Sunday, August 23, 2009


…or, for those of you not well-versed in Luganda (myself included), welcome! Here you will find an account of my study and travel in Uganda and Rwanda, located in the Lake Victoria region in East Africa. I’m on a study abroad program through the School for International Training (SIT) called Post-Conflict Transformation. It’s a pretty new program—this is the second semester it’s been run, so the Academic Directors (ADs) will still be working out some of the kinks along the way. (Some adjustments have already been made between the inaugural session and this one).
I’ll be taking four courses while I’m here: Post-Conflict Transformation Seminar (PCTS), National and Ethnic Identity Seminar (NEIS), Field Study Seminar (FSS), and an Independent Study Project (ISP), with stays in Kampala and Gulu, Uganda, and Kigali and Butare, Rwanda.

Currently I’m in Kampala, staying at the Juliza Hotel for our orientation, and then tomorrow I’ll be leaving for a month-long homestay in Gulu.
For those of you who’re wanting to keep track of where I am and what I’m doing at any given time, here’s a more-detailed-than-you-probably-need schedule:

September 1-4: Orientation in Kampala
September 5-6: Gulu Orientation
September 7-30: Homestay and lectures in Gulu, with excursions to Koch Goma IDP Camp (Sept. 15), Kitgum (Sept. 16-17) and Caritas (Sept. 21)
October 1-3: Back to Kampala and excursion to Lwero Triangle
October 4: Travel to Mbara
October 5: Visit to Nakivale Refugee Camp
October 6-7: Kigali Orientation
October 7-November 6: Homestay in Kigali, with excursions to Gisozi Memorial Site (Oct. 12), Butare (Oct. 14-16), Ibuka and Nyamatta (Oct. 19), Millennium Village (Oct. 26), Gisenyi/Kibuye (Oct. 28-29)
November 8-December 7: ISP, which at this point is looking like it’ll be in Gulu
December 8-13: Evaluation in Uganda (probably Kampala)
December 14: back to Boston!

A word of warning: I will have sporadic access to the internet at best, and what access I do have will be really slow. If the internet café in Kampala where I’m posting this from is any indication, (which will be much better than any in Gulu), it’s too slow to support a Skype-to-Skype call. If you want to get in touch with me, the best (and cheapest) way to do so is to use Skype to call my cell, which is 011256779529323. (FYI, I’m seven hours ahead of eastern time). If you haven’t heard from me for a while, remember that no news is good news.

Whew, that was a lot of housekeeping. Now onto the good stuff:

The trip here was pretty good—roughly 20 hours all told. There were two girls, Danielle and Emma E-S (there are two) on my flight from Boston, and then we met up with a bunch of others in Schiphol (Amsterdam). There were way too many crying babies on the flight from Logan, and then we hit a bad patch of turbulence flying over an area east of Khartoum that made even my stomach turn a bit, but other than that everything was good. I was highly appreciative of the airbus’ individual in-flight entertainment system—knocking through Star Trek, He’s Just Not That into You, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and a bit of Casino Royale made the time pass quickly.
Arriving in Entebbe went pretty smoothly—our visas meant that we got to go in a shorter line, and customs were pretty much non-existent. Don’t expect to see any photos from there, though, as soldiers armed with very large guns would’ve gotten rather cross. We were met at the airport by one of our AD’s, Dr. William (Komakech), who’s a native of Gulu and also an ordained Catholic priest, the Associate AD, Stella, also a native of Gulu, and our driver, Muna, who in addition to being a lovely, lovely man and extremely helpful resource, passed along a hello from Orna, a friend from Macalester who is also studying in Uganda through another SIT program. It was about a 40 km drive to Kampala, which was initially a bit disconcerting as Uganda is left-hand drive. When we got to the hotel, Muna called for the “generals” to step forward to help off-loading the luggage. We girls were not allowed to help, which, frankly, we really couldn’t be fussed to get upset about. Those bags are heavy! Muna has since also told us that we can’t jump out of the matatu, the minibus/van that we get around in—we’re supposed to “leave that for the generals.” (Actually, I think our transportation qualifies as a “special hire,” since it’s privately engaged).

