March 14, 2009 in City

A different pace, courtesy of Uganda

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Courtesy of Erin Larsen-Cooper photo

Erin Larsen-Cooper taught HIV-AIDS prevention in Africa for two years with the Peace Corps. Here, she holds Fiona. Courtesy of Erin Larsen-Cooper
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Erin Larsen-Cooper, 25, just back from two years in a village in Uganda, has noticed a civility gap between Uganda and the U.S. – but not the way you might expect.

People in Spokane are so much less polite than the Ugandans.

For instance, when someone sat next to her on the bus in Uganda, even a total stranger, she would always have to go through a long and formal greeting process: How are you? I am fine. How is your family? They are fine. …

“It can take 20 minutes,” said Larsen-Cooper, a 2001 Lewis and Clark High School graduate. “But since I’ve been home, it’s totally bizarre. Somehow I don’t quite remember what’s appropriate here. Should I be talking to this person on the bus? Or am I supposed to be pretending that they are not sitting next to me? Everyone pretends they can’t see anybody else. In Uganda, that never happens.”

Larsen-Cooper recently returned from a two-year stint in the Peace Corps as an HIV-AIDS educator and child advocate in a Ugandan village called Ntenjeru, not far from Lake Victoria.

Larsen-Cooper admits that all of that Ugandan courtesy sometimes wore on her American sensibilities. She’d go out to buy some eggs for dinner and have to spend an hour greeting everybody she saw – when all she really wanted to do was get back home and make dinner.

And then there was the constant attention she attracted as the only white person in Ntenjeru.

“Mzungu is the word for a white person, and the kids would pretty much chant it wherever I went: ‘How are you, mzungu, how are you, mzungu?’ ” said Larsen-Cooper, who graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in community health. “For the first few weeks, I was like, ‘How cute is that?’ And then later, you’re like, ‘If one more person calls me mzungu, I’m going to scream.’ ”

Yet this extraordinary young woman is deeply grateful for her Ugandan experience and has great affection for the friends she left behind there. Many Americans still think of Uganda as the war-torn domain of Idi Amin, but Larsen-Cooper said the country is relatively stable today and quite peaceful – at least in her village.

“It’s much safer than a lot of places in the U.S.,” she said.

However, Uganda is certainly a poor country. Few people in Ntenjeru have money for anything beyond food, clothing and shelter.

“So you can make some really amazing crafts, but there’s no one to sell them to,” said Larsen-Cooper.

Most people grow their own food in small garden plots. Electricity is sporadic and running water is rare.

“My neighbor had a really big rain tank, and I’d walk over there with jugs and fill them up,” she said.

Uganda’s rate of AIDS infection is about 7 percent, shockingly high by American standards, but far lower than rates in other countries in Africa. Uganda took quicker and more direct action against AIDS than some of its neighbors. Larsen-Cooper’s work, with a local organization called VOLSET, consisted of walking to the schools in her vicinity and teaching kids preventing AIDS and HIV.

Sometimes, she would do AIDS testing in remote fishing villages on Lake Victoria. The only way to get there: fishing boats that resembled giant canoes. She remembers being out in the middle of the vast inland sea in a lightning storm, huddled under a tarp. She called it “a generally terrifying experience.”

She also had an HIV scare once, when she was staying in the Ntenjeru hospital with a woman with AIDS. Hospitalization in Uganda bears little resemblance to hospitalization in the U.S.

“You bring your own sheets, you bring your own food and, even though the nurses are kind of checking on you, you need someone to be there with you,” she said. “There was a woman who didn’t have a whole lot of family, so I was staying with her.”

Some blood splattered into Larsen-Cooper’s eye from the woman’s IV. The Peace Corps immediately put Larsen-Cooper on the bus to the capital, Kampala, and started her on an expensive course of post-exposure prophylaxis medication.

She was fully aware of the irony.

“Here was this person I was in the hospital with, the same age as me, and she already had AIDS,” said Larsen-Cooper. “And the chances of getting HIV from a drop of blood in the eye are (miniscule). So I’m taking this very expensive medication for this small chance that I might have HIV. Had I been born in a totally different situation, in Uganda, I wouldn’t have any options of that type.”

She lived in a house by herself and kept up on the news by listening to the BBC World Service. The news from home wasn’t exactly chipper.

“There would always be a five-minute clip about how the U.S. economy is down the toilet,” she said.

Since she came home, she’s catching up on the news and everything else she missed. She’s been watching every back episode of “The Office.”

She is also pondering her future and applying for grad school in social work and public health. Meanwhile, she has, at the age of 25, already achieved one of her dreams.

“Joining the Peace Corps was kind of a childhood fantasy of mine,” she said.

Now she has another dream: “I picture bringing my family to Uganda someday.”

Jim Kershner can be reached at (509) 459-5493 or by e-mail at jimk@spokesman.com. Find an archive of columns at spokesman.com/columnists.


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