Sunday, October 18, 2009

Break It Down

Flaming Man

         Walking to the borehole with both gerrycans tucked under my arms, I felt accomplished with the progress of my two primary projects. The classrooms complete and the kindergarten utilizing them for the first day. The schemes translated with a simple edit before publication. If all worked out, I would finish my projects in time for my visit home, able to relax and enjoy the month holiday. Passing the usual scene of children throwing rocks on school roofs, girls washing under the mango tree and cows grazing the compound, I let out a deep exhale and smiled. Then, I saw it. The doors to the classrooms looked ajar. I dropped my gerrycans and bolted for the building, dodging the cows, jumping over the newly laundered clothes and weaving through the rock throwers to get to the entrance of the kinder classrooms.

         Inside was my worst nightmare: children urinating and defecating everywhere. To increase the severity of the situation, children smeared their excretions onto the wall. Upon my arrival, silence fell in the room. I saw a boy’s eyes dart towards the door and everyone ran for their lives. Exiting the classrooms, locking them once empty, those at the borehole stared, my face tormented between breaking down and losing it. I went home and induced a Benadryl coma. It’s the Peace Corps way. 

         The story continues over the course of three days and involves many excuses and a request for compensation for cooperation in editing the translated schemes. However, nothing can explain the lack of responsibility, consideration and professionalism shown by the kindergarten teachers. Everyone assured me nothing like this would happen again. I responded with, “Damn right it won’t because I’m not opening myself to be taken advantage of. It’s time for you to help yourself. I’ll find work elsewhere.”

         After the showdown, I didn’t leave my house. I called Peace Corps to discuss the matter, as my counterpart and supervisor have never been “in the picture” and my program director assured a call back. (Still waiting five weeks later.) I felt completely defeated. I have never wanted to come home so badly in my life. I hid in my house I was so angry. My friends came to visit, telling me to take a “mental holiday.” I convinced myself I could work through this. After all, I hadn’t taken a night away in six weeks! I could do this! And then my head teacher visited to ask for monetary assistance for his recently announced Minister of Parliament campaign. My response? “Get the fuck out of my face.” I had a choice: get away or lose it.


Lake Bunyoni 

Coming Out

         The next day I got my defeated ass on the bus bound for Kampala and proceeded to the Southwest. Hills, rain, cold weather. Friends. Understanding. It was the rehab I desperately needed. Peace Corps is a strange beast. It brings experiences that push you to the brink; sometimes beyond. However, it brings people together in ways that are incredibly human. So, while it breaks your spirit, it gives you the means of healing, as well. There isn’t much to write about because its fabulousness came from being completely uncomplicated. I’d lay outside and read all day until Kelly would yell through the window, “Curry for dinner?” And I’d shake my head to accept the invitation.

         This much I will write: I saw the reflection of my Peace Corps experience in Paul Theroux’s travel memoir Dark Star Safari. If you ever wanted to understand how in the hell Peace Corps changes people’s views on aid in Africa into something more conservative than when we arrived, READ THIS BOOK! 

We're All Getting Bilharzia (Lake Victoria)

I Took a Fairy to the Islands

         For Ugandan independence, I decided to continue with my journeys and accompany a few of my fellow volunteers to the Ssese Islands. While Uganda is a landlocked country, it is part of the Great Lakes region. In Lake Victoria is a host of islands with its own culture of people. Those people beckoned to me to take a three-day holiday. And so I took a ferry to the islands, joining countless other whites (Dutch, Boer, British, German, Ukrainian, etc.) to go and “camp” at a hostel run by a Great Dane. Seriously, the owners were too busy getting high and doing blow in the forest to run the place.

         Rhiannon decided, to really see the islands and get a true experience, to rent a canoe for the day. Bad idea…


“Why are we going in a circle?” -Rhiannon

“Because the person in the back steers and Mark has no idea what he’s doing!” -Me

“Shut up, I’m doing all the rowing!” –Mark

“There is water coming in from the bottom.” -Rhiannon

“I’m going to be sick.” -Claudia

“This is Uganda. We are here.” –Mike

“I swear to God I’ll knock you unconscious if you keep the Uganglish up. Swear. To God.” –Me


As we paddled in circles for close to three hours, I laughed more than I have in months. It was exactly what I needed.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Does This Make Me Look Fat?

