Loving My Site! (28/4/07) Hi, I just got back from my future site visit and it looks awesome! I cant wait! I am giddy with excitement. I will be living in my supervisors guesthouse. It is pretty posh pad for the Peace Corps. I will have a toilet, running water and electricity! Anyways, the organization looks super awesome. They do a ton of work in the Rakai region, which is in the southern part of the country, close to the Tanzanian border. I will be in the town of Kalisizo, which is a small town on the main road. It is a poor region in which only about 50% of the people access to a protected spring or protected well. although, in the adjacent sub-county the number is a mere 3%... it was hit hard by the AIDS epidemic in its early days and is still recovering. My organization is protecting a number of springs in the area, and is looking to expand that work. They are also very involved in environmental awareness work in the area, planting trees, cleaning up trash, promoting pit latrines and educating people about more sustainable living and farming practices. They also do work on malaria prevention and AIDS stuff. I will probably be working in all of those areas, but it looks like I will definitely be doing allot of engineering work on springs and maybe wells. I would also like to get involved in the environmental work. My boss is very nice; in fact he has a masters degree from Belgium and is definitely not your average Ugandan! The region is very pretty. Lots of rolling green hills and lots of bananas! It gets really rural really fast once you are outside the cities. My city is only abouy 20km from lake Victoria, and I am definitely looking forward to some weekend bike trips there. There are two Internet cafes in town, so I will definitely be better connected than I have been. There is also some kind of medical research facility run by Johns Hopkins. So it looks like I will have some American neighbors. Anyways, I have just one week remaining in Luwero, and then a few days in Kampala before heading back to my site for good. I cannot wait to get started!
Jon Mellor Jonathan Mellor Jonathan Edward Mellor uganda peace corps masters interational environmental engineering
Jon Mellor Jonathan Mellor Jonathan Edward Mellor uganda peace corps masters interational environmental engineering
Gettin' By (10/2/08)
Sorry for the long silence, I guess life in Uganda now seems so normal to me that I don't think to write about many of my experiences. Anyways, a lot has happened the past few months that has kept me plenty busy!
As far as work is concerned I've been busy as always working on lots of different projects. The biggest project we are currently working on is the Rainwater Harvesting Project. This project aims to bring about 250 rainwater harvesting tanks to the southern part of the district over the next two years. It's a huge undertaking and I will be the project manager. The first step is to do a baseline survey which will take up most of February. Then we will training women's groups and other masons to construct the tanks. Over the next nine months we hope to install 60 tanks. We are also working on advocating for NGOs and districts to work hand-washing into their workplans. Its strange, but getting folks here to consistently wash their hands with soap can improve public health by more than either installing new water sources or latrines! However, the money we got for implementation to give to the districts has very few strings attached as so I fear the money won't be spent wisely...
One very frustrating aspect of development work here is that to get local leaders or anyone for that matter to show up a meeting you have to pay them a "per diem" and pay for their lunch. Meetings should hardly cost anything, but, as it is, they can cost a small fortune by the time you pay for all that! Local leaders are also very reluctant to do any actual work unless you pay them some "facilitation allowance", it's usually not much, but it is very frustrating and makes the grass-roots development utilizing local resources advocated for by Peace Corps very difficult. Also, working for a Ugandan NGO is also very difficult given the tools, training and resources Peace Corps gives us. We are trained and expected to work on grass-roots development projects using little outside financial assistance, yet all the NGOs we work for want is for us to be fundraisers!
It is amazing how much dedicated Ugandans can do for their areas though. Last week we met with the District Health Inspector for Masaka District, just north of my district. In the past two or three years they have increased latrine coverage from around 65% up to 95%! All it took was some financing and the real commitment and dedication of one man to advocate for latrines consistently with the local political leaders who then made sure everyone in their areas constructed latrines.
