Monday, December 26, 2011

Our Twelve Days of Christmas

Merry *belated* Christmas everyone! Although this year our Christmas was very different than any other either of us have ever had, it was a good one! And though we haven’t been celebrating for exactly 12 days, we have managed to pack a lot of holiday spirit in despite our distance from home and everything “traditionally” Christmas!

Our first Christmas package arrived in early November - way to go for my thoughtful mom who plans so far in advance and a surprisingly dependable mail system! So, we decked our house out with Christmas lights, candles, ornaments, and mini stockings the weekend after Thanksgiving. We also started our ipod playing a shuffled Christmas playlist (consisting of Frank Sinatra, James Taylor, Michael Buble, and Sara Groves, among others) and made a schedule for ourselves to watch every Christmas movie we had at our disposal (starting with Elf at the beginning of the month and ending with It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas night)! We were determined to make it feel like Christmas despite the lack of snow!

This year we managed to have both American style celebrations, and some Ugandan ones as well. Although the American ones definitely felt more like what we think of as Christmas, it was good for us to experience both.

For our American Christmas fixes, we had a Christmas cookie baking party at our place the weekend before Christmas and also ate a special Christmas Eve lunch at a fellow PCVs house. Our christmas cookies *slowly* baked in our dutch oven over our charcoal stove (about six hours of baking for about three dozen cookies!) and we had a great time with other volunteers from the area cooking, decorating, talking, listening to Christmas music, and of course eating lots of cookie dough! Then, we had a Christmas eve feast at a nearby volunteer’s house. Her mom was visiting for Christmas and had brought tons of decorations as well as lots of traditional goodies - chocolate chips for cookies, canned green beans for casserole, etc. It was great to have time with our Ugandan family of PCVs and do things that made us feel Christmasy! We also did some traditional family baking - Lefse for Ryan and Wild Rice Soup and Pizza (with EVERYTHING from scratch) for me!

Now, for our Ugandan Christmas....

Christmas is undoubtably the biggest holiday in Uganda, but it manifests itself much differently than Christmas at home! It began for us almost exactly twelve days before Christmas, when we were in Kampala heading home after Camp BUILD. We had stopped by a big supermarket there (Kampala is the only place in the country with supermarkets that feel anything like shopping home!) and were stunned by what we walked into. We felt like we had walked into a Target in December at home - Christmas decorations everywhere, music playing, gift wrap for sale - it was crazy! It was a very strange experience to our senses - experiencing something that felt so much like shopping at home, yet being so far from home! This turned out to be an exclusively Kampala thing though, as no stores near us have had anything even remotely close, but it was fun (and a bit unusual)!

Once we got back to our village, rural Southwest Uganda was much the same as it had been in November. Barely anybody decorates for Christmas and, if they do, it’s done on Christmas eve! (Our favorite duka across the street had a christmas banner and one string of Christmas lights that went up for the day!). The biggest changes in the community start happening about four days before Christmas. All of a sudden, the price of everything skyrockets! When buying tomatoes at our weekly market, the woman gave us four small tomatoes for the price we usually get five large tomatoes for! When I asked why, she just shrugged, “Christmas!” Cost of transportation also goes through the roof. A trip to Kampala from our area that usually costs 20,000 schillings (about ten bucks) jumps up to 70,000 schillings (about $35!) It’s insane! But, it’s a must that everyone in the country goes “to the village,” so people just deal with the crazy week of inflation (with a lot of complaining, that is!) and head to their families and homes nonetheless. Some people even choose to bundle up their small motor cycles with their whole family and belongings and make the trip on the terrible roads cross country that way!

On Christmas eve morning we went out to the main road in front of our site, and were shocked by the bustle of activity. People were selling all sorts of vegetables, and there must have been more than a dozen carcasses of meat hanging around (where usually there are only scraggly parts of one or two cows). There were tables set up with scales for weighing the meat and with intestines and other various parts of the animal displayed for purchase. Everyone looks forward to eating meat at Christmas. For some, it’s the only time all year that they will have it! When I asked a local shopkeeper what he’d be doing to celebrate Christmas, he pointed out of the front of his duka to a goat, tied to a post chewing on some grass - an oblivious Christmas goat to be eaten in celebration. Our neighbor PCV who has a slaughterhouse in her “backyard” told us that over thirty people were in line with their animals there, with more waiting at the other end for their meat. Interestingly enough, the district neighboring ours to the east is having a meatless Christmas this year and everyone is very sad about it - there was an outbreak of anthrax in the livestock a few weeks back and as a result there is a three month ban on selling meat! In conversation about it, people seemed more disappointed about a meatless Christmas than the concern of anthrax in their community.

On Christmas Eve evening, we headed to the home of our college principal to celebrate Christmas with his family. They live in a village about an hour from where we live, and the principal has a small hotel business there. So, we met lots of family, ate lots of traditional food, tried our best to maintain conversations in local language, and practiced our perfection of the Ugandan “art of sitting.” We spent the night in his hotel on Christmas eve - a simple, yet very nice hotel. (The bathroom was outfitted with a sink, hot/cold shower, and a toilet, but no running water as of yet so a number of jerry cans as well!).

On Christmas morning we had breakfast with the family and prepared ourselves for the morning at church. The service supposedly started at 10 am, we left the hotel around 10:30, and it didn’t actually start until after 11. After we took our seats with the family, we were asked to move to a (more visible) spot near the front. We sat with our principal, who everyone in the church and family (including his wife) simply refer to as “The Principal.” Thus began the over four hour service, not a word of it in English! There was lots of singing with drums (none of the traditional songs we are used to at Christmas), lots of offerings (I lost count at the eighth but there were more!), lots of noting and celebrating people’s birthdays and other events, and about eight baptisms. Everyone was dressed to the nines - lots of sequence, plaiting, and flashy shoes! During one of the offerings, not only money, but mushrooms, pumpkins, tomatoes, a live rooster, and a live goat were brought up the aisle to the offering plate! That was a new one for us! The goat and chicken simply hung out on the stage for the remaining hour or so of the service (the whole time of which I was silently praying that they wouldn’t be slaughtered right in front of us!), then at the end of the service the items were auctioned off for the church.

Although we were actually much closer to a large town than we are in Bushenyi, people in the village were very astounded and interested to have Abazungu (white people) with them for Christmas. Although we enjoyed meeting new people and working on our local language, we were called out a lot, stared at a lot, and laughed at a lot. To be honest, it’s the kind of thing we experience almost every day we’re out and about in Uganda, yet it just is not fun on Christmas! The true light skinned American Christmas experience in Uganda....

After church we went to the “village” home of the principal, a nice plot of land with his first house, current house, mother’s house, brothers house, and banana plantation. The principal’s father was a local leader and husband to two wives, so a very respected and “fruitful” man. The principal had inherited the land when his father passed and had made a very nice home there. We ate a huge lunch: spaghetti, karo (a doughy breadish dish made from millet flour), matooke (mashed bananas), eggplant, pumpkin, chapatti (flatbread), rice, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, chicken, goat, beef, peanut sauce, beans, fruit, and peas with sodas to wash it all down! We had brought avocados from our tree and Lefse (a norwegian treat that Ryan and I successfully attempted with basically none of the tools!) to share. People at first thought the Lefse it was chapatti gone wrong, but once they realized that it was never meant to be chapatti, they really enjoyed it! :-) It was a crazy amount of food. Talking while eating isn’t really culturally acceptable, and each member of the family ate in a different place. So, it was a quiet Christmas lunch, but very nice and clearly a lot of effort to prepare! The principal and his family were very thoughtful hosts, and we really appreciated being able to spend the holiday with them!

After lunch we headed with the family to a party thrown by the family of one of the baptized babies. They had decked out their lawn with tents, ribbons, and (not just for weddings) wedding cakes. (So far we’ve seen the exact same cakes be used for weddings, baptisms, birthdays, and priesthood celebrations!) On the way we inquired when we would be driven back to Bushenyi, as we had been invited for “one” night and were prepared to stay for exactly that. The principal was very surprised, saying he’d planned us to stay another day or more at least. He said we must not have understood that in Uganda “one night” actually means many. So, there was some confusion but we made it home at the end of it!

Having survived our Ugandan Christmas, we ended the evening at home watching It’s A Wonderful Life and drinking hot chocolate! And thus wrapped up our 12ish days of Christmas in Uganda! A Christmas to remember no doubt!

Love and miss you all - especially at Christmas!