            “Omoding, you are so fat!” “You are expanding.” “Your buttocks has widened.” “You are growing fat.” These are a few of the catcalls in the village. The truth is I continue to maintain the same weight of my last five years, if not with more muscle than fat. However, to the people of my community, I’m an ever-growing beast who needs constant reminders of my expansion. If this doesn’t drive me to an eating disorder, nothing will. (No cause for alarm, my toaster oven is getting a workout.) To cope, I started playing “Bootylicious” nightly as an anthem of acceptance. I must admit it’s working pretty well.

            The weight issue is a constant talking point as important as my marital status. It is the first thing pointed out after returning to the village from a trip: day, leisure or weekend. In the central region of Uganda, expanding in size is prestigious. However, I’m unsure the implication in the NE, the region experiencing famine. The Itesot people are thin and toned, known for digging in the garden through the night during the full moon. If that is what it takes to get a flat stomach, no thanks. Therefore, when the issue of weight came up in a recent conversation with Nathan, I was not surprised.

            “What is your exercise program?” Nathan asks slyly to find out whether I continued running over the holiday. The truth is that I did not. Between hosting volunteers and nursing Moose back to health (now healthy and with a new family, for the best), I was exhausted. The last thing I wanted to do was run.

            “Well, not much over break. I only run when I feel like someone is counting on me to show up. That’s you. Otherwise, I go through the same routine at night in my house: jump rope, sit-ups, push-ups, crunches and finally dips. Then I repeat. It isn’t overly strenuous but it gets a good sweat going.”

            Nathan’s eyes squint in disbelief. “Hmm. But you are not like me. You are larger. How is it possible if you do all that exercise?”

            “We are different people from different cultures. Everyone has a different body type. This is my body type and it is larger than yours is. In comparison, I am larger, but still healthy. The healthiest I’ve ever been,” I explain as calmly as possible, ignoring the implied fat jab.

            “But nearly everyone here is thin. Why do white people differ in size?”

            “As I said before, people have different body types. Some people are naturally large. Even if you consider them fat, they can still be healthy. Fat isn’t always a bad thing.”

            At this comment, he sucks his teeth and lowers his head in thought. “Then why do you exercise? If fat isn’t bad, why not let yourself expand? And dislike it when people point out that you are getting fat?”

            “It is important to me, as part of my culture, to maintain a healthy physique. My people hold fitness in highest esteem. It would be harder to find a partner if I let myself go. Sad fact but true. However, I refuse to starve myself for abdominal muscles and I’m too poor to hire a personal trainer.” I decide to leave out the complicated explanation of the media’s focus on thinness and the struggle many people face with eating disorders in American culture.

            “What do you mean? “Your people?”

            “Are all Itesot people the same? No. There are Protestants, Catholics, farmers, teachers, shopkeepers, polygamists, etc.”

            “And your people? Who are they? Catholics?” Nathan asks. I tell the people of my village that I was raised Catholic. I eases the explanation of religion.

            “Not exactly. We believe in style, good food, travel and music. To fit into the best clothes, some people pay a person to make them workout.”

            “People pay someone to tell them how to exercise?”

            “Yes, and to push them to the point of collapse. I don’t think that is an appropriate way to spend money, especially after living here,” I explain, realizing my spending habits may never be the same.

            “Why don’t they go dig in the garden? That is how we maintain our bodies.”

            “People at home don’t keep fields like you do here. We shop at markets and grocery stores. We exercise at fitness clubs and gymnasiums.”

             “And you pay for all that?”


            “Too expensive. I’ll never understand Americans. I rather stay here. I can see my abdominals in the village for no money.”

            “Well, now you’re just boasting,” I mock as we both laugh, holding our stomachs.


Classroom front: blackboards reach half way up all walls. No desks so the painted floor acts to group students. Hook screws on the walls to hang visual aids and student work (tape doesn't work on these walls)
Classroom back: bulletin boards to facilitate display of student work! 
 Moose: After three weeks of rehab, the little scout is now at his new home in the village, sharing company with another puppy... Sad but for the best!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Toto, I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore...

Towards the culmination of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy awakes from her coma (call-for-attention, if you ask me) and declares a statement concerning the location of joy. I forget the specifics, but it has something to do with happiness being in your own backyard… The last few days prove that some things are in my backyard, but I’m not entirely sure if happiness is one of those things.