My biggest success story to date is with the Kalisizo Youth Empowerment Association (KYEA), the youth empowerment organization we are starting in Kalisizo. Everyday in Uganda people ask me how to get to America. Most people in my town seem to have a relative or friend in the States or Europe who go for chewo (sweeping up). My friend at the local video store was no different. He is in his mid-twenties has a degree from Makere University and has many relatives abroad. He has a very Western attitude about most things and dreams about living in a developed country. Since the first day I met him he has been talking about leaving Kalisizo and asking me how to do it. He has two successful businesses in town that employ a number of people, he volunteers to teach computer technology at a local secondary school and is clearly well respected by many. During my discussions with him I always brought up these facts and asked him what would become of his employees when he left. I had pretty much given up hope and assumed he would achieve his goal of leaving soon until the week before Christmas when he came to me with a great idea. He wanted to start an organization to give the youth of Kalisizo Town Council a collective voice and to keep them in the area. The next day we held a preliminary meeting of some of the prominent youth in the town to discuss their ideas for the organization. From what I gathered, they wanted an organization that would give the elite youth the business and entrepreneurial skills to start innovative businesses in Kalisizo. They wanted the organization to also be a social and business networking association and work on improving the region's educational facilities. I quickly came up with the following vision statement: "An empowered youth population that will be the innovators and leaders of Kalisizo Town Council". We then worked on a mission statement, which became: To empower the youth of Kalisizo Town Council to become community leaders through improved business skills, gender empowerment, educational outreach and HIV/AIDS prevention. The next week we held our first general meeting in which we performed a SWOT analysis of Kalisizo Town Council, discussed our mission statement, some possible activities and elected a board of directors. Within a week we had a working draft for the constitution and are working on registering the organization. I have high hopes for the organization that I hope to be a lasting pillar of Kalisizo society. We will hold seminars on such things as how to access microfinance loans, accounting practices, create business plans, devise innovative businesses etc. There are many educators in the group that want to work on improving the area's schools, which are so poor that most people send their children to Masaka or Kampala for their education. We will also have sub-committees that will focus on gender issues (we only had two women at the first meeting) and HIV/AIDS. In fact, at our last meeting I was elected the chairperson for the Gender Committee! I am very excited and hope to set a good example for the young males of Kalisizo. Uganda has a long ways to go in term of gender empowerment...
I am also working on resurrecting a couple of local protected springs. Unfortunately, many of the springs that get protected eventually end up leaking around the sides because the water finds an alternate path. This decreases the flow and makes them pretty much useless, which is a real shame because surround communities hear about this and then don't want us to protect their water sources. Its funny, that, in a country that gets as much rain as Uganda that they can be so "water stressed". Only about 50% of the surrounding villages have access to a "protected" source of water. The rest just drink out of "traditional springs" (aka mud pits) or rivers. Its not that collectively they couldn't afford to dig a simple hand-dug well (the people are poor, but not destitute in this part of Uganda), its just that folks have been living in this part of the world for 4 million years drinking water out of streams. The problem is that now the population density (Uganda has the highest growth rate in the world, it will nearly quadruple its population between 2000 and 2050) is much higher making diarrheal diseases much more of a problem.
My work life seems to revolve around going to lots of meetings. Ugandan meetings are really frustrating sometimes. They are highly structured and severely limit debate of any kind. Meetings never ever start on time, in fact they usually start 1-6 hours late. First there is the opening prayer. Next there is the communication from the chair, where the chairperson spends 10-30 minutes rambling about nothing in particular. Next we get into the content of the meeting. Ugandans love to talk, and they'll talk for hours if you'd let them, but not actually say anything at all. So that by the time we are allowed to ask questions (you have to wait 'til the end of the meeting to ask questions) we are all so tired and everybody wants to leave that nothing important really gets resolved!
Life in Uganda is going well. I'm still living in the same place. I just painted my kitchen area and put up photos making it much nicer than before. I'm still biking as much as always, going for long rides everyday and even longer ones on the weekends. I ran in a 10k in Kampala about a month ago which was a lot of fun. Over 6,500 people took part in three races including a marathon, half-marathon and the 10k. It was fun seeing all the Ugandans running because whenever I run, the local villagers are always hooting and hollering at me they think it is so strange! I am also competing in a triathlon in about a month and a half in Entebbe, which should also be a blast! My Luganda is still really bad, I can get around town all right, but still can't hold much of a conversation. I spend most weekends down in Kyotera, a town about 15km south of mine where two other Peace Corps Volunteers live. We cook, bake and watch movies mostly. Although we do sometimes have adventures around town.
