Thursday, March 4, 2010

my (uncomfortably) reflective post.

There is something peculiar, maybe even surreal, about reading Heart of Darkness while actually in the African continent. Despite it racist and imperialist tones, the imagery that Conrad uses to describe the landscape accurately portrays—even a century later—the enigmatic pulse of a continent that is oh-so-foreign to outsiders, but at the same time, strangely comforting. It is a bit how I’m feeling about the city of Kampala after 8 weeks—it has become a strangely comforting place for me.

As I’ve slowly watched my supply of un-read books dwindle, I’ve come to realize that I am leaving this place I’ve called home sooner rather than later. There is no doubt that I am more than thrilled to return to ice cubes, cross-walks, good coffee, and wireless internet, but at the same time, I know I am going to miss the random strangers who ask how I am doing, fruit straight from the tree, and my adopted family. The beautiful thing about the human memory is that it tends to crystallize the good in every situation, but I really wonder what my memory of this experience will be 2 weeks, 4 months, a year after the fact. I’m not a deeply reflective person, and in many ways I avoid looking inwards, but my impending departure makes me feel like I should work to digest the ways I’ve learned, changed, and adjusted. But the more I try to, the harder it is. Perhaps, and hopefully, my awareness will be an evolving process.

Strangely enough, what I am most wary about in my return to Seattle and the United States is how to share my experience with other people. It’ll be a formality for other students to ask how my study abroad was, but how in the world do I reply? People’s interest in experiences they did not share in only runs so deep, and I have this fear (possibly irrational) of tarnishing my true memory by glossing it over to share with other people.

Other than these musings, which I’m assuming are typical at the closing of a chapter, I have been trying to maximize my time in the sun and Kampala, and prepare for Jimbo’s visit to Uganda! That’s right, my John Denver doppelganger of a father is coming to visit on the 14th and staying through until my departure on the 23rd, when his is unfortunate enough to have to fly to Kenya for a week-long safari… In typical Burruss fashion we’ve (or I’ve) constructed an itinerary heavy on waterfalls, wild animals, and bus rides—light on sleep and sanity. When I’m falling asleep or deathly sick through the first week of classes at SU, this itinerary, as well as airplane travel through far too many time and temperature zones will be to blame.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

So that's what they mean by "farm-fresh."

Generally speaking, hard-boiled eggs make me gag. The smell, the texture—I can’t even manage a chef salad, because in my mind, the possibility of any hard-boiled egg makes everything else contaminated. But as the bowl of hard-boiled eggs, which were assure to have come from “local chickens,” (that’s right, each region of Uganda has a “local” chicken) was pushed towards me at breakfast, the expectant looks on the faces of the farmers and woman who was serving me was enough to make me park my lifelong aversion to the food. As I took my first bite, I was just crossing my fingers that my mind would be stronger than my physical gag reflex, and I wouldn’t embarrass myself by spewing chunks of egg into the plate of cassava and gooseberries in front of me.

But Uganda continues to be full of surprises, as I not only ate the egg without mishap, but actually LIKED it. I guess “local” chickens really are better…

The providers of this breakfast, and my first positive experience with hard-boiled eggs, were the apple-banana farmers in Mbarara, who sell their produce to Biofresh, the exporting company I traveled with. Mbarara is about 5 hours south-west of Kampala, and is considered the bread-basket of the country. Everything is green and fertile; I’m pretty sure you could plant a shoe and an avocado tree would grow. I joked with the farmers at breakfast, telling them that even me, with my negligible green thumb, might be able to grow something here. Mbarara is also the district that President Musveni comes from, and so it has been somewhat privileged with infrastructure development and aid, as made evident by my first encounter with actual road construction. Ah African favoritism…

The two and a half days spent in Mbarara were marked by good food, breath taking scenery, and farmers who were unfathomably friendly and generous. I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but time and time again, I am taken aback with the reception I receive when I visit these farms. I was talking to Sonia, my host mom, about the collectivism in African societies, as opposed to the individualism in America, and how refreshing it is to be welcomed without question or feeling like you are imposing. I would imagine farmers to be somewhat NGO and research weary—those of us in the field pop in and out, questioning and noting, but hardly bringing about any tangible change. There is no reciprocal arrangement here, it’s just me coming and peering into people’s daily lives. It would be easy to be jaded and skeptical, but instead these farmers welcome you into their home, share their breakfast, and give you a tour of their plantation and a run down of everything you ever wanted to know about bananas. (This tour also included a special visit to the pen where the “hybrid” goat of the chairman is kept. I’m not exactly sure what a “hybrid” goat is…I thought about asking if it released less CO2, but figured the joke might get lost in translation…)

My farm visits have worked to increase my interest in both business and agriculture. I’ve never really thought about where my food comes from, where the beginning of the supply chain is, and how agricultural markets work. To be quite frank, I always viewed agriculture as too simplistic to hold any real interest for me. Yet I find myself laughing now, because when it really comes down to it, everyone needs food. And when you are working in a country like Uganda, where 80% of the population is engaged in agriculture as a livelihood, you wonder what in the hell NGOs focused on “anti-corruption” and “governance” are doing. These farmers know how to farm, but it’s a lack of financial power and viable markets that keeps them in the poverty trap. As one farmer in Mbarara told me, he has more food than he knows what to do with, but he has no market where he can sell at a fair price. All in all, I will be going back to Seattle with a renewed interest in business and how it can be used to actually improve the welfare of those at the grassroots level.

On a social note—this weekend was the first weekend that I actually went out with some people my age. Hearing from my friends in Spain who are drinking sangria (maybe a bit too much…) and meeting other students has been kind of hard, as my living situation and work have made it difficult to meet people and go out. Granted, I have had an unparalleled cultural experience, but every once and a while it would be nice to socialize. Anyhow, I met a British medical student the other day when I was walking down to the taxi station past the hospital. We started chatting because, well, that’s what you do when you see another white person—you strike up conversation, mostly to figure out what in the world they are doing in Uganda. He is staying at the Makerere University Guest House and has been able to meet some other students who are studying here, and so I met up with them this last Saturday at a local expat/Ugandan hang out. Again, the Ugandan socializing stamina made me feel quite pathetic, as I couldn’t even hide my yawns at 1 a.m., which is the time—as three Ugandan sisters informed me—the “party really gets started.”

Oh, and rap artists might want to start looking to Uganda for women for their music videos…Tom (the British student) and I spent about half an hour discussing the merits of the Ugandan female body. Our discussion changed only when we realized that we were privy to an encounter between an overweight, middle aged, hairy, white man and what was sure to be a hooker.

And my latest groundbreaking bus ride revelation: I haven’t eaten cheese or peanut butter in almost two months. I also watched a Chris Brown music video and thought he was white for the first 2 minutes...I'm becoming local.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010