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.