Operating in a Cultural Divide

I feel like both a lot and not much has happened over the past 8 months since I last posted on my blog. I’ve found it difficult to write something positive, honest, and inspiring, and so I haven’t written. I’ve been unproductive in my teaching here in Uganda, but extremely productive in creating projects that my school is excited about. On a normal day, I think about things I should be doing, I distract myself with housework and exercise, I watch TV shows given to us by a deep network of pirated DVDs that are way to easy and cheap to come by here in Uganda, and if I’m antsy to get some fresh air and not hindered by the fact that I will certainly be cat-called and stared at, I go into town to buy produce. We moved to our district’s main town (only town) in April, and since then, it’s been a lot easier to do things online like research for new project ideas, fill out grant applications, and correspond and organize our shipment of books coming from America. These days, I do a lot of my work from home. I’m not teaching this term because the school was using me as a replacement for a Math teacher that they needed to hire. I figured if I kept teaching, it was only delaying the process of hiring a teacher they need now, and will need even more once I leave. I do miss having regular interactions with the students. I did enjoy teaching Math, and my students said they liked my teaching style and learned a lot, but I didn’t feel like it was an impact that affected the school in a critical way. I decided to focus on getting a library set up so that students who are serious can learn regardless if their teacher comes to class (which they often don’t), and to follow through on the project Aaron and I created that will enable schools to fully fund the construction of teacher housing, so that teachers feel like they are rewarded and can easily do their job.

Aaron and I pitched our teacher housing project proposal to the Ministry of Education and Centenary Bank, and both parties want to move forward and make the project their own. We were hoping that the meetings with those parties would have taken place in January, but we did not have much assistance from our office until recently. Luckily, someone in our education department has taken the lead in helping us schedule meetings with the important figures in the capital city, something that is nearly impossible for us to do from here in our small town. Our country director has been excited about our project from the start, and though she’s been as helpful as she can be, she is so busy with other important things (being in charge of 140 PCVs and many staff) that she wasn’t able to put us in contact with people to whom we needed to pitch the project. Another director in our office recently reviewed our project and he was inspired and proud of what we came up with, and he has been of great help and guidance recently too. So, now things are picking up and it looks like this idea that seemed far-fetched but something we felt deserved our effort, might actually become reality.  A housing authority think-tank here in Africa has also reached out to us and asked us to pitch our project framework at a conference in South Africa. Our Peace Corps office doesn’t have funding for sending us to it, but it was nice to be invited. We have one more critical meeting with all partners before contracts are signed and we are able to actually start the work. That meeting will either make or break this project. By August we should know if we are staying here an extra year or moving back to the U.S. in December.

I wrote a grant for a library/HIV AIDS resource room and it was approved. So, hopefully that funding comes within the next two weeks so we can put in the floor, and finish the walls before our container of books comes in late August. Our Books for Africa project was fully funded, so we’re getting 22,000 books in August. We are going to rent a commercial space in our apartment complex and try to sort and distribute the books to 14 volunteers within a month.

August and September should be crazy months. I’m looking forward to that. Anything to make the time fly. That makes it sound like I’m not appreciative of our time here. I am. We’ve transformed. So much really, that I can’t really pinpoint in what way or from what outside factors. There are too many small things that have affected us in a big way. We’re different. I’ve learned a lot about myself. There are things I like about myself that I’ve noticed here, and things I really don’t, and that I hope I can work on, or perhaps they are just things that are a factor of my current environment.

I miss our family and friends in the states. I miss being able to meet up with my girlfriends and talk about anything and everything and not worrying about making some sort of cultural faux paux. Aaron and I feel like we can’t say what we mean most of the time here. We’ve made some life long friends from the PCV pool here in Uganda. It feels like we are forced to be friends because it usually feels like we can only relate to other PCVs, but I’m happy we were put together and we’ve become friends with people we may not have gotten to know otherwise. That being said, I’m saddened by the fact that I haven’t made any Ugandan friends. There’s a cultural barrier that feels too rigid to break. I’ve tried. It’s just really hard. I think there are some people in our Peace Corps office that I could be friends with but we aren’t allowed in the capital city unless we have work to do there, and we don’t often have work there. Plus, our lifestyles are different. As volunteers, we operate in two worlds. Because we are American, most Ugandans see us as rich, privileged, and able to do anything. Because we are paid so little, we live more like the lower classes of this country – people whose voices are silenced and who aren’t taken seriously. This culture suffers from the class structure of its British occupied past. They really did a number on this place. Nonetheless, I will always have some fond memories of people we’ve gotten to know here – they are all professional relationships that flourish mainly because of the work we do. But I’ve learned from these interactions. And I’m grateful for them.

I need to go write a letter for my school asking the Ministry of Education to set up a meeting and allow us to move forward quickly on this teacher housing thing. This is like the 3rd time writing such a letter. I’m looking forward to being able to communicate and operate more efficiently back in the states.

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2 comments

  1. Robin,
    Felt like sitting and talking to you! Thank you so much! You and Aaron are blessings wherever you are!
    Love
    Kris

  2. Thank you, Kris. We are looking forward to sitting at your warm, welcoming table and catching up!

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