PS - We’ve been told that now begins a full week of drinking and “merry making” until new years, at the end of which everyone is so hurting for money that they sell all sorts of stuff. As a result, we’re hoping the next week we’ll be buying six hens (a new adventure we're embarking on that Ryan will have to write a post about soon)! The absurdly loud music into the morning hours started last night, so we’ll keep ya posted on how our resulting Hen acquirement goes! Happy New Years!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

New Pictures

Hi Everyone!

I uploaded a few more pics of what we've been up to to our facebook album. Click Here! The new ones are at the end of the album. A little holiday goodies and a new project we've been working on! (More on that later!)

And....MERRY CHRISTMAS! It's so hard to be away from family and friends this time of year, but thanks for keeping in touch and know that we are thinking of you and missing ya'll lots and lots!


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Building Things Up Ugandan Style

It seemed only fitting that as the snow has started falling in the Minnesota (sort of), we set-up our Christmas decorations, and the year draws to a close that we counsel at a summer camp. Well it was not exactly a summer camp, rather a holiday camp. A few days ago we wrapped up Camp BUILD. BUILD standing for Boys of Uganda in Leadership Development. The camp was organized and primarily supported by Peace Corps volunteers. It was the first time this camp has happened and it was run concurrently to Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). The camp focused on how to prepare the boys of Uganda to be effective and promising leaders for the future of this country. There were 137 boys from all over the country at the camp. Conveniently, because they were from all over the country their common language was English. For many of the boys it was their first time being at a camp, learning in more unique ways then just chalk-and-talk, and meeting boys from other parts of the country.

Both Emily and I were counselors for about 9 campers each. We greatly enjoyed working with the boys who were all between the ages of 12 and 15. I personally was never a huge fan of summer camps, and as such was nervous about being a counselor. But everyday I felt excited by the campers and energized by their spirit. Emily had two campers in her group that had impairments to their vision, which added some thought provoking challenges to planning activities that included all group members. So Emily had the pleasure of leading the Great Grey Tigers, whose group song went to the theme song “We are the Titans.” My group which for all intensive purposes was better then Emily’s group, she may not admit to this, was called the Super Eagles. The week had five themes so I will tell you a bit more about each day.

The theme for Day 1 was Building Yourself. Each day they had breakfast, then three sessions during the day, and then they did sports and other activities in the evenings. The first session on building yourself was about Self Esteem and Self Awareness. We talked about what each of them perceived as their strengths, and what things about themselves they like. The next session was about alcohol/drugs & debate. The campers learned the value of debating ideas with one another, and how this can make you a good leader. Finally, the last session of the day was a scavenger hunt and session on what makes a good leader.

Day 2 had the theme building your community. The first two sessions of the day were on domestic violence and violence in your school. We have had opportunities in the past to talk about domestic violence and caning in schools with Ugandans, but it is always eye opening to hear some of their perspectives. The biggest thing that I really tried to get across to my boys is to realize the future that they will lead does not and should not be the same as their parents. It is hard to get them to realize this sometimes when one person has lead your country for 25 years, but it was fun to get them to think about. Then in the afternoon there were two sessions on conflict resolution. Emily and I ran one of the sessions about techniques to avoid getting into harmful conflict, and what it means to build good conflict resolution. We also gave each group a scenario and had them make a skit to show both good and bad conflict resolution.

The third day’s theme was Build your Health. The first session of the day was on HIV/AIDS and Malaria. They were taught the facts about these diseases that are some of the leading causes of death in Uganda. The second session of the day was on water sanitation. During the water session they learned how to make a device called a tippy tap to wash your hands, and also how toilets work. The final session of the day was on reproductive health, hygiene, and condoms. Campers were glued to this presentation and had many questions about sex, condoms, and other similar issues. It was also really well set-up allowing each of the campers to try putting a condom on a fake penis. Emily talked about how this was especially helpful for campers who were blind. This session also opened up some good later discussions about sex and relationships. It always feels good to dispel some of the sex myths in Uganda (i.e. If you don’t have sex five times a week with your wife your penis will explode).

Day 4 was about Building your Environment. The day had two main activities. The first activity was to go to a Demonstration Farm, which was a PCV’s site. Here the students learned about how they could farm in ways that both help the environment and help them either health wise or in income generation. We learned about the value of having cows not graze (the cows might not agree), using organic methods to dispel pests, and how to conserve water and use drip irrigation. I learned a lot at the farm and it was probably the most exciting session for me, and I think the campers really found it informative as well. Then each of the groups got to walk to Lake Victoria. Very few of the campers had ever seen Lake Victoria before; many had never even left their home district before camp. So many just gazed out over the lake. One of Emily’s campers said, “It is the first lake I have seen with my own two eyes!” The rest of the day was restful after our long walk but we enjoyed watching a couple planet earth videos. A couple of evenings during the week we also watched a couple of American Boyhood favorites, that went a little over the heads of the Ugandans, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Wars IV.

The final day’s theme was Building Uganda. The day started with a sports day with Camp GLOW. Each boy group got teamed with a girl group to compete with. Overall the day was incredibly fun, and as Ugandans would put it, “It was very colorful.” We played tug-of-war, kickball, sack races, obstacle course, and maybe a few other things. People were very excited, both campers and counselors a like. After the events were over we had some speeches by the Camp GLOW director, PC Uganda Country Director, and the American Ambassador in Uganda. So the kids got a kick out of knowing that the Ambassador was the most important American in Uganda. When we returned back to Camp Build, which was just down the street at a Secondary school from GLOW, we enjoyed a final relaxing day. A couple volunteers lead a session on how you will become a successful leader. Then in the evening we had presentations of certificates (Ugandans live for their certificates) and also presentations of projects the students had been working on all week. Some of the activities that they did (which you will get to enjoy in our forthcoming vlog) were in drama, dance, music, creative writing, building (they built trebuchets), and art.

The final thing that we did on Friday was a dance party, which the campers loved. The second the music starts they are streaming onto the dance floor, it was a cute final thing. In the morning we all bid each other farewell, and boarded are buses. Overall we both really enjoyed the week, and I think it has lead us to being worn out since we returned on Saturday. But we found the camp to be one of the most exciting things we had done yet in our Peace Corps experience!

Happy Christmas/Summer Camp Season!


P.S. Here are a couple links for Camp Build:

Our Camp BUILD pics - a link to our facebook album from the week

Official Camp BUILD blog- a link to the blog that was put together before and during the week by the "media" staff from camp BUILD

Official Camp BUILD photos - a link to the "official" camp BUILD pics from the week, from the same people

World AIDS Day pics

If you're interested, click here!

Love you and miss you all!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Red Ribbons

Thursday we had a great opportunity to take part in a World AIDS Day Celebration! We traveled to Bukedea, in Eastern Uganda, and joined with three other PCVs there to help bring awareness about AIDS to the community.

In Uganda, AIDS is still a big problem. Although the prevalence among youth is decreasing, the disease is increasing among married couples. Additionally, despite the dramatic decrease in prevalence a few years ago, AIDS is once again on the rise in Uganda. The main reason for the rise in prevalence is multiple sexual partners and people not knowing their HIV status. So, all over the country, people were encouraged to know their status and practice the ABCs of AIDS prevention - Abstinence, Being faithful, and Condom use.

One of the PCVs in Bukedea had recieved a grant to faciliate the day and had lots of great activities planned. The day started (in typical Ugandan fashion - three hours late!) with a parade through town to mobilize the community! (We have never seen a parade in Uganda, so this was hugely exciting for us - let alone all the community members!) There is a youth band in the Bukedea community that led the parade through town marching and playing music. While we marched through town students handed out red ribbons and pamphlets of information about AIDS. People joined in and followed the parade to the site of the rest of the events. By the time we got to the event site, the crowd was huge - probably over three hundred people! And at one point, there were over a hundred children running along with the parade - so excited! Ryan and I couldn't stop smiling! :-)

Once we got back to the district office building, where the rest of the event was held, there was a program that included drama put on by local students, speeches by district officials and community members, music from a post-test club, and a condom demonstration by one of the local PCVs. The Ugandan theme for the 2011 World AIDS Day was "Reengaging leaders in the prevention of HIV." So, many of the local leaders spoke - urging their fellow community members to get tested and advocating for everyone's role in preventing the spread of AIDS. It was a full day of celebrating with the Bukedea community and bringing education and awareness to preventing a disease that has affected so many families in Uganda and around the world.

We enjoyed the chance to see another part of the country and partner with PCVs in this great event! We took lots of pictures and videos, and when we get home we'll be sure to upload them to share with everyone!