* * *


“There Is No Place Like Home”


            The first week of break brings a welcome calm to the school compound. The air turns from a wild quibble of schoolchildren to a calm and uninterrupted tranquility close to the likes of a rehab facility in Southern California. I approve! After detoxifying my body with copious amounts of sleep (waking at 10 AM) and healthy eating (stuffed green peppers for dinner), I decided to go to town and catch up with the world.

            Set and ready for the ride into town, I throw my Jack Spade over my shoulder, slip on my shoes and exit my house. After I lock the door, I turn around and literally jump at the sight of a woman sitting on my stoop. The shock on my face is so visible the woman stands without saying anything and stares at me, waiting for a scream. When the air hangs in silence long enough for me to regain my breath, I finally ask her, “Inyo bo ikoto ijo? What do you want?

            She begins to mumble so softly I can’t hear her so I clear my throat as an indication for her to speak louder and she starts again. “Sir, my father is dead. My stepmother is evil. She chased me away from home. I have nowhere to go and my friend, Feddie, told me that you would take me in, let me live with you.”

            My immediate reaction is inappropriate (both in humanity and culture): I think of every story that begins with an evil stepmother situation. Houses made of candy. Narcoleptic women.  My mind wanders to Disney; a song clicks on, “Little town, it’s a quiet village. Everyday like the one before. Little town, full of little people waking up to say ‘bonjour’…” A mental kick in the pants helps me focus on the situation at hand. My mind floods with ramifications: living with a woman in my village is the same as walking down the aisle, Peace Corps sends people home for shacking up with members of the opposite sex, I don’t want to pay for another person, I don’t have room to be a boarding facility… Deep breath in, “I apologize for your unfortunate series of events but it is not possible for you to live with me. Perhaps you can talk with your stepmother?” She releases a deep sigh, slumping towards the ground a few inches but I push through, “If you need support when talking with her, I could go and stand with you in solidarity.”

            “It is bad. She will never take me back.”

            “You don’t know that if you don’t try. What else can you do?”

            “Stay here, with you.”

            “No, you can’t. I offered the maximum support I can give you. I don’t know you and I am not able to sustain you in my home. I apologize but if you refuse my offer, then I must continue on with my day.”
            “What will I do? I will wait here for your return,” she held her ground, defying my request.

            “No, you will not be here when I get back,” I implied, thinking better of myself afterwards. Directness was necessary for my point to come across. “When I come home, you will be gone.” Walking away, I couldn’t help but feel like the worst person in the world. I had literally told a young woman “there is no room at the inn.” However, I knew taking in a runaway would jeopardize my position as a volunteer. I saw it happen to a friend and it cost him his last eight months in Uganda. Furthermore, I didn’t know this woman. I wouldn’t invite a stranger to live with me in America, much less here in Uganda. Nevertheless, a wave of guilt spread over me like a blanket. I continued walking towards the center, refusing to look back but hearing the woman begin to cry.


* * *


“I’ll Get You, And Your Little Dog, Too!”


            People define themselves in one of two ways: a dog person or a cat person. This definition is so important to many Americans that a relationship can be forfeit when interests differ. I identify as a dog person.

            Whatever kind of person I may be, I didn’t actively search out an animal companion in the first umteen months (or did I hit 20?) of my service because most people in Uganda treat dogs differently than Americans. I knew by taking a dog I would have to leave it behind when I return to America. In Uganda, dogs are not companion animals; they are guard dogs. People don’t allow them in the house. People are afraid of them and often throw rocks to make them go away. They run amuck, eating scraps and chicken bones (sometimes chickens, if sneaky). In the first few weeks, I saw a horde of children stone a dog to death. I was a passenger in a bush taxi that ran a dog over. The bump in the road brought me to tears. I didn’t want a dog, or to leave a dog, in this climate.


            I awake Saturday morning after sleeping in longer than appropriate. Sun high in the sky, heat radiates from my tin roof, changing my simple home into an oven. Waking up with sweat flooding into my eyes is so common, I now sleep clutching a sweat rag. A whole new meaning to the phrase “that’s hot.” Wiping my brow, I dash madly to the windows, flipping the curtains on themselves to let in the light and opening the windows to catch a breeze. However, not only do I hear the usual crowing of roosters and mooing of cows, I hear a slight whimper in the back of my house. I freeze, a bead of sweat runs down my cheek.

