The content and opinions found on this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect any position of the United States Government or the Peace Corps.

April 28, 2010

The V-card

Oooohh. Aahhhh. I'm back at the keyboard, and it feels oh so good. I musta done writ real nice cause people are hounding me for more posts. Readers, stop salivating and start satiating.

Guess what, everybody? I'm a PCV. That's right, a Peace Corps Volunteer, with a capital V because it's a title. On April 21 in Kololo, Uganda, I faced the U.S. Ambassador, raised my right hand, and stated:

"I, Lukas Fried, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

With those words, I exchanged the lowly title of Trainee for the coveted one of Volunteer. Ten weeks of training down. Two years of service to go.

Completing training is bittersweet, to steal fellow PCV Alyssa's word. On the one hand, it's nice to not have to wake up at the crack of dawn, bike 6 km through the mud, attend inane lectures until 5 pm, bike back, choke down some matooke, pass out, wake up, and do it again every day until Sunday. It's nice to be a big boy, able to choose where and when I eat, and what I do with my waking hours. It's nice to have my own place. But on the other hand, it's difficult to leave my new PCV friends and my homestay family for another unfamiliar town full of unfamiliar faces, left to fend for myself and figure it all out on my own.

Okay, now that I've had my emo moment, let's get down to brass tacks. Maybe you like it when I wax poetic about my feelings (of which I assure you I have none) but more likely than not, you're here to find out just what's going on in my little corner of the planet.

Like I said, I finished pre-service training and swore in on the 21st. The lead-up to swearing-in consisted of a visit to our future sites, followed by an arduous week of skills assessments, a homestay thank you event, and a few days of "relaxation" at a nice hotel. One of the skills assessments was the Language Proficiency Interview (LPI), a half-hour oral examination administered in the target language (whatever language you studied during training) by a member of the training staff. Passing the LPI (by achieving at least Intermediate Low proficiency) is a Peace Corps requirement, though you can fail the first time and retake it after 3 months in the field. Everybody in my language class (Runyoro-Rutooro) passed, and two of us, including me, achieved Intermediate Mid. I felt pretty proud of myself, and happy that I didn't have to retake the damn thing. Runyoro-Rutooro, I'll add, was the only class out of the the six (the others being Runyankore-Rukiga, Luganda, Lumasaaba, Ateso, and Acholi) to have a 100% pass rate. Go us, and go Anthony.

I won't say much about the homestay thank you event, except that my language class wrote and performed a song called "The Ten Weeks of Homestay," sung to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," and that my host family didn't show up, except for my host aunt Elizabeth and this random Acholi (northern Uganda) guy named Dennis who had started living in our house a few days earlier to study the Mulindwas' agricultural management techniques. A lot of other families didn't show up either; I think they had a good sense of what a colossal waste of time it was, having hosted previous trainees.

The day after homestay thank you, we all packed up our things, said goodbye to our host families, and relocated to Joka's Hotel, outside Kampala. The point of this was to ease the transition from homestay to site, as well give us time to rest and enjoy the sauna and pool. In actuality, Joka's did not prove to be very restful. During the day, we had to do workshops with our new work supervisors and counterparts (for me, these were my school's headteacher, or principal, Fred, and math/physics department chair, Sam) and attend development and security briefings at the U.S. Embassy. One cool thing about the U.S. Embassy is that they have a wall where they hang pennants from the embassy employees' alma maters. I saw two Carleton pennants out of the fifteen or so hanging up. Maize and blue, baby. Maize and blue. I hadn't yet written the speech I'd volunteered to give at swearing-in, so after the briefings and workshops, I spent quite a bit of time trying (and failing) to put inspiring words on paper, instead of chilling out with the other trainees. In my usual style, I didn't finish writing the speech until about two hours before I had to give it. All throughout the last workshop, my fingers were frantically channelling the mishmash of thoughts my brain was spewing out, until I had finally typed something speech-worthy. Later that day, at the Ambassador's house, I took my oath and delivered what I'd written. Somehow, it didn't turn out half bad! After the swearing-in ceremony, everybody—newly-minted PCVs, training staff, the Country Director, and Ugandan supervisors and counterparts—congratulated me heartily. Fred even called my speech poetic. Procrastination, you have yet to fail me! Following a delicious snack of meat kebabs with various dipping sauces, we shopped for some essentials in Kampala, then returned to Joka's to celebrate, and the next morning, our training group of 29 parted ways and left for site. All 29 of the Trainees who landed at Entebbe ten weeks earlier had sworn in and become Volunteers. In Peace Corps, that is virtually unheard of.

