Patterns in the Sky
22 March 2010
On nights like this one is, no word can describe the sky above Ddegeya but vast. Darkness envelops the land, blanketing our village with a cool, still reprieve from the heat of day and scales diminish. The path to our small patio narrows. The upper reaches of the jackfruit tree disappear, only made known by the dark patch their shadow leaves on the empyrean backdrop and faint clouds form as the moisture in our breath condenses. Oftentimes, with the falling heat comes a thin fog that scatters the light from pinpoint stars, defocusing their image to a haze, but tonight, like this past day, the sky is clear and the visible disk of our Milky Way yawns from horizon to horizon. The dimmest stars, uncountable in number and whose light is so often washed out by the reflection of moonshine in the moist upper atmosphere join us only after the sun has long since moved beyond the hills to our west. The buzz of small insects rubbing wing against wing fills the meadow to our south while the wetlands echo with frog. Satellites in their geosynchronous orbit above the equator sit fixed among the stars. I look down and my feet are lost; legs extending into the abyss.
Now my watch reads 12:15 Buganda time. As a compromise between the Greenwich-based system primarily used throughout the world and the idea that a day should begin at one instead of seven, in our village, the name by which we call the present is offset by six hours from what would be said in Kampala so 6:15am becomes 12:15 and I climb the mango tree before the sun begins to rise. It comes without prelude. No reds and orange, no time for a picture, it burns into the ever-deepening night, biting away at the east while darkness flees west. Even the brightest stars pale, caught frozen above the horizon, hiding light in light. Minutes pass and night has dissolved into memory. Now the meadow birds awaken. Cocky roosters announce their dominance over their hens and each other. Children of all ages climb up from the well, plastic jugs filled with water. Twenty liters on a cast iron bike, tied to the frame with banana fibers and those who didn’t leave home before sunrise race to the bottom before the line grows too long. A small flock of six lands in the branches above my head, wings and body a sharp yellow, dulled only slightly by a faint coating of silver and no larger than a child’s fist. They chatter in a language unspeakable by lips and with a cadence my ears cannot predict. Movements sharp and seemingly without forethought, they flick down to the tall grass, guided by instinct they begin with a feast. It is already hot and by midday, even shadows will evaporate.
It stays relatively cool up here, thick leaves inhaling the sunshine and breathing out crisp air. One by one, farmers begin to abandon their fields in favor of morning chai, boiled water with local greens steeped in for flavor and porridge of maize flour, kawunga or cornstarch by it’s other names, moistened into a thick paste. The sun moves in no direction but up.
But even after noon has passed, the temperature continues to climb. Women sit pressed against the outside of their houses, avoiding the sun, weaving mats or sorting bean from stone. Shirtless men chop trees and mold clay into bricks. Children watch their younger siblings and chase goats that wander too far from the herd. Productivity slackens as the light transforms energy to sweat and no task can take priority over conversation. The sun flees the sky with the same urgency with which it rose, bringing the youth back from school and onto the playground or soccer field. Cows are corralled to their homes and smoke billows out from the mud shacks where mothers start burning firewood in preparation for dinner. Matooke must be peeled, banana leaves pruned, more wood collected.
Leather beats against tin as bats emerge from the clinic roof, scattering into the dusk, clipping mosquitoes mid-flight. Daylight always seems to linger, tangled up in the cornstalks and banana trees and the soccer game refuses to end until all hope of sight has been lost. The score is forgotten, though not the plays, as we stumble along the furrowed path home, weary from everything and nothing in particular. Singularly at first, the stars come into view, each whispering its farewell to another passing day until the crescendo of their voices fills the sky. Tall pillars of cloud glow and drift into the distance. The faint silver of a waxing moon slips below the horizon and darkness once more envelops the land. Scales diminish and the insects awaken. Here there are no weekends. Only patterns in the sky.
17 February 2010
Time’s up. I don’t know what to write, but it’s been over a month since my last essay, so I feel compelled to put some things on paper. The past month has been crazy and filled with Bazungu coming and going; my father came for two weeks while a first team of doctors from the US commandeered Engeye, him leaving as a second group arrived, the while of which was spent with a team of Engineers Without Borders travelling between Ddegeya and Masaka almost continuously. In light of this, I think my inability to articulate myself may have something to do with the hectic environment I’m living in lately - hectic especially when compared with the more typical Ugandan lifestyle that I’ve gotten used to - but it also could be the byproduct of something a little deeper seated: that it’s almost time for me to leave.
Am I ready or not? It’s hard to say. To be honest, I’ve been putting off thinking about my departure as much as possible, but with each passing day, I feel my time here sliding by and the inevitable journey back to Entebbe Airport creeping toward me. It doesn’t feel like a storm cloud coming, or the end of a tunnel or edge of a cliff or anything like that, as the common metaphors for things coming to an end would presume; it just is what it is - a long trip back home. And everything that implies. I want to say things right, and I want you, my reader, to understand what this world feels and smells like. To truly capture the life and the culture, the land and the water of Uganda. But it isn’t easy - it probably isn’t even possible, and though I’ve tried, I know the picture isn’t close to being complete. Will I finish it before I leave? Who knows.I started writing a few articles, but the all began to bend back toward that same question of leaving which I’m still struggling to ask, let alone answer, so I haven’t been able to finish anything lately. Here are two of the pieces I started:
12 February 2010
I speak a rough pidgin. Broken words and stock phrases are sprinkled with a touch of elementary grammar before I try to pass them off as sentences. My accent sounds like an attempt to speak English without using my tongue more so than it does Luganda, but having recently had some contact with Bazungu fresh from the US, as my seventh month here draws to a close, I realize just how much I am actually able to say. I walk a different path back from Kiswera and get pulled into hours of conversation with a stranger trying to convince me to take her daughters as wives (yes, plural) or at least this heaping bag of mangos, and on the soccer field where Eddie and I meet with some dozen other local teens for games of pickup, English would exclude the half of my teammates who were raised learning the art of farming in the stead of secondary school. So Luganda is what I speak. Roughly to be sure, but I can understand and I can be understood. And it’s nice.
