(Editor’s note: Brian Dunn is a 1997 graduate of Rushville Consolidated High School and is serving in the Peace Corps in Uganda.)
This isn’t your father’s Peace Corps! My idea of the Peace Corps before I came was that I would be living in a mud hut in a very rural African village a thousand miles from nowhere. One of my biggest concerns was what would happen to me if I became deathly ill and couldn’t contact anyone for help and would inevitably die from some strange African disease and my body not be found for months! Although each Peace Corps Volunteer’s experience is exponentially different from one another, my perception and my reality also differed greatly. For one, I have a cell phone which I use several times a day to send text messages to friends both here and in the U.S. I use my laptop on a daily basis for everything from e-mail, Internet, blogging (http://pervispc.blogspot.com) databases and to watch DVDs which I rent from my village. One of the biggest lessons I learned was that getting here – leaving friends and family, selling my home and truck- was much more difficult than actually being here (although being here has its own daily quirks, believe me), and that I have a rich network of support and friendship from the 70 or so other PCVs who currently serve in Uganda with me, as well as a top notch PC staff, including 2 nurses on call 24/7. The reality also is that, as one of the only Caucasians in my village, if I do get sick or something does happen to me, the villagers couldn’t help but take notice.
A part of the work that I do with Compassion International, the organization I work with via the Peace Corps, is Home Visits. The Compassion staff is required to visit all 285 kids’ homes once or twice a year to check on their living conditions and to see if they are using the items that Compassion has given them (mattresses, mosquito nets, etc.). Sometimes kids manage to sell the items they’ve received before they ever reach home! I both love and hate these visits. I love them because I get to see and do things that others don’t. No tourist gets this deep into villages and into homes. I hate it because I see what real poverty and desperation looks like. Entire families living in extreme poverty, which is defined as earning less than a dollar a day. Recently I went on one such visit.
We found a Compassion family whose house was located way up on a hilltop. When we reached there, we found the father and mother along with five of their nine children (Ugandan women average seven children). The home in which they lived was a small mud home, approximately 12 feet by six feet, consisting of two rooms. The leaky roof of their home was made from banana fibers that they had gathered near their home, unable to afford $60 to properly roof using metal sheets. Upon entering the home, they had only one twin mattress, which Compassion had provided them, and no furniture whatsoever. Whoever didn’t fit on that mattress slept on various portions of mats on the cold, dirt floor. Clothes were lying out on the grass to dry, which were washed, I’m sure, without soap. Clothes which had so many holes they resembled Swiss cheese. They wouldn’t have made suitable rags, I assure you. The mother of this family, a hard working and likable woman, was so weak and sickly that they said that birth control methods (pills or injections) would endanger her life and were too risky. Condoms, though prevalent and accessible, are either too expensive for the poor or are considered "un-manly." Without intervention, it’s quite possible that this family will grow to 14 children! When we identify a family in such need we discuss what should be done. We take pictures and write a proposal to the Compassion head office requesting assistance which can range from land, new housing or income generating projects. Whatever the staff, along with the family, agrees upon that they need to achieve a better standard of living.
Compassion works. I’ll personally vouch for it. I’ve seen lives literally saved because of the Compassion program. I’ve also seen those same Save the Children commercials on local Christian TV at 2 a.m. that you’ve seen. The ones where you wonder if they really do help the kids they portray. Their job, it seems, is to find the poorest of poor children, the ones covered in flies, and then emotionally move people to help. That’s my take at least. But those conditions are real, they do exist. I’ve seen some of them. I’ve been in their homes. Fortunately, I don’t see them every day. Fortunate, because not everyone here lives like that. But some do. And I see the need for aid, development organizations and people to help people out of the recurring poverty trap. A trap that they can’t get out of through hard work alone. Not without assistance.
When I first arrived here I found another family in a similar situation. A family of five living in a rented six foot by six foot mud room. One small, twin bed. Two twin mattresses. They even had chickens sleeping in that same room because they had nowhere else to keep them. The father had been killed as a soldier and the mother – another hard working woman – along with an elderly grandmother were left to work a small piece of land which they rented to grow food. Along with gardening, the mother earned around $10 a month doing casual labor at a nearby secondary school. Ten dollars per month for the entire family of five.
We were able to secure funding ($500) to buy them a plot of land and construct them a modest house. Now they’re getting out of the poverty trap of just trying to survive and soon they’ll be able to make a living off their land. They’ve been given a chance. And that’s all anyone can ask for.