Sunday, April 18, 2010

blogging on two glasses of wine...maybe three

It's my third day in England.  The ash continues to coat the atmosphere between 3000 and 11,000 feet, although you could have fooled me, as the silicon-particle ash is invisible.  My luggage is "somewhere in Terminal 5" as the friendly British Airways customer service agent informed me today when I changed my reservation today for the second time since Thursday.  I'm not worried.  There might be some pressing situations waiting for me on the other side of the pond, but what can I do? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.  Except make the best of it.
So far making the best of it has been lovely.  A train ride down to Eastbourne, where Felicity's parents live, but they are stuck in Spain because of volcanic ash as well, so we have the house to ourselves.  A walk along the seaside promenade between Meads Village and Eastbourne to have fish and chips and some shopping (because I had no clothes), and a walk through town; a day in Brighton enjoying the beautiful sunshine along with the rest of Brighton in the Lanes and on the seaside before hitting a nice pub, falling in love with the Dark Star Espresso Stout (THE best thing ever!!!!) before they ran out, and meeting some awesome folks to hang out with the rest of the night; and a nice, brisk afternoon walk from Meads to Beachy Head to see the lighthouse today before stopping at a local pub and heading home to make a nice dinner.  After a couple of glasses of wine with dinner, I thought I should update my friends and family about what I have been doing.  As you have already figured out, I am managing.
I have no idea when the airports will open airspace, when I will get a seat on a plane, when I will get home.  But until then, here I am.  Felicity is heading home to Edinburgh tomorrow.  I so want to go with her, but I want to stay near the airport in case they open airspace again and I happen to be able to catch a seat on some flight to the US last minute.  Alas, Edinburgh is one of the most fabulous cities I have ever visited, but this time it just isn't possible.
On to my next glass of wine...what does tomorrow hold?
Life is definitely all about flexibility, isn't it?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My last day

My last day in Kampala.  I have been preparing to leave Uganda for weeks now, so I am not running around like crazy doing last minute errands; instead I am sitting thinking about what it means to leave.

How was Uganda?  The question is inevitable when I return.  Of course.  And I will respond, Oh, it was great.  But that response is a convenient social escape, and does not do justice to either the experience or the enormously contradictory feelings I have about the experience.  In many ways, the work I came to do here in Uganda was similar to extended-period work I have done in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Brazil over the years: all of the experiences involved some kind of project work for a coffee cooperative, either paid or volunteer,  and most involved research for my thesis or dissertation,  All involved a process of going somewhere, learning a new culture, learning to live in that culture, and working through all of the difficulties I would have with that particular culture to achieve some kind of collaboration that everybody could be satisfied with.   

Here in Uganda, the collaborations have been incredible fruitful: a proposal for a staff capacity-building project, the development of a proposal for a climate change adaptation project for farmers in the cooperative, and the completion of a diagnostic study for a possible tourism project, as well as farm surveys and interviews for my own PhD research.  Working with the cooperative staff and members on this work taught me a thousand lessons in humility, in patience, in acceptance, and in the danger of judgement.  But the loneliness of living in Mbale, the feeling that no matter how long I stayed, I would never fit in, never be anonymous, never stop being alien, other, was overpowering.  Maybe I could have overcome it, maybe I would have grown out of it after a couple more months.  But instead, I decided to leave a month early.   

So Uganda has left me feeling hopeful for the future of Peace Kawomera and disappointed by some of the setbacks I witnessed, humbled by my experience and proud of my work, enthusiastic about the future and ambivalent about what I will do with what I have learned.  I will miss this place, the people I worked with here, the friends that I made and hopefully will keep, the beautiful green mountains I worked in.  But I am breathing a sigh of relief that I am going.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


Mzuuunguuuuuuuu! Mzuuuunguuuuuu!  Mzuuunguuuuuu!

The high-pitched voices rang out like church bells, sometimes near-sounding but other times far-reaching and echoing through the neighborhood all the way up to my fourth-floor veranda.

Mzuuunguuuuuuu! Mzuuuunguuuuuu!

Damn, I thought, the local kids are doing it again, calling incessantly every time they see a mzungu (white person) leave their apartment and descend the outside stairs facing their houses on their way out to do whatever it is us mzungus do.  We always wave, but they keep calling, wanting some other response.  Maybe they want us to dance or something.

But it kept going.  The voices kept ringing...calling...