26 January 2010
Back to reality. Or is it back from reality? My father stepped off the plane and for two weeks, swept me back into that First World where you eat different food at every meal and can have water with the turn of a faucet (though you still shouldn’t drink it). We rafted Class V rapids down the Nile and watched as the entirety of Earth’s longest river erupted through a six-foot funnel in what is known as Murchison Falls. We gaped at the infinite height of rainforest trees and we saw those giants of the savanna: elephants, giraffes, crocodiles and leopards. Animals native to Uganda that most native Ugandans will never see. We sat in taxis for days and we built a playground for the kids.
But after two weeks of Western Excess preceded by six months of poverty, I find myself asking, which is it? Which life is my reality and what does that make everything else? If I want to, or more truthfully, if I don’t stop myself, I certainly have the ability to live the rest of my life in a comfort unimaginable by my neighbors here in Ddegeya; I can find a job, I can buy a car, and I don’t need to inherit my father’s land and work it daily if I want to eat. But while I can easily rationalize this as the truth, and recognize in it the lifestyle that my peers will nearly all choose to take, the reality that my living has become over the past six months so radically differs from that of the First World that it has begun to push the culture of my homeland into the realm of the abstract. Coming here, I was eager to shed layers and forget about air conditioning, television and dishwashers, but now, after having learned to squat over a hole in the outhouse floor and fetch water from the well, can I ever really go back?
18 February 2010
Probably not. But the better question is if I want to go back.
A Celebration of Tree
1 January 2010
In so religious a country, it is seen as a remarkable thing not to have conformed ones beliefs to those handed out by the organized religions. And so when I tell people that no, I am not a Christian, the reactions vary from disbelief to concern for my soul to my favorite, ‘great! So you’re Muslim.’ Not quite. If I’m pushed to put my beliefs about the universe into words, I would say that my religion lies somewhere around the intersection of Animism and Quantum Mechanics. We can leave it at that for now - the details get a little complicated and my religion isn’t one of those ones where you earn points for imposing it on others - I think the offical term is ‘evangelism.’ But just because I am not a Christian, this isn’t to say that I don’t like Christmas; I was indoctrinated into Presbyterianism as a child, and there are few things that compare in my mind to the whole family coming together to officially celebrate That Baby, but mostly each other, and the presents and dinner and all that. But being absent from my own family for the holiday, and not having any desire to go through the motions of praising the Birth, on Christmas I decided to celebrate something I do believe in. I decided to celebrate trees.
For those who have never spent a day in a tree, I will preface my account by acknowledging that it is definitely not for everybody. It’s certainly not very comfortable or easy, and looking at it from an outside perspective, it really doesn’t make much sense. But difficulty and vagueness seem to be goals to which most religions aspire, and since Quantum Mechanimism isn’t ‘real’ anyways, I can do whatever I want and call it holy. So I wasn’t climbing around in a tree for 24 hours. I was on a pilgrimage.
The tree I chose is the same one that I had three months prior attempted to convert into a playground through the addition of a ladder and swing. I won’t admit that essay to having ended in failure, but as the wet season became a reality, villagers who were being allowed to farm on Engeye property voiced discontent at having the children trample their crops and took to sabotaging the swing and uprooting the ladder. In reality, this did little to hinder the kids from going to the tree and trampling the crops. They came to mercilessly beat its crown with bamboo poles until the unripe mangos fell to the ground, and presently the tree is one of only two I have seen which bear no fruit while their counterparts all bellow Mango! Though it’s something I have tried to stop, that is, the taking of fruit before it is allowed to ripen, it’s largely a human thing. If the tree were able to think, I’m sure it would have no issue with its treatment; one way or another, its seeds are being taken and distributed, leaving me to wonder if perhaps our tree may even produce more than others over time simply because it is constantly being picked. But despite its lack of fruit, its leaves are plentiful and branches strong. A fine tree to stay in for a while.
Certainly I was previously no stranger to the tree. Staying up there for a day didn’t reveal to me any new branches to be reached, and I had already figured out the comfortable places to sit, which is where I spent most of the time, reading. But it is also undeniable that as I gripped the branches and moved about my limited space, a bond began to grow between us, or more likely, in me and I projected it to the tree. It’s funny how people do that, give emotions to those things which lack the ability to create them on their own: trees they climbed, places they knew as a child or places they wish for their children to know, watches passed down from their grandfather, tea pots, keepsakes, rings. Maybe it’s because we recognize the emotions in others only insofar as they trigger emotions in ourselves, and that’s how a toddler can unhesitatingly announce ‘my teddy bear loves me.’ And it’s always easier to deal with variables like people when you have a few constants to hold on to. Still, from one big pile of quarks and electrons to another, I think the tree enjoyed my company.
I had some human visitors too. Most were there to stare and laugh, others demanded an explanation, unsatisfied with the response that I wanted to see what it would be like living in a tree for a day. Children ran over and back again, and as the evening drew to a close, three of John’s siblings came to talk at me for a few hours. It seems that even on the biggest holiday of the year, people have time to spread the word that there’s a mzungu in a tree and swing by to see for themselves. While I had anticipated a day of solitude and repose, I instead spent much of the day defending myself and my right not to care whether Jesus happened to have been born when Earth was in the same position relative to the sun as it was on that day. But then there was the early morning when a flock of birds came to roost on the outer branches, unaware of my presence a few feet below. And the sunrise through the leaves. And the view across the valley where the cows are brought to feed and the hillside opposite, burning green with plantains.
