Sunday, July 24, 2011

Our Smirnoff Angel

People drink in Africa. I’m not out to shock. Drinking is inescapable, borderless, global. At the same time that I was surprised how relatively little people drank in Rome (this coming from a junior at Madison), I was even more surprised to see how much people drink in Uganda. Not everyone does, but the ones who do certainly make up for the teetotalars. This is not a lecture on alcoholism in Uganda, although it is an issue often close to my mind, it’s just intended as more background- to provide a backdrop for my rural life here; the beautiful savannah scenery is sometimes and rather often occupied by at least one fantastically inebriated villager. I could say the same thing about Madison- it is not a condemnation, rather a casual observation, such as “there are many conifer trees by Lake Mendota”, or “at least once a day the staff at the Essenhaus has to mop vomit off the bathroom walls.”

I actually have great experience dealing with drunk people. Don’t worry, grandma. I’m resourceful. So there, the background is filling out slowly, despite a lack of pictures. I’m sure one of you is now envisioning The Lion King, except that Mufasa is embarrassingly drunk and doling out terrible advice to Sumba, like “always wine and dine the hyenas” or “there’s much pride in a lion…pride.” And hey, that’s a good start. It’s a good backdrop to the drama I’m about to recount.

To begin, a few weeks ago after watching part of a school soccer match (in which I was supposed to play but was gently encouraged not to and in which I watched as the national team of Uganda disguised as 14 year olds, played), Tom and I walked to the big market by the border where we often go. It’s about a 15 minute walk, usually peppered with many lively encounters and filled out by a terror-striking session at the market in which we scramble around in a tomato-buying trance, as all of Ugandan follows and watches. It’s quite exciting for an event that we must do daily. It’s often emotionally draining and makes me physically ache for a Byerlis or Copps on those days when I want to disappear into a corner instead of buy vegetables as the entire community watches.

Anyway, we had steeled ourselves for the nightly battle and were walking towards the market when we ran into the most likely candidate for our daily market-angel. Yes, we have market angels. They are sort of like the floor attendants at Whole Foods who ask you how your day is and whether they can help you find the newest brand of ultra-organic pineapple, except that they aren’t at Whole Foods, and they are wasted. Maybe when people get plastered, they can only focus on one objective of utmost importance, it’s sort of like their battle cry: I.Must.Help.These.Mundus.Buy.Vegetables.And.Protect.Them.At.All.Costs.From.The.Many.Dangers.Of.The.Village.Market. Why not? Frankly Tom and I are tickled by this. Our market angels must fit several criteria:
1. They must be Lugbara men
2. They must be dangerously intoxicated

These angels materialize in the most ordinary of ways. Sometimes they grab onto us the minute we enter the market. Sometimes they come out of the woodwork. They ALWAYS stay with us for the duration of the shopping- guiding us to the onions, arguing bitterly with the women about prices, sheparding us through the crowds.
This time we met our angel on the way, wobbling along the road with a bag (yes a bag) of vodka pressed to his lips like a sacred secret. Upon hearing where we were going, he grabbed our hands and we walked together. He spoke in an enchanting vodka-infused language that managed to combine Lugbara, English, and Vodka into one tongue. At the market, he lead us fearlessly through the crowds, and became a bit fierce at times. There was nothing more important than ensuring the safety of our green peppers, the integrity of our endives. Although at this point, Tom and I both knew exactly where everything is at the market, he let us there; shouting at everyone in our way. These people WILL have their bananas! And at a non-mundu price! -He seemed to tell them. Upon finishing our food quest, our angel left with us, making a vulgar gesture at the men who patrol the market space. Before heading back home- this angel happens to be a neighbor!- our angel took a quick but spirited detour to the nearest dukka to buy another bag of vodka, ordering it in his almost elven language. Spirits were high and rising on our journey back, and to our sweet angel, the enemies began to emerge from many unlikely places. THEIR VEGETABLES ARE NOT SAFE UNTIL THEY ARE HOME!- he seemed to cry out into the night, warding off friendly greetings with harsh words and hitting passerbyers indiscriminately with his broken sandal. Tom and I felt uneasy. Despite his good intentions, our angel was coming off aggressive. When the road became empty in front of us, devoid of all the threatening pedestrian villagers, we all felt a little better. Our angel’s vodka was nigh gone- he lifted it to his lips to chug the rest. We had not known until then that our angel has a tendency towards song and dance, but for the rest of our odyssey home, we danced down the dirt road, carefully following the lead of our angel to the one-phrased song, “My friend, how are you?” over and over and over. Our angel would interrupt our joyful singing once in a while to say, in a moment of sobriety, “I’m a proud man” before going back to his two-step. We really found our stride when we formed a Congo Line, and this was the means by which we reached our homes safely. For a few minutes there, we were all speaking the same language- that of a person with too much drink and good intentions.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

I've got West Nile Fever

Ya'll should come visit. We'll go on a goat-safari. And I'll make you bean-balls.

