The Spaces That I Used To Go

Moving is a fraught process no matter what. You decide which things to keep, give away, sell, or trash. You slowly deconstruct the pieces of routines which have served you. You begin the process of turning your home back into a house, just a place where things are stored instead of a space where memories live.

I have less than a month left in Uganda.

It feels anticlimactic and strange to watch my house transform into what it was when I came. When I take things off the walls, the light reflects differently and confuses me for a moment. When I wonder where something has gone, I remember I’ve packed it away or given it to someone.

I will not be taking most of my belongings with me. In true American fashion, I’ve managed to acquire an impressive amount of things in two years, things I thought I needed or wanted that now just take up space. Most of them will be sold/given to other Volunteers or my neighbors.
I continue to use a lot of things in my house for daily life but it feels like I’m performing a play, using props that belong to the theatre instead of me. Life’s a stage, after all.

None of these possessions will be in my life next month. Even as I’ve tried to get over loving material things (my first journal eaten by termites, a raincoat lost in a taxi), I still love them. The particular red of a coffee cup, the bucket I wash my clothes in, my blue teaching sandals. I have immaterial loves as well, and it’s those I suspect I’ll remember more. The feel of my bare feet on the cement floor I just mopped, laughing with my neighbors, the way I can think a million thoughts in a one hour taxi ride so by the end I’m convinced I’ve solved the universe.

It used to confound me to see Ugandan people traveling long distances without much luggage. Now I know it confounds them how I need so many things to stay well. I’m not knocking the simple life or the life filled with things. Just trying to say that possessions can be important to us, and like other important things, they can leave our lives and still have been important. It’s not necessary to hang on to something for it to mean something to you.

No doubt some new tutors will move into my house when I leave, or perhaps someone higher up in the pecking order will be shifted here and the tutors will get the other person’s house. No doubt they will own fewer things than me, decorate the place differently, and definitely clean it better than I have. But for two years it was my space, the first house I ever lived in by myself, and it mattered. 

Sometimes I have difficulty explaining to Ugandans why I love my house so much, why I spend a lot of my free time in it and why I buy a lot of things to fill it. Americans tend to have a sense of pride about their homes, whether they’re houses or apartments or condos or trailers. We see the home as an extension of self, an outward display of all the things you care about, dream for, and work towards. We see it as a place to relax and not put on a performance for anyone, as a place where you can choose to go and get away from people and it is completely your space. We see space as a premium, that even if you don’t have a lot of things, it’s nice to have a lot of space.

I will miss it because it mattered.


Beyond ROY G. BIV

I’m a month late on talking about our Close of Service (COS) Conference, so sue me.
In early September, my group (Cohort 2 who came to Uganda in November 2013) got together for the first time since January. The point of COS Conference is to both prepare you to leave Uganda and prepare you to re-enter American life.

I think it was one of the most useful conferences I’ve ever been to. We spoke on improving our resumes, interview techniques, post-service medical insurance (ACA what am I doing with this?), receiving our Readjustment Allowance (a Peace Corps severance package), and saying goodbye to our communities. We talked about coming full circle from not knowing any of each other two years ago to being extremely close friends now.

I also turned 25 during the conference. Definitely one of my better birthdays, spent with good friends, eating good food, at a beautiful hotel.

In some ways it feels like I’ve been in Uganda forever, much longer than 2 years, and in others it feels like no time at all. I’m planning a post-PC trip to Western Europe (in PC jargon we call it a COS trip) for most of December, and landing back in Michigan by Christmas.

I think one of the hardest things about time passing here is that there are no seasons (in the American sense) to pass the time. When one month turns into the next, maybe it rains more or maybe it rains less, but things look the same. Different crops are planted but people dig all the same. A different school term comes but you teach all the same. Now leaving the equator to vacation in a cold place and flying home to an even colder one will I think be a wake-up call for my brain to remember what I grew up in.

