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.   


  1. Thank you for this vivid sensory tour of Gulu. It has certainly satiated my immediate hunger pains to know more of the place my son is experiencing. Your heart felt words express more than you perhaps realize.

  2. I really appreciate that, thank you. William and I share the same internship, which has been yet other different, but illuminating experience. The world may be a small place, but so much is lost in "globalization" terminology. Experience is everything.