Sunday, August 19, 2012

Fond farewells

Arriving in a slightly zonked state at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport (one of my favorite transit points) on my journey home, I indulged in a delicious Dutch cappuccino. The strains of Black’s “Wonderful Life” filled my ears. I was initially impressed by the airport’s choice of classic British pop music, but then the lyrics started to resonate with the sense of gratitude I was feeling at the end of our second successful GSSAP. 

My gratitude check list includes: our wonderful group of students who embraced and engaged the challenges of northern Uganda in so many inspiring ways; my most valued colleagues and dear friends, Tricia and Randy Hepner; our impressive set of lecturers and group partners; all those who shared their war stories and personal suffering with us; our former students Jayanni Webster and Lindsay McClain for all their help on the ground, and to the latter for holding her wedding to popular local musician Jeff Korondo while we were there (!); the delightful hotel staff who looked after us throughout our stay; the joy of old and new friends in Gulu; the excitement of our game drive in Murchison Falls Park and the exhilaration of the river Nile; and above all our gracious internship hosts who provided such unforgettable opportunities for our students to learn about grassroots peacebuilding and development initiatives, as well as local institutions.

On the evening before we left Gulu, we invited many of our partners and friends to a farewell party at our home away from home, the one and only Hotel Kakanyero.  The following pictures capture magnificently the spirit of our group (enhanced, not diminished, by five weeks of living together!) and the warmth of our Acholi friends and partners. How we shall all miss their oft-repeated greeting, “You are most welcome to Gulu and Uganda!”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Music and Dance in Uganda

This photo post is over due, but now that I have returned to the land of fast internet and leisure time I have managed to seriously sift through my photos  and come up with a few that I wanted to share.  

One of my favorite aspects of Ugandan culture was the music and dance. Whether it was a live performance of the acholi traditional group, a night out at BJs (the local bar), or the wedding of Lindsay and Jeff, Ugandans truly know how to put people at ease through music. Below are some images of my favorite musical experiences while in Uganda.

While in Kampala we ran into a
local youth brass band

Traditional Dance Group in Kampala

The Children at The Future is Now Orphanage
dancing and singing to welcome us

Lindsay at her and Jeff's reception

Saying Good-bye

            There are different ways to experience good byes. I adhere to a system of good-bye of avoidance and deferment. I emotionally exit well before any departing words are exchanged.  I aim for a quick departure with a little lingering and physical contact as possible in hopes to avoid any overwhelming emotions on the spot. I choose to recognize the pains of separation after I have left and safely in the final destination.
            In the limbo of “I’m not quite here but I’m not quite there”, I sit in Tennessee with my watch still set to Uganda time and trying to pass a shilling off as a quarter at the local breakfast joint. (I almost got a way with it.)
             As family drill me on my trip the questions I still have circle distractingly through my head.  I’m frustrated that upon leaving I have more questions than when I arrived.  Maybe the most daunting question that I keep asking myself is what I learned. The obvious answer that I respond with is the history and dynamics of Northern Uganda; however, I am still trudging through the emotional baggage that I returned with.  This adventure has taught me about the nature of people and myself.  Rehashing events and experiences looking for clues the most memorable moments also invoke the most emotion. The day before we left Grace handed me an object in an Achumi bag saying the gift was not for me, but my mother. I was sent with the gift and a message, “tell your mama that I love her and thank her for giving me you”.  Potentially the kindest words every spoken to me came from a humble young women I had known for only a few weeks.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Nodding Disease in Northern Uganda

By far the most powerful experience at my internship with the Gulu District Local Government, was visiting children with Nodding Disease in Odek. The moment we arrived was overwhelming. In this small village there were at least 40 children seizing, suffering, and crying. Not only do these families struggle to provide basic nutrition to their children, but now they are battling a disease with  no known cure. The suffering I witness in these weak children was more than I cared to see. "Chafing" on the skin left one young man unable to walk with a huge chunk of his leg missing. I didn't notice at first, due to the mass of flies infesting the open wound. The video I took does no justice to the terrible situation these children face everyday in Northern Uganda.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Below is brief clip excerpt from a longer video put together by BOSCO that discusses mine and Candice Patton's internship experience with BOSCO-Uganda.  We only highlight a few of the bigger moments in our stay.  To get the nitty-gritty details, just ask.  We would love to share about our incredible experiences.  You could also Google BOSCO-Uganda if you want to know more about the other projects they work on.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Access to Justice in Lalogi & Lakwana Sub Counties

This post is a bit overdue. I’ll loss it up to “Ugandan time” and a perpetually dead laptop battery. A semester ago I remember Dr. Rox & Trish reiterating during the GSSAP interview that the service-learning oriented internship portion often confirms for students if they are able to work in his or her chosen environment.

