29 August 2012


On the list of Things I'm Going to Miss About Uganda, taken on a recent game drive in Murchison Falls National Park.

On Ending

Things are winding down, and quickly.

I only have twenty-one days until I close my service. I only have seventeen days until I take what I hope will be whittled down to two backpack's worth of stuff and leave Ngora. I'm going to be gone for five days next week to travel to Kampala to take the GRE (and try to make a plan for the rest of my life) and attended our All-Vol conference in Masaka, where I'll see most everyone here for the last time, so when you take those days out of the equation, I only have twelve days left in Ngora.

I was wondering, ever since early July when I got my official COS date, when it was going to hit me that 1: I've been here for two years, a long time, it seems, and 2: I'm leaving the place I've lived and the people I've gotten to know for the last two years, possibly forever, and 3: I'm going to have to grow up now, be a real adult, pay bills (a couple weeks ago I had to pay a credit card bill for the first time in two years, a good reminder that I'm leaving Africa), buy furniture, rent an apartment (or secure a couch to sleep on for a while), and get a job (or go back to school and put everything off for another two years, until I'm --yikes-- thirty).

I don't know if it has fully hit me yet, but the hitting has certainly started. If it's possible to feel nostalgic for something that hasn't faded into the past yet, then I'm becoming nostalgic for my Peace Corps experience, Ngora, and Uganda. I'll be doing something in town or traveling with friends or whatever, and I'll realize that I won't be able to do any of those things in a few weeks, and it's kind of sad, certainly bittersweet. But then, one or more of the same old annoying and frustrating things that have been around for the last two years will happen again, or I'll be sitting at my organization with no work to do, having wound down basically all of my projects, and just be crushingly bored (I can only study for the GRE for so many hours in a day, and I think I've realized my limit is five), and I find that I can't wait to get out of this country. Even with those annoying and frustrating things still happening on as regular a basis as they ever have, though, everything's started to have that hazy glow that good memories always seem to be tinged with, all soft lighting and a gauzy white border around it all, like a flashback in a made-for-TV movie. I am going to miss this. At the same time, I think it's a good time for me to end my service and leave Uganda. A surprising number of PCVs grow increasingly cynical and jaded over the course of two years in a developing country (assuming this happens to volunteers in countries other than just Uganda, and sometimes it doesn't even take two years). I understand that: I have my moments of cynicism and frustration that borders on bitterness. The inefficiencies of daily life here --the transportation difficulties, the potholes, the empty hours spent waiting for things to happen-- combine with the often-unmet enthusiasm for doing work, the desire to make a difference, and the desire to have a good experience, and the frustration of all of those quotidian difficulties and often-outlet-less enthusiasm is compounded by the constant, unsolicited attention --the stares, the "Muzungu!"s, the requests for money or plane tickets to America or whatever else-- and it gets to you. It gets to some people more than others, but it gets to everyone at least a little bit. I haven't yet reached that stage of jadedness where I hate Uganda, hate living here, and --like some people-- hate Ugandans. That's why it's probably a good time for me to go. I can leave having done some good work, having made some amazing friends, and still liking the fact that I live in a tiny town barely on the map of Uganda. I can leave and have good memories already shrouded in the warm glow of nostalgia that far outweigh any negative experiences I have had, and that will grow to further outweigh the negative experiences as time passes and I get further and further away (temporally) from Uganda. I'm happy to be leaving while I'm still happy to be here. If that makes sense.

Thing I'm Going to Miss About Uganda #43:
I was in a private hire taxi with a couple friends last weekend when we stopped in a small freeway town between Jinja and Iganga. We were dropping someone off so she could go back to her site, and our driver was buying some gonja (roasted bananas, not to be confused with ganja). There were food and drink vendors clustered around the car -- kids selling bottles of soda and water from cardboard boxes, women selling plastic bags of g-nuts. A few younger men were selling roasted chicken, wings and breasts skewered on eighteen-inch-long sticks. I had a weird thought, and laughed to myself, and then asked everyone what I'd just started wondering: "Do you think one of these guys would sell me some chicken if I told him that he had to hold the stick while I ate it, hands-free?" We laughed: "Probably." I realized, then, that I'm going to miss this about Uganda: Possibilities are sort of endless. The possibility that something will go wrong, like when traveling for example, breakdowns or delays or whatever; and the flip-side, the possibility of weirdly hilarious things happening. Both of these possibilities are infinitely higher here than they are in the States, but it's the latter that I think I'm going to miss. I'm going to miss being able to make those weird jokes and have them actually be funny because they're actually possible. I'm about 70% sure that I could have bought chicken and eaten it while the guy held the stick. If I tried that in the States, like, say I was at a Mariners' game and wanted some Shish-ka-berries --the insanely priced chocolate-covered strawberries on a stick-- but asked the vendor to hold the stick while I ate them, no one would laugh, and the vendor would probably just say, #$%^& you, freak, and walk away. Maybe my sense of humor has just adapted to Uganda, but I'm kind of worried that things will be a little less funny, little more boring, in the States, simply because those bizarre and potentially (awkwardly) hilarious things just aren't nearly as possible there. (Then again, maybe I've just gotten so weird after two years in the bush that I, and my friends who've also spent two years in the bush, don't know what's funny to normal people anymore. That's also a possibility.)

Thing I'm Going to Miss About Uganda #12:
Riding my bike and having to swerve and weave my way through herds of cattle, seven or eight up to forty or forty-five strong, humps on their backs like fatty shark fins, horns just a foot or two away from gouging my thigh or getting stuck in the spokes of my bike. This will not happen in the States.

Thing I'm Going to Miss About Uganda #183:
The bus I was on today was delayed by fifteen minutes, at least, so that a group of seven grown men could chase down a fleeing chicken that wanting nothing less than to be caught, leading them on a wild chicken chase around in circles until they finally corralled it, tied its legs together, and tossed it in the storage area underneath the bus. This will also not happen in the States.

That's all for now. Just trying to reflect on ending and leaving. If I come up with anything more profound, I'll be sure to try to articulate it. But I might not. Actually leaving and going back and being in the States for some time will surely affect how I feel about this whole experience, so who knows?

01 August 2012

Just Another Day at the Saloon

I was in Jinja the other day to meet some friends and important people in their lives that I'd not met yet. I wanted to look my best, naturally. Since I'd been out of water for several days and had literally no clean clothes, I decided the only way to look somewhat presentable was with a haircut and, since my beard trimmer broke several months ago and my beard was reaching near-Amish lengths, a shave.

I got the 4:30am bus that comes through town, hoping that the work that had been done on the Mbale-Soroti highway over the past few weeks – filling in potholes, flattening, paving: it's now more or less filled in and flattened all the way up to Kumi and paved about halfway up, which made the worst highway in Uganda, by far, slightly less worst – would make for a smoother ride and more sleep. It didn't. But at least they weren't blasting traditional Ugandan music, like last time I'd taken the early bus. I was able to catch a few minutes of sleep once we got out of Mbale and hit solid tarmac, and the bus got me to Jinja around 8:45, plenty of day left to clean myself up. So I checked into a hotel – The Crystal Palace, which sounds like it's named after a David Bowie movie, and is not as fancy as it sounds – and headed out to find a barber.

I walked past a few signs for, as they call them here, saloons, but they all pointed down alleys off the street, and I thought I could do better. After about ten minutes of walking, I realized that no, I probably couldn't. I passed another sign pointing down another alleyway and decided that was the one: A large mural of a barber giving a haircut was on the outside wall; they'd at least put that much effort into their shop, so they must be at least that much committed to their craft.

They didn't seem surprised to see a muzungu walk into their shop at nine in the morning, which I took to be a good sign, and both barbers were hard at work on haircuts already, which I took to be another good sign. The fact that they were both hard at work on Ugandan guys was beside the point.

When one of the barbers finished and his barbee – what's the word for the one getting a haircut? – paid, he went to slap me on the knee, sort of missed and slapped my inner thigh instead, was unfazed by the contact his hand had just made with my inner leg – “Yes, big man! How are you?” – gave me an enthusiastic high-five/handshake and told me I was next.

I sat down in the chair and explained what I wanted him to do – don't cut the top at all, just buzz the back and the sides – feeling confident because how hard could that be?

