what does it stand for? WASH stands for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene. In Peace Corps Uganda, and in the international development context, WASH is a well known and commonly used acronym to describe projects relating to the topics relating to clean water, better sanitation, body/environment/latrine hygiene, and disease prevention though hand washing. For more information about these health topics check out this comprehensive page from the C.D.C. https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/global/index.html

I do (and plan to do more) WASH related lessons at my org. I started with P7 students and did a hand washing demo on International Handwashing day on October 15th, 2016. I also recently did a session on the fecal-oral route of disease transmission and hand washing with a women’s group I work with. There all sorts of projects I can do under the WASH umbrella! For example, I can do pit latrine maintenance education and demos, proper hand washing lessons, water treatment and safety talks, or tippy tap demonstrations. I am also considering projects that require writing a grant. For example, community borehole construction, pit latrine improvement/building and water tank construction. So… as you will see from the photos below, my first big WASH project at site is at MY site… in my compound! I’m sort of joking because its not my true first WASH project as I didn’t oversee the planning of this project. It is more of a site development project my org and Peace Corps organized and funded. What this really means is that the teachers and I (the people who live in this compound) get access to rain water and storage for it – water security.

A little background: If you’ve ever asked me ‘how’s life at site?,’ you know that water is my biggest issue at site. At first I was concerned my water was contaminated (due to what looked like paint chips coming out of the well) and I was required to send in a water sample. I was also asked to buy bottled water and live of that for a few months until we received the test results that my water from the well was fine. Then, there was discussion on providing water security for me and also as a site development measure which included the potential of me getting a water tank (sharing it in the compound). That discussion also took a few months and finally the project is happening thanks to Peace Corps! I feel very lucky that I have this option and the tank was up and ready to collect right after the first 6 hour rain of the February rainy season. I can now say I have water at my site! It is all thanks to my wonderful Peace Corps Champion (supervisor) too!

Here are some photos of the building process in my compound: img_6173

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Cement base drying

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This run off drain is excellent as a shower to wash your hair with! And it means my tank is full!

Here’s to health, joy and gratitude,

Love,

Alexa