Image courtesy Mary Hanlin.

Back in the fall, our Web Services Librarian, Mary Hanlin, left Reynolds to join the Peace Corps where she would be stationed in Uganda for two years. I recently got a chance to catch up with Mary through e-mail, and she was kind enough to grant me an interview for the blog. You can read it below!

Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing in Uganda. How did you decide to join the Peace Corps?
I’m currently working as something called a Teacher Trainer at Jinja Primary Teacher’s College (PTC’s). In Uganda, students train to become primary school teachers for two years, and are expected to teach a variety of curriculum – math, music, English, physical education and reading. I focus on teaching Jinja PTC students how to teach reading. Do you remember how you were taught reading?  Do you remember when you would get stuck on a word, and your teacher or your mom would tell you to, “Sound it out?”  Well, here in Uganda primary pupils don’t know how to “sound out” words, because they’re taught reading through memorization. A teacher writes a bunch of words on the chalkboard and then the students repeat after the teacher. That’s “reading” in Uganda. So, at Jinja PTC I try to teach phonics. I also have a lot of small projects: a mobile book club where we go out into the community and read to children, and I’ve just started a Chess club. The cool thing about Peace Corps is that you can often create your own projects and goals.

I decided to join Peace Corps midway through my career as a librarian, because frankly I wasn’t appreciating the life I had and I worried that I wasn’t growing and changing enough. I wanted to do something that challenged me and also changed me.

Mary, pictured with Ugandan children. (Image courtesy Mary Hanlin.)

How did you prepare, mentally or otherwise, for the journey?
I am not really sure there’s any good way to prepare mentally, but I did a lot of research about Uganda, and had a clear objective sense of what I was in for. Also, I could only bring 100 pounds of luggage, so I brooded deeply over what to bring and what to not bring. There are literally hundreds of packing lists on the Internet for what to bring to Peace Corps, but the fact is 80% of the things you bring you end up being able to get in country. A few things I’m really glad I brought: quick dry towels, my computer/Kindle/iPhone and my teddy bear. Who doesn’t love an old lady with a teddy bear?

When people talk about joining the Peace Corps, they imagine it will be a life-changing event in their lives. Has it lived up to that idea so far?
Yes. Living in another country, especially one as culturally different as Uganda, is a whole mental shifting that I hadn’t entirely anticipated. Sometimes I feel like I live in an alternate universe. I don’t say this is a negative way, but in some ways I feel less like an individual or little snowflake. I’ve come to realize a lot of who I am and what I believe is because I am entirely a product of American culture. For example, conservative or liberal, most Americans have come to believe corporal punishment in school is not only wrong but should be illegal. It’s not something we have to think about, we just all share that framework. Only recently has Uganda passed laws making corporal punishment illegal. However, I can affirm that caning is the norm here. It took a while for me to really understand those who cane or support caning aren’t bad, it’s just their culture, their inheritance. They haven’t thought about it any more than we think about what “beautiful” anorexic-looking women on the cover of US Weekly do to our values and our norms. Certainly, I make efforts to dissuade colleagues and parents from caning, but the key thing to keep in mind is that culture is inherited and rarely reflected upon. In both American and Ugandan culture, people don’t think about why things are the way they are, and that can often be very damaging.

What did you know about Uganda before you left? How has that perception changed, or strengthened?
First, thanks for asking about Uganda and not Africa. I get a lot of emails asking me how things are going in “Africa,” and though I know there isn’t any ill-will meant by it, we need to remind ourselves that Africa is not a country. Rather, it is a continent of 54 different countries, over a billion people, and thousands upon thousands of different cultures and languages.

So, what did I know about Uganda before I left?  Sadly, not much. Of course, I knew about Idi Amin and the terrible harm he caused. I knew Uganda was on the equator so I assumed incredibly hot. I knew that Ugandans spoke many different native languages. That’s about it.

In fact, Uganda is incredibly green, fertile and not outrageously hot (usually in the mid 80s but rarely above 90). It’s not typically the “bush” that most people think when they think of a developing country: cell phones are the norm, though home computers are still incredibly rare.

