Jun 01, 2019A Year in Africa – Settling in

A Year in Africa – Settling in

In this second installment on her experiences working for the Peace Corps, we join join Julia Taylor as she settles into her new home and role in Mbale, Uganda.

Julia Taylor 12 minute read.   Resources

In 2015 Julia applied for and was accepted in a Peace Corps program sending doctors and nurses to Africa for one year. In 2016-2017 she was a part of the Global Health Service Partnership (GHSP) working with medical and nursing schools teaching and working with school facilities and administrators to improve the educational opportunities for healthcare professionals in Uganda.

You can read part one of Julia’s story here: A Year in Africa – Preparations & Orientation

Setting up home

The trip from the health clinic in Jinja to Mbale was dusty but without incident. I moved into my home for the next year. The first night I got bedding and the mosquito net installed. Each day a little more is accomplished. The university supplied the basics: a bed, couch and chairs for the living room, a mini refrigerator and a few dishes. I actually have two bedrooms – the second one is furnished with my empty suitcases (I promise at least an air mattress if someone comes to visit). There is a shower but alas no bathtub. Hot water is promised soon.

Local transportation. Image credit: Julia Taylor

I am slowly purchasing additions to my house. The main mode of transportation here is the boda-boda – a motorcycle with passengers. However, the Peace Corps has forbidden the volunteers from riding them. Probably a wise decision since they are responsible for our health care and a boda-boda is not the safest means of transportation. I have carried home a floor fan, a stool, a small amount of groceries and various cooking items. We were provided with an empty gas cylinder for cooking (I am supposed to get a stove … soon). I carried my cylinder to the petrol station to get it filled. After filling, it was too heavy for me to carry back so I got a boda-boda driver, gave him the filled gas container, and, since there are no street addresses here, ran home and he followed me.

I have been able to run, planning my exercise when it is light enough to be safe but early enough so that there is not too much traffic. Often on my runs, children will call out “faster, faster.” Once a boda-boda driver slowed down and asked “Are you tired yet?”

Note: school is taught in English but as with everywhere some schools are better than others. Often the only place the children speak English is in school. At home they speak their own language – Lumasaaba, Luganda, Teso, etc.

My living room now has framed pictures. I often look at them – pictures of all my children, grandchildren, siblings and cousins. Everyone wants to know why Stacey is so much taller than the rest of us.

The light in my bedroom is dim and I have yet to locate a bedside table and lamp. I do my nighttime reading in bed protected by the mosquito net and use a battery powered lantern. It works great. One of my goals for this trip was to read all 257 books on my Kindle. Unfortunately I am living with a group of readers and have added books to my collection (261). I have read Dark Star Safari (traveling from Cairo to Capetown) and the Last King of Scotland (about Idi Amin).

Although the Peace Corps provided us with a basic manual water filter, I followed the example of one of my fellow apartment dwellers (he just spent six months in Kenya) and purchased a classier one. I am happy to report it is working well.

Laundry is done by hand. Fortunately we have a cleaning lady to do many of the household chores. She works five days a week, doing laundry and cleaning each apartment (my day is Monday). For this she is paid $100 a month.

The building is an almost finished eight unit building. Five of the apartments are occupied by Peace Corps – Global Health Service Partnership people, two more by university faculty and the last is empty for now. The university/hospital is a 20 minute walk.

The Peace Corps has provided us with heavy duty padlocks for the front and back doors. All windows have bars. Each room has a lock and a set of keys. And we have armed guards at our building 24/7. Their change of shifts (midnight and 5 am) are noisy. One morning I think the guards were fighting with a chicken that got into our courtyard. I am on the first floor and have a small front porch which is a gathering place for neighbor children and the guards. Evenings are not the time to sit outside. The mosquitos are definitely a problem. I take my anti-malarial medicine every morning.

Electricity is not guaranteed. It seems to go out every day or two for up to 12 hours. However, I have lots of backup lighting so it’s not really a problem.

I am just 2-3 hours from Jinja but the languages are different. In fact, I learned that only about 25% of the people here speak Lumasaaba, the language we were studying. I would like to keep studying but I haven’t determine which language would be most useful.