As for the past few weeks, I have spent most of my internship period in the Lalogi and Lakwana sub-counties with the Centre for Rehabilitation & Reconciliation attempting wrap my head around the land wrangle crisis gripping Northern Uganda. Each day in the field has brought a constant barrage of emotion, sense, and confusion. As an undergraduate student I struggle to understand the cross-bred issues of internal displacement, accessing cultural bound notions of justice, the LRA conflict, and the neoliberal world order that are all in someway wrapped in each land wrangle in Northern Uganda.

My time at CRR has been spent asking questions and listening. But mostly listening as people narrate individual lived experiences. My attraction to anthropology is the discipline’s unique ability to capture people’s individual stories and arrange them into a wider focus that critically engages the social, cultural, and economic realities around them. A shared component between law and anthropology is a mutual understanding that the individual narrative can transform justice in the face of convoluted legacies of prolonged conflict and internal displacement.  

I hope some of these images partially illustrate the past few weeks academically and otherwise.

Community sensitization explaining the process to procure
a certificate of customary ownership. An overwhelming majority of
attendees were women in Lakwana SC.

List of community groups in Lakwana SC
Wilobo Pe Yero translates "the
world does not discriminate" 
Community sensitization to the importance of
 formalizing customary land ownership through legal means
10 Hectares of land undergoing the demarcation process

Dialogue with CRR Staff and stakeholders
over the land to the right
Field Lunch of posho and beans for 3000US

Follow up visit with CRR to a recent court settlement
PDRP project sign and a curiously unfinished
road in Lakwana SC
Awareness poster in the Lalogi SC headquarters

Notice for Certificate of Customary Ownership on
a community board in Lakwana SC

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

“I Love You Africa”

Coca Cola has released a new viral advertisement. It has a catchy song for a popular product, but it sends some disturbing messages.

There a billion reasons to believe in Africa.

Yes, there are a billion reasons to believe in Africa, but I am not sure that Coca Cola is aware of them.

While the world shakes and stumbles… Africa dances to a different beat.

The last time I checked the Arab Spring that shook the Arab world began in North Africa. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia are firmly attached to the African continent.

For every bank closed down… 2 million Africans send money back home.

This may not be common knowledge, but there are 54 recognized countries in Africa. The continent has over 1 billon people. According to the CIA World Fact Book there are over 34 million people in Uganda alone. Banks may shut down every day, but fear not, there are 2 million Africans sending remittances home to keep the continent afloat…

 As authorities try to tame the internet… Africa becomes the most mobile-connected place on the planet.

True. The Arab Spring spread like wildfire thanks to improving communication technologies. YouTube made “Kony famous,” the radio helped bring soldiers home from the bush in Northern Uganda. There are internet cafes in Gulu Town. Coca Cola’s viral advertisement plays multiples times every hour on the TV at our hotel. Boda boda men text while driving and there is a lucrative market for buying air time. 

While the rest of the world struggles to get back… 1,000 new businesses are opened in Africa every day.

Gulu recently acquired its Wal-Mart equivalent: Uchumi. At Uchumi it costs 4,000 shillings (approximately $2 USD) to get two packs of very stale, off-brand gum, 28,000 shillings for a bag of almonds and 22,000 for a bag of cereal. For less than 4,000 shillings one can enjoy a more nutritious, traditional meal at a local restaurant with foods you will never see on the shelves at Uchumi. Although some foreign investors are welcomed sources of employment, unchecked neoliberal capitalism has had a destabilizing effect, handicapping the local economy by increasing inflation and out-competing local businesses. Where the rubber meets the road is in a competitive advantage garnished through the nation’s forced adoption of economic policies that grossly undercuts governmental protection of local industries. So yes, businesses are opening; but most are stocked with foreign goods and have a predominantly foreign and/or upper class clientele.

While the world turns grey… we live life in full color.

Consult Uganda’s colorful Anti-Homosexuality debate…

While the world worries about the future… 1 Billion Africans are sharing a Coke.

Rephrase: While the rest of the world worries about clogging arteries and rotting teeth, many Africans struggle to afford a Coke.

