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Serving Uganda

November 18, 2012
The Journal

Former New Ulm assistant city manager Tom MacAulay and his wife Marcy, a registered nurse, are serving two and a half years as Peace Corps volunteers in Uganda. Tom is an economic development volunteer, and Marcy is a community health volunteer. Brief excerpts from an e-mail interview about their experiences in the African country:

The decision to join the Peace Corps began as a kernel of an idea years ago, when Tom and Marcy MacAulay were first married.

If she had not met and married Tom, Marcy would have followed her dream of mission work as soon as she graduated from college and received her nurse's license.

Article Photos

The MacAulays killing and preparing lunch: rubbery chicken

"We had talked about it on and off over the years, planned for it financially, and had always couched it in terms of some kind of Christian missions undertaking," says Tom. "We wanted to see the three kids out of the house and on the way to being settled, and then would look at the opportunities. When that time came, roughly late 2009-early 2010, and we looked around, it seemed to me that Peace Corps was a good alternative because the experience included training in preparation for the specific country and situation you were headed into."

After a rigorous, time-consuming process that involved personal background questionnaires, security clearances, health screenings, interviews and much soul-searching, the couple, along with 40 others, were selected to serve in Uganda.

The group met in Philadelphia, Penn., for a brief orientation on Aug. 2, 2011, bused to JFK, New York, flew to Brussels, Belgium, and then to Kigali, Rwanda, before arriving at Entebbe, Uganda, on Aug. 4.

After a week of general orientation by Uganda Peace Corps staff, the MacAulays spent the next 12 weeks in pre-service training."

They stayed with a host family in Wakiso, about an hour from the capital, Kampala. The family included their Uganda "mom," two sons, ages 13 and 9, and two nieces, ages 23 and 19. (The father had died of pneumonia the year before.)

"They cooked us breakfast at 6 a.m. and supper at 8 p.m. and were excellent housekeepers," says Marcy. "We had great conversations, and they included us in their routines. They did coddle us a bit. They didn't show us how to light fires for cooking or clean latrines; they tried to help us learn to hand-wash [clothes], but I really didn't want to learn. Tom had experience from the Navy days, but I found all the hauling of water, scrubbing each piece by hand, rinsing, wringing out and rinsing again before you put it on the line to dry, and then sharing the line with six other families who live across the drive, overwhelming for a while, and I paid one of the nieces to do mine. She charged 70 cents a week. In our home stay the water was from a rainwater tank, and you had to haul it... into the house..."

"It was a fairly monotonous schedule in terms of variety, but intense in terms of content," adds Tom. "Up at 6, eat breakfast, out the door rain or shine at 7, walk for an hour to the training center, start the training day at 8, classes all day with 'tea time' at 10 and lunch at 1, until 5 when we walked home, rain or shine, to study, bathe, wash clothes, cry, and all those other kinds of necessary things, eat dinner at 8, and go to bed at 9. Since the sun goes down at 7-7:30, year-round, there really is not much you can do after dark anyway because most of the time the electricity is not there."

"Perhaps the most challenging part of this 'boot camp' style of living was the necessity of learning a new language and having to pass a formal language proficiency exam before 'graduating.' There were six different language courses going on in our training group, depending on where you were headed to for your assignment. For Marcy and me, it was Lugbara... The long and short is that training ended, most of the class got through the language... We both passed the initial test, except honestly, I do not know how Marcy did because she was bad and knew it..."

On Oct. 13, 2011, the MacAulays took their oaths as Corps Volunteers. "I felt like I had accomplished something by getting through the training and being called a 'Peace Corps volunteer' instead of 'trainee,'" said Tom.


The MacAulay are living and working in Arua, the largest city in the West Nile Region of the country. The West Nile is the most remote, isolated part of the country, about 500 kilometers northwest from Kampala, but it is also a somewhat cosmopolitan area due to its vicinity to Congo and Sudan, and the strong presence of the United Nations and international non-governmental organizations.

