Saturday, December 5, 2009

That week with all the memorials

This wasn't the entry I was intending to write, but it just seemed to write itself:

It's the smell that gets you-- the lime they used to preserve the bodies. The windows are covered, and the doors kept tightly shut, locked, when visitors aren't around. So it just hangs in the air, in these rooms of death.

You're reminded of your seventh grade science class with Mrs. Busch, the day you walked into the classroom and gagged at the smell of formaldehyde used to preserve the frogs you and your classmates were about to dissect. But eventually you grew used to it, and wielded the scalpel with a steady hand when the other girls at your table found it too icky to manage.

Here though, you don't get used to it, not at all. Whereas you'd been stuck in that science classroom for nearly an hour, forced to breath the formaldehyde-permeated air the whole time, here you keep going in and out, in and out. You enter a room but then you leave it soon thereafter, walk out on alien legs, blinking at the brightness and beauty of the hills, of the countryside, gasping lungfuls of fresh air. Over and over you repeat this process, nearly three dozen times-- gagging as you enter a classroom and gasping as you come out. It's the only thing that makes this real, that makes you believe that what you see spread out on the platforms millimeters from you are the corpses of actual human beings, and not the elaborate decorations of the waiting line to the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, or the special effects and set decoration of a scifi film.

After, after you've gagged and gasped, gagged and gasped, you stand on a green, green hill, fertilized by the decomposing corpses that were unceremoniously dumped into mass graves and just breathe. In and out, in and out. You listen to the wind, watch as it moves the clouds, reshapes them into fanciful figures you concoct in your mind.

You don't really want to talk about it later, which is fine because nobody else wants to, either. And you definitely don't talk about how an unusually large percentage of you get drunk that night.

You've put the smell out of your mind by the next day. You're slated to visit the national university and you realize you're looking forward to being on a college campus again, even if it's not your own.

But then towards the end something shifts in your tour guide's face, and he tells you how, 15 years ago, 450 to 500 students and faculty were slaughtered here by their classmates and colleagues. And you walk down a lovely wooded path to a stone and wood shelter, with a purple banner that reads YOU ARE THE LOSS THAT SHALL NEVER BE REPLACED. And you find that it's harder to look at pictures behind glass than corpses at your fingertips because that's you, and your freshman roommate, and your advisor, and the annoying kid who sits front and center in class and always has something to add. This is your reality. And your brain just can't process this-- school is safe, school is sacred. That this madness, this blood lust, tainted it, desecrated it, makes you sick to your stomach.

You read Austen in a room of death. Pride and Prejudice is a highly coveted commodity among the girls in your program, and you'd managed to get your hands on a copy. You're at a church where 10,000 people were cut down in a single day. The bodies have been laid to rest in mass graves out back, but inside they've collected the clothes and spread them out over the dozens of rough wooden benches-- you can't see wood peeking through anywhere, though. They're piled so high.

There's a Virgin Mary figurine mounted to the wall, staring serenely down at the scene below. You wonder what she's seen. (There's a spot of red on the altar cloth). You pull up a spot of floor beside a friend, and read about Mrs. Bennet's poor nerves.

Outside are the mass graves, where you can descend into the tombs. It's deep in the ground, dark, with impossibly narrow paths leading off either side of the uneven concrete steps. There are eight? nine? shelves stretching high above your head, packed with coffins draped in white and purple cloth. Most contain more than one wearer of the clothes you just walked amongst.

The second grave is set up like the first, only its shelves don't just hold coffins, but rows of skulls, femurs, tibias, etc. They're grouped by type and crowded onto the shelves-- not enough room for all of them, so some of them protrude beyond the edge of the shelf and you look up to see someone's jaw hanging above your head.

You've never thought of yourself as clumsy before, always been possessed of pretty good balance, but when you step down to the short corridor of shelves your legs are shaky, and you nearly stumble coming off the last step when the lowest level of shelves on either side, just an inch or so off the ground, is thrown into the light and you think you're stepping down onto a floor of skulls.

When you return topside, you join the others sitting on the tile covering of the graves for lack of anywhere else to sit, and lose yourself in Mr. Bennet lamenting the lack of any sense in his household.

It's almost a relief to visit Gisozi. Because it's a museum, with exhibits and multimedia features and artifacts and you can do that. You did it fine at the Holocaust museum in D.C. when you were fourteen. With five minutes until it closes you head to the top floor and duck into an empty-looking entryway only to discover that it's an exhibit about children-- babies, really-- that were murdered in the genocide. And it makes you pause, but only for a moment. You give yourself a mental shake and dive in, quickly glancing through each display that offers the child's profile: their name (Innocent), their age (18 months), their favorite person (their older sister), their favorite toy (truck), how they died (bashed against a wall). Above the profiles on the wall are pictures to put faces to names, but you don't really pay much attention-- you're too busy looking at everyone's ages and causes of death. But at some point you look up, and stare straight into the face of who you first think must be Ruby, a little neighbor girl and friend of Tigger who touched your skin in wonder. How died: shot through the head. You can't get out of there fast enough.

But by the time you collect your bag and head out the door, you're more steady than shaky, and when you spy a fellow program-ite sitting alone on a bench and looking a little lost, you go over and sit down. You're not surprised when her breath hitches and eyes start to water. You tuck your hankerchief into her hand, throw your wrap over her back, settle your arm around her shoulders, and hold on.

All of you are more than ready for some R&R in Kibuye, and something in you grows calmer just by hitting the road. When you get to your hotel, you can't quite believe that this is actually where you'll be staying-- this paradise right on Lake Kivu.

You hit the water as soon as you possibly can. It's cool, but not cold and utterly, utterly perfect. You float on your back and stare at the clear blue sky overhead, your ears filled with aquatic nothingness, and drift.

Later, when your hair is dripping and your fingers are pruny you sit on the porch of the hotel's restaurant and order a kid's portion of mac 'n cheese with a beer to wash it down. (You've always had a fine appreciation for irony). And the mac 'n cheese doesn't taste like any you've had before, and you actually haven't ever been able to manage finishing a single bottle of beer on your own, but in that moment, filled with nothing but water and wind and sun and sky, it really doesn't matter.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Family Fun

Okay, I’m going to have to rehash the past month and a half bit by bit, so I present to you, the homestay:

My homestay consisted of a “businesswoman” mom and a “technician” dad and two younger homestay brothers, Yannick (17) and Chris (15). All of the families hosting students have at least one of their own at L’école Amis des Enfants, a middle-income secondary boarding school that SIT’s wound up partnering with. It works out pretty well—we get homestay “buddies” that are roughly our age to show us around and help us get acclimated and they get to improve their English by interacting with a native speaker (not sure if I mentioned this, but Rwanda’s going fully Anglophone in two years—they’ve officially applied to join the Commonwealth and English will replace French as the official second language).

My homestay father, Anthire, speaks more French than English, and my homestay mother, Joseé, speaks more Kinyarwanda than French, which always makes communication interesting. I have a little bit of Kinyarwanda under my belt following a six-lesson crash course we’d been given, but it doesn’t get me much further than greetings and basic requests. So our conversations consist of a mixture of French, American English, African English (very, very different things), and Kinyarwanda, plus a little bit of my high school Spanish I thought I’d forgotten making random appearances when I’m trying to dredge up some French word. Oh, and a lot of gesturing and exaggerated facial expressions. Never, ever discount how far what seems to be a demented-looking game of charades can get you.

Given that my homestay parents had two boys, they were very, *very* excited to have a daughter, which led them to be rather, erm, enthusiastic at first. I figured the constant “Ça va’s?” “Good night, my daughter’s,” hugging/ touchiness, and general hovering would calm down a bit after the first week, which it did, though not as much as I’d’ve liked, being rather attached to my personal bubble and all. Thankfully, the constant litany of “my daughter’s” dwindled significantly, which sounds ungrateful I know (it really was a sweet gesture), but it just left me feeling pretty damn uncomfortable. I like you, you’re nice people, but I’m not actually your daughter and I’m sorry, I’m not actually going to think of you as my parents. Welcome to the homestay experience.

Chris takes after his dad, both in looks and personality—they’re goofs, always teasing or joking or doing something ridiculous. Shortly before I moved out Chris came into the sitting room with an FPR hat sideways on his head and started throwing down in Kinyarwanda about Kagame. Yannick takes after his mom—kind, good sense of humor, but a bit quieter. Both boys are really very sweet, Yannick especially. From my measure of him, he works hard at his studies, and he’s said he wants to go to Harvard. I’m not quite sure if he’ll get there, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if he does end up studying in the States. But that won’t be for a few years yet.

As is common in most African families (yes, I’m generalizing, sue me), there is a constant cycle of “cousins,” “grandmothers,” “nieces,” “grandsons,” etc. that randomly come and go. One particularly memorable morning I emerged from my bedroom to encounter a little boy (6?) and probably his younger sister (4?), who I’d never seen before and never would again, watching an extremely violent Claude van Damme (sp?) film replete with civilian atrocities, torture, shot guns, pistols, daggers, electrocution, drug use, and graphic blood and gore. Mom didn’t even let me watch the Power Rangers when I was their age—not that I’m still bitter or anything. I did, however, manage to suss out two *actual* homestay aunts—Jocelyn, my homestay dad’s younger sister (late 30s maybe? It’s really very hard to tell with many people here) who seems to live with the family and keeps house (I still have no idea where she actually sleeps), and Fifi (no, I’m not making that up), who is my homestay mom’s older sister and a tailor who lives somewhere nearby. (Check out my “Bon anniversaire!” photo album on Facebook for pictures of everyone).