Today begins Peace Corps Volunteer led Camp BUILD (Boys of Uganda in Leadership and Development) and Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) in Entebbe. Ryan and I will be helping counsel at the Boy's camp all week and will certianly keep everyone posted on the exciting week when we get home!

We love and miss you all!

~emily & ryan~

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Video Blog #4

Hey Everyone!

Better late than never! Here's some videos of our sweet CarniBull day at the college! (For more info on the big event, check out this post!). Enjoy!

Also - I added a few more pics to our day to day album on Facebook. Click here if you're interested!

~ryan & emily~

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Best of Times

Serving in another culture really is the best of times and the worst of times. One of our volunteer friends says that every day is a roller coaster, and we have come to see that as truth! Though this week has definitely had some "worst of times" moments, today was the best of times! One of those - "THIS is why I'm here!" kind of days!

It has been an average, everyday kind of day - nothing too special. But we've had so many little moments that just affirmed our integration into the community and our purpose for being here that it just felt great! While we were in Bushenyi doing some shopping we had some great conversations with the shopkeepers in the local language. We didn't get called mzungus at all! The often rude Boda drivers were just funny and friendly today. We had a great time chatting at the market. We've had great conversations with our neighbors and college staff about some projects we are working on around the house. We had our counterpart and dear friend over for dinner and had a great couple hours of just talking and sharing with one another. It was a perfect day!

So, although we go through our ups and downs, and the blog sees lots of them both, just wanted to say that today was one of the best of times! You never know what a day will hold, but today was a great one! During college, I wrote this quote on my bed as the first thing I would see in the morning: "Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson. And I guess today was a reminder that despite yesterdays downs, today could and will be a great day!

Thanks for reading. Love and miss you all!


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Black Friday Alternative

Hey everyone! Me again!

So this Friday is the big black Friday shopping event, right? Well if you're looking for an alternative for some neat holiday gifts, here's an idea!

This is an etsy site that was created by another PCV in Uganda. She works with orphans and vulnerable children to make crafts, and all proceeds go towards continuing this work. Here's what she says in her bio:

I am a current volunteer in Uganda and am constantly learning from the amazing women around me and am happy to share with you what I have learned. My crafts are made of of beads, natural materials such as banana or palm fibers and seeds and upcycled fabrics.

Twerwaneho Orphans Community Initiative (TOCI) is located in Fort Portal, Uganda, and dedicated to helping orphaned children and children with special needs. Twerwaneho (pronounced "Twer-wan-eh-ho") means to work hard for ourselves and that is what I hope to teach the children here in Uganda, to work hard for themselves and then to help others. Each of the pieces of jewelry and craft are designed and handcrafted with love and made to help raise money for the children. I am happy to do special colors and custom orders.

All proceeds go directly to TOCI to support the orphans, vulnerable children and those with special needs.

She hopes to add more to the site in the weeks to come, but it might be a good place to look for a unique gift that will make a difference this season!

Love and miss you all,


Monday, November 21, 2011

Got Savings?!

Hey Everybody!

Hope all is well with you! Happy Thanksgiving! We are sad to be away from home on one of our favorite holidays, but hope that everyone has a wonderful time being together and celebrating the holiday! We are having some PCV neighbors over Thursday and plan to make mashed potatoes, vegetarian gravy, soy chunks (taste better than they sound!), bread, green beans, and pumpkin cake! So, it should be a good time, even though we can’t be home and celebrating with family there!

Things at the college are winding up for the year! First year students begin their exams in just a couple of days, and two weeks from now the year will be finished! We will be helping “invigilate” the exams for the first year students (3 days of exams, 6 hours of testing each day!), then our work at the college for the year will really come to a close! Outside testers are coming for invigilating the second year exams, and all marking of the exams is done outside of the college at a national marking center. Hard to believe we’ve basically finished our second of a total of 6 terms here at the college!

Even as things are winding up for the year on our primary projects, we’ve started another really exciting secondary project! We are working with thirteen local businesspeople and community members to set up a VSLA (village savings and loan association), and we are so excited about it!

In Uganda, a very small percentage of people use banks. They have high fees and are inaccessible for much of the population. As a result, microfinance is big. There are microfinance institutions in every town we’ve visited and many people use them to take out loans. However, even microfinance doesn’t work for most lower class businesspeople and community members, as many people don’t have much credit or “reliability” from a traditional banking standpoint, and again interest rates and fees are high.

The VSLA is a response to all of this. It’s an opportunity for community members to come together to save with one another each week, and grant out loans to one another each month. It’s wonderful because all of the money comes from the people in the group and stays within the people in the group. Interest is charged on the loans, but is payed back into the group so that at the end of the saving cycle (about a year) whatever interest has accumulated on the loans is paid back to the members based on the percentage of the total that they have saved. It’s a really exciting model that encourages sustainability and community togetherness, and doesn’t rely on outside grants or mzungu money! :-) So, we’re in the midst of the beginnings of our first group. So far the group has gotten organized, elected leaders, written an constitution, and collected all of the necessary supplies. The plan is that the group will begin saving with one another in the next week or two.

The VSLA model was started by an NGO in Uganda and has now expanded into other countries as a banking option for poor communities. So far it seems to be exactly what Uganda needs and we really hope that it can fill the need for savings and accessible loans in many of our community member’s lives. There is a great manual that’s walking us through as facilitators and tons of details about the VSLA project that I won’t bore everyone with here! But, if you’re interested you should google VSLA or check out It’s a really exciting opportunity and we think it has great potential for communities like ours in Uganda and other countries in similar savings/loans positions.

So, that’s something we’ve been excited about in the last few weeks and will definitely keep you posted about in the weeks and months to come!

Love and miss you all!


Monday, November 14, 2011


Hi Everyone,

I added a couple of pictures to our "Life In Bushenyi" album. Nothin' too special, but check them out if you like! Click Here!

Love and miss you all!


Monday, November 7, 2011


Hey Everybody!

November at home means crisp leaves, cold air, football games, and upcoming holidays! We’re still in the heart of the rainy season these days in Uganda, but we’re also heading into two other exciting Ugandan seasons - exam season and grasshopper season!

First - the lighter of the two - it’s grasshopper season in Uganda! Just to be perfectly clear, grasshopper season means the season for eating grasshoppers! It’s a time of year literally everyone looks forward to! In certain parts of the country grasshoppers are jumping around everywhere in plague-like proportions and people have set up lights to attract the grasshoppers and enormous bins underneath the lights to collect them. The collected grasshoppers are then delegged, salted, and deep fried. They are sold in markets and on the bus for about 20 cents per bag. This weekend while traveling back from Kampala, the bus merchants usually selling meat on a stick, grilled bananas, and sodas had bags and bags of deep fried grasshoppers as well! Ryan was brave enough to try them, but I was not (I prefer grasshopper mint cookies!!). He ate the whole bag (probably more than 50 of the little guys!) like it was no big deal while I watched, totally grossed out!!! When I asked him if he’d get them again his response was short and sweet - “definitely!” So, with another exciting food under his belt, my dear husband can say he has tried a Ugandan favorite snack food! I am, however, still blissfully ignorant of the crunch of the grasshopper! :-)

The other big season that everyone is obsessing about right now is the big exam season. Exams are HUGE in Uganda, and the entire country takes the same standardized exams at the same time. The Ugandan school year runs from February to December, so exams are all beginning now that we are in the final month! The exams started in the last couple weeks and everyone, including our students, are all abuzz about them!

Ugandan students take a number of exams throughout their schooling years. At the end of each year of school there is a big promotional exam that determines their ability to pass to the next level of schooling. Beyond the promotional exams, students also take a number of really large exams that to a certain degree determine their future possibilities and thus have a lot of importance! Those “biggies” are the PLE, the UCE, and the UACE.

At the end of primary school in P. 7 (like our 6th grade) they take their PLE (primary leaving exam) to assess their primary learning and determine their further schooling options. If they go on to secondary school, they take another big exam (the Ugandan Certificate of Education exam) after completing their first four years (O level). (Most of our PTC students come to us after completing this level). But, if that goes well and they have the funds to continue with secondary school they move on to A level and finish their two years there with the Ugandan Advanced Certificate of Education exam. With a population of 32 million people and half under the age of 15, you can imagine just how many Ugandan kiddos are stressing about exams as we move into November.

As you move around the villages and towns, signs posted everywhere ask for silence because exams are in progress. Radios are talking about the exams. Strangers in taxis are all talking about them - it really is a phenomenon!

