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.
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.
I was raised with the phrase “go with the flow.” Today, it is engrained in my thought process and driving my decision to accept an offer to join the Peace Corps. I’ve been considering applying to and joining Peace Corps since high school, so what do I mean by go with the flow?
Since last October, I have been mentally and physically preparing to join the Peace Corps in Peru. This preparation included reaching out to my gap year host family in Pisac, Peru, quitting my job perhaps a bit early to see a new part of the world before service, reading Conquest of the Incas, Death in the Andes, and listening to Spanish language podcasts. The bulk of the load was consumed more recently while motorcycling down Vietnam to prepare for my Spanish language interview held the following week when I returned from the trip.
None of these activities were hindering or felt required, but they brought on nostalgia and reignited my interest to return to Peru, one of the first countries I discovered on my own six years ago. A discovery that has influenced my decision to prioritize new experiences, guiding me to taking the trip I was on and initiating the journey to come.
When I received the call that my cohort’s placement to Peru had been canceled with minimal explanation, a day before my Spanish language interview, I was less than enthused. Upon further reading about the state of emergency called by the Peruvian government in response to intense flooding and corresponding mudslides, I slowly began to understand the decision made.