Transitioning into my Kigali homestay was a bit strange in light of my recent experiences in Gulu. First off, the house is much more on par with what we’re used to in the West—tile flooring, a refrigerator, a family room with couches and a TV, etc. I had my own room, and there was even a (non-functioning) desktop in it. And beyond the aesthetics, the family dynamics are really different. Unlike in Gulu where my family tended to stick close to home and to each other past dark and on the weekends, my homestay family here in Kigali operates much more independently of one another. The family has a “houseboy,” which is common among well-off families here, so my homestay mother isn’t tied to the home like many of the women in Gulu, who spend much of their day cooking and cleaning. She’s frequently out of the house, attending to the many businesses she has a hand in and visiting family and friends. My homestay father is frequently out of the house as well, not only working, but going to church on a near-daily basis. It was strange for me to come home in the evening, only to pass him on his way out the door for a meeting at “l’église.” In Gulu, appointments and the like really didn’t happen past dark, as travel between places was difficult and potentially dangerous. My homestay brothers don’t have to be home until eleven, which threw me for no small loop having just come from a place where I had to be home before dark. Additionally, my family in Gulu was usually sound asleep by eleven. But the urban setting of Kigali, with its public transportation system and decently-lit road- and walkways, make it easier and safer for them (and me) to get around, which helps to explain the later curfew.
Some homestay highlights:

- Hearing the entire neighborhood, not to mention my homestay family, erupt in cheers when Alpha, the Rwandan contestant on Tusker Fame Project, won. It’s basically East Africa’s version of American Idol, sponsored by the Tusker beer company. They even had their own pseudo-Simon Cowell, a man by the name of “Ian” who, after not much arm-pulling, himself performed the timeless hit “My Way.” It was, erm, entertaining?

- Watching the same news program every night, three times in a row with my homestay family. The state-run television station, Rwanda Television (which, incidentally, is many families’ only television station), broadcasts the nightly news first in Kinyarwanda, then in French and finally in English. It’s the exact same stories/footage, just with different voice-overs.

- Getting seriously creeped out every time my homestay father’s phone rings (which is often), as his ringtone sounds akin to a possessed Woody the Woodpecker

- Going to church with my homestay family…at a Pentecostal church, where the service was in Kinyarwanda. I was the only muzungu in a crowd of I’d guess at least a couple hundred. About a dozen people got saved, many, many more communed with Jesus through personal conversations/shouting/singing whilst on their knees with tears in their eyes, and the choir waved a Jesus flag and marched in Jesus’ praises. Kinda reminded me of the “One Day More” number in Les Mis.

- Coming home after aforementioned church service to watch Rwanda Television with the family, which was showing gospel music videos. For some reason, the routine that the back-up dancers were doing for one especially popular musician seemed really familiar. That’s because it was. They were doing the electric slide.

Next update: excursions to Butare and Kibuye

Also, be sure to check out the photos I've been posting to Facebook, here. You shouldn't need to have a Facebook account to view them. If there are any problems, let either Mom or me know and I'll try and fix it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Adventures in a minicult

Here’s a copy of my drop-off write-up, as promised. I’ve edited it slightly for clarity, but otherwise you’re getting a straight copy/paste.

For the drop-off, I was placed in a group with Beth (goes to Notre Dame, from Chicago area), Kim (goes to St. Norbert’s in WI, from a Minneapolis suburb) and Tonia (goes to Grand Valley State in Michigan, from Michigan) with the assignment of exploring sports and culture. We all found it a bit amusing that four relatively unsporty girls had been given that topic, but as Kim was supposed to be playing in the One Dollar Campaign benefit game against the parliamentarians that upcoming weekend and I am something of a soccer—excuse me, football—nut, at least half our group had a passing interest in the subject. I figured the drop-off would go something like my last drop-off experience had—wander around aimlessly for awhile until stumbling upon a group of guys in English Premier League jerseys who could be drawn into a conversation concerning the latest Arsenal/Chelsea/ManU/Liverpool/What have you match, which could then segue into a more general conversation about sports and popular bars or pitches from which to watch them. But then we were told that we were going to be dropped off at Amahoro Stadium, home to the Ministry of Sports and Culture, and that we should just pop our head in and see if some ministry official could spare a few minutes to chat.

I once spent a few weeks in Washington D.C. for a student leadership conference, and one of the days we were there was spent on Capitol Hill, visiting various congressional offices. If we wanted to speak to our congress critter, we had to have set up a five-minute appointment at least two weeks in advance—there is no dropping by on the Hill. The most you could get out of such an instance would be a smile from the receptionist as she hands you the business card of an assistant’s assistant. So I was a little daunted at the prospect of just sticking my head into a foreign government’s office and asking if someone of any importance had a few moments to spare for a curious muzungu.

Also daunting was just how far out of the way the stadium felt as we were driven to it. I, and as it turned out, everyone else in my group, have an absolutely terrible sense of direction, and I get nervous taking public transportation even in the States. Needing to make our way back to town without a sense of our point of origin or destination, not to mention having a severely limited knowledge of Kinyarwanda, was starting to seriously stress me out. I tried to remember landmarks on our way there, but things were moving too fast and there was too much going on and so nothing stuck. By the time we finally arrived at our destination, I was feeling a bit sick to my stomach. Surely, surely we were going to get horribly lost on the way back to town and end up somewhere sketchy with no way out of it because we wouldn’t know how we got there in the first place. So yeah, I may have been mildly freaking out when we arrived on the doorstep of the stadium.

As it happened though, I was hardly the only one. As the four of us approached the entrance to the ministry, we all related to one another how we had absolutely no clue what we were doing, and were we really supposed to just waltz into a government ministry and (politely) demand that someone answer our questions? We more or less came to the conclusion that we should treat the situation like we were removing a band-aid: just rip it off and get the pain over with fast.

Walking into the stadium/ministry was a bit eerie—no one seemed to be around, save for an enormous picture of Kagame staring down at us from the wall behind the staircase. I interpreted the expression on his face as one of disapproval—just what in the heck did we think we were doing here? We wandered around the main floor, finding a lot of closed doors and darkened offices. Weren’t government offices supposed to contain government employees? Where was everyone? It was at this point that I looked at my watch and the penny dropped: lunchtime. While we had all come to appreciate that Gulu and Kigali were very different from one another, the importance of mealtime seemed to have remained the same.

Just inside the main doorway, we spotted an open door with movement inside. Someone, I think it was Kim, worked up the nerve to knock on the door and stick her head in—Hi, we’re students from America seeking information about sports and culture in Rwanda. Could someone please direct us to the minister’s office where we might have our questions answered? A wary-looking woman indicated upstairs, second floor. We thanked her and made our way upstairs, passing two government employees who did a double-take as we passed them.

Upstairs appeared entirely deserted—a long and gloomy-looking corridor of closed doors and darkened windows. There was a sign indicating that the minister’s office was the troisième port, which my rudimentary French understood meant the third door down. This yielded a dark and locked office, which was incredibly frustrating. The four of us were starting to talk options when a woman happened onto the floor, listening to an MP3 device with her keys out to unlock an office door. When she noticed us she paused, obviously curious and a bit wary as to what four white girls were doing at the far end of an empty corridor. She was starting to pass through the doorway when Beth (I think) hailed her and asked her where we might be able to find someone to give us information about sports and culture in Rwanda. The word “information” seemed to put her on guard, so I stepped forward and explained that we were American students with the School for International Training, and for an assignment were investigating the sports and culture of the country we would be calling home for the next month. Upon hearing we were students her demeanor immediately changed, and she enthusiastically ushered us into the office, where the two employees we’d passed on the way up who had done the double-take were sitting on a couch. She introduced us to them, and the word “students” provoked a warm reception. Of course, all our questions would be answered by certain ministry official downstairs, all we had to do was knock on the door and introduce ourselves, though in a half-hour or so as everyone was currently out to lunch. But just come back in a bit and check-in downstairs and everything would be sorted out.

We thanked them for their help and took our leave, relieved to have made some headway after nearly an hour of aimless wandering. As we headed outside, we decided to grab a bite to eat to kill time. We nixed the two lunch spots pointed out to us on the ride over due to the heat and the distance, instead opting to try out a restaurant across the street from the stadium. I didn’t catch the name, but it was under a Primus advert that said “Guma Guma.” When we entered, we passed by a few people seated with what looked like a pretty decent plate of food. A woman came over to greet us, seeming to be excited by the presence of muzungus. Thankfully, she spoke English, and pretty much decided for us that we’d have what essentially constituted a sampler plate of banana, cassava, beans, rice, some sort of greens and a piece of meat. We inquired the price, and hearing it was 700 FRW (about a buck forty in USD) figured “why not?” It tasted pretty good, made better by the price.

Lunch also afforded us the opportunity to prepare some questions, which we were all glad of. Back in high school I used to write for my school’s newspaper, and my journalism teacher had drilled into us the importance of going into an interview prepared. My high school newspaper experience also taught me that interviews hardly ever go as planned, so it’s entirely likely that we’d end up using only a handful of said prepped questions. But nevertheless, having them on hand made me feel more professional and put together, and made it feel like this was something we could actually pull off.

After lunch we went back to the stadium and Kim poked her head into the office the lady with the MP3 player had indicated as where we’d find someone to talk to. Inside was a middle-aged man sporting more than a bit of a gut, who regarded us suspiciously upon hearing we were seeking information. Wanting to smooth things over, I stepped forward and pulled out my syllabus/student handbook and handed it to the gentleman, while at the same time explaining how we were American students with the School for International Training, newly-arrived in Kigali and divvied up into small subject groups for the purpose of finding out about the people, languages, culture, media, etc. of Rwanda, and we’re terribly sorry for barging in but could he perhaps spare a few minutes to talk to us about sports?

Throughout the course of my ramblings—which my group-mates interrupted partway through to gently remind me to slow down (I talk fast when I’m nervous)—the gentleman had been perusing the syllabus rather closely. But he must have been reassured by it or my introduction, because his demeanor visibly relaxed and he pulled up four chairs for us to sit and talk. As it happened, his name was Kayijuka Gaspard, a Sports Officer with the Ministry of Sports and Culture, and he was more than happy to tell us whatever we wanted to know. He talked with us for at least half an hour, telling us how football was the most popular sport in Rwanda, but that volleyball was also a favorite because it was so cheap to play. All you needed was a ball and two polls, and a net or length of rope to sting up between them. He talked about how some sports indicated socioeconomic strata—basketball courts, for example, were expensive to construct and maintain, so you’d only find them in more affluent areas and schools.

