Some time back, I was asked a very interesting and thought provoking question by a trainee, who I am to mentor and guide through training and after if necessary and desired. She asked me, Aditi, are you happy with your decision to serve here?
I’ve thought about this question many times over the past few months (more so in the past few weeks) and I’ve finally come up with a solid, honest answer. Initially I’d always say something along the lines of yes, I am happy I came here, even if I’m not making an impact on a daily basis I think overall in the course of the two years I will impact at least one person. That’s probably a standard response to these sorts of questions and it’s basically the same answer I gave the trainee who asked (though I did elaborate a little on the ups and downs of service)…but after giving it some thought I realized that wasn’t really an honest answer. I did mean it, to some extent, but it wasn’t the full truth of how I felt, how I would really answer that question.
So, I gave it some real thought. I asked myself, are you really happy you left everything behind and came to Uganda to serve? Is it what you thought it would be? Are you fulfilled? Do you feel your work is useful, meaningful, and impactful?
Here’s my answer:
For the most part, yes, I am happy I came to Uganda. There are times I’d like to throw in the towel and just go home, there are times where I do not think I’m doing anything useful or worthwhile and there have been many times where I question my decision. In the end though, the few things that I do that I know are influential and have some impact keep me here. It may not be the work I do at my site, it may not necessarily be the work I do in my town, but when I am working on outreach projects in different communities or when I am interacting with youth, I feel good, useful, and alive. When I’m reading through submissions for the youth newsletter, Uganda’s Young Stars (see links in side bar), I feel joy in my heart. I can see the writers are expressing themselves in ways they probably were never able to before and that one thing…that is the thing keeping me here. My work at GirlTech (the camp intending on fostering an interest in math and sciences in young girls) and Peace Camp (the camp intending on address conflict resolution and youth empowerment) also keep me here because I know, even if I do the smallest job, I’ll be making a tremendous impact in the lives of the participants and subsequently in the communities where the participants live, go to school, or work.
So I guess, in the end, what I’m trying to say is yes, I do feel I have made the right decision in coming here. Sure, I could be working in the U.S., actually making money doing similar work promoting health in poor communities and promoting youth development and empowerment (or, as was recently made apparent to me, I could be teaching English in Asia and be receiving more than twice as much money as I am “making” now). But the person I am would not be happy doing that, not at this point in my life. I am a better, more caring, and more receptive person when I am in the “developing” world, whether visiting or working. I learn more about humanity, justice vs. injustice, and inevitably myself (I will be the first to admit, this is completely selfish).
So, until my selfish needs are fulfilled, I will continue to find opportunities to help, long-term or short-term, those around the world who need and want me (because we all know, if a community doesn’t see a need I see, my ideas are almost moot).
GirlTech was nothing short of amazing. There were so many points where I felt fulfilled, happy, and just purposeful. The weekend of training was nice because it was laid back and very low key. I got to know the other science teachers and also got to relax a bit before the girls arrived on Sunday. After the girls arrived it was hectic and I seemed to always have something to do, even on the days I wasn’t teaching. On Monday, another volunteer and I led four nature hikes. We were supposed to foster inquiries and observations in the girls, which proved to be difficult, especially since we had no idea about any of the nature surrounding us. We did a few hikes during training to familiarize ourselves with Wanyange, where the camp was held, but most of the hikes involved us making things up. Apparently it sounded like we knew what we were talking about, at least according to the PCV mentors. Tuesday was my day off teaching but I spent the whole day helping the other science teachers launch bottle rockets. It was pretty awesome to see the girls’ reactions when we did the first launch for each session. They never really knew what to expect and almost always reacted with surprise and a little fear. It was so cool to be able to show them science in action and to expose them to something they may not have seen before. Some girls got really into it and even cheered and clapped, one girl even copied my constant “IT WAS AWESOME!” scream (which I did after every launch, I mean every launch…there were 30 of them). The scream became a sort of catchphrase and will surely be appearing on any video footage sent out about GirlTech in the future. All the girls seemed to really enjoy all the sessions, not just the bottle rockets. I was also running around helping out. I suppose it was better than just sleeping or lying about all day, though I was hoping for a little more rest. Wednesday was my first solo teaching session, where we did disease detectives. I was really nervous the night before because I had never done a disease detectives session, let alone lead one (although since I got a certificate in Epidemiology I suppose I technically have done a disease detectives). During the first part of my lesson I had the girls throw around yarn which represented an infectious disease (Ebola, Influenza, Cholera…you name it) to illustrate the infectious nature of diseases and also to show how an individual can affect a community. I then went into a brief history of John Snow and Epidemiology and then finally got the game going. The first lesson went fairly well but of course there were many bumps in the road. The second group got really into the game though, which was awesome. Some of the groups didn’t really understand the point; some didn’t really read all the interviews, and others kept guessing the same incorrect responses without really looking at the data from the interviews. The last group was definitely one of the best. I had to guide them a little but in the end they really got into the game. When they finally got the right answer, everyone cheered in excitement and I felt so proud that they understood and played the game so well. On Thursday I had a nutrition session which initially felt like it was going to completely bomb. The first lesson was not bad, but I don’t know how much the students got into it. The second group, however, really got into it and it was probably for the better because Peace Corps administration came to visit GirlTech and decided to sit in on that session. They were really excited to try and figure out which foods belong to which food group, which foods provide which nutrients, and also to figure out what common item can be used as a reference for portion sizes. It was really fun! At the end I had them draw out what portions of a plate should be what food groups and it was cool when I did “the great reveal” because the girls started their own drum roll. The last two sessions went pretty well too. I think the girls really learned something from the nutrition session and I think they really were able to visualize the portion sizes I was trying to emphasize. It was funny though, one of the girls questioned my portion-appropriate plate (taken from myplate.gov) which I showed them after they designed what they thought was a portion-appropriate sized plate. I guess a mountain can’t be moved in a day. The final day was really laid back for most of the science teachers. We did mostly prep work for the science fair, which turned out to be fun even if it did take hours longer than anticipated. During the science fair we held a round robin of random science experiments like “The Nose Knows” and “The Gravity Gulp”. It was fun and the girls’ minds seem to continually be blown. The closing ceremony was short and sweet, we handed out awards to the science fair winners and participant ribbons to the rest of the girls. Some of my Venus girls won second place with their “Science of Sweets” experiment. We also gave a big thank you to the co-directors of GirlTech and I think they were both surprised and really touched by the gesture. All the campers seemed to really be sad to leave the camp which made me both happy and sad; I was happy because I realized that I really did touch some lives this past week, but at the same time I was sad because I didn’t want to leave the camp after feeing so fulfilled.