So I went out onto the veranda to see what was going on.  Below, two houses away down the narrow dirt road stretching into the neighborhood, a group of two or three kids were kneeling together in a circle on the edge of the road, heads lowered and hands cupped around their mouths as they called, mzuuuuuunguuuuuuu! mzuuuuuuunguuuuuuuuu!  Once in a while they would life their heads and I could see that they had been kneeling over a small sheet of plastic placed over a hole in the ground.  They would fiddle with the plastic, pick something up, occasionally chase something around on the ground.  The voices echoed from farther away - looking past the first group of children kneeling on the road, I saw various groups kneeling in dirt yards, on the sides of paths, on the road...all kneeling and calling...

What on earth?  What are they doing? Is it some kind of ritual the kids were play-acting?  I remember I did that with my friends when I was a little girl - we would perform mock sacrifices with grasshoppers, experimenting with "magic" and generally doing the silly things that children do to explore the supernatural and natural order of things.

My neighbor Leanne came up to the fourth floor to check on her laundry which was hanging to dry at the end of the veranda.  I asked her if she knew what they were doing. Trapping white ants, she told me. Trapping white ants.  Nothing supernatural.  Apparently, the high-pitched calls "disturbed" the ants and made them come up out of their holes, these big white ants, a delicacy in these parts.  I haven't tried them myself, but supposedly they are scrumptious.  Kind of like the fried or dried grasshoppers with chili and lime that you get in Mexico.  Yum.  Ugandans also eat grasshoppers as a delicacy, but it isn't the season right now.  But last December, when they were in season, all the kids were running around our building catching them to bring back for their families to enjoy.

I burst out laughing after Leanne revealed the mystery of the kneeling, shouting children.  Of course!  They are calling "muzunuuuuguuuuuu" because the ants are white! They are calling "whiiitteeeeyyy! whiiitteeeyyyy!" in the local language.  I explained my revelation to Leanne and we both got a good laugh out of it.  It's not just us! We aren't the only mzungus!  The ants get labelled too!  Funny enough, I think we both felt a kind of relief when we realized this.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Updates and ambiguity: Bududa landslide disaster continues

      Disasters come in and out of the news as fast as celebrity love affairs, it seems.  Have you seen or heard anything in the last week or so on the news on the Bududa landslide disaster?  Well, the disaster continues. I personally have not visited the villages that were so devastated by the torrential rains that hit in early March and the resulting landslides, and I don't plan to, with only two weeks left here in Uganda; anyway, what good could I do just standing there with my mouth agape staring at other people's misfortune?  Not much, besides write about it on this blog.  But I want to avoid that kind of voyeurism, so instead I am sharing with you a blog post written by a friend of mine, John Harrington, for the website and organization Wales for Africa, a Welsh aid organization.  You will read that of the 300 people missing, only a fraction of that number of bodies has been found.  And the ambiguity in how emergency aid is being administered is disheartening.  I encourage you to keep up with the blog as new updates come in from firsthand visits to Bududa.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Roadtrip to Gulu!

Last week I needed some girl time as well as a distraction - Tom had left for the US on Sunday and I was faced with an empty apartment just at a time when I didn't feel like being alone.  Just in time, my friend Kate from Lawrence, who has lived in Kampala for the last three years, invited me to accompany her on a trip up to Gulu, in Northern Uganda.  Gulu District shares a border with Sudan, and is most well known for the insurgent fighting by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which caused over 90% of the population to be displaced, leading to the establishment of scores of IDP camps where rural peoples, sometimes entire communities, have taken refuge and attempted to carry on with life.  In the last couple of years the violence has lessened, and families are beginning to leave the IDP camps to return to their villages in rural areas.  At the same time, the town of Gulu is awash in development and aid organizations that have moved in as the violence has reduced - I was a little weirded out by the quantity of white development professionals I would see just walking down the street! You have to understand, there are very few white people in Mbale, so when I see one here in Mbale I generally find myself staring at him or her as if they were an alien (and this is when I myself complain incessantly about feeling like an alien living here :) ).


Besides wanting to get out of town, see Gulu (now that it is safe to travel there), and spend some time with Kate, I was really excited to see the women tailor group that Kate works with through her business Awava.  Kate has been working with a group of women tailors, some of them from the IDP camps, for a couple of years now to develop and produce beautiful bags and accessories (even men's ties!) made out of African wax-print cloth.