He was delighted to discover that Kim was planning on playing, and we were all planning on attending, the benefit game against the Parliamentarians that upcoming weekend, saying that he’d keep an eye out for us in the stadium. He also urged us to go take a closer look at the pitch, which gave us an opportunity to ask about its history and usage. He didn’t mention its role as a massacre site during the genocide, so we didn’t bring it up. He just gave us its date of construction, and explained that it was used for Rwandan national football matches and other track and field tournaments. The pitch is real grass, which is expensive to maintain, so only the national team and others granted special permission can use the field, but anyone can use the track.

After finding out about the breakdown of various sports’ popularity inside Rwanda, we asked about the set-up and structure of the ministry itself. I related how in the States we’re used to sports and culture not being administered or regulated by the government, so we were curious how it worked. He explained that after the genocide, many of sport federations, or the local divisions, had lost a significant amount of staff and wouldn’t have been able to function without state intervention. Since 1994, the government provides funding and logistical support to these federations, which operate under a policy of equality and inclusion. They help fund various initiatives and programs, such as those aimed at various social groups (e.g. youth and women) or peace-building efforts. The ministry is split between sports and culture, but the culture side of things operates in much the same way, funding fine arts federations, grassroots initiatives, and such national institutions as the ballet, etc., all of which are operating under ministry-articulated policy. The centralization of sports and culture has been greatly aided by the location of the ministry at the stadium, Gaspard added, as it was easier to administer and keep an eye on everything from a central location within the capital city, which facilitated communications and cooperation with other ministries and government offices.

We were all really impressed by the government stepping forward and funding these federations, as we recognize the importance of sports and fine arts education and the availability of creative outlets of expression. But I must admit that the very existence of the ministry gives me pause. This centralization and regulation illustrates the degree of social control that the government exerts over the population, and certainly contributes to the perpetuation of a single national narrative that is perhaps incorrectly assuming the existence of a single Rwandan nation. Anyway, after hearing about the Tour de Rwanda and how the national soccer tournament was coming up later that month (teams are apparently industry/occupation-oriented, as opposed to locality), we took our leave. Gaspard made sure to leave us with a business card, and said we were very welcome to the country and back to the ministry anytime.

We set out from the stadium with a vague idea of where we might catch a taxi, eventually finding a stop just beyond the main intersection…for the opposite direction. Glancing down the hill, we didn’t see any indication for a stop heading into town, and so decided to ask the nearby traffic policeman for directions. It was only when Beth, Tonia and Kim were approaching him that I remembered Apollo’s (our Assistant Academic Director, Rwandan though has worked (maybe educated?) in the UK, mid-thirties, kinda reminds me of Howard Keel in a weird way) warning that they might not speak English, so I scrambled in my bag for my Kiyarwanda syllabus (the lesson containing the phrase “How do I get to town?” was scheduled for the next day). As it happens, the syllabus was unnecessary, as he told us in English that we’d walked in the wrong direction and just needed to cross back over the street and ask for “mujyi” (town). Sure enough, we found the stop with a bunch of vans and buses, and came across a conductor that shepherded us towards a bus that he indicated was heading to mujyi. But then it occurred to me that the cost of a van and the cost of a bus may be different (which I’ve since learned it isn’t), so I said we should find out the price before we get on. Tonia inquired the price of the bus, adding “not the muzungu price,” much to the amusement of some pre-boarded passengers leaning out the window. Unfortunately, the conductor didn’t speak English, and it took a couple tries to get the message across. Finally, he pulled out a handful of change and pointed to the currency: 180 FRW (roughly 36 cents). We had transport.

Tonia, Beth and Kim sat in the very last row next to a young local woman, while I sat in the seat in front of her. My three group members stuck up a conversation with her, which I tried to participate in but had trouble hearing. Apparently, her name was Latisha, and she cashiered at Simba Supermarket, where we were welcome to visit her anytime. Also, it apparently had a Kiyarwanda/English dictionary, which we may find useful (I checked it out—it doesn’t have any pronunciations). She told us how to ask the price of things (ni angahe? Though it comes out sounding like nangahe), and gave us a basic run-down of getting around by public transport. Once we got to town, she actually walked us to UTC (Union Trade Center, akin to Kampala’s “Muzungu Mall”), wanting to make sure we wouldn’t end up horribly lost. But then she had to depart for work, and we spotted fellow SIT-ers at Bourbon Coffee (where I spend a good deal of time and money), and our drop-off adventure came to an end.

Puppies, bats and elephants, oh my!

(ETA—that’s edited to add in this case, not estimated time of arrival—I just got my first marriage proposal…from a seventeen year old. He’s rather precocious).

Okay, so, I was planning on doing a single Rwanda update of everything I’ve been up to, kinda like my Uganda wrap-up, but the Uganda wrap-up covered a week and Rwanda needs to cover a I’ve opted for breaking it up into smaller chunks in order to save you eyestrain and me carpal tunnel. So this is just going to cover my arrival in Rwanda right up to moving into my homestay. Good? Good.

(FYI: If you’re crossing the border between Uganda and Rwanda, do it in a group, during the day, and, if you’re crossing from Rwanda into Uganda, be sure to have $50, in USD, on you for the reentry visa. Doing so will minimize the chances of you getting ripped off, which is pretty much guaranteed on the Uganda side and should not happen on the Rwanda side. If it does, go ahead and fight it.)

Crossing from Uganda into Rwanda is a strange experience. All of a sudden there’s *green* and *hills* and *irrigation* and *drainage* and, and, and… One thing that threw me was when I realized that we’d switched over to driving on the right hand side of the road—funny how I’d gotten used to right hand drive. Speaking of driving, I was amazed at how good the roads were. We were out in the paysage (hello, francophone Africa), but yet we were driving on good, solid tarmac with minimal potholes. I don’t think I’d ever seen roads in such good shape in Uganda, as it’s one of the top arenas of corruption. (Actually, I take that back—curiously, the roads seem to improve significantly the closer you get to Museveni’s hometown. Hmmmm). As we wended our way through the hills, we passed clumps of people with pickaxes and hoes digging a trench along the side of the road, hired by the government to clear a path for the extension of SEACOM from Kigali out to the surrounding provinces. Creating (admittedly temporary) employment opportunities through connecting a rural population to high speed internet…who’d’a thunk?

The drive from the border to Kigali took a lot longer than we’d anticipated, much to the chagrin of some of the girls on the program who have really small bladders. Unlike in Uganda, you can’t just pull over on the side of the road and pee in the bush, which had been their usual recourse on any of our Uganda excursions. Besides there being traffic police(!) along the roads keeping an eye out for anything unusual, pretty much every square inch of land in Rwanda is inhabited and cultivated, so there aren’t exactly patches of overgrown bush away from prying eyes that can function as an impromptu lavatory.

Eventually, we rounded one of Rwanda’s thousand hills (Rwanda’s known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, which explains Hôtel des Milles Collines…more on that later), and before us stood Kigali, the capital city. Students better traveled than I say it reminds them of northern Italy, others Marin County. Me, the best I can come up with is Berkeley, on account of how it’s really hilly. Stefanie (our AD for the Rwanda portion of the program, Dr. William had left us early that morning in Mbarara), took us straight to the SIT office in Kacyiru, a neighborhood of Kigali.

Walking into the SIT office really drove home for me how far away we were from Gulu. First of all, this building, this space, was ours. It wasn’t a rented out room in a hotel where you could hear the singing of bible circles through a flimsy partition. It’s open and airy, with window seats and cushions and curtains. It even has a “library,” which, okay, is only a couple dozen books and pamphlets right now (the office is brand new, this is the first time the program’s run with it, bearing in mind that this is only the second time the program’s run, period), but it’s proper scholarship that I can hold in my hands. There are tables and chairs to work at, and maps of Kigali and Rwanda on the walls. It’s just…absolutely and utterly wonderful.

And what’s even more wonderful is that the office comes with its own residential puppy, Sheila. Stefie (who lives behind the office) picked her up off the streets and took her home, gradually coaxing her from mangy, worm- and flea-infested to a healthy, boisterous puppy who has very itchy teeth and a bladder that’s difficult to control when she’s excited to see you. This, unfortunately, put most of my fellow program-ites off her, but worked for me as it’s meant I’ve become de facto dog-sitter. You’d think that for so many of them who claim to be dog people, they’d recognize that that’s just what puppies do. But whatever, more Sheila time for me!

We spent our first two nights in Kigali in a hostel within walking distance to the office, which, among other things, featured a room painted a hideous shade of green which clashed terrifically with the chartreuse and magenta mosquito nets (which didn’t do a damn thing) and some, erm, very enthusiastic individual’s rendition of the Last Supper. Clearly, we were living the high life.

Originally, we’d been scheduled to go into our homestay families right away, but somewhere along the way it was decided that it would be better to give us a couple days to get acclimated (ha!) before getting thrown into a Rwandan family, a decision for which I was grateful. Those couple days were spent getting cruelly abandoned at various points throughout Kigali, visiting secret voodoo rooms, and eating sub sandwiches near a plane crash.

…perhaps I should clarify.

Something that SIT is very proud of is the “drop-off,” which, to the best of my knowledge, is common to all of its programs. Shortly after arriving at your program location you’re divided up into small groups and dropped off at various points in the city/town/whatever with a mission of investigating a particular topic and getting back on your own to an appointed location by a certain time. It is, I must say, ingenious…if not slightly sadistic. You see, we’d be facing a much, much more formidable language barrier in Kigali than we did in Gulu. Not a whole heck of a lot of people speak English (although the country’s officially going Anglophone in two years…good luck with that), French is hit-or-miss, and if you really want to get anywhere or knock the price down on something, your only option really is Kinyarwanda…which none of us speak. (We were in the process of undergoing six days’ worth of Kinyarwanda lessons, but unfortunately the lesson for the next day was the one with such handy phrases like “Where’s the taxi stand?” and “How do I get to town?”).

Compounding the issue was the fact that to us, Kigali was huge. Kampala had at least looked a little bit familiar coming back from Gulu, but Kigali felt like this enormous, sprawling metropolis that would be impossible to get a handle on (Stefie assured us we would…she was right, damn her). Unlike Gulu, where the only way to get around really was on foot (or boda, but we weren’t allowed to take those, so of course we never did), we’d be taking public transportation, otherwise known as bucket of bolts minivans gaily adorned with the names and faces of American rap artists, popular footballers, RPF heroes and, oh yes, Spiderman. They don’t run on any set schedule—they wait to take off until they’re at full capacity, which means roughly twenty people packed elbow to knee inside a vehicle roughly the size of a Dodge Caravan—and they have somewhat loosely-defined routes. On the front of most vans above the headlights is painted the name of the neighborhood they go to, but it’s best to double-check. Also, just because it’s going to your desired neighborhood doesn’t necessarily mean it will be going by your stop, so it’s best to check that, too.