Very hard, apparently, and what followed was the strangest haircut experience I've ever had.

(Despite the fact that I once got an accidental and terrible buzzcut at a random barber shop, they usually do a pretty good job, and so I keep going back, rather than waiting til I'm in Kampala and paying 10x the price for someone who I know knows how to cut my hair.)

He began with fire. That's not a metaphor for his enthusiasm. He actually lit a small fire on the wood counter. “Some people don't do this,” he told me, as he held the clippers over the fire to sanitize them. “You don't say,” I said, my confidence going up in flames. After that, it quickly became obvious I was his first muzungu haircut.

He started to go at my head with the newly sanitized clippers, and with difficulty. He was going down, with the direction of my hair, and the effect was not what he seemed to hope it would be: In that direction, he literally wasn't cutting any of my hair. Discouraged, he grabbed a pair of scissors instead. My confidence came back a little bit: Usually these places don't even have scissors, let alone know how to use them.

He sized up the back of my head for a minute and then went at it with the scissors. However, instead of, as barbers do when they know how to cut white hair, holding a bit of hair between his fingers on one hand to measure it out while cutting with the scissors in the other hand, he just went for it – free-style, free-hand.

After two sizable cuts, I decided that was not going to end well – a couple weeks ago, we had given Nick a haircut and had quickly found out how hard it is to give good haircuts with scissors – and told him so before he could do any serious damage. “I think maybe the clippers will be better,” I said. He didn't miss a beat – how many chunks had he already taken out of my head? – before readily agreeing, “Yes, I think so,” and putting the scissors away.

The next thirty minutes: he figured out that going up with the clippers was better than going down; he still went down with them the majority of the time; he marveled at the fact – “So you will see a white man cutting hair??” – that we had barbers in America; he told me that, since I was from the United States, I was a son of Obama, and that since I was living in Uganda, I was also a son of Museveni; he marveled at the texture of my hair – “Eh! Your hair is smoooooth!” – and I decided not to tell him that it was because I'd been out of water for a few days and it was just greasy; at one point, he spent a good thirty seconds going over my face with the clippers, underneath my eyes, where there isn't any hair; a large Muslim man walked into the shop, removed his shirt, and left again (Ramadan fasting going to his head, possibly); and it became rather clear that, in his admirable attempt not to do a really terrible job on my hair, he just wasn't going to cut very much off so I told him that it looked fine and we gave up and moved on to the beard; this presented him with an even greater level of difficulty; there was a lot of baby powder involved; I spent a good two minutes trying to convince him to literally just shave it all off; then I just took the clippers and did it myself; finished, there were then four different types of lotion rubbed all over my face, and a good five minutes of face-massaging; then he asked me if I knew Nick, and I briefly wondered if this whole thing wasn't some kind of payback for the hack-job we'd done on his hair the week before, impressed with his planning and how he knew that I'd go into that particular shop at that time (giving him more credit than he was due: You just can't plan these sorts of experiences; he had no idea who I was talking about... allegedly).

Finally, I was able to extricate myself from the chair and his lotion-covered hands, paid and thanked him for his time, realized that we'd had an audience of four women and two men for the entire experience, waved at them, and left, my hair looking almost exactly the same as it had when I'd walked in an hour earlier. At least I got my beard trimmed.

All of that brings me to this: We had our Close of Service Conference a few weeks ago, and I officially end my Peace Corps service on September 20. Two years has flown by – “Someone was playing with the clocks, and not only with the electric clocks, but with the wind-up kind, too. The second hand on my watch would twitch once, and a year would pass, and then it would twitch again.” Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five – and now with only seven weeks left, I've started to realize some of the random little things that I'll miss about living in Uganda.

Thing I'll Miss About Living In Uganda #134: The kinds of experiences you only get when you get your hair cut in a random back-alley saloon.

22 July 2012

Overdue Thoughts on Rwanda

We crossed the border into Rwanda and Milton – our driver who made the trip from Kabale, just over the Ugandan side of the border, to Kigali a few times a week to deliver stacks of Uganda's New Vision and Daily Monitor newspapers – swung the car from the left to the right lane, from British to Belgian. On a giant billboard, the words 'Welcome to My Country' soared over a bottle of Primus beer. The tarmac was smooth and flat and noticeably free of Ugandan-style potholes; it wound around the bases of green hills, between them, over them: the land of mille collines, truth in nicknaming.

The three of us sat in the back seat of the blue Toyota Corolla. In front with Milton was [I forgot his name], who was traveling to Kigali for the presentation of his football team's Rwandan league championship. He split most of the trip between his touchscreen smartphone and his only-slightly-larger tablet computer. We dozed and stared out the windows and checked for service on our blocky, black-and-gray Nokias.

It was less than an hour before we saw Kigali: a cluster of hills in the distance came into focus through the overcast midday sky, buildings tumbling up and down between the greenness, stretching skyward, too. The road widened: a median soon split the two sides, manicured grass and squat palm trees planted at equal intervals; white painted lines halved the road on both sides of the median and – gasp! – cars stayed in their lanes: traffic moved like it did in – I swear! – America. The boda-bodas – motos, as they're called in Rwanda – all carried only one passenger behind the driver, instead of the two or three plus matooke or luggage in Uganda; the driver had his license number stenciled on the back of his helmet and his teal-colored vest; even the passengers were given helmets. There were no holes in the roads, no massive open sewage pits in the sidewalks, there wasn't even any garbage. Plastic bags were outlawed in Rwanda a year or two ago, and the last Saturday of every month is Umuganda – Community Day – where shops and businesses close and moto drivers switch off their engines and everyone stays home and cleans their yard or neighborhood or whatever until at least noon (and police roadblocks make sure you're not out before that). Kigali was beautiful, clean, orderly. It was, in short, not Kampala.

We laughed about the juxtaposition between Kigali and Kampala and, on the larger scale as we left the city, between Rwanda and Uganda; we marveled at it, basked in it. But at the same time, there was some niggling sense of unease that went along with it. It's just not possible (nor should it be, really) to spend time in Rwanda and not wonder: How much of this was here before? What was it like before? How much of everything – the cleanliness, the order, the semi-forced community days – is a result, directly intentional or not, of what happened here?

It was only eighteen years ago, after all, 1994, when the country exploded into genocide.

Walking down the street, handing a few francs to the woman at the supermarket after she packed our bread and cheese (yes, cheese: on more than one occasion we wished, as awful as it is to be wishful towards any aspect of colonialism, that Uganda had been a French or Belgian colony, for the breads and cheeses, instead of a British one, for the … fish and chips, I guess) in a brown paper sack, butchering our (very) limited French or speaking in a ridiculously affected French accent when trying to get directions from someone we passed on the street, drinking a draft beer (yes, a draft beer: one more point for Rwanda) on a sunlit restaurant patio – doing anything, really, it was impossible to keep out of my mind for any extended period of time thoughts about the genocide and how everyone over the age of twenty saw and experienced and remembers. But you don't talk about the genocide. That's what we were told before we went: No one talks about the genocide. So we'd drop it from conversations, like a curse word, just to be safe, or polite: “I read that during the [dropping voice to a whisper] genocide...” But I couldn't help but want to ask about it, to hear stories and learn things and be brought into it and by being brought into it be relieved of that still-niggling unease that I felt and forgot and felt and forgot the entire time, the unease that comes with tourism in former war-zones. (The feeling went from niggling to full-blown when we sat by the pool at the Hotel Milles Collines, the “Hotel Rwanda” from the movie, and drank a beer and there was nothing there, no reminders or memorials, just a classy, upscale hotel.) It was hard, almost, not to have conversations with everyone in my head.

You, moto driver, you saw a thousand million horrific things.
I did. Sometimes I still do.

And you, woman packing our breads and cheeses, you ran for your life or hid quietly, holding your breath and your children.
I did. I ran. I dragged my children with me. I bruised their wrists because I wouldn't let go, and I didn't let go, not once. And then we hid. I covered their mouths and held my breath. We lived.
And your husband?
He is dead.
I'm sorry.
That doesn't matter.
I know.

Maybe you saved people, man pouring my beer, maybe you allowed Tutsis to hide in your home even though you are Hutu.
I didn't. No. There are times when I wish I had, but I didn't. They would have found them anyway, they would have killed me then, and my family, so I didn't.
I understand.
I had to protect my family first, and I do not regret this, though sometimes I do.
I understand.