The commercial is suggesting that while the rest of the world is concerned about tomorrow, Africans are not worried about acquiring potable water; they are not worried about affording school fees, combating HIV/AIDs, institutionalized corruption, inequalities or rising inflation. No, according to this advertisement they are all drinking a Coke. What Africans need is an overhaul of the predatory political economy of a global “free-market” system puppeteered by a ‘corporatocracy’ which profits from impoverishing the “developing world,” starting with Coke.  

Check it out:

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Future Is Now

Last week, Kaitlin, Katie and I visited an orphanage called The Future is Now. The orphanage was started by a young man named Denis when the war ended in northern Uganda. He now gets help from another young man, Justin. Currently, the orphanage is housing 16 children due to limited funds, however other services such as counseling and education are offered to women and children in the community during the day. Denis and Justin have big plans for The Future is Now. They want to buy more land to be able to provide a bigger orphanage for the children and allow more children to be part of the orphanage. It is also important that all the children have the money to go to school. Currently, not all of them are able to attend school. Denis and Justin have plans for the child mothers in the community as well. They want to teach them income generating activities so that the mothers may be able to provide for themselves. Right now however, the orphanage is lacking many basic supplies. The children living there do not have enough blankets, mattresses, and mosquito nets to name just a few problems. Denis also informed us that at the beginning of July, there was no money to feed the children.

                Even though Denis and Justin struggle all the time to provide a better life for these children, they continue to move forward and have not given up. Denis explained to us that these children were his family and no matter what happens, he will never leave them. What amazes me most about this orphanage is how young Denis and Justin are and how much they want to do for children and the community. Denis is only 25 years old. They both have huge hearts and they love these children as if they were their own.

When we arrived at the orphanage, we were greeted with singing and dancing. Our visit felt like a huge event. It was amazing to see how happy the women and children were to see us. Katie started a game of duck-duck-goose with the kids and later, all three of us joined the women in dancing an Acholi dance. As we left I remember feeling such joy and happiness. This was one of the best and most memorable days I have had in Gulu. All of these people struggle every day for basic necessities and yet they still took time out of their day to make us feel welcome.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Gulu Hospital

While being in Uganda, I have seen, heard, learned, and even smelled things that I never had before. From the performance by the Mizizi Ensemble to the astonishing sight of the Nile River. From the intense classes at IPSS and writing papers to balancing time between my internship and meeting new friends. From exploring the smoggy roads of Gulu to walking through the pungent fish stands in the market. Through all these experiences, I will leave (sadly in only five days) knowing more about global issues, peace building, sustainability, and the Acholi culture of dance, cuisine, and language.

One thing that has taught me substantially is interning at the Gulu Regional Referral Hospital. I have worked in the Infectious Disease Clinic (IDC) (which has a main focus on HIV/AIDS), the Surgical Theatre, the Laboratory, and during free time I wonder through different wards meeting and talking with patients. My time at GRRH has brought about sadness, frustration, excitement and, more importantly, hope.

Sadness struck me from the babies, young people, mothers, and elders strewn out across the ground because so many come daily for HIV testing or checking their progression of AIDS not knowing whether or not the nurses will even get a chance to see them. About 5 of 20 tests we conducted came out positive and was a startling realization. I was happy to see that 15 people were in the clear and coming in and being proactive, but that is still 25% of people being tested becoming infected each day. On most days, the majority of patients were mothers with young children who were afraid of passing the virus to her child. Mother-to-child transfer (MTCT) to a child 15 years or younger accounts for 10% of all new HIV cases. According to the WHO, there were 3.4 million children infected at the end of 2011, and a large majority infected through MTCT. No one can help but be upset by these figures.

