Sunday, April 26, 2009

Precisely Where I Am

From a letter to a friend in New York City:

"I live on the outskirts of a small town of about forty thousand with my only other American counterpart Julia, 24, from Indianapolis, recent graduate of a master's program at Thunderbird School for International Affairs and Management in Phoenix. Also with us are two house girls that cook, clean, do laundry. Sarah is 21 and working here as she waits to see if she will be able to start BA studies in August. She is the niece of Ewalu Michael (people introduce themselves with surname first here), VEF Uganda Country Director and owner of the land and guesthouse here. The other is Shilla, 25 recent college graduate in search of a job. As you know it's one of the problems here in Africa that college and graduate-level educated people are hard-pressed to find jobs here so often the talent goes untapped or goes elsewhere. If Western NGOs employed more Africans like they should then that would provide a significant boost for employment. Western NGOs are everywhere. Their signs line paved or dirt roadsides in any town of significant size in Uganda with the density of well-developed commerical strip areas in the U.S.

The poverty rate is 51% in the district, the town being the seat of it. Districts used to be named after the dominant tribe of the area, but in efforts to reduce tribalism, districts were renamed after the major town within it. The house/office in which I live is a permanent structure but almost all neighbors live in mud huts. Check Google Earth at coordinates (1°43'25.04"N, 33°36'14.62"E) and you'll find where I am living. Now there is an open-air hall to the left of that structure and a guesthouse to the right creating a three-sided enclosed space. This area was a large camp of IDPs because of the LRA that is now broken up as things stabilize and people return home or buy land. Zoom out and/or pan east and you'll see the airstrip - second longest in Uganda thus the target of an LRA attack in 2005 who wanted to secure it as a place for delivery of supplies. "Gunshots was the music of the area" at that time said my colleague and closest male friend here, Assistant Country Director Erongot Charles. Due south of the airstrip you should notice a big rock on the edge of the central town area. This is Soroti Rock, one volcanic plug of many that dot the Ugandan eastern plain.

In town all grocery stores are owned by Indians. They are trickling back into Uganda after being expelled by Idi Amin in the mid-70's. Storefronts are painted in bright colors and with logos and slogans as advertisements for major companies - Zain (pink), MTN (yellow), Coca-Cola (red), Eurofoam (white) and various other smaller companies. In most places the trash is serious but sweeping is more consistent here. But dip into an alley that will lead you to the space between storebacks or where people live in small apartments and you will find the piles of trash that are mostly burned. Compost and plastics alike are burned as goats pick from it. I have written composting into the conservation curriculum that we will be using and am demonstrating it to my colleagues. I think it could be a major way to increase and maintain soil fertility in Africa though the tropical climate presents some challenges.


You are always welcome here of course. It's a nice place to get in touch with your food sources i.e. slaughter chickens and other practical yet fun activities that make you feel a little more human and a little more manly at the same time. And there is something exciting about all the history and current state of affairs here. The history makes the culture rich and humbling as an outsider from an individualistic society who hasn't experienced such high levels of social integration. And despite continued suffering there is a hope here that things are on their way up in a more stable way, a way in which things are less likely to fall apart. The empowering nature of cell phones are a part of this Zeitgeist. . . ."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What's the Written Word?

It's become clear to me that most of my reflective writing on my experience here in Uganda comes spontaneously. Most often it is in response to a friend's email. Upon reading Peter or my sister or Whitney's life logline and inquiries I find myself taking on the challenge of putting my experience here into some words with the hope of being able to connect. One of the difficulties of traveling or living abroad is the disconnect it creates with friends and family during your time away, and perhaps even in a more impacting way, when you are back. You try to relate your experience but there is just no way that language can be used to fully describe the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, interactions and spiritual moments individually let alone the sum of them all, which does amount to much more than its parts. Like a photograph provides perhaps a flash of insight, but not whole, continuous, and in-context visual information the vocabulary, syntax and creative use of the written word amounts to not much more than a very rough idea of someone's experience.

Nonetheless, we try. We try to connect with others through writing because we want to be understood and have the ones we love and that knew us at home to be able to relate somehow. How I wish I could share the jokes made by Charles: "English was born in England, grew up in America, fell sick in Africa, died in India and was buried in China" - his accent making them that much more funny to the American ear. How nice it would be to not have to paint or write a thousand words but just have mom or dad or sister there to be walking with me through a maize and cassava garden following a barefoot boy through the huts and jackfruit trees, the height and thickness of the rain forest trees and vines looming enchantingly a few hundred meters ahead (and of course so much more than that). How much more easy it would be to come home and have friends understand why you feel a bit different now about life at home and American culture, that some things you appreciate and are happy to be enjoying again while others seem trivial and become annoyances as you watch your old friends be overly concerned with them.