Arua town is actually pretty cool--- it's a very muslim town and wherever you walk there are men, women, and children draped in beautifully colored cloth and late at night/early in the morning, you can hear the lilting songs of the services floating above the town. During the day, even though it is a small town, it is a dramatic series of frenzied activities that are somehow executed without injury or stress---- bicycle bodas fly past with a woman in robes sitting sidesaddle on the back, boda bodas weave in and out of people, women walk on the sidewalk with large bundles on their heads, and usually a baby wrapped in a clothed bump on their backs. Large white NGO vehicles speed by, the people inside busy talking on their cell phones, as the people outside walk barefoot and sell homemade ropes or mangos. Loud music blasts from streetside dukkas and the owners lay sprawled under trees enjoying the sparse shade, and some gather in front to dance to the music. When I think of Arua town, I think of the beauty of the Congolese fabric, seen on almost every woman, or hung high in shops, and the seamless dance of daily activity that everyone performs together, whether it's a woman sitting on the concrete with a basin of fruit in front of her, a group of boda boda drivers waiting for work on a corner, smoking and calling out to passerbys, or a group of school girls walking closely together with their plaited skirts swinging side to side. SOmehow, without thinking, all of these different people walk, roll, ride, and sit on this same street, all doing their separate activities, weaving in and out of the tide. I don't think I'm part of this dance yet, because I seem to disturb, rather than add to the scene.

This is in lieu of pictures. They are coming, I promise. I just need to break the seal and start taking pictures. If I could sum up the appearance of my village in an image, it would be something that happened to me this morning. It's 6:45 am, and I'm walking to the main road on a tiny dirt path that winds through the deep valley that falls between my house and Tom's. In the valley, the mist is crawling up and the sun is almost out. The maize and otehr plants are so green and are wet from the valley's fertile soil and streams. Coming down to the valley from my place, all I can see are the bowing heads of maize, the bowing heads of several early-risers who are either sweeping the dirt around their huts or starting to farm their crops, and the distant crowns of thatched roof huts that surround me over the hills. All I can see are huts and green layers of land and trees far off into the distance. It's the best time of day, when people are just waking up, and starting to go through the daily motions.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Peace and Happiness

Greetings. The good news is that my tooth is fixed, and people are not calling me Ilse Blackbeard. The bad news, is that I just wrote a 5 page blog post and the computer shut off. I'm bummed, because it was a funny blog that completely used up all of my funny and creative storage space in my brain, so now all I am capable of doing is blandly listing the same things I was going to tell you in a wildly creative prosey way.

So. There is deadly lightning in Uganda. I have not been hit. I count this as extremely good news.

Tom's name, when followed by mine, translates to "Peace and Happiness".

I attended a church feast last Sunday where we were "guest of honor" and took our meals in a private room with an ordained Lugbara Cardinal and all of the local councilmen in Arua. They were all dressed approximately like James Bond or Fifty Cent (think sunglasses and three piece suits) except for the Cardinal who was dressed like a cardinal. Tom and I wore our African style clothes to blend in. We didn't blend in. Somehow we stumbled upon a ceremonial tree planting to celebrate 40 years of the church and were selected to plant the last sapling together. Somehwere there exists an awkward photo of Tom and I squatting in the dirt with a baby tree in our hands, looks of bewilderment spreading across our faces. I hope I see it someday.

I am happily being distracted in town for the day by all the cold sodas, loud noises, and shiny objects. I am purchasing things like love seats and curtains to make my place feel more at home, but curtains mostly to dissuade Ugandans from peeking into my house and kitchen to watch me do fascinating things like boil water, read a book, or stare into space.

I'm going to publish this before the power goes out again. For a good read--- check out the South Sudan independence and the Ugandan fiscal crisis.

Love and lightning,
Ilse