Ugandans are incredibly patient and non-violent, willing to put up with so many more things than my American self is used to putting up with. They have this saying: “mpola mpola,” which means slowly by slowly, and means essentially we’ll get there but it’s going to take a while. Whenever I get frustrated with my language training, my teacher reminds me: “Mpola mpola.” And she is right of course; I am getting there. Another Ugandan proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”  That’s the Ugandan way of life: everybody is always doing things together to get something done.

Image courtesy Mary Hanlin.

I don’t know about you, but if I were going to move to a developing nation, I would have all sorts of thoughts swimming around in my head. Like, “I don’t know how I am going to live without X, Y, and Z.” Or, “I would never in a million years eat A, B, or C.” Has any of that changed? How have you adapted?
Peace Corps is very good at scaffolding volunteers to adjust to a different life, and the fact is my life is very different. I make a tiny stipend and live in a two-room apartment with (minimally reliable) electricity and no running water. I bucket-bathe every morning and use a pit latrine. I hand-wash my clothes. I walk a lot more and eat a lot of carbs, but not a lot of protein because meat is too expensive to eat every day; (plus it’s not refrigerated so I am constantly worried about getting sick from it). I’m a little dirtier in Uganda because the roads are either too dusty or too muddy.

Believe it or not, though, the physical changes are easier to deal with compared to the cultural ones. Though I rarely wore dresses in America, here I wear dresses 95% of the time because that is what the culture expects and Uganda has very rigid gender expectations. Though I was a runner in the US, I rarely jog, because I stand out too much and jogging just isn’t done here. And recently, due to an ethical dilemma I adopted a dog, which is really looked down upon in Ugandan culture. (Ugandans have no concept of dogs as pets.)  Peace Corps really wants volunteers to integrate into their community and, on some level, I have. I am getting better and better at the local language mostly because I hang out with little kids a lot. Also, I have a few Ugandan friends whom I can be a bit more open with, but the hardest thing for me so far, has been integrating. I never really had a clue how American I was until I moved out of America, but am really convinced that where we are raised constitutes the majority of our values and “lens” of the world.

That said, just as Americans are willing to accept cultural differences, I think most Ugandans are willing to give me a bit more leeway. For example, something that is common in my region is kneeling to show a sign of respect. This is particularly done by women and girls and directed, generally, towards men. I’ve been in situations where the women around me kneel to an older man even as I remain standing. For me, I just cannot do that. I am just too American and too sensitive to the symbolism to kneel for anyone. But the cool thing is that I’ve never been asked to kneel. Ugandans understand that I don’t come from that kind of culture, and it’s been a relief in many situations to not have those kind of cultural expectations placed upon me.

Tell us a little bit about the village you’re living in. Tell us about your daily routine. (Little stuff like laundry/bathrooms/food shopping/entertainment/electricity/etc.)
I live in the village of Wanyange which is 20 minutes outside of the town of Jinja (the source of the Nile). It’s small and dusty and, honestly, full of trash because there’s no such thing as garbage men in Uganda. (We burn our trash here.)  Like most of Uganda, Wanyange is full of children, and, surprisingly, they have been a great source of joy to me.

I get up at 6:45 every morning and do chores, such as fetch water, cook coffee over the gas stove, sweep my floor which is constantly dirty, bathe. At 9:30 am I’m at school and I teach (11 classes a week). When I am not teaching, I am lesson planning and working in the library. Time is not the tight ship it is in America, so often I’ll just hang out with my colleagues or play chess with the students or read with the primary school kids who are next door. That’s one thing I both love and hate about Uganda: I can really spend time building relationships here, because, notwithstanding the classes I teach, nothing has an exact time. But, on the flip side a meeting that is supposed to start at 11 am typically starts at 1 or 2.

But back to my routine, I am usually home by 5 pm and typically the kids come over at 5:30 or 6 and we read or do coloring books until 7. Because I live on the equator, it gets dark almost exactly at 7 and I send the kids home then. I cook, usually spaghetti or something equally starchy and then I either read or watch something on the computer through my external hard drive until 10. During the weekend, I go to Jinja a lot and spend too much money on what we call “mzungu” food, e.g. American food. There is also a pool in town, and when I want to relax, I go to the pool and read all day.