            What could it be? Did I imagine the noise? I tiptoe to the door, creating unnecessary anxiety for myself. In the village, I’m a professional at that. Sometimes, I get so anxious just worrying about creating anxiety. Too much free time… Standing at the door, I hear a soft crying noise. Could it be the twins from next door? They cry everyday for one reason or another; however, their usual howl does not match with the hushed whimper outside. I unbolt the barricade lock and turn my skeleton key in the door.

            Puppy. A tiny brown and white dog laying on my stoop, forever scratching himself and crying in pain. Shocked, I stand in the doorway frozen, gawking at the little dog in front of me. What can I do? I’m sure the nurses would tell me to avoid the situation but the sight of the helpless thing makes my heart cave in on itself. I bend down and pick it up, aware that I could catch a few thousand bugs in the process. I feel the dog’s bones against my skin and, when I flip it over, I see countless scabs, ticks and maggots and fleas and, wait, are those lice? I put the dog down, running to my medical kit for gloves.

            After two days of tweezers, citrus baths, OFF!, village medicine for de-bugging cattle (in a very low dosage), howling through the night, peeing everywhere and endless yelps of pain, the little dog looks much healthier. His scabs are healing and falling off slowly. He even accepts to drink milk. The best guess at age is 4 weeks. I decide to name him Moose (as in eMUSugut, or white person). He rides around in my bicycle basket for all the village to see. Most gasp and jump back when they see him. Everyone leers at me strangely like I am an alien. My neighbors snoop around my compound to see what I feed him or if I let him in my home.

            The third day, my neighbor meets me as I weed my garden. “You spoke with yourself last night? I heard you.”

            “No. Actually, I was telling Moose to stop chewing my shoes. Also, don’t come to find gossip at my house. It’s bad manners.” Moose loves my shoes. He chews them with his emerging teeth, ignoring the cow bone I found for his enjoyment. He sleeps in them and on them. He grabs them with his paws as if they are a ride a Doggyworld and rides them as I walk. The dog shares my love of shoes. Dog bless him.

            “Oh, you were talking with your dog,” she eyes me suspiciously. “You white people.”

            “Actually, I have black friends at home who talk with animals. It is an American thing. Oh, I totally forgot, it is also a religious thing. St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, would go into the forest and preach to animals. I thought you would know that, being a highly religious person who likes to pressure me to attend mass with you on Sunday.” The only reason I know about St. Francis of wherever is that I have oracle cards. I hide those (one thing among many) from the village. After my citation of religion, our discussion ends.

            Six days into Moose, I realize caring for a thrown-away puppy is like being a parent. I awake every hour in the night to take him out for potty breaks. He whines if I don’t pay attention to him. I worry when I have to leave him to go to work. I worry how the schoolchildren will treat him. Best of all, he runs to me when he sees me. I am his protector. I am his dad. And, if I can give him a good six months before returning him to village life, then why not? After all, he did have a little piece of paper on his neck that read “Emusugut.” He was a present to me and, in Uganda, you can’t refuse a present.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

[My-Fin-is] in the Lake

            The last few weeks bred a phase at home in the bush: muffins. A while back, I went hunting around Kampala for a muffin tin. It took me nearly a whole day but I found one at the Embassy Supermarket. After a slim-down at the village welder, life turned heavenly. Cinnamon spice. Peanut butter. Oatmeal raisin. Honey nut. Chocolate. Coffee. The best part: the recipes yield 12, or enough for 1 person and random houseguests. (Note: The presence of muffins increases the presence of random houseguests.) Each time I stand over the batter, mixing necessary ingredients until a cement-like mixture forms, I take time to ponder my Peace Corps experience. Strangely, muffins and village life have some things in common.


One bad egg can spoil a whole batch…

            I awake with a headache—a sign ignored. It’s probably best to stay in bed and let the whole day pass but, where I come from, a headache is a lame excuse to take a sick day. Rolling out of bed, I walk to the kitchen where I fill the kettle half way, put it on the stove and scoop three spoonfuls of Steep and Brew coffee into my French press. Maybe caffeine will do the trick.

            As I click BBC on the radio, I hear a traffic jam in the bedroom—my cell phone ring is car horns to remind me of home. I didn’t bother to look at the caller ID, “Ajai. I am.

            “Omoding, yoga. Ajai eong osomero. Ai bo ijai ijo? Hello. I’m at school. Where are you?” The head teacher, my namesake. In Uganda, head teachers often have second businesses, which causes their truancy in school. It is a national phenomenon so common BBC Africa featured it on their morning show a few weeks ago. The fact that he’s at school surprised me.