And, the exam frenzy has not passed by the Bushenyi PTC students. The last few weeks have been a time for a great deal of studying (or revising, as they call it!) and much talk about what the exams will hold. Our first year students are gearing up for the promotional exams that will determine if they can return to school in February, and our second years are working on the big ones - their final Grade III Teacher Certification Exams. From what we can figure out, the exams will start in about two weeks, and by the first weekend in December everything should be completed. Results come out in late January or early February, after which those passing students can begin work as primary teachers, or return to school for their second year of PTC studies.

The whole exam craziness is a bit of a stressor for us to. It’s hard to know how to help our students be prepared, but still work to develop critical thinking skills in the midst of it. Many of our students only want us to tell them past exam questions and answers, and absolutely refuse to do any higher level review. (i.e. the discussion groups I tried to facilitate today were an absolute disaster!!) It’s also hard because many tutors aren’t going to classes, and the ones that are seem to be teaching a quicker version of everything they have taught over the entire year. Even considering “cultural sensitivity,” I simply can’t bring myself to do this! I’ve had a lot of time thinking about this working in Title One schools in the states, and my philosophy is that the time before a test should be more of a spruce up on things that should already be known, and not a mad blitz to reteach everything in a shallow and test-focused manner. I know it’s the same debate that goes on in America - should we teach to the test or trust that the good teaching we’ve been doing all year will by its very nature prepare our students. Add to it the “only one right answer” mentality of so many Ugandans and its a bit of a mess.

Then, there’s the discouragement I know every teacher faces at one point or another in realizing that all the work they have done appears to be a complete loss and nobody seems to have gotten anything from it! An example - today I went to teach my Special Needs Education classes and tried to foster some reflection on what they had learned about SNE and what they thought about the current status of SNE in Uganda. I got very few people to give me any sort of inkling that they had learned a thing from me all term, and the most enthusiastic students could only come up with this: they think teachers who teach children with disabilities should be paid extra salary and should not have to work with them if they do not want to. (Thus, completely going against everything have tried to help them understand over the past six months!)’s a bit of a challenge.

Then, there’s the aspect of the scores. According to the university that regulates the exams, a student can pass and become a primary teacher by achieving a minimum score of 50% in each of the examinable subjects. This means that we are passing students who may know exactly HALF of what they should know! It’s especially alarming because every bit of content on these exams is covered through teaching the national syllabus, so in theory it would be possible and even reasonable for students to get very high scores! It’s hard to see a lot of hope for a struggling educational system when we begin to understand the cycle of poor teaching and unprepared teachers.

But, in all of it, we’re doing what we can. I keep trying to remember “We Are Marshall” and trusting that more got through to the students than they are letting me see on the surface. There’s a wonderful sustainability in teaching in that even if few people actually learned, more than just cramming for exams, those few people could actually reach hundreds, or thousands of kids during their time as a teacher. So, it’s good to keep that in mind as the exam craziness threatens to make us feel a little down about our work here so far.

So, that’s what’s on our minds these days - salty grasshoppers and stressed out students! Hope you are all well and enjoying the final days of fall! We love and miss you all!


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

CarniBULL!!! (+ Pictures!!!)

We have just finished a crazy fun day at Bushenyi PTC! We are really exhausted and sunburned, but happy! I want to tell you all about it!

First, a little background...this is the final term in the Ugandan school year, and our PTC students will take their final teacher exams in about a month. Our second year students just returned from their final student teaching practice and now are focused on preparing for their pen and paper exams. Their final score is a combination of the practical (student teaching) and theoretical (pen and paper exam) scores. The students last year passed at a rate of over 99% - a real victory for the college! Before they took their exams last year, the principal had promised them a bull if they received great scores. (Seriously - a real bull - to be slaughtered, chopped up, and eaten). However, once the scores were published the students had already “graduated,” gotten jobs, and dispersed. So, alas, no bull to be had.

So, this year the principal decided that he would preemptively offer the students a bull in anticipation of their great scores. So, he proposed we create a day to celebrate them and have them all commit to getting a great score on the upcoming exams. We both thought this was a fabulous idea, as the students here don’t seem to get celebrated enough! So - we were all in for the event! And...I got put on the committee for planning it!

Being on a committee in Uganda is not as glamorous as it sounds. More often than not, the committee never meets, and when it comes up in conversation later, those who have been assigned to it usually have forgotten all about it. As Uganda has turned me into a vegetarian, I wasn’t super excited about helping out with the slaughter and butchering of a bull. I had a feeling nobody else would participate in the planning, so I decided to try to take matters into my own hands.

After a little brainstorming with Ryan and our PCV neighbor Jean, I decided it would be fun to have a carnival type of event with games to enjoy rather than spending a day watching a bull die and listening to incredibly long speeches! So, I wrote up a little proposal and submitted it. About a three weeks later (after multiple rescheduling!), the committee finally met and we discussed the plan for the day. Although, as it turns out, there was still a bull slaughtered and plenty of long speeches, we also had a morning of carnival games, a “drive in movie” outside after dinner, and a lot of fun!

Since the day was all about the “bull,” I thought it would be cute to try to organize my carnival games around the bull theme - a carniBULL! The play on words didn’t pan out too well, as carnival is not a word that Ugandans know, but I enjoyed thinking of my cleverness throughout the day and I think my fellow Americans thought it was funny too (Thanks Jean and Ryan)!

Our “carnibull” turned out to be a sort of cross between a carnival, elementary school field day, and a seven year old’s birthday party. We had to work with a really limited budget, local materials, short prep time (by the time everything got approved we only had about 4 days to get it all put together!) and the reality of trying to explain each new game to our large amount of students. So - simple, cheap, and fun was in order! We decided on pin the tail on the bull, “bullseye” bean bag toss, 3 legged race, waterballoon toss, musical chairs, human tic tac toe, and a “bottle” race for the events of the day. And, since we weren’t sure of how engaged the students would be, we decided to make the day into a sort of competition between classes. We even made a paper mache bull pinata to be given to the winning class! Almost all of the games were completely new to our students and they absolutely LOVED them! We were a little worried, since nobody in America over the age of seven would be interested in playing games like pin the tail on the bull and musical chairs, but there was no need for us to worry! The fact that the games were new and fun was enough to keep the students excited and interested! There was so much laughing and cheering (and a surprising amount of competitiveness considering the caliber of the games!) - it was a complete blast!

It was also a fair amount of craziness, despite Ryan and my best efforts to be our organized and punctual American selves. We ran the carnival for 460+ people almost completely by ourselves! The microphone that was promised to come never did, the tutors who had volunteered to help didn’t show up, the deputy principal in charge of overseeing the whole event was MIA all day, we had to start about 45 minutes late because protocol requires that no event can begin without an opening word from the “big man,” and the language barrier all created for somewhat difficult communication. But, the kids loved it, and Ryan and I learned another lesson in our continuing Ugandan education on flexibility and going with the flow! When I began to get stressed with the details of it all and my disappointment in the lack of involvement from my fellow Ugandan staff members, all I had to do was look around and see the incredible amount of joy on the students’ faces, and it was all absolutely worth it. It was a great success!!!

In the afternoon we ate a big traditional lunch, had singing and speeches, and had all the students sign their commitment to working for success on banners I had made. There was a brief “social hour” (dance!) before dinner, and a “drive in” movie showing of Invictus in the evening (for those of you who don’t know me well - I LOVE outdoor in movies! So....given the chance I had to introduce them to my students in Uganda!!). All in all, I think the students were excited and felt celebrated, and we were happy to be a part of it all!

We know the students had a blast during the event, and we’re also hoping it gave them ideas that they can take into their primary schools when they are teachers. We wanted to give them some creative ideas how with basically no money and limited supplies, lots of fun can be had! And - I think that came through too!

Although I’ve written all about the day, I think that the pictures and videos from the event really do a better job than my words! So, here’s a link to my facebook album from the day (CLICK HERE!), and a carnibull video blog is in the works! Enjoy!

Thanks for reading! We love and miss you all!


Sunday, October 16, 2011

We Are....Peace Corps

Our portable hard drive has proved to be one of the best things we brought with us to Uganda. The dozens of movies and TV shows we brought or acquired since we've been in country have been an absolute gift on nights when we just felt like vegging out and watching something. Since the sun sets every night around seven and we aren't supposed to be out after dark, some nights get long with not a lot to do! While we love reading, playing games, cooking, and talking, sometimes it's just nice to have a movie and popcorn! Thanks to our hard drive, we've seen some great new TV shows (Modern Family!) and movies, and loved watching some classics as well! (Sound of Music last week!)