On Sunday, the Anglican cathedral choir sang “Bringing in the Sheaves” in English. Once again I was the only white face in a congregation of about 550.

My major accomplishment this week (besides carrying the fan safely home – I broke the first one I purchased by running it into a building while walking home) was meeting Janet White, MD from England who founded Joy Hospice. I spent over two hours with her and touring her facility which includes a lab, maternity building, and outpatient clinic. She has been in East Africa almost continuously since 1989. She returned to England for two years to attend a theology school.

I have started working. With my counterpart Doreck, we are heading a tutorial of third year medical students. This is a two day a week (3 hours each) student led (with faculty guidance) session on various topics. This week it was stroke. I am still adjusting to Problem Based Learning and the fact that the students speak in whispers and in an accent I don’t always understand. I am certain that they have a hard time understanding my accent and think that my voice is too loud. Each session opens and closes with prayer.

Healthcare in Uganda

At the risk of boring my son-in-law (who said he didn’t care if I took the blood pressure of 3,000 people but he would be interested if my patients were 3,000 lions), I’ll give some information about the healthcare system.

  • Remote villages have a VHT which I think is a village health technician, a person who must speak some English but does not necessarily have any health care training.
  • A health clinic II (there is no health clinic I) is basically an outpatient clinic run by a nurse.
  • A health clinic III adds a maternity unit and immunizations and is run by a clinical officer (similar to a physician’s assistant – three years of post-high school training)
  • A health clinic IV has an operating room for true emergencies and is run by a doctor.
  • Then there are district (like our state) hospitals, then regional referral hospitals (Mbale is one) and finally Mulago the national referral hospital in the capitol, Kampala.

Care in all these facilities is free as long as the supplies and medicines are in stock. If the hospital is out of something, the family is expected to go to a pharmacy and purchase what is needed.

As in India, each patient arrives with at least one family member to feed and care for the patient. Each morning the grounds of the hospital are covered with drying laundry for the patient and associated family members.


Cheese. Image credit: Julia Taylor

I have just returned from touring a dairy farm/cheese factory outside Mbale. Jerome, the owner, is originally from the Netherlands and came to Uganda as a missionary. He married a local woman and decided to stay here. Gouda is his main product but he also produces yogurt, mozzarella, cottage cheese, cream cheese and paneer. He uses solar power and methane gas (from cow manure) to supply his energy needs. I have some gouda and have ordered cottage cheese and paneer. It was a fun afternoon.

Obviously, wearing a hijab has its advantages. If a Muslim woman has a bad hair day, no one knows. Her hair is covered. The Islamic University nursing students are by far the most stylish on the ward.

Second year student nurse. Image credit: Julia Taylor

However, several Ugandans have told me that I am “smart” (meaning “looking good”). Of course, that is never when I am dressed for church or school. The compliment is given when I am in jeans and t-shirt or in my workout clothes which features very large, baggy Missouri State shirt.

I returned to the Timeless Beauty Shop (specializing in braids, weaves and dreadlocks) and had my hair cut. It is sooooo short! A barber cut it. I am considering wearing a hijab.

At Work

Checking blood pressure. Image credit: Julia Taylor

I am now Sister Julia (the British way to address a senior nurse) or sometimes Madame Julia (when I am leading a class as a tutor). I have an office (with desk and chair!) and am spending some time on the pediatric wards. I gave out Lifesavers at my final tutorial session. The students enjoyed that. I prepared for two classes that didn’t happen (schedule coordination does not appear to be a high priority here).

My biggest accomplishment has been getting all the first year students into the skills lab to do one set of vital signs (taking appropriately 40 minutes to do a blood pressure, temperature and heart and respiratory rates). Obviously more practice is required. on the schedule for the next five-week module are four sessions of 2.5 hours each for 82 students to practice, practice, practice!

Home Life

We found a small puppy outside apartment building. One of the neighborhood guards said that it had been “stepped on” by a vehicle and was “trying to die”. We brought it to our building and gave her some water, food and attention. One of my neighbors, Sarah took her to a vet the next day, but she died later. We were all very sad. The Ugandans (who do not keep pets) appeared to think we were somewhat crazy.