            “Ajai eong. Kanukainyo bo? Inyo bo ikoto ijo? Biao bo acie? I’m here. Why? What do you want? What is the problem?” I respond as my kettle whistles and I move it to the alternate burner to cool. My headache pulses and I move the phone from my right ear to the left.

            “Ejai airiamun nuikamuntios thematic. Ebeit ijo alosit ngina. Iswamai ijo imwalimun luka thematic, cuti? Inyo bo iwolio ijo aswam? There is a thematic workshop. You must go there. Don’t you work with thematic teachers? Why are you dodging work?”  

            I place my hand over my face to shield the morning light while my head throbs and my vision blurs. “I think it is extremely disrespectful of you to call me and disturb my morning. The children are in exams so I have nothing to attend to. My counterpart does not work with me so I don’t follow his program. Furthermore, how dare you have the nerve to call me and accuse me of dodging work when you can barely show your face at school. Do I call you to inform you of your absence? No.” In moments of frustration, English thankfully dominates. Waiting for a response, I sit down and pour the hot water onto the grounds of my coffee.

            He chuckles on the phone. “You cannot talk to me like that. I am a head teacher!”

            “And you have no affiliation to Peace Corps, so there is no reason for you to call and give me orders. Please refrain from doing so in the future.”

            Another giggle. My head pounds. “I can do what I wish. I am your superior.”

            “No you are not. You do not own me. And if you can’t respect me as a professional and have a civilized conversation with me then I will terminate the conversation.”

            Another giggle shoots into my ear and I hang up the phone, putting my head on the tablecloth.


Mix only until moist, do not fully blend…

            Sitting at my kitchen table, head down, I take deep breaths to quell my anger. I push my knuckles into my eye sockets to dull the pain. Even the saturated smell of strong Madisonian coffee fails to change my mood and I breathe deeper and push harder. Stars flood my field of vision and I get light headed: artificial relief. The truth is: no matter how much work I do, how well I speak the language, how long I stay in the village, I will never fully integrate into my community. It is impossible. True, it is worthwhile to go out and make the effort. To work. To speak. To fetch water. To fall into the Peace Corps category of “gone native” instead of leaving my village every weekend to find solace with other volunteers. However, on days of exhaustion and turbulence, it is best to stay in bed, which is what I proceed to do for the remainder of the day. Sometimes signs are best acknowledged instead of ignored.


Baking muffins takes endurance, especially with only 4 cups in a tin…

            Awake before the sun rises, I am ready for an adventure. I jump on my bike and start pedaling to escape the village. Not exactly sure where to go, I set off in the direction of the lake. I pedal for five kilometers when I pass a friend, Okwii, who rides to and fro the lake every day to transport fish. “Okwii! Eyalama awanyun. Ikwenyunit biai? Happy to see you. How did you rise?”

            “Ejokuna. Iyogai aiwalar. Ai bo lolo? Well. Greet the dawn. Where to today?”

            “Akoto eong aite ecor konye mam eong ajeni eipone lo alosit. Aticepak ijo aingarakin eong? I want to see the lake but I don’t know the way. Is it possible you could help me?”

            “Mam acie. Aloto. No problem. We go.”

            The minutes turn into hours on my bike. One hour passes as the sun rises into the sky and the heat of the day brings sweat down my brow. Two fly by as Okwii and I converse about America, football (soccer), digging in the garden and why I’m not married (always a favorite). Three hours come and go as our conversation dwindles. By now, I’m covered head to toe with dirt as a result of sweat mixing with cattle trucks speeding by, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. I’m like an Orbitz commercial: orange in color save for my smile. **Ching**

            The guidebooks that list my village as a “fishing village” are full of bullocks. The lake, while near in proximity, takes three and a half hours to reach (by bike) because of the poor roads that zigzag feebly to honor land titles. Thank goodness I started running; my legs wouldn’t hold up otherwise. Okwii sees fatigue setting in and offers encouragement, “Elemuni oni abunere. We are nearly there.” As he finishes his sentence, I can see the lakeshore emerge on the horizon.