Many of you have been reading about the crisis in Kenya. I just wanted to assure you all that it is all contained to Kenya and has no real chance of spilling over to Uganda. The ethnic groups battling it out in Kenya are not in Uganda and so the ethnic dimension has little chance of spilling over here. The only two effects we are seeing are refugees in eastern Uganda and really high fuel prices because our fuel all comes through Mombasa. Also, the problems in the Congo are also contained to that area. A few months back there were three sporadic incursions into some border towns on the boarder, but those small-scale incursions have little chance of reaching my site in central Uganda and were very limited in scope and intent. Although only a few hundred kilometers from here, several mountain ranges, very poor roads and a strong Ugandan army presence are all protecting us. Also the continuous problems in the Dafur, although they may look close on a map are very very far from here. The Peace Corps security staff is in daily contact with the security staff at the embassy and are constantly updating each other about security concerns. We would be pulled out immediately if they thought there was any chance, however small, of any of the surrounding problems affecting us. Furthermore, we are forbidden to go anywhere near the western border regions or the north (where the Lord's Resistance Army staged a 20 year conflict that is now essentially over). So don't worry, despite being in the 'heart' of Africa, Uganda is an extremely safe country. Despite over 100 volunteers in the country there has not been a violent attack against a Peace Corps volunteer. Can you say the same for a group of 100 folks living in LA? I hope many of you will come to visit me to see this safe and beautiful land!
Ok, well I think that is about it for now, but I hope to hear from you all soon!
So I finally have a chance to write about all this crazy stuff I have been up to! Sorry for the lack of emails so far, it is hard sitting down and writing for a long time at internet cafes.
Anyways, I am have a great time here in Uganda, it is definitely the best decision of my life! I am working with a great organization doing all sort of projects related to health and the environment. It is definitely the perfect fit for me! Right now we have got a big grant from the Nile Basin Initiative, which is a multi-national organization composed of the nations in the Nile Basin. They support Environmental, Health and Sanitation Initiatives in the Nile Basin Catchment. Through that grant we are protecting a number of springs in the area, planting trees in Kalisizo Town and the rural sub-county, conducting a baseline survey of peoples perceptions and knowledge about environmental, health and sanitation related problems in the area. We are also collaborating with some social scientists Georgia State University to build upon their work in the States on grandparent- headed households. Those are households in which the parents have either died or are not around anymore. Such a scenario puts a lot of pressure on the grandparents. We interview them and find out how they are doing basically. We also have a program going on with our local Rotary Club supporting local child-headed households. We are supplying them with things like school fees, scholastic materials, farm animals, seeds etc. Lastly, we are distributing hundreds of mosquito nets to the surrounding areas.
I am still very much defining my role here, but I have been spending a good deal of time in the field, inspecting water projects and on our outreach activities. I am also spending a lot of time in the office working on proofreading grants. In the future, I imagine I will be doing much of the same. Working on spring protection projects, grants and hopefully some environmental outreach. My boss is super. He is a work-a-holic putting in 12-14 hour days 6-7 days a week! Not exactly your typical Ugandan. He has introduced me to all the local government officials. I have been to a couple of district meetings so far, which is also interesting. I have a great place to live. It is in the boys quarters of my supervisors house. It is a separate structure, but in the same compound as the main house. I have got a room for sleeping and one for cooking. I have even got a flush toilet, electricity, a shower and access to a refrigerator! Although I do not have hot water, it is a far posher pad that most of my colleagues. I have got a gas cook stove and a nice assortment of cooking utensils and such. Although the locals eat basically banana mush (matoke) and cassava three meals a day, pretty much everything is available. Last night I made my famous peanut soup for all my friends. This morning we made yogurt smoothies and crepes using my brand new blender! Thanks Anna! Other than that, there are loads of fresh vegetables, fruits, rice, spaghetti, milk, yogurt, flour etc available locally. There is a city 28km up the road where I can get other things like good fruit juice, peanut butter, olive oil, pasta etc What I can not get there I can get in Kampala. The only really hard/expensive item to find is cheese, which is really expensive and not that good.
