22 March 2011

Like 2Pac Says


I finished reading two books this week. The first was about the Iteso, "my" tribe here, appropriately called The Iteso, written by a British guy in the early 1950s (not the most objective viewpoint ever, but surprisingly not super racist) before Uganda gained independence, chronicling the changes that had happened in the fifty years of British occupation (or, well, he calls it British administration; I call it British occupation, the limey bastards). The second was called Beyond the Sky and the Earth, written by a girl, basically a Canadian version of a Peace Corps volunteer (aw, Canada -- adorable), posted for three years as a teacher in Bhutan in the late 1980s.

Both of these ended up being reminders that things change, most things change, and drastically, but some things don't change, and some things never will.

In The Iteso, it had pictures, old black-and-white photographs taken in the late 1940s, early 1950s, of typical life in Teso -- cattle herding, goat herding, sifting through millet, drinking ajon through long straws. And all of these pictures could have been taken by me, yesterday, then converted into black-and-white on my computer. The cows looked the same, with the same young man herding them with the same long papyrus cane, the mud huts looked the same, the bicycles looked the same as the bicycle I bought last week, the same men were sitting around the same pot of ajon in the same wooden folding chairs drinking out of the same straws wearing the same checkered, plaid, or solid-colored button-down shirts with the same haircuts and the same woman pouring more fermented millet into the pot. The only difference was that the men in the pictures were wearing shorts (a novel idea, considering it gets up to around eleventy-billion degrees here), while, these days, if you wear shorts, you're a primary school boy. And today, that cowherd would have a cell phone and would herd the cows across a road, dodging taxis and motorbikes, and sometimes you drink ajon out of a jerrycan instead of a clay pot and talk about the latest developments in world news seen on Al-Jazeera or CNN World. Things change, things don't.

And in Beyond the Sky and the Earth, it was funny -- interesting funny, sometimes ha-ha funny -- reading the observations of a pseudo-PCV posted thousands of miles from here, twenty-plus years ago, and seeing how many of those observations can be applied directly, without translation from Asia to Africa, the '80s to the '10s (?), Sarchhop to Ateso, to my life here in Ngora. Like feeling out of place, a foreigner, and feeling right at home, judging tourists; embracing and struggling with cultural differences -- embracing the pace of life, the "simplicity", struggling with the drunk man groping the teenage girl, the skewed gender gap, the canings in school; learning the language; despairing and not despairing, or understanding, the Westernization; trying to get students to talk -- and both me and the author of the book writing TALK on the board in class, getting laughs from the students who then fell back into silence; thinking about going home, not wanting to go home, not yet, and then wanting to go home, right now; and being miserable and as happy as you've ever been. And though I don't have to wait nine months for a package, only two (!), and letters aren't my only correspondence home, and Uganda is not Bhutan and Bhutan is not Uganda, it's still kinda the same. Things change, things don't.

2Pac says so, anyway.

And, so, from Beyond the Sky and the Earth:

I say that lives in the villages might be hard and short, but the people seem genuinely content with what they have, and this is a function of their faith, which recognizes that desire for material wealth and personal gain leads to suffering. Dini says that they are content with what they have because what they have is all they know. How deep do you think those values go? she asks. Their lifestyle is not a matter of choice but a function of the environment. If they could have cars and refrigerators and VCRs, they would. Let the global market in here with all its shiny offerings, she says, and see how fast everything changes.


I am aware of two possible versions: I can see either the postcard (Lost World Series, Rural Landscape No. 5), or I can see a family bent over the earth in aching, backbreaking labor, the ghosts of two children dead from some easily preventable disease, and not enough money for all the surviving children to buy the shoes and uniforms required for school. It is too easy to romanticize. The landscape cannot answer back, cannot say, no you are wrong, life here is different but if you add everything up, it is not any better. You can love this landscape because your life does not depend on it. It is merely a scenic backdrop for the other life you will always be able to return to, a life in which you will not be a farmer scraping a life out of difficult terrain.

Things change, things don't. And it's not bad or good -- no, that's not true, it's bad and good, but mostly it just is.