And you, smiling on homemade crutches, is that why you're missing your leg from the knee down?
Yes. But my arms are strong now.
You look happy.
I am, again.

You lost a husband, you lost a wife, you lost sons and daughters.
We did.

And you, did you kill someone?
Do you know someone who did?

Did you forgive them, any of you, they who killed your friends and family and who would've killed you?
I did.
I did not.
I cannot.
I won't.
I will. But not yet.

Do you forget sometimes?
Sometimes we forget how they died, our loved ones. Many times we try to forget how they died. But we will never forget them. And we will never really forget how they died.

There were all of these questions that I wanted to ask, but couldn't and certainly wouldn't. If I had experienced what everyone over twenty years old in Rwanda experienced, it's unlikely that I would want to talk about it either. Instead, we spent most of our first afternoon there at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It's very well done and very powerful. It takes you through a history of the buildup to the genocide, the events during it, and the aftermath. There were video testimonies from people who'd hidden others in their homes or gardens – including one old woman who was able to hide a number of people because everyone in her village thought she was a witchdoctor so even the genocidaires avoided her home – and news footage of everything; glass cases filled with machetes and clubs that had been used; a children's wing where photographs of children who were killed (sometimes the only remaining photograph the family had) were hung on the walls above plaques that gave their names and ages (a few months old or five or twelve) and a few facts, their favorite foods (matooke or beans and rice or passionfruit juice) or favorite toys (a football or a bicycle or a doll), and how they were killed (hacked with a machete or stabbed in the face and eyes or smashed against a wall); outside, a series of eleven concrete slabs mark mass graves, concrete crypts stacked with coffins that, in some cases, contain fifty bodies in a single one as it was sometimes impossible to extricate one body from the rest, and that, in an area less than half the size of a football field, holds the remains of 250,000 people. We walked past these graves, sporadic bouquets of flowers on top, and were knocked down into silence just by the size of them, the area that they covered. Then we walked up a small flight of stairs and saw the sign that said just how many bodies were there and my skin crawled and my throat grew tight and it all just became very, very real. If it had been this unspoken, historical event, ghost-like, if you'll allow that word-choice, existing just on the edge of everything, like a speck in our peripheral vision, it wasn't anymore. If people don't want to talk about the genocide, and understandably so, then it's a very, very good thing that the Memorial exists. Things like that shouldn't be allowed to be forgotten, even if so many people wish that it would be, and the Memorial ensures that people will remember.

We digested it all over dinner later, brouchettes and chips and 750mL bottles of Primus. Or tried to anyway. It, the genocide, was horrific, disgusting, tragic – the adjectives go on and are all, each one of them, insufficient. We wondered, like everyone else, how it could happen. How people could do such things, how they could be convinced to do such things by propaganda and radio broadcasts and identity cards, how so many people could be convinced to do such things – all of the questions that are always asked about genocide, all of them unanswerable by anyone who wasn't there. That's my conclusion. I can judge the actions, the acts of violence and brutality and hatred and evil. It is easy and just and fair to judge those things. But I can't judge the people who carried out those acts because I wasn't there so what do I know? I did not grow up in a poor, third-world country. I was not oppressed, nor were my friends and family, by a government and a political system – colonial and post-colonial – set up for oppression. I did not come of age in a generation that was hungry and impoverished and jobless and, because they were all of these things and saw the future continuing on the same path, frustrated and angry. I was not uneducated, nor was I educated in a school system that – and I admit I'm making the assumption that the Rwandan school system is similar to the Ugandan one – does not teach or encourage creative or critical thought, that emphasizes listening to the authority figures and repeating and obeying the things that the authority figures say, a school system that, in short, sets people up to buy into propaganda, no matter how evil it may be. So I can't judge the people. I can, and probably will, sit here and say that I would never do those things, even if I had grown up in those conditions. But that's meaningless and empty because I didn't grow up in those conditions. The argument can be made – and rightfully so – that no matter the conditions in which someone grows up or lives, evil is evil, especially when it's so blatantly, deplorably evil. And it is. But people are also people. Another argument can be made then that some people are, simply, evil. Whether or not you or I agree or disagree with that statement is irrelevant because it should be obvious that Rwanda was not filled with thousands or tens of thousands of inherently evil people. It was filled with regular, average people who were poor and hungry and oppressed and uneducated or poorly educated and taken advantage of and who fell victim to the machinations of a handful of manipulative and hateful authority figures. Is that wrong, to say that most of the people who were committing the genocide were also victims (though certainly in a different way than those they victimized)? I don't know. Now I'm running out of coherent argument and into inchoate philosophical ramblings. I judge the actions, and I feel that I'm right in doing so. I don't judge the people because I have never been in their situation and I feel right in that, too.


If that sounds like the most depressing vacation of all time, it wasn't all like that. Because we put all of that aside when it was time (because you get really good at compartmentalizing when you live in Africa or you leave) and we had fun. We had a good time out on the town (though Kampala has Kigali beat in its nightlife scene, at least as far as we could find, which leaves the score at Rwanda: 129, Uganda: eh, let's say 4) with some PC Rwanda volunteers, and we left Kigali after two days to head up to Gisenyi, a sleepy little beach town on the shores of Lake Kivu and just a couple short kilometers from the border with the DRC. We hung out at the lake, went on a long, meandering, rainy pseudo-hike up to the top of a hill, ate good steak and good cheese, though not together. Rwanda is just pretty incredibly beautiful, if you're into the whole hills thing. And after the sun had set over the lake on our last night there, we turned and walked back into town, the sky turning black except in the near distance, just above town, where the lava of the active Nyiragongo volcano – just across the border in the DRC – glowed orange, like a little sliver of sunset that refused to go away or the fires of Mount Doom.

When we got to the border crossing the next morning, we were met by a lack of forms and some head-scratching bureaucracy and then, just as we stepped across back into Uganda, by a somewhat disheveled man with a cardboard box full of sachets (little plastic bags) of waragi (Uganda's local gin) that seemed to be for sale (as he asked us if we wanted to buy some) and also for his own personal consumption (as he was sucking the last drops from one while he talked), a fleet of ragtag boda-boda drivers yelling at us to hop on (we didn't), and discarded plastic bags and garbage along the roadside.

Home sweet home.

29 May 2012

Turkey Time, Part One

In the last post, which, I know, was a long time ago, I mentioned a turkey project. It was an idea and plan that came from Okwakol John Michael, one of the volunteers I trained as a home-based HIV/AIDS counselor last year. He gathered a group of ten individuals from his village, Odwarat, some ten or fifteen kilometres from town, all of them living with HIV or AIDS, that would raise turkeys, keeping and feeding and breeding them to expand their flock, as an IGA, a way to make money to pay for antiretroviral treatment, or school fees for their children, or food, or whatever, along with more turkeys. A month or two after he first came to me with the idea, and after a lot of support from some wonderful people (you know who you are; embrace that warm-and-fuzziness that you're more than welcome to feel), we bought the first group of turkeys, seven females, and made plans to buy three males when I got back from a trip to Rwanda I had planned (which means we should be able to buy them this week, and stories from Rwanda will come shortly). We went together to Odwarat, north out of town and then east well off the main road down a narrow rutted dirt track, flooded over with massive puddles where it wasn't covered with five or six inches of loose sandy dirt, to where there was nothing to be seen but the occasional handful of huts interspersed between fields of sorghum and millet and cassava, to the home of the woman whose name I forgot who had turkeys for sale, stopping on the way to meet one of the group members and its treasurer. She showed us into the small hut, barely seven feet across, where she kept seven turkeys. They negotiated over the price, agreed on four of them, then we went back outside where they herded together three more from between the legs of a handful of cows and the trunks of orange trees. The sale complete, Okwakol took me down another narrower dirt path to his home, a couple huts of and a small, not-yet-finished square brick house and a mango tree in the middle of the compound under which his white-haired and smiling mother sat on a mat shelling a pile of groundnuts, to show me the turkey house the group had constructed, another small hut, the door latched and bolted with a shiny new gold padlock. He smiled and laughed and talked to me in way more Ateso than I could understand, but it was obvious --as it already was in the fact that he was wearing his best, shirt buttoned up to the collar, trousers pressed, grey blazer clean and smart-- that he was happy and grateful and hopeful and proud and the feeling was mutual.

