Thursday, December 15, 2011

I'm going where? Italy.

In Uganda, people often will break up their sentences suddenly and startlingly by addressing a question to their listener, and then just as suddenly, answering the question themselves, in the same breath. It has the same sort of effect as an "um" or "you know" in American English; some sort of desired suspense is created, but mostly, it just gives the person time to compose themselves and figure out what they are actually saying. Examples: "I am going to what?(small pause) Eat dinner." I think I've been conditioned to eagerly answer questions, so at first, I had a lot of awkward moments where I would try to answer these brief yet bewildering questions, and then find that I had completely killed the rhythm of the conversation.

That was just a brief cross-cultural warm up. THe important thing is that in 5 days I will be stuffing my face with cheese, olives, red wine, and pizza. This is all that truly matters. I have packed up a months worth of living into a small backpack and am about to embark on my first journey outside of Uganda in almost a year. THere have been several strong signs that it is indeed time for me to spend some time somewhere besides Uganda, although I do still love it here. Remember that ceremonial tree planting I did last week for World Aids day? I walked by the parish the other day to look at the 'Tree of Hope', and the Tree of Hope is...not looking so hot. The tree of hope is dead. In fact, it looks like it has been through a desert storm war, enforced starvation, and possibly several children doing the macarena on top of it. It's alright. We will overlook this metaphor, for the time being.

Also, it's Christmas season here, which means that the crime rate has increased alarmingly around these parts. It's the most cutthroat time of the year here. People are scrambling to get enough money to buy beer and meat for the holidays (this only happens once a year for many) and I don't really want to be around when this scrambling and desperation hits a fever pitch. No one is exempt from this holiday fervor. THe private hire drivers have started upping their prices for mundus, police men are ticketing people right and left, and even my neighbor has recently stepped up his modest smuggling operation (one of the many perks of living on a border). Also, 15 more of his children (he has somewhere near 20 children) have come home for the holidays, so I cannot go outside to the latrine without 5 small children running towards or away from me. Peace COrps has advised us to take extra precautions during this festive seasson. Happy Holidays!

Dry season. It's suddenly and inexplicably dry season. LIke literally, no rain. There are some good things about this, because frankly African rains are terrifying, but mostly I just feel an impending sense of doom, and spend the long dusty days hurling desperate questions and pleas to the heavens, like, WHERE WILL WE GET WATER FROM?? IS THERE ENOUGH WATER IN THAT DINKY BOREHOLE TO SUSTAIN US ALL?? WILL I EVER BATHE? CAN WE RE-USE OUR OLD BEAN WATER ANY MORE THAN WE HAVE ALREADY BEEN DOING?? I think this horror is mostly caused by the comments I get from every Ugandan I talk to recently, that is always accompanied by a manic laugh. it goes something like this, "There will be no water! You will not survive! THere will be no food except for tomatoes and onions! We will all suffer!" It's great. I think it's hightime I escaped to somewhere like Italy where humans have conquered nature and bent it to its will so that it does magical things like travel through little pipes and come out when we turn on a faucet.

I think the most telling sign was the recent big event here in Arua, that happened to occur in my village! The other day, Tom and I were enjoying a Primus (giant congolese beer) with Father Lino at a cool market right on the border, and father got a phone call from someone, informing him that a plane had just crashed a kilometer away and burned three huts. Because we had just finished our Primus's and felt invincible and magical, we decided to drive over in father's vehicle through the bush to see the crash site. WE also decided, somehow, that this was a very casual and normal thing, like deciding to go out for ice cream after an especially good dinner. Anyway, we enjoyed the bumpy drive into the bush, passing by hundreds of villagers who were also dropping everything to go enjoy the destruction and catastrophe. Father informed us that he could tell whether each person was going to see the crash based on if they were carrying anything on their backs or their bikes. Apparently here, if you are not traveling with a load 47 times the size of yourself, then you are probably indulging in some recreation, say for instance, viewing the burning of a crashed plane. Luckily, no one had died or even gotten very injured, but the crash site itself was surreal. In the middle of this African valley, with nothing but a scattering of huts peeking out from the surrounding hills, was a burning plane and a few decimated huts. The minute that we arrived at the site, we saw a white truck driving away with three very disgruntled and grumpy looking Americans in the back; the crash victims. They along with 9 Ugandan policemen, were relief workers, on their way to deliver aid to the Congo. So, instead of taking a moment to reflect on the savage beauty and destruction in front of us, and perhaps muse on the fragility of life, and the presence of hope in the face of disaster, we both immediately raised our hands, pointed directly at them, and yelled, "LOOK! WHITE PEOPLE!" Not a proud moment. I wonder how those guys felt, after surviving a plane crash in the middle of nowhere, as they drove away and then suddenly saw us lurking amongst the crowd of villagers. They must have chalked it up to shock. So, after this, we walked with Father Lino, past all the security and military, to get a front-row experience with the city mayor and councilmen. Standing in the tall elephant grass just meters away from a singed and burning plane with debris scattered all over, I looked behind me to see thousands of villagers gathered in a large circle all around us, kept in place by large soldiers wielding large sticks. If it were not for that Primus that I had just ingested, coupled with the feeling of, "well, this would have been weird even WITHOUT the plane crash," I would probably have been in shock myself, but instead, I just stood there, shoulder-to-shoulder with all the big-dudes in Arua, over-hearing top-secret military information, and watching the villagers try to decide what was more interesting to look at: the crashed plane, or the mundus looking at the crashed plane.