But at the point of the drop-off, we didn’t know about any of this, so it appeared like a bunch of clown cars masquerading as public transport careening about the city like deranged bats out of hell. Promising, that. I’m going to save you a detailed account of the actual drop-off itself here, and post that as a separate blog entry. We actually had to do a write-up of the drop-off and turn it in, so I’m just going to do a copy/paste job of my adventures at the Ministry of Sports and Culture. (Incidentally, its acronym is MINICULT. Just thought I’d share).

The day following the drop-off we took a tour of Habyarimana’s former residence, the late, sortakindamaybe-moderate Hutu president of Rwanda whose plane was shot down in April 1994, thereby catalyzing (not causing) the genocide. The entire place, save for precious Congolese (actually, at the time it would’ve been Zairian) wood gifted to Habyarimana by Mobutu, is white and very mod. It looks a bit ridiculous, actually (sorry, mod-lovers). The house itself is pretty bare—the place was looted during the genocide—but some of the original furniture remains. And boy, what it lacks in quantity more than makes up for it in character. Somebody, somewhere, managed to recover a table that used to reside in the master suite. It’s a very special table. A very, very special table, ‘cause it’s an elephant table. No, not a table in the shape of an elephant, or a table decorated with pictures of pachyderms, it’s a table made out of elephant. It’s glass-topped, so you can see the hide, which leads down into the legs of the table, which are two actual elephant hooves and a bit of leg. I’m afraid I’m not quite gifted enough in imagery to do the table justice, and unfortunately I won’t have a picture to show you as photography inside the residence was forbidden. But it seemed like something I should share.

After the master suite we were shown the family’s private chapel. Apparently, the pastor would be ushered in a side entrance right near it every Sunday, and then ushered back out. He wouldn’t have seen anything other than the chapel itself and the narrow hallway outside. We then found out why this was the case when we were taken into a somewhat-obscured back room. Apparently, while Habyarimana was an outwardly-devout Christian—which was the only acceptable thing to be really, at the time—he secretly consulted traditional faith practitioners, who would carry out traditional rituals, etc. in that room. It was, in all honesty, a bit hard to imagine, as the whitewashed room was bare, save for the hideous green carpeting. But I’ll take their word for it.

When the plane was shot down, it was just about over the residence (which is right near the airport)—Habyarimana’s body actually landed in his garden, along with some of the wreckage. Other parts of the plane landed just outside of the security wall, which you can see from a security lookout point inside the grounds. They’ve been left as they fell, excluding the ones which landed inside the grounds, which have been moved over the wall with the rest. It’s kind of weird, to see these twisted, ruined hunks of metal now, wondering what they were like then, knowing what happened after. Just beyond the wall is a small, pretty rough-looking homestead. Apparently a Tutsi family used to live there. They were killed within five minutes of the plane coming down.

We had lunch out in the front garden. It’s a really nice spot, actually—green and neatly landscaped. It was a nice place to take a breather, which we needed, as afterwards we were about to meet our homestay families for the next four weeks of our lives.

But that’s a blog entry for a later date. In the meantime, though, I’ll post that drop-off assignment, and I’ve also posted a couple albums of pictures from the trip to my Facebook page, which you should be able to view even without a Facebook account. Let me know (or let Mom know, who’ll then let me know), if that doesn’t work, and I’ll futz with the settings.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

I went all the way to Africa and all I got was this lousy parasite.

Yeah, so I apparently have an “amoeba” in my stomach (or did, before I took some drugs to kill the sucker). Doc didn’t get any much more specific than that, but by that point I was way too out of it to ask for clarification. All I know is that it makes you feel shitty (pun intended), exhausted, and nauseous. But hey, at least I know now that I can hold back my own hair when I’m throwing up at 5:30 in the morning. Yay for multitasking whilst puking!

(I’ll be fine, don’t worry).

Monday, October 26, 2009

Uganda wrap-up

So, long time no blog, eh? Let me catch you up:


Had a lovely send-off—just a “small” family dinner of a dozen (I think Mom may have circulated some photos already). I broke out my homestay gifts from Boston, which were a big hit. Jimmy (host brother, 23) immediately appropriated the New England Revolution (the local Major League Soccer team, for those of you unfamiliar) t-shirt, dodging Wilfred’s (host “brother,” 28) attempts to grab it from him. The Red Sox Pez dispenser was also met with much wonder…and confusion. Despite multiple demonstrations, more candy ended up on the floor than in the contraption, though Kadija and Tigger didn’t seem to mind. It was sad to say goodbye to everyone the next morning, but it was tempered by the fact that I knew I’d be seeing them again in a month when I go back to Gulu for my ISP.

The ride down from Gulu was fairly uneventful—we had our first baboon sighting, and reminisced about our first encounters with a pit latrine when we stopped at the same spot for lunch that we had on the ride up (the site of said encounter). Has to be my strangest “look how far we’ve come” moment yet.

As I’m *sure* you all were wondering, my soundtrack for the ride down consisted mainly of Peter, Paul and Mary (RIP), “Around the Campfire.” I have to say, there is something rather fitting if incongruous about listening to “We Shall Overcome” whilst driving past Acholi homesteads that are only recently being rebuilt and re-inhabited following over twenty years of war. I was also thrown upon hearing “The Toy” come on over my earbuds (“It went zip when it moved and bop when it stopped. Whirrrr when it stood still…”)—close to fifteen years ago I was doing a routine to that song for Sunshine Generation’s winter/holiday season. (Family members reading this may have some vague recollection of the group to which I’m referring. Friends reading this are probably scratching their heads, which is how it’s going to remain). It just…made me think on all the twists and turns my life’s taken in those fifteen years, on what’s gone into getting me to the point where I’m sitting in a bus speeding through the Acholi countryside and trying not to let my teeth rattle out of my skull from all the potholes in the road.

We also took a slight detour to visit a mass grave in the Luwero Triangle, the site of Museveni’s bush war against the Obote II regime from 1979-1986. The war was characterized by heavy civilian casualties, targeted by the government forces as possible rebels or rebel collaborators. This may sound strange to hear, but it was kind of an underwhelming experience. The grave was covered in a steeped, polished slab of stone, set in a platform of white tiles. The grave itself extended deep into the ground, needing to hold some 10,000-15,000 (mostly, probably) civilian skulls and other remains. You could view a fraction of them through a small hatch door in the front, but the thick grate in front of them made getting a decent look difficult. Really, what affected me the most about the whole thing was the plaque next to the hatch, its inscription dedicated in memory of the “freedom fighters” buried beneath. Such terminology, to be blunt, really pissed me off, because it was essentially legitimizing the justification used to massacre them in the first place. No, most of those skulls did *not* belong to “freedom fighters.” They belonged to *civilians* who were killed for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’re not martyrs of some movement, they’re victims of atrocity. To call them anything else is to trivialize a serious violation of international humanitarian law.


Returning to Kampala was profoundly strange. Here we were, one month of life-changing experiences later, and yet it felt like we were right back where we started. We were in the same hotel we’d been in for orientation, in a city we hadn’t had the time to get to know whose population spoke a language we hadn’t learned. We’d spent a month learning the quirks and rhythms of rural, Acholi-speaking Gulu, and now we were being confronted with urban, Luganda-speaking Kampala. It was rather unsettling, like the carpet had been pulled out from beneath our feet.

My footing became a bit more solid, however, when I got the chance to hang out with Orna, a good friend of mine from Mac studying on SIT’s Uganda Development program. (Incidentally, we’ll be studying together in Maastricht next semester. While our personalities are different, our academic interests are virtually identical). My time with Orna was, in a word, wonderful. For the better part of a glorious day I got to escape SIT-world and inhabit Mac-world, a happy place full of references to people that my fellow program-members don’t know and inside jokes they don’t understand. In addition to this lovely respite, I was extremely appreciative of Orna’s knowledge of Kampala (her program’s mainly based there), as she knew where to go for lunch and took me to a nearby market where she bargained down the price of two (pretty!) scarves for me in Luganda. Unfortunately, she won’t be making it up to Gulu, so I can’t return the favor in Acholi. Hmph.

We wrapped up the Uganda-portion of our classes in the hotel’s only conference room. The remaining handful of lectures were rather unmemorable, with the exception of the one given by a guy named Nelson, the Chief Legal Officer of Uganda’s Amnesty Commission (UAC), which was created under the blanket Amnesty Act (2000) for LRA rebels. It was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever witnessed. He brought a nervous-looking young woman by the name of Katy along with him, who as he almost gleefully told us, was a former LRA rebel who had sought and received amnesty with the UAC. He made her stand up in front of us, saying “She went through *everything*...I don’t know if she’ll be able to tell you,” and then told us that her English wasn’t good so any questions should be directed to him and not to her. He proceeded to practically order her to tell us her story, which she did in a quiet and halting manner (her English, by the way, was fine). She started telling us how she had been abducted from her village at fourteen by the LRA along with her sister, and then they were tied up and forced to march a great distance. Nelson cut her off more than a few times, reminding her to add in this or that detail, and then none-too-gently telling her to continue. When she got to the point in her story in which a young merchant boy they happened upon was summarily executed by her abductors for refusing to hand over all of his merchandise, she broke down crying. Nelson started pressing her, asking her what happened next, what happened after they shot him, which only made her curl further into herself. He then addressed us and said “It’s okay, she’s just traumatized. That’s why I brought her.”

He tried again to make her continue, but Dr. William thankfully, finally, interceded, suggesting that maybe we could give her some time to collect herself and meanwhile continue on with the lecture. Nelson just kind of shrugged and waved at Katy to sit down, as if he were dismissing his pet monkey that had failed to dance for the crowd. He said we’d come back to her, but we never did. He never once acknowledged her presence for the remaining hour we were in lecture, despite her sitting a scant few inches away from him.

