The language region fabrics and clothing items were stellar. The event ran perfectly on time. The speeches by officials were quick and meaningful. The rain started and the A/V manager turned up the volume of the microphone proportionally to the heaviness of the rain. The speaker continued her speech without even acknowledging the downpour. The three cultural dances from some of our language regions were presented just as the rain stopped. All things considered, it was a flawlessly executed gathering at the ambassador’s residence in Uganda.
The Ambassador to Uganda had a conflicting appointment with President Museveni, so our oath to office was administered by the Deputy Head of Mission. The traditional oath was followed by a Peace Corps tailored oath administered by our Peace Corps Country Director.
I, Derek Smith, promise to serve alongside the people f Uganda. I promise to share my culture with an open heart and open mind. I promise to foster an understanding with the people of Uganda, with creativity, cultural sensitivity, and respect. I will face the challenges of service with patience, humility, and determination. I will embrace the mission of world peace and friendship as long as I serve and beyond. In the proud tradition of Peace Corps’ legacy, and in the spirit of the Peace Corps family past, present, and future.
I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.
The following day my supervisor and I traveled from Kampala to Jinja to move into my home. That same Friday afternoon my counterpart helped me purchase a mattress and sheets for the place. I slept for 12 hours Friday night. On Saturday I met a bunch of volunteers in a neighboring camp site for a little live music and celebration. I slept less than 12 hours on Saturday night.
Now it is Monday, August 14th and I’m in Mubende, five hours away from my home in Jinja, on day two of a 14 day “field trip” to shadow Patrick, an employee at my partner organization tasked with leading the implementation of our World Food Programme (WFP) project.
After my first weekend in Iganga, Maureen asked if I wanted to head to neighboring Jinja to see the city and visit Joel at his boarding school. I jumped on the offer to join primarily to shake things up in my daily routine but also to get a glimpse of Jinja, which I had been hearing about from current volunteers since arriving in country. After class ended early on Saturday, Maureen met me at school and we headed to the taxi stand to hitch a 45 minute ride out to Jinja.
In Uganda, a taxi is a public transit carrier van, called a mutatu, that shuttles people all around the country with usually 12+ people filling the van. There are no scheduled departures for taxis between major cities, but the constant flow of vehicles creeping by taxi stages with the conductor hollering the destination out the open door while simultaneously ushering on and off passengers creates a near on demand service.
A taxi stage is a stretch of road along side the main transit roads where taxis stop to drop off and pick up customers. In larger cities there are taxi stands located in different areas for different departure destinations, whereas between destinations there are marked areas along the road where people commonly get on and off the vehicles.
Each taxi is operated by two individuals, a driver and a conductor. The driver is the core operational component of the service and is responsible for safely or quickly driving passengers from their pick up stand to their drop off stand along the taxi route. On the other hand, the conductor is the finance, sales, marketing, and customer service team all in one. He is responsible for collecting payment, fielding complaints, hollering the destination out the door to attract more business, and ushering clients on and off as the taxi stops at its many stages along its route.
Each ride in a taxi is a new adventure. You never know what a customer is bringing with them, nor how many clients the conductor will boldly try to squeeze into the vehicle. For this reason, my sister, Maureen, did not want to be squished four across in a back row so we jumped into the front of an empty taxi and waited for the van to slowly fill before taking off.
For new Peace Corps trainees, the future is a series of milestones — and each comes with its own set of uncertainties and possibilities. After a few weeks of settling in with host families and attending language training, another key event was at hand for my cohort. Programmatic staff dispersed themselves around the country to reveal our future sites and the partner organizations with which we will be working.
Meeting future colleagues
I learned that I would be matched with Action for Relief and Development, an organization based in Jinja, a town about 80 kilometers east of Kampala near the shore of Lake Victoria. Equipped with a brief pamphlet, I familiarized myself with the organization to the degree possible before the next day’s mini supervisors’ workshop hosted at a hotel near our regional training center.
The future-site visit component of pre-service training is an opportunity to connect with our supervisors and counterparts from corresponding partner organizations. The event kicks off with a mini supervisors’ workshop that provides group training on cultural and business practices in Uganda. The workshop also serves as a space for volunteers and organization staff to become acquainted.
As volunteers arrived at the workshop, we found our counterparts and supervisors seated in the conference room waiting for us. Recalling the pamphlet I’d received, I managed to recognize the organization’s logo alongside the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) logo on a man’s shirt. I adjusted my route to greet him and introduce myself on my way to an open seat.
After meeting my supervisor, Joseph, the organization’s sole program manager, I was introduced to Dr. Nelson, who leads the Action for Relief and Development health team.
The day facilitated much discussion, and I quickly became acquainted with the organization and the two key staff members I’d be working with for the foreseeable future. With the one-day mini supervisors’ workshop complete, we went home to pack and prepare ourselves to travel with our organizations to their offices the following day. Some of us were fortunate to have organizations with cars, whereas many others hopped on half a day’s worth of public transit to reach their final destination.
Fortunately, we received the Fourth of July off and managed to celebrate the only way we knew how, a BBQ. Peace Corps provided us the day off and the funds to create the meal, but finding, bargaining, and purchasing the food within the given budget was our lesson for the day.