As is true for all adolescents, I went through many phases in my life, emotionally as well as musically. I was the jock, the new kid, the skateboarder punk and the outdoorsman before entering my senior year of high school as the classical musician. Thoughts and emotions have always run strong in me, and as I increasingly dedicated my time to a Beethoven sonata that year, I became convinced that classical music would forever and singularly provide the score to my life. It held for me everything I could hope to seek: passion, harmony and discord, technical skill and an expression of thoughts inexpressible by speech but universally understood. It weaves fables and yarns, jokes and epic tales. Whereas words must pass first through the filter of consciousness to be received by the mind, music moves unrestricted to the core and relies not on memories to invoke memories. It can grasp the spirit and dictate moods; a powerful thing, but nowhere more powerful than in the realm of the great composers, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Liszt. I felt this way, that classical music was solely able to not simply emote, but to pronounce, and that our modern rock bands were Dahl in the face of the Tolstoys that had once been until discovering later that year that true composition has not died with contemperarity. It has simply taken form outside the realm of the pianoforte. And I learned that orchestration does indeed thrive in the absence of violoncello and double bass. It was the composition of Anastasio and his ensemble Phish that brought this realization to me, and opened my eyes to the world of improvisation and jazz. Coming from classical music, I find it hard to believe that a song which durates less than ten minutes can be considered fully developed, so while Phish has been criticized for the length of much of their oeuvre, I can only make the comparison to the concertos of Beethoven and Vivaldi.
So when Monica’s dad and sister Ellen arrived from the US a week ago to see the elephants, leopards and tree-climbing lions of the west as well as stop in Ddegeya for a few days, and Ellen said she had recently seen a trio of performances by the group in New York City, and wanted to listen to the few recordings I had brought with me, I could not have been happier. It has been now five months since I touched a piano, and second to being able to play, being allowed to share the music which has been most influential on my life and musical development with someone who genuinely appreciates it was the best Christmas present I could have wanted. Even if it was a few days early and Earth hadn’t quite gotten into position.
21 December 2009
We returned from our five-day Thanksgiving to spend a week in Ddegeya before taking our second vacation, a four-day weekend on Lake Bunyoni located in Uganda’s southwest. Nestled high in the hills, Bunyoni was once a valley but flooded as a volcanic eruption blocked the path of a stream some many years ago. The peaks of ancient hills form islands littering the tarn and as I paddled a canoe carved from a single eucalyptus trunk, I couldn’t help but feel as though I had stepped into Switzerland or back in time. The land is green, the weather crisp and the sound of myriad birds fills the air. If only the plantain fields were vineyards would the illusion be complete.
School has officially been over for a month, but teaching continues. Eddie, who I earlier mentioned as my first real friend in Uganda, has been coming over regularly for lessons in English. When he was a child, both his parents died, forcing him to end his primary education in the fourth grade so he could begin a career of sustenance farming with his three brothers. Being young orphans, they lived with various relatives until they were old enough to move into the house they had inherited. It is there that they live now and it is there that they expect someday to die. Though Eddie never returned to school, he somehow managed to continue his education and is now one of the more articulate Ugandans I have met. If not the best at English, he is certainly the most sincere and hard-working person I have met in a very long time and since he began coming sometime in September, has finished reading the Chronicles of Narnia and is now working his way through How Soccer Explains the World - a book written for adults, employing the full range of English phraseology and figurative language.
If you are born the elder male twin, your name is Waswa and if you have given birth to twins, your name changes to Ssalongo (father of twins) or Nalongo (mother). All three names automatically command respect. In the mornings lately, I have been learning how to properly plant potatoes, digging with Nalongo until the sun breaks through the morning clouds and in the afternoons, building a new patio for the clinic. Being a person who thoroughly enjoys physical labor, having the opportunity to put my body into motion, working with a tangible goal and seeing steady progress was mroe than welcome. And after the site was finished, Monica designed a brick pattern to lay on top. A sun, so she too was able to flex her more artistic muscles. It looks great, and when the next medical mission comes from the US in mid-January, I am confident they will enjoy the more removed eating area.
A few years back, the elder of my younger stepbrothers had the idea of setting up a lawn chair in the shower. I laughed and sarcastically told him I thought it was a good idea, though I don’t think he ever actually followed through with it. I now realize the error of my way; Richie, I’m sorry. It may have taken me five months in Africa to realize it, but I can now see that the lawn chair/shower is one of the most genious ideas ever to bless this planet. When I come home, I intend to set one up and live there for a week. Thank you. You are an inspiration.
No Ian, you’re not going to get a shout-out.
3 December 2009
Uganda is potent: in every aspect of the land and in every meaning of the word. Biting into an orange, you’ll find more seed than fruit. In the area we cleared under the shade of the mango tree only a few months ago, plants have taken hold and rise now to a height of multiple feet. The human fertility rate is above seven, and a thick layer of fruit has draped itself over the mango trees lining the village paths. They droop heavily beneath the branches and are beginning their earliest transitions from hard green to the sweet purple of ripeness. And to smell some of these kids…
Thanksgiving was great. A solid fifteen or so of us bazungu (the plural of mzungu) found our way from all over East Africa to reach the MAPLE house in time for our traditional holiday at which we had two turkeys (affectionately named George and Martha and who were alive Thanksgiving morning - it’s amazing how many recipies begin with Step 1: thaw turkey), heaps of stuffing, a tomato and cucumber salad and more mashed potatoes than I care to remember (the potatoes here are very small so more than I was peeling, I ended up hacking away at my fingers with a dull knife); it was a true feast and a most welcome break from posho and rice. In addition to our MAPLE hosts who operate a microfinance business training center in the city, there was a group of teachers from Tanzania, a couple of anthropology graduate students living in the Elgonian foothills nearby and another one who had recently arrived from Denmark. There was a girl who lives in a hotel in the city and, as always seems to be the case with Thanksgiving, a few strays who nobody really knew but who had found their way in search of a meal. That would be us. It didn’t take long, however, for the group to all become acquainted, united as the foreigners in a foreign land that we were, and as we worked together in preparation of the feast, the realization hit me: it had been four months since I last chilled with some dudes.