Frustration came from experiencing the lack of motivation of some of the staff (as Kaitlin discusses below in Follow Up to "Getting Sick in Gulu."). I was told by one of the nurses that they used to test and treat up to 200 patients daily. Today, after getting to a slow start around 9:30am, around 20 patients are seen before lunch break at around noon. After lunch, another 30 patients are seen before the day ends at around 4pm. "The goal is to see 50 patients each day" I was told by a nurse. The demand is made clear by the amount of people arriving each morning, yet the care given is not equivalent because of understaffing and the pay for the staff is unreliable at times. Another thing to get used to is the seeming insensitivity and carelessness. When a patient flinches while giving blood, the nurse straightens his/her arm, aggressively says something in Acholi, and the patients immediately has to straighten up and allow the nurse to finish. This follows suit with the culture here of being very short and blunt. So much so that it can strike as being rude sometimes. For example, there is no translation for the word please. Everything is short and direct. I asked someone how to ask "May I have water" and he told me "A mito pii." I asked the translation and he told me it meant "I want water." This would seem rude if I asked a server for water this way in the US, but here this is how it is done and does not come off as rude. This is a struggle for me to grasp in the hospital, because I've always been taught in Bioethics classes to establish rapport with people and develop trust. Being in healthcare is more than just diagnosing and treating, it's being a counselor, caring for the person's well-being, and even being a friend to a sick person. I understand that this may be impossible in this environment, because there is a plethora of patients and few staff. Yet the empathetic being within me is exposed and allows me to become angry at the situation. I want to hold the hand of every elderly lady who is in pain because the nurse is attempting again and again to get a needle in her wilted veins, or the still-teething baby that has its heel stabbed with a needle to do an HIV test, or the young man covered in lesions who can barely make it over the step into the nurse's office because syphilis has completely deteriorated his body. To see these people in these situations be handled in such a way is disheartening.

Excitement (along with a few other emotions at some parts) arose because of the time spent observing surgeries in the theatre. Patients were only partially anesthetized from an epidural and were awake and talking the entire time. I sat in on a hernia getting repaired, a club foot being corrected, a skin graft, and an elderly lady getting a broken femur repaired. Watching what few could probably stomach was thrilling for me. It is a reward in itself watching this young lady smile when seeing her foot in a cast pointing the correct way after having her club foot corrected. In about six months this lady will be walking correctly for the first time in her life, and the feeling I get picturing this is event is unexplainable with words.

Lastly, I have hope, hope that things will be better in the future. As a whole, the rate of HIV infection is rising in this country, but I feel that the GRRH is doing great things to improve the issue. In the laboratory, there are high-class machines and educated staff doing extensive blood tests to better assist doctors in prescribing patients the correct dosage of medications. There are community outreach programs that go out to communities and conduct HIV tests, collect blood samples and deliver the medications to people unable to travel to the hospital. These programs not only treat, they go out into villages to inform and educate people about how to prevent the spread of this virus. This is a crucial program I believe, and as Hillary Clinton said just a few days ago in Uganda, "I am hoping that together, we can work on making prevention the focus again and making sure that the rate of HIV infection goes down."

I have had so much fun with the kids in Pagak. This is only one of the experiences that I have shared with them. In the video, the girls are teaching me this game for the first time. 
I am going to miss them. It doesn't seem like I have spent enough time with them. However, my last day with them was Friday. I may not be able to spend more time with them, but I will make sure to fill my bags with plenty of games and memories.
I have really enjoyed my time working out in the field. There is just too much to say. However, it is hard trying to say it all at once, so I won't say any more.

Birthing Babies

Many exciting things have happened to me here in Uganda, but the evening of July 25th is by far the most memorable. My colleague Kaitlin and I set off for Gulu Referral Hospital around 8:30 pm to spend the entire night in the maternity ward. A shift change was underway as we arrived, so we were in time to meet the two midwives who would be the only staff present for the shift. The midwives were very welcoming and knowledgeable, making a smooth transition for two students feeling a little out of their depth. Shortly after our arrival one midwife went to nap, we learned this was protocol for the graveyard shift. One midwife naps for half the night while the other works, then they switch.

The night swiftly became a blur of examinations and deliveries. All said and done Kaitlin and I witnessed, and at some points helped, 10 children into the world. We also were privileged enough to experience fetal heart monitoring, dilatation techniques, an episiotomy, and a cesarean section. While you may be getting the picture, I would like to take you through a Ugandan mother’s complete experience from arriving at the hospital to leaving with her child.

Pregnant women in Uganda are required to have an antenatal card, called a Mothers Passport, containing proof that a physician has seen them throughout their pregnancy. If the woman does not possess this signed card she is not admitted into the hospital and will be asked to leave, even if she has no where else to go. This is a problem for women living in rural areas several miles away from town because transportation is potentially dangerous and costly for a pregnant laboring woman. This is why Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs) are currently utilized as many Ugandans still live outside the country’s main cities. A government sponsored newspaper called the New Vision ran an article directly addressing the fact that TBAs should not be outlawed until there is adequate staff to replace them in the outlying medical centers. Though realistically these medical centers are too few and too far for most mothers in labor to reach, not to mention mothers with problematic pregnancies. So while the article’s message is correct, even with adequate staff I still foresee many Ugandan mothers using a TBA in the village to assist her during birth.

