The more the merrier

Christmas with the Masanjas

Family Christmas with my family in Iganga felt the same as family Christmas back at home. Sure there were some differences, but the structure and feel of the whole festivity contained the same core components that makes celebrating this holiday so special to me.

Just like at home…

… It was a huge ordeal with extended family traveling out of their way to celebrate together.

… There was a large special meal prepared.

… There was an open door with friends and anyone else without a celebration welcome to join.

… The little children were running around screaming and drinking bubbly, sugary beverages.

… The youths were up to no good, but stiffened their backs and were extremely respectful when facing the adults.

… An uncle showed up with a home brewed alcohol beverage.

… Some went to church while others stayed back.

Unlike at home…

… We cooked on open fires outside.

… We sat and talked under the shade of the trees.

… The main meal was a late lunch instead of dinner.

… The evening turned into a massive party throughout town.

As one can tell, the only differences seemed to be situational upgrades. Cooking and relaxing outside on a nice sunny day rather than tucked away from the ice and snow outside created a whole new dynamic. Rather than the little kids’ screams and shrieks filling the house, they faded out in the open air. Rather than cooking in a crowded kitchen with well meaning hands getting in the way, only those who knew what they were doing got close enough to the open fires. Rather than enjoying a warm beverage under a blanket after the meal, cold beers were consumed under the cool shade of the trees as the sun went down. Rather than everyone teetering out as sleep consumed them, beers kept flowing till the heavy bass from the music in town motivated them to stumble to the party.

The only addition I’d like to add that doesn’t run parallel to this story is the underlying feel of Christmas in Uganda. In Uganda people talk about where they live and where they are from. Where someone works is usually where they live, but where their family has lived for generations is where they are from. Christmas is all about reconnecting with where you are from with people fleeing the cities and taking the trip “out to the village.” A Christmas is best spent out in your village, with your family, enjoying each others company alongside a hefty meal. For me, this raw celebration of those around me, in the sought out simplest of settings, and without the distractions of my daily toil really made celebrating Christmas a treat this year.

To give you a visual sense of how Christmas day played out, a few photos and captions may tell the story better.

Upon arrival I was greeted with morning tea and spot in the shade.
My host mother hustling between open fires preparing the meal. On the left is matooke steaming in banana leaves. Matooke is from the banana family but doesn’t have any sweetness and is usually prepared mashed like potatoes.
My host mother and sister, Maureen, checking the status of the matooke.
Maureen and host brother, Pius, preparing to serve the fried rice. Mother is multitasking as only moms can really do. You’ll also see a chicken and a beef stew just above and to the right of the rice. Matooke can be seen still wrapped in the banana leaves.
Maureen sipping the malwa (local brew) as my host father grins with joy and uncle wonders why I’m taking a photo.
Post meal relaxing with the family.

Friday, January 5th, 2018

The day began as every other day in Tofo, Mozambique. The sun began to rise just before 5am and the first beam of light came through the window, past the curtain blowing in the sea breeze, and hit my face at 5:35am. After rolling over a few times to dodge the expanding beam of light the persistent sun convinced me to start the day. It was 5:45am and the sun was already bright and disorienting, light penetrated throughout the entire house. I opened the door as gently as I could and tried to step over Charlie, the dog who sleeps at my door, without waking him on my way to the bathroom to shower and start the day.

Still wiping the sleep off my face to look in the mirror after the shower, I could hear Dolly, the little terrier, prancing down the steps from the loft to greet me. Upon opening these groggy eyes, I could see the line developing for the bathroom with Elliot, my friend from University, and Richie, Elliot’s friend and the owner of the home, waiting patiently with coffees already in hand.

While eating a bowl of granola with soy milk, an indication of this life of luxury they were providing, we calmly went through the talking points of our morning discussion including number of dives, conditions of the ocean, any surf, who is making dinner, what’s for dinner, a beer in the market after work? Once the boxes were checked Elliot and I walked two minutes out to the main road and at 6:40am we were picked up by one of his coworkers and piled into the back of the pickup and were off to the dive shop.

As the employees of Tofo Scuba went through their morning routine of opening the shop and preparing the gear and boats for the dive clients, I made my way through the bustle and out to the beachfront restaurant to stay out of the way. In the restaurant with a toasted egg sandwich in hand I watched the waves come in, all the while calculating how long I would be able to hold the sandwich down before sea sickness would take over out on the water.


