15 November 2011

A Story

I met him yesterday, this mzee.

His face was etched and ripped with wrinkles, like a mask carved from wood, or a piece of charcoal.

He greeted me with a handshake, his --spider-webbed with age, strong with years of hard work-- swallowing mine completely, and with a booming voice that made the leaves on the branches above him sway like in a warm breeze, and with a wide smile full of perfect white teeth that reflected the golden light, the late afternoon sun.

The day-old stubble on his chin sparkled silver.

If I had to guess, I'd say he was at least 65 years old.

I sat down with the other men there, four or five of them, wooden folding chairs in a loose, three-quarters circle around a clay pot of ajon.

He sat just off to the side, his own chair backed up right next to the trunk of a mango tree, his own long straw dipped into his own grapefruit-sized pot of the warm millet beer.

The swept dirt of the compound was dappled with pools of sunlight, circles and ovals of warmth that swayed with the leaves in the warm breeze.

He was stabbed in the throat with a spear.

Rebel soldiers came and stabbed him in the throat with a spear.
They left him for dead.

He lay on the ground at St Aloysius, the Catholic Parish, not three kilometres from mango tree under which he now sat.

Rebel soldiers came and stabbed him in the throat with a spear and left him for dead, lying on the ground at the Parish, the blood pouring from his throat, bright red, and mixing with the dirt, rust red, and making mud, dark brown.

The blood poured from his throat and between his fingers as he tried to hold it in and it turned the dirt into mud, bright red and rust red into dark brown.

Or maybe it was in the grass.
Maybe he lay in the grass and droplets of blood hung from the tips of the blades of grass like dew, reflecting the golden light, the late afternoon sun shining through them, turning blood into rubies.

This was in 1987.

The rebels were part of Alice Lakwena's army. Ostensibly, they were fighting to overthrow Museveni's government. In reality, they were just killing. Killing, and also raiding homes, stealing livestock, torching huts, stabbing with spears the throats of innocent men who just happened to be in the way.

He lay on the ground, in mud or jeweled grass, and they left him for dead, or to die.

Then they were gone.
They were gone and the Parish priest was there, picking him up and taking him to the hospital.

This was in 1987.

The loose three-quarters circle of men, the ones I was sharing the pot of ajon with, told me this in between sips from the long straws in the pot, after the mzee had left.

They debated, then, briefly, when it was that peace had returned.
One said it was five years later, in 1992. One said no, it was in 1990. One said no, people were still in the IDP camps in 1990.

So they settled on 1993.

And then, eighteen years after that, I met the mzee and we sat in mango tree shade and he greeted me with strong hands and a booming voice and a wide smile full of white teeth and golden light, as if the world had never been more complicated or brutal or tragic than warm sunlight seeping between mango tree leaves to pool in swaying circles and ovals on the rust red dirt around our feet, as if there was nothing more to worry about than slow conversation and your own pot of ajon and the setting sun.

(Two notes -- 1: Mzee is a respectful term of address for old men. 2: Alice Lakwena was an aunt of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army. Her army was, essentially, the precursor to the LRA. She had begun her insurgency with aims of overthrowing the government, like I said, and she would often bless her soldiers with 'holy water' and tell them they were impervious to bullets. They would then walk upright into oncoming fire and were, obviously, wiped out rather quickly.)

12 November 2011

One Year Wonder

I have been at site for over a year now.

Wait. No. That's not quite right.

I have been at site for over a year now!!!

That's better.

Seriously though. I can't quite believe it. I'm not sure where the last year (or 15 months, really, since we got here in August) has gone. Sometimes I feel like I haven't done anything important, haven't made a significant impact for the last 15 months, but sometimes I think I'm just too harsh on myself: living in rural Africa for a year by myself is kind of an accomplishment of its own, I guess, and if I'm honest, I know I've done some good work, even if it's still a little fewer and farther between that I want. But I'm working on that. At the very, very least, I've done a few things –

1: Made some of the best friends I've ever had, people that I'll know for the rest of my life.
2: Done and seen things that will make great stories to impress girls everyone with when I come home.
3: Not died.

so really, all in all, even at the very, very least: success.

Here are some other things from a year in Ngora.

Favourite Thing I've Done in Ngora (Work Category): This is obviously the training of the HIV/AIDS counsellors. It was the first, so far only, really big project that I've pulled off on my own, and at least the training part went as well as I could've hoped. They're starting now to bring in their notebooks they've been documenting client visits in so that we can review them, and I'll write more about that later, but some of them really seem to be making an impact and that is awesome. I'm proud of this one, proud of the volunteers and the community for coming together on it. The runner-up is my life-skills club, which is also obvious.

Favourite Thing I've Done / Do in Ngora (Non-Work Category): Narrowing it down to a short list– Climbing rocks outside of town with monkeys and finding a place to sit by myself and watch the town for a while. Being made Chairman of a set of Peace Talks, a code name for getting together to eat delicious and illegal roast pork. Playing football with neighbour kids. Sunset bike rides.

The Most Frustrating Thing (Work Category): Still struggling with my organisation to figure out why they wanted me and what work they think I should be doing vis-a-vis the work they have for me or don't have for me; the fact that they simply seem to want me to be a secretary and type things because I'm a faster typer than anyone else.

The Most Frustrating Thing (Non-Work Category): My housing situation still is a bit of a source of frustration. The house itself is great, you've seen pictures. The issue is that, well, I don't have anywhere to be at home where I can just sit and relax by myself and not be surrounded by people other than inside. If I had a place to sit outside, a bit of a view maybe, and just relax, it would do wonders for my general contentment at site. Instead, I have neighbours immediately connected to my place who are always outside –I know I can't begrudge them that– and even if I were able to just sit out there, the view is of an empty lot across the street and a drinking circle a few hundred feet away. A small issue in the whole scheme of things, but still, I would die for just like a semi-secluded patio with just a view of a grass and trees.

The Funniest Thing That's Happened to Me: I can think of three– The cow that was eating my laundry. The small boy who attacked me with nun-chucks. Busting the crotch of my pants open at the market.

Weirdest Things I've Eaten: Termites. White ants. Offals.

Number of Haircuts I've Had: 3– count 'em, including the one I just got right before mid-service, the first one I'd had since early May; I could put my hair in a ponytail and that's a sign.

Number of Books I've Read: 68– count 'em (that's 1.2 books/week, just, ya know, FYI).

Number of Parasites I've Had in my Body: 2– I think malaria is technically a parasite, and schistosomiasis, aka bilharzia.

Number of Times I've Had Diarrhoea: 0– my immune system is awesome (and even the Peace Corps nurse during my mid-service medical exam was impressed).

Number of Times I've Been Called 'Amusugut': What's a number bigger than a bajillion but slightly smaller than infinity?

Number of Dead Mice I've Had in my House: 3– two dead in traps, one of mysterious circumstances.

Number of Goals I've Scored in Football Games: 3– two headers off of corner-kicks, one beaut that I arced perfectly over the head of the goalkeeper and just under the crossbar and I'm still proud of it.

Number of Tomatoes I've Eaten: 963, approximately– I eat a lot of tomatoes: on average, five every two days x 55 weeks = 963 tomatoes.

Number of Packages I've Gotten: 14– and thank you, everyone!

Best Item in a Package: Velveeta cheese. New music. Trader Joe's trail mix with Craisins and wasabi peas, mmmmmm. A 38 ounce bag of peanut butter M&Ms. Starbucks Via Instant Iced Coffee, which is delicious even when you can't get cold water, let alone ice. Books.

Most-Played Songs on my iTunes: Top five, not including the new Fleet Foxes album, which I listened to pretty much non-stop for a month or two and now takes up six of the top ten spots– 1: 'Summertime Clothes' by Animal Collective. 2: 'Knotty Pine' by Dirty Projectors & David Byrne. 3: 'This Must Be the Place [Naïve Melody]' by Talking Heads. 4: 'Daisy' by Fang Island. 5: 'Cold War (Nice Clean Fight)' by the Morning Benders.

Most Embarrassing Song on the Most Played List on my iTunes: 'Bad Romance' by Lady Gaga.