I think it's just about time for me to go sit in a large piazza and people watch with a glass of red wine in one hand and a piece of pizza in the other. Also, I can't wait to see my family. It's almost been a year and I flip out every time I realize that I will be seeing 5/6s of them in less than a week.

Wherever you go, go with all your heart,

Monday, December 5, 2011

Plagiarized Poems and Pilfered Primates: this is Peace Corps

There is an article out on Huffington Post about what the Peace Corps teaches about failure. I suggest reading it. I read it today and found myself exclaiming, “yes! That’s it!” many times, and getting a warm glow in my chest. In Peace Corps, I think it’s completely necessary to find camaraderie over things, whether it’s over the state of the nation or the state of your latrine, but most especially over failure, so that those times when your projects entirely bomb and fall flat on their faces, at least a little part of you can remember that it’s normal and expected (or the time that you completely miss the hole in your latrine, it’s okay!). I do think that in America, we are set up to avoid failure at all possible costs. FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION!!! CARPE DIEM!!! WE CAN DO IT!! SHOOT FOR THE STARS!! You know what I mean; you’ve been in a school locker room before. I think what this fanatic refusal to fail DOES to us, is set us up to become completely obliterated by self-hate and denial every time that we DO experience failure. Ever ask someone out before? I bet you haven’t. Why?? Because FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION. You should come to Africa, I get proposed to 12 times a day, and by the time I laugh and shake my head, the dude is already doing something else. I think that what America had taught me, for 23 years, is that most things that I will do, I will do well. I will succeed, I will pass with flying colors, I will be awarded, rewarded, graduated, dated, sated. I will do. I don’t think that that stream of successes and accomplishments are unique to me- although I am going to hold my first-chair-trombonemanship over all of you for the rest of my life- I think it’s an American thing. Sort of like how we are time-nutso, when people and animals all over the world could care less. But here, failure is everywhere. The crops fail to produce. The women fail to stop producing. The water fails to come. The power is out. The rain destroys the crops. AIDS destroys families. This is normal. This is part of being a human. Things fail. Nothing is certain. Sometimes there is not as much food. Sometimes there is disease, disaster, accidents, often there is death. Sometimes the rains don’t come and the earth dries up like the skin of an elbow. Carpe Diem? The only thing that I’ll be seizing anytime soon, are the love handles I am growing from takin’ it easy.

I think that’s the perfect segue into some current happenings in my life. I think the most important thing that I could possibly tell you is that a few weeks ago, one of secondary students came to my house and offered to sell Tom and I a monkey. Actually, he had asked us a few weeks earlier, in a sort of off-hand way, like, “Hey, how is the day? Also, I’ll give you a monkey for 15,000 shillings.” I don’t do well under pressure. Chances are, if you offer me something bizarre and wondrous, I will probably yell “YES” and then immediately run away in confusion. Luckily, Tom was with me, and tempered the situation. I think we parted with this student having no expectations that we would ever hear about this monkey again. A week later, he brought over a monkey. The most important details about this are as follows: that monkeys are illegal to own in Uganda. That the monkey was tied to the handlebar of his bike with twine. That he/she was red and had wise eyes. That I needed, more than anything, to live alongside him/her. So, there must be some sort of black-monkey-market, because the kid told us that he had captured this baby monkey in the Congo or something sleazy like that. My thought process was that the monkey would probably have a better life with us (being fed a rich and varied diet, sang to, read to every night, cuddled, and home-educated) than if it had stayed where it was, probably in a tiny home-made cage somewhere in this kid’s hut. Well, after confirming that Peace Corps had a definite no-monkey-policy, we tried to enjoy our few moments with the monkey, and watched it eat a few bananas and then almost attack a small Ugandan child who was teasing it (deserved it). I love being offered monkeys. It really makes my day.