"Arua is a city of about 60,000, but since it is the governmental and commercial center of the region, it seems like there are a lot more people around day to day," says Tom. "There's one road to get there from the main part of the country, and it takes about eight hours on the bus, and one bridge to get across the Nile River into the West Nile Region. During the past when this area was being terrorized by rebel groups, they would take over the area around Pakwach, where the bridge is, and basically cut the region off from the rest of the country."

Tom is working for the Arua branch of the National Community of Women Living with AIDS (NACWOLA-Arua).

"My work with NACWOLA has evolved over the months as I've had a chance to get a feel for the needs of the organization and the resources available," he explains.

"The members of NACWOLA are HIV-positive women, most of whom are single mothers and illiterate peasants, and have been marginalized from their clans because of the disease (even though it was most likely the husband that passed the disease to the woman). The challenge has been to find activities that do not require a lot of capital to start up, not a lot of strenuous physical labor and that have a relatively quick return on the financial and labor investment.

"One example is a liquid soap making operation we started. Another volunteer, from the Kitgum, Uganda, area, taught liquid soap-making at a regional training seminar we had last February, and I brought it back here to try. The initial investment is a little over $100 which is an unreachable amount of money for the women, so our daughter Katie underwrote the project in return for the naming rights ('Sweetie Soap'). We've divided the interested members into three groups, and they've all had fun making the soap, selling it and sharing the profits. They hold back enough money to make the next batch and have a little left over for personal income.

"It will be a combination of these types of projects that will help the NACWOLA women become more self-sustaining in their everyday lives. Other projects I plan to implement in the second half of our assignment here include a commercial mill-grinding business with a new mill-grinder machine donated to the organization by the U.N. World Food Program, a sustainable bio-mass charcoal making franchise through "Eco-fuel Africa" and a perma-gardening project to teach and encourage the women to have small, intensive kitchen vegetable gardens for home use and sale of the surplus for income."

Marcy is working for the Arua Comprehensive School of Nursing.

"I was placed in a nursing school to help with ward instruction and asked to help teach computer skills and sub for the reproductive health teacher when she is gone," says Marcy. "What am I really doing? Sometimes I am never sure... The school has 400-plus students enrolled to be midwives or nurses. They all go to the hospital to learn and act as nurses aides, only they give meds and do dressing changes. There are 14 separate wards or buildings on the grounds, and students are assigned to each ward with no clinical instructor to follow. So with 150 to 200 students on the wards at a time, and only me to follow, I started making up attendance sheets and going ward to ward to make sure they even get out of bed and come. I have some time occasionally to do teaching but most of the time I do roll-call and head back to the school and teach computer or help the secretary with the administrative endless paper work that is required.

"You probably wonder how I teach computer. I am self-taught and there is no constant power, so how can I have a consistent class? We have a generator that gets turned on for the class, we have 20 computers for the 150-183 student body, and I know more than they do and can teach for at least six weeks without anyone catching on. They get the theory from a tutor and I do the practical. The kids are eager to learn this, so discipline is not a problem, and the classes are usually 20 students with another 20 watching over their shoulders."


"Visions of living in a thatched-roof hut with dirt floors, slit latrine and two-kilometer walks to the well for water were foremost in our minds when we found out it would be Africa," says Tom. "Those conditions surround us everywhere, but we were blessed with living quarters provided by Marcy's organization... We actually have half of a duplex, three-bedroom, with plumbing and wired for electricity."

"Like most of Uganda, electrical power is an issue in Arua, and if we get a few hours of power a couple times a week, we consider ourselves fortunate. That is apparently going to change in the near future as a new hydro-electric power plant is scheduled to come on line and will produce enough power for the entire region. This is a project, all 3.5 megawatts of it, that has been going on for nearly 20 years. Just for comparison purposes, New Ulm's daily electrical load, for our population of 14,000, is what, 30-35 megawatts? The Arua District alone has a population in excess of 500,000 who will depend on this new power plant as its main source of electricity. I think a person could write a book about the ups and downs of the project, including corruption and mismanagement of project funds, but it appears likely that it's true the lights will soon be on in West Nile. This is huge for the growing business community to have reliable power, and hopefully it will eventually allow for some industrial growth and job creation to occur, but only as much as 3.5 megawatts can sustain."