Transition to Peace Camp, where the mood was completely different, it was more contemplative and peaceful (who would’ve thought?). The first full day was nothing short of amazing. We spent the day at a ropes course in Gulu called The Recreation Project. The campers spent the day doing the “Leap of Faith” (where they climbed up a log, stood at the top and jumped off in an attempt to hold onto a metal bar), an small obstacle course, “The Spider Web” (where each group was supposed to get every person from their group through the web of ropes without touching a single rope), a zip line, and a rock wall. All the campers were really brave in doing the leap, I think every camper attempted it and most actually got a hold of the bar. At the end of the day there was some time for the staff to try the leap and most of us did but only a few of us actually touched the bar. My attempt was nothing short of hilarity. Before I even got to the log (there is a ladder you have to climb before you get to the foot holds on the log) I was already freaking out. I was just standing at the top of the ladder and started having a panic attack. With the cheering support of the crowd before I started climbing up the log. When I got to the top of the log (not standing on the flat top of it but just on the foot holds) I freaked out again. Somehow I got to the very top and was trying to figure out how to stand on the top without falling off. I got one foot on but couldn’t manage to gain balance enough to get the other foot on so I ended up just sitting at the top. I made multiple attempts to stand only to stop and sit back down at the top. People were laughing in the crowd but most were encouraging and trying to guide me to the standing position. Finally, and I have no idea how, I got to the standing position and eventually even jumped off the top of the log, completely missing the bar. When I got to the ground I was shaky and my legs felt like cooked noodles, but I did it. I made it to the top of that log and jumped off…and I survived!
One of the most inspiring and moving part of the day, however, was the perseverance of a young camper. He is in a wheel chair but that did not stop him from participating in any of the activities. He did the leap, the zip line, and even climbed the rock wall. Just seeing his motivation and determination was genuinely inspiring. All the campers and counselors cheered for him in every activity he did (and he succeeded in every one he attempted). I don’t even know how to put into words how amazing this young person is. Even though he’s in a wheelchair, he is an athlete, playing wheelchair basketball in a society that in more cases than not hold a stigmatized view of the disabled. To see how much hope he has for his future and to see how positive he is about his life just makes me feel I can and should be able to do anything in life…that nothing can stop me…that nothing can stop anyone. All you need is the right amount of determination and a positive attitude. Watching this young person climb himself up a log and launch himself off the top with only his upper body strength, watching him climb up a tree to go down a zip line, watching him climb up a rock wall with only his upper body strength, it all makes you realize how much opportunity there is in life no matter what life has given you. This young man survived the northern tribal wars, the LRA invasion, and came out with such a positive outlook and such determination…it’s just mind-blowing.
So I guess, I want to say to all my family, friends, and anyone reading this…you really can do anything if you stay positive and determined. No matter what life gives you, you can find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Another very inspiring and world-view altering was the Forgiveness Ceremony held towards the end of the week of Peace Camp. The four different tribes affected by the greater northern wars grouped with each other and presented their grievances and wrongs to each other and asked each other for forgiveness. A few of the tribes didn’t have any problems with each other but there were some major conflicts between the Acholi tribe and the other tribes as well as the Langi tribe and the other tribes. It was so mind-blowing to hear all the testimonies from the groups and then one of the campers come up in front of everyone and gave his own personal testimony about how he was abducted and was in the bush for two years trying to survive being in the rebel army. He was so brave to tell his story and then ask everyone for forgiveness. It was also amazing to see how all the members of the different tribes interacted with each other when in all likelihood they could have killed each other during the wars. After all the tribes forgave each other we all got together in a circle, lit candles, and sung songs of unity. We also burned papers from each tribe where all the grievances were written down to represent the act of forgiveness and moving on.
It’s so hard to imagine these campers in their middle adolescence trying to survive living in the bush with rebel armies while I was in middle school complaining about fitting in and worrying about how I would fit in when I got to high school. Even here in Uganda, I complain about such ridiculous things like not having work at my site when in the grand scheme of things my life could be a lot worse. It’s moments like this that are truly humbling and really help me to keep my priorities straight.
Being in Peace Corps has been a constant roller coaster, but it’s moments like this that really make me feel surer of my decision to serve here. Even when things are less than ideal, I know that I will become a better person in the end. I may not touch or change heaps of lives here, but I know all these people I meet will change and touch my life to an unfathomable extent.