It's true that your own identity actually changes when you travel, and especially when you live abroad for several months time. The new information your brain and body has taken in by being in a different natural environment and culture are undeniably significant. You cannot think the same way you did before leaving home. The pattern on the kaleidoscope lens you see the world through has been altered. And so we seek ways to help our family and friends keep up with and know our changing view. We share photographs or we write hoping the picture that is only a few degrees of the field of vision and a nanosecond of the day or the story that may be only 1/100th of the full story is enough to save us the alienation from what we knew before we found ourselves talking to a Ugandan medical student about the state of medicine in his country while on a bus through sugar cane and tea plantations.

So from now on with this blog I am going to post selected parts of excerpts of letters I have written to family and friends in addition to essays. In some ways I will get more travel blog mainstream. I will post smaller items like funny quotes from my colleagues or pictures when I can. I will post bites if not meals of reflection all with the aim of sharing with you, attempting to help you know better what is going on here even if just the tip of the iceberg, hoping to maintain connections with you all that I have not seen or touched for days, weeks, months so that when we finally do meet again we can still know each other's lives despite the continents and oceans of experience that separated us.

Of course, I also hope my postings inspire you to be more curious about what is going here enough that you will seek more information. Maybe you'll even read Aidan Hartley's The Zanzibar Chest or John Reader's Africa: The Biography of a Continent or better yet make a visit to this beautiful part of the world. Here you will see people living in ways that just don't exist in the US or Europe. You'll see children or old women from the road as you zoom by wearing rags hoeing in the gardens or lugging heavy bags of grain how but find when you stop and meet them you share common values with that villager who has never had electricity or shoes. Here you will feel more in touch with the story of humanity, the evolution of our species beginning right here on the dirt paths I walk every day and the way that modern economic systems have shaped the stark differences between East Africa and California or England. You will feel the sun and water and plants and animals and earth working in ways that change the way your heart beats and expand your mind to consider new physical possibilities.

In the meantime I will write and look forward to hearing from you.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter in Soroti

Dear Family and Friends,

A happy Easter to you from Soroti, Uganda. It's raining here, and almost as cool as a San Francisco summer day. The first day in my nearly ten weeks here so far that is actually legit for a sweater. Folks are about in their colorful Sunday dresses or proudly worn goodwill clothing with out of place brand names, slogans or the token of a 10k or pancake breakfast fundraiser. Most are moving on foot or boda bicycle taxis from town to the church or village where relatives await in mud huts with thatched grass roofs that will be tested through the emerging rainy season. I tried to meet some friends at a Baptist Church in the former IDP (internally displaced people) camp this morning to have that experience but everyone was gone for two funerals. AIDS, malaria - a mother, a child. So it goes here. The tragedy amidst the beauty.

Later my sole other American colleague Julia and I will head to the home of our primary host, Village Enterprise Fund Uganda country director Michael Ewalu. On the menu is likely to be ugali and atap, dense and gummy breads made by boiling millet and sorghum. We will tear a piece from a pile of the bread and form it into a scoop as one would be able to with clay and dip it into a thick sauce of groundnuts and greens. Other dishes may be beans or lentils stewed with chopped green pepper and carrot, roast or fried sweet potato, cassava, "irish" (irish potatoes) or matooke, a starchy unsweet banana. Beef, pork, or a chicken freshly slaughtered then and there will round out the meal that we'll eat with bottled sodas, water or beer.

Julia and I have prepared a fruit salad for desert - local papaya, green oranges, banana, watermelon, pineapple, and apples imported from South Africa. Mangoes are not yet in season in the semi-arid east of the country where I am though soon they will infiltrate the olfactories of all residents. Like drip irrigation the teardrop fruits are slowly growing larger and eventually will fall by the thousands to rot on the ground lining village paths and town streets. There are just too many to eat for the locals and no efficient drying or export business in place. Interestingly, I experienced the fruit rot phenomenon in Costa Rica, where you might also catch knowledge of the Easter Bunny in a western-style mall. But no mythical rabbit hopping around the minds of children here, just another day of very real goats, pigs, cattle and chickens scratching out sustenance amidst the sparse end-of-dry-season grasses and abundant piles of trash.

My love towards your good health and spirits,