Last night we scoured the hard drive and chose a movie that Ryan had seen before coming to Uganda, but I had not - We Are Marshall. While I am not a huge sports movie fan, I do enjoy a "feel good underdog" movie every now and then. Before watching the movie, I actually had no idea even the basic premise of the movie. (As evidenced by the fact that as the football team got on the plane that would ultimately crash and result in everyone's death, I was talking about how exciting it must have been to get to take a plane trip with all your friends and teammates! Ryan looked at me and said, "Do you not know what this movie is about?!" Ooops!) But, as it went on, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how the movie would progress: tragedy hits small town, unlikely coach steps up to lead a ragtag group of players, despite adversity they succeed with unprecented sucess, and all live happily ever after. I realize this may be an oversimplified view, but it's the jist of movies like this, right?

We Are Marshall surprised me though! Although it had some of the typical twists and turns I have come to expect (and, in all honesty, really enjoy!) of such movies, the end was a surprise. For those of you who haven't seen the movie recently, it ends with a back and forth game that results in a crazy pass and the first win of the season for the team. The town rallies behind them and different characters come to terms with their grief from the tragedies they have suffered. It's a good ending! But, before the credits roll, a bit more information is shared about the Marshall University Thundering Herd's success that year. After the exciting win that ends the movie, the team went one to win.....drumroll please....only one more game! No big championship, no great victory, just one more win. In fact, they didn't become a very notable team until more than a decade later. By that time, the coaches who had led the return of the Marshall Football program were long gone, the players had all graduated, and the town had moved on from the shadow of the 1970 plane crash. got me thinking about Peace Corps. While I think many volunteers hope that as they move around the world to serve communities in need, they will indeed have an experience worthy of a "feel good underdog" movie. And, undoubtedly, some of them do! But, for the majority of us, our service may only result in one or two wins - no great championships, no shiny trophies. But, I think it's important for us to remember that those one or two wins really are huge! Just as the Marshall Football team cherished those two wins as a chance to get their football program back on its feet and help a town recover from tragedy, our one or two "small" Peace Corps wins might make a world of difference to the people we live and work around, and to our lives as well!

The coach of the new Thundering Herd football team, Jack Lengyel, only coached at Marshall from 1971-1974. In that time, he racked up a 9-33 record. Now, I'm no football whiz, but that's not a great record. Yet, he laid a foundation that would ultimately lead the team to greater victories many years later.

We will be Peace Corps volunteers from 2011-2013. Who knows what our win-loss record will be by the time we will leave. I guess we will have to hope for those one or two wins, and realize that after we head home we may leave behind the foundation for greater things in years to come. It's comforting to know that even if our service doesn't result in a "feel good underdog movie," we can still have confidence that we're doing good work that will have an impact, despite its challenges.

So...after finishing We Are Marshall last night, I felt inspired! And I thought I'd share some of that inspiration with you!

Thanks for reading! Love and miss you all!


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Another New PTC Adventure

Well Term III in the Primary Teachers College world is full of many turns which we are finding as they seem to happen. The latest has been school practice, or student teaching. It started basically last Friday. They had planned a “brief”ing (can it still be called brief if it goes over 3 hours) to happen on school practice. So we waited all day for this briefing to happen and then at about 5 a student came to inform us it would be at 8 in the evening.

The briefing was basically last minute do’s and don’ts to the students. It is interesting because the tutors seem to think that they need to give the students an answer for every single question they may have out in the field. Rather then just teaching them critical thinking skills to find their own answers to questions. So we went over seating arrangements, learning aids, proper PE uniforms (for the majority of the briefing), how to write capital and lower case letters, and many other things. Every tutor had to be sure to include his or her input (even if their input was the same as the last tutors). Emily talked about how these students had the ability to change the teaching profession, and not just reciprocate what their teachers were like. So if their teachers were not on time, they could be. If their teachers caned them, they do not need to cane. If their teachers humiliated them they did not have to do the same to their students. They were all very excited and encouraged by what she said, especially since most of them were asleep before she came up.

The next day the students were ready to leave by 7 am for the schools. They slowly trickled out throughout the day, and the last group left around dinnertime. The schools do not provide anything for them so they have to take it all with them. When I say all that consists of: their boxes for clothes, mattresses, flour (for Posho and Porridge), beans, paraffin, and wood for cooking with. They loaded everything up and off they went.

This week we have been getting to observe them out at their primary schools, which has been really fun. So each morning we pile into the school truck and get dropped off at the various primary schools. Emily and I have been getting to go together, which it has been nice to bounce ideas off of one another. Each day we get there basically right as the school day is starting and make a plan with the 10 to 12 second year students that we will observe. Then most of the day is spent sitting in the back of the classroom watch how they do and looking through their lesson plans. Then after we are done observing the student teach a 30 to 40 minute class we meet with them to discuss our observations, and their reactions.

So far we have loved getting to build more one-on-one relationships with the students that can often be hard to do when they are all at the college. Some of the common mistakes or areas of concern we have seen are: not knowing effective alternative discipline techniques, variety in teaching methods, and not engaging students very effectively in the classroom. The things that we find the find most hopeful for our students are that they are excited to teach, their classrooms are very well organized, and almost all seem to really enjoy their students. So overall we have been very encouraged with were are students are at, and really enjoy getting to see them teach.

We were a little worried that two mzungus (white people) would cause a huge disturbance at these primary schools, and most of the time it doesn’t. You always have at least a couple students looking at you in class, but usually they are not always the same students. But our students always come right up to us when we get there and greet us and that makes us feel right at home. We have about 2 or 3 more weeks of school practice, and then the students will get graded by the national moderators for school practice. So hopefully these weeks of teaching will get them confident going into teaching jobs in just a few more months (some could have jobs as soon as February)!

Well I hope you all are doing well back in the US, and we hope that you are enjoying your fall!



Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bushenyi Gourmet

Cooking in Uganda is a lot more work than at home! At least, it is if you want to eat things other than Ugandan food every meal of every day. One of the things I had a hard time believing when I first got to Uganda was that most Ugandans eat the *exact* same meal every meal of every day from the time they are babies until the time they die! They can’t fathom that when they ask us what Americans eat we have a hard time giving them a short and concise answer! A Ugandan meal generally consists of 2-3 starchy things like matookye (cooked, mashed bananas that are not yet sweet), posho (flour and water made into a sort of dough and cooked), or karo (millet flour mixed with water) and some sort of sauce - usually either beans, peanut sauce, or meat. Although it maybe sounds interesting as I describe it, imagine never having any variety! Needless to say, Ryan and I and our American appetites for variety were more than ready to get cooking for ourselves once we got to site!

And, it’s been an adventure. Despite not having an oven, microwave, dishwasher, kitchen aid mixer (i miss you...), blender, (you get the picture) we’ve managed to make some really great dishes! Deep dish chicago style pizza, fresh french bread, falafel, and more!

But I will say, there are a lot of differences between cooking here and at home! The first is the ingredients available. By far my favorite part of being in Uganda so far is going to the market. I love the community feeling there, talking with my favorite vendors, and seeing all the great veggies and fruits! Every week we stock up on fresh, locally grown tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, green peppers (apparently nobody has yet realized they will change colors if you leave them on the plant!), potatoes, passionfruit, pineapple, and bananas. I absolutely love it! If you want to eat meat you either have to be okay with the giant carcasses hanging around, or kill the thing yourself, so we’ve been eating vegetarian since we’ve been at site! So, there is an endless supply of great vegetables, but no HyVee to stock up on other “necessities.” For example, just to get cheese we have to travel 2 hours round trip, pay about $10 in transport, and spend more on the cheese than we spend on any other item in our kitchen! (It should be said, however, that these hurdles can’t keep us from our monthly cheese splurge!!! I am my Wisconsinite father’s daughter!)

Another challenge we have succeeded in overcoming is adapting to not having an oven. We have been able to improvise pretty well with a dutch oven - 2 big pots on top of each other on top of our charcoal stove (sigeeri). Although it takes longer and there is minimal temperature control, it works! We’ve made fresh breads, cakes, brownies, and even chicago style deep dish pizza (everything - sauce, dough, cheese - from scratch!!!) It’s pretty nifty and we hope to show some of our neighbors all the neat things they can make with their very own dutch oven! Here's a picture of Ryan with our dutch oven and a pizza inside!

Another fun aspect of cooking here is the unanticipated surprises that can be hiding in your food and beverages! Because of different bacterias and parasites, we only drink boiled water. Each day when our milk comes, it gets boiled too. And we are not supposed to eat any vegetables without first thoroughly cooking them. Needless to say, there is no such thing as “fast” food here!

So, we can easily spend an entire afternoon or more working on dinner for the evening! Take, for example, a simple bean and vegetable chili and side of bread. Because the beans are not sorted, you first have to sort through each and every bean to get rid of the grass, sticks, rocks, and other strange things that come along with your beans when you buy a kilo of them at the market. In this picture, you can see the amount of strange nonedible objects in a cup of dried beans. Unless fresh beans are in season, you have to soak the beans overnight so they are ready to use. When it comes time to add the veggies, everything is fresh. At home we’d often resort to canned veggies with our busy schedules, but here we chop up all of our fresh veggies by hand! Then, since we usually like to have some sort of bread product as a side, that gets made from scratch too. The only bread products around here are really dry gross loaves of bread that I would never eat at home! So, we often make homemade pitas or fresh bread to accompany our meals. And, since there’s no rapid rise yeast here, anything we make takes at least 4 hours from the time we start it to the time it comes out of our dutch oven! Luckily, the 40+ hour work week hasn’t yet arrived in Uganda, so we have time to enjoy cooking and savoring all the different steps that go into making a great meal!

I regularly look at those really neat recipe blogs to get good ideas of vegetarian meals for us to eat, and while it’s inspiring, it can also be discouraging! There are so many more ingredients available and nifty kitchen gadgets that we just don’t have! So, we improvise and pretty much anything we come up with is a huge improvement from Ugandan cuisine 24-7.

So, I’m going to try to take an attempt on a one time recipe blog - Bushenyi style! So, here’s one of our favorite semi-Ugandan recipes and how to make it! Incidentally, the stew is also what my Mom served at our going away party! So, enjoy!

Ugandan Groundnut Stew and Homemade Pita Bread (serves 4 hungry PCVs)

Groundnut Stew:

1 onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
4-5 medium tomatoes, diced
2 small carrots, chopped
1-2 large green pepper, chopped
5 medium potatoes, diced
1 tsp. red pepper flakes (more if you like some heat!)
1/2 c. peanut butter (or, if you’re adventurous, 3/4 cup roasted peanuts, crushed)
2 cups of water or broth
1 tsp salt, or to taste

Add everything to a large pot and stir! Let simmer about one hour, or until veggies are soft and stew is desired consistency.

Homemade Pita Bread

- 1 1/2 t. regular yeast
- 7 oz. of warm water
- 3 t. sugar
- 1 t. salt
- 2 1/2 c. of flour, as needed

Proof yeast by dissolving yeast and sugar in warm water. Let sit until bubbly (should bubble in less than ten minutes). Add salt and flour, mixing slowly until most flour is incorporated. Turn dough into floured surface and knead for 10-12 minutes. Add more flour whenever the dough becomes too sticky to handle. Oil a bowl, cover dough, and let rise until doubled, about an hour. After first rising, punch down dough and divide into eight golf ball sized balls. Let rise again, 45 minutes or until doubled. After doubled, roll each ball into a flat round. Fry on a dry griddle until bubbles form, flip, fry until browned. Serve hot.

Bon Appetit

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Wedding Ugandan Style

A few weekends ago Ryan and I had the opportunity to go to our first Ugandan wedding! I put a few little clips of the reception in our most recent video blog, but I thought it would be fun to tell you a little bit about it as well.

We were invited to this wedding because the groom was a nephew of the family we lived with during our PST near Kampala. So, while we were back visit our host family during our IST training, we found out about the big event. There was a big extended family get together that we were a part of, and one of the brothers of the groom showed up with a plastic shopping bag chock full of invitations. He started writing them out on the spot to everyone - even people who weren’t related. Ugandan weddings are a big, the more the merrier type of event. So, we said we would be there! We were excited to be seeing our host family again so soon, and to be able to be a part of our first weddign in Uganda! When I asked my host sister what is usually worn to the wedding this was her response, “It really doesn’t matter, but you have to look fabulous!!!”

Before the big weekend came, we realized we would need to figure out a gift for the couple. Not knowing them at all, and having no Target registry to fall back on, we asked some of our coworkers at the college what kinds of gifts are traditionally given. Surprisingly, the first answer each of them gave was “glasses.” So, we wandered into a duka that seemed to have a lot of glasses and asked what a nice wedding present would be. We ended up picking out a tea set for two and were able to get it wrapped for about twenty five cents right then and there! Gift shopping - done!

When we arrived at what we thought was the church, we didn’t see anyone we knew. Our host family had planned to rent a bus (seriously) to drive them all from Kampala to Mbarara for the big event, but apparently they had not yet arrived. As we walked tentatively towards the church, we saw that there was a wedding already in progress. Having never seen the bride and groom before, we figured the wedding we were attending must have already started, despite the time the invitation had stated (time is so relative here!). As we began to walk into the sanctuary, someone asked us who’s wedding we were trying to attend. When we told them the names, they ushered us back out of the church and told us that that wedding was the next one in line. So, the current bride and groom processed out, and a few minutes later our wedding started! And, shortly after our bride and groom walked down the aisle another bride and groom were waiting for their ceremony to start! Our host aunt told us that no weddings occur during lent because it is supposed to be a period of mourning, so the rest of the year is chock full of weddings. She said some churches will have four or five weddings in them in one Saturday!!!

Ugandans have two events related to the wedding and each is a little different. The first is called an introduction ceremony. This takes place before the wedding and is hosted by the family of the bride. It’s a really cultural event where everyone wears the traditional dress, gives gifts like cattle and goats (and even houses sometimes!) and it goes on literally ALL day. This ceremony is the time when the bride is “introduced” to the grooms family, and culturally, the bride and groom are committed to one another. We haven’t been to one of these yet.

Then, the later event is the actual wedding. The wedding is hosted completely by the groom’s family. This was what we went to that weekend. I was surprised how similar it was to a traditional American wedding. They had five bridesmaids and groomsmen decked out in gowns and tuxes, the bride wore a white dress and veil, they did the vows, the rings, the readings, etc. They had a crazy photographer and crazy videographer who were all over the place taking pictures and distracting the guests from the real event. If it weren’t for the lack of English being spoken we might have thought we were at a wedding at home! The only really big differences we saw were 1) they took an offering, 2) There were a couple of pews worth of “mothers” and “fathers” who all were seen as the responsible party in raising the children to be married (it takes a village!), and 3) the bride and groom never kissed. Public displays of affection between couples are really frowned upon here, I guess to the extent that even the newlyweds shouldn’t be seen kissing in public!

After the wedding we headed to a huge reception at the home of a friend of the family. Their backyard was completely decked out with a stage, tents, ribbons, archways, flowers, etc. It was a sight! We started with eating (we were told by an aunt that the Ankole people always eat first!). On the menu: the traditional special occasion Ugandan meal - Matookye (mashed ripe bananas), groundnut (peanut) sauce, rice, meat, cabbage, beans, and fruit. Everyone got a soda, and there were jerrycans full of local brew waragi every where. Then, while everyone ate, traditional dancers entertained us. The bride and groom processed in and danced around a bit. Various family members from the crowd jumped on stage and joined in the dancing. There were lots of speeches, and a big cake cutting! After the cake was cut, the bridal party walked around with huge platters with chunks of cake (not pieces, chunks!) and everyone just grabbed one with their fingers. Another funny aspect was that as the reception was going on, the photographers walked around selling photos they had just taken of the bride and groom at the wedding and before hand. So, no favors but if you wanted you could leave the reception with your very own wedding photos!

All in all, it was a great big event with lots of joy and celebrating! One aspect of Ugandan culture that has been clear to us right from the beginning is the importance of family. This wedding definitely confirmed it - the whole entire extended family rallies around to celebrate and support the union of the bride and groom. It was a great event and a great time to be a part of our Ugandan family!

Thanks for reading!


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Today was one of those no-good-very-bad days. It didn’t involve getting stuck with the blue pair of shoes (is that how the story goes?), but it was something of a crummy day nonetheless. I woke up with what felt like a big cold coming on - sore throat, stuffy nose, you know how it is. I wanted to stay in bed, but instead had to proctor a three hour mock exam for our second year students. (Incidentally, instead of the word proctor, they use the word “invigilate” here - sounds way more exciting than it is!). Then, while at home making lunch, our gas tank ran out. This meant that: 1) we had to eat a flavorless lunch of posho and beans again and 2) we would have to pay 90,000 schillings (about $40) to get a new one and carry the super heavy tank to the petrol station and back. After walking to the petrol station we found that they had increased the price of a gas refill and we didn’t have enough money to buy the refill. So, I rushed back home to get more cash and, in my rush, I slipped and covered my favorite pair of birkenstock sandals in thick, nasty, mud. Back at home, some men appeared in our backyard to let us know that they were disconnecting our water due to nonpayment of our bills. As it turns out, the college has not delivered any of our water bills to us and, subsequently, the water at our home has not been paid for in over four months. Oops! We hoped to relax and get some things done around the house in the afternoon, but instead I got called in to invigilate yet another exam for a tutor who, for whatever reason, didn’t show up to do his job. This meant that in the last two days I had “invigilated” (aka watched with overpowering boredom) twelve hours of mock exams!

But, then, in the midst of small talk with one of my Ugandan coworkers I was forced to think about my situation in a whole new light. I asked if he had gotten his children off to school for the new term, but he said that he had not. Unfortunately, he could not send them back to school because he did not have the money to afford school fees. The reason he could not afford school fees was that his salary from working at the college had not been paid since April. APRIL! He has been getting by, supporting a family, with absolutely no income for over four months!!!

It’s amazing how a five minute chat can make a no-good-very-bad day seem like nothing to complain about at all. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective...


Friday, September 2, 2011

A Birthday in Africa

Today I turned 26! It was my first birthday in Africa, and one of the first holidays (do birthdays count as holidays?!) we've experienced since we've been away from home. (Ryan lost quite a few hours of his birthday this year, as we were flying from NYC to Johannesburg for most of it, so this is the first chance we've had to celebrate a birthday actually in country!)

Although I don't really think of myself as a huge let-me-wallow-in-the-joy-of-my-birthday person, it's amazing how times like this make you miss home and want to have some semblance of normal life! I had lots of warm wishes both in Uganda and from home, and I was surprised to find myself realizing just how much they all meant to me. Since when did I care so much about birthdays? Since I moved to Uganda, I guess! :-)

Our day started out sorta rocky, although in one sense I guess I got my first present of the day pretty early! A parasitic disease! I found out through a visit to our medical office that while rafting on the Nile I (and Ryan too!) contracted Bilharzia, the dreaded fresh water disease of Peace Corps Uganda. It's treatable and not a big concern to me, and actually kind of nice to know why I've been feeling so crummy lately! Happy birthday to me!

From there, the day took a big up turn! Since we were in Kampala for medical, we got to take full advantage of the city for a really special day! Ryan took me out to *real* mexican food (cheese enchiladas!! chips and salsa!), we ate soft serve ice cream (our first soft serve in over six months!!), and we even saw a movie at one of the two movie theaters Uganda has to offer. It was a really wonderful day and I found myself feeling thoroughly celebrated and happy! (And, we'll be sure to make the classic Muir Crazy Chocolate Cake when we get home to make it a *real* celebration!) Like I said, I wouldn't normally make such a big deal out of a birthday, but it just felt so wonderful to be doing things that felt *somewhat* like we were back home!

Thanks to everyone for the birthday calls, kind thoughts, and facebook messages. They mean a lot always, but especially when we are so far from so many people we love! Thanks for thinking of me today, and helping me celebrate my first birthday in Africa!

Much love!


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Dear Jinja...

...Who are you and what have you done with Uganda?

We visited Jinja this past weekend and this was the thought that kept going through my head! Although we had an absolutely incredible weekend, it felt as if we’d suddenly left the Uganda we have come to know and love and were plopped into another world! It was a crazy feeling!

This trip was our first time traveling East of Kampala. We have a number of PCV friends in the area, and they had organized a trip out East during the time between our IST and upcoming all volunteer conference in Kampala. So we got to see another part of the country, hang out with friends, and take advantage of one of the big draws of the region - the Nile River!!! We had a really incredible time!!!

On Saturday morning we headed out early for a day of white water rafting on the White Nile. The company we rafted with took us on an all day trip, ending in a river side BBQ at the end of the day! It was such a great time to see a beautiful river and hang out with friends. The guides were great, the river was beautiful, the food was delicious! And, of course...the rafting was absolutely amazing! There is no feeling like it! The rapids on this section of the nile are known to be some of the wildest in the world, so it was a pretty high adrenaline, extreme experience! Some of the rafts in our group flipped at almost every rapid! So it was super exciting, super thrilling, and - SO MUCH FUN! At the end of the day they showed us a video of what we had just done, and I could not believe some of the rapids we all went through!!!! It was such a crazy experience. We loved it!

Then, Sunday evening we took a mellower route out on the river. We went on a two hour “sunset cruise” with drinks, appetizers, music, and great views! Although it was a lot less adventurous, it was a lot of fun!

Being in Jinja we got to see a completely different side of Uganda - a successful tourism industry! This was why our experience in Jinja felt so different than our day to day Uganda in Bushenyi! In our part of the country there is very little tourism, so being in an area that has built itself up on the tourism industry was quite remarkable! In Jinja there are local craft stores, a grid layout to the streets, and a number of restaurants that serve super good *nonlocal* food! While we were eating lunch at one of these establishments (Naan and hummus with feta cheese for me, a burger for Ryan! So not Ugandan food!), I looked around and realized there was not a single Ugandan eating in restaurant! It was a weird experience! Just because of where we are in the rural Southwest, this is a situation that would never happen to us at site! So, it was strange! But we really loved being tourists for the day! Because we don’t know Lusoga (the local language there) we really felt like foreigners, which I guess we are! It was just a strange feeling to be in the country I now call home and feel so much like a visitor. But, we enjoyed the brief hiatus as tourists and seeing a great town in Eastern Uganda. up is the All Volunteer conference (all 200 or so volunteers together sharing ideas, networking, making friends!) an appointment with PC medical (do I have a parasite?) and then home sweet home (at last!) Our next term at Bushenyi PTC starts the moment we get back, so we’ll hit the ground running (or as much as anyone runs in Uganda!)

Love and miss you all!

Take care and keep in touch!



Hey Everyone!

Hope you are all well! We are doing okay here!

We've been away from home now what feels like a very long time! We left almost three weeks ago for our IST (in-service training) near Kampala, and haven’t been back yet. IST is a ten day training that takes place for all volunteers after they have been at site for about three months. We started with a training refresher on language and retake LPI test for those who needed it. Then, our community counterparts joined us and the rest of the time was spent training on Lifeskills (decision making, HIV/AIDS education, girls empowerment, self esteem, etc.) and tech training for the Education sector. It was also an awesome chance to connect with the other 42 volunteers who arrived in Uganda with us and have since scattered all over the country.

The experience was interesting. Although the organization of the training started off a bit rough, it got a lot better in the end. We left with some great ideas for HIV/AIDS projects at our site, lots of great ideas for working on lifeskills with youth, as well as new ideas for the classroom and potential secondary projects. We also participated in activities like capture the flag and trivia with our Ugandan counterparts, which was a lot of fun!

However, IST also had its challenges... For one thing, it was a little hard to be sitting still all day for ten days after keeping a somewhat flexible schedule these last few months at site. For another, we spent the training back at the conference center where we did our initial PST. Although the place is nice (and chock full of monkeys!!!) by the end of our 2 week standfast and 10 week training there we were ready to get out of there. Incidentally, because we were staying in close quarters in the dorms, some crazy sicknesses ended up getting passed around and I think about half of our group (myself included) got to experience the joy of that! So, venue was not a big plus in most of our opinions!

Then, there were the cross cultural challenges, though I think we can all be sure they will be an ongoing challenge throughout our service! Primarily, being with all of the community counterparts reminded me just how different perspectives can be at times between PCVs and their community counterparts. I think as a PCV you get used to the perspectives and ideas of those working around you in the villages (whether you agree with them or not!) and being with all of these different, new people with their unique views and ideas was at times really shocking. We had some heated debates about gender, religion, corporal punishment/child abuse, etc. that brought up some pretty strong opinions. I can try to give an example: at one point, we were divided into groups talking about women’s health issues and HIV. In the scenario my group was discussing, a woman goes out to a bar and ends up getting raped. Women drinking is a pretty big taboo here, and many Ugandans are quick to place the blame on women for anything related to their consumption of alcohol. The counterpart I was sitting with said something along the lines of, “If a woman chooses to drink, to talk to men at bars, then of course at the end of the day she will get HIV/AIDS!” He then implied that the men in the scenario who raped her and passed on the virus are not at fault, as she was the one who “brought it upon herself.” Yikes! So, there were many times when I felt myself biting my tongue and trying to stay cool when in my head I just wanted to scream! But....that’s being in another culture for you, eh?

A few of the nights we escaped to Entebbe, the nearest town for some “mzungu” food and time away from the training center. On the way back one evening with five or six other PCVs, we realized we were driving down the same road we first drove down together when we arrived in Uganda, at about the same time in the evening. We had a great time reminiscing on what we remembered from that first drive - sights, smells, and feelings! It was crazy to think back on what we were experiencing on that first drive, and how much we’ve all already grown in our first six months in country.

All in all, IST was a great time to connect with our PCV friends, eat some good Entebbe food (brick oven pizza! Thai food!), and get some new skills and knowledge!

Love and miss you all! Keep in touch,


Saturday, August 13, 2011

2 years down and still going strong...

Hi Everyone!

Hope this finds you well! Ryan and I just got back from a wonderful vacation to celebrate our 2nd anniversary (Aug 15)! We had a great time seeing more of Uganda and relaxing with each other! I thought I'd write a little about it and also share a link of pictures from our trip.

All in all our trip went off pretty much without a hitch, but we did have some good adventures to share! We decided to travel further into Southwest Uganda to visit Kabale and nearby Lake Bunyonyi. On our way to Mbarara to catch the Kabale bus our taxi driver had a flat tire. That's never happened to us but we were amazed at how quickly he put on a new tire and went on our way. Even with the flat it was probably the most comfortable and efficient taxi ride we've ever had in Uganda! Then, we waited a good two hours for the bus to arrive in the Mbarara bus park. The conductors were making everyone buy their tickets in advance. (This is a little scary because you really have no reason to believe that they bus will actually arrive!) But it did show up, we got seats, and left without much more delay.

We spent our first night at a hostel in Kabale. It's a really neat place that has a hostel (maybe 7 rooms in all!), open air "nest" restaurant, and cultural museum. There's also lots of western travelers, students, and ngo workers, so we had some great conversations with some other "mzungus" while we hung out. We actually planned to spend the night at another nearby guesthouse, but the room we had reserved looked out onto a courtyard where there would be loud, Ugandan music played all night (thank goodness they let us know in advance). Our only other option was to squeeze into a *tiny* single room at the nearby hostel. We weighed our options and decided to squish for the night.

So, the hostel was really nice but this room was seriously tiny! It was in the shape of a triangle and was so small that the single bed wouldn't even fit normally and had to be squished sideways against a window. To make matters even more exciting, Ryan was chatting with his family while the power was out at the hostel and noticed that there was a mouse also sharing our tiny room! He tried to search for it in the dark, while holding a cell phone, flashlight, and weapon (plastic water bottle). When I came down later he was pretty sure it was gone. So I was sitting on the bed while we were talking and Ryan suddenly says, very calmly, " should get off the bed. Seriously, get off the bed!" Turns out the mouse had popped up onto the bed with me and was about to run across my lap! So we had an adventure trying to get the mouse out of our room! In the morning we got to eat doughnuts at a real bakery (first bakery we've seen in Uganda!) and found a taxi that could take us to the lake.

I discovered our lake accommodations from some other PCVs who spent new years there last year. So, I blindly booked three nights on the island (only about $12 a night!) without having a very good idea what to expect! It turned out to be absolutely wonderful! There is a man who owns the island and has developed it for visitors, but chooses not to advertise. So, we were the only guests on the island! We had the company of 2 Ugandan workers who didn't speak a word of English, and 3 large Ankole cattle! Pretty exclusive, eh?

Incidentally, when they were showing us around the island and we got to the swimming dock we discovered a little problem. One of the cows had wandered on to the dock and, because these cows are HUGE, had broken the dock and fallen in. The Ugandan workers tried to grab it by the horns and force it to get out of the water but had no luck. Eventually, one of the guys climbs into the lake with the cow and starts pushing it from behind (no small task!). So, with the one guy pulling the horns and the other literally shoving the cow onto the bank of the island, they managed to get the cow out of the water and back on solid ground!

Anyhow, they set us up with charcoal and sigeeris, and we got to do all our own cooking. We'd splurged on a block of gouda in Mbarara (cheese is hard to come by!) and planned out lots of cheesy meals! We had a great log cabin with a view of the lake from bed, a shower with only 3 walls so you can enjoy the lake view while showering (and hope nobody happens to walk past)! We got to take out a local dugout canoe and canoe around the lake and nearby islands! The lake is free from hippos, crocodiles, and other dangerous water and inhabitants and supposedly (we're crossing our fingers) it's also free from schisto and other sketchy diseases and bacterias that inhabit most Ugandan bodies of water. The island has no running water or electricity, so has something of a rustic, camping feel - so quiet and peaceful! So, we swam, hiked, cooked, played games, listened to music, talked and talked, and had a great getaway!

We're home for a few days now, and then early next week we head off to Kampala again (ugh! we don't love Kampala) for two and a half weeks of training! We have IST (in-service-training) with our training group for the first week and a half, and then a conference for all the volunteers in country after that. In between the trainings our group is planning to go whitewater rafting on the Nile river (how cool is that?!) and take a sunset Nile cruise. Should be a lot of fun!

Thanks for reading - we love and miss you all!


Thursday, August 4, 2011


Friday will mark the end of our first term here at Bushenyi PTC! The 11th of this month will make 6 months that we’ve been in Uganda, and a new group of Peace Corps Trainees arrives in country tomorrow! Seems like as good a time as any for some reflection!

On the whole, I think our first term here has been a success! It has certainly not been without challenges and frustrations, but there’s been a lot of joy too! I feel like we’re often on a roller coaster of feeling one day as if what we’re doing here is really significant and important, and the next feeling a little like we’re just hitting our heads against the wall! So, it’s good for us (especially on days like the latter) to consider all the great things that have happened this term, and maybe reframe the struggles into potential challenges that have a chance to be overcome! are my thoughts!

  • Moving into our home, making it our own, and finding our way around our new community (no street signs here!)
  • Developing relationships with staff, students community members, and local kiddos (it makes my heart happy to hear “ay-mee-lee (emily)!!!” instead of “mzungu (white person)!!!” when we walk around the village!)
  • Finding ourselves a spot on the time table and beginning to teach
  • Laying the foundation for secondary projects (Math Power Hour, open computer lab time, drama clubs, water catchment systems, malaria projects!)
  • Learning to enjoy running!
  • Finding our rhythm with going to the market, being present at the college, and spending time with each other
  • Navigating cross cultural communication (still a work in progress...)
  • Supporting the BTPC kids at scouting and track and field competitions
  • Living on a Peace Corps budget
  • Investing in friendships with nearby PCVs
  • Becoming “pros” at Ugandan public transportation!
  • Expanding our job descriptions to include health projects, specifically malaria sensitization and prevention efforts
  • Cooking - using the sigeeri (charcoal stove) and really taking advantage of all these great vegetables and fruits
  • Seeing some more of this wonderful country - Mbarara, Rakai, Kasese, Fort Portal, and Queen Elizabeth Natl. Park!
  • Going with the flow despite electricity outages, crazy rain storms, and “ugandan time”
  • Hurtles to getting anything and everything started! (connecting problems with solutions)
  • Insufficient language progress for engaging with staff when they choose to speak vernacular in the staff room, and with rural community members
  • Being valued and taken seriously in a patriarchal society
  • Missing home: family, friends, jobs (purpose!), and life in Minnesota!
  • Keeping patient and trying to understand when decisions or actions in the college or community seem incredibly ridiculous or unjust to us!
  • Having to work so hard to feel like we are contributing anything useful here
Lots of times PCVs will tell us “the days drag on and on, but the weeks and months fly by.” I feel like that’s been the case for us too. It’s a little hard to believe we’ve already been in Uganda for half of a year, and at site for over 3 months! But, as I look at my list of successes and challenges, I think I can feel good about what we’ve started here! We always knew these first few months adjusting at site would be pretty challenging, but I think we’ve laid a good foundation to build off of when the students come back and we return from all of our August traveling.

Thanks for reading!

Love you and miss you all,

PS - I uploaded some new pics to facebook today. If you're interested, click here!