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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Where the Sidewalk Ends

The end has come and gone...and it's weird.

I'm now officially an RPCV, a 'Returned Peace Corps Volunteer'.

Most of the time I don't even realize it, it hasn't really hit me yet. I don't know that it will until I'm further away from Uganda.

The last week, the week of my close of service (COS) was hectic to say the least. The same week Peace Corps Uganda held its All-Volunteer Conference, so of course things were crazy and unorganized. Most of the days I was in the office there was only a handful of staff to help out with the COS process. Luckily we have some good staff on hand and everything was taken care of in a relatively timely manner. Also luckily, I got my three stool samples in to the medical office in time...if not I would have had to delay my COS.

The same week there were many volunteers passing through to go to the conference and then later in the week returning through Kampala to go back to their sites. It was overwhelming saying goodbye to so many people, but honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm glad I got to see all my good friends that I'm leaving behind, especially the ones from my group who decided to extend. I really am proud of those who chose to extend and think they are doing a noble thing giving up another year for Uganda.

The week in Kampala was full of good food, mostly South Asian dishes.

I finally got to ring the gong signaling my official closing of service.

I still haven't cried like many volunteers have. I miss my friends and I miss the Ugandans I became friends with. I know eventually it will sink in because I know Uganda will always be a part of me now. There is never going to be a point in my life when I don't think back to my days in Rakai or my time roaming around Uganda trying to help or do something meaningful.

Thank you, Uganda...for all the ups and downs you have made my stronger and I owe you that.

As much as people may doubt it, Peace Corpa really was worth it to me.


Monday, September 2, 2013

The Silver Linings Playbook

I took on the challenge of directing a youth camp this term break. I actually took on this task after GirlTech Uganda in 2012, but it became more of a challenge over time. So many things were against the camp, with directors leaving the country, shifting the time from the May term break to the August term break, and the grant not going through when we sent it in, it seemed that GirlTech 2.0 was not supposed to happen.

Finally, things began to move forward. We had meetings, got the grant pushed through, and got the money. We organized and started making purchases and started working on the schedule and manual. Things were really looking up. Then, we had a meeting with the head teacher of our initial venue. Apparently they were having some issues with their students and were forced to send them home for some time to assess the situation. The head teacher hinted that there would be some senior students around when we were to hold our camp, about 300 girls in total. Initially we were not happy about this, but we went about trying to work through and figure out what to do. We organized ourselves and found ways around the problem and got to a final agreement. We all left the meeting feeling hopeful that things were going to work out after all. A few days later I was back at my site and I got a message on my phone from the headmistress indicating that the board of education decided the girls would all be brought back. I wasn’t really clear on what this meant at first, could we hold the camp? Were there going to be more girls than initially planned? Then I got a second message saying we could not hold the camp unless it was pushed back a week or two. I went into initial panic mode, we could not push the camp back because there were other camps to be held right after along with an all-volunteer conference for Peace Corps volunteers in Uganda. There was no way around this issue. The night and the few nights after consisted mostly of me stress eating American food and wondering what I would do with the extra two weeks at site if the camp was canceled.

Luckily one of my co-directors was willing to take the time to vet some new sites for the camp. Peace Corps was also helpful in talking to volunteers in the area and sending one out to vet the site. It took about three days but we finally found a new site. Unfortunately this meant we had to get the shirt design changed. Things were put on pause and now we have to get the ball rolling again. Thankfully things turned out okay. The bags and shirts came through, with a lot of hassle and stress. The mentors were all nominated, we got ten Ugandan and ten American mentors. We got 96 nominations for campers, and we took them all. Overall, things seemed to be going well again.

When the other directors and I met at the new site, we started moving fast. We bought the food stuffs, scrutinized the site and assigned locations for sessions and meetings. Over the first week we had to get so many things done. It was madness. There wasn’t a night I was in bed before 2 am. 

The Friday of that week, the Peace Corps and Ugandan volunteers came. That day was fairly hectic because we hadn’t even finalized or sent our manual yet. With that stress plus the stress of making sure things looked organized when everyone arrived, I was really getting anxious. Thankfully everything fell into place. The manuals were an issue, but people were able to work around it. We kept people as busy as possible until the early evening. At that point we had exhausted all the work that we could do and we were waiting for the manuals. Of course the printer said the manual would be ready by 2pm and we didn’t get them until well past dinner time, around 9pm.

The next day the girls were arriving. Unfortunately it was pretty much a disaster. The first few girls came without a real problem, but after a few hours we found out that many of the groups missed connecting buses. They were stuck on the road, and then their bus broke down causing an even greater delay. They were supposed to come in almost at midnight, but some of the volunteers escorting them decided they should just stay the night in Kampala for safety reasons. This put a damper on the program for the day. Another bus of girls came in fairly late and we were forced to do a rush check in just as the rain was coming in. The day ended with a stressful meeting and I didn’t end up getting to sleep until 3 am only to wake up at 5 for the girls bathing rotation and breakfast prep.

Monday’s schedule was a little more put together. The girls who were stuck in Kampala came in one piece and eventually the day rolled on. There were some communication issues, but in the end I think the day went well and there weren’t nearly as many hiccups as there had been over the past few days. The sessions seemed to be a hit, especially ‘The Science of HIV’ where two science teachers acted out the parts of the immune system and a pathogen. They played three different scenarios, one with a strong immune system, one with a slightly weakened immune system, and finally one with a very weak immune system infected with HIV. It was so neat to see how the girls reacted and they really seemed to understand what this was representing. Then the science teachers has some washing detergent which they used to represent HIV and had the girls put it on their hands then shake hands. They then had a black light and were ‘testing’ for HIV. It was so cool!
David Huffman inoculating a GirlTech girl (photo by Patrick Glizinski)

Tuesday through Friday went by fairly smoothly. We had sessions on different LifeSkills topics, like reusable menstrual pads, financial literacy, assertiveness, and IGA development. The science sessions were very hands on, including a demonstration of different joints and bones using goat bones, a heart dissection using goat hearts, and a disease detective activity where the girls were given an opportunity to discover the source of a fictitious disease called ‘Dizzy Fever’.  The math sessions also varied, including tessellations, logic puzzles, and probability. Overall, the girls learned a very wide range of topics. This helped them develop their thinking skills as they were working on group science projects throughout the week. The projects were great, varying from explanatory projects on mountain development and static electricity, to hands on demonstrations on water filtration, composting, and making a dry cell battery from household objects! The winning projects were the volcanoes (first place), water filtration (second place), and making a barometer (third place). I really enjoyed seeing how invested the girls got into their projects. It truly warmed my heart to see how much they worked on it and to see all that hard work pay off!

Nitrogen girls dissecting a goat heart (photo by Patrick Glizinski)

 The week was amazing overall. To be able to see this camp succeed again was yet another highlight of my service. I am glad I got a chance to direct it and really have a long lasting impact on the youth of Uganda. Hopefully some of these girls take these concepts to their schools and villages and promote sciences there. I know the PCVs that worked at the camp intend on doing more with these topics and I look forward to seeing what they do in the future…
Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) with a Nitrogen girl (photo by Patrick Glizinski)