The Best Thing I've Done Outside of Ngora: Sipi Falls on Christmas Day. Rafting the Nile. Hiking in the Impenetrable Forest. Horseback riding in Lake Mburo National Park.

Longest I've Been in Ngora Without Leaving: Seven weeks– that's basically 49 days by myself within a few kilometre radius in rural Africa. I feel pretty good about that one. (And it's a funny thing, what that does to you, the way you completely forget –most of the time, until you're reminded by an amusugut-screaming child– that you don't resemble anyone else here.)

Longest I've Gone Without Speaking to Another White Person (except text messages): Eleven days– which is either pretty cool or means I have no friends, depending on how you look at it.

Favourite Thing About Site: It's my home. When I'm away for a while, it's always nice to be back in my own town and my own place.

Ugandan Quirks I've Picked Up in the Last Year: The quick raise-and-lower of both eyebrows to signal yes, and also instead of saying 'yes,' saying 'ehh' (like a long 'a'). Instead of saying 'uh-huh' like to show you're listening when someone's talking to you, saying 'mmm.' The two-handed wave in greeting – both hands held in front of you, chest level, like you're holding a grapefruit, kind of. Crossing my legs like a girl and/or British man, because the other way is kind of rude, I guess.

Things I'd Never Done Before This Last Year (since that last six-months update): Had a cow try to eat –or at least suck on– my laundry. Bought avocados / made guacamole. Torn up newspaper to use when I've run out of TP, routinely. Dislocated my shoulder playing cricket (cricket!). Commandeered two different boats, one on Lake Victoria, one on the Nile. Been to a burial ceremony. Debated the fact that Obama is not Muslim and was not born in Kenya. Chased rats around my house with a machete and a can of insecticide. Had to clean up a decomposing animal inside my house. Crossed the equator overland. Been a part of (or at least witness to) a cattle-sale. Been running on horseback alongside darting tophi ten metres off to the right and twenty galloping zebra ten metres off to the left. Gotten malaria. Spent a full year out of the States. Spent a full year in Africa and still had another year here.

19 October 2011

Two Stories

1: Malaria.

Last Wednesday afternoon, I was feeling a little weird in the general body area and tired and blah and kind of out of it. I chalked it up to some recent frustrations with my organisation and left the office at around three, went home and had some me-time by being lazy on the couch. I woke up early on Thursday, feeling normal, started to do yoga, and realised I was feeling really weak –though this could still be considered normal, really. But I quit the yoga halfway through when I started feeling weird again. I took my temperature, a little high, maybe 99.5, but no big deal. And I went in to work around 8:30. I explained that I had a bit of fever earlier and wasn't sure how long I'd stick around. My counterpart asked do you want to go get tested for malaria? I said no, I'm probably fine, I'll wait it out, see if I don't get better, and then think about that. I left work around 11:30. Totally exhausted, not nauseous but just weird feeling, I went home and lay down and then everything went in the direction of terrible.

I spent the rest of Thursday on the couch, alternating between being on a burning funeral pyre and being buried under the polar ice caps. I was sweating and shirtless in front of the fan. Then I was in long pants, sweatshirt with the hood up, socks, wrapped in a blanket –and shivering uncontrollably, teeth chattering. And then repeat. All the while my entire body felt as if I'd just rolled down the faces of two very steep, very rocky, very tall mountains. And then been run over by a truck once I rolled to a stop. I took my temperature a few times: a little over 100 when I got home, and then a few hours later, I was convinced that my thermometer was broken when it read 38.9 Celsius –or 102, in American.

The rest of Thursday and Thursday night went on like that, in and out of flames and icebergs, in and out of sleep and truly bizarre fever dreams –at one point, in the middle of the night, I was in a semi-awake state, conducting, out loud, a radio interview (I'd be listening to some of NPR's This American Life shows earlier) with a man whose name I remember forgetting and then making up on the spot, calling him Alfred Schneffleschott; at one point, I dreamed we were all beetle-men, our front halves human, our backs covered in giant shiny beetle shells– and moving back and forth from my bed, where the blanket was, to the couch, where the fan was pointed. I woke up in the morning to find my sheets were soaked through with sweat; I could've wrung them out by hand, instead I just went back to sleep. When I woke up an hour or two later, I was feeling somehow better.

I mentally agreed that it was probably a good idea to get tested for malaria, washed several inches of dried sweat off of my body, and laid down on the couch to wait for my counterpart to come check on me, like I knew she would –really a sweet lady, as much as I complain about my organisation– when I didn't come in to the office. So around 10:30, she showed up with one of our drivers, asked how I was feeling, and suggested we go to the hospital to get tested and I said that was probably a good idea. (Before you gasp hospital!?, we went to the hospital because it's the best place to be tested, not because I was really lying as close to death's doorstep as I felt like I was.)

And so we went. By the time we arrived there, I was sweating again. I checked in with the nursing students, got my weight –70 whole kilos; I'll make you convert that yourself because it's a bit embarrassing– and saw the doctor for a second, then went to the lab. (This is actually the second time I've been tested for malaria in a foreign country. The first was in India after I vomited on a restaurant floor, almost passed out, then staggered back to the hostel to continue getting everything inside my body out of it. Both experiences were basically the same: since Dad is a famous international man of business, a guy he knew in India came and picked me up at the hostel, took me to the hospital, did all of the forms, skipped me through all of the lines, and generally helped me avoid all of the usual hospital bureaucracy that exists even in developing countries; here that was thanks to my counterpart –and my whiteness, of course.) I tried to look as apologetic and sickly as I could as we skipped the line for the lab –everyone else there to get the malaria test, too, I'm almost positive– and I got the finger prick, they did the blood slide, we waited for fifteen minutes or so, I watched rain clouds gather outside the screen-less, pane-less window, watched long banana fronds slap together in the wind, everything outside the window either green or dark grey until a nurse in neon pink passed across the grass field, and then the results came back. I frowned at them for a second before I was able to decipher the abbreviations and hospital-grade handwriting: p. falciparum (+++) seen. Plasmodium falciparum is the strain of malaria we have here, and positive tests for malaria are graded on a seriousness-scale of + to +++ with the three-plus being the worst. They told me to go back to the doctor for treatment.

After talking to the PC medical staff –the nurse I talked to on the phone, who is awesome and really, really nice, asked what she could do for me when I called. 'I'm at the hospital here and just tested positive for malaria with three pluses,' I said. My voice must've gone a little scratchy or something because, in total sincerity, she said, 'Are you going to cry? Are you crying?' Which caught me totally off guard and I laughed out loud and said that I was not actually crying at the hospital. She told me that it was ok if I cried though because I was very ill. It was really sweet and hilarious– I went home and started on the treatment, Coartem, which the PC gives us all a cycle of before we head off to site, and, long story short, I defeated malaria.

It took a few days, I think I'm finally feeling pretty much 90% of the way back today, and it was easily the worst sickness that I've ever had –take your worst flu and multiply by between a hundred and a million, depending on how bad your worst flu was, I guess– and I don't want to ever do it again –I'll be back faithfully taking my daily anti-malarial (which I'd been forgetting to do for the past month or so) and sleeping under my mosquito net every night (which I was already doing every night)– but I guess it wasn't all bad because 1: now I can say that I've had malaria, which is pretty cool, and 2: now I can have a lot more empathy or a weird form of respect for the people here who get it multiple times a year. I know they've built up some sort of immunity to it and so it's not always quite so intense, but even if it's a fraction of what I had last week, man, that sucks.

2: How I Got My Fingers Super-Glued to the Crotch of My Pants.