Besides the monkey, life here has been somehow chugging along. I have had another one of my tooth scares where I ate a rock or some other hard and earth-like substance and created a small but undeniable hole, but that’s not big deal- I’m going to get it fixed in Kampala in two weeks when we are on our way to the airport! Some days the cockroaches really start to get to me, only because I spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning my room and mopping my floor, which is something that is completely out of character, to only find that come night time, two cockroaches the size of Haiti descend into my room and scare the bejesus out of me every time I get up to use the
bathroom…but hey, cockroaches will be cockroaches, as my father always told me.

Last week, I went to thanksgiving in Lira with about 10 other volunteers, which was absolutely wonderful. My friend Liz is an incredible host and her mum had shipped in a giant box full of t-day food, which we enjoyed. I also watched my friend Kirk kill a gigantic turkey after pacing back and forth for an hour and balefully regarding it from afar. It was like seeing a modern day enactment of Crime and Punishment. Several of Liz’s neighbors looked on with amusement to see this suspenseful drama unfold, but were happy to help with the logistics of de-feathering and de-grossing the bird after the execution. I enjoyed being out of my site and it was nice to see another volunteer’s site. We ate mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, home made beer bread, mac and cheese, pumpkin pie, apple pie, smores, and more. Lira town itself was posh, and I managed to eat Indian food, and also a milkshake, and a sandwich with French bread at a fancy cafĂ©. This was truly a Thanksgiving miracle.

After Lira, we went to Gulu for a several day workshop on permagardening, which literally refers to “permanent gardening.” It employs savvy techniques such as companion planting, smart water irrigation, double digging , etc, and is intended to reduce the burden of work on HIV/AIDs victims and decrease the amount of labor needed for farming. Once you have created a permagardening by double digging the soil and creating water channels, you will not have to dig again for another two years. It was a really useful workshop, because we actually got our hands dirty, and learned something about farming. I brought the father that I live with, and he was a great counterpart to bring. By the time that I got back to site a few days ago, he had beaten me there, and had already dug a demonstration garden at the parish. Probably the highlight of the permagardening workshop was when everyone started to say stuff like, “this double digging is double difficult!” or “we will have to double-eat and double-drink!” It was the joke that kept on giving. Seriously though, double-digging is no joke. You literally have to dig twice as much as usual, and really deep into the earth, all the while straddling a meter long garden (because you must never step on the garden) and pretending that you know how to wield a shovel the length of your body. Today Tom and I tried to create our kitchen garden (a circular self-sustaining brick-enclosed garden close to the house, which has a pit in the middle for compost, kitchen scraps, bathing water), and once again realized several cultural faux-paus we were committing; namely, being white, digging a weird-ass garden, and digging on a Sunday. No one digs on a Sunday! Oops. The other highlight in Gulu was walking to the hotel, which happened to be a few kilometers out of town in the middle of a village. As we rounded a dusty little corner, a group of youth saw us coming, and stopped dead in their tracks. One of the girls stared straight at Tom and said “Jesus Christ!” and wouldn’t move until we had awkwardly shuffled past her. I feel like rolling with a deadringer for J.C. will definitely be a beneficial thing. Maybe we’ll stop getting swindled by private hire drivers.