Okwakol, checking out the turkeys.

Four of the birds he decided on.

Price negotiations.

Rounding up the other three turkeys.

Our turkey lady. (She was smiling and gregarious the whole time, Ugandans just don't smile for pictures.)

Okwakol, outside of the newly constructed turkey house, at his home. (He wasn't ready for the picture, so I was able to catch a smile.)

Okwakol and his mother, because she asked.

So, there it is, part one. It made for a pretty great morning, and hopefully it'll make for a pretty great, and long-lasting, source of income for the group, thanks again to some awesome people. Another update, more pictures, when we get the last three turkeys, hopefully in the next few days.

24 March 2012

Less Serious, Probably More Boring

The last two posts were serious, and had little to do with what I've actually been up to, so here are a few random, short, potentially funny stories and updates.

1: I recently survived a crocodile attack. True story. More or less. True, it was only a baby crocodile, only about ten inches long, and it 'attacked' me only when I picked it up: it twisted its head back around, hissing, to bite me on the back of the hand between my thumb and index finger, and held on for a good ninety seconds before finally giving up its grip. And true, it didn't actually really break the skin much, but there were definitely teeth marks, and it was bruised for a few days. And that's how I survived a crocodile attack. It's actually not quite as cool as another time when we went to see the baby crocodile (it's in this little concrete pit enclosure down the hill from a place we stay in Jinja; I don't know why, but it is) and a friend of mine picked it up, it bit him on the finger, and his first instinct was to get it out of his hand. By throwing it. Right into someone's chest. So he actually wins, I think, as the only person (probably) ever to throw a crocodile at someone else. (I also got a pretty gnarly spider bite recently, which was much worse than the crocodile bite, and is probably actually going to be a nice scar. Uganda is apparently trying to eat me.)

2: Here's a list of some of the things that I've eaten recently, between various things trying to eat me–
  • Cow shin: I've had this several times now, though it made me a little bit nauseous the first time. I ate it first when I went to my counterpart's home and she assured me that 'the part that presses the ground is the sweetest part.' It's not. I ate it for a second time when I was at the ajon circle (the local-beer-drinking place) and they had started serving food now, and I was told I had the choice between goat and cow, and I chose cow, for some reason, as if either would actually be a decent cut of meat, and it turned out to be the 'part that presses the ground' again. I'm pretty used to it now, though, and actually just order it willingly – when the choices are limited, that is.
  • Goat pancreas: I've had this a few times, too. And it's actually good. They serve it dried, so it's kind of like if you were to make jerky out of liver and salt it. That sounds like something you'd want to eat, right?
  • Goat tongue: The last time I was at the ajon circle and ordered the cow shin, I ate all of the meat –read: skin and gristle and fat– off the bone. I thought. Because there's not much there, so it's hard not to eat it all. I thought. The next time, though, we ordered food and my friend Martin turned back from the lady who makes the food to me, and said 'She is wanting to know if you would like the tongue of the goat.' I wanted to make sure I had heard correctly, and pointed inside my mouth: 'The tongue?' The laughter died down, and Martin said, 'Yes.' And I said, '...Sure.' She went off to serve up the food –the meat, or 'meat', comes with katogo, which is bananas boiled in a savory broth, and is one of my favorite foods here– and Martin leaned it and said, 'She is fearing that you don't like the molokon [cow shin] because you did not eat all of it last time.' Apparently, cleaning a quarter-inch of skin and gristle and fat off the six-inch-long, inch-and-a-half-diameter bone is not enough. I must have left an eighth of an inch of fat on there. Silly me. So I ate the goat tongue instead. Which was fine – I've eaten the entire face of a goat before anyway, in South Africa. No big deal.
3: There are a handful of work things that could keep me relatively busy for the last six months of my service, which makes me happy–
  • The HIV counselor project is continuing and we've had good success with that; I'm going to try to go out with some of the counselors and collect first-hand (well, translated-first-hand) some of the success stories, which I think will be cool to see and meet these people and hear and record their stories directly.
  • One of the counselors has created a group of people living with HIV/AIDS in his community who want to start a turkey-keeping project as an IGA (Income-Generating Activity). This comes after the handful of turkeys he already owned were stolen in the middle of the night, and the seedlings for the citrus-growing project that was supposed to start in their community were also stolen. But they put together an outline with a significant community-contribution and sustainability plan, which is always a good sign that it's going to be taken seriously, and so I'm going to be working with them to try to make that happen.
  • Another counselor has people in his community saving money or pooling money together to buy seeds for keyhole gardens. I had told all of the counselors to encourage keyhole gardens (the mound-of-dirt style garden I planted –there are pictures on the blog, somewhere– which is good for people with HIV/AIDS as it allows you to grow the same amount of produce without having to move up and down rows in the garden), and they did, which was great – except that they all came back and said people needed seeds. I told them that people could mobilize –a favorite word in development-project-speak– for seeds, and I would love to help construct and plant the gardens. This was six months ago. I'd heard nothing back, other than that people wanted keyhole gardens and needed seeds, until a week or two ago. Finally.
  • I'm going to get the life-skills club up and going again at the secondary school.
  • I'm also going to try and start a football –soccer– league for kids who aren't in school, with a life-skills component, and I'm looking forward to that, if we can make it happen.
4: I killed my first chicken a couple weekends ago, a milestone moment in any white-guy-in-Africa story, and the only time I've ever killed anything but insects and spiders. I had gone to church with Mr Olinga, the security guard from my organization, because they were doing a fundraising auction to raise money for an event celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Catholic Diocese. People brought in g-nuts, cassava, chickens, goats, flour, among other things, and everything was auctioned off. I bought about seven pounds of g-nuts, which is awesome, and should last me probably until the end of my service. I was also given a chicken to auction. I awkwardly stammered through my Ateso numbers and the word chicken and the phrases 'Who wants?' and 'Any more?' until finally the bidding ended. I went to give the winner their brownish-red new chicken, its feet tied together with string, when they told me they had actually bought it for me. Someone I'd never met, and actually didn't end up meeting at all, spent 10,000 shillings on a chicken for me. Really nice of them, and it led to, later, after the auction was finished and we were clearing out, a sentence I'd never thought I'd hear in church: 'Daniel,' someone called out. 'Where is your cock?' I assured them I knew exactly where it was. When we left the church, we stopped first for lunch at the primary school across from the church, and then Mr Olinga and I went on to his place, walking between and over giant boulders, thin threads of pathways through tall grass, hot and bright sun, through homesteads of huts built up against the walls of rock, nothing else in sight but more rocks and grass and brush, me with a chicken in one hand –holding it by its feet, it hung upside down with splayed wings and flitting eyes– and a black plastic bag full of g-nuts in the other, and Mr Olinga with three more chickens and his wooden folding chair that he'd brought with him to church, and it was possibly one of the most visually 'African' experiences I've had, and then we were at his place, four or five huts and a mango tree for shade, the last homestead before the swamp. He showed me how to kill the chicken, then, after sharpening the knife on a rock. I yanked out a handful of feathers from the throat and, standing on the feet, took the head in my left hand and drew the knife across and back and across, and I must have done something not quite right, because blood sprayed out and speckled my pants and feet, hands and arms, but I finished and ten or fifteen seconds later, the chicken was finished writhing around, too. We put it in a pot of hot water, which makes it easier to pull the feathers out, and easier to strip the skin off the legs and feet. Mr Olinga's son and granddaughter finished cleaning and gutting it, and I walked home through the village with a whole raw chicken in a black plastic sack, salmonella probably festering in the 95 degree heat. I boiled the entire thing with I got home, for about an hour, and was proud while I ate an animal that had been alive an hour earlier and that I'd killed with my own hands (and a knife).