Once the mother presents her antenatal card to the midwife she is given a vaginal exam to ascertain the centimeters she is dilated. If the woman is found to be in the first stage, which is 1-5 centimeters, she is told to walk around and wait outside the building or in the hall. Due to the limited space in the ward mothers and their attendants spend most of their time sitting under a tree outside the building during the day and sleeping in the hallway at night. If the woman is in the second stage, 6-9 centimeters, she is then permitted in the delivery room. Once in second stage the woman and her attendant (family member or friend) give the nursing staff all the required medical items a woman is mandated to bring with her.  This sometimes is all packaged together in what is called a Maama Kit, which includes: a plastic sheet, soap, surgical gloves, cotton wool, cord ties, safety razor blade, and a new child growth and postnatal clinic card. This pre-packaged kit can be obtained in the local drug stores but is rarely seen because of the cost; most women bring these items individually.

The mother or attendant then takes out the plastic sheet and lays it on one of the seven metal slabs that are used as birthing beds. All beds are in a row with sheets blocking the view from the end of the beds but essentially there is no privacy, the mothers see each other give birth and anyone walking into the maternity ward can see plainly what is transpiring. Women usually labor from four hours up to two days, quite a difference from American obstetrics where women are barely allowed to labor past six hours before drugs such as petocin are administered to speed up the process. Once the baby is born, which is referred to as the 3rd stage of the birthing process, the eyes are wiped and the cord is cut with a razor blade. The majority of children have their passages suctioned to ensure they are breathing properly then are weighed and wrapped. The mother is then given pitocin to restart contractions that help pass the afterbirth. What I found odd about this practice is the midwife, who directly after giving the injection, begins to wrap the cord around a pair of clamps and pulls the afterbirth out by force. It seems that the medicine does not even take effect before the amniotic sac is extracted manually. I believe this may have to do with the limit of beds in the ward and the time sensitive situation of other women waiting in the hall.

         Once the afterbirth is procured and all is well with the baby the mother gets up (with no help I might add), gets dressed, and walks to the post-natal ward down the hall where she will be monitored for twenty-four hours before she is free to go. I also found this to be in stark opposition to the way the majority of Americans treat post birth mothers, who after two days in the hospital are still not allowed to walk to their cars, but rather are made to use a wheel chair.

 The free services at Gulu Referral Hospital are as different from westernized obstetrical practices as you can possibly imagine, but they have given me a new appreciation for what a woman’s body is capable of. It has shown me that some western practices are superfluous while others are critical to a mother and child’s wellbeing.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Far Off Real Place

My five favorite movies for forever and all-time are: The Lion King, A Far Off Place, Second-Hand Lions, Blood Diamond and The Emperor’s New Groove (The Goofy Movie comes in close sixth). Movies that make my top-ten list might reflect more favorably upon my maturity level, but no matter. Of my top five, all involve traveling to an exotic place—‘exotic’ according to your point of reference—and four of the five take you to Africa. When I was younger, I read adventure novels about explorers, different African cultures, African colonialism and Joseph Conrad’s literary classic Heart of Darkness and other A-listers. Inevitably, ‘Africa’ would work its way into my studies. As I got older I jumped across the continent with Dave Eggers’ What is the What, The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut (Nigel Barley), War Child (Emmanuel Jal) with topics that got increasing serious. My room is now littered with books and articles with titles like, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, The Congo Wars: Conflict Myth and Reality, The African Great Lakes Region: An End to Conflict?, and The Political Economy of the Resource Curse. From arm-chair explorer to sitting with peers and professors barreling down the road to Sudan, I have come to develop a love-hate relationship with my chosen field of study: Anthropology. I love it because it has brought me in contact with and, importantly, contextualized the peoples, places and cultures that colored the chapters of my childhood. I hate it because it has illuminated some of the darkest chambers in the real heart of humanity. I am growing into it because it offers me a space to become a realistic, effective and culturally sensitive change agent in a world of socio-cultural, economic and political strife; but at the undergraduate stage I am overwhelmed by the enormity of compounded problems in this “developing” part of the world.