For those of you reading this who aren’t dudes, I expect that it will be impossible for you to ever fully understand the sacred bonds of fraternity that exist between us, indeed, I doubt there are more than but a scarce few members of this brotherhood who will ever be able to comprehend it in its entirety, let alone articulate it; and I am not one who will profess to do either well. There is nothing tangible about being a dude. No external sign, no particular way of speech or dress, though dudes do seem to be naturally more predisposed to not wearing a shirt than the average male. Some could say it’s an attitude or a way of thinking. Maybe a concept we live by. But I think that more than anything else, it’s a way of being. And when you’re a dude chilling with dudes, it’s probably going to be fun. If not, then it’ll probably be exciting. It’s been a long while since I’ve last had any social interaction with people of my own culture, and after seeing each other every single day for the past four months, I think that Monica was equally relieved to have the option to chat with some girls rather than spend another day with me.
After Thanksgiving came to a close, the two of us moved northeast to the mountainous region surrounding the lone, inactive volcano known as Mt. Elgon for a visit to Ssipi Falls. The views were beautiful, with our campsite being located along the edge of a cliff face offering a wide vista of the surrounding countryside, and I was glad to have the scene uninterrupted by a protective fence. You know there’s a cliff there. If you fall off, it’s your own fault and there’s nobody to sue.
A Small Favor
“Monica, will you do me a favor?”
“Will you go across the street and buy me a new pair of underwear?”
She said she would, and as she was leaving the room I called out, “better make it two.”
I pooped my pants. I had tried not to, but some things just can’t be avoided and this was one of them. Earlier that morning a malaria quick test performed at Engeye had shown that I was positive for “severe malaria with complications” so John convinced the man in the village who owns a car to drive us to the hospital in Masaka and it was there that this conversation took place. I would have preferred to go and buy them myself, but at that point I was pretty much useless in terms of moving around under my own power, still had some shots to take care of and was anxious to change into something different as quickly as possible. In total, I spent the better part of that and the next day at Byansi Clinic, receiving what seemed like an unending stream of IVs before eventually being released back into the wild. The doctor told me that I did not in fact have malaria at all, but had been suffering instead from a staphylococcus infection that had seeded into my bloodstream; though I should mention that nobody actually did any testing for it - they just pumped me full of antibiotics and saline. But it seems to have worked, and now, a few weeks later, I’m fully recovered.
The day after I left the hospital, Monica and I got on a taxi to Kampala (whose seats enthusiastically reminded me that I had recently received a shot in the butt) and made our second shipment of goods for Gyebaleko. Soon enough, we were back in Ddegeya, but after the passing of only another week or two, got back on a taxi, returning to the city to meet Becky.
Becky is a woman, likely in her late 20s (it’s difficult for me to accurately estimate ages here so she could actually be anywhere from 18 to 45), who works out of a small radio and electronics botique selling dresses and other clothes she fashions; it’s an unlikely combination for a shop, radios and dresses, but I’ve learned by now not to hold on to too many of my preconceptions about what here makes sense and what doesn’t. The history of how she first came to be known by Engeye people is still a mystery to me, but one way or another she found her way to Ddegeya, working as a translator for a group of doctors on a medical mission from the US, and was there identified as someone who has extensive knowledge on crafts and crafting; in fact, it was what she had studied at school. She showed us around Kampala, weaving through streets and alleys as we spent a small fortune ($50) buying the necessary supplies to learn the trades of African Tie-and-Dye and earring making. Our results looked good and I think that if we can find some clasps, it’s likely that we’ll be able to add earrings to the list of Gyebaleko goods relatively soon. Next week, Monica and I will be taking our first trip outside Ddegeya, Masaka or Kampala to visit an NGO in Mbale for Thanksgiving (our first vacation!) and on our way back, we plan on seeing Becky to learn how to make beads. Very exciting.
I’m not sure exactly where you draw the line between mud and water that’s just excessively dirty, but living on that boundary is what’s left after washing my clothes. Like everything here, it’s done by hand (mine) and takes hours. I’m not sure that my clothes come out any cleaner than they had started, despite the obvious amount of dust and dirt that has come off them, and I’m starting to understand what mathematicians mean when they say infinity minus infinity is still infinity. Still, I like to think that they’re cleaner than they started and I try to do my wash deliberately on days it looks like it will rain so I can set them out to be rinsed. Sometimes this helps, other times it just means that the brown can diffuse through the clothes easier and that they won’t dry until tomorrow. But I’m not really trying for clean clothes, just ones that are somewhat uniform in their grunge. And I’ve always been a fan of earth tones.
16 November 2009
I am about to describe what it looked like to see a cow be slaughtered, so unless you eat meat, do not feel obligated to read this.
