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

an appeal.

Job is the night watchman who lives and works at the Mwadime residence. Not only does he stay awake through the night, making sure the house is safe, but he is also the one responsible for the immaculate condition of the garden, as well the ironing of clothes.

Yet here I am, having lived with Job for more than a month, and it was only the other day that I found out about his family and life in the village. I came home from work on Wednesday and Job was sitting in the shade under the avocado tree, with a look of concern across his normally jovial face. Job is fairly reserved, but when I sat down and asked him what was going on, he shared that one of his children was in the hospital with a fever. I was dumbfounded by the fact that I had been with the family for all this time and had no idea that Job had a family and life beyond the Mwadime residence. Through my questioning I found out that Job has a wife, Alfa, and three kids under the age of 6. His wife and kids live in a village in Nebbi district, which is in the northwest portion of the country, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. As he explained, he sends his kids to school in town because it provides a good education. However, the school in town is expensive, and it is hard for him to pay school fees and cover the other expenses of the family. As Job put it, “Africa’s problem is that when the school fees become too expensive, the family takes them back to the village.” When a child or family member gets sick—Job’s current worry—then medical expenses often cut into whatever little a family has saved for school fees. If both can’t be covered then school fees are usually the first to go. This is what happened to Job and his wife Alfa, and is the reason for Job’s 6th grade educational level.

My separation from my family and friends is self-induced. Job’s is a matter of survival—if he wasn’t here in Kampala working, his family would be struggling even more so than they are today. Job is able to see his family only a few times a year, and as I try to imagine what it would be like to miss the milestones in the growth of a 3 year old, I can’t help but feel like I must do something to make it so that Job’s life is a little bit easier.

I explained to Job how important education is to me, and that I wouldn’t be here in Uganda today if it wasn’t for the opportunities that education has provided me. I told him that I wanted to do whatever I could to make sure that his children were always able to attend school, and have more doors opened than Job did.

My time here in Uganda can be best described as a learning experience. And I’m the one doing the learning. I came under the guise of an “international development internship program” which insinuates that I will cause change and make a difference. But I know that is not going to be the case. When I pack my bags and return to my comfortable life and academia, it will be me who comes back the more developed and changed. But with Job and his children’s’ education, I might be able to make real, tangible difference.

I told Job that I would like to set up a business deal with him by the time I leave Kampala, and that I would inquire with friends and family to see if they to would also like to help. So that is what I am doing, friends and family reading this blog. Job and I discussed setting up a bank account, which could transfer money directly to the Nebbi Town School. While the details must still be worked out, I said I would first request the help of family and friends, and then Job and I would solidify our business deal.

It’s not that Job is the only person who has daily struggles or troubles, but he is someone who I lived, talked, and laughed with. The fact that he greets me with a smile and a “welcome back” every time I come waltzing into the house is enough to make it so that I must help him in some way. And for god sake, he irons my pajamas…

I have created an Excel spreadsheet with the school fees for Job’s three kids, which are copied from a receipt that Job has. The school fees he pays for all three children per year is about $318. I can pass along more detailed information to anyone who would like it, and please let me know if you would like to help.

Hello National Geographic.

African babies don’t cry. Ever. They can be strapped to their mother’s back, sitting in the dirt playing with a bottle cap, or squashed on a bouncing bus next to a chicken—they never cry, they just stare with big wide eyes. And it’s quite unnerving because most of the time, especially when it comes to bus rides and public transportation, I feel like crying.

It was on my 5 hour bus ride north of Kampala, to a town called Lira, that I made this observation about African babies. After 3 hours of sitting and noting the steadily increasing outside temperature I finally realized that there was a baby—maybe even one that would fall in the “infant” category—sitting directly behind me. This got me thinking, not once have I heard or seen an African child cry or throw a tantrum, whether out of discomfort of in seeking attention. And Lord knows there are enough kids here…

I wish I could have shared this same contentment on my bus ride, but my 7 hour trip (2 hours were spent sitting in the bus park waiting for the bus to fill) was the ultimate test of everything in me. By the time we actually reached Lira (the majority of the time was passed contemplating the temperature difference between this area and the surface of the sun) I was thanking the powers that be for holding me back from screaming, tearing out my hair, and otherwise harming passengers around me. I tried to invoke an assortment of meditation techniques, but at a certain point, the man sitting on the mattress in the center aisle who decided to use my leg as an armrest was more than I could bear. Most of you who know me well are aware that my face does not hide my displeasure, and I apologize to all of those who had to witness the pissed off white girl get off the bus and snap at anyone who tried to talk to her.

While my transport experience left much to be desired, I did enjoy my (short) time in Lira, as it was the first time that I actually thought, “Shit. I’m in Africa.” I had read about how the north of Uganda has been somewhat marginalized compared to the central area, but I didn’t realize how visual and apparent this disparity would be. Last week I visited pineapple farmers about an hour outside of Kampala, and while their lives are undoubtedly difficult, they have relative security in their living situation and welfare. In the north, almost every home is made from clay or stucco and a thatched roof. As you travel north, the rising temperature is complimented by aridity and an increasingly brown landscape. Of course, by my Utah standards, it still looks awful green, but the terrain no longer has the lush quality that characterizes the central and south of Uganda.

On Monday I held interviews with two farmer groups in Lira, one male group and one female group. We had to travel about 45 minutes outside of town to the village, and as the number of motorized vehicles was slowly surpassed by people on bikes and their own two feet, I had a slight existential crisis. I couldn’t wrap my head around my actual presence in the type of place most people see filtered through the lens of National Geographic.

The village, in many ways, fit to the stereotypes of an “African village”—shoeless children with distended bellies, pregnant women with an 18-month old in their arms, toothless men in worn Kansas Bulldogs t-shirts, and chickens and goats moving in and out of gardens and homes. On the other hand, none of the stereotypes capture the hope or resilience that these people continue to exemplify in the most trying circumstances, whether seasonal drought or the LRA insurgency. The farmers I talked to are former IDPs and were resettled in 2007. If trying to rebuild your home wasn’t a task in itself, now farmers face drought that has led to poor crop yields. In the interview, the question “describe your daily tasks and activities, from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed” was rarely answered with the mention of dinner. When we questioned further, they said that during seasons like this, they don’t eat dinner, as there is not enough food. And I come waltzing in with water bottles, juice boxes, and snacks for the times when I get slightly hungry…this was quite the reality check. I was also struck by the pride that the farmers have in, by American standards, what little they have. As I walked around with one farmer and the translator/nutritionist Denis, every plant, building addition, and tool was pointed out for me. These farmers have a sense of ownership, they want to do everything in their power to better their condition, and they have ideas about how to do so.

Talking to Denis after our interview, I learned a bit more about Lira, and about the fact that the town and the city were severely disrupted during the 20 year long insurgency by the Lord’s Resistance Army. He told me that the roads were very unsafe and that you couldn’t even travel across from the village we were in to the town. Most of the people have returned to their homes only in the last 5 years or so, and most are still struggling to put down roots. As I traveled back along the road from the village to Lira I was very unsettled as the stories and facts about the LRA and the atrocious acts they waged against civilians suddenly came to life. Most of you know that I’ve done my share of reading about genocide and the horrific crimes that humans can commit against one another, but no amount of reading prepares you for being physically present in the place where these tragedies occurred. You can watch Invisible Children and feel sad and mad by the injustice of everything, but there is a protective layer—a distance maybe—that is always maintained. But when you are walking along the road where people fled for their lives, it is absolutely disconcerting and you finally sense the actual fear that people lived with and through.

Today I am setting out for Mbarara, which is the OPPOSITE direction of where I just came from. I will be observing the collection of apple-bananas (no, not a hybrid, google it) and holding a focus group discussion with the farmers on Friday. I’m getting somewhat travel weary, but I know that the end of my internship will come soon enough and so I have to make the most of every opportunity.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Rap music started in Southwest Uganda.

Or, at least that was the claim by the MC at the Ndere Dance Troupe performance that I went to this last Sunday. And I think there is a definite possibility that this statement is true. Because, if rap music didn’t originate in Uganda, then dance, drumming, and every form of theatrical expression certainly did. As if the concert I attended last weekend wasn’t enough to make the white girl feel bad about the way that she can move, this experience worked to make me fairly ashamed of every Caucasian out there attempting to dance…

The 3 hour performance I saw was put on by the Ndere Center, which is a cultural development organization that has been in Uganda for the last 25 years. They have over 9 acres of land close by my Ntinda neighborhood, and the Ndere Troupe (the performing arts section) puts on performances every Sunday and Wednesday evening. The performance took place in a small outdoor amphitheatre, with the audience forming a semi-circle around an open cobblestone area. Two stone staircases, which the performers used as both a prop and an exit, stretched from the perimeter of the amphitheatre to the open area. The performance, which incorporated 30+ artists, was a combination of story telling, dancing, singing, and drumming, with each region of Uganda represented by its traditional dance and costume. It goes without saying that each dance was absolutely captivating, and the drumming gave me the chills, but what I was particularly struck by was the artistry and physicality that emanated from each performer. These dances were not choreographed by professional dancers, but have developed through the generational transmission of oral stories and cultural practices. Because of this, they illustrate some raw strain of what dance and music are supposed to mean to a culture and people. If smiles are a universal symbol, then dance is a universal language, because even though I couldn’t understand what was being sung, the unconscious, emotional part of me could translate and interpret what I was watching and hearing. I’ve always thought of “performance” as something orchestrated and planned, and while this was in no way unpolished or unprofessional, I kept feeling as though what I was watching was really just unfiltered human emotion, expressed in dance and song. I sat wondering how the dancers were able to remember each step and contort their hips in such ways, as well as if they even had to learn how to dance in such a way. A part of me thinks that the ability to move and “feel” music is a Ugandan birthright. All and all, even though I am trying to do so here, it was and experience that cannot be articulated in any way to do it justice.

For those of you who have waited oh so patiently for updates on my internship, here are the latest details:
After three whirlwind days, and too much time spent in a non-air conditioned car in Kampala traffic, I have completed my key interviews with four organizations and businesses who are engaged in commercialized agriculture within Uganda. I think that the interviews went pretty well, and I am now in the process of transcribing the interviews; a process which is tiresome not only because of its slow pace but also for the fact that I have to hear my voice on a recording. And for those of you who have concluded that I have a man voice…(those more sensitive labeled it “unique”)…my vote is now with you. And for others who told me I should never learn German—to avoid sounding like a Gestapo officer—it has been duly noted. I will never speak German. Sorry Tess.
In the coming week I will begin my field work, with my first trip to a pineapple farming area in Luwero, which is about an hour north of Kampala. The following weeks will all be spent traveling and holding focus group discussions with different farmers in districts throughout Uganda. While I’m sure that the actual transport to these different areas will be exhausting (and aggravating when I think of road travel in the U.S.), I’m ready to see areas outside of Kampala, to have a better idea of social and economic gap between those in the rural area and those in the city. The interviews will also help me get a better sense of farming within the country, what could benefit farmers, and what the most pressing issues are. When you conduct interviews with the organization managers and personnel, you hear them rattle off their mission statement and how many beneficiaries they are working with. It’s all nice, but half of the time you are wondering a) if they are actually doing something that gets to the root cause of development issues b) if the same praises will be sung by the farmers themselves.

I’m planning a trip to go to Kigali, Rwanda this weekend to see the genocide memorial, as I know that if I do not visit while I am so close, I will kick myself later. While not necessarily what would fall under the category of “fun,” especially alone, I think that it will be a sobering experience that will resituate my opinions, perspective, and goals. When I mentioned to Brenda in the office that I was having trouble contacting hotels in Kigali, as none of the numbers I had would go through, she immediately sent me to speak to Mary, another worker in the office. Mary, who is from Rwanda, got on the phone, called her brother, and told him to go and book a hotel for me at a place he thought was reputable and in the city. She then told him that he would be picking me up from the bus station on Friday morning and that he should also take me to the Nyamata Church memorial site. In the space of ten minutes, someone who owes me absolutely nothing had coordinated lodging and transportation for my personal trip. It is this kind of selflessness—found in every person I meet and work with—which makes the heat, the dirt, and the omnipresent smell of ripe armpits and burning trash bearable.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pentecostal church experience/Uganda live music show

I apologize to those of you who have been looking for more information about my internship and project here in Uganda, but I promise they will be coming! Because it has been mostly office work thus far, I have spared you the details, but I will be sure and share more storied about my interviews towards the end of this week.

This Sunday was first experience of an African Pentecostal church service, which was followed by a visit to Lake Victoria in the afternoon to see a music show with some of Uganda’s popular artists. The jury is still out, but I think that the little bit of “saved” I became from attending church was quickly erased by the Ugandan live music experience…

I went to church with Meki (the 15 year old daughter) and her friend Ivy’s family. The 7 of us traveled to church in a 5-seater sedan, about the size of a Toyota Corolla. The church wasn’t far away, but I was fairly damp by the time we arrived—I’m pretty sure it was due to the close quarters, not the anticipation… Before I even saw the church, I heard the music. And not traditional church songs, or what I would classify as “church music,” but rather rock/pop style songs blaring from big studio speakers. The only way I could tell the music was associated with church was when I listened to the lyrics and noted that the chorus went along the lines of, “bring us to Him, be him the Lord.” Now, if the music wasn’t enough to throw off my conception of what “church” is, then the giant circus-style outdoor tent was. This tent was set up as essentially the church “building” as it had rows and rows of chairs facing risers that functioned as a stage. Lawn chairs were also scattered across the lawn outside of the tent, with a TV centrally located so that each section could see and hear the message being relayed. No stained glass, no old men in white robes, only happy people greeting one another, praying and singing. The whole time I was just trying to figure out if I was witnessing a giant family reunion or a church service…

Later Sunday afternoon I had made plans to go with my friend Bbale (a guy who had given me a tour of Makerere University after seeing the bewildered look on my face in downtown Kampala) to a beach on Lake Victoria for a live music show. I guess the beach is owned by a filthy rich Ugandan artist named Bobi Wine. Now, he holds shows with local artist at his beach, and by charging a small entry fee, continues to become insanely rich by Ugandan standards. Not a bad business model…

We left Kampala around 4 p.m., on a bus that would in no way pass safety inspections in the United States, or probably even in Mexico. I was the only white person, and one of four girls, so I definitely got a lot of stares as people kept yelling at Bbale in Luganda and asking what I was doing with him. The bus ride took about 45 minutes, but it felt like forever, as the road conditions were worse than anything I’ve ever seen, and we were stopped by some police officers that decided to get into a yelling match with some of the passengers on the bus. I just sat back and tried to look inconspicuous, hearing what I presumed to be insults, being traded back and forth. After this slight delay, we arrived at the beach, which was already swarmed with old men, moms, teenagers, and small naked children. The shoe didn’t start till around 7, so we spent some time walking around and eating different vended foods, whereby I managed to become quite sunburned. (The malaria medication warning doesn’t lie as to increased sun sensitivity…). I tried a few of Uganda Breweries domestic beers and marveled at the amount of people who were continuing to filter into the beach area.

The show itself was incredible, and seeing artists who were able to deliver a true performance, even while on a stage much to small and with limited tech equipment was nothing short of refreshing. The music was a mix between hip-hop, rap, and reggae, all with an island/African flavor. And now I know what it means to “feel the music.” Africans know how to dance—I think it is something genetic because even the smallest kids could move better than I’ll ever be able to. And EVERYONE dances! No one is self conscious, and I think I had the most fun watching groups of men in their mid-20s dance around without a care in the world. Judging from my concert experiences in the U.S., and hearing how much Ugandans like to drink, I had prepared myself for some belligerence and raucousness. But, lo and behold, the crowd did nothing more than drink, dance, converse, and generally enjoy themselves.

What I was very unaware of was the Ugandan partying/socializing stamina. By 10:30 p.m. I felt like I was about to collapse, a feeling that was undoubtedly brought about by my sunburn, as well as the 5+ hours of standing and walking around. Evidently, this same sentiment was not shared by other concertgoers, as vendors were still hawking their goods and toddlers were running about. And, being the savvy business man that he is, Bobi Wine—the headlining act—had not performed yet. He ended up coming on around 12 p.m.; the same time at which I wanted to fall asleep on the one wooden bench that was strategically placed next to the restroom facilities. Note: I hesitate using the word “facilities” because it was more like a shack with three segmented stalls, each containing a dark pit in the dirt floor that I avoided direct eye contact with…even though I don’t consider myself easily disgusted, I couldn’t even go in towards the end of the night—that’s how bad it was.

By 12:30 I finally said that there was no choice in the matter, I needed to go home, otherwise I was going to fall asleep in someone’s plantain garden. I figured that there would be some traffic leaving the area, but nothing too significant, as a large crowd was still watching Bobi Wine and waiting for the next act. Oh no. The one and a half lane road that we had come in on was utter mayhem, as taxis tried to squeeze past one another, boda-bodas cut through the brush on either side of the road, and people dodged around both boda-bodas, taxis, and each other. Despite the fact that the thought of a half-hour boda boda ride on a dirt road was nothing less than terrifying, I decided that was going to be our means of transport back as it would be the fastest. While we caught a boda-boda right outside of the beach area, what I had failed to realize was that the road was a lockjam for about the first mile. So there I was, sitting on a boda-boad with a driver who didn’t give two squats for the welfare of my limbs, breathing in exhaust fumes and red dust, and watching a taxi try to squeeze through two taxis who had so conveniently parked on either side of the road. I don’t think I’ve every had a panic attack or serious anxiety, but I know what it feels like. With the sunburn and exhaustion, I was on the verge of tears.

However, as you may have guess from this entry, I made it home in one piece, albeit with every exposed surface of my body covered in a fine red dust. Job, the night guard, let me into the house, where I found that three people were sleeping in my room. Too exhausted to care, I hurriedly washed my face and crawled into the unoccupied side of my bed, noticing the grit in my mouth that would reside there until the morning.

I have since recovered from this cultural/enjoyable/traumatizing experience, but know that if I am ever to partake in more Ugandan cultural activities, I will need to prepare mentally and physically. And bring sunblock.

I digress to note that I saw a sign in the supermarket advertising “Germany Puppies for Sale.” Anyone interested in what is sure to be a unique souvenir?
Also, at last night’s most recent Mwadime party, the chef piled some sort of kebab meat on my plate and assured me, “this is the best meat you will ever eat.” Being accustomed to just eating whatever is in front of me, it was only later during clean up that I was informed that I had just eaten a whole plate of goat meat.

Monday, January 25, 2010

African celebrations

(This post was written over the span of the weekend, so I apologize for the tense changes).

The surprised look on people’s faces when I tell them that I take a taxi from the office to Ntinda has done much to boost my confidence in my transportation abilities and helped me to feel more “local.” Catching the taxi today was a breeze, and I smirked as I sat in the front row. I have finally figured out that it is much easier to exit from the front, rather than having to crawl past people, babies, bike tires, and sacks of plantains from the back. I sat back, content, until about five minutes into the trip, the baby’s head near my right arm moved. Now, when I took my seat I had noticed that I was sitting next to a mom and her two children—one who looked to be very young. What I had failed to notice, but soon discovered when the baby’s head moved, was that this mom was breast-feeding her young son. And if I hadn’t mentioned before, these taxis are PACKED. So, essentially this mom was nursing both her baby and my right forearm. Fantastic. And the mom was not in the least bit fazed by my intrusion. I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing at the situation. Just when I think I’ve seen it all…

This taxi experience was followed shortly by the experience of an African celebration/family gathering. And I must say, nothing could have prepared me…

A graduation party was held at the Mwadime house for a Kenyan cousin who just graduated from Makerere University. Because of this milestone, relatives and friends had come from Kenya and crowded into the house, bringing with them tote bags with Obama’s face plastered on them and sacks of different types of millet flour. I wasn’t in the front room when the group first arrived at the house, but from my room I could hear some sort of chant/song. Meki laughed at my bewildered look and then explained to me that it was a greeting song that family members in Sonia’s tribe sang/chanted in the mother-tongue when reunited after a long time apart. And I used to think that a hug or handshake was sufficient…

After hearing that “just a few” people were coming (“a few” being 60+) to the actual party I tried to mentally prepare myself for what the house would look like when I came back from the office around 4 on Friday. I figured the close family members would be home, and may have started the yard preparations and some of the cooking. I got off the boda-boda, walked into backyard, and was greeted by what I can only define as a “production.”

At 4 pm there were about 15 people (all who I’ve never seen before) in stages of stirring, cooking, frying, and baking. 15+ other people are crowded into the living room and kitchen, speaking a mix of Kiswahili and tribal languages. My room is a mess of handbags and grocery bags, and women are filing in and out as they start putting on their best attire and makeup. I thought that Americans dressed up for occasions, but I’d have to say, Africans have us beat—and not only because they can pull off rainbow colored frocks that do nothing but make me look whiter than I already am…

The official start to the party was about 9 p.m., and took place on the decked out front lawn. The graduate sat at a front table with her two friends while relatives and friends took turns giving speeches about her achievements and character. It was a very formal affair, with long-winded speeches (90% of whose space was occupied by praise for God), however, the traditional songs and dance performed by Sonia’s tribe absolutely captured what it means to “celebrate.” I was the unofficial photographer at this event, and now I’m working on editing the pictures and putting them on a CD to give to the family. All of the relatives and friends were so friendly to me, and genuinely interested in what brought me to Uganda and whether or not I was enjoying my time in the country. I am constantly taken aback by the sheer sincerity of everyone I’ve met here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I am a novice in blogging, however, I hope that this blog is both a glimpse of my travels and life in Uganda, as well as an assurance for some—yes, you mom—that I am not in dire straits…yet…

I have been in Kampala almost 2 weeks now, and am living with a host family who has been so welcoming and generous. They have friends and neighbors who are in and out of the house, so I get to meet new people each day. I am trying my hardest to remember names, but I can’t say I’ve had great success thus far. I think most people are taken aback when I walk in the house, and considering I’m the only white person, people seem to have no trouble remembering me…

The city itself is hectic, crowded, and noisy—even more so than I had imagined. However, I can tell that there is this underlying order to everything, amidst all the chaos, but I’m not yet “local” enough to pick up on it. The chaos does make public transportation hard; transport of which there are two types: a “boda-boda” or a “matutu.” A boda-boda is a motorcycle/moped type thing that takes people from point a to point b while dodging through cars and pedestrians. Considering there are no lanes on the roads, the space between vehicles is slim, slim being an overstatement. I don’t know how people who use boda-bodas regularly still have legs. I rode one a short distance, and it was the most terrifying/exciting thing I’ve done in a long while. The matutu, or taxis, are another story. They look like old school VW mini-vans and they shove in as many people as possible. They have specific routes, but they are unknown to someone like me, because they are shouted out by a conductor who is falling out of the side window as the taxi bounces up and down in pot-holes. I take a taxi home from my internship each day—today the conductor reeked of weed, and I watched the driver simultaneously bite of the bottle cap of his mountain dew, shift gears, and pass some sort of pastry looking food back to the conductor. Needless to say, getting out of a taxi alive brings about a sense of accomplishment.

I’m enjoying my internship, and have been doing mostly office work and preparation for my fieldwork and interviews in February. I will be conducting interviews with different agricultural organizations around Kampala during the last week of January, and will then conduct focus group interviews with farmers during my travels. The plans are still being solidified as to where exactly I will be visiting, but it looks like I will get a chance to see a large portion of Uganda!