This is my first time traveling to a nation labeled by the global north as “developing.” I expected traveling to certain parts of the country to feel like taking a step back from the high speed connections and consumerism of the Western world. As we drove the stretch from Kampala to Gulu, past unruly tall grasses and gnarly trees that I have never seen before, I (when not deliberating over the logistics of being car-sick) was entertaining the idea of falling into Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. As night-time set in I expected to see the eye shine of animals that only exist in captivity in other parts of the world. I did not expect to see cell phones lighting up the darkness in the grass-thatched hut village compounds. Welcome to Africa, each day a step closer to becoming “one of the most mobile-connected places on the planet.”

The parameters of a photograph cannot capture the richness of the place, nor its culture awash with paradoxes. Since arriving in Gulu I have felt constantly over-stimulated, on sensory overload...
"Fire in the Trees"

TOUCH: The Acholi are a warm people. Whenever you greet someone you give them a firm, quick handshake, followed by a thumb hug, followed by a handshake. As you walk through the markets, the austerity that you see in peoples’ faces melts in a heartbeat into a friendly smile, if only you smile first.

SIGHTS: If you venture off of the main roads in Gulu you find lots of compounds with flowers—orange, red, yellow, purple—planted alongside rows of maize, sweet potatoes, okra, etc. At the IPSS compound, there is a tree with some of the brightest orange flowers I have ever seen. They have a broad, tubular shape and their name, Kifabakazi, means “Fire in the Trees.” The clothing reflects the vibrancy of the environment. Many of the older women wear Gomesis- traditional, heavy, bright colored fabric with tall pointed shoulders and a large bow tied around the front- to church and to weddings.  

[Left to Right: Dodo, Bor, Malakwan]

TASTE: The staple and/or traditional food items include Kal (millet), posho (mashed corn), corn, potatoes, g-nuts, peas, okra, dodo and bor (both small leafy greens), cassava, malakwan (another root), tomatoes, eggs, rice, pineapples, mangos, bananas, matoke (boiled bananas), chicken, pork and goat. G-nuts come in a variety of ways: fresh out of the ground, boiled, dried, fried or otherwise turned into g-nut sauce. Last week I went out to the field with my internship. Lunch was a bowl of posho with chunks of  questionable-looking hippopotamus meat. I will try anything once and “share in the spice of life,” but, truly, this was a one-time affair.

SMELLS: The smell of diesel fumes can be oppressive. The air is heavy and visibility, like in Kampala, is low in the mornings and in the evenings— courtesy of exhaust fumes, dirt, burning trash and no emissions laws. When you walk through the market, the smell of drying (or decaying—I think there is a fine line here) piles of Tilapia and little Silver Fish is over-powering.

SOUNDS: One quickly becomes accustomed to the constant hum of generators. Uganda signed an electricity power scheme with Kenya in the ‘50’s. For the last few decades, however, demand far out strips supply. This energy scheme combined with Gulu’s rapid and ad hoc development yields a scourge of electricity splicing, weak currents and frequent power outages. I was unaware of my attachment to word documents and the internet until I found myself unconsciously pricking my ears in the mornings, hoping to hear the generators. Another sound peculiarity involves people introductions. I expected to hear a lot of names that I could not pronounce. Instead, I have met a lot of “Martins,” “Dennises,” “Isaacs” and “Newtons.” I even met an “Isaac Newton” who, I kid you not, accidentally burned my arm with a bare light bulb. This is a predominantly Christian country and almost everyone has a Christian name. Of my internship co-workers, one is named “Moses,” another is named “Sunday,” and another named her daughter “Favor,” short for “Favor of God.” Around here, you hear a lot of gospel; you also hear a lot of “America’s Top 40” pop songs. To bring it all together, on my way back from my internship I passed an elderly woman in a Gomesi eating dodo on the sidewalk in front of a tailoring shop; Travie McCoy’s “I wanna be a billionaire” was booming in the background.

The time spent here has no parallel. The problem with going home and arriving at some clarity for everything seen and experienced rests, in large part, in the limitations of description. I can describe the food and the people and the weather; I cannot do enough justice with description to explain what it is like to watch tears roll down the cheeks of a former child soldier who is crying not because of lost time in the bush, or over his years spent struggling to get an education, but because he is lonely; he is finally about to earn his degree, but the war took all of the people he would have like to have shared his success with. I cannot capture their burdens of mass unemployment, or their energy when they are dancing, or the unrivaled sweetness of their fruits, or the genuineness in their prayers, or the brightness of the Milky Way at night. There are no words for that.   