We were all in a sort of shock after that lecture, utterly appalled at the way he had treated Katy, at the way he had talked about her but never to her, at the way she was used as a tool and not treated as a person. We felt angry and ashamed at what we’d witnessed, at having seem her break down, seen her retraumatized. We felt complicit in it, knowing that she had essentially been used as an exhibition piece for us Westerners. Nancy (redhead from Austin, goes to GW) and Tomomi (Japanese national, goes to Williams) related to us a similar experience they had in Gulu, when Tomomi’s host father had taken them to a rehabilitation school for former child soldiers he was acquainted with. They walked into a room full of kids, most of whom were sitting watching a movie, when one of the staff members made the kids turn the film off and assemble in front of the girls. The staff member then ordered one of the kids to tell his story, about his abduction and what he’d done in the bush, and told the girls that they could ask the kids whatever they wanted, demand to know their stories. Nancy and Tomomi were horrified—all they wanted to do was observe, and maybe talk to any child who talked to them first, and certainly not about such a sensitive topic. They tried to explain that they were in no way qualified or equipped to essentially interrogate these children, but the message just didn’t get through. They were white—therefore, they had to be experts and entitled to unrestricted access to whomever or whatever they wanted.

That lecture left all of us feeling rather unsettled, so we were very glad to be released for the day. We were looking forward to celebrating Mark’s and Danielle’s birthdays that night—both of whom were turning twenty. (This means that I am now the only teenager on the program. Even Mark, who’s a sophomore at the University of Virginia, is older than me). We had cake (Uganda is not, shall we say, known for its pastries) and sang “Happy Birthday” in a loud and obnoxious fashion, and then some of the group went to one of the casinos in town for a night out. I elected to stay at the hotel, and had a lovely Girls’ Night In with my roommate, Laura K. (from outside D.C., goes to Johns Hopkins). Sometimes, a little nail polish, French braiding, and girl talk does the soul good.

Mbarara (so much fun to say, ask me when I’m home)

We stayed in Mbarara, a small city in the southwest of Uganda, for two nights as we were heading down to Kigali. (Normally, it takes about 13 hours, give or take however long it takes to get through the border, to get from Kampala to Kigali). During our layover in Mbarara, we visited the somewhat-nearby, UNHCR-administered Nakivale Refugee Camp, which holds Somali, Kenyan, Sudanese, Congolese, Eritrean and Rwandan refugees, as well as other regional refugee populations.

Given our previous experiences in the Koch Goma IDP camp, we were all rather apprehensive about visiting Nakivale. Going into it, though, our concerns were slightly allayed when we were told that we would be split up into two smaller groups to go through the camp, so we wouldn’t be one huge mass of white people tromping through. However, when we got there, our concerns once again started to mount. The camp itself is huge, and it took awhile for us to find the exact place we were supposed to meet with our contact. For awhile our bus was parked in the middle of a compound of what I think contained camp offices surrounded by an enormous mixture of refugees. The only ones that were easy to figure out were the Somalis, because of their dress. Both William and Stefanie (who had rejoined us in Kampala to take us into Rwanda--William would be leaving us at the border) left the bus to inquire about the Mr. Whosamagooch we were supposed to meet, leaving just us and the bus driver surrounded by this mass of curious people that were coming up to our open windows to talk, stare, touch, and just generally leave me feeling slightly disconcerted.

The camp is broken up by nationality--half the group went to talk with the Congolese refugees, while the other (the one I was in) went to talk with Rwandan Hutu refugees. There was a group of about 20 or so that met with us, crammed into a Right to Play office on a horseshoe of uneven wooden benches. Most of them were men, some young enough that they had probably been born and raised in the camps, others older. As we sat and listened to many of them talk about the "war," the over-exaggeration of the death toll, and how they feared to go back (to Rwanda) because of the vindictive and illiterate "Tutsi peasants" that had been elected as gacaca judges, it dawned on us that it was entirely possible that we were sitting elbow to knee on these rickety benches with people that, 15 years ago, were wielding machetes against their neighbors. It was...slightly disturbing. But what got me the most was the young men in the room, the ones who have grown up hearing this sort of rhetoric and only this sort of rhetoric. It's profoundly saddening realizing that there will be yet another generation indoctrinated in this senseless hatred.

There's really a lot more I could say, and probably should say, about my time in the refugee camp, but this entry is already long enough and my thoughts just aren't quite together enough to articulate them satisfactorily. So if you're still curious when I'm back Stateside, ask me then, okay?

We left Mbarara the next day, heading for the border. On the way there we crossed the Equator which, I have to say, was pretty damn cool. There's a picture of me straddling it already up on Facebook (thanks, Mom), so now I can officially say that I was in two hemispheres at once!

Fun facts:
- For a happening time in Kampala, head to Bubbles O’Leary Irish Pub—I hear trivia night’s a good time to hit it up

- Slow traffic signals left and passing traffic signals right—signaling hardly ever indicates an intention to turn

- Don’t breathe in Kampala if you can help it.

- Sam’s Indian Restaurant features food with actual flavor…amazing, I know

- Be aware as you’re passing matatus on the street—the conductors leaning out the window may try and grab you to get you onboard

- A “major intersection” in Kampala means there’s a traffic light

- It’s apparently possible to fit an easy chair on the back of a bicycle

Well, that wraps up the Uganda portion of the program (or as Porky would say, That’s all, folks!  and yes, I’m aware that he’s not exactly kosher). Stay tuned for the next, Rwanda-based installment, featuring:

- communing with Jesus in Kinyarwanda

- mosh pits masquerading as rush hour commuters

- Mr. Bean Takes a Holiday dubbed in French

- Kinyrwanda versions of Simon and Garfunkel songs

- a table supported by elephant feet

- East Africa’s version of Simon Cowell belting out “My Way”

…oh, you only think I’m kidding.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Just the facts, ma'am if my previous blog post wasn't long enough already, I realized I'd forgotten to add the fun facts.

But first, some not-so-fun ones:

- around Gulu, it's not uncommon to still see outdated signs warning "Gwok ki owic," or "Beware of landmines"

- it's not out of the ordinary to see signs saying "Say no to gifts for sex" out front of schools located near/in IDP camps

Now, actual fun facts:

- The most popular bicycles I've seen around Gulu are Uganda's own Roadmasters, and Chinese Phoenix(es)

- For cars, however, Toyota's pretty much cornered the market. Almost every NGO vehicle (which make up most vehicles driving around here) are a Land Cruiser or Hilux, and you can tell which ones belong to a UN agency by the massive antennae they have attached to the front.

- You can get your hair braided (I didn't, but Kat did) at the Blood of Jesus Christ Hair Saloon (yes, two "o"s), just down the way from the Shalom Hair Saloon (and no, no one around here seems to be familiar with Judaism).

- Supermarkets run by Indians are your best bet for finding familiar-sounding/looking imported goods, though be prepared to pay for it.

- Whatever style kitenge you order from the tailor will not actually be the style you get, though if you're lucky (like me), it'll turn out looking great anyway.

- It is a lot easier to communicate if you try to use African English. Get used to telling boda drivers no thanks (pe apwoyo), you're "footing it," and tell your host mother that yes, you'll be home in time to "take tea"

- "A planned generation is," apparently, "a happy generation," according to a popular birth control ad campaign around here. Uganda's got a really high (and unsustainable) population growth rate, which has prompted the government to really promote family planning. (For those wondering, abortion is illegal).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

If you love your girl, you'll pay for her weave.

(ETA: Woah, this is a behemoth. Feel free to skim).

Ah yes, I’d forgotten to mention that little gem. Most women here keep their hair very, very short. Apparently it’s extremely difficult to grow it out any longer—it’s just not healthy enough. So if you see any women walking around with long, or even bob-length hair, it’s a pretty good bet that whatever styling lady is walking around with pretty tresses, she’s got a boyfriend (or two, or three, or four…) shelling out for it. Few women make enough pocket money to spend on their hair—they must depend on their man for such luxuries.

But men here are fickle—my host brothers were telling me about some guy who listed his many girlfriends as various local officials in his phone, so that whenever his wife answered his phone, she’d take a look at the caller ID and come running, lest he miss an important call. So young women tend to hedge their bets and keep multiple boyfriends, increasing the likelihood that at least one of them will stick around. This is the tactic that Harriet, my 26-year-old host sister, is taking. She has at least two boyfriends—one in Kitgum, another at university in Kampala—that I’m aware of, which she explains as a result of her fear of “disappointment.” Not everyone can be as lucky as her younger sister Rachael, whose boyfriend Solomon has taken over payment for her university fees and will marry her as soon as their baby’s born at the end of this month and they both graduate in the spring (apparently it’s against Acholi custom for a man to pay the bride fee when the prospective bride is pregnant. Once the dowry—usually consisting of suits of clothing for the bride’s family, an assortment of cows and goats, household items, and money to the tune of five to thirteen million shillings, or USD $25000-$65000—has been paid by the groom and other male family members/representatives, in Acholi tradition the couple is officially married, though widespread Christianization has prompted many of these couples to also hold a church wedding, though due to expense that may not come until years later).

Okay, so, I may have started off on a bit of a tangent. Let me catch you up on what’s been going on since my last pre-malarial update:

On September 15 we had an excursion to Koch Goma IDP camp, one of the earliest and biggest camps that were established for the 1.5 million that were displaced over the course of the war here in the North (by the way, that accounts for roughly 85% of the population in Acholi sub-region). You can tell that it was set up in a hurry—the densely-packed huts dot the area in a haphazard fashion. When people arrived they started building their hut at the first clear patch of ground they came to. Later camps were planned and look a bit more orderly, the huts constructed in long rows that stretch on forever. Most of Koch Goma’s 200,000 inhabitants have left in recent months—either to smaller “decongestion camps” that act as a halfway house between the bigger camps and returning home, or straight to their homesteads in their villages. But there are a substantial few that remain in the camps—mostly the elderly, the widowed, and the orphaned, who are just not in a position to deal with the hardships they will face should they return home. Returnees, by and large, are given nothing to start over—no help getting there, no help with tools to rebuild burnt and destroyed homes and fields, no help with livestock, no help with water, etc. There are some NGOs that have programs dealing with some of these resettlement issues, but they just can’t reach everyone.

