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.

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