We’re staying at a mid-range hotel in the middle of Kampla on what I think is called Boma Road, just off the main drag, Kampala Road. My Minnesota-accented(!) roommate Kim and I lucked out with our room—not only do we have a (working) air conditioner, but the water heater is located in our room meaning that we have the luxury of a warm shower. Mosquito nets are suspended above both unmatched beds, which so far haven’t been all too necessary. (Well, for others at least. I’ve—unsurprisingly—been bitten a few times already, but they’re actually a lot less bothersome than the ones I got stateside. Go figure). And don’t freak out at the mention of mosquito bites—yes Mom, I’m taking my Doxy, and really if I’m going to get malaria (which we still might, despite the meds—they’re no guarantee), it’s much better to do it here than stateside. The reason why you hear of people dying of it in the States is because the test takes three days to process, as opposed to the matter of minutes it takes here. Today a bunch of us will be hitting up a nearby pharmacy to purchase a few $5 in-home malaria tests. If you think you’re coming down with it, just prick your finger and you’ll have an answer five minutes later. So, basically? Stop freaking out about malaria, various friends and family.

Today’s the last day of orientation. We’ve already laid out the health and safety guidelines, AD/student expectations, and ground rules. We’ve saved the academic expectations, cultural do’s and don’ts, and sexual harassment discussion for last. Everybody, guys included, is expected to attend that last one. Our other AD, Stefanie, a German who did post-grad work in psychology at Lesley in Boston and has been living in Kigali for the past three years, said she’s really glad to have so many guys this session, as their presence helps mitigate some of the attention we’ll get being muzungu women (basically “white person” in Luganda. When I’m in Acholi-speaking Gulu, I’ll be a muno). Nine times out of ten, such attention isn’t dangerous—just annoying. More comments/questions and invading personal bubbles than anything else, and should a guy move/touch/whatever in any way we don’t like, we’re fully within our rights to go “excuse me?” and other people standing around will more than likely intervene on our behalf. I can’t say that I’m thrilled at the prospect of having to deal with the novelty of being a muzungu/muno female, but I’m not stressing out about it.

Apparently, the tone of such attentions will also change a bit once we get to Gulu and out of Kampala. People, kids especially, are just genuinely curious about who we are and what we, as American youths, are doing in their country. Kids will want to touch our skin to see if it feels any different. As you are well aware, I’m not exactly a touchy-feely person by nature, but I have a sneaking suspicion that by the end of this program my view on social touching will have been altered a bit.

So far, we’ve been sticking fairly close to the hotel. What’s nice about SIT programs is that the goal is to have us functioning independently by the end of the program, but the ADs have fully admitted that for this first week they want us to stay in once orientation ends for the day (usually with dinner at about 7). A few clumps of students have ventured out after dark/in the morning for a run or to hit up an internet café, but mostly the few that got here ahead of schedule and already had a bit of a feel for the area.

But that hasn’t meant that we’ve been cooped up. The first full day half of us took a trip to the Kasubi tombs, the resting place of four Lugandan kabakas, or kings (well, sekabakas once they’ve passed on). Descendents of the royal family still live at this UNESCO World Heritage site, trying to preserve some of the traditions. Our tour guide, who himself is Lugandan and a member of one of the plant clans (Luganda is the umbrella tribe, which is then subdivided into 52 clans that are named after various plants and animals and who serve different functions within the royal court/family that are more or less related to their name. The dog clan, for example, follows the king out on a hunt), was obviously very proud of his heritage and kept interjecting comments about how Luganda was the best and most powerful kingdom and a dominant player in the current state. Dr. William, our Acholi AD, was not terribly amused, but kept his own counsel until we debriefed. He was surprised, albeit delighted, to learn that we’d picked up on the tour guide’s bias and had been a bit dubious of some of what he claimed to be fact. In addition to the partiality, we girls were a bit frustrated with the visit as those who were in trousers or a skirt that didn’t fully cover the knee were made to wear wraps, and none of us were permitted to go inside the royal drum hut, as the (male) royal drummer was traditionally celibate and women forbidden to enter his domain. While we’d had our first dose of Ugandan gender relations that first night with Muna and the “generals,” most of us remarked that it was really this trip where we first started balking (inwardly, at least—it’s just something we’re going to have to put up with) at the social norms. We also are finding it frustrating, not to mention uncomfortable, that women are supposed to sit with their legs together—including when they’re on the back of a boda boda, or the motorcycle taxis that we’ve been forbidden to ride because of how dangerous they are (in case you were wondering, Kampala traffic looks like it’s massively chaotic, with matatus, boda bodas, and cars coming literally within brushing distance of each other, yet it’s actually highly organized according to a slew of unspoken rules that I could never hope to understand). This places women at an extreme disadvantage, as they can’t balance properly sitting sidesaddle behind the driver and makes them much more vulnerable to serious bodily injury. Men, on the other hand, sit astride and have a much easier time of it keeping their seat. (Also, all the boda boda drivers are themselves men). It’s all just…very frustrating, and it’s something that I anticipate struggling with throughout the course of my time here.