Just so you're not totally gushing with sympathy for my malarial plight and respect for my immunological fortitude, here's a quick story that will allow you just to laugh at me instead. This happened a few weeks ago. I rode my bike up to the market one evening, around dusk, just to pick up a couple extra things for dinner. After buying my tomatoes and peppers or whatever, I walked back to where I'd parked my bike on the edge of the market, and swung my leg over my bike and –POP! It was loud and where it came from was pretty unmistakable. I had busted open the crotch of my pants. At the market, the biggest single gathering place of people on a daily basis. Naturally, I think played it cool: I pretended like I hadn't heard anything, cleared my throat, and rode home. What probably really happened was something like this: I paused leg in the air like a dog at a fire hydrant, eyes wide in panic as everyone looks over and there's one single big intake of breath before everyone bursts into hysterics as I ride home, my shame relieved only by this new cool breeze floating into the crotch of my pants. When I got home, I realised that every single other pair of pants that I own was soaking in a basin to be washed in the morning. And after washing those pants and hanging them up for their six-to-eight-hour drying cycle, I had to go to work in the morning. But sewing the seam of my pants back up? That sounded boring. Fortunately, I'm a quick-thinking sartorial MacGuyver. And so I busted out the cheap Chinese super-glue I'd bought a while ago for some reason. Sure it hadn't stuck anything together that first time, but hey, beats sewing. Several minutes later, my fingers were super-glued to the crotch of my pants. (Ok, no, I was not wearing them at the time, but it's funnier if I don't point that out, right?) I am awesome. Anyway. I was able to detach my fingers from my pants-crotch. Unfortunately, the ability of the super-glue to stick my fingers to my pants did not translate into an ability to stick the seam of my pants back together, like, at all and I had to get out the sewing kit anyway, the task of sewing now made doubly arduous now that I had to push the needle through a thick crust of dried super-glue about a thousand times. And in the end, my sewing job was not pretty, but it held. Even when I got back on my bike in the morning.

11 October 2011

Let's Do the Time Warp, Again

Have I talked about Africa Time yet? If I haven't:

Time moves in a different way here, it's thought of in a different way here, in the local languages it's even told in a different way (somehow, like, seven am on your watch is one o'clock in the local languages, the first hour of the day; I could be remembering that wrong, but either way I remember it being really confusing during our language training). I forget who told me this, maybe because they were quoting someone who was quoting someone who was quoting someone else, but they said that in Africa –maybe just for PCVs or Americans or Westerners in Africa? I can't remember; it's beside the point– the days are interminably long, the weeks unbelievably short. I think this is two-thirds true: There are definitely days that last for weeks, but –conversely and just as often– there are hours that last for seconds; I don't think I've ever had a week that's lasted for more than a couple days (and at the first of each month, I find myself saying, I can't believe it's [insert name of month] already, even though I know I said the same thing last month and the month before and every month before that one and I'm even consciously aware, as I'm saying about this month, that I say it at the beginning of every month, and, yes, I said it this month, too).

Having been here for fourteen months now, having been in Ngora for a year as of later this month, I've gotten used to it, more or less, but it's still … weird, I guess. It's a time warp. There've been a lot of days when, for one reason or another or no reason at all, I've been out in the village or somewhere and we're not really doing anything or we're waiting for something to happen or something that was supposed to happen has happened and now we're waiting for the next thing and we're just sitting around, usually in the shade of a mango tree, talking when there's talking to be talked, not talking when there's not, and it seems like I can actually see Time passing, walking west down the road, following the sun, kicking up rusty dust with each footstep, and without my noticing, three hours have passed. Or, just as often, the opposite happens, when Time comes lazily walking out of the tall grass, half-hidden in the shimmer of heat waves until he comes closer, until he gets to where we're sitting and then he just sits down next to us in mango-tree-shade, maybe letting out a little sigh as he lowers himself to the ground, he's tired, he's been walking all day and it's so hot out, Time just needs to rest for a bit and this looks like as good a place as any, and then I'll look at my watch thinking that three hours escaped without any realisation on my part and I'll find that it's only been ten minutes. (This happens during rainy season, too, naturally, but I can only picture Time's languid, lethargic walk happening when it's really hot out; if it were raining, he'd be running towards the nearest covered place like everyone else here does –sit under cover when it's sunny, sit under cover when it's raining being the general wisdom around here; when I sit out in the sun when it's not too warm, like these days, 75 in the afternoon sometimes when it's not a raging monsoon, everyone tells me to sit in the shade, aren't you hot, isn't that sun too much, and they laugh when I say that it feels good to sit in the sun sometimes, especially for a Seattlite, and then they say you'll be our colour soon if you sit out there [out there being in the sun, as opposed to in there, which is, of course, in the shade, a foot or two from where I am, out there], which is possible, my freckles being more than capable of merging together like the pieces of the T-1000 in Terminator 2 [though they are less capable of becoming a killer humanoid robot … probably]; though I do take full advantage of the sit under cover when it's raining philosophy, because sometimes it just really works out in your favour, Example A [for Awesome] being the day after St Patrick's Day when I still had a half-litre bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout left over and it was about ten in the morning and I was putting off going into work when, praise the God of the Irish, I heard that unmistakable pop! pop-pop! pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop! of rain on the tin roofs and I couldn't go to work then, couldn't go out in that, so I sat and popped open my half-litre of ten am Guinness and watched the rain … abruptly stop after about two sips; but then I couldn't go into work then either, because I was drinking, and you can't aren't supposed to go to work when you're drinking, even if you're drinking Guinness the morning after St Patrick's Day, so it still worked out in my favour– so maybe the metaphor should be that three hours pass without my noticing when Time's running to get to the nearest corrugated tin sheet of an awning while ten minutes feels like three hours when Time's sitting in mango-tree-shade, but I don't know, and you're probably just skimming ahead, looking for the closed-parenthesis that's the end of this little digression. It's right here.)

To put it a little less (pretentiously and annoyingly) wordy, or to let a real writer (Roberto Bolaño in The Savage Detectives) put it differently: Lately I've been noticing that time can expand or contract at will, and also: it's as if time had fractured and were running in several directions at once. Exactly. That's exactly how time –or Time, since he's apparently working of his own volition– works here.

As for how time is thought of here:

The best –or at least my personal favourite– example of how time is thought of here is in the different ways that you can say you're doing something now (and this is definitely not unique to Uganda, these phrases, I mean; I first heard them / was really confused by them in South Africa; it is Africa Time, after all):
  • Now: This literally just means in the future. Seriously. Like, I'm coming there now really means I'm coming. At some point. Probably today. No guarantees though.
  • Just Now: This means in an hour or two, or maybe four.
  • Right Now: If something's going to happen right now then it's going to happen in, like, twenty or thirty minutes, or so.
  • Now-Now: If you're doing something now-now then you're doing it, well, right now (I mean, the American version of right now).
Going back to the Bolaño-well: their perception of time had suddenly diverged from ours. Right.

So, things'll happen when they happen, they just might not be happening yet, even if they're happening right now. And when now means later, people show up to things, more often than not, later. And the funny thing is that everyone knows that people don't come to things on time –don't keep time in Ugandan English– that things take way longer to get done than they could, that things don't happen when they should; everyone knows that Africa Time is a real thing and, yep, they even call it Africa Time. And if that sort of thing frustrates you, well, don't live in Africa. (I, despite or due to being somehow simultaneously Type A and Type B when it comes to keeping time –if I'm ready to go or want to go or if this [gosh-darn] taxi would actually just keep moving, even at two kph, instead of stopping every thirty metres [which is the bane of my travelling existence], whatever, I don't want to wait, at all, and I hate being late, at least in places where it matters, ie: not here; at the same time, if there's not really anywhere to go, or not any particular time to be anywhere, or nothing really happening, I can happily kill time for hours, like it's my job; which I guess means that I want to either be going or staying, just don't want to be waiting– simultaneously love and hate Africa Time, the love being when I can say I'm coming into work just now and go in two hours later, the hate being when, well, really only when the taxi keeps stopping every thirty metres or sits in the Kampala traffic for days and days, though I guess that really has nothing to do with Africa Time, just me being impatient, and so I guess, on the whole, I'm pretty alright with Africa Time, there are certainly times when I end up getting stuck some place where I'm just waiting for hours for something to happen and I don't have a book with me and I would rather be somewhere or anywhere else, but chances are pretty good that no matter where I am, about half the time I'm probably spacing out and thinking about things that are absolutely in no way related to whatever's going on around me, and so when I end up getting stuck some place where I'm just waiting for hours for something to happen and I don't have a book with me, I just crank the spacing out up to eleven.)

(Way to Kill Time #73: Writing Super Long and Pointless Blog Posts. But hey, #74 is Reading Super Long and Pointless Blog Posts, so there ya go, you're catching on.)