Travis took the Foreign Service officer exam. We all were quizzing him on information for the “random” knowledge part of the test. He kept saying that Puerto Rico was a state! And Harry Truman was a Republican! Fortunately the questions he got were “Where was MLK killed?” and “Who are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council?”1

Our book club discussed ‘A Path Appears’, another book about aid, charity and its usefulness. I’m still not certain what the best path is. On a more positive note, we had a potluck supper. Parker the dog joined us. We couldn’t decide on the next book so everyone will just report on a book they read. Among our group of seven discussing the book, we had three immigrants to the US: one from Poland immigrating at age three (a chef who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and owner of Parker), another who emigrated from Ukraine at age nine (IT guru and great travel companion), and finally one who emigrated from India at age 17 (a Sikh who graduated from Berkeley).

There is much focus on food in our apartment complex. I made a banana oatmeal cake for book club. I tried pita (which actually did puff up) to go with Dennis’ great hummus. Earlier this week, Sarah made a wonderful noodle dish with eggplant, mango and cilantro.

The best part of my day: sitting on stairwell talking with friends and drinking wine.

Meanwhile in Malawi

In Malawi (a nearby country) there is such a shortage of food that the PCVs (regular Peace Corps volunteers) can’t prepare a meal without neighbors coming to beg for food. Needless to say, the PCVs are not having a positive experience at this time.

On Church …

I have heard that in Japan there are people pushers to cram more passengers into a train. In Uganda – at least at St. Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral – there is a similar position. They are called ushers. They push people together to get more into a pew. Then when it gets really crowded, they tell the children to get up. So most of the adults get seats and lots of children just wander around the church. Most of them are very well behaved or at least quiet. Someone appears to be selling popsicles at the back of the church. That may be why the children are so quiet.

Often there is a produce auction before the final dismissal. Today two hens and a rooster (all live, of course) were the products for sale. The preacher today was a missionary from Nigeria. I’m not certain why he was there but he was well received. When the words of a prayer or hymns are projected to the front of the church, snow scenes are the background. I guess it is to give the Ugandans a different world view.

Living in Uganda

I had lunch with Dennis. The food was not great and I didn’t eat much. The waitress said to Dennis “your mother wasn’t hungry.” Dennis said “She’s not my mother. She’s my girlfriend.” Dennis is the same age as my youngest daughter. The waitress enjoyed the joke.

I have learned that in western Uganda twins are considered to have special powers. If you cross them, they can put a curse on you.

Shopping. Image credit: Julia Taylor

To me it appears that there is little unemployment but a great deal of underemployment. There are boda (motorcycle for passenger hire) drivers with university degrees. Lots and lots of people are selling essentials (locks, small bags of vegetables, used clothing). There are charcoal ladies who take bags of large chunks of charcoal and break them down into little pieces of charcoal and sell them on the street. There are people who attempt to keep the store fronts clean (a nearly impossible job in this dusty, trash filled town). There are many people growing vegetables on small bits of land and of course, lots of people have chickens and/or goats. Most people seem to be busy but I believe that they are barely getting by (if that).

Apparently they do not tolerate thieves. Earlier this week just outside my office building, a man tried to steal a boda. People who were milling around outside the hospital gate caught him and began beating him. The police arrived and took the man to Casualty (the Emergency Department which was about 50 yards away) but people were very unhappy because they wanted to kill him. Lovely.

Another note on boda drivers: they are wearing ski jackets and winter caps with ear flaps. It certainly does not seem cool to me. I am running in a t-shirt. However I do remember when we were living in Hawaii if the temperature was in the low to mid-70s, everyone got out their sweatshirts and jeans. It must seem cold riding the motorcycles.

This article was originally published as a series of posts on Julia’s personal Facebook account.

1Answers to the Foreign Service exam: Memphis, US, UK, France, Russia and China

Julia Taylor attends Christ Episcopal Church, Springfield, Missouri

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