The trip to Koch Goma was, in a word, uncomfortable. All of us were acutely aware of how out of place we must have appeared—a group of 28 white students tromping through a place that had been, and to a lesser extent still was, a site of profound misery. One particularly ethically sticky situation was when Dr. William, our Ugandan AD, instructed us to actually go into huts (with permission) that were still being inhabited and take a look around. Some in the group charged in, cameras at the ready, others flat-out refused to go inside. I ended up more in the middle of the pack—I equivocated for a bit, but curiosity won out and I decided to take a look. I felt incredibly uneasy being inside the hut—not to mention just being at the camp period—but I figure that’s kind of the point. This isn’t easy stuff we’re dealing with. We came here to be made uncomfortable. (I’m not going to look too closely at what that says about us).

The hut itself is kind of the opposite of the TARDIS. It might not exactly seem big per se on the outside, but it definitely feels smaller on the inside. One thing that stuck with me from my brief foray inside was how all sorts of odds and ends had been tucked up into the inside of the grass-thatched roof—toothpaste, water purification tablets, dishes, clothing, etc. There’s no room to put these things anywhere else.

Unsurprisingly, our presence drew a lot of attention. Word spread quickly throughout the camp that the munus had descended and shortly after getting there we were literally swarmed by children. A few of the older boys were dressed in blue shorts and white short-sleeved button shirts that indicated they attended a school nearby (all school children wear uniforms—I’ve started to learn which colors are associated with which schools around Gulu), but the vast majority of the children were dressed in ragged and ill-fitting second-hand clothes that had been given as handout by various NGOs. Some had open sores on their faces, many had the tell-tale swollen bellies of malnutrition, all were orphans.

It was…kind of ridiculous, really, how flies-in-the-eyes movie-esque it all was. It’s not my intent to sound flip, but it’s hard to convey just how incredibly bizarre it is for me to go from being in class at Mac watching movies of white people walking through IDP camps, surrounded by children mugging for the camera, to actually *being* that white person walking through the IDP camp (sans the camera, as I forgot it. I’m kind of glad I did). I have spent countless hours in the classroom discussing and debating issues attendant with going in to change things vs. going in to observe how things are, of giving back vs. standing back, of staying too long vs. not staying long enough, etc., and suddenly here I am, actually *living* them, even though I am a teenager on study abroad and not a professional on assignment. I struggle daily to navigate the roles of savior, exploiter, expert, and idiot that I am assumed to play—the very roles I often found myself criticizing in class discussion. Before this trip I would have identified myself as someone who sticks to my guns, as someone unafraid to voice and support an unpopular opinion if I believed in it. But every day, every single day, I find myself compromising my convictions for the sake of practicality, for the sake of cultural sensitivity, closing my ears and turning a blind eye to things that, to my ethnocentric gut, are *just plain wrong.* I am constantly seesawing between frustration and hope, resentment and delight, revulsion and fascination. It’s kind of exhausting.

The morning after Koch Goma (Sept. 16) we left for a two-night stay in Kitgum, which also happened to be the morning I woke up with a high fever, a head that felt truly awful, and aches that suffused throughout the entirety of my body. In other words: malaria. I made a decision to keep quiet about it until we reached Kitgum, so that I could be miserable, on my own, in the comfort of a hotel with electricity and indoor plumbing. If I’d spoken up I probably would have had to stay behind in Gulu to go to the hospital, which would’ve meant recovering with a well-intentioned but nevertheless hovering host family that thinks large quantities of food cure all ills. So I would just suffer in silence (I can hear you laughing all the way from here) until we got there.

It was, more or less, the ride from hell. Roads here are terrible, period, with giant potholes the size of a semi, but when you combine that with heavy rains the night previous and a body that feels like it’s one giant bruise, it does not make for a pleasant trip. I suppose I should be grateful for the fever, because I remember it more as one giant, blurry sort of “ow” as opposed to multiple points of crystal-clear agony. But yeah, I wasn’t in good shape when I got to Kitgum.

After a failed attempt to be seen at the mission hospital in town (the doctor on staff wasn’t actually a doctor?), Stella, the Assistant AD and overall uncannily competent diva, took me to a tiny little private practice next to an automotive repair shop. I was seen pretty quickly (yay for being white with money), and as I had textbook symptoms they pretty much took me straight for a blood test…which came back negative for malaria. But the doctor (at least, I hope to god he was actually a doctor) said that could have been because I’d taken my malaria prophylaxsis meds the night before (they don’t actually 100 percent prevent malaria, but they do help take the bite out of it), and gave me meds to treat malaria anyway. As I went to go pay, I heard him discussing my diagnosis with his next patient, another girl from the program with a more ambiguous illness (four trips to various medical professionals later, they still don’t know what’s wrong with her—latest theory is “an infection somewhere in [the] body”), so yay for confidentiality. But really, at that point, I was too far gone to much care. I took the meds, and then proceeded to hole up in my (own, blessedly single) hotel room.

Malaria drugs here are wicked strong—I think they pretty much wipe out everything in your system. The good thing about this is that within a couple hours you actually feel somewhat human as opposed to the walking undead, the bad thing about this is that it also wipes out your stomach and lowers your defenses against other ailments. So I was profoundly grateful I’d opted to suffer through the trip to stay somewhere with indoor plumbing. I stayed holed up and within a twelve-foot radius of a toilet the next day, too, meaning that I missed out on an excursion to a school in Orom, which, come to find out, was rather fortuitous. Besides the roads being absolutely hellacious for three straight hours, apparently when they got there my colleagues were ambushed by students asking them for the questionnaires they were apparently supposed to have prepared for the students there, and then themselves were asked for information about modern farming techniques, and oh, by the way, what are you going to do to help us? Compounding this was a crossing of wires in which it was apparently expected that our program was going to be spending a whole day there, as opposed to the actual hour and a half-ish they could fit into the schedule. So yeah, I was told I dodged a bullet.

The school trip debacle was kind of the last straw for most of us. Over the course of our time here in Gulu, most of us have experienced mounting frustrations with some aspects of how the program has been run—namely, that we’re frequently left out of the loop about just what the hell is going on, feeling like we’re showing up to lectures and excursions a day late and a dollar short, which is to our learning’s detriment. We’re fully aware that the program is essentially brand new, and that they’re still working out some of the kinks, but there were definitely some problem areas that needed to be addressed. So that night at the hotel, the 28 of us sat together in a large circle outside in the middle of the compound and took turns tossing around one of our sets of hotel keys to determine who got to talk. One of us acted as scribe to write down our frustrations, and once we got everything off our chests we went through the list and discussed practical solutions to our complaints, subdividing it into what we ourselves could do to address them and what needed action on the part of our ADs. We then prioritized what we felt needed to be addressed immediately, and what should be dealt with in advance of the next program. Once we had a short list, we identified a few people in the group that we trusted to calmly and respectfully represent our grievances to Dr. William.

It was all incredibly mature and impressed the hell out of me. It could have very, very easily turned into a petty bitchfest with people jumping all over each other, the program, and our ADs, but it wasn’t. It was calm, it was rational, it was respectful, and it was grown-up. Who knew a group of almost 30 college kids could do that?

What came to be known as our “meeting” drove home for me that I am on a program with a terrific group of students. We are such an eclectic, diverse bunch, encompassing what, on the surface, looks to run the gamut from hippie to bro-tastic frat guy, but everyone, *everyone* runs deep. Everyone is committed to coming here to learn something—about the conflict, about a subject, about the region, about themselves—it doesn’t really matter. There is a commitment to knowledge and experience and it is absolutely wonderful.

The next day we left for Gulu, which everyone was glad of. Unfortunately, the trip back wasn’t a huge improvement over the trip there—I’d woken up with a sore throat and a headache that got progressively worse as the day went on. By the time I got back to my homestay for dinner, it had turned into a full-blown head cold that had been aggravated by the fact that my immune system had just been put through the wringer. The night was positively awful—I felt worse than I had with the malaria, drifting in and out of not-sleep, soaking the sheets in a cold sweat and generally feeling like something was actually, seriously wrong. My host sister Harriet, with whom I share a room, was a veritable Florence Nightingale, staying by me and cooling me down with cold water-soaked cloths. My host mother apparently stayed up praying for me the entire night, which I felt bad to learn when I was lucid. In the morning I called Stella to tell her I need to be taken to the hospital. As I mentioned before, we all love and adore her and really, really appreciate her competence. When any of us are ill, she’s usually the one to take us to the hospital/clinic, which always is a psychological boost because you don’t have to worry about what’s going on—Stella’s handling it.

Unfortunately though, when I called Stella herself was on the way to the doctor for chest pains, so she couldn’t accompany me. This also meant that she wouldn’t be able to spot me the money necessary for a trip to Gulu Independent (the best hospital in town, which also makes it the most expensive), and since I was short on cash and my debit card was locked up in the safe in the SIT office I was going to have to go to a smaller clinic and just hope I had enough money. She sent over the son of the driver that SIT hired for the duration of our stay in Gulu, who also happens to be a homestay brother to Laura S. (senior from Manhattan, goes to Emerson), to take me to the clinic. As it happened, it was the same guy who took me and Taylor to the doctor in Kitgum, so it was sort of like history was repeating itself. My homestay mom came with me, which I was glad of, because I was in no state to do much of anything. Apparently the clinic I was being taken to was one that two other girls from the program had been taken to the day previous, so I figured it wouldn’t be too terrible if they were sending someone else there.