Is there anything that you want the people at home to know about Uganda and the people in it? What have you learned about yourself?
Well the first thing I really want people to know is that Uganda is unique and as diverse as America. Just because most Ugandans share the same skin color doesn’t mean they’re any more alike than any of us. But, I will say I’ve been moved on several occasions on how loving and community-focused Ugandans can be. They really do hold community and family as the highest purpose for doing and being. Here’s an example: before I came to Wanyange, I had to live with a host family. One night, around 9 pm, my host mother said that she had to leave for the night. A neighbor’s mother had died, and because Ugandans don’t have mortuaries, the deceased is placed in the home of the family member. I asked my host mother why she was spending the night there, and she was surprised. “Because that is what we do,” she said. “We?” I said. And she explained to me that, yes, all of the women of the village would sleep there until the body was buried, 25 or so women. These were women with jobs, who had to get up early to go to work and yet they didn’t question the act of sleeping on a neighbor’s floor. Their culture and their values created an act of sharing and community that would be unheard of in America. Later, when I was sitting in my room I started crying a bit because the thing was, I thought what they were doing was so beautiful, and yet, I somehow knew, it was an act I would not be willing to do for just a neighbor.

What have a learned about myself?  I’ve learned that I don’t need a hot shower to feel clean. I’ve learned that if I close my eyes and eat it, I will like it more, even after they tell me it was a baked moth (a Ugandan delicacy). I’ve learned that I don’t have to be in control of everything in order to feel safe. I’ve learned that little children here are willing to hold anyone’s hand and I’ve learned that I love holding hands. I’ve learned that I can teach without a projector and a computer. I’ve learned that if I’m having a bad moment and it is night out, if I go and look at the stars, which are so deep and huge compared to Richmond, I’ll feel better. I’ve learned that I have been given more privilege and opportunity than I could ever mentally fathom when all I’d known and had experienced was America, and I’ve learned not to be ashamed of my privilege or defensive of my privilege, but that I need to take on the responsibility for it: to read a book with a little girl, to talk to colleague about different alternatives to caning, to show a student how the rook moves on a chess board, to hold hands with children, to give and to love and to live and to receive.

Image courtesy Mary Hanlin.

If you ever came back to work at Reynolds, what advice would you give students now?
I don’t think my advice has changed from when I was a librarian to now. It’s always been the same and it is this: believe in yourself. Believe that you can get that diploma, or great job, that car that doesn’t break down every other week. Believe that you can buy that house, or get that promotion. Believe that your past doesn’t dictate your future. Believe that you are more amazing and intelligent than you’ll ever give yourself credit for. If you don’t start first by believing you can get “there” then you will never get “there”. But, once you get there, whether it’s a great job, or a master’s degree, or the ability to pay the bills and have a little left over to go somewhere… once your belief in yourself gets you to where you want to be, start believing in in someone else too.

Believe in your cousin who is struggling with drug addiction. Believe in your best friend who is going through her second divorce. Believe in any child who is too afraid to look you in the eyes. Believe in your colleague who has recently lost her sister. Believe in the boy who you tutor after school, who reads at a 4th grade level when he is in the 7th grade. Believe in the girl who sells you an avocado outside of the fancy Mexican resort where you have gone on vacation. Believe that a few minutes of your time, or a smile, or a candid conversation, can change someone’s life.

And finally, once you have all of those things: the diploma, the good job, and the nice house, believe that they will not save you; they, in and of themselves, will not bring you hope. They are just instruments, which can help lead you to believe not only in yourself but in someone else, and from there, in even the world. And they are meant only to lead you to a life where you can sit on the front step with a little girl in one of the poorest countries in the world, reading, slowly by slowly sounding out words, and know you are exactly where you are meant to be.

Image courtesy Mary Hanlin.
If you feel inspired to help the children and teachers in the village where Mary lives with a donation of books, please contact Suzanne Sherry at for information on how to help!

4 thoughts on “Slowly by slowly: Lessons from Uganda

  1. Great interview! Mary – Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts. You are a true inspiration to me and others who have contemplated ways in which we can help others and make the world a better place.

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