5: We're supposed to be at the tail-end of dry season right now, but it feels like we're still just right in the middle of it. It's been unbearably hot the last week or two, mid-nineties during the day, and not a whole lot cooler at night. My tap ran dry a few weeks ago, and stayed dry for about a week. I'd recently gotten an accidental buzzcut, though, and it proved to be the best accidental haircut I've ever gotten. It's much harder to tell that I haven't bathed in six days when my hair is only half-an-inch long. The smell is probably still there, but, hey, you get used to that. They've also started load-shedding again, which means they shut off power for any seemingly-random number of hours. This means that, without the fan on at night, I've taken to sleeping on my concrete floor. It's the only way that I can get moderately cool enough to actually get some sleep. We've been teased with rain over and over again, but I don't think it's rained for more than three hours total so far this year. I can't wait, though. It's like this, actually:
Sweet summer night and I'm stripped to my sheets, my forehead is leaking, the [fan] squeaks. A voice from the clock says 'You're not gonna get tired,' my bed is a pool, and the wall's on fire. Soak my head in the [basin] for a while, chills on my neck and it makes me smile, but my bones have to move and my skin's gotta breathe. Slide down the stairs to the heated street and the sun has left us with slippery feet. Rip off your sleeves, and I'll ditch my socks. We'll dance to the songs from the cars as they pass, weave through the cardboard, smell that trash. Walking around in our summertime clothes, nowhere to go while our bodies glow. And we'll greet the dawn in its morning blues, with purple yawn we'll be sleeping soon. When the sun goes down, we'll go out again. When the sun goes down, we'll go out again … Let's leave the sound of the heat for the sound of the rain. It's easy to sleep when it wets my brain. It covers my rest with a saccharine sheen, kissing the wind through my window screen.
6: I also recently saw a baby monkey drink beer out of a guy's mouth. Africa!

22 March 2012

The Debate, Ongoing

The debate surrounding the issues raised by 'Kony 2012' --the issues raised both intentionally and unintentionally-- continues, and it has evolved into a debate not just about the video/campaign itself, but about activism as a whole, foreign aid, and race. I think, then, that the campaign has been a good thing.

So, I wanted to share two other articles from two opposing African viewpoints, both of which have good things to say: this piece from Nigerian novelist Teju Cole, and this one from former Ugandan presidential candidate Norbert Mao.

Things to think about, whichever side of whichever part of the debate you find yourself on.

10 March 2012


If my last post was too critical of the desire that Kony be stopped... well... I wrote this several months ago, after working at Peace Camp with kids or teenagers --soldiers, brides, orphans, whatever-- who'd been affected by the war with the LRA. So let this stand, then, next to the last post as a post-script, as a companion to the criticism of the video, as an example of all of the reasons why Kony should be 'stopped', whatever we've decided that means, however we've agreed that should happen.

There is, I promise, truth in this. At least, it's true as far as I experienced it.

I met this girl, August of last year, when I was up in Gulu for Peace Camp -- met, or ran into, or heard her story. We'll go ahead and call her Mary, for privacy's sake.

It was strange, the first time I noticed it. But if you weren't paying attention, close attention, you'd miss it. I realize this is absurd, probably a trick that my eyes were playing on me, or something, anything else, but this is how I saw it, and I believe it. But you could see through her, completely through her, if you were paying close enough attention. And it wasn't just me.

Everyone in the village knew her, knew her story – at least that's what she said. The only difference was whether or not people chose to believe it: did she –It can't be! It is!– really make herself nearly invisible because she was so terrified –she was only four years old when it happened– when the rebels came that night; when the pale, pearly, full-moon light was overpowered by the angry orange light of the flames that consumed the huts and fields; when blood turned dirt into mud, when blood dripped off the blade of the panga that the man used to hack her father apart, to nearly hack off both of his arms, before he brought the blade down in one more swift blow on her father's head, splitting it open like a jackfruit, splitting it open from the crown of his head to the bridge of his nose; when they stole her four strong healthy handsome older brothers, the ones who always made her laugh with their jokes and the way they'd pretend to run into the mango tree behind their home just because it made her fall down with laughter, the ones who loved her and whom she loved like nothing else in the world; when she watched all of this from behind the latrine, crouching, huddling, making herself smaller smaller smaller, making herself invisible, making sure the rebels couldn't see her, wouldn't take her, but no, they wouldn't take her anyway, she was too young to be a wife, she was too young for them –even for them– to rape, they would have made one of her brothers kill her, they would have forced him to kill her, would have wrapped his fingers around the handle of the panga until he gripped it himself, and she could never put her brothers through that; did she really make her self nearly invisible –translucent; you can see right through her, if only you're paying close enough attention– that night, through force of will, through force of terror? Or was it witchcraft, a spell cast on her because of something else she'd done, something her mother had done?

Some people believe her, some don't.

It was never clear why some people didn't; she'd never done anything that would warrant the hiring of a witchdoctor, the casting of a spell, and who'd have requested, and paid for, such a spell to be cast on a child? But some people simply choose to believe some things and they don't ever explain their choice because they don't know why they made it in the first place but now that they have, they can't change their mind, they can't choose again, and they steel their will against those who made the right choice in the first place, they become more and more adamant in their belief and more and more defensive when an explanation is asked of them, and, in the end, they go through the rest of their lives believing in something that they don't want to believe in anymore. 

Still worse than those who were intent to believe, and even defend, something they didn't want to believe in, were the people who didn't care about her story at all. For them –and, sadly, this group had many members, though they wouldn't call themselves that, nor would they (and in this way they were the same as the people who believed what they didn't want to believe anymore) explain why they felt the way they did– it didn't matter if she turned herself nearly-invisible on purpose, if she did it because she was a terrified child in a terrifying situation –a situation they were all witness to, in one form or another, and so were able to understand the terror and the desire to be unseen– or if it was the work of an odd spell purchased from an odd witchdoctor. What mattered to them was that she was no longer like them. They would never explain why this mattered –fear (of becoming like her, or, simply, of her), disgust (it is not natural, they might think, to be able to see through someone), pity (it is too sad what has happened to that girl, they might think, and I can't look at her without feeling terrible). 

But the reason was less important than the result: she knew that people avoided her, she knew that people talked about her and about her story, she knew that she had few friends and would live with her mother for the rest of her life.

I couldn't help but believe her, though, believe what I saw. At that point, I'd been living in Uganda and working with some of its children long enough to know what violence and horror could do. If a man could be compelled to make a mother put her infant child inside a mortar used for grinding millet, if he could then hand her the pestle and watch her weep and pound and pound and pound until there was less of child, less of flesh and life in the mortar and more of a thick soup of blood and gristle, why couldn't a girl make herself nearly invisible? Each seems equally impossible, each seems to smack of the inhuman, but we knew that mothers had been forced to put their babies in mortars and were handed the pestle, there was no question of that, so how could you question Mary? I'd heard or read enough stories about the attacks by the rebels, that it was almost like I remembered them herself. I feel guilty when I say that because I feel like I'm belittling those impossibly real memories of the people here, because there was no way –it was impossible; I'd lost no brothers, hadn't watched a father be turned into a bleeding armless torso topped by a bloody, split-open jackfruit of a head– that that night was seared, carved as if by panga, into my mind's eye as it was into Mary's. And yet. I saw it, too. Just in brief tableaux, like photographs, the flashbulb popping in the dark; I could see it: a burning hut; silhouettes –rebels? neighbours?– running past Mary's homestead, backlit by flames, lit from above by moonlight; and, because I could see it, I believed her. 

I knew the facts, too, of course, had read about the rebels before I came to Uganda, and had heard the stories. Still, at that moment, I felt like I knew nothing. Mary probably knew as many –or as few– of the hard facts as I did, and ... no, I can't say that, of course she knew more, she knew everything, there was nothing she didn't know: about the rebels, about life, about God and death and anger and hatred and fear and love; she knew as much as anyone else on this earth; nothing was unknown to her. 

In truth, though, no one ever seemed to know much about the rebel army beyond the fact that nights like that night were commonplace; that what happened to her brothers, what was done to her father, the things that made her try to make herself invisible, things that would be unimaginable to most people, those things happened, and not only in their village, not only to them. No one, not the villagers, not the government nor the army, seemed to know why nights like that were commonplace, why the rebels did things that would make a child try to make herself invisible. There had been vague, cryptic talk of overthrowing the government, of running the country based on the Ten Commandments, of fighting the Lord's war. But it was never clear what the abduction of children, the murder of fathers, and the rape of mothers had to do with the Ten Commandments or why the Lord would fight a war like that. And most people stopped asking why. It didn't matter, knowing why. How could why possibly matter?  