            It is a breathtaking view. Okay, in reality it is just another lake found in the world but to a man who grew up in a place known as “Lake-City-Lake” and now lives in one of a small handful of landlocked African countries, I felt curiously calm. I threw my bike down and ran to the shore, fully conscious that I was banned from jumping in on account of Bilharzia. Strangely enough, the three and a half hours of dust-filled journey to stand at the brink of water were totally worthwhile. I had changed my mood without coffee.


A good muffin can go a long way…

            I stand at the lake and gaze towards the unending water for a few moments before fisherman shout at me to join them in a small thatched hut. Now nearing midday, the sun is high in the sky and the workers take break until the heat gives way to late afternoon breezes and cooling temperatures. The shouting continues until they see me turn from the lake and make my way in their direction. Unsure of what welcome I will find, I take my time and brush dust from my clothes.

            “Inyo bo ikoto ijo ocor? Ingai bo irai ijo? What do you want at the lake? Who are you?” I often hear from people in my village that lake dwellers are suspicious people. The government enforces fishing laws rigorously on Lake Kyoga and fisherman often mistake visitors for government spies. I sit down in the middle of the hut on a wooden stool that rises only a few inches from the Earth and take a breath. It feels like a police questioning.

            “Arai eong Itesot, da. I am an Itesot, as well.” I figure it best to start with a joke, which works. Instantly, everyone doubles over in laughter when they hear me speak Ateso. I continue with my introduction and soon the men seem relaxed and begin asking questions not resembling a cross-examination. I realize it is after lunch and I left in the morning without breakfast, so I pull a Ziploc (thanks Mom!) from my Jack Spade (also orange, originally black) and offer a few muffins for the men to share. They seem weary of the food so I show them it isn’t poisoned by taking a bite. Moments later, crumbs litter the dirt floor of the hut.

            The fishermen of Mulondo were extremely warm and welcoming. I spent the majority of the day with them and went on the lake to experience their work. Half the canoe filled with water the moment it went into the water. I sat on the other end, away from any chance of schisto. After a quick how-to, I bid them farewell and started pedaling my way back from whence I came. Not two minutes passed before I heard someone shouting my name. “Omoding! Omoding! Idarak. Wait!

            I skidded to a stop and turned my bike around to find the secretary of the landing site running towards me with three great fish the size of footballs. “Koyanga agaria ngun orekon. Ejijim kwa ekonmugaati. Take these fish home with you. They’re delicious like your muffins.”

            And so I continued my ride home, three and a half hours, orange with dirt and smelling of fish but happy all the way.

Muffins don’t make themselves.

            The ride home (alone, Okwii made the journey earlier to get the fish to market) gave me time to reflect. Good and bad days happen no matter where we live. People are good and bad all over the world. If we let life be a reaction to things and people, we let others control our happiness. If we wait for happiness to come, we’ll probably wait for the better part of our lives, if not all. We must take control of our destiny and identity (however difficult) to find happiness. Without work, muffins couldn’t be delightful, so why do we expect life to magically become happy? So, yes, maybe muffins and Peace Corps (and beyond) are closer than I first thought.


Countdown to Home:

Days: 108

Craze: More so than anyone thought possible.

**ys: Yes, please.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Progressive Caddilac

A few weeks ago, a friend (and fellow volunteer) asked me to write an article for the Peace Corps Uganda Newsletter. Apprehension overcame and I procrastinated. The newsletter is a place to talk about your work to assist others with their projects. For me it is one thing to write a blog post, a general stream-of-consciousness; however, the word newsletter raises the bar. The safe route of “look at me and my glory” isn’t my style so I turned the ignition in my progressive Cadillac. Sure, the engine turned over a few times without a full start but the old friend started eventually.

An afternoon later, I finished my article (attached below) and felt the long-lost happiness of college when the long-awaited moment comes to press the “print” button. I’m still not sure if the newsletter will publish my piece, as it doesn’t hit the usual tone of contributions. Can’t win ‘em all.

This Tuesday, I sat down for lunch at a local eating joint: a small hut that serves millet bread and meat—this occasion brought the ever-so-tasty vertebrae of beef, a long shot from fillet. In between literacy with kindergarten and life skills with 7th graders, I began reading to pass the time. Mealtime is one of the only opportunities to read in public because it is culturally taboo to converse while eating, as it may induce choking episodes. However, the local director of an orphan project soon interrupted my reading.

Odongodia Bruce (pseudonym) runs an organization that welcomes muzungus around the world to come and work with his “kids.” Most come and build houses or churches or playgrounds, only staying a few days or a few weeks (max) before going back with the feeling of accomplishment and ties back to sponsored schoolchildren. “Hello. I’m sorry. I forgot your name?”