Uganda has been the first time I’ve lived alone for an extended period of time, being responsible for my house and everyday tasks. So though I didn’t pick my house or my neighborhood per say, and though I don’t pay taxes or cut the lawn, I feel a sense of ownership. I know it will be hard to leave.
In my last few months I’m trying to take more videos, so that even if I can’t upload them while I’m here (woo expensive data packages), I can make something of them when I get home, and when I get homesick for Uganda.

Though this blog will be ending, I’ll have a short term blog while in Europe. And when I get back to the US, look out for a new project titled “Will They Know Me Back Home?”, documenting my group’s return to the US and how we’re dealing with readjustment. Many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) say that their host country feels like a dream once they return to America, 
because no one has the context to understand your life for the past two years. At COS we discussed creating our ‘elevator pitches’, a 30 second to 1 minute description of what we’ve been doing. Mainly this was for job prospects, but we were also encouraged to think of preparing these for conversations with friends and family. It’s common knowledge that a few people in your pre-PC life will want to sit and spend an evening with you discussing everything, but most people in your social circles just want to hear the highlights.

I’ve had a couple conversations with close friends here that revolve around the theme, would you do it again? That if you could rewind back to your acceptance email, knowing everything you know about your Peace Corps Service, would you come again?

I have to say I don’t know. One of the reasons I told myself I joined Peace Corps (which may be different from the actual reasons I joined Peace Corps) was that I wanted to be uncomfortable. I was raised in a culture where I could control many things in my life, where I had a lot of opportunities to do what I wanted and live the life I wanted to live. I had never experienced a culture or a place where that was not necessarily true. And I know that many in the world, especially many that live in poverty both inside and outside the US do not know that experience.

I can say for sure that I have experienced being uncomfortable many times, and for many continuous hours or days or weeks. I also think that I didn’t know what I was asking for when I joined Peace Corps. In conversations attempting to explain Uganda to American friends/family, I often think of the phrase, “Imagine a color beyond purple.” To humans this is nonsense, because the cones and rods in our eyes do not allow us to see a color beyond purple, let alone imagine it, but this is the best way I can describe this experience.

One of the Peace Corps goals is to explain our host countries to our American communities and social circles. I love this goal because it encourages Americans to imagine others complexly (as one of my favorite authors, John Green, is always telling us to do). But I think there is a limit. I in no way believe that I completely understand Ugandan culture, even living here for two years, and maybe even if I lived here for ten. But I understand that I have been made an ambassador for both cultures, American and Ugandan, to try and explain as best I can while acknowledging the limitations. I believe understanding is one of the most admirable goals of diplomacy.

So in this respect I am glad that I came, in order to learn the things I was unaware I didn’t know. You cannot see beyond purple unless you are fundamentally changed as a person, and I believe I have been.


Thoughts From Places: Murchison Falls

So, Murchison Falls!

I had a hard time dealing with the money aspect of it, I think because I didn’t feel like I had a lot of money growing up. We maybe went on one big trip a year as a family, stayed in-state and saved up the whole year to do that. There were years when not all of us went. Murchison was an all-inclusive (except for some meals) trip, and so it felt strange that I gave a large sum of money at the beginning, and then everything else was the responsibility of our guide. I’m glad we did that, because it took any timing/driving/permit responsibility away from us, but at the same time (as I’ve mentioned in previous posts), not having control was strange.

I only thought about this after the fact – our guide gave us no emergency numbers, no instructions should he suddenly have a heart attack or otherwise be incapacitated. We saw no emergency medical centers nor were they mentioned, and I’m pretty sure there was no med-evac to come for us should something go wrong. There were other cars in the park that day, but I’m unsure what would have happened had they come upon some problem – the people in those cars paid for a safari, not a rescue mission, and helping someone would definitely infer speeding through the park, not stopping for picture. We actually encountered this problem  in a lighter way – a few people working at a ranger post wanted to get a ride with us to a different place in the park. Our guide explained we would be moving too slow for them, and stopping to take pictures. At this point I also didn’t want them to ride with us. I felt a sense of ownership of our car, that we had paid a large sum of money to be alone, in our car, not giving rides to park workers. This didn’t make me feel good after thinking it.