At 8am, Elliot’s dive instructor safety briefing was complete and we began walking down the beach ready to push the preloaded 9-meter inflatable sided boat, for our two sequential dives, out into the water. With a tractor behind us pushing the boat through the sand stronger than the waves crashing ahead of us, the five divers and two instructors managed to launch the boat and we all heaved ourselves aboard just as the skipper fired the dual engines to bring us to our first reef of the day.

Since the diving conditions are a bit challenging in Tofo, we were instructed to take a negative entry to start the dive. The easiest way to describe a negative entry is by imagining how a boat full of Navy SEALs would enter the water. Our instructor, while using a GPS, counted down the meters to our drop spot. With 20 meters remaining we were instructed to put our masks on and hold our regulator in hand. With 10 meters remaining we were instructed to put our regulators in our mouth and prepare for the count down.  Elliot gave us the three, two, one, go! And we all rolled back off the boat at the same time and immediately began our decent to the ocean floor 30 meters below. Once oriented in the water we found the dive line Elliot was swimming to the bottom and we followed it down to ensure we did not lose the group in the current. Once reaching the ocean floor we checked in with our buddies and the instructor to give the OK sign before following the current along the reef beginning the dive.

Continue reading “Friday, January 5th, 2018”

Hiking Sabinyo

Mount Sabinyo has three peaks and the third marks the intersection between Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Getting there required an approximate 10-hour bus ride from Kampala to the town of Kisoro in the far southwest of Uganda. The early rising group decided to take an 8am bus all the way to Kisoro to (hopefully) ensure arrival before dark. The other group elected for a 9am bus to Kabale, which is the city before Kisoro and roughly still two hours away. Once in Kabale their plan was to catch a mutatu from Kabale to Kisoro for the last leg of the journey.

I quite predictably joined the early departure in order to take just one mode of transit all the way to Kisoro. The hope of arriving earlier meant getting situated and properly eating before the 6am hike the next day. A lesson learned over and over here is you can only plan so much. Our 8am bus ended up leaving at 9:15am, the same time as those taking the 9am bus. Our bus then proceeded to stop significantly more throughout the journey. Then once hitting Kabale, the bus driver decided there were not enough passengers to drive all the way to Kisoro, so he made us get out and set up a car to take us the last leg. The sedan from Kabale to Kisoro lasted about two hours as we rode four in the front and four in the back. This was the first time I’ve ever seen someone drive with a passenger also in the driver seat. I’m still unsure if she was helping to receive a discount on the fare or if she just sat there perhaps getting in the way of the clutch and stick.

I wouldn’t call it predictably, but not at all unsurprisingly the “early morning” crew managed to reach the destination over two hours after the other group. Fortunately, our group was in high spirits as we arrived late in the evening because other than the high spirits, our bodies were in no way in proper shape for a 10-hour hike departing early the following morning. To ensure safe passage on these long haul rides, tactically dehydrating and fasting is a technique commonly used. Although this strategy can enhance minor discomfort throughout the journey, it prevents all sorts of extreme discomfort that can otherwise not be attended to.

The Mountain


Mount Sabinyo means “tooth” in the local language. Other than that, I cannot really tell you much about the significance of the mountain for a few reasons. The first is because I was usually sucking wind and using all my energy to try and seem cool any time we caught up to our guide as he frolicked up and down the paths significantly ahead. The second is because the guides were there for our physical safety. There were two men who went out ahead of our party with guns to scope the trail and one with a gun who followed behind. The guns were not meant to shoot anything in particular but to scare off large animals that may have wanted to share the trail.


Of the three peaks, the first one took the longest, roughly 4 hours to reach. We started off on quite a flat trail that led through a bamboo forest, a stream, and a swamp on the way to the base of the mountain before gradually hitting steeper and steeper inclines.  The pace set at the beginning felt more like a jog than a walk, which really did not instil any confidence in me in regards to my chances for success. Upon reaching the first peak we took a well needed extended rest before proceeding to the second and third peaks. Each of these next peeks only took about an hour each as we climbed up and down ladders and steps to the tops.