What the rebels were was understood, though, all too well. It was understood that they were the burning of homes, the razing of crop fields. They were the raping of mothers and of daughters. They were the bodies of fathers left armless and split open from the crowns of their heads to the bridges of their noses. The rebels were the blood that flowed onto the dirt until it was saturated, and then they were the blood that pooled in the mud and blackly reflected the dancing flames. They were fear, unadulterated, distilled into a form pure enough to turn someone invisible. They were the sorrow, too, that greeted the sunrise on the morning after, and the anger. They were the stores of food, the cows and goats that would be missing, that after everything else. They were the night, the darkness, the time when no one was allowed outside the home, except the children close enough to the bigger towns –three, four hours away by foot, if they could make it before dark, and they had to make it before dark; there was, in fact, no if– who made the daily journey late each afternoon, slept on the tarmac streets, slept under awnings and in alleyways, under security lights, the dull yellow bulbs the only relief from the darkness, and then woke with the sun to do it all over again in the morning. The rebels were the grass, some tawny-coloured, some a crisp green, all of it tall enough to hide a man, tall enough to hide something that was less than a man, yet looked so similar, something that was more pure evil than human but took a human form, because the rebels were that, too. And yet. They weren't less than human: how could they be? How could they –Mary's four strong healthy handsome older brothers who were taken away from her sobbing mother at gunpoint and who were never seen again after disappearing into the tall grass and the darkness– be anything less than human? What the rebels were was understood, was feared, despised, hated. Who the rebels were was understood too, but was loved unconditionally, grieved over daily, longed for relentlessly.

Because the rebels –the darkness, the burning, the blood, the fear– were also her brothers –strong, handsome, able to make her fall onto the ground in laughter, all four of them, each as perfect and loving and loved as the next– and how could they be anything less than human? And they weren't just her brothers, either. They were the brothers of thousands of girls just like her. They were the brothers of girls just like her who weren't alive now, who hadn't been able to make themselves invisible, who couldn't save their brothers from the horror of being forced to kill their sisters. And those brothers were sons, too. Those brothers had strong, handsome fathers with heads split open like jackfruit, they had weeping, grieving mothers who loved them, rebels now, unconditionally. And they weren't just brothers, either. They were sisters, too, and daughters. They were girls just like her who had only had the unfortunate luck of being born seven, ten, twelve years before her. And now, after years in the bush, after years of brainwashing, of beatings, after years of rape and rape and rape and finally, broken down into fragments of themselves, broken down into –yes, it's true, though not in the same way as the commanders of the rebel army, the ones who were not like her brothers, the ones who were not, couldn't possibly be, men– something less than human, consensual sex, many of these girls who had been just like her but with unfortunate luck –no, something so much worse than that– they were sisters and daughters and, now, mothers. And if the rebels were her brothers and thousands of versions of her brothers, and if the rebels had fathers and mothers like hers and thousands of versions of fathers and mothers like hers, and if the rebels were thousands of versions of her with unfortunate luck, and the rebels were now thousands of babies born to thousands of versions of her with unfortunate luck – if the rebels were infants, her brothers their uncles, how could they be less than human, how could they be evil, how could she –how could anyone– hate them?

And, in truth, few people did. Few people hated them, few people thought of them as evil, because there were, simply, few people left who didn't have sons or daughters or brothers or sisters or nieces or nephews or cousins or granddaughters who were, now, both sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and cousins and granddaughters and rebels. It was simply not possible to hate them. It was not possible for mothers and fathers and nearly-invisible sisters to hate their sons and their strong, healthy, handsome brothers for killing the fathers and mothers and sons and daughters of other families, for burning the homes of other families, for stealing the cows and goats that belonged to other families. Because how can you hate your son or your brother for doing something that they are forced to do? If you want your son, taken away at gunpoint while you weep, while the last blood leaks out of your husband's body, not to do the things that he is being forced to do, then you want your son to die. The truth is brutal and ugly and simple. You want your son to continue to be a rebel because at least that means your son is alive. And no mother would want her son to die rather than to do unspeakable things against his will, not here, in this country and this war, and not when there is a chance that her son will come back, not when there's a chance that one day her son will come back and he will no longer be a rebel, he will only, once again, be her son; he, they, will only, once again, be her brothers. Because that is the only way to think about it; that is the only rational thought process that any mother or father or nearly-invisible sister can take when they know their sons and brothers are in the bush, swinging pangas and firing rifles and killing and burning. The night the rebels came, up until the very second they disappeared back into the tall grass and the darkness taking her brothers with them, those four strong, healthy, handsome boys were her brothers and her mothers' sons. The moment they disappeared into the tall grass and the darkness, they became rebels, and the moment they became rebels, she and her mother both prayed, daily, hourly, for the health and safety of the rebels – the darkness, the burning, the blood, the fear: they prayed for the health and safety of the young men who were these things. How could they not? Because the chance remained –the chance would always remain; once those four boys disappeared into the tall grass and the darkness, news of their death would never come, and so the chance would always remain– that one day, when the sun is lowering itself in the late afternoon, when the light is warm and amber-coloured, when the sky is brushed with cloudless strokes of gold all the way across the western horizon and deep purple thunderheads in the east, when fat drops of rain fall from the cloudless sky, drops of liquid sunlight, when your nearly-invisible daughter –beautiful, strong, resilient– comes back down the path toward your home, gracefully balancing a bruised and dented yellow jerrycan full of water on her head and a white-teeth smile on her face, one day, just like that one, four strong, healthy, handsome young men will walk out of the grass. You won't see them coming because the grass is tall enough to hide a man, but you'll feel them coming with your heart – no grass is tall enough to hide four sons from their mother. They'll walk out of the grass and they'll be taller than when they left, they'll have aged, and not only physically, but you know your sons, you always will, because you never stopped picturing them, you never stopped praying for them daily, hourly, even when they disappeared into the grass –just boys, all of them– and became rebels, because they were still your sons. But they were rebels, soldiers, too, and they did unspeakable things. They –each of them– killed a father or a brother or a son. Three of them shot people, killed them. One, your oldest, your first child, was forced to chop off the head of a boy his own age, and the boy wouldn't stop crying, wouldn't stop asking your son not to do it, not to kill him, please don't, please don't kill me, please, please, please. But he did. He had to. He had to, he had to. They all had to kill someone else's father or brother or son because, if they didn't, they would have had to kill one of their own brothers, and they wouldn't do that, they couldn't. Was it the right choice, to kill someone else's father or brother or son to spare their own brother, your own son? You don't know. You don't care. You'll never ask them, though they asked themselves constantly, every day they spent in the bush, and still ask themselves now. They ask themselves that question and others –unanswerable, all of them– and you asked yourself questions, too. You always wondered, If they come back when they come back, you always corrected yourself– will they be the same? Will they still smile like they used to? And all they've done since the night they disappeared into the tall grass and the darkness is ask themselves these questions and think of you and their sister, and even in the bush, the thought of you and their sister made them –each of them– smile. They'd never been able to see through her, but as they walk out of the grass, they'll recognize her, of course they will, instantly, and they will understand why they can see through her and they will love her for it and they will want to thank her for it, again and again and again, but they will know they don't have to, they will know she would never ask that of them. And everything is happening so slowly, you're not even moving towards them yet, you can't move yet, the only movement you can feel are the tears that start to run slowly down your cheeks. The raindrops are suspended mid-fall and they dance and shimmer in shafts of golden sunlight, everything is perfect and warm, the earth has stopped turning. Nothing in the universe is moving, nothing else is happening, nothing else even exists except this moment, except these four young men and your beautiful daughter, these four young men who walked into that grass and became rebels and are walking out of that grass and becoming your sons. You are there in this instant of time that might never move, and you never want it to move. You want the rain to stay in the air, the light to stay golden, the earth never to move again, because in this instant in time you are with your sons and the daughter who saved them –and by saving them, saved you– by nearly making herself invisible, and suddenly you skip forward one infinitely small increment of time –the raindrops haven't moved, the earth hasn't begun to rotate again– and your sons are smiling now, your daughter smiles, and the grass smiles behind her, and you know that they will be the same, eventually, their hearts are the same –heavier than before, yes, but still pure– and you know that they're still your sons and that your daughter saved them, and you are smiling, too. 