At this point I felt like an outsider, like a tourist. Because anywhere else in Uganda, people do this. People stop and give other people rides; that is the culture. But it felt like a different world inside the park, like we were truly foreigners, because only foreigners would decline to give a ride to someone else.

Being in the park also made me think about what we term exotic, in that African animals are exotic because they don’t live in temperate or seasonal climates. Whereas to Africans, bears, raccoons, etc are exotic because those animals cannot live on the equator. We have this idea that African animals live in this ‘other’ place, that is not natural or normal, that is basically the Lion King. There was an Onion article a while ago (or maybe a real article) stating that most Americans think of Africa as one big game reserve, which is definitely not true. But not many Africans take safaris to North America to see our animals, or Europe either.

Another thing I noticed was the overall lack of noise. Compared to America, Uganda is a very noisy place. I say this not having lived in large cities such as New York or Chicago, which I assume are noisy constantly. But in the sort of suburban, small city life I grew up with, noise in public was generally kept to a minimum. The guy with the subwoofers in his trunk was the exception, not the rule.
In Uganda, music especially is woven into every part of life. If you can get speakers and power, you play music. This often results in dueling tunes, as well as any music coming from cars, people shouting, livestock making a lot of noise (even in towns), etc.

Inside the park, no cars are allowed to play music, and you as a driver are not allowed to honk your horn (in Uganda this is called hooting). So in that sense you believe you have maybe left Uganda, or are in a different country all together. The only sounds come from the animals, and from the conversations you have with your car-mates and your guide/driver. It reminded me of when my family would take our trips up North each year. Sure, we would play music for a while, but eventually we would fall asleep and silence would fall. Even when we reached our campground, there were minimal noises outside the forest, and you truly believed you had ‘gotten away.’

The park was also not always named Murchison Falls. It was originally named Kabalega National Park, after the Omukama (like a king) of the Bunyoro Kingdom, which was a pretty powerful kingdom between the 13th and 19th centuries. Kings still exist in Uganda but have mostly symbolic and cultural significance now, versus lawmaking or judicial powers.

The park takes its name from Roderick Murchison, a guy who has frankly a lot of things named after him on Earth (and a crater on the moon). He was mainly a geologist, and at the time the park was named was President of the Royal Geological Society (round abouts 1863). But who did the naming you may ask? Murchison himself never made it to the park which bears his name, but instead it was one of few women explorers in Uganda in the late 1800s who named the waterfall (and later the park took the name). She was called Florence Baker, a Hungarian woman who had been sold as a slave to one of the men heading the expedition, Samuel Baker. She actually ended up marrying this guy, which is probably one of the most severe cases of Stockholm Syndrome ever.

I tell you all of this to say this: the name of this park reflects a story that has nothing to do with the place itself. I asked our guide before I had done any of this research what he thinks about the name, and whether it should be changed back. He sort of shrugged and gave a non-answer. I wasn’t sure if this was because he was supposed to toe the line in terms of what the government should or shouldn’t be doing, or if he truly didn’t care. From our conversations, he does a lot of safaris year round, so the name isn’t stopping him from making a living.

But on the heels of President Obama returning the original name of the Alaskan mountain Denali, it makes me ask: Do names matter? Does the answer to that question depend on your culture?
Congo is another example of places which were all renamed after the Belgians fled. The government felt it important to have names that reflected the people who lived there, not the people who came later.

In my home state of Michigan, there are many places which still bear Native American names, but at the same time places have French, Dutch, English, or German names. The names of the natives mixed with the names of the colonists. And that’s true in Uganda as well. There are plenty of things named in local languages which hold their history tight to their chest.

Maybe you skipped all this to see the pictures, and that’s okay too. But I hope at least some of this makes you think – what’s in a name?