As one who has voluntarily forgone my right to kill and/or eat from the body of another for nearly the past half-decade of my life, it may seem strange that I chose to witness the ritual of death. It was not necessary for me to watch, not even implied as “the manly thing to do” by the villagers, and it was something that I knew I would not enjoy. I do not fully understand why I wanted to see it done; maybe in part it was a morbid curiosity, a chance to experience something dramatically different than I had ever been exposed to before. I can’t deny there is some truth to that, but it was largely peripheral compared to a particular feeling I had, drawing me to watch. It was something like an unstated obligation, a moral necessity to see. Though I do not eat animals presently, this has not always been the case, and I have few doubts that there will eventually come a time in my life when I will choose to begin eating them again. So as one who has contributed to the death of an untold number of cows, chickens and other various animals thus far, I felt responsible to witness just what the act of eating a hamburger truly meant.
For better or for worse, killing animals for food is a deed which I and the vast majority of my fellow (United States of) Americans have been completely shielded from by our society. When we go to the store or the restaurant or the cafeteria, or when our moms give us our plates at dinner, or when we arrive at the barbecue at a friend’s house, there aren’t any animals involved. We don’t see death. And we certainly don’t think about it. There’s just meat. We know it arrived here because someone lost their life, but the act of death isn’t a reality with which we are ever truly confronted, and so, after years of having meat appear for us, killing, death quietly slips into the realm of the abstract, thought about by few and witnessed by fewer. It’s far more convenient that way, easier to handle. None of the blood, none of the violence. It’s comfortable to ignore. But the problem is that it isn’t abstract. To kill an animal is palpably real, and having now seen what I have seen, is an action I sincerely doubt a vast majority of my meat-eating friends would be able to commit.
Monica and I arrived at the site in time to find the cow lying on the ground surrounded by a ring of men. Its hooves were bound together and a few of the men were dragging it to the spot they had chosen for it to die. The spot where they would slit its throat. That’s what they call it, “slitting the throat;” it’s a phrase we’ve all heard before, but like most euphemisms, is a phrase that does precious little to reflect the fact of what the action truly entails. With one man holding the head steady, twisted awkwardly so the cow gazed toward the sky, better exposing its neck, a second man held his sharpened machete to the dewlap and in a few short strokes had cut his way deep through the skin. Through the esophagus and trachea and through the major arteries leading to the cow’s uncomprehending brain. The first man released the head and it fell back, unsupported by what was left of the neck, revealing the internals and allowing the blood to flow freely from the severed arteries. It came out in pulses. Thick and red. Splashing to the ground and covering the lower neck. No longer having its vocal chords connected to it lungs, there was an eerie silence to the cow, but its mouth opened and closed desperately. From where I stood, I could easily see the different muscle groups inside the throat coordinating their efforts to produce what should have been a moan. As the blood flowed out, over the exposed trachea and into the lungs, the dying cow began to cough, spraying the underside of its head and those standing nearby. It gasped, breathing in with a sound like that of a child trying to drain the remaining drops of her milkshake through a straw, and coughed again.
Time crawled and I can’t tell you how long it took for the cow to die, maybe ten minutes, maybe a lifetime. Coughing blood from its severed throat. Chewing silently at the air. Looking back, I don’t really know what I could have expected to be different. The men were casual and a little excited at the prospect of having beef the next day while the cow made no verbal objections to being bound and dragged. It seemed to know. Not to know the details of what was to come of course, but to understand enough that it should be afraid and silent. But I did not expect the death to come as slowly as it did. The cow struggled to breathe, struggled to wail. Tried to live its final moments in a way familiar to itself but failed. Cutting the throat is not the death as we have been taught to believe, but merely the beginning of a process by which the cow bleeds and suffocates slowly, releasing its grasp on consciousness only at the end of a long and fruitless effort. It is not a death I would wish on anyone, human or otherwise, but as someone who was an unwitting accomplice to hundreds of similar deaths in my youth and childhood, it is one which I am glad to have witnessed. It’s scary. And violent. And real. More than anything, it’s difficult for me to capture the reality of it all. The air was thick with it, with reality. Creeping up my spine and balling in my stomach; forcing my eyes open and making me watch. It is a terrible experience, to watch the transformation from the fullness of life to the fullness of death, but it’s one that I hope all of us who choose to eat meat will at some point in our lives be exposed to.
1 November 2009
Ants in the US are soft. So soft. They might build their little hills and satisfy themselves with what they can salvage from your picnic, but here, the ants mean business. They’re hunters, they build cathedrals and half of them look more like hornets who have lost their wings than our familiar small black variety - and the other half still aren’t scared to take on prey easily hundreds of times their size. They’re organized and though they may not be the most efficient, they’re effective. And there are lines of them, hundreds of thousands deep by my estimation (I approximated the flow rate and multiplied by the amount of time I thought they had been walking for), following paths lined by ants and under structures made of more ants clinging together. I’ll spare you the lame metaphors about community and teamwork, but the ants here are pretty amazing to watch. My friend Logan was right when he warned me about them before coming here, but fortunately, only the smaller ones seem to be disposed toward the mango tree, so my climbing is safe as long as I don’t keep to one spot for too long.
The wet season may have officially begun in mid-August, but it waited until early-October to take hold and is now truly upon us; it rains nearly every day, and the three rainwater cisterns at Engeye are overflowing. Kids come to the clinic to fill their water jugs, and everything seems to be growing. In the month since rains really began to start, beanstalks and corn have grown to be over a foot tall, the peanuts are looking healthy and robust, and even the potato plants stand tall. People are happy, relieved by the coming of the rains and glad to be back in their fields weeding and being able to visibly see the day-to-day progress of their labors. School is almost over for the year, with only a week or two left before a long break extending into early-February, so I’m getting very excited to have some time to explore Uganda and work on some of the other projects we have planned for the next few months - expanding Gyebaleko to a larger variety of goods, building a new structure at Engeye, watching a qualified electrician install wiring (and hopefully learning a thing or two) and really studying the language. Also, with my busy schedule, I haven’t touched the guitar in a while, so it will be nice to be able to spend my evenings struggling with that instead of writing lesson plans. But more than anything, I’m excited to be done teaching the kids in our kindergarten, “morning,” program. At least for a while.