Can you say Amazing Women! I accompanied Kate on her visits to the tailors in the market stall where they work and also sell products and cloth.  It was truly impressive to hear Lucy, the head tailor, talk about everything she has learned in the last couple of years, all of the skills she has developed in training other women how to sew, how she is able to pay school fees; things are still hard, she and everyone else are still struggling to survive, but the work she does for Awava, and the other opportunities that have come out of that work, are helping little by little.

Check out Awava's website and see the cool work that the seamstresses in Gulu are doing, as well as the cool ways that Awava is supporting their livelihoods and improving working conditions.  Help support these amazing women - the products are awesome, so go ahead and order some! (Order Awava Products!)

I actually didn't take many photos of Gulu itself, but I did take some on the drives there and back from Kampala, because really, who can resist baboons on the side of the road?

Friday, March 12, 2010

It's been a long time coming...

Yes, I am still alive. I got a message from a friend a few days ago asking me how I was, since they had not looked at my blog since I have been here in Uganda.  I realized that I myself hadn't looked at my blog in, oh, say, maybe five or six weeks.  That's just plain sad.  So what's been going on?  Why have I not written?

A lot has been going on.

Any of you who have lived in another country, especially one with a very different culture, know that there is a kind of cycle to living in places like this as a foreigner.  You arrive, find a place to live, and immediately set out getting to know the people, the land, the culture, the language.  Along the way, you identify your favorite places to eat, the best places to find the foods you like, the most friendly bar with the coldest beer, and all the other things you need to feel at home during the hours when you are not at work.  This work of settling in is fascinating, pleasurable, and relatively easy, and it lasts about a month or two.  At about that point, find yourself settling into a kind of routine where you recognize the people on the street  on your way home, and you know the guys staffing the supermarket counter by name.  You congratulate yourself silently for having made yourself so at home and for having been so adaptable to such different cultural norms and customs.

Then something strange happens.  First you start to get annoyed at the children and men shouting "mzungu" (whitey) at you every five feet as you walk to the market to buy vegetables.  Then you start snapping at the people who laugh at you and exclaim "mzungus don't cook!" after you tell them that you have a stove and, yes, you cook food for yourself.  Finally you get to the point of wishing you were invisible when you leave your apartment and every kid in the neighborhood follows you as you walk down the street.  You find yourself being perpetually angry and frustrated.  The only thing you want, the only thing you desire, is some anonymity.  Just to be able to walk around the city and blend in. It gets to the point where you start avoiding going outside except to work, but even at work you find yourself silently judging everyone.  It basically deteriorates into a kind of break-down, where the slightest thing annoys you, and everything about the place you are in is wrong.  Even as you are aware of how ridiculous this is, and how ridiculous you are being, you cannot stop it.  You just can't stop feeling like an alien from another planet.  You start to suspect that being Black, Asian, Latino, or anyone not white in many places in the US, feels just like this - white people stare at you, trying to hide it or not, and in conversations maybe they say things to you like "you people...", putting you in a box without asking you even one question.  You start to feel like some identity has been imposed on you and you must fight to impose your own, if you care about it.  But this gets exhausting.  Of course, I am white, but in both cases, mine as a white person and all people in the US, we've got the weight of history on our backs making us born with complicity, and then we learn fear as we live, and this is the hardest thing to change.  This has been my realization.

And then it just fades away (except for the realizations you have had, which stay), and everything is okay again.  Life is good, you enjoy the place you are in, and you laugh at the little cultural idiosyncrasies that even a few days before had you almost in tears.

For me, this lasted about a month.  I call it Delayed Culture Shock, because it does not hit immediately.  I know from when I lived in Nicaragua that it returns cyclically, at least for me.  Hopefully I don't get it again while I am here in Uganda... So this is the first reason I did not write in this blog for some time; I was essentially unable to communicate anything about Uganda with any fairness for some time.
After that, Tom and I took a break from Mbale and went to Zanzibar with our friend Megan (who lives in Dar) for the Sauti za Busara (Busara Music Festival), a festival of largely Swahili music, although there were also artists from other parts of Africa, and even some from Japan and a Sami artist from Norway.  Our trip to Zanzibar was absolutely awesome, and the festival was fabulous.  I have been back in Uganda for a couple of weeks now, and there is much to tell in terms of work.   But I will leave you with this post for now, and will recount stories of Zanzibar and Mbale soon with some photos!... I promise it won't be two more months.