14 March 2011

Mob Justice, Boreholes, and (No) Revolutions

These things happened:

Iganga is a highway town on the main road that goes east from Kampala to Mbale. It's hot, dusty, vibrating with passing vehicles. I was there recently, and I was in a second-floor cafe. I walked out, to get some fresh air, to pass a minute or two, to look for other PCVs who were outside somewhere, onto the balcony overlooking the highway where lorries roared past, matatus stopped to let passengers out and started again once they'd packed passengers back in, where construction of a new building going on across the street included a six-man brick-tossing assembly-line where the bricks went from being part of a giant pile through twelve hands to being part of a rising wall, and where general pedestrian traffic milled about, moving back and forth, walking with a purpose or standing about chatting with nothing better to do. And then I noticed, on the opposite side of the street, a stream of people running down the sidewalk to my left, which turned, quickly, into a river of people, and then I heard their voices, angry, shouting, rise on the current up to where I was. I turned to the person standing next to me on the balcony and asked what was going on.

"Somebody has stolen something."

I knew what this meant. I knew what this crowd was coming to see and do. But it still took me a minute to find the man in the middle of the mob. When I found him, though, he was unmistakable. His shirt, ripped open in the front, down to his belly, was stained bright red at the collar and shoulders from the blood that was pouring from his head. He tried to fend off the crowd that advanced towards him menacingly, that had already gotten to him and surrounded him. He covered his head when another man stepped forward and landed punches on his skull and his arms raised for protection. He bounced off the grill of a lorry as he was shoved back against it. And then a man to his left, behind his field of vision, bent down then raised back up with a red clay brick in hand and launched it, from two feet away, like a bowler in cricket, against the thief's head, and he collapsed briefly from the impact, the collision of stone and skull enough to make me wince from a couple hundred feet away, then sprung back up, quicker than expected, quicker than I expected anyway, and then I saw, on the far side of the crowd, from the entrance of a supermarket, a security guard, armed, as they always are, with an old bolt-action rifle, start to push his way through the crowd, and I covered my mouth, but for some reason not my eyes, as I assumed the bolt action rifle was about to be put to use, the thief was about to go from having blood on his shoulders to having blood pouring from a bullet hole in his head, until, somehow, in the commotion caused by the rifle, caused by the gun making its way through the crowd, because it was the gun making its way through the crowd, really, not the security guard, the thief was able to push his way out of the ring of people surrounding him and run, stumbling, bleeding, down the street and around the corner and out of my view and five or six men gave chase but the rifle didn't, the security guard didn't, and I told myself he made it away alive, deservedly so, even though he's a criminal, even though, according to someone else watching from the balcony, this was his third time being caught stealing, and I went back inside and the other PCVs I was with came back inside and I was glad I didn't see him get shot or beaten to death and we all talked about it for a couple minutes, some of them were down there, street-level, while it happened, and then we moved on to better things, better topics, because that happens here, mob justice happens here, and what's the point of dwelling on it?

Right now, middle of March, we're moving from the dry season into the rainy season. It's still hot, at least for me, who's hot when it gets above 80 in Seattle, but it's started to rain a bit at night, clouds have started to gather during the day, the winds have started to blow cool instead of hot and dry (but they're still usually filled with dust). But, maybe a month ago, middle of February, heart of the dry season still, the water in the tap that I have fifteen feet from my door ran out. It ran out one night and, since I didn't notice until it was already almost 9:00, or since I'm lazy, I waited. I didn't bathe the night it ran out. I didn't wash my dishes. I hoped it would come back in the morning. It didn't. I hoped it would come back in the evening when I came home. It didn't. So, dirty dishes piled up in the basin, my entire body filmy with dried sweat covered in fresh sweat, I needed water. And that meant, without the tap, going to the borehole.

It's not that I didn't want to go to the borehole. I was kind of looking forward to it. It'd be a good experience. It was just that there was one thing: jerrycans are heavy. But, whatever. I'm fit. I'm young. I'm healthy. And Ugandan women carry full jerrycans on their heads.


I'm not a Ugandan woman. And, apparently, I'm not as fit as I think I am. (Although I calculated later, in an attempt to make myself feel better, that a full jerrycan, 20 litres of water, weighs about 44 pounds, and I have two, to carry at the same time, and they're unwieldy, I swear they're heavier than they sound. Oh, and the borehole is an entire kilometre away. I don't know how many miles that is -- because America! -- but when you're carrying 88 pounds of water, it feels like about twelve.)

To get to the borehole, I walked that kilometre through the centre of town, at sunset because otherwise it was just too hot, bright yellow jerrycans in hand, and extra stares passed through town with me, and I walked up to the borehole, big stupid grin on my face, anticipating how silly everyone would think that this was, white guy needing water. I greeted the crowd, maybe forty-strong, as I walked up -- "Yoga kere!" -- and set my jerrycans down at the end of the queue. I was determined not to be the imusugun who walked up to the borehole, skipped the queue, got his water, and walked away.

With my jerrycans in place, end of the queue, I stood and watched the whole process -- people towards the end of the queue, like me, milling about, pacing back and forth, chatting with each other, as they waited for their jerrycans and buckets to inch closer to the flow of water; people taking turns pumping water or making fun of the person pumping water or telling someone else to pump water, the water spurting out in bursts then flowing smoothly, funneled through the inverted, cut-off, top-half of a plastic water bottle into jerrycans, buckets, canteens, plastic bottles; people fighting forward through the crowd to get just a bottle, just really quickly, or just this little bucket, it'll just take a second; the two street kids crouched at the small gutter, trying to scoop up the runoff water that was quickly soaking into the mud; everything, slightly chaotic as it seemed, somehow in order, and there was, in fact, someone in charge -- for maybe ten or fifteen minutes.

So far, so good, on not being that white guy.
Then this exchange happened, when a older man came up to where I was standing slightly outside the main crowd circling the borehole, looking slightly amused at everything.

Him: "Good evening."
Me: "Good evening. How are you?"
Him: "I'm fine. How long have you been here?"
My thought process: Oh, he wants to know how long I've been in Uganda. I get this question all the time.
My answer, somewhat proudly: "I've been here for six months."
His thought process: You, sir, are an idiot.
His answer, somewhat slowly, like he was talking to a child: "I meant... at the borehole..."
Me: "Right."

And then he didn't wait for an actual answer to his question, he just grabbed my jerrycans and waded through the crowd, to the front of the queue, leaving me there, protesting to his back, "Wait-- but-- everyone else is-- I can--" and then I was that white guy.

And being that white guy led to a chain of reactions from the crowd: "We are all in line here!" which led to "But we are assisting this stranger!" which led to "He is not a stranger, he is a friend of ours!" which, the mouth of my first jerrycan now under the spout, led to -- directed at me, don't just stand there -- "You pump your water!" which led to -- directed at me, after my pumping the water wasn't much better than my just standing there -- "More effort is needed!" which led to -- directed at me, from myself in my head -- "My arms are so tired this first jerrycan isn't even full yet how am I going to carry these home I'm so weak this is terrible!" which was understood by the kid standing behind me who took over pumping, much to my relief.

Two jerrycans full -- "Eyalama noi!" -- I picked them up to walk the twelve miles back through town. As I picked them up, a jerrycan in each hand, I thought, These aren't so heavy. I've totally got this. Then I took about seven steps, and I thought, Ohhhhhhh thesearesoheavy Idon'ttotallygotthisnotatall. But, somehow, I made it. I mean, I made it about a quarter of the way home before I ran into Julius, a member of one of the Village Health Teams outside of town, who had his bicycle, and we talked for a couple minutes, and I can't tell you what we said, because I was concentrating all of my mental powers on willing him to put my jerrycans on the rack on his bicycle and take them home for me.

And he did. Probably less because of my mental powers and more because he's just a really nice guy, but still. Thank you, Julius. Eyalama noi.

And then I bathed for the first time in way longer than is appropriate.

These things did not happen:

Mass demonstrations.
Anything, due to the election results.

And more stories to come sooner rather than later, promise!