Mercifully, there was a bed in a small and fairly quiet room that I could lie down on as I waited for the doctor. I’d used up the last of my coherency to call Stella and ask for a ride so all I was doing at that point was trying my best to close my eyes and block out reality. I was seen by a kind-looking nurse who took my blood pressure and temperature, and fairly soon after the doctor came in, a clean-cut young man who seemed like he knew what he was doing. He asked me my symptoms, listened to me stumble through a recounting of my malaria diagnosis and treatment, looked at my throat, listened to my chest and said I had a cold that was being exacerbated by severe dehydration resulting from the malaria/malaria treatment. He wanted to put me on IV fluids, then see where I was at. That was the last I saw of him for the next few hours. I stayed on the bed in the room and drifted in and out for a half-hour-ish before Nurse Ratchett came in to hook me up to the IV. And by “hook up” I mean “shove a massive needle into the back of my hand and jerk it around to maximize the unpleasantness.” The back of my hand is still really bruised from it, a week later. The first IV went fairly quickly, but for some reason the second one just wasn’t dripping. This necessitated Ratchett grabbing hold of the IV and disconnecting it, yanking the needle around some more, pushing some sort of fluid straight into the needle/shunt/ whatever in my hand which *really fucking hurt,* and then forcefully reconnecting the tube, which shoved the needle further into my hand. Yeah, I was a really happy camper. Also, my quiet little room wasn’t so quiet anymore, as another patient had arrived needing IV fluids who occupied the one other bed in the room across from me and was blatantly staring at me the whole time, plus it seemed to be the locker room or whatever for the nurses which meant I had about a half dozen gabbing women around me in a small space, all of them insisting that I needed to eat the huge amounts of food that my host brother Jimmy had brought from home per my host mother’s orders (they’d swapped keeping watch on me a couple hours in). I managed to swallow about two mouthfuls of noodles in “sauce” (read: animal fat) before I started gagging. All the women were clucking at me about not eating, but I was too busy trying not to throw up on them. I kind of wish I had, if it would have gotten them to leave me the hell alone (probably not).

The women continued to gab and the other patient continued to stare as I curled up in a ball and waited for the second fluid bag to finish, which it took its sweet time to do. Nurse Ratchett made a reappearance to roughly disconnect the IV, leaving the needle still in my hand, while I waited for the doctor to do a follow-up. I lied through my teeth and told him I was feeling much better because all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there. He said I should drink juice, gave me some salty mix for water to drink, gave me the bill (thank god I had enough), and left…without taking the needle out of my hand. Meanwhile, my host mother called the driver to come pick us up and take us home. I pounced on the first nurse I saw that wasn’t Ratchett to take the needle out, and as soon as that was accomplished I staggered out of there as fast as I could, crawled in the truck, tried not to injure anything as we drove over the many, many potholes on the way home, fell out of the truck, crawled into bed, and passed out.

The next day I was pretty weak but doing better, so I just tried to keep it quiet and take it easy. Unfortunately, the Acholi concept of sick care is to visit the sick person to cheer them up—prolonged, high-energy interaction is sure to make them feel better. Oh, and lots of food, too. So in the late afternoon we had two other host families come for a visit—Danielle’s and Emma G-S’s (Danielle’s from Sherborn and goes to Barnard, Emma’s from Brookline and goes to UVM). Danielle’s host mother and my host mother are sisters, and she and Emma’s host mother are very close. Danielle’s host father is a bag full of hot air who loves the sound of his own voice, and who’s education by default makes him an expert in everything. I wanted to wring his neck inside of five minutes. I don’t know how Danielle does it.

Visitors of course means that there needs to be a massive meal, which resulted in this sort of picnic by the side of the house of close to 20 people once you counted all the kids. Before this rambunctious picnic was over, my nine-months-pregnant host sister Rachael’s “husband” showed up with a couple friends of his (one, David, had taken Harriet and me out clubbing with Solomon my first weekend in Gulu—nice guy, works for USAID) to check on me and make me feel better. Solomon and David are among the few Ugandan men I feel more or less comfortable being around—I think they view me as something of a curiosity mixed with kid sister—and I usually enjoy spending time with them, but at that point I really just wanted them, and everybody else, to take a long walk off a short cliff. They’re just really high energy, constantly teasing, and I was so exhausted at that point I was on the verge of tears.

When everyone finally, *finally* left, it was time for dinner, which I ate approximately two bites of before I excused myself and face-planted into bed. I don’t think I have ever been more grateful for a weekend to be over.

This past week has been pretty quiet—only one excursion to the Gulu sub-office of Caritas, an international Catholic relief agency (you may have heard of Catholic Relief Services, CRS, in the States). During the Juba peace talks between Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) government and Kony’s (pronounced more or less “cone”) Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Caritas was the one organization trusted by everyone (this includes the LRA) to provide food relief. We spoke to the Gulu director, who turned out to be Canadian Emma’s host father (not Brookline Emma, though they kind of look alike—this one is from Toronto and goes to Yale. We make fun of her for saying “proh-cess” instead of “prah-cess”). Really, really fascinating talk. He was the first person we’ve heard speak about how their NGO is modifying its programs to reflect its operation in a post-conflict as opposed to ongoing-conflict location, meaning its moving from relief to development efforts, ones that they’ve taken pains to be community-based and sustainable (a lack of community involvement and longevity are complaints frequently leveled at int’l NGO-run development initiatives—the, “we’re here to help you, but on our terms” complaint). A lot of students (we’ve got a lot of Catholics on this trip) are now interested in somehow incorporating Caritas into their independent study project.

On Wednesday (Sept. 23) I went on a goat-buying expedition. Yup, you read that one right. On a whim after lectures I piled into the back of Jeremy’s (senior at Wesleyan, from Brooklyn) homestay family’s driver’s (you need at least four degrees of separation to describe any relationship around here) truck along with Malena (from Glendale AZ, goes to Barnard with Danielle), Jules (drives a cab in Provincetown, goes to school in CO), Tonia (senior photography major in Michigan), and Morgan (reminds me a lot of Seth, goes to Amherst). Jeremy’s host mother had just given birth to a baby boy (who they named Jeremy, much to his chagrin and our amusement), and Jeremy had offered to buy an additional goat for the goat roasting on Friday that was going to be held in Jeremy 2.0’s honor. So, off we went. (For future reference: if you know you’re going to go somewhere riding in the back of a truck, don’t wear a skirt. It makes getting in and out of the truck bed really tricky).

I believe this is the first time I’ve ever actually met the animal I was going to eat. At first, when Jeremy asked if I wanted to come along I thought “Why the hell not?” but then as he was bargaining with the goat man it dawned on me that we weren’t here to buy a pet, we were here to buy food. Then Malena had to go and make it a million times worse when she went ahead and gave them names (Jeremy ended up getting talked into buying two. Apparently he got a really good deal on the fat one). The big guy’s name was Peter, the littler one (which really made me sad to think about—he looked so scared as the goat man essentially dumped him in the back of the truck) was named Spencer. Thanks Malena, thanks *a lot.*

In case you were wondering, Peter and Spencer were actually quite delicious. There was a huge turnout for the celebration, from both our program and Acholi friends and family. Everybody was somebody’s sister or nephew or cousin-brother, and I really didn’t even try to keep anyone straight. I was more preoccupied with getting a chance to hold Jeremy 2.0, who was sporting an adorable curly head of hair. (So tiny! How was anyone ever that tiny?)

After various speeches, prayers and introductions (we students were made to stand and introduce ourselves with both our Christian and Acholi names), there was dancing. All the men were made to take off one of their shoes and put them in a pile, and then the women were to select a shoe and whoever the owner was would be their dance partner. It was rather amusing to watch our guy friends hopping around on one foot before they got their shoes back. Leon (senior guy from Maine who goes to Hartwick and is kind of ridiculous) turned out to have surprisingly good moves for a white guy. We were all really impressed. Then there was a dance off between the three best couples—we did our best to get Jules eliminated as fast as possible, because it was obvious she really didn’t like the guy she was dancing with. Point in fact, more than a couple girls from the program did not like the guys they ended up dancing with. I was glad I’d opted not to pick up a shoe.

Continuing on that, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am incapable of being culturally sensitive when it comes to gender norms here. I’m just going to be completely ethnocentric about it. After the goat roast all of us who were there from the program went dancing at one of the nicer clubs called Diana Gardens, which was having its much-anticipated “Corporate Night,” a total misnomer for playing “really good music,” a.k.a. eighties and early nineties tunes that I’d never heard before. And we were having a really good time—we hadn’t really been able to spend much time out having fun away from our host families, so we were all relishing the opportunity to have a beer and just let loose. We were so thoroughly enjoying ourselves that when the skies opened up and it started to pour, we opted to continue dancing in the rain, instead of running for cover like most everyone, with the exception of a handful of Acholi men who *would not take no for an answer.* The past few times I’d been out to the clubs I’d been grabbed maybe once or twice, which was annoying but I handle-able, but there I was constantly having to knock hands off my hips or disentangle my arm from a none-too-gentle grip and say “no thank you” in a firm yet still friendly way, since women here can’t *not* be friendly when they’re trying to tell a creeper to *back the fuck off.* And I didn’t even get the brunt of it. Other girls in the group had it even worse with being grabbed and propositioned. I’d been having such a good time getting soaked to the bone and dancing in the rain, but then these guys had to go and ruin it, which just pisses me off. Somebody else may be able to take their behavior better in stride, but I’m not that person and I sincerely doubt I will ever *be* that person.

Okay, I need to clarify that my experience that night is a result of a great many issues—some personal, some cultural, some circumstantial. There are a host of factors that went into these guys’ behavior and my reaction to it. But I just needed to vent, and hey, what else is a blog for if not to be self-centered and whiny?

I should also add that we’ve got a really, really terrific group of guys on the program. Back during orientation when we were discussing sexual harassment, Morgan piped up and said that he was pretty sure he was speaking for all the guys when he said that he was more than willing to intervene if we asked, to which Joseph (resident class clown who goes to Albion in Michigan) added “yeah, I can be anybody’s fake boyfriend anytime.” Sure enough, they’ve been true to their word. Chances are if an Acholi guy at the club is getting too close for comfort, within a few moments one of the guys from the program will insinuate himself between the two of you and get you outta there without being too obvious about it. And we girls aren’t entirely helpless, either. If you’re in a group, you’re less of a target, and we never let anyone wander off too far.