So, the reason I bring up Africa Time now-now:

A few weeks ago, on a Friday, my friend Emma –Emma being a man's name here, short for Emmanuel– asked me to come to church –or to 'go for prayers' as they say here– on Sunday. Sure, I said, and he said it starts at seven and I said that's fine, because I usually get up around five am so that I can go to bed around nine or nine-thirty since there's nothing to do after it gets dark, and he said I'll call you when I'm coming to pick you, and I said ok. Sunday morning: my phone rang at six-fifteen and Emma said I'm coming to pick you and I said ok and I got up at got ready, and then my phone rang again two hours later, eight-fifteen, and Emma said ok I'm on my way and I said ok and got up off of the couch where I'd laid down, semi-napping, after seven o'clock had rolled around and he still wasn't here, and then my phone rang an hour later, nine-fifteen, and Emma said I'm here, let's go, and I said ok and went outside and said good morning, Emma, and he said good morning and we started to go for prayers and I asked when do prayers start, Emma? and he said at nine, so we were already fifteen minutes late, which was better than the two hours and fifteen minutes late that I thought we were and I said ok and Emma said we'll go to my place first and I laughed and said ok and we went to his place and sat for a bit and then went to church at ten-fifteen, or four hours after Emma had first called me and said he was coming to pick me, and we were right on time, we showed up just as church was starting. (And then we left church three hours later – and it wasn't even quite over yet. What if we had been 'on time'?)

And that's the best summary of Africa Time yet.

Church was … well, it's kind of hard to say. The sparse brick building, tin roof and wooden rafters and packed dirt floor, was filled with probably a hundred people –not jammed full, taxi-style, but it was full, the women and children sitting on scarves and mats on the floor to the left as you entered, the minister (priest?) at the front, the men sitting at wooden desks and benches on to the right (and the middle being a bit of a mixture, a no-man's land, partially of overflow from either side, partially taken over by Sunday School kids in matching tunic/shorts outfits of tan patterned cloth with explosions of neon-pink fist-sized roses; a very good look overall); it wasn't quite as strict a division as that, though kind of it was: there were a few women in the seats and benches on the right side, a few men (like Emma) holding their kids, but, of course, no men sitting on the left side, on the dirt floor, natch. Anyway. It opened, church-slash-prayers, with, well, prayers, then a few songs and poems from the Sunday Schoolers in their matching neon-pink-rose-explosion outfits, then the guests or newcomers or whatever –ie: me, among a few others– introduced ourselves to the congregation (and obviously I got the biggest round of applause for my Ateso introduction), and then a skit from the rose-explosion kids, prayers again, then the sermon from a pastor –I guess, I'm assuming anyway, that in the Pentecostal, um, sect (?) there's the minster/priest who's the big man, in black robes and a white scarf, old and tall and distinguished-looking, who ran the whole deal, led the prayers, baptised the babies, etc, like an MC, and then there was the pastor or preacher or whatever, a guest speaker from Nyero (a town between here and Kumi), though I'm not sure if it's a different preacher every week, but so he gave the sermon while the minister/priest sat and, I swear, fell asleep at one point (because don't act like your eyes were closed because you were praying or concentrating so hard on the sermon, Father; I know that trick and I'm onto you)– and then more prayers, I think it was at this point that every man on the right side bowed his head though remained seated while every single woman on the left side was up on her knees, not resting back on her heels, but up with ninety-degree legs and hands clasped at her chest and heads bowed and eyes closed and the minister/priest led a prayer for fifteen or twenty seconds, everyone reciting aloud along with him and then the communal prayer ended and everyone just took up their own, still going on out loud –not a whispered, murmured prayer either, but a full-voiced one– praying for different things at different speeds but all quickly until it became just a buzz, a thousand of the giant thumb-sized bees that live here droning on at once, a hundred people calmly speaking in tongues at once (though I'm ninety-nine percent sure it wasn't tongues, just Ateso), the dissociation of the communally-recited minster/priest-led prayer into the buzz and hum of a thousand insects was like listening to the linguistic explosion at the Tower of Babel and it went on for what felt like a long time, babbling buzzing praying repenting confessing beseeching speaking in tongues whatever, the sound rising up to the rafters and the corrugated metal and bouncing back down as it broke apart, spilling out open windows and doorways into painfully bright sunlight, for two or three minutes, long enough anyway for me to think about how long it was going on for and then it kept going for another minute after that until it petered out, most people offering up their final syllables at the same time –was it planned, then? a recitation?– but maybe ten people still going, a hundred bees still droning on, having more to pray for or maybe just wanting to be holier-than-thou –no, that's cynical and unnecessary and probably untrue– and then it was seven people then three then one person left –'Just one more thing, Lord,' I imagined them saying– and then silence, just the hollow echo of prayers and insects off the metal roof, and then people brought gifts up to the front, like tithing, I guess –and the next time I go to church in the States, I'm totally dropping a whole pumpkin in the offering basket– and then another neon-pink-rose song, and then baptising babies and then more prayers and then Emma said if you're tired, we can go, and I said amen, brother, I was barely keeping my eyes open at that point, which is especially bad when you have at least two or three people staring at you at any given moment (and which made me happy that there were so many lengthy prayers / power-naps), and so that was my first Ugandan church experience and I'm kind of ok with the fact that it took a year before I went to church here.

After church was over, or after we left anyway, we went back to Emma's place. It's just off one of the main roads that leads from Ngora to the highway that runs from Kumi to Soroti, just turn off at the primary school there, the church is just past the school, all of this on the right as you're going from Ngora to Kapir, to the highway, north. Three huts in a surprisingly concealed little clearing –surprising because it's not as though it's surrounded by trees or anything, one mango tree, maybe, but mostly just tall grass, fields of millet, sorghum, cowpeas; you can't see the road, really, though it's only maybe a few hundred feet away; there are a couple banana trees, too, some eggplant, um, plants; and it was quiet too, a few kids one woman walked by to or from the borehole between Emma's and the school, but other than that the only sounds were the staticky radio, the heavy droning of one of the massive bees that was in the process of burrowing into one of the tree branches that held up the thatch roof of the awning we sat under in the shade, sipping sodas and eating biscuits as a post-prayers pre-lunch snack, and it was a beautiful beautiful day, sunny and bright and warm and breezy, and Emma's two-year-old daughter, Miriam, was an adorable adorable child, bright-eyed and brighter-smiled and dressed in her Sunday Best, a little red dress, white trim, something not unlike what Mom might've dressed Caitlin in as a two-year-old on Easter, and she talked non-stop, happily babbling mostly nonsense, and she called me mamai –uncle– sitting on my lap, falling asleep and making me want to fall asleep, too –and making me, sappily, look forward to having a two-year-old of my own someday to nap with– and playing with my hands my armhair my beard, talking the whole time, while Emma and I chatted slowly about whatever, and then we moved inside for lunch, chicken rice posho atap, and Miriam followed us in before Emma sent her back out, causing her to do the classic, universal sad-little-kid walk: drag your feet as slowly as possible, shoulders slumped forward and arms dangling –maybe swing them side-to-side a bit, loosely, for effect– like all of the bones in your upper body have suddenly ceased to exist, loll your head back and then drop your chin to your chest, preferably whining, 'But I don't waaaanna go...' as you shuffle away, and so we ate lunch, joined halfway through by Emma's brother-in-law and then, full, went back out, took the chairs back under the awning and sat in the shade, picking our teeth with toothpicks and then, when the wood became soft and the tips dull, with our fingernails, and we were actually joining, in the shade, Emma's mother and an older man and his son, and we sat there for a while, me stifling yawns, hoping they'd go unnoticed, Miriam drinking the rest of her uncle's purple soda from a blue plastic mug, calling it ecai –tea– the whole time, saying how hot it was, her eyes and smile widened when her grandmother took the mug and held it to Miriam's ear and she could hear the bubbles, the next best thing to listening to the ocean in a seashell as you'll find in landlocked rural Africa, and then Emma came back from wherever he'd said let me come back from and said Danieli, let's go, and I said ok though I didn't know where we were going but we walked up the path past the borehole to the grass field at the primary school where ten or twelve cows were grazing, tended by Okello, Emma's youngest brother (maybe ten or twelve years old, maybe twelve or fourteen years Emma's junior), and the transaction went down right there on the field: two bulls, massive, healthy-looking animals, one an ashy grey colour mottled with light brown marks and spots, the other solid coloured, that same light brown, both with nine-or-twelve-inch horns, the humps at the bases of their necks like fattened, rounded shark fins, the brown one stood next to me, its ribcage three or more times as wide as mine, its breath snuffling out of a wide wet brown nose as it tore up the already-short grass, and Emma would raise his hand to smack it, would should 'Eh!' and step towards it whenever he thought it was getting too close to me, he obviously wasn't reading my thoughts, didn't know that all I really wanted was for it to nuzzle its wide wet brown nose into my chest while I petted its head, rubbing the fur between its horns, and they negotiated the price –Emma and the older man, mostly, but also the son, and random passers-by who stopped to check on the sale, to see what was up– and a wad of bills was handed over, then, after more negotiating, a few more red 20,000 shilling notes, then more negotiation, we sat down on the grass, stood up again, Okello brought over a young black-white-brown calf, added to the sale and then the older man said to me, his one eyelid shut permanently, the eye missing or blind, making him look like he was winking at you, constantly trying to bring you in on a joke or a bit of hilarious mischief that was about to happen, he said to me you are also a member of this, and he laughed lightly, and said so what are your thoughts? and I said me? laughing, making sure he actually thought I knew anything about bulls or cows or selling or buying them, and he said yes, though I'm sure he knew I knew nothing about bulls or cows or selling or buying them, and I wanted to tell him you should pay a lot, these bulls have testicles as big as my forearm, they'll breed for ages, but instead I just laughed and confirmed my ignorance, and then, after a few more bills were handed over, the stack of shillings, the shilling stack, was counted and recounted and confirmed by one of the passers-by and confirmed –1.8 million for the two bulls and the calf– and hands were shook and then the older man went winking down the road, herding his new cows in front of him, bringing everyone in on the joke as he passed, and Emma pocketed the cash –I asked him later how often he makes a sale like that, thinking that 1.8mil is a cool load of money, he must be doing pretty well if he makes a sale like that every other month or so, but he said just once a year and I said ok and I thought but still, not bad– and we walked back to his place, Miriam running across the compound when we got there, barely slowing down as she planted her face in my thigh and threw her arms around my leg and I picked her up and we sat back down under the awning for a while longer, passing daylight, buzzing bees, stifling yawns, and then an hour or two later Emma said let's go and we got up to go and Miriam's face dropped, eyes wide, mouth open in shock, and and and, oh you could see it coming, she started bawling, couldn't believe I was leaving already and her sobbing made everyone else laugh and made me smile and then Emma took me home and I thanked him for the day, a really nice day, and I laid back down on the couch and took a two hour nap, and I woke up, it was night.