“Yoga, da. Biai bo ijo? Mam acie, ekakiror Omoding. Hello, as well. How are you? No problem, my name is Omoding,” I responded half-heartedly. Bruce is a traveled man and sees himself as a class higher than villagers. I didn’t wait for him to respond before gathering my book and Jack Spade to depart for a friend’s shop to wait out the remainder of break. However, after ten minutes, Bruce showed up at the shop buy a few things, sparking a discussion with other people about the failure of schools in the village.

“My kids in Kampala read at the level of a child in P7 here in the village. I think I will open my own school to show the teachers here how to properly teach. I go many places, you know. I see where education is going. I understand the turn towards the “global village,” he sighed.

I sat through the mini-homily, holding my tongue until he coined the term global village. “That is rubbish,” I began. “The children in the village can’t read English because their language of instruction is Ateso. They learn to read and write in their native language and in P3 they begin to learn in English. You can’t expect them to read at the same level as a child in Kampala because Kampala children speak English from birth. Their whole family does.”

The debate lasted a while, spanning issues of globalization, education, voyeurism of bazungu who come to Africa for a few days only to return and perpetuate the notion of “needy Africans”, international aid in Africa, etc. It attracted a crowd of people. I came away knowing my article exactly appropriate for the kind of person I am: an idealist. We don’t all have to be the same (language, appearance, education, morals) to come together. In fact, coming together with differences is the only authentic way to unite. If the same, there is no need to unite because we already are “one.” Enjoy the article.

One Nation, Many Cultures?

The first day of school is frightening for children everywhere: separation anxiety, friendship formation and the fabulous bejeweled lunchbox (or pencil case). With all this change, imagine entering a classroom that doesn’t reflect your culture or speak your language. In both America and Uganda, this is reality for countless students; however, our education systems differ in measures taken to guarantee culturally responsible education.

Before Peace Corps, I worked in a limited English proficiency (LEP) kindergarten with multiple languages represented. Mandated by the school district, I taught using English, struggling to reach my LEP students and constantly worrying whether I participated in the eclipse of their culture.

Historically, immigrants and Native Americans in the 1700s founded bilingual schools, teaching in mother tongue while learning English. These schools preserved oral traditions of many cultures.

The push for English-only education began with WWI’s “Americanization” of settler populations and continues today. According to the US Dept. of Education (NCES, 2006), 18% of schools offer bilingual programs, a rate that continues to decrease despite increasing LEP student populations (3.8 million in 2004). Furthermore, voters overturned bilingual education laws in California, Massachusetts and Arizona, which account for half of America’s LEP student population.

America’s turn away from bilingual education questions the nature of our society: is America a melting pot with a common national identity or a mosaic of people with distinct customs and cultures? Can culture exist after language is lost and, if so, is it the same or is some culture “lost in translation?”

Arriving in Uganda, I found the rollout of thematic curriculum: a progressive education policy mandating local language instruction for Primary 1-3. An attempt to reconcile my classroom guilt, I began working with local P1 classrooms, modeling participatory methods and introducing literacy activities. Instead of witnessing cultural empowerment, teachers struggled to reclaim their culture from Uganda’s educational roots.

Missionaries began Uganda’s formal schooling system. Whether they chose English because local languages were oral rather than literate or because they lacked the cultural integration Peace Corps holds in highest regard, I don’t know. However, until thematic curriculum, teachers relied on English methods for all content areas. Now, they must rediscover and teach their culture.

Teachers have trouble finding local language equivalents to English words. When curriculum calls for “traditional song” teachers look confused. They assert methods taught at colleges don’t prepare to instruct a culture; rather, to enact curriculum. Thematic sets a foundation that teachers must relevantly modify to pass onto students. Through community outreach and teacher collaboration, the process of reclaiming culture is now in progress.

Uganda’s past may be a picture of America’s future: an effort to construct a national archetype in the name of progress but at the cost of culture. I can only hope to bring back (and share) this country’s courage: the decision to lionize all 53+ cultures to preserve unique languages, practices and histories of the past and of the people. Ultimately, this is what education is all about: the people.

Statistics from: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2006). Public Elementary and Secondary Students, Staff, Schools, and School Districts: School Year 2003-04 (NCES 2006–307).