Monday, July 30, 2012

Watching Worlds Go By (And Change)

Each day in Gulu brings new discoveries and experiences. At TAKS art center, Katie plucked a chicken for lunch and is learning web design, interviewing young dancers and putting their videos and profiles on line. Kaitlin and Candace helped to deliver ten newborns in one overnight shift at the hospital, including a c-section and one surprise live birth that the nurses (and mother) expected to be stillborn (I think this makes them the ‘doulas of Gulu’!) Jody assisted in major surgery: a femur replacement for a woman under local anaesthetic. He has also learned how to test viral loads in HIV+ blood samples. Hannah and William have made several trips to the police station in the company of local lawyers to try to gain access to imprisoned street children. Brook has twice participated in a mediation of a land dispute with the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative – in none other than Joseph Kony’s home village. Michael is seriously pursuing his Luo language lessons with Stephen, a friend from Lacor Seminary who spoke to our class about his experiences as an abductee by the LRA and now comes regularly to Gulu to visit. As I write this, Candice and Joshua are bumping out to the village of Pagak in Father Joe Okumu’s land rover, where they teach children how to use computers and in exchange learn how to make useful items from local materials and play games.  On Friday I watched Helena walk off to visit a home for orphaned children in the company of its founder, a young man who was himself orphaned by the war.  There is so much going on with the students I can hardly keep up, let alone hear the details of what it means to them. 

So when they ask me, “Dr. Trish, what did you do today?” it almost occurs to me to be envious. Perched on my fourth floor balcony in the new “deluxe” Kakanyero hotel I sometimes feel a world away as the streets bustle with life below me and I catch glimpses of the students as they come and go. They don’t know it, but I sometimes watch them as they move down the street: Hannah and Michael going out for a run at Pece Stadium, Brook and Jody satirically experimenting with the local custom of same-sex friends walking hand in hand, William and Kaitlin and Candace on an errand to the market or the Uchumi grocery store, dark-haired Candice in the constant company of Dennis, one of the young staff members of the hotel. Their laughter echoes at night through the courtyard that connects our hotels.

Even though I am here with them in Gulu, I am not savoring the muchomo – the delectable local dish that is a metaphor for life in this vibrant place – the way the students are. For a professor’s life is different from that of student. No matter how much I wish it were a more sophisticated extension of the latter, my responsibilities are different. “Dr. Trish, what did you do today?” is not nearly as fun to answer as when I direct that question to the students. Yes, my room at Kakanyero deluxe is spacious but it feels awfully small and distant from the worlds going by – and changing all the time - as I log the usual hours on my laptop. Requests for assistance on Eritrean asylum claims continue to roll in despite my auto-responder message: “I am in Uganda and may not respond to email immediately.” There are publishing deadlines to meet and therefore research articles to finish. Students’ assignments must be read and commented upon in a short time frame. Constant work-related emails require answers, courses must be planned for fall semester (which begins less than two weeks after we return), and requests to review colleagues’ articles and research proposals never stop coming. And there are plans to be made here as well: a trip to Murchison Falls coming up next week that must be arranged along with other activities that ensure the students get all they can out of the program. And of course there are Eritrean friends here in Uganda with whom I must find time to reunite somehow. Not to mention my daily ritual supplication to the ATM machine in the hopes it will give up its treasures to me so that our bills may be paid in time.

I am acutely aware that my experience in Gulu is but a pale imitation of the richness the students are taking in daily, but I am also deeply satisfied by the knowledge that they are engaging to the fullest with what it means to ‘study and serve abroad.’ Although they may question how much ‘service’ they are truly providing in what now feels like an extremely short time, I am reminded again of a Mark Twain quote that is pinned to the wall at TAKS art center. To paraphrase, the best way to be happy yourself is to make another person happy. And I can see very clearly –from my ‘office’ on the balcony of room 401 and in the lit-up expressions of the students as they share their goings on – that there is more than enough joy to be shared with one another and with our Ugandan friends. Even if it is inseparable from the sorrows no one can shake, whether from the trauma of war or persistent poverty that still cast their shadows over northern Uganda, or the bittersweet knowledge that we will soon enough leave this place again and must say goodbye, this is the joy of human solidarity and mutual discovery.  We can, and do, change each other’s worlds, even if it sometimes feels like we’re just watching it all go by.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Break Dancers At TAKS (Through Arts Keep Smiling) Center

This is one of the songs they were practicing when we came in:

I stopped by yesterday and interviewed all of the guys to find out a little bit about the group. They were really fun and I think they enjoyed doing this. We talked, laughed, and took pictures after the interviews and they really are a great group of guys. 