And back to Africa Time:

(Because do you see what happened there? We started off in one direction –Africa Time– and then we got a little distracted –right around St Paddy's Day– then got back on track, back off track, and now, several hours or days later, back on track. Just like being in Africa.)

Spending days like that –long warm afternoons spent sitting in the shade; long lazy conversations that meander with no real direction, that fall acceptably silent, that fall just into long pauses, really, before picking up where they'd left off ten quiet, peaceful minutes earlier, or before taking off in an entirely new direction apropos of nothing but the fact that it's a long lazy conversation on a long warm afternoon and it's understood that the directions the conversation takes don't have to be apropos of anything– makes me think of old men, the ones sitting in rocking chairs on front porches or folding chairs on sidewalks in front of bodegas or on the stairs of stoops of apartment buildings in the city, in summertime heat, early fall warmth, watching time and people pass, they wipe a palm on the thigh of their pants, their hand wet from the sweat of a bottle of beer or a lemonade, they talk when there's something to be said and don't talk where there are just things to think about silently, because sometimes there's just time for that, when you're that age, when you've done enough things and been enough places that now it's time to rest for a bit, to sit and watch other people doing and going while you just talk about it or don't.

Spending days like that makes me feel like I'm in old-man-training.

And, like seventy percent of the time, I'm totally ok with that. Because I don't think I'd really ever do that at home or if I were just travelling or whatever –just sit on the porch or wherever for literally seven hours, just sitting and watching and talking and thinking and passing time or being passed by it. Maybe we do that, but it's different, I think –there's always tv or sports or we get bored and go out to eat or whatever; we wouldn't just sit and do nothing, at least not without feeling a little guilty about it, like we're wasting the day. But that's what it is, isn't it? And is that inherently bad? Maybe it's an American or Western (maybe?) cultural thing: wasting time and its negative connotations. Sometimes when I spend an afternoon, a whole beautiful day, in old-man-training, I do feel guilty, frustrated: let's do something! But usually I'm ok with it. I'm outside. With people. No pressure. Watch. Watch everything, watch the grass, the trees, the clouds, the people, watch the cows go out to graze and watch the boys bring them back in, watch clothes being washed and watch them flap in the breeze on the line, watch people fetch water, pump the handle at the borehole, balance jerrycans on their heads, watch chickens and goats, the grandmother shelling g-nuts, smoke from cooking fires and charcoal stoves, watch football played with a ball made of plastic bags, watch kids knocking mangoes down from trees, watch bicycles and boda bodas, watch the sun move, cross the sky, dip, go down, watch the sky change colours, the clouds gather and threaten rain and blow away before it comes, watch the moon come up, the stars come out, because when am I going to watch these things again? how much longer do I have? because even when time expands and contracts and runs in different divergent directions, even when days last for weeks and hours for days, there's still only so much time, and then what?

26 September 2011

Motherless Brooklyn

Thanks to packages of books from the delightful and talented Sarah Tompkins, Jonathan Lethem is one of my new favorite authors -- Chronic City, The Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn, As She Climbed Across the Table: all definitely recommended.

So this quote made me smile: I think it sums up my wandering childhood -- read: childhood epitomised by the time I peaced out of the backyard in San Diego unnoticed, diaper-clad and cookie in hand, and meandered down to the busy four-way intersection at the corner where I was happily picked up by a random stranger who brought me home; thanks for giving me space to explore my freedom (to have potentially been the next Lindbergh baby), Mom and Dad; love you! -- which helps explain my subsequent life (or how I ended up here) in Uganda: my wandering adult(or at least fully grown man-child)hood.
Danny might have coolly walked out on his parents one day when he was seven or eight and joined a pickup game that lasted until he was fourteen.
And that's why Mom had a leash for me as a child. (If I ever come across a quote to sum up the time, not long after my diaper-clad expedition, when Dad caught me sitting on the kitchen counter using a butcher knife to scoop and eat sugar out of the jar, I'll be sure to post it. Anyway, point being: how am I still alive?)

16 September 2011


So they usually say that after a year at site, you finally start to get busy. I haven't been at site for quite a full year yet – though I have been, and it's hard to believe, in Uganda for thirteen months now – and I'm still not quite as consistently busy as I want to be, but it feels good to have had some real work recently.

So, I mentioned before about training forty people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) to act as home-based counsellors for others with HIV/AIDS. After the whole fiasco with my organisation and the other local organisation that originally wanted me to do this project with them, after writing a lengthy grant proposal, after meeting with the HIV counsellors at the Counselling and Testing Centre at Freda Carr (the local hospital) and other community members and the LC5 Chairman (the highest government official in the district), after leaving site for ten days, and after scheduling and then having to reschedule the training – after all that, it finally happened.

Here's a little bit more of a background (from the Statement of Need in my grant proposal):

Ngora District was formed in early 2010 when it was separated from Kumi District. When the two districts split, Ngora was left with an estimated population of roughly 142,000. With this separation and the changes in leadership and government funding and programmes, the home-based HIV/AIDS counsellor project which had been well received in Kumi District was not brought over to Ngora. This left all counselling, testing, and antiretroviral therapy services to the CTS Centre at Freda Carr Hospital, near the district headquarters. There was no longer a system in place to get services and support to people in the outer reaches of the district.