After the trip to Kasubi Tombs, Muna dropped us off at a tiny little bank branch pasted onto the side of a hotel for us to change money. Interestingly, it appeared to be run by two Indian men, with Ugandan tellers. I anticipate that such socioeconomic relations will be covered in seminar at some point. Then we were shuttled to Nokia, as all of us needed to get phones. When we all piled out of the car, trying to surreptitiously familiarize ourselves with our new currency and failing miserably, Dr. William and Muna just kind of looked at each other and silently decided that they would be the ones to buy the phones, SIM cards and airtime, and we should just hand over the money. We were glad to, as we got the phones for 55,000 shillings, or about $27.50—5,000 shillings cheaper than some of our fellow program members who had already gotten theirs and said that they’d bargained for awhile. (Rule of thumb for Ugandan currency conversion: divide by two, take away the zeroes). Eventually I need to learn how to bargain, but I was glad not to have to start on such a commodity.

We had dinner at the Nomo (sp?) Gallery, a lovely little green space surrounded by a gallery and a few artisan shops and a restaurant. Everywhere we’ve gone the food has been delicious, if predictable—a lot of potatoes, rice, beans and plantains. I was having trouble staying awake at dinner, as both Kim and I had inexplicably (well, maybe not so much considering jet lag) woken up that very first night at 3:30 a.m., and couldn’t fall back asleep. I’d wiled away some time watching the Blitz Sports channel on the small black-and-white TV in our room, which in addition to showing rugby and cricket highlights, also featured clips from an Arsenal/ManU match that had been rather exciting goal-wise and coach-wise, as one of them had gotten sent off the field (which, really, isn’t actually terribly exciting considering the Revs coaching staff’s recent history. Oh, boys). I got back to the hotel at about 7:45ish, and was asleep by 8:00, and didn’t wake up for another twelve hours. Good times.

The next day (yesterday), started with more orienting, and then a trip to the Sheraton Hotel’s garden to discuss our preliminary ideas for our ISP and some free time in Kampala. The garden is a lovely green spot in busy downtown, unsurprising given that the hotel seems to cater to muzungus. According to Dr. William, it costs about US$200 a night. Muna joined our discussion and was a terrific resource—he is incredibly well-informed and seems to know everyone, usually giving us the name of someone who we'd find helpful as we start out on our project. Some of you know that I have a couple different ideas in mind—the use of soccer as an informal therapeutic mechanism for former child soldiers (Uganda), and an examination of local perceptions of gacaca (traditional dispute resolution) versus the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as an effective justice mechanism. After talking with some former SIT program-ites, as well as some preliminary research, I'd been thinking that I might not want to do my ISP in Rwanda due to how emotionally charged everything is (not to imply that Northern Uganda, isn't), but have been worried about being able to carry through the soccer study in Maastricht. Come to find out, there is a lot happening concerning perceptions of the current ICC case against LRA leaders, and how many Acholi favor traditional Acholi justice mechanisms—we're going to be meeting with Acholi chiefs in a couple days, and one of our lectures on this topic specifically will be made by a lawyer who is currently working the ICC case! So, yeah, ISP plans may be undergoing a change. (Another plus to a prospective topic switch is the possibility of collaborating with another student on the program, Derek, who's interested in the same subject area—thankfully its a broad enough topic that we should each be able to find a different angle). Dinner last night was at a very pretty rooftop Indian restaurant at Uchumi Garden City Mall, a.k.a. “Muzungu Mall.” It was delicious, although the plaid vests, collars, and cuffs of the waiters' uniforms made me miss Mac. During dinner, Stella told us about our Gulu host families. I'm apparently going to be living in Gulu Town with Lamwaka Dorine, a middle-aged civil servant who is taking care of a few granddaughters who should be about my age. I was a little disappointed that I won't have younger host-siblings to play with, but came to realize that this will probably make it easier to study on my own, and that having host sisters my age will make getting to know/getting around town much, much easier. I'm a little bit nervous as Stella seemed to know less information about Lamwaka than she did others' host families, and I have no clue what sort of accommodations I'll be in and how far I'll need to walk to classes, but, eh, I'll know soon enough. I suppose it's part of the adventure.

Okay, this is insanely long—sorry about that, but I just had a ton to get through. I can almost guarantee you that future entries will be shorter, so don't worry that you'll be obliged to read a novel every time. Hope this finds everyone well, and for my college buddies, best of luck with getting the schedules you want!

Until Gulu,