I usually wake up about 6:30 or 7 and go for an hour mountain bike ride to the surrounding villages. I make myself eggs or oatmeal most mornings topped with locally made honey and bananas. I then head out to work about 8:30. It is just a 10 minute walk to my office which is in the center of town. We have a small office with just 3 rooms. It is basic, but we have a couple of computers (w/o internet) and a fair assortment of books and reports. Including my supervisor and me we have three social work types, two secretaries and a driver. We have a pick-up truck for our outreach work. We are expanding to a larger office sometime this fall when it is all done. I basically work until 5-7 every evening. I then usually stop by the market, pick up some veggies and cook a yummy dinner. I then read/study Luganda for a while before going to bed.It is a pretty posh Peace Corps experience if you ask me! I will be spending about half my weekends here and half other places, visiting other volunteers and seeing other parts of the country. When I am here I do a lot of reading and a lot of exercising. I biked out to Lake Victoria the weekend before last. It was gorgeous. It was 60km round trip on a well-graded dirt road. I passed through a half dozen little villages on the way to the small fishing village at the end of the road. I had a great time coming back stopping a lot and practicing my Luganda. People in the villages are really friendly.
I have several Peace Corps folks in the surrounding area. Sash is about 20km south of my in Kyotera, a city of about the same size. Rivka is about 28km north of me in Masaka, a medium-sized city where I do most of my shopping and even has a swimming pool! Both Sash and Rivka were in my training class. Sarah lives about 35km south of me in Sanje, a small town close to the Tanzanian border. We get together from time to time and are planning on having lots of dinner parties!
Just yesterday I finally met several American students from Columbia University who are working on their Public Health Masters Degree. They live just around the corner from me and seem very nice, although I just met them briefly. They all work at the Rakai Project, which does a lot of HIV research in the surrounding district.
Kalisizo itself is a nice little town. Not to big and not too small. It has a couple of main roads with lots of little businesses on them. Most of the stores sell the same assortment of margarine, toilet paper, soda and jerry cans, but there are a couple of good little supermarkets where I can get the essentials. There are a couple of ok restaurants that serve the exact same thing. Matoke, g-nut sauce, rice, sweet potatoes etc There are two Internet cafes too, but both are super slow. There are also a number of video rental places too, which might come in handy from time to time!
My language learning is going painfully slowly. It is a really hard language, but really important for me to learn. Everyone in my organization speaks is all the time, so I usually do not have any idea what is going on. The problem is that all words start with one of just a handful of prefixes, which makes memorizing words really hard.
Culturally, I am doing very well. Although, living with a host family can be hard. I am a really independent person, but here, in Africa, family structure is really important. Being a boy, they did not expect me to be able to cook, clean or do much of anything for myself. That is womens work here. They assume you are pretty incompetent and not able to do much of anything. They are always watching and laughing at every little thing you do. It is really annoying! Living in such a homogenous society, they are not used to seeing people do things other ways or seeing people be independent.
I miss you all and I hope many of you can come here to visit me and see what Africa is all about!
Chimp Trekking! (4/6/07)
I just got back from chimp tracking. It was an amazingly cool experience. I did it in Queen Elizabeth National Park, which is about 4-5 hours by bus north of here. The chimps are all in a deep, heavily forested gorge surrounded by open savannah. The savannah is the real Africa, and has lions, elephants, leopards etc. That is why we carry a gun! The first day we spent about 2 hours trying to find them. The ranger knew basically where they were, and we would occasionally hear their calls, but it still took a while to find them. Once we did though, what an amazing experience! They were all on the ground resting after a long day of picking fruits in the trees. The alpha male would occasionally make some very loud screams and shake branches to assert his dominance. It gave us quite a fright the first time! We were able to get within about 5 meters of them, and there were 17 chimps all around us. The next morning I went again. It only took about an hour or so to find them this time. They were all up in the trees this time eating. I saw one chimp high in the trees eating ants using a stick she tore the bark off of. It was so cool to see her using tools! We also saw a group of about a dozen hippos in the nearby river. They are the deadliest animals in Africa, and, seeing them in the wild, it is clear why!
I can not wait to get up in the mountains. Rwenzori National Park is in that same region and it is supposed to be absolutely amazing. Mt. Elgon, on the Kenyan border, is also supposed to be spectacular. Gorilla trekking is also high on my list, but, at $500, it will be a while before I can afford it. I guess that is about it for now. I am having a terrific time and please check my website from time to time. The Internet is too slow here to upload pictures, but I will be sending them home occasionally.