Roxanna “Roxy” Kestner (second from left) and some of her new friends are seen attending a wedding in Uganda wearing “gomesi,” colorful floor-length dresses. (The tailor who created the dress had the surname Gomes.)

by Len Lear

One year ago, Roxanna “Roxy” Kestner, 48, who lived on the 7100 block of Chew Avenue in Mt. Airy and worked as a licensed loan officer for NVR Mortgage in Blue Bell, gave away or sold almost all of her belongings and moved to Uganda in East Africa to be a Peace Corps volunteer. We asked her last week about her life-changing decision after one year of leaving middle class life in Northwest Philadelphia to venture into the unknown:

• Did you make the right decision to go to Uganda?

“Yes, absolutely. It’s not always easy, but I’ve not had a moment’s regret.”

• What is the name of the village or town where you are living?

“I live in a village called Boroboro outside of Lira town in northern Uganda.”

• What is the name of the local language?

“The local language is Leb Lango (‘Leb’ means tongue), spoken by Langi, as the people of the Lango region are called.”

• Have you learned it well enough to communicate?

“I am able to communicate everyday greetings, ask and answer common questions and shop at the markets, eat in restaurants, etc., using rudimentary Leb Lango. Most Ugandans also speak at least basic English, so I am not forced to only use Lango, but speaking to host country nationals in their mother tongue sparks a great deal of surprise and delight from locals, which is invaluable social currency.”

• Is your job there to train teachers?

“Yes. I work with a Primary Teacher’s College, where I teach primary literacy, English and early childhood development. Next year I’ll be adding a book club for female students, a young women’s empowerment group and a malaria prevention workshop.”

• What is a typical day like for you?

“On a routine day, I wake up to a rooster (sometimes several), take a trip to my pit latrine, make coffee and eat a light breakfast, usually an apple with amaido (homemade peanut-sesame butter). My commute to school is about a five-minute walk. Once there, I prepare for class if I’m teaching that day, work on organizing or preparing materials for the ECD Room, attend meetings and assemblies, talk to my colleagues about life in the U.S. vs. Uganda or about the differences in American English vs. Ugandan English (there are many!) and the many tasks that teachers in the states do. Mid-morning is “break tea” (for me, second breakfast), and I have a little boiled cassava or chapati (flat bread) with tea. At lunch we eat beans and posho (a dense maize porridge). When my day is done, I head home, take a bucket bath, catch up with Facebook, read, chat with my neighbors and occasionally talk to visiting chickens.”

• Are there other Westerners in your village, or are you the only one?

“In fact, today I just met another PC volunteer who was posted about a mile from me last month. There are several other volunteers in the district, but we don’t see each other often as we are pretty far from one another and transport is costly. Occasionally we coordinate our shopping trips to town and meet for lunch.”

• How do you get along with the local residents?

“Wonderfully. The people of Lango specifically and Uganda generally are some of the kindest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met. They are always willing to answer questions and help out when it’s needed. I’m so grateful.”

• What do you miss the most about life in Philly?

“Fall weather, walks in the Wissahickon and my friends. And Mexican food.”

• What has been different from what you expected?

“The challenges. I thought the tough part would be learning a new language and living without plumbing. The real struggles have been with myself: facing my own arrogance and judgmentalism and managing my expectations. I’m learning to redefine what success means in a very new and different context. Triumphs can be small, and failures feel big, but I’m learning something every single day, and that’s worth a lot.”

• What do you do in your spare time?

“Read, journal, chat with friends on What’s App and experiment with cooking local foods.”

• What is the food like there?

“Fresh and local! The basics are maize, cassava, potatoes (sweet and ‘Irish,’ as white potatoes are called here) matooke (cooked green bananas), beans, groundnuts (peanuts) and lots of tropical fruits. I’m in mango heaven … I have a small garden with tomatoes, cassava, maize and boyo, which I had to research and discovered it’s actually black-eyed peas. Greens are a common side dish, cooked with ground-nut sauce.”

• Do you get to watch TV?

“No. I don’t have or want one. I have seen TV a couple times while here, and it’s usually been Nigerian ‘soap operas,’ local news or football (soccer).”

• Have you been able to travel to other parts of Uganda?

“Yes. I’ve traveled a little within Uganda. I’ve been to Jinja, best known as the source of the Nile, to a small reserve in Western Uganda full of monkeys and to Murchison Falls National Park, which was a real treat. I was able to see giraffes, warthogs, kobs, hippos and elephants up close. My face hurt from smiling so much!”

• Are you able to communicate with people back home via cellphone and/or laptop computer?

“Every day. Technology is fairly prolific here, and most Ugandans have cell phones. Wi-Fi is not very reliable, but I am able to buy data with my local carrier that keeps me in touch with friends and family. It’s a real perk.”

• When you finish your Peace Corps service, what do you plan to do?

“It’s too early to say for sure, but I’m currently working on TEFL Certification, which would qualify me to teach English abroad after Peace Corps. I’m considering a year or two in Asia, but I’m also looking at graduate school opportunities.”

• Is it possible to sum up in a few words what you have gained from this experience?

“I’ve gained a great deal of humility and respect for Ugandans and their culture. I’ve learned that until you experience a place and a people, you can’t begin to understand the complexities of what makes us different or the universal human experiences that more importantly make us alike.”

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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