And now for something completely different (oh, how I miss Monty Python reruns on PBS and BBC America):

I’ve befriended an American woman named Jessica who works for USAID. She has a dog named Jeter and a house with running water and electricity, which she says I’m welcome to anytime, no questions asked. I spent a wonderful Thursday afternoon with her taking Jeter for a walk and talking about culture shock and being an expat in Gulu, a talk which I found immeasurably helpful. I’ve been trying so hard to “go native” as much as possible (oh, that terminology makes me cringe), but she helped me realize that it’s okay to find it stressful not to have electricity and to splurge on imported Pringles and Snickers bars. I remember reading Prof. James Dawes’ That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity a year or so ago and finding myself a bit taken aback at his description of aid workers who spend off hours at a nice hotel in whatever town that the locals wouldn’t be able to afford, drinking beers and having a nice meal. And while I understood the need to escape and recharge, I still judged them, because they had an outlet that the people they were supposed to be helping didn’t, and how was that fair?

But yesterday I spent nearly the entire day at the “muzungu café” in town, which serves pancakes and scrambled eggs for breakfast, grilled cheese for lunch, and ice cream with mix-ins for dessert to an almost exclusively muzungu clientele (muzungu, while the Luganda word for white person, seems to have made a dent here in Acholi-speaking North), and you know what? It was heavenly. Judge me all you want, but an ache in my heart was eased when I dipped my spoon into a small cup of vanilla ice cream with crushed Kit Kat mixed in. As many aid and development workers before me have discovered, I need other expats to get by. I need pancakes and an iced mocha. I need to overhear conversations about going home for Christmas in North Dakota, and spy messenger bags from The Strand in New York. So yeah, another self-discovery for you.

Okay, this is insanely long and I need to change into my kitenge (no idea how its spelled—traditional Acholi fabric that most of us girls have bought and made into dresses) for the Acholi farewell party that’s being thrown by the program as a thank you to our host families for taking care of us for the past three weeks. We leave for Kampala Wednesday morning, spend a few days there and then head to Kigali where we’ll be through the first week of November. While we’re sad to leave Gulu, I think most of us are looking forward to a change of scenery, not the least of which because Kigali is a little more developed and a little less friendly (seriously, having to say hi to everyone you pass on the streets is exhausting).

Until next time,

p.s. I need to give a shout-out to Jamila, who indirectly inspired the title of this blog. For those of you who don’t know, way back freshman year Jamila, a floor/classmate, gave me the nickname “Heathrow” after the airport, for reasons I’m still not entirely certain of. The name’s stuck, and is used to such an extent that it’s what I’m called the vast majority of the time when I’m at school (I have to say I miss it). So when I created this blog, it made sense to incorporate it. Thus, heathrowinternational was born.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I went all the way to Africa and all I got was this lousy disease.

Yeah, so I've got malaria. Fourth one in the group so far. Don't worry, though--the meds have really helped, it's just going to take me a bit to get back to 100 percent.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

More Gulu shenanigans

It’s hard, to watch my host nieces and nephew play (yes, I seem to have acquired him since last I wrote you—his name’s Odja (I think that’s how it’s spelled) and he’s abicel (ah-bee-chel), or six years old in Acholi. He’s the son of Rachael’s “husband’s” sister). All their games involve not-so-play-fighting—sticks used as guns to shoot or impale one another with, sticks used as instruments by which to beat Claudia’s doll with, lying naked and prone at their feet, marching in military fashion, hitting one another on the backside and over the head, etc. My host mother commented that those are the only games kids play nowadays—that they’ve gotten so used to soldiers armed with large guns, to the sound of gunfire and other weaponry, that it’s not only spilled into but essentially taken over their play. Like I said, a bit difficult to watch.

Children’s play is hardly the only remnant of the war around Gulu—as I start out from gang (home in Acholi) for school every morning, I pass by a woman wrapped in a dirty elasticized towel wrap that I’m more used to seeing on coeds walking down the hall to the shower, either shuffling around in the road or sitting by the side of it in the dirt with a blank expression on her face. She’s just…completely gone. She’s just the beginning, too. There are usually at least a half dozen more men and women in similar states on my walk—dirty, ragged, and shoeless (if not completely unclothed), having a conversation with themselves that I doubt even they understand. While walking home with Harriet the other day, I met a woman who was missing both legs below the knee, hand-pedaling a cobbled together wheelchair that looked like it was going to fall apart any second. Some lunch breaks between classes we’ll head into town, passing signs that warn against picking up any unfamiliar-looking objects. On a related note, on Friday Dr. William warned us as we were leaving for Patiko not to be alarmed if we heard any explosions or gunfire that night—the army was detonating unexploded ordinance that had been collected once the LRA skedaddled.

Patiko lies about 30 km outside of town, which resulted in us getting a bit of a scenic tour of the countryside. After passed by some traditional homesteads of people that have returned home from the IDP camps—a few grass-thatched huts set well back from the road, surrounded by fields worked by women bent over at the waist, including a couple older(/old school) women who were bare-chested. (By and large, though, women were fully clothed). These homesteads stood in sharp contrast to the emptying IDP camp that stands a short ways from the entrance to Baker’s Fort—in the camp’s huts are packed tightly together, tagged with a letter and three-digit number. As one of our lecturers stated in class, the set-up of the huts in IDP camps is, in his opinion, “one of the most inhuman ways of keeping people.” Such spacing isn’t natural. First of all, you’d have more than one grass-thatched hut per compound (depends how many wives and sons you have), and they would be much more spread out, centered around an outdoor communal fireplace. You might be able to see your neighbor’s compound, but it’d be a fair distance away. I will never be able to fathom how psychologically disruptive it must have been for people to find themselves so squashed together after spending a lifetime with an ample supply of elbow room. Unfortunately, there are still many who remain in the camps, despite no longer living under the threat of the LRA. Instead, they fear the spirits of the LRA’s victims, whose remains were unable to be buried properly due to the violence, and thus will wander among the living, seeking vengeance. Such fear has been so widespread among those who remain in the camps that Acholi chiefs and elders have taken it upon themselves to travel to the abandoned/burned out villages to properly dispose of the remains and eliminate the threat of haunting. In addition to the fear of supernatural violence, there is also a legitimate fear of actual violence (oh, that sounded horribly ethnocentric, didn’t it?) over land, whose ownership and land use rights may be in dispute after 20+ years away.

At one point on our trip to Patiko, the bus came to a stop, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We asked Dr. William what was going on, and he told us to look out to the right side of the bus. Did we see that white cross there, sticking out from a pile of stones in the middle of the field? What did we think that white cross means.

The answer: it’s the site of a mass grave.

I’d been sitting on the far side of the bus, and so had needed to stand in order to see the cross Dr. William has told us to look for. When he informed us of its significance, I was struck by the thought that I was standing much like I used to on the tram ringing the San Diego Wild Animal Park, craning my neck to get a look at a baby rhino or a Pryzwalski Wild Horse. And as soon as that thought hit, I sat down a bit abruptly. Remnants and reminders of the war are everywhere—it is impossible not to see them. But this was the first time I’ve felt uncomfortable witnessing one. Not because it was overwhelming—honestly, that simple marker painted a rather calm and serene scene—but because I was feeling like a disaster tourist (thanks, DeWaal).

During orientation, Danielle (from Sherborn, goes to Barnard) had asked in a rather embarrassed sort of fashion whether or not we would be allowed to take pictures at the genocide memorials we’ll be going to in Rwanda. And I could tell just from glancing around the room that we’d all been wondering the same thing, but weren’t sure if it’d be appropriate to ask. And then our AD for Rwanda, Stefanie (the German), said yes of course—in fact, at least among the genocide survivors who worked at these sites, taking pictures is encouraged. Upon hearing this, I couldn’t help but feel slightly incredulous. Yes, I’d been wondering the same things about the pictures (I figure I’ll make a decision about whether or not I’m actually going to take any once I’m there), but it felt wrong somehow, offensive. But it feels that way to me, not to them, and in this and many other instances, I’m really not the one who matters.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with these ruminations. It’s just one of the many ethical mindbenders and cultural conundrums that I’ll be confronting throughout the course of my study here. It’s just a bit disconcerting, to suddenly be facing these sorts of considerations first-hand, as opposed to debating and discussing them over printed-out readings in Carnegie 206.

Anyway, enough with the heavy stuff:

I am rather bemused to report that Claudia (cute-as-a-button three-year-old host niece who has me wrapped around her little finger) is no longer Claudia, but rather Tigger. She was taken by a picture I showed her of Tigger sitting in my lap while I was in one of the easy chairs, demanding to know why the dog got to sit both in my lap and on a chair. She wanted to be the one in such a position, and has since insisted (in Acholi, of course), that everyone should hereinafter refer to her as “Tigger.” She even tries to replicate the wide-eyed expression he has in the photo. Luckily, my host family finds this to be hilarious, and not the evil corrupting influence of the West.
Speaking of hilarity, all of us on the program were in stitches when we were comparing our experiences from our first weekend with our host families. Leon (tall, curly-headed senior from Hartwick) disclosed that he learned he’d apparently been pooping in the wrong location for the past week (“short calls,” a.k.a. #1, are taken indoors if there are facilities for them, but “long calls,” a.k.a. #2, are always taken outdoors). Emma G-S (there are two Emma’s—this one from Brookline, the other from Toronto, though they both kind of look alike. I’m pretty sure both of them are Jewish) survived a conversion attempt when her host-mother took her to church services at a Pentecostal church. When offered the chance of salvation she politely demurred and said maybe next weekend. Her host mother eventually relented, but kept shooting her pointed looks whenever the pastor mentioned sinners.

Fun facts:
-a live duck is an acceptable alms donation at church services

-Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies” is a popular tune at Gulu clubs

-speaking of nightclubs, some of the nicer ones will broadcast EPL games—I was a bit torn at times between following the match and dancing

-cell phones (Nokia—it seems they’ve got a monopoly here) have flashlights built into them. Ingenious.

-it is very easy to literally experience “ants in your pants”

-you’ll see a lot of Japanese characters (kanji?) ‘round these parts—on packages of toilet paper, bottles of water, vehicles, bicycles—they’re big donors towards (re)building infrastructure. (The Chinese, too—oil anyone?—but I haven’t seen nearly as much)

-the Acholi word for water is “pii,” pronounced “pee”
Finally, for anyone who may have heard about the rioting in Kampala—it’s just the 1966 Kabaka crisis repeating itself, several hours south of where I’m at. I’m perfectly safe.

Well, tomorrow I’m off to Kitgum!

Until next time,