Now, with only a few volunteer counsellors on staff at the CTS Centre, not only do many people have to travel ten or more kilometres for services, but they then have to wait a couple hours or more before they are able to spend a few brief moments with one of the counsellors. It should be noted that this should not reflect negatively on the staff at the CTS Centre who are committed and hard-working but, simply, a bit overwhelmed by the nearly 100 people who come for services each day the Centre is open. There are 2,504 HIV-positive individuals registered with the CTS Centre, 691 of who are on Antiretroviral Therapy (ART). However, there are many other individuals who have been tested through mobile outreaches or community testing days but are not registered with the CTS Centre. Using a lower estimate that has 6% of the total population living with HIV/AIDS, there are an estimated total of over 8,520 HIV-positive individuals in the district. There are, then, more than 6,000 PLWHA who are not accessing any services or counselling, not receiving any sort of adequate support, have not been well-educated on HIV/AIDS, and a number of them likely need to be started on ART. So the effects of all of these issues are felt by many individuals and families across the district. There is, then, an obvious need to increase the accessibility of services for PLWHA and a large, pre-existing client base. While it may not be within our power to expand testing sites and ART distribution points, one area we can build the capacity of the district is in the support of PLWHA, specifically with home-based counselling.

So, that's why we – the community, me – felt like this project would be a good idea, and why we felt like it could be a success. And here are the cool things about the rest how the training came to be and then how it went:

1: I had started trying to get my volunteer counsellors by going to Freda Carr on Mondays and Fridays, the days that people come to pick up their ARVs and get counselling, and giving a short little spiel about the project, then leaving a sign-up sheet for whoever was interested, planning on then, after a month (so that I'd hopefully give the spiel to everyone who comes for ARVs), doing a little interview or whatever to pick who I thought was really committed and would be good counsellors. When I went to do that for, maybe, the third time, I found out that the community members had already figured out who they wanted to be counsellors. They wanted this, they had people who they knew would be committed and would make good counsellors, and that made me happy. (And that after the whole original idea came from the community in the first place.)

2: I knew these people would know more about, or at least be way more – for obvious reasons – experienced with HIV/AIDS than I would, and so I went into the training planning on basically just running a discussion, bringing all of their knowledge and experiences together so that we could be standardized, so that they could all be using the same information when they were counselling people. And it worked perfectly. We covered about fifteen or so topics surrounding HIV/AIDS and counselling. They were more than happy to discuss, more than happy to share experiences and testimonies – to the point where I had to cut some discussions short in the interest of getting to all of the topics we wanted to get to – and they were all just as knowledgeable, maybe even more so, than I'd expected them to be.

3: At the beginning of the training, we went over the goals and objectives of the project: to increase availability and accessibility of quality counselling services, and so on. One of the objectives, the main one, actually, was that each of them would provide counselling to at least forty individuals within the first quarter of the project, or by the end of October. I had wavered on this number before the training, not wanting to ask too much of them, to tax their health and energy, especially since they were doing this voluntarily, and so when we were going over the objectives, I asked them, 'Does forty sound like a reasonable number? Or is that too many?' The question was translated for those who couldn't understand me – most of them can understand at least some English, but I always find myself speaking too fast, in too American of an accent, when I'm talking in front of a bunch of people, so some of them found it hard to understand me, or, as they say, they weren't 'picking' me – and immediately everyone started talking – sounding, to me, like, 'Rabble rabble rabble!' – and so I was worried that I'd set the bar too high. Martin translated their consensus back to me: of course we can reach forty people by the end of October, and not only that but we could even do more, why, just last week I talked to ten different people about their HIV tests, forty is no problem at all. I couldn't help breaking out in a big stupid grin.

4: People here – and I honestly don't think this is a reflection of people's attitudes or anything, but is a reflection of the foreign-aid-and-NGO-ification of everything in Africa – generally expect to receive some form of compensation for, well, a lot. Like coming to one of the sensitisations that my org puts on in the villages to teach people about family planning and reproductive health. People come – usually within their own village, not far – knowing that, at the very least, they'll get a soda. And it inexplicably extends to, like, conferences for NGO staff: a per diem allowance is expected; as in, I'm coming to learn new things that can either A: help people in my area, or B: help my organisation perform better, and, yes, I expect to be compensated for learning these things. Without going off on too much of a tangent... that's how it is, and there's really no getting around it. So I made it clear – in the few spiels I gave at the hospital, in the letter I wrote to the volunteers thanking them for being a part of the project before the training – that, while I would provide tea, lunch, and soda during the training, along with a small transportation refund – and I feel like this is understandable; I'm expecting them to come to me and to be there all day, so, ok, I'll pay for that – I would not be paying them any sort of monthly stipend for their work, I would not be buying them a soda each day they went to do counselling with people, I would not be buying them bicycles or t-shirts or messenger bags. It was a concern: I was worried people wouldn't want to do it for free – and maybe that makes me cynical, but I can at least say that it doesn't make me cynical about Ugandans or Africans or whatever, it just makes me cynical about, like I said, the foreign-aid-and-NGO-ification of everything in Africa – and I was told by the counsellor at Freda Carr that when they had a similar program, the one from when Ngora was a part of Kumi, the 'volunteer' counsellors were paid 50,000UGX per month (a number I laughed out loud at when he asked if I'd be paying my volunteers – no quotes – something like that). So, at the beginning of the training, right after going over the objectives, we went over their questions and concerns about the training and, natch, the issue of idiboro – literally a little something in Ateso – came up. And so I made it clear again: I really, really wish that I could pay you for this work, I wish that I could buy you bicycles to help you reach more people, all because I believe in you all and in the work you'll be doing, but, simply, the money isn't there, not only am I on a shoe-string budget here, but I'm actually over budget, and, I don't want to get too serious, but if you're here to get a monthly stipend or a bicycle or whatever then, well, you probably shouldn't be here. I said that last part haltingly, wanting to get the point across without myself coming across as a jerk. But, once it was translated, I was met by nods of agreement, or, if not agreement, then at least understanding, from all across the room. I was also met by, the rest of that day and the next two days of the training, engaged and active and – yes, it's true! – on time volunteers, all of them. This put another big stupid grin on my face.

And so, overall, success.

At the end, I told them how much I appreciated them agreeing to work with me, told them that the success of the whole thing was up to them, told them how much I believed in them, and how big of an impact they could make in the lives of the friends and neighbours. And then I blasted 'Eye of the Tiger' from a boombox and made them run up a huge flight of stairs, pumping their fists in the air.

Ok, just kidding. But only because we don't have any stairs here.

A few weeks ago, I was in Gulu, in the North, for Peace Camp. Peace Camp was a week-long pseudo-summer-camp started by a few PCVs from the north for teenagers, fifteen to nineteen years old (and one thirteen year old girl who lied her way into the camp, which is kind of awesome), who were affected by the war with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). It was a great thing to get to be a part of.

The LRA is the rebel group who terrorised northern and eastern Uganda for over twenty years (though now they've been pushed into the DRC). They abducted children and forced them to be soldiers or wives for the commanders, they forced them to kill their families, they raped them, they forced them to carry massively heavy supplies for days on end with no rest and no food. Those are the basics. The actual stories are worse.

I got to spend the week with eighty kids who were just awesome people, happy, assertive, intelligent, resilient. I helped to run the Life-Skills sessions of the camp, doing stuff on resisting peer pressure, but when I wasn't doing that, I got to hang out with the kids, play football, have a dance party, watch them perform skits and traditional folk songs and dances from their tribes, go to a ropes course where they all did a zip-line and were stoked about 'flying,' listen to them, watch them grow and develop – and I really believe a lot of them did – and impress me – like I knew they would – and just generally be a part of something that was, can continue to be, really good for the kids who were there and for their communities when they bring back everything they learned and accomplished.

Another reason I was looking forward to the camp was because kids from Teso were there, too. Along with all of the youth from the North, these kids were equally affected by the war, but haven't gotten the assistance and recognition that the Acholi, Lango, and other Northern tribes – though, really, mainly the Acholi – have.