Some of these thoughts flickered across my mind, some registered, some didn't, and in the passing of another brief, interminable, and unfamiliar period of time, I came to know her story, to see her future and her brothers walk back out of the grass, and a strong wind whipped down the path we stood on, tilting the grass sideways, and the wind filled my ears and carried on it words or thoughts, the wind passed them between us and our mouths never opened.

She didn't know how to explain that she was also ten-thousand years old, that she felt like she'd lived longer than anyone in the village, like she'd seen everything terrible that could possibly be seen. How is a fourteen year-old supposed to express these things: that she knows more about life and death than all of the elders in the village; that she knows more about man and the world than all of the teachers in the schools; that she curses more people than all of the witchdoctors in the district; that she wishes death on the men who killed her father and took away her brothers; that, sometimes, when she thinks of her brothers, she pictures them killing their commanders; she pictures rebels with their heads split open from the crown to the nose, soldiers lying face-down in pools of their own blood, the faces of her brothers –their faces victorious and speckled with the blood of her enemies– reflected in the blood of the men who took them away that night? She doesn't want to imagine these things, but they come to her without her permission. She pictures her brothers killing their commanders because she imagines that's how they'd escape, she imagines that's how they'd make their way home. She knows she shouldn't hope for those men to die; she doesn't think her brothers would want that, either. But when she pictures her brothers standing over the bodies of the rebel commanders, she doesn't care how much blood there is, she doesn't care that her brothers -} 3ef their commanderO d'vY. 9T6y ng else; thinking about dead rebels and living brothers makes her happy. And she doesn't know how to feel about that, and she doesn't know how to explain it. She didn't have the words to say these things; she wouldn't want to use them even if she did.

She looked me in the eyes again. I looked away; I couldn't help it.

How does a fourteen year-old tell about anguish, about death, faith, hate? How does she explain that every day when she wakes up, she asks God to keep her brothers safe when she isn't sure if she thinks that there is a God? Fourteen-year-olds shouldn't have to wonder if there's a God while they pray for the safety of their brothers. They shouldn't have to ask God not to make their brothers have to kill too many people – and every day. She has to ask God not to make her brothers have to kill too many people every fucking day. All of this since she was four years old. She didn't know anything else anymore. She could remember other things, but she didn't know them; she only knew, really knew, that night and after, the thoughts and pictures that have plagued her since then, like flies on a corpse – a droning pestilence that, when it comes, drowns out everything else. (And yet. Like flies will eventually leave a corpse, somehow she knew these thoughts would eventually leave her too, and this –along with the thought that she saved her brothers– would make her smile, occasionally and briefly.)

She shook her head. Her thoughts had been racing –spattered blood on the faces of her victorious brothers; a God who may not even exist; a total dearth of words to explain herself; the thought of the flies eventually leaving the corpse– and she shook her head, once, as if to bring herself back down, to dismiss the topic.

And she smiled to herself. She didn't need to believe in God; she didn't need God. She never truly believed she was cursed; she never truly wanted to curse anyone else. She believed in her brothers and in their hearts –heavier now than they were before they left, but pure– and she didn't need anything else. The boys that disappeared into the grass that night were rebels; her brothers were still with her, they would never disappear into the grass, she didn't care where the rebels went because her brothers were still at home, in her heart. 

I wanted to believe, for her sake and mine, and I wanted to see this: the sun lowering itself in the late afternoon, the light warm and amber-coloured, the sky brushed with cloudless strokes of gold all the way across the western horizon, deep purple thunderheads piled up in the east, fat drops of rain beginning to fall from the cloudless sky; she looks up into the golden expanse and laughs out loud, she sticks her tongue out to catch drops of liquid sunlight, she rounds the last bend and walks into the homestead, the jerrycan still balanced gracefully on her head, a white-teeth smile balanced on her face, her mother comes out of the kitchen hut and –stifling a brief, shocked, almost silent, Oh!– covers her mouth with both hands, as four young men walk out of the tall grass and time and the earth stop, and time moves forward only enough for smiling.

On Kony 2012, Because You Asked

A lot of people –by which I mean, like, four– have asked what my thoughts are on the Kony 2012 campaign, created by Invisible Children, that has taken over many a Facebook news feed recently. I guess because I live in Uganda. Unfortunately –and remember this: it's important to everything that follows– rather than making me any sort of expert on, well, anything, all that means is that I don't have access to internet fast enough to stream video, and so I haven't actually seen 'Kony 2012'. I've been reading a lot about it this morning, from various sources, and most of it seems to confirm my initial thoughts on the video and campaign.

First, it is a wonderful little world we all live in, or a wonderful technological era anyway, to be more specific. The fact that the Kony 2012 campaign has exploded as it has –quickly and impressively so– is something noteworthy in and of itself. It makes me, for one, exceedingly happy that the world can be so interconnected, that there exists the possibility for 50 or 100 million (or however many YouTube and Vimeo views 'Kony 2012' has now) people to go online because they want to learn about a crisis taking place half a world away. It makes me happy because I want to believe that people –let's be honest, I'm talking about Americans– do care about the rest of the world, are interested in educating themselves about foreign affairs in far-flung areas, that they want to do something to help (even if they're misguided in their choice of something).

It seems to me that this provides a least some measure of an answer to the critique that 'Kony 2012' should have been 'Kony 1990' or 'Kony 2000'. The campaign should have been started then –it was much, much more necessary ten or twelve years ago– but it would not have garnered the kind of support then –How could it have? By going viral on Dogpile.com?– that 'Kony 2012' has in the last few days. This does not lessen the criticism that the video is out-dated (though, remember: I'm just saying things, because I haven't seen it); I simply find the possibilities that exist now, especially through social media, for similar educational or activist campaigns as proof of a hopeful future, interconnected in the most positive ways.

The awareness raised by 'Kony 2012' cannot be as wholly negative as a lot of people seem to think it is. There's a correlation here with the attitudes a lot of Peace Corps volunteers have towards short-term volunteers. There's a tendency for a lot of us (PCVs) to mock short-termers –it's a good-natured mocking, but there is certainly an underlying seriousness to the criticisms and teasing– for coming here in their shorts and tank-tops and holding orphanage babies for a week and then going home; for those people who stay at home and buy a pair of Toms shoes or, in this case, a Kony 2012 bracelet (for $30 –yes, thirty American dollars), there's reserved the term 'slacktivist'. I'll admit that I do it, too, on occasion: get on my twenty-seven-month-commitment high horse and use my cultural-integration gavel to pass judgment on well-meaning but naïve short-termers and slacktivists. We generally just laugh it off; I don't know many PCVs who legitimately get upset about the work that short-term volunteers do in country. But it happens.

I usually try to look at it this way, though: Everyone's got to start somewhere. Individual involvement in issues in Africa, or anywhere else, might begin with the most misguided week-long 'voluntourism' trip in the world, but that start might lead to deeper research into the issues, a more critical and informed understanding of development and global affairs, and a more effective and intelligent approach to development work. The same thing goes for 'Kony 2012'. Hopefully. Hopefully people will use this as a jumping-off point, one that piques their interest in international affairs, and one from which they expand their knowledge of the various perspectives and issues and learn more about better ways to help or get involved.

I realize this is a naïve and idealistic hope, though.

Because, obviously, the ease with which little Tina Tweenager in Cornfield, Indiana, can access information about Jacob –the Acholi teenager featured in 'Kony 2012'– brings with it its own set of issues. The ease of access to information does not mean that the information accessed is correct, nor does it mean that follow-up information, just as easily accessed and oftentimes more important, is ever looked into. Something as –presumably; the original Invisible Children film was really well-done– slick and well-produced, and widely shared over social media, as 'Kony 2012' is going to grab Tina's attention ten times out of ten over a critique of the video in Foreign Affairs or a fact-checking radio program on NPR. The vast, vast majority of people aren't going to look any further than 'Kony 2012'; the vast, vast majority of people will forget about it, guilt assuaged, after watching the video and buying the bracelet. It takes more effort –though the access, like I said, is just as simple– to dig deeper into the issues, and so it happens less, and the Tinas of the world accept 'Kony 2012' at face value.

Which is a problem.