I’m excited because, to put it bluntly, these kids are just plain disrespectful. Disrespectful towards me and towards Monica, towards each other and, most importantly, disrespectful towards their fellow villagers in Ddegeya. One of the older kids is a bully, another pair of brothers were caught with their fingers in our peanut butter jar, none of them listen, they all bring sticks so they can hit each other and our class is filled with a continual chatter, none of which is related to what we are trying to teach them, and is mostly oriented about the topic of “I will beat you” (Njjakukuba). I’m venting, but it’s frustrating to take the kids on a walk only to have them trample over the potato mounds someone carefully made and will depend on for food, so that they can pick (unripe) mangos from someone else’s tree. Monica and I have both decided that we are not willing to hit the kids, but their parents do, and so our punishments of making them stand off the side or sending them home are pretty light when compared to what they are used to. And if they learn at home that when someone does something wrong, they get beat, how can Monica and I explain to them that it is wrong to hurt someone else? It doesn’t seem to register to them that violence could ever be anything other than the answer, and so I think they see us as these crazy foreigners that will let them get away with anything and who can give them gifts.
It’s a difficult line to walk: these kids have so little, but anything we give them gets broken immediately or turns into a weapon. And it is extremely rare that they say please or act even remotely grateful for anything we do; a feeling that extends not only to the children, but to most of the people I have come across - we aren’t people, we’re The Mzungus, we’re resources. We came here because we know how to fix all of their problems while they go on living and it’s expected of us that with a wave of our hand, we can bring them into prosperity. It has been my policy for a while now, one that I started when I first became a physics tutor back at Union, that I will never help someone more than they are willing to help themselves, but I don’t really know how that applies to my present situation; so many people are just waiting for a handout, expecting a handout, that my natural inclination is to ignore them.
And if you insist on pumping violently on the handle of the borehole, even after we have explained many times the fragility of the machine, then why should I fix it when it breaks? It’s broken four times since I’ve arrived and people continue to treat it with disregard. Does us fixing it just reaffirm in their minds that we are here to solve their problems regardless of them putting in a serious effort to improve their own situation? I don’t know. Probably. Still, I can’t just sit by as the villagers take water from the pond (I counted 67 frogs on the surface alone at one time). And despite the lack of initiative of many, there are still those who seriously want to make a life for themselves.
Eddie asked me to define “a volunteer” and when I explained it to him, he laughed and told me that I wouldn’t find a native Ugandan volunteer if I searched all of Africa. That may be true, but if I was living in extreme poverty, I don’t think that I would do very much for free either.
It’s an interesting emotion that I have been feeling lately: contempt for those who expect me to do for them what they are unwilling to try and frustration with the children who really don’t seem to think about anything other than themselves. But at the same time, there is a deep compassion for the few who legitimately are working towards a future and a building pressure to do all that I can to help them succeed. It’s not easy to escape poverty here in Ddegeya, even as my extremely bright physics students prepare for their final exams, they’ve told me that they don’t see much of a future for themselves, regardless of their marks: they can’t afford university tuition and scholarships tend to be based more on who you know than what, so the life they expect is that of an overeducated farmer. I replied that the first step in escaping the cycle is to believe that it is possible to escape the cycle. But practically and realistically, I was thinking to myself that I have no idea where they could go to find a job.
So I don’t know all of the answers. I don’t think that there is one easy solution. I don’t like being universally categorized as someone who can and will make everything right. And I don’t believe that things are going to change quickly. And neither do the villagers. But just because things are improving slowly, that doesn’t mean that they are not changing noticeably. As I talk with the older children, they quiz me on things they have learnt in school, things like “what is the definition of proper hygiene” and “name three ways to avoid AIDS,” and some of the youth have told me that they only want to have four or five children instead of the standard seven or eight. So despite the apathy, maybe apathy is the wrong word - it’s more of a skepticism and resignment to their situation, of many, I cannot help but believe that things are improving here in Ddegeya. And so I am continuing in my efforts to do what I can to speed up what I see as an inevitable change.
Bread and Bata
8 October 2009
September came and went and October is slipping by with the same methodical pace as time always seems to move; not fast, not slow, just with deliberation and a steady hand. This past month has been busy and on top of attending two introduction ceremonies and a concert, coordinating efforts across an ocean to get Gyebaleko up and running, and teaching both the kindergarteners and my physics students, the little free time I have found in day to day life has been devoted largely to working on graduate school applications. It is difficult for me to prioritize writing in a journal above writing my personal statement, but now being in possession of a draft, I feel comfortable in taking the time to recount what life has been for me as of late.
Similar to a formalized engagement party, the introduction is a very traditional Ugandan ceremony in which the groom-to-be introduces himself and his family to that of the woman he wishes to marry: his family brings gifts (to pay the bride price), every relative does some talking and after the four- or five-hour ordeal is over, there’s music and dancing. It’s a little painful to be seated for that long of a time with no intermission, especially since I cannot understand a vast majority of what is being said, but everyone is always so grateful to us for showing up that to refuse an invitation is out of the question, and besides – we get to dress up. Because in introduction is a traditional Ugandan event, everyone is expected to wear traditional Ugandan attire, and for me this means a kanzu, which is essentially a very long shirt (or a dress) that goes down to the ankles and is worn along with slacks and a jacket. The kanzu itself is made of a light fabric, embroidered around the neck and in a line down the front, and in my opinion is quite comfortable. The rest of the outfit, however, is oppressively hot especially with late September containing the autumnal equinox (it was cloudy on the actual day, so I missed my opportunity to see the sun exactly at the zenith, but it’s still close enough around midday that shade only exists directly under an overhang), but still does not compare to the gomaci that Monica wears. A gomaci is a large dress that comes in many layers and is wrapped around its victim a few times before being secured with a large decorative belt tied in a square knot around the waist; I don’t know how much extra Monica weighs when she wears it, but it looks heavy and downright oppressive. For many of the women we come across, a gomaci is the typical everyday wear, and they carry the baggage with them as they go about their daily business, but despite my best efforts to convince Monica to wear one more often, she continues to turn me down.