We met with one of the local counterparts from Amuria at the weekend training we had a couple weeks before the actual camp, and he talked about how the fighting in the East has just literally never been documented. I read a book recently about the kids who were affected by the war. Near the beginning of the book, the author said, 'The South and West of Uganda are the tourist destinations; the North is a warzone.' There was no mention of the East, not only as being affected by the war, but as, like, existing. Butt kids there were forced to kill their families and become soldiers, they were raped and forced to become wives, they were orphaned and traumatised, just like the kids in the North. I almost feel like this sounds like I'm belittling the horrible experiences of the kids from the North. I'm not, obviously. It's just that there was never an Invisible Children for the kids from Teso; it's just that there aren't dozens of NGOs in Teso dedicated – regardless of their success or the way they go about fulfilling their missions – to helping these kids; it's just that, yeah, when people think of Uganda, they think of the gorillas and the amazing national parks in the South and West, and they think of the war in the North, and they don't think of the East. But, about five years ago, the LRA made it as far down as Soroti. There were tanks in the streets of the town 50km to the north of me. My counterpart has talked about driving around doing work in the villages and being constantly on the lookout for rebels. At one of the sub-county headquarters in my district, the walls of one of the buildings are covered in charcoal graffiti about the Arrow Boys, the – basically – civilian militia from Teso that fought against and, eventually, drove back the LRA. So, I'm really glad that kids from Teso got to participate in the camp.

Our man from Amuria also talked about how people in Teso often think that the LRA is the Acholi and the Acholi are the LRA, and having those kids come to the camp will help to break that misunderstanding. Some people were worried about the kids coming up to Gulu because of this belief, and hopefully, after the camp, some of that will change. One night at the camp, there was a forgiveness and reconciliation ceremony. The kids wrote down forgiveness messages – to the rebels, the government soldiers, whoever they felt like they needed to forgive – and burned them, symbolically releasing those things they've been carrying with them. After that, they had the kids from each of the four tribes – Acholi, Lango, Iteso, and Alur – forgive each other. There were a lot of tears and – seemingly – flashbacks, one girl fainted, it was all very intense for all of them, but we hope it was worth it.

We hope they'll bring that back to their communities, to the other youth affected by the war, to their families and neighbours and friends, and foster forgiveness and reconciliation in their towns and villages. And though we recognize that maybe that's a lot to ask of 15-19 year-olds, we hope that it really did mean something, something other than simply scratching at wounds that time had allowed to become scabs or scars until they bled again and then leaving them with no bandages to help the wounds re-heal after they left the camp. But I think these kids are resilient and brave enough to make it, regardless; I think they've proven that already. And a lot of them were already excited to go home, back to school or back to the village, wherever, and share with everyone there, start Peace Clubs with other youth, become leaders among their peers and communities. Awesome.

A couple other quick highlights from the camp:

Monica's goal: one of the days, we had some free time, and I was playing football with a group of the boys. Mostly boys, I should say. There were one or two girls on each team, and after twenty minutes or so, the game was mostly bogged down in the midfield, no goals yet, not really any real chances. Then one girl, Monica – a tall, confident, sassy (in a good, hilarious way) girl from my friend Sandi's school in Pader, east of Gulu – jogged onto the field, picked a team, and, about ten seconds later, ripped a shot from thirty yards out, a serious rocket, a low line-drive that the keeper had no chance of stopping, didn't even try to stop, a goal that – and this was the best part, really – none of the boys could be able to top, before or after, all week. (And, for the record, it was the best goal I can remember seeing in a game that I've actually been a part of. Seriously awesome.) We'll call that 'Breaking Gender Stereotypes,' or, maybe more accurately, 'Showing the Boys What's Up.'

The traditional dances: all of the tribes were great, it was great to see how excited they got about getting to perform their songs and dances in front of everyone, they were proud and enthusiastic and talented. But, at least for me, the Langi were especially impressive. Thirty kids (I think), spears, feathered headdresses, the girls in matching skirts, the boys with ash rubbed on their faces, two of them wailed away on drums while the others were chanting, jumping, moving both aggressively and gracefully, circling the drummers. Hard to describe, very cool to watch, very cool, also, just to see how pumped they were to be up there, doing their thing, representing their tribe, especially in front of one of their tribal leaders (because we had a leader from each of the tribes come and address the kids).

The, let's call it, solidarity: we had several deaf campers in two of the camper groups, with a couple of the local counterparts translating everything from English to sign and back. It was, first of all, cool to see them interacting with all of the other kids. There weren't any cliques that developed – which was actually true for everyone, and was really nice – and none of the separation between hearing and hearing-impaired that you might expect. The highlight, though, was during one of the group reflection sessions. A Ugandan woman from an NGO in Gulu was leading the session, and, at one point, she asked for a boy and a girl to come up and do a short skit. Two of the deaf kids immediately raised their hands, stood up to go up to the front, when the woman running the session stopped them, saying, 'No, no, we need someone who can talk.' (To be fair to her, I certainly don't think this was malicious or intentional. I think it just came out without her thinking about it.) We PCVs, sitting in the back of the room, immediately looked at each other, shaking our heads, disbelieving, but almost before it even registered, the kids started murmuring, shaking their heads, then calling out, 'No! They can talk! Let them do it!' The facilitator, embarrassed and realizing what she'd said, let them do it, while giant smiles broke out across all of our faces in the back of the room, goosebumps spreading across our arms. Just eighty really, really good kids in that room.

So that was Peace Camp. An awesome week, a great job by everyone who put it all together, a great job by everyone who was there. And, most of all, the kids who came – and those who couldn't come, but are no less amazing than the ones who could; one of the other PCVs who was there said that some kids in her town couldn't come, knew they couldn't, and were still almost unable to control their excitement for the ones who could – and were, are, just generally pretty amazing human beings: what is there to say?

(Oh, one last thing: the movie War Dance. You should all go rent it, Netflix it, do whatever crazy new technology there is now that I don't know about. It's about a group of primary school students from Pader, all, like our campers, affected by the war in one way or another or many, and they tell their stories while it also follows them practising and performing in a music and dance competition in Kampala. It's beautifully shot and, well, just watch it. You'll cry. And, though Pader isn't what I would call exactly close to Ngora – maybe 200-ish km away – it looks pretty similar, so you can, sort of, see what it looks like where I live.)

13 September 2011

The Burial

Last month, before I left for Peace Camp (I'll write about that and other work soon), Moses' – a friend from my organisation – father died. I went to the burial; I was glad to be able to go, out of support for a friend, out of interest in the cultural experience, because I'd never been to a burial, a funeral, before, ever, anywhere.

Moses' father was 80-something years old, he'd been sick for a few months by then, but it's still always sad for someone to lose a parent, and I felt a little guilty about wanting to go partially just out of curiosity about the ceremony itself. But, well. (Well? I don't know. It seems fair to me; maybe I'm just insensitive though.)

The burial was in Amuria, a district bordering the north of Soroti (which, remember? [just kidding, I don't really expect you to remember], is the district that borders Ngora to the north and is the district in which the Iteso kids who came to Peace Camp live, another reason I was glad to be able to go), and we piled into my organisation's Toyota Hi-Lux pickup – I always kind of enjoy pointing out that it's a Hi-Lux because all I knew of Hi-Lux-es before coming here was that the Taliban and the, um, rebels (is that what we call them? are they still rebels if they basically run the country?) in Somalia mount machine guns in the beds of theirs, a feature that, I've since learned, does not come standard – and I was sitting in the bed of the truck with, from my organisation, Martin – my 'twin,' remember? again?, the Opio to my Odongo, because we're the same age – Peter, Cuthbert, Vincent, Scovia, Mr Oloit – whose other name I somehow still don't know, though, at least, now I know the one name: after he'd been with my org for several months, my supervisor, randomly, asked me, one day while we were eating lunch under the mango tree and Oloit came and sat down, 'Danieli, you know his name?' and I said, 'Yeah... totally... he's been here for a long time now... ha...ha...' and then she asked what it was, she told me that was what people said when they don't really know, and she was totally right: embarrassing – and, not from my organisation, two old ladies who I'd never met before, and so, needless to say, it was crowded, nine adults (and a full-sized spare tire) in the bed of a pickup. We headed out, bouncing down the dirt road, I covered my head with a pair of someone's waterproof pants during a brief, pelting rain, we bounced along up to the main highway, everyone laughed at the wind wildly whipping my hair, we flew down the tarmac to Soroti Town, through town, then maybe twenty kilometres north of town, we turned right off the tarmac onto another rutted dirt road, this one at times angled at a nearly-forty-five degree angle, and Amuria looks not unlike Ngora though it's less flat, less totally planar, there are long rolling hills, there aren't any of my favourite massive rock formations, there's more space, more empty – read: not cultivated for farming – land, vast expanses of grass, and the grass is tall, taller than in Ngora, tall like in the North, able to hide rebel soldiers, as tall as me, and we hopped out of the back of the truck while Emma – our driver, or, as they say here (and as I love that they say here), our pilot – navigated a metre-deep trench, broken concrete pipe, current of dirty water that cut a swath across the road, everyone disparaging the construction team who'd put in the concrete pipe, 'Eh! These Ugandan engineers... Tsk!' – the disparagement of their fellow Ugandans, and their fellow Africans as a whole, is an entirely different subject that I could go off on but won't here; I feel like it happens a lot, and it bothers me, makes me uncomfortable; it feels like racism that was so engrained during colonialism that they now just take it for fact; I never know what to say when, for example, they say Africans aren't as good at science as Westerners, usually I just end up stammering, 'That's not... It's... No.' But, anyway – then we hopped back in, clambering, and soon after, after two and a half hours total, we were there, Moses' family's homestead, a collection of mud-and-thatch huts.