But let's get this out there first: That little white kid, the one who is apparently in the video for some reason, was right –Kony should be 'stopped'– though he was also a bit understated –Kony is not a 'bad guy' but rather something more akin to a horrific incarnation of everything wrong with mankind. We all agree on that, the harshest critics of 'Kony 2012' included.

So, why all the criticism of a video that seems to be arguing a point that no one would argue with?


Northern Uganda is no longer a war-zone; the LRA hasn't been in Northern Uganda since 2006. The video makes only a passing reference to this. The LRA has moved into the DRC and the CAR, mostly – and that's what the map graphic on the video shows. But moving into other countries is too easily confused with expanding into other countries. Similarly, the LRA isn't the 30,000-child-strong army with which people are apparently mistaking it. It's true that 30,000 children were abducted over the course of 25 years, but showing 30,000 faces is seen as misleading even if its intent was only to dramatize and express just how terrible was the LRA's two and a half decade campaign in Uganda. Today, the LRA's numbers total in the hundreds, at most, and they're spread across several large countries. [1; 2]


(And I think this is a very important point): “When a bad guy like Kony is running riot for years on end, raping and slashing and seizing and shooting, then there is most likely another host of bad guys out there letting him get on with it.” [3] Placing the blame solely on Kony lets President Museveni, who came into power in 1986, essentially the same time as Kony was beginning with the LRA, off of all the hooks upon which he, too, along with his government, should be placed.

When Museveni came to power, he “sought to impose his authority on the Acholi population in northern Uganda, which had been closely associated with [Museveni's predecessor, Tito] Okello,” leading to uprisings from “a diverse range of resistance groups” of which the LRA is the sole remaining active group. Uganda's government has also never truly been held accountable for its dreadful counter-LRA strategies, such as when they “forced the region's population to relocate into what were effectively concentration camps” where the Acholi were “poorly protected from attacks, and faced dreadful living conditions” leading to “1000 excess deaths per week in the Acholi region” in 2005. This is not to mention the fact that many in the camps lived in fear of rape and violence from the very government soldiers who were assigned to provide protection from the rebels. [4]

It's irresponsible to place all of the blame for 25 years of atrocities in Northern Uganda solely on the shoulders of Joseph Kony. There is plenty of responsibility to go around.


One of the main criticisms seems to be that there is no mention of how Kony is supposed to be stopped.

I can't understand how putting more (and active combat) American military personnel on the ground in Uganda, the DRC, and the CAR is a realistic approach. The LRA is a small force somewhere in a massive jungle in a massive country (or countries) largely devoid of infrastructure and consumed with other conflicts and bouts of violence and human rights abuses. And if Kony is captured or killed in the DRC, theoretically with the help of American combat troops, do we then pull our troops out, leaving the country to its other horrific instances of rape and violence that were never related to the LRA at all? It just strikes me as rather similar (and equally complex) as going into Iraq to take out Sadaam Hussein: We go in, take out the guy we want, and then find we're stuck in a quagmire of escalating violence, ethnic tensions, and poor governance, and are unable to extricate ourselves, our troops, for eight or ten years.

And if, let's say, we agree on sending more American troops in an advisory role, rather than a combat role, there remain the facts that many of Uganda's troops are tied up in the ANISOM mission in Somalia (a dangerous mission and one for which the US sending troops to help with the LRA is often seen as payback), and that “of the more than 4,000 Ugandan troops that were originally sent to LRA-affected areas, less than 2,000 remain … operating in three different countries, leaving very limited capacity on the ground.” [4] (And when you start talking about the fact that oil is on its way, soon, from Lake Albert on the border between Uganda and the DRC, the role of the US government becomes even more complicated.)

The United States government has had troops in Uganda supporting the Ugandan military for years, though without much press attention, especially not regarding Operation Lightning Thunder, which was carried out in 2008. The mission, an attempt to attack Kony at his base in the DRC, was a failure for a number of reasons, quite possibly the worst of which –apart from failing to capture or kill Kony– being the fact that the LRA retaliated brutally beginning on Christmas Day, 2008, and continuing into early 2009, abducting 700 people and killing over 1,000 over the course of two months; this, on top of the continuing breakdowns, exacerbated by the failed mission, of already tenuous peace talks. [4; 5]

It seems that 'Kony 2012' makes it seem like the US government is on the verge of pulling its troops out of East/Central Africa; the campaign is to raise awareness to make sure that those troops stay there and continue to assist in the hunt for Kony. However, as the State Department has since clarified, there are no plans to pull the troops out, nor have there been any discussions about doing so. [6]

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, people in Northern Uganda don't want the LRA to be wiped out, because the LRA is their children – so what happens when Kony's soldiers, these Acholi sons and daughters, return fire? [7]


My main concern with the campaign and the focus it places on Kony is that if or when he's captured or killed –when he's 'stopped' in accordance with the little white kid's wishes– people will call it good: the crisis over, the world safer. Some people –unfortunately, probably a lot of people– will already start forgetting about the campaign by the end of the month, if not by the end of the weekend. But for the people who stick with it, and for IC and the guys who created the video, it concerns me that there doesn't seem to be any mention of how to help the people who are living in a now-peaceful Northern Uganda, albeit one still plagued by the after-effects of twenty-five years of the LRA. Among numerous other issues, Gulu has the highest number of child prostitutes in Uganda, and one of the highest incidences of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. There are 4,000 children suffering from Nodding Disease, “a neurological disease that has baffled world scientists and attacks mainly children from the most war affected districts of Kitgum, Pader and Gulu.” [8]

That is, to me, where the focus should lie. No doubt, Kony should be stopped. Absolutely. (Although, I think the campaign should be that Kony should be stopped, now, not for the safety of the people of Northern Uganda, but for the safety of the people of the DRC and the CAR who have to fear the reprisals of the LRA each time another Operation Lightning Thunder-type mission fails.)

But when we put all of the focus on Kony, we forget everyone else, all the victims, the people with whom our focus and concern and hearts should rest. Or rather, our hearts shouldn't rest; they should be restive with the focus on the continuing lives of victims of the LRA and Kony's campaigns. The problems won't end with Kony's end; the victims, many of them, will still have to live with the memories of their personal atrocities for years after Kony is stopped. Let us focus on them. They victims will have to carry on, dragging those memories along behind them as they struggle through the post-conflict issues that have arisen out of the last twenty-five years and the same day-to-day issues that are faced by Ugandans across the country: poor governance, a lack of health care, poor nutrition, poor education or a lack thereof, gender inequality, and (the issue which I honestly believe is going to determine the course of the future of Uganda, and probably the rest of Africa; the issue which makes me most frightened for the future of Uganda) the rapidly growing population which is cramming into this little country with its limited space and limited natural resources and even more limited financial resources. In fifty years, when Uganda is projected to have over 100 million people within its Oregon-sized borders, we'll look back and wish that more had been made of this issue, these issues, and that there was a campaign for this like there was for 'Kony 2012'.

So, yeah...

Overall, I think that the attention is generally good. I think that the hearts of everyone involved are in the right place. I have high hopes or expectations for the work that Invisible Children does, not least because I have passionate, intelligent family members who work or have worked with IC. But also because they, IC, are clearly very, very good at raising awareness of some very, very important issues. They have a massive platform from which they've done a lot of good work, and hopefully will continue to do good work while also adapting, learning, and continuing to improve as an organization. I think –though this is only an assumption– that the video was intentionally simplified, and the facts presented as they were or weren't, because it was meant to go viral, because a dramatic, thirty minute video will go viral much more quickly and consume much more press, snowball-like, than a two hour film that does its best to explore all of the intricacies of the issue. It seems that was their goal: this massive, nearly-instantaneous outcry. The intentions were good; hopefully the results will be, too. Hopefully I'm not overly naïve in thinking that people will look deeper into the issue, will examine everything more critically, will find positive, sustainable ways to help with this and other, more wide-reaching issues. Hopefully the criticism and the support can somehow coalesce into something good and powerful and right. And hopefully I'm not offending anyone, or being on too high of a horse – that wasn't my intention at all. I'm more than aware that there are many short-term volunteers or State-side activists who are much more involved and engaged than I am, sitting here in Ngora. A lot of them, you, whoever, do great work. I'd just been asked what I thought, I found it interesting what I read, and I'm a nerd who likes writing about things.

Here are the links to the articles I referenced or quoted: