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 [Na├»ve 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.