"I also am interested in how agriculture is done here," says Marcy. "I have made friends with some of the local market growers. They are organic, as no one can afford inputs. Most things are grown from saved seeds as farmers cannot afford seed either, and the soil is rich. When I left Minnesota, the nurses in Sleepy Eye gave me lots of organic seed to bring here. At Tom's work site we have a fenced space to garden. We planted a little bit of everything to see how it will grow here, and are learning. We put some bamboo sticks in the ground for our beans to climb on, and the bamboo took root and started growing. The hospital plants hedges by cutting the tops off the growing hedge and just puts it in the ground and waters it. It grows... This is the most amazing thing about Uganda to me. It is believed that humanity came from here. I can see how this could have been the garden of Eden 6,000 years ago. During rainy season it still is. The soil is red, the rain is abundant, the foliage lush, and the produce tasty.

"People rely on a small number of foodstuffs for their existence, and every region of Uganda has its own staple foods," says Tom. "Up here in the West Nile it's cassava (dried, ground up to a flour, mixed with milled sorghum to make "enyasa") which was originally introduced in the area many years ago as a drought resistant tuber plant for grinding up and feeding to cattle. Other Ugandan staples include green bananas (mushed up to make "matoke") and maize (ground-up corn to make "poscho"). Greens are eaten, but not much, and most of them can be found by walking out your back door, picking, cleaning them, chopping it up and frying with oil, onions and tomatoes. Meat is not something you eat every day, and it's goat and chicken more so than beef. Getting used to the food situation has taken some time, and about 35 pounds for me (I'm now pretty lean and mean!) and 25 pounds for Marcy (she is now quite svelte!). We eat well, but most of it is beans and greens and lots of fruit which is plentiful year-round. So for me, a person who used to eat a lot of dairy products and bread, and probably more red meat than I needed, it's been an adjustment."


"I didn't really come with goals that I could identify but I have developed them while here," says Marcy. "I believe I can accomplish them, but I don't really believe they are sustainable. The culture lives so much in the present and now. This, I believe, is due to the heavy disease burden and short life expectancy (52) if you beat the odds of the disease. They very seldom project ahead to the future. My American mindset is always about the future and seldom being in the present...

"Of course, many people here have never interacted with a white person and few with an American. They somehow think whiteness makes us different from them. Just my presence makes a difference. As a white I am treated with respect and given places of honor and esteem where ever I go. Sometimes this is so embarrassing and other times, like a bus or taxi ride, this is so appreciated. I may not see the difference made, but I know the people have made me different. They have given me a new name here, it is Mercy, and if I can live up to my new name I have accomplished a bigger goal than I dreamed of."

"At a personal level, it has been a continual learning experience as my cultural integration continues," says Tom. "It's been emotionally challenging at times, and the words and intellectual energy that it would take to give an honest and comprehensive summary of my experience so far is a daunting thought... To this American, many Uganda behaviors and attitudes are strange, but regardless of cultural differences, I have found here, as well as in other foreign countries I've visited, that people are people wherever you go. Ugandan people are generally very friendly, helpful and humble..."

"In my mind, the Peace Corps experience allows you to choose to make a difference, it's a very personal thing... Yet, it's not quite what I envisioned and expected. We are not going to "save the world" by doing this, but we may have a small impact in the lives of a few people within our sphere of influence... You get there, live and work with the people, figure out what their needs are, and with the tools you have, try to make a difference, something that will outlast your short time there. In the meantime, the volunteer is representing the American people to those we come into contact with what a huge honor!

"... There's no question I would do it again!"

(Interview by K. Spengler)



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