Wednesday, 30 November 2011

In the Beginning

I arrived in Uganda in the middle of the night after two days of traveling. I’m not sure if I was excited or scared, as much as I just felt ready. This is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and after graduating college, I was ready to begin moving forward with my life’s purpose of promoting peace and inspiring social justice. At a book signing with Jimmy Carter, I asked him what piece of advice he had for a young human rights activist. Looking me in the eye with his kind blue eyes, he said “Going to the Peace Corps is the best thing you can do.”
What makes the Peace Corps different from any other international organization is that, after an intensive screening process, (mine was about a year and a half) volunteers are selected, amongst other things, based on their areas of specialties. We come without money or material things to offer, but rather, with our “knowledge” -the mission being to empower people to empower themselves. Additionally, Peace Corps volunteers stay in their specified community for an extended period of time, completely immersing themselves into the culture they will be working with.
I arrived in Uganda in the middle of the night after two days of traveling. With too much luggage, and covered in mud, I began my journey. Luckily, I had 45 other “trainees” with me who were just as tired and just as confused. It seemed surreal at first, until we were told that we were to get up three hours later for our first day of training. Let the hazing begin…
For the first week, we all stayed together in Entebbe. It didn’t take long for most of the 20 girls whom I was sleeping in the same room with, to fall sick with dysentery and other mysterious tropical diseases. I was one of the lucky ones. I like to think it’s because I have an African soul and am “use to” like the locals would say. Still, falling sick is one of the only expectations you can have when joining the Peace Corps, as it otherwise seems like a blind commitment into the unknown.  All we knew upon arrival is that we would be working in Uganda for two years.
During the next nine weeks of service, we each lived with a Ugandan host family, and were put through an intensive, somewhat grueling (though absolutely necessary) training process to help us prepare for something you can’t quite possibly prepare for.  Training took place 5-6 days a week for 9 hours every day. Each morning, rain or shine, I would walk the mile-long, swampy-like journey to the training center. There, we would cover areas including: cultural integration, the history and current affairs of Uganda, gender roles and expectations, lighting a charcoal stove or cleaning a pit latrine, the local systems of governance, microfinance, agriculture, health and diseases, the art of facilitation, needs assessment methods, effective community organizing, opening a bank account, nutrition/malnutrition, teaching life skills, mental health, corruption, how to work in post conflict areas… plus a million other things. But maybe most importantly, we learnt the language we would be speaking in the region we were assigned to.
Recently, my current supervisor told me that the reason so many people think Peace Corps Volunteers are American spies (seriously) is because we come here “already knowing the language.”  I am learning the tribal language of “Acholi.” Unlike Bantu languages, the language is derived from Arabic (since the Acholis migrated from Sudan) and is tonal. Thus, one word pronounced in different tones can mean completely different things. Daunting huh? Acholi is the language of the Northern People in Uganda. These are the people who suffered the unthinkable violence we only read about during the twenty year war that ended just five years ago.  As someone passionate about trauma healing, I know I’m supposed to be here… Though I’m sure I will gain more from the Acholi People than I will ever be able to give. A bedo kan kumbedi. Eni Ganga.

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