At this point we were still getting used to Iganda town and definitely did not know enough Lusoga to bargain properly, so finding what we needed as well as receiving a fair price was quite the challenge. Even with help indicating approximate prices to pay from our instructors and family, some of us received the Muzungu discount more often than not.
Since I worked too create and divvy up the ingredient list for our 25+ person feast I left myself and a few others that live near me the task of picking up the meat the morning of the feast. In addition to all foods requiring refrigeration storage, we picked up a couple of chickens and 4kg of meat from the butcher at the market.
I managed to pay the appropriate price without negotiation for the beef. The butcher even asked me to point to which parts I wanted him to hack up to constitute the 4kgs, which gave me the courage needed to approach the cages of live chickens. I walked into the chicken coup on the outskirts of the market until someone grabbed me and pulled me to their cages to sell me their chickens. The first man I spoke to told me that I could buy the local chickens for fifteen thousand Ugandan shillings ($4/$5) per chicken, which was exactly the price and item my family told me was fair and to purchase. With my adrenaline pumping I happily handed over the thirty thousand in exchange for the two chickens. When asked if I would like the chickens killed or tied together I happily announced tied just so I could walk into the party fulfilling my word to provide live chickens.
Not until I strutted into the volunteer’s homestay that was hosting the BBQ with chickens happily in hand and after I took a few deep breathes to let the heart rate cool down and adrenaline fade from my face was I informed that I got swindled on the chickens. The host mother was holding and inspecting the birds inquisitively as she scowled over the festivities asking how much I paid and from whom I purchased the chickens. She then enquired why I purchased female chickens, to which a shoulder shrug and tooth gritting smile was all I could muster as a response. I had received female birds rather than male birds. Not only did I have no idea that I needed to buy male instead of female, but even the ability to identify the difference is not a skill I possess. We all laughed about how confident (cocky) I was about paying the fair price for all my items, when in reality I also had no idea what I was doing. I also was boasting the day before about how I intended to fully buy and prepare the birds, which I too backed out of. Something that finds its way into conversation still today!
A day in the life of learning Lusoga while being a Masanja
The first couple weeks of Lusoga lessons and homestay occurred as expected and each day without fail has passed as scheduled:
6:30am: Wake up and make my way to the latrine and bathing area.
6:45am: Dump a cold bucket of water over my head to:
Help rid me of caffeine abuse
7:05am: Make my way inside the house to a full breakfast including either bread, bananas, and meat or spaghetti noodles, but always with a mug of ginger, lemongrass tea and fresh passion fruit juice. Additionally, a bag is packed with my actual breakfast for when I get to class. The food in front of me is just a light bite to give me enough energy to walk to school.
7:15am: My watch alarm reminds me to take my anti-malarial pill.
7:35am: I meet two colleagues Emily and Mary at the Mosque roughly 200 meters from the Masanja’s house and we begin our 30-minute scenic route to school filled with fields, hills, and trails.
8:05am: Walk into class 5 minutes late and joyfully explain our tardiness is due to greeting and practicing our Lusoga with neighbors and kids on our way to class. True story.
8:15am – 5:00pm: Lusoga Lessons (to be explained another time)
The morning the group dispersed from our technical training center near Kampala to our separate regional language training centers came and went in a haze. Our final night of training as a 52-person cohort was full of fun and laughter at a sendoff barbecue that gracefully distracted us from our worries and concerns about language training and homestay.
Time during technical training moved as it usually does. The first week was slow as the body and mind adjusted to the new surroundings and demands. The second week came and went as we fell into stride. And the third week dissipated before we realized it was even there. The send off barbecue partnered with an early departure, with each language group heading their separate ways, left us in a trance the following morning. Our heads were spinning as we tried to piece together where the three weeks had gone while simultaneously reminisced about the strong friendships we had made and contemplated the concerns and excitement the next stage of training would bring.
Lusoga Airlines, which is the term used and coined for our 12-person Lusoga language team, departed promptly in the morning with all the students on board. Not until we reached the main road to head east did we realize that a co-captain (instructor) was not aboard. With the minor hiccup of departing without a full crew remedied, through lucid dreams and head bobbing sleep we made our way over the bumpy roads to the training center in Iganga, where our language and cultural training is held, to meet our homestay families for the next five weeks.
Our early departure and subsequent arrival gave us enough time to shake off the anxiety and put on our best face to meet our future families. With little information given with how this adoption ceremony would go we quietly spread ourselves out across the tables unsure what to do with our hands as we watched the families stroll in. As the families arrived they signed in on a sheet and quietly went to sit at an empty table, equally unsure of what to do next. Amongst ourselves we whispered around the room the last name of the family until it reached the volunteer who had the match. Using our formal Lusoga greeting we had learned the week before we each enthusiastically introduced ourselves showing off all that we had already learned of their mother tongue, for this was our way of masking any nervous energy we may have been feeling. When I got the whisper that it was my turn to perform I stumbled over with my bags and quite ungracefully went through the formal introduction. The nerves quickly cooled as my host sister and brother gave me their names and I became aware that I’d be living with another mid-twenty-year-old Derek, spelled Derrick. In my head I though, same name, same age, I’m probably going to get along just swell with this guy… and I did.
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.