If it were up to me, I would have liked to have been airlifted to the first peak to skip the grueling hike and to just enjoy the adventure of the ladders in the clouds. The way up the ladders was physically challenging, but focusing on breathing and keeping a steady pace occupied the mind with the finish line feeling closer and closer each step. The way down proved to be a bit trickier. A few of the people on the hike were scared of heights, which required me to coach one of them down the ladders. Although heights are not particularly scary for me, coaching someone down makeshift ladders in the clouds proved difficult.

For example, I’m was telling my friend Ashya, “okay now put your left foot on the rung that your right foot is currently on.” I look down to provide some insight on how far to go. “Okay now let’s keep going steady one at a time. We have at least 5 or 6 more before we need to switch ladders. There is a space big enough to hold one foot before switching ladders. I’ll let you know how I maneuver it when I get there, because I can’t really see where the next ladder starts.” As I’m trying to guide her down I’m also wincing as I speak because I know my words aren’t exactly helping or downplaying the frightening component.

Once we made it back to the first peak we were all either riding the adrenaline high from the ladders or shaking from fear, but little did we know, the hardest part was yet to come. The journey back began with high spirits as we chatted down the path, but bend after bend we started realizing just how far we had to go. At least 3 times someone stated “Ah the final stretch is here,” and each time they were incorrect. Eventually, once somber silence took over the excited euphoria, we made it back feet dragging.

While simultaneously doing some reflection on the bus journey home while also deeply exhaling and grunting as I massaged out the aching legs I realized how my physical health has really been low on the priority list since arriving. Focusing on work, reading, meditation, friendships, and building community have all been of the utmost importance but for some reason exercise has not made the cut. Now that the grueling yet rewarding hike is over, I’m realizing its time to start focusing on my physical health since all those other focuses seem to be stable or developing nicely. Perhaps that will start after New Years though… I need to gorge this Christmas with my homestay family and enjoy myself on vacation in Mozambique.

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Pleasure doin’ business with ya

Being awoken at 5:04am by a text from my counterpart, Dr. Nelson, is not how I intended the morning to begin. We agreed as we were leaving the office at dusk the previous evening that he would pick me up at 5:30am for our day trip to the far east districts of Tororo and Manafwa. I had set my alarm that night thinking we agreed on 5:30am, so there is no way we leave any earlier than 6:00am, but I’ll be prepared for 5:45am only because I get anxious if I’m not early. So I set my alarm to get up at 5:15am in order to be early and prepared at 5:45am for our scheduled 5:30am departure.

The text at 5:04am said “Are you awake? It is 5am.” To which I replied before getting out of bed, “Good morning. I’m awake and nearly dressed.” After throwing some water on my face to get the blood flowing and beginning the teeth brushing portion of the morning routine I glanced back down at my phone to see that he immediately responded, “In the next 25 minutes we should be at your place.” I had to give my head a shake while brushing my teeth to figure out if this was just another anxiety dream or if I was actually running late for something here in Uganda. I went back over our conversation as we were leaving work the night before in my head, ran the numbers to see where I had made an error, and continually I kept coming to the same conclusion. I should be sitting around aimlessly for at least 15 minutes this morning and not rushing out the door.

Lesson learned. Dr. Nelson is always on time and therefor I need to start getting back in that habit when I’m working with him.

Our early morning, on time departure was to ensure that we had enough time to meet with the District Health Officer in both Tororo and Manafwa, which are near the Kenyan border. Meeting with district level government is part of the process to receive access to the district before program implementation. These meetings are less than a pitch, but more of an informational discussion with the key players. If all goes well, hands shake and an MoU is signed by my organization and the district stakeholder commencing programmatic implementation.

Dr. Nelson admiring his project booklet before the meeting in Manafwa.

Continue reading “Pleasure doin’ business with ya”

Race for micro-finance by Haley Block


Last weekend I had two exciting events happen. First, I successfully ran down a bus in dress flats. And two, I represented my organization at a FinTech for Agriculture event in Kampala. (FinTech = Financial technology)

I’ll start with the bus.

I found out about the event in Kampala a few days before it was going to happen. It looked like an  interesting networking opportunity for my org and after talking with my supervisor, we decided I should go try to build some connections. However, in order to go, I had to get approval from Peace Corps.

Friday morning, the day of the event, I get up thinking I’m going to have a normal day at work. As of that morning, I still had not received approval from Peace Corps. The event started at 2:30 PM and Kampala is a 5-hour bus ride from my site – it seemed like a lost cause.

However, as I am setting up my desk to begin my day, I refresh my inbox. To my surprise, there’s an email saying I have approval to go to Kampala. It’s 9:00 AM and buses aren’t exactly on demand. So, thinking I still won’t be able to make it to Kampala in time, I go tell my supervisor. He had a different opinion.

I quickly pack up my things, rush home, put on some dress pants, and throw the makeup I haven’t touched in two months into a bag. Now, looking fresh in my business casual uniform (it felt so good to be wearing my black dress pants again) I’m standing at the paved road that goes through my town asking when the next bus to Kampala is. With the help of my supervisor, we figure out that next bus won’t pass through until 11 AM. But, if I were to catch a ride to Kamdini I might be able to catch the bus coming down from Gulu.

At around 9:45 I’m in the front seat of a mini van to Kamdini. At 10:20, I arrive in Kamdini – just as is the bus from Gulu to Kampala is passing by. I toss my schillings to the driver and jump out of the car waving frantically, but the bus doesn’t stop. So, I start running. As I’m running, people are cheering, laughing, pointing, and I feel like the Macy’s Day Parade. Just as it reaches the edge of the town, the bus finally stops. I jump on, out of breath, but trying to hold it together. The man I sit next to doesn’t seem too pleased with my presence but I’m ecstatic. I’m officially en route to Kampala.

The event.

The event was called FinTech4Ag hosted by the UNCDF at the Kampala Design Hub – a swanky, restored warehouse building full of 20 something’s with laptops and plaid shirts. It felt like I had stepped back into the States.

The meat of the event was a panel of leaders in the micro-finance industry in Uganda: a FinTech startup founder, an international trust executive, a micro-finance banker, a finance software company executive, and a manager of an invoice-financing firm. What followed was a very interesting discussion about the role of each of these organizations in the industry, market trends, and how to reach the “missing middle.”

However, as the discussion continued, a few people in the crowd became agitated. Here we were talking about how best to improve access to financial services for rural farmers yet there were no farmers in the room. Nor was there anyone on the panel who worked directly in rural communities. Of all the SACCO managers in the country, (arguably the only bankers who live and work in rural farming communities) two were present in the crowd.

Continue reading “Race for micro-finance by Haley Block”

Ugandans for Uganda – a fixer

Through the series Ugandans for Uganda, Ugandans I meet and work alongside will receive the spotlight for their efforts leading, supporting, teaching, or helping Ugandans in Uganda. This ongoing series was created after being asked, in our Peace Corps reporting tool, to finish this sentence: “The one thing I wish Americans knew about my country of service is…”

My immediate response was…  there are many Ugandans tirelessly working to better the livelihoods of the disenfranchised in Uganda. Ugandans for Uganda looks to bring action to this sentiment.

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Sharif guiding a team through a SWOT Analysis

Sharif, previously introduced as a driver is everything including a driver. At ARD and Uganda in general people wear multiple hats at their multiple jobs from their multiple income streams. The population is extremely entrepreneurial. In addition to a main career, most people also have a small business or do consulting work on the side. This leads many people to be a jack of all trades. Sharif is one of them.

To give you an idea of some of the roles Sharif played while on our trip to the field I’ll list them all before diving into a few. Driver, mechanic, translator, negotiator, student, educator, mobilizer, logistician, financial manager, cross cultural liaison, safety and security manager, advisor, colleague, and friend.

Since heading to the field with Sharif was the first time I was responsible for all the activities, I heavily relied on him for assistance. As my work colleague and cross cultural liaison he was always proactive in ensuring everything always worked out for us. This meant being the liaison between me and the field staff to ensure the trainings went as logistically sound as possible, between me and the cooperative executives ensuring the training was properly translated and understood, between me and the lunch caterers ensuring timely delivery of everyone’s lunch at the trainings, between me and the guest house managers ensuring I did not pay too much for my room, between me and the office in Jinja ensuring I had the resources and support required to execute the activities. In essence, anytime I was unsure of something he was always there to provide an answer, but most of the time he was there to fix a problem before I was even aware there was a problem arising.

Continue reading “Ugandans for Uganda – a fixer”