4 hours by bus from Philadelphia to JFK, 14 hours from JFK to Johannesburg, 4 hours from Johannesburg to Kampala, 5 minutes in the bathroom to change into business casual attire, 30 minutes to clear customs, and 40 minutes to collect baggage before clearing customs to be greeted by Peace Corps staff. First impressions and dressing to Ugandan standards was on all of our minds, but traveling in business casual wasn’t much of an option. In these 5 critical minutes in addition to washing my face and brushing my teeth I was able to fully change from vans, beyond faded but extremely comfortable black jeans, a t-shirt, and hoodie required during the frozen flights, to a shined pair of black dress shoes, pressed and cuffed slacks, and a crisp short sleeve button up with the tags still requiring removal. Once our 52-person cohort was dressed, through customs, and in possession of all we could bring in two checked bags for a 2 year move to Uganda, our Peace Corps staff happily greeted us and loaded us onto a couple buses for another 3-hour journey to our training site in a neighboring city.
Upon strategically acquiring the shot gun seat of the bus and chatting with the driver, I gave a few looks back at the tired faces to see all the excitement penetrating through the sleepy, glossy eyes. First impressions were slowly starting to sink in.
Our 52-person cohort consists of 28 Agribusiness and 24 Health trainees. For some, this is the second country visited whereas for others this is over their 20th. The best part about this new family hailing from Alabama to Oregon is the communal nature. Although in the United States our various backgrounds and interests would lead us on diverging journeys, the overriding collective goal to serve in the Peace Corps for 27 months has set us on the same path and has bonded us together.
I’m currently on the 11th day straight of training at an agricultural research center just outside of Mukono, which is an hour or so east of Kampala. The content, structure, and timing of our days from 7am-8pm has been extremely methodical, pushing us to our limits while providing just enough time for tea breaks and meals. The level of organization and coordination required to seemingly flawlessly execute this training has set the bar high for what us volunteers can expect out of the team in country.
The first week of training consisted of large group sessions covering a plethora of health, safety and security, and introduction lectures about serving in the Peace Corps. Simultaneously we had individual interviews with the Country Director, Program Manager, and both Program Coordinators to develop possible placements for service. The amount of time, effort, and dedication to set us up at a site that matches our wants and interests is extremely appreciated.
Some of the trainings can seems dry, repetitive, and boring but the “Survival Skills” category is nothing but a good time. What are some of these survival skills you may ask? Taking a bucket bath, using a pit latrine, washing clothing by hand, and doing all this while following cultural norms has been a hoot. The bucket bath has been one of my highlights since it is more tolerable than my Achilles heal, cold showers. How many times does one need to bucket bath here in Uganda? At an absolute minimum, two. One when waking up before heading to work and one upon returning home to work. It is not uncommon for some women to take five a day depending on their work and chores. In regards to the pit latrine, in addition to upkeep, cleaning, and maintenance, posture and technique were fully explained. Washing clothing by hand is tolerable if done every other day, if not, it is more of an endeavor than any one person can handle.
While we are learning these basic skills we have the staff at the training site simultaneously heckling and cheering us on. When doing laundry, the first time, a couple of buddies and I drew a crowd. The entertainment started by 15 people laughing at us, which then turned to concern and words of advice, but the ordeal ended with some women picking out clothing off the line and kicking us away from our work stations to rewash the items since we did not do a good enough job.
- G-nut, short for ground nut, commonly known as peanut in the United States are harvested here. This leads to not only a supply, but an abundance of homemade peanut butter.
- Cake Culture. Uganda is one of the only African nations with “cake culture.” We learned about this as we celebrated our country director’s birthday with a massive chocolate cake.
- Matooke is a green banana like plantain that is steamed, mashed, and served at every meal. Imagine mashed potatoes for every meal. Happy.
- I like taking bucket baths
Each day I wake up confident and excited about what the future brings and I reconfirm this notion throughout the day as I interact with the 15+ plus staff at our training that are dedicated to helping us succeed. My main concern so far has been whether or not I’ve been giving Peace Corps staff the same positive first impression as they have given me.