The last few days have been a bit crazy. Upon finally reaching back to site on Thursday, we left again on Friday night to go to a local show in town with our friend Kafu and his brother Akuma. We decided to go mostly because we have recently reached the elite ranks of the lamest 24 years olds in Africa, where a “crazy night” is having 2 beers, baking snickerdoodles, and then falling asleep at 8:15. So, we were overdue. Our friend Kafu is great. He has been to Wisconsin and Minnesota, and knows what tailgating means. He also can speak 8 languages, likes sushi, and has run for town mayor (and has plans to run again, and win) at age 27. Also, he likes dancing, is a good driver (what?), and is not very religious. I also think he owns 50% of Arua town. This is a wonderful formula for friendship. We finally decided to take him up on going out and “setting Arua town on fire”, so he picked us up around 8:30 pm on Friday night, after we had been expecting him for the last 5 hours. It was pretty typical hurry up and wait, and this quickly became the theme of the weekend. I brought along only a camera and 20,000 shillings, fully expecting to be home later that night. Nothing ever happens the way that I expect it, and that’s the thing that I somehow always forget here. We tried to be good sports. The artist was from Buganda and was called Cindy, and like most Ugandans, did not keep time. She came on around 12:30 am, after we had been at the venue for several hours. Because there were no chips or food at the venue, Kafu went out to get us food, somehow, and came back with a veritable feast of Ugandan local foods, and also kept buying ciders for Tom and I. Everyone who passed by our table said hello to Kafu and referred to him as “mayor.” Although I have this stereotype of Ugandans as all being very musical and danceable, this night somewhat shed doubt where it once had not been. For the many hours before the main singer showed up, we watched dumbfounded as a dizzying succession of random people went onstage to “perform” (read: lip sync and strut around the stage to the backstreet boys). I think that lip syncing in America is like anti-matter (it surely must exist but you never see it or talk about it), but here in Uganda, it is alive and well. The only time-worthy thing that I witnessed was some dude dancing the entire Napoleon Dynamite dance, in purple high tops. That was well worth my 8 minutes. As the night progressed, I felt progressively more uncomfortable. It was getting to that stage of the night where everyone else’s boundaries and borders were blurring, and so every few minutes, another (or the same) drunk guy would come up and attempt to either dance with me, or grope me, depending on his motor skills. There was one especially memorable, who had some sort of re-set button, and so would return every 3 minutes, to grind on Tom, or stroke my hair. I was just not ready for it, after 8 months of hanging out in the village. I’m a village bunny now. These city people with their tight jeans and colored hair and shiny sneakers!! Ironically, being the only foreigners evident at this function, we were also the only two people dressed like middle-aged parents from the 1950s. Me, in my pastel flower-print knee-length dress, and Tom, in his loose button up shirt and kakis. Utterly out of place. I’m spending far too much time describing an event that comprised far much time in my life. So it goes. So, after Cindy dazzled us with her questionably real-time singing, we began to beg Kafu to take us home. Me, nodding off in a corner, and Tom, forcing smiles as the reset button kept returning to get his grind on. Luckily, nothing went as planned, and so at 3:00 am in the morning, Kafu finally left the venue with us, asking “so you stay in town tonight and we go back to your village in the morning?” So, we were neatly deposited at a hotel that I think he owns and then he left for the night. And, the next morning, we woke up bright and early, and completely exhausted and bleary-eyed, to hurry up and wait for the entire day for Kafu to take us back to our village. I think I spend the majority of my time in Uganda waiting for something that I expect to happen, to happen. It usually doesn’t happen. Or it happens 15 hours later. It’s okay! I just remember, a certain memorable moment, when we were sitting in Kafu’s living room waiting for him to remember us, come back, and bring us back to our village. He was off doing something and we were nodding off on his couch, tired, hungover, hungry, dirty, and my hair was crusty and blue because I had leaned back against a freshly painted blue wall at some point during the day, and I remember that a giant chicken wandered into the room from the driveway, defecated, and then walked back out, and at that moment, my life slowed down to the crawl of a exhausted turtle and all I wanted in the whole damn world was to brush my teeth, not have blue paint in my hair, and not be in Uganda.

Lesson learned; no more “setting Arua town on fire”, or if I do, it will be on my own terms. Speaking of lip syncing and originality, this morning marked the culmination of my World Aid’s day poetry competition amongst primary school students in my sub-county. This morning I had arranged with Father Lino and my counterpart to have the 3 winners of the competition recite their poems after early mass following a brief introduction on World Aids day, and also receive their prizes and certificates. Only one of the students showed up to church. The other two showed up afterwards, while we were planting our donated trees for our “hope garden.” That actually didn’t faze me, and the actual ceremony and poetry readings went fairly well. The problem had come the night before, when my counterpart showed me how many of the students had written down the exact same poem, line for line. The first place winner had the same poem as several other students, who had turned in their poems too late, and therefore had not been considered for the contest. So, the students had either copied each other, or more likely, had all written down the only AIDS poem that they all knew. I don’t think they knew that they were doing anything wrong, and it’s partially my fault for not explaining better what poetry is, and the importance of originality, but all the same- it put a damper on the whole event. I think that this just shows me that next year I need to spend more time sensitizing the students on things such as creative writing, poetry, originality, etc. It’s something that I take for granted that everyone knows, but in Uganda, these sort of things are low-priority. Eh. I take this one as a small failure but also a small victory.
Signing off for now, because tomorrow I need to go to town and ask the district education officer to help us train people for our Female Adult Literacy Project.

Love and Lions, Ilse