Eric Onono 
- Trainer, Choreographer, and Leader (21 years old)
- Has danced his entire life but developed a passion around 7 or 8 years old. 
- Loves school and education, watching movies, playing football (soccer) when not busy dancing, and reading.
- Favorite song to dance to: Sensual Seduction by Snoop Dogg 
- Currently choreographing dances for I Feel the Rain by OJ Maxwell, a local Acholi musician. 
- Hardest struggle: For the general population during the war, Eric said, "People not being able to express themselves was tough because being concentrated was a major challenge. There was no room to dance. Life became survival so people couldn't express their talents." 

Richard Asaba
- Trainer and Choreographer (20 years old)
- Has danced for 10 years.
- Favorite thing to do apart from dancing: Football (soccer).
- Favorite music to dance to: Breakbeats
- Hardest struggle: Growing up with no father because he was taken by the LRA.
- What does break dancing mean to you? “Even if nothing comes from dancing, I will stick with it. I love to teach the younger people. Dancing and laughter for the little ones is the best.”

Erick Okumu
- 19 years old and has been dancing for 5 years.
-Favorite thing to do apart from dancing: “Games, basketball, and volleyball.” He laughed and added. “Any sport except tennis, baseball, and golf.”
- Favorite song to dance to: Famous Girl and Lady Next to You, both by Chris Brown.
- Hardest thing you have gone through: For a year when Erick was younger, he had TB. He told me he was always sick and weak. He said the toughest part had to watch other kids play outside when he couldn’t.
- What does break dancing mean to you? “Everything. When I’m stressed, dancing relieves me of the stress. It makes me relaxed when I’m sad or mad.”
- One message you want to send to people who may read this: “In life, just do anything. Don’t give up on life. If you try at whatever you want to do, one day you will succeed.”

Erique Honicker
- 17 years old and has danced for 4 years.
- His favorite thing to do when not dancing is gardening and art. Erique actually does a lot of the painting that are found throughout the TAKS Center.
- Favorite song to dance to: Next to You by Chris Brown.
- Hardest struggle living in Northern Uganda: “Having to get used to the North.” Erique explained that during the war his mother sent him to Kampala to live with his aunt and he returned 5 five years ago after things were better.
- What does break dancing mean to you? “Makes me forget about problems. It’s a stress reliever.”
- One thing you want to say to the people reading this or that you want to say to the world: “Thanks everyone for the support through the struggles and the war. Whether it was food, water, or anything thank you, because my mother was a beneficiary.”

Michael Inman
- Michael is 16 years old and has only danced for one year.
- His favorite thing to do besides dancing is reading.
-Favorite song to dance to: We Found Love by Rihanna.
- Hardest thing you have experienced: Father passing away.
- What does dancing mean to you? “It helps me forget the crazy stuff. It keeps me away from bad things like stealing.”
- What would be one thing you would say to the world? “Everyone is connected. Dreams bring us together, so dream big.”
- I liked that answer so I asked him what his dream is: “To be a famous dancer one day.”

Kennedy Abrahim
- Kennedy is 18 years old and has danced for 9 years.
- Favorite thing to do: Homework, football, basketball, rugby, and he loves books.
- His dream is to one day be an engineer or a dance instructor.
- Favorite song to dance to: Ice Box by Omarion.
- Hardest struggle in life: Losing grandfather in 2006 from an LRA shooting.
- What does dancing mean to you? “Helps me to forget the hard times. By being traumatized by the war, dancing and books can change anything. When the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) were here, they did not see the importance of dance.” I told him a little about how important sports are to me and how much I believe sports and arts can be a peace building tool as much as psychiatry or other mental help strategies. He told me he always thought yoga was a thing for women, but he tried a yoga workshop and realized how much it can help a person mentally.
- One message to send, or something you want the world to know about you: “I love to be encouraged and supported. I hope people like the video you will post.”

Another video featuring a few of the guys:

Seeing these young guys dance was really awesome in the sense that break dancing is simply impressivein itself. In another way though, it's touching because of what these kids and community have gone through in the past. Doing flips and handstands does not come in just a few days of practice. This is something they have always done no matter what was going on around them during the war. This is encouraging to me because it sends a message that the combination of art, dance, and sport will always be a source of happiness.