As we made our way to what would be our first introduction, we needed to pass through almost the entirety of Kampala to reach our final destination as it is during this walk that I learned a new word: “musajjawakabaka” or literally “man from king.” The gomaci that Monica was set to borrow was waiting for her to arrive, but I was able to buy a kanzu and suit jacket for under $15, and so decided to make the walk to our meeting point in the traditional wear of the Buganda. Apparently, this is also what is worn by the servants of the king (the musajjawakabaka), and so for the entirety of the walk, I was greeted with “you look smart” and “musajjawakabaka” by strangers from all sides. I had not previously thought that we were capable of attracting more attention as we moved throughout the city, but once again, was proven wrong. I’m still waiting for Monica to be seen in public in a gomaci.
At neither of the introductions, did we make it to the music and dancing part of the event. At the first one, we had not eaten all day, John had things to do back at his brother’s house where he was staying and evening was well upon us, so we decided to get to the main city before the restaurants closed. But at the second one, we left early so that we could make it back to Ddegeya in time to catch a taxi to Masaka for a concert.
We didn’t have a very solid plan. From previous visits to Masaka, we had seen banners up announcing that Radio and Weasel who have the hit single “Bread and Butter” would be performing, starting at eight in the evening (on a Sunday) and Sophia told us that it was likely the concert would not end until sometime after 1:00 am. After a few messages being sent back and forth between Monica and Ronnie, our friend who volunteered at Engeye during our first few weeks here and who is now back in Masaka, studying to be an AIDS counselor, it seemed as though he had offered us a place to stay after the show was over, but we’ve found that it’s dangerous to make assumptions, and were still somewhat unsure about whether we could actually spend the night with him or even if he was planning on attending the event, as the time to leave approached. Monica said that she wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to get stuck in Masaka, so made the last minute decision to stay back at Engeye while Sophia and I went to the show.
Even more than usual, the taxi ride was an uncomfortably tight squeeze (I was one of four people fit in the front two seats), and there was a long wait for Ronnie to show up to meet us at the entrance which was made all the more difficult as both his and Sophia’s phones ran out of airtime, but eventually we made it in, and as soon as the music started, all the hassle involved with reaching the concert disappeared and was lost to some untold number of hours of music and dancing. In addition to this being my first time going out and exploring the nightlife of my peers in Uganda, this was also the first live music I had heard in over three months, and all I can really say is that it was amazing. It’s difficult to describe just how good it felt for me to be dancing again (also something I have not done in over three months) and to feel the interaction of performers on stage with us, the mass of people listening and enjoying the moment, so I will leave it by saying that it felt good. Real good.
Also in the past few weeks, we received multiple packages of school supplies that were shipped from an elementary school back in the US to be distributed over here. It took a while to sort through everything they donated, but it was extremely generous of them to give us so much (shipping alone cost over $300), and we were able to make children at three different schools very happy, so that was a nice break from the routine of teaching kindergarten in the morning and physics every other afternoon. Teaching is going well, it’s difficult for me to keep my head above water sometimes between preparing all of my lecture material, teaching every morning and the countless other obligations that seem to appear without forewarning, but I’m working through it and have been told that the break which begins in November after the national exams will last into January. So it’s easier for me to deal with not having leisure time by knowing that it will only stay this way for another month. Interestingly, Monica feels exactly the opposite as I do: she teaches her art classes (and the kindergarten program), but there is really no major preparation that needs to get done beforehand for either of those, so when she isn’t actively in class, there really isn’t much for her to do and she has commented on wishing she had a fuller schedule. Must be nice.
And I learned how to drive a motorcycle.
17 September 2009
Uganda is burning. The riot in Kampala left 26 citizens dead, including two police officers. Over 30 vehicles were seized by the mob and burnt along with piles of tires, and the police station was reduced to ashes before the Uganda National Army was able to control the uprising. Next, they moved to Masaka.
Here is not the place for me to discuss all of the details of why the revolt occurred, but from my understanding, it essentially came as a result of the king of the largest tribe in Uganda being denied access by the president, to visit a region of his country on the grounds that the nature of his trip was to stir opposition support. When officials who were to precede the king on his journey were blocked entrance and the word spread, an anti-government demonstration began in Kampala’s Kaseka Market, and despite their use of live ammunition on the crowd, the local police were unable to contain the ensuing uproar, so the military was brought in. Dr. Victor, who works at the clinic once a week and lives in Kampala, was at work when the melee began and by the time he reached home, found his son hiding behind a door crying; a few weeks later, he still runs at any sound which mimics a gunshot. But slowly, things are settling down, and life is returning to normal for the majority of Kampala’s residents, however, I have been told that the government took control over four of the radio stations, so there is still sufficient fuel for the fire to begin again if only a spark finds its way.
