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~