My home for the next two years is a concrete, two-room shop stall across the street from The Lord Is My Shepherd gas station, in the tiny trading post of Kiziranfumbi. The Kizi is a 40-minute taxi ride from Hoima, down 25 kilometers of shit-tastic dirt roadway (the main highway between the Hoima-Massindi and Kyenjojo-Fort Portal areas, interestingly enough). Halfway to Kiziranfumbi, the taxi will generally get pulled over by two white-uniformed police officers operating a police checkpoint. The taxi driver will get out and, instead of explaining why there are 8 people crammed into a 5-seat Toyota compact, slip the officers a modest bribe of perhaps 4000 shillings, or $2. The officers will smile, accept the bribe, and take note of the taxi's license plate number. That way, they'll know not to pull over that particular driver on his return trip, at least not for the rest of the day. Upon paying off the corrupt cops, the driver will return to the taxi, get in the driver's seat, reach over the passenger sharing the seat with him, shift into first, and peel out in a cloud of brown dust.

PC Uganda times training dates so that Volunteers working in education begin their service during a school break. This means that I am essentially on vacation for the next month. During this time, I'm supposed to be focusing on community integration: settling in, meeting and greeting people in town, and getting a feel for the place. I've made a few active efforts to meet the locals. For example this past Sunday I went with my neighbor Eva (who's fast becoming a good friend) to the service held at the nearby Anglican church. Looking back, I didn't really think that one through too well. The service was four hours long, and in Runyoro. On top of that, it was Women's Day, so after the service was over, some women from the congregation sang and acted out a skit. About three songs into the performance, my butt fell asleep and I decided to sneak out the side door (hey, you try sitting on a warped wooden pew for four hours!). Linguistic and gluteal circulatory issues notwithstanding, going to church did end up being an excellent way to expose myself to the community. My white face sticks out like a sore thumb in landlocked Uganda's sea of brown, so early on I was flagged as a visitor and invited to sit near the front of the sanctuary. During the service, I was asked to stand up and introduce myself. I gave them the schpiel I'd rehearsed in Runyoro during training: "Ibara lyange niinyowe Lukas. Nduga New Jersey omu Amerika, baitu hati nyikara omu Kiziranfumbi kusomesa abaana okubara na physics. Mwebale kusangwa." ("My name is Lukas. I come from New Jersey in America, but right now I'm staying in Kiziranfumbi to teach children math and physics. Thanks for having me"). Basically the entire congregation erupted into laughter when I said this. Rev. Geoffrey, who is also my next door neighbor, later assured me that this was laughter of appreciation. It's not too often a mujungu busts out some slick vernacular.

Alright all, time to head home and start whipping up some nourishment. When my doctor friend lets me use his modem again in a few days, I'll post some pictures of my house, the end of training, and swear-in. I hope my words will be enough for right now. Ciao.


  1. Yay. I'm the first of your fans to post a comment! It's so good to hear your written voice again, dear muzungu. I'm looking forward to seeing the photos of your store front crib. (Have you had any more customers stop in?).

    BTW, a Care package is winging it's way to you. Having had to write a list of all the goodies inside and post it on the outside for Customs purposes made me think it may not reach you...

    Ibara lyange niinyowe Mom xxoo

  2. Hey Lukas! Nice to get an update. We've been thinking about you and waiting for the next chapter of your story. Sounds like an amazing place!! Where else could you live across the street from The Lord is my Shepard gas station! That's funny.
    Love, Wendy and Mark