Despite this, I feel safe. Out in Ddegeya, life has gone on unaffected by the happenings in the capitol city for ages, and now is no different; the rains have just begun to fall with some consistency, St. Bernard’s is back in session and Gyebaleko is starting to take off. Today is the two-month anniversary of my arrival in Uganda, and Steve predicted it to take about this much time before I would start to feel settled into the life before me for the upcoming seven months. I think that he is largely correct, and as my days fill with more regular activities, I find myself relaxing into the environment here and starting to build real relationships with the community. Returning to Engeye from school every other evening, the people whose houses I pass greet me with a warm “welcome home” (or when they try to use English, “well be back”), and I’ve finally found some friends my own age to play soccer with. The ladder and swing have held their ground against the onslaught of children and our morning program is rapidly growing: some of the kids arrive at the clinic consistently before I wake up, and every day there seems to be a new group of siblings who are always much more eager to jump and yell and throw dirt and pull down their pants and climb on each other and cry and drool than they are to do things like sing the ABCs or count to ten. But at least they do show up, and when we call them to come back from playtime, the majority return to within the vicinity of the benches without too strong of a resistance. John (and the internet he carries with him) have been in Kampala for a little over two weeks, so when he returns, I will be able to continue with the work I started on graduate school applications, and I’m on the verge of being able to use bar chords regularly in my voyage with the guitar. So life is going well and (to quote myself), I’m busy, but that’s the way I prefer to be.
I don’t have many friends here. Many actual friends, that is; everybody is nice and welcoming and I cannot sit down outside without finding myself covered in a sticky mess of children. But these relationships are very different from the ones I can have with people my own age, where we talk and joke and hang out, and so maybe it is because I didn’t have any friends at the time that the death of our shopkeeper strikes me as such a loss. We have consistently been going to the same shop in Kinoni to buy food every week or so since arriving, and while I can’t say that I actually knew very much about the man who ran the business, he was always friendly, helpful and happy to have us practice Luganda with him. He too lived in Ddegeya, and if we ever needed a loaf of bread or a kilo of flour, he would bring it to us as he returned home in the evening, always with a charming smile on his face and for the same price as we would pay had we gone to him. He was young and healthy looking when I saw him just a few days before he suddenly collapsed, never to stand again, and I found out only after his death that he had AIDS. I didn’t know his name.
And as he exited my life, in stepped a new character to the storyline of Engeye: Angel. She appeared one day at the clinic accompanied by a half dozen children, and sat down by Monica and me as we were (unsuccessfully) trying to read. She didn’t say much at first, and I assumed her to be a patient, but eventually Charles (the nurse practitioner) went home for the day, and she stayed (still without saying a word to me) so it became apparent that she had other business here. The day turned to evening and I went inside to order to work on a lesson plan unassisted by the children. While I was gone, she began to talk to Monica, and told a heartbreaking story of how she had lived with her parents in Masaka who owned a shop, until the shop was robbed at gunpoint by new friends of hers, and she was kicked out of her home. After wandering around, she found Ddegeya and asked an old woman if she would allow her to sleep in her home along with the seven children who live there as well. The old woman agreed and Angel had a new residence.
The next day, one of the children appeared with a note for Monica from Angel saying how happy she was to have a white friend and then offering to work for her. She didn’t want money or any kind of compensation, just to go to the US and work for her. Of course, Monica told her that she couldn’t bring her back with her, but that she was welcome at Engeye any time, and the next day she appeared with a new note. As she told the story, the son of the old woman (who she calls grandma) was and had been for a while, raping her and when she told the grandma, the grandma said that she was happy for her son who had finally found someone to marry and have kids with so she wouldn’t allow Angel to sleep with her to avoid the son. Angel also elaborated more on the story of her parents, and said that she was actually an orphan so the two people she was living with but eventually kicked her out were not really her mother and father but were instead foster parents. And the only solution she has posed is suicide.
It’s a tragic story, and a difficult one for Monica and I to handle on our own. What do you do when someone tells you this about herself after having only known you for a week? If her story is true (which neither of us fully believe), then how can we not intervene? John has just returned and also gives very little merit to the story; he’s found that most people think her to be from Tanzania and the three of us will be paying a visit to her house soon to speak with the grandma (who the kids think may be her actual grandmother) so hopefully we will be able to find a clear picture of what exactly her living situation is soon.
As I began my mental preparations for coming to Uganda, I told myself to expect being lied to and that people would often try to take advantage of me; the taxis consistently try to overcharge us, at the market in Masaka we’ve been given the wrong change multiple times, and many of the people I pass on my way to school ask me for shoes every time I pass them. Still, Angel came as a surprise to me, and I was not prepared for her and her story. It’s frustrating, and not something I am used to, to treat everyone new I meet with skepticism, but the truth is that more often than not, it isn’t me that they like, but that because I’m white (and therefore rich) I can help them. I realize it’s all a function of the level of poverty around here that people make up stories to attract our attention and that even though the stories they may tell are false, they tell them because the need is real. But those who know me back home will know that my patience is tried even when I catch one trying to exaggerate the truth to me, so it’s a difficult balance for me to strike between belief, disbelief and the need for action.
And so this is why I’m excited to have finally found some real friends. There is a family of brothers who live together, Eddie, Hajji and Kevin who are all (like me) in their early twenties and (like everyone here) play soccer; they’re fun guys, and seem to genuinely enjoy my company instead of trying to use it to their advantage, so I’ll say it again, I’m grateful to have found them.
Equally exciting is the progress being made with Gyebaleko. The women have almost completed making our first shipment of ten baskets and three table runner/placemat sets, and we hope to send it back to the US this weekend, having it arrive in time for Thanksgiving. My mom has expressed interest in selling some of the goods at her church and at Union, we have partnered with my former residence, Ozone House, to sell some of what we ship back in the campus center as well as in the local farmer’s market. As I see the support build up for our organization, I’m starting to feel as though we should have tried to make a larger initial shipment, but hopefully with what we send back, we will be able to gauge what kind of demand we could expect for our market back in the US and take things from there.