The big reason I ended up flying half way across the earth to visit Uganda is that I had a close friend living there as a volunteer and is ingrained in the culture. Marcy knows her way around, and was part of a community. I know through experience that this is by far the best way to get to know a place on in a short time frame.
The part of this adventure that left the biggest impression on me was meeting all of Marcy’s friends, co-workers, fellow PCVs, and living temporarily in a small village in East Africa. I felt as though most people visiting this part of the world end up in hotels that put up walls, and shield visitors from the gritty local scene, and then go on a game drive in a big Land Rover and, if they’re lucky stop in a small town to buy trinkets. It’s a tourist way of being in a place, and is something I will always try and avoid.
Marcy has some awesome friends. All of the PCVs I met were great. Its funny how some people and personality types are drawn to similar things. Since her group of 50 are there to support one another through the “roller coaster ride” of PC, many of them bonded quickly, so most times it’s like you’re with old friends. Each and everyplace I went with Mar to visit another volunteer was a real treat, as we got to meet their Ugandan friends, and be apart of their community for a bit. It was always fun to have questions asked about what America was like, and amusing to hear the preconceived notions of our country.
In Soroti, at St. Francis School For The Blind, I had a chance to meet all the sisters that ran the school, along with several teachers and support staff. Mar has become very close to several of her co-workers and we ended up hanging out with them at their homes. Each one cooked us dinner. Once again, even though we are visibly very different people, I felt as though we could have been with old friends. Marcy has said that, her Ugandan friends have had a huge impact on her persevering through the two years of service.
Two of Marcy’s closest friends on the school compound are Winnie and Magdalene, both staff members of St. Francis. One night we had dinner with Winnie. We visited Magdalene and her three year old, super-rad son Melvin several evenings. Melvin, after a full day of nursery school was usually asleep in bed, luckily he can sleep through anything! We had a mini-party and drank Ajon (a type of alcohol brew that I will explain later) one night, Melvin slept through it all.
The Sisters were extremely busy the month I was there, preparing for a countrywide sports competition for the visually impaired; St. Francis Secondary School was hosting the event. It wasn’t until the very end of the visit that I had a chance to sit and have a dinner with the Sisters. However, throughout the month I would meet each Sister individually in passing. The head teacher (principal) is Sister Winifred. She is a full on go-getter. She put in solid 15 hour days while I was there, and shows mass amounts of passion for her work. She has this great, “no bullshit, right to the point” way about her. This is rare in Uganda, as the culture tends to lend itself to beating around the bush, and an hour of small talk before getting to any point.
Sister Kevin is this wonderfully jolly woman. She has actually spent a fair amount of time in the US, at seminary, and is always smiling.
Sister Maurice is the “grandma” of the bunch. She has a wacky sense of humor that caught me off guard several times. One of the funniest memories I have, is sitting at the post sport competition banquet at the lions club. There was complimentary beer being served, and Mar and I felt a little awkward drinking in front of the students and Sisters. Sister Maurice grabbed 4 and put them in front of us. I remember thinking, she didn’t give us one a piece, no she gave us 2 each and kept trying to force more upon us, (she did the same with food). She is like an Italian grandmother, forcing excess upon us. Different places and people; same result.
I met another one of Marcy’s fellow teachers. His name is Agrey. He recently was married, and Marcy went to the wedding! He is a quiet, thoughtful man, and has a good knowledge of the world and even the US, probably more than most Americans. We ate dinner with his wife, and son, and talked about multiple topics such as the similarities between Ugandan’s educational system and curriculums with those of the US, we talked about cultural differences, the weather in Uganda compared to the states and so on. It’s such a cool experience hearing the differences in customs, systems and perspective that cultures have. Throughout most of these exchanges I always feel a sense of pain, and regret that Hollywood and the entertainment industry is America’s main cultural export, and is often written, sensationalized, made-up and fake. This greatly affects the way that others see us, and I feel it is such a distortion of our actual culture that always needs explanation. Frankly, it really sucks.
There are always kids playing outside of Marcy’s apartment, and the road is about 40 feet from her back window, so the sound of cars, bikes and people walking and talking permeate her rooms. I was surprised at how loud living in Madera is. In the very early morning, rooters, cows, humans, birds, dogs, chickens and numerous other livestock start their daily song. Sleeping in is not really an option. I observed all this for a full week because I was held up in the apartment finishing up a design project. My computer and a shortwave radio where my only companions as I cranked out technical drawings. Marcy was at work, but would pop in from time to time, and we often ate lunch together.
Another monumental experience was transport, and leaving the compound for various reasons. Whenever we needed to go to the market, get a solid internet connection, or Marcy had some commitment in Soroti town, we would need to catch a boda bike from Madera to Soroti town center about 2.5 miles (5K) away. Often this wasn’t a problem, but later in the afternoon, at night, or super early in the morning this would prove difficult since the boda drivers were busy; village “rush hour” if you will.
Once we where able to get a ride, we would be carried down the dirt road away from Madera, and about half way into the trip we hit the tarmac paved road leading into Soroti. Along the way we would pass several thatch roofed hut compounds, and some concrete walled houses. Often, from some hidden corner of a compound I would hear a child’s voice yell, “mazungu, mazungu!”, or “Teacher Marcy, teacher Marcy!”.
I can’t say I was ever comfortable with the idea of heading into town, or to the market alone, I felt more comfortable with Marcy. I am ashamed that I never conquered this fear, and stepped up to the challenge to navigate the area on my own. Part of it was that even with most Ugandan’s speaking English, I found it hard to hear through the accent, and the fact that with Mar around, it wasn’t absolutely necessary to go out on my own. I found it tough to feel comfortable on the street in Madrea or Soroti. This unfinished business will surely guide me back to this area of the world someday. I’m looking forward to it!