The ceremony had just begun when we got there. We got in the back of an orderly – more orderly than any I've ever been in in any non-Western country – single-file line, we moved past the coffin, a wooden box, nailed shut, covered in a royal-hued (standard though, not actually for royalty) purple cloth, a large floral arrangement sitting on top, it would've been sitting on his stomach were the coffin open, and though the coffin was closed, nailed shut, there was a small window over his face, his eyes were closed, his expression peaceful, his skin wrinkled and aged but somehow relaxed, you could see the gauzy material the rest of his body was wrapped in, and all I could think about was Mao Tse-tung, lying embalmed in Beijing forever, for (I think?) like forty years by the time we – Sarah and I; hi, Sarah! – saw him, by the time we made a similar silent, single-file procession past his coffin – his not nailed shut, not wooden, simply a large glass box mechanically raised up from the floor each day for the, um, viewings – all I could think about was Mao because he, that, was the only dead person, body, I'd seen before – in that state anyway; I'm not including those lovely folks at the University of Washington cadaver lab, as I mostly saw their guts and, most memorably, their feet, which still had all of the skin and nails and everything – and so I looked at his face, peaceful, wrinkled, and thought of Mao, all while constantly moving slowly by, then, hurriedly, as I moved away from the coffin toward our seats, I remembered to think of a few words of consolation for Moses, his family, his late father, I didn't want to only think of Mao, and then we sat down and the ceremony continued.

The crowd that had gathered, maybe a hundred-strong, was, if not sombre, then certainly subdued, respectful, and I'm lacking another good word for it, but this subdued atmosphere was really only noticeable to me when I thought of it in relation to every other gathering I've been to here, celebratory, educational, whatever, and not when I thought of it in relation to the typical – stereotypical? – Western funeral, or Middle Eastern funeral, or Indian funeral – all of which, of course, I've only read about, seen in movies – because there was no one clad in mournful black, no black-mesh-veiled widow weeping, no stoic son's arm being clutched by a despondent wife and mother, there was no fittingly atmospheric overcast sky, no cold drizzle or autumn leaves that, in a reflection of the occasion, would lose their last grip on the branch and float slowly down in a peaceful death to land on wet cemetery grass, and there was no gnashing of teeth, no rending of garments, no funeral pyre, no screaming out to God in anger and grief, and I realize that this may be a factor not of the cultural – though, I don't know, maybe it is; but I think back to the wails of grief I heard that one night, the night my former neighbour Peter told me that the other neighbours had lost an infant to malaria, and I think not – aspect, but of the fact that it was the burial of a man in the eighth decade of his life, who'd been ill for several months, who'd been a good, successful, respected man – I think he was a deacon in the local church – and I only saw one woman – wife? widow? – let out a single cry of sadness, one that racked her whole body and almost brought her to her knees as she passed by the nailed-shut, purple-clothed, windowed coffin shortly after we'd taken our seats, but even she, like many of the other women there, was dressed in the garish, synthetic colours of a gomes – pronounced gomez; the traditional fancy dress, conical shoulders and a wide sash-like belt tied with a square knot in the front around the waist – a few men were in suits, but even Moses, though his face was uncharacteristically long, wore just a grey polo shirt and khakis, everyone else dressed in whatever they'd wear to go about their normal day after the ceremony, they've done this all before, more than a couple times, I'm sure, and even the weather, blue sky, the sun warm and bright, was less than sombre, subdued only by a handful of heavy black rainclouds gathering in the distance. So: subdued. I mean that the dancing, the music blasted from speakers at an ear-splitting volume, the happy songs and ululations, the loud chatter and louder laughter, those things that typify every other gathering I've ever been to here were absent, but the two short speeches that made up the bulk of the ceremony were more lighthearted than not, seemingly anyway, judging by the speakers' tones of voice and the – albeit, again, subdued – laughter elicited by, presumably, charming anecdotes about Moses' father, and there were these two short speeches, neither longer than five or six minutes, they were followed by the reading of a few verses from the Bible, a hymn sung by the gathered crowd, and even this wasn't mournful-sounding, just respectful, subdued, and then the coffin was lifted, carried to the grave-site, we all followed behind, walked half a kilometre through tall grass under warm sunshine, and we, everyone, gathered around the grave, the coffin had already been lowered in when I walked up, there was another speech, shorter even than the first two, another hymn sung, and handfuls of rocky red dirt were scooped up, tossed down onto the coffin – nailed-shut, purple-clothed, windowed – the dirt and rocks clattered on the wooden box, sounding like the first drops of a heavy rain on a tin roof, and, maybe five minutes after walking up to the graveside, we turned around and walked back through tall grass under warm sunshine to the homestead, the ceremony was over, I asked Martin just to be sure – Is that really it? – and it was, they served lunch, we said goodbye to Moses, hugged, and we'd only been there for barely an hour, even the length of the ceremony, relative to typically hours-long gatherings, was subdued, and we left.

It was interesting. I was glad that I got to go.

And we went back down the angled, rutted dirt road, hopped back out with Emma navigated trench, broken concrete pipe, current of dirty water, and, this time, I was sitting on the edge of the truck-bed wall, the only place to hold onto was the wall, a hand gripping the metal immediately on either side of my butt, not much – barely any – leverage, we bounced along and I tried to keep my balance, my white-knuckle grip, tried to keep the legitimate concern off my face, they'd never let me ride in the back again if I fell out, mostly because I'd probably be dead, then we flew down the tarmac of the highway again, one of my hands fell asleep and I couldn't tell if I was still holding on or not, the rain clouds were gathering again though the sun was still shining brightly as it dipped westward, a couple kilometres off the highway, I could see a column of rain, grey, silvery shafts of water coming down, clearly delineated from where it wasn't raining, maybe one square kilometre getting poured on while the rest of, well, everywhere was still dry, and we picked up two more people, and their two kids, in Soroti Town, now thirteen people in the bed of the truck, and the woman sat down in the bed, her back pushing against my legs and sliding me back so that I was hanging at least eight inches out over the tarmac, at least I'd gotten a better hand-hold on the rail running along the back of the roof, but still, lorries flew by, a metre away from tearing me in half, Emma drove the same way he'd've driven without anyone in the bed, the tarmac whizzed by beneath me, I silently cursed the woman pushing on my legs, my knuckles were white, I pretended just to be hanging off the truck like Kevin Costner in Waterworld, the sun was dipping towards the horizon, the light was golden and warm, we bounced off the highway and down the dirt road toward Ngora, we made it back, I could finally let go, my hands hurt, but I'd never felt so personally responsible to – still – be alive as I did at that moment, and I was happy, maybe inappropriately so, but the feeling was amplified by the fact that I'd been to a funeral for the first time, by the fact that I'd just looked a corpse in the face, that I'd been a tenuous grip on the truck away from the pavement and the speeding lorries, that I'm twenty-six, that I'm healthy, that my family's healthy, that I'd looked a dead person in the face and thought only of Mao because that was all that I had to go on.