Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Just the facts, ma'am

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- around Gulu, it's not uncommon to still see outdated signs warning "Gwok ki owic," or "Beware of landmines"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

Thursday, September 10, 2009


(Sept. 5)

Fun fact: bug spray apparently acts as a nail polish remover

Hi everyone. I’m currently passing through Luwero, headed north to Gulu. (No, this is not a Bolt or Megabus with wifi—it’s easiest for me to type up my blog entries in Word on my own netbook, stick it on a jump drive, and transfer it over to whatever computer I have to use in whatever internet café I can find). We had our last dinner in Kampala at Faliza Ethiopian Restaurant in Kabalagala, across town from the hotel and apparently a pickpocket hotspot. As Stefanie acknowledged, this was probably not such a great idea as it meant we had to go through horrendous traffic, made even worse by it being the Friday rush. Muna turned off the engine more than once, and we’d be sitting in a hot van for anywhere from five to fifteen, twenty minutes. For the young men wandering the lines of traffic, dodging boda bodas to peddle watches, belts, pants, socks, maps and framed pictures of ManU and Liverpool through open car windows, this was an excellent business opportunity. Stefanie was especially popular, as many men tried to sell their wares to the lovely “madam.” She also managed to strike up a conversation with one of the five female taxi drivers in Kampala, made easier by the fact that the cars were less than six inches apart. (I snapped a picture of a matatu with “Trust in God” written across the bottom of the rear window—you have to if you want to make it out of traffic alive).

I don’t know how Muna did it, but he got us to Faliza in one piece, with even some wandering around time to spare before Faliza had our food ready. We picked our way through the narrow sidewalks, winding around a host of street vendors selling delicious-smelling chicken, beef, goat and pancakes in front of colorful storefronts. (In case you’re wondering, Kabalagala means “pancake.”) We decided to stroll away from the main drag and headed into a more residential area, passing people right-to-right (you walk like you drive), including a group of goats minded by two little girls. (Leon nearly had a showdown with the alpha male—I have my suspicions who would’ve won). We came upon a group of boys playing soccer in a big fenced in yard, a grazing goat acting as an informal keeper. Further up and off a side street was a grouping of really nice homes—they looked more like something I’d expect to see in San Diego. As is the norm here with large and well-to-do houses, they were behind a very tall and very sturdy security gate, one of them painted white with gold-colored butterflies. We decided not to dawdle, as behind each gate probably sat, stood, or slept (depends on the time of day) a smartly-uniformed private security guard armed with a very large gun. (William has assured us that they “usually” don’t fire them). By then, it was time to head back to dinner, which was delicious. I’d never had Ethiopian food before, and the edible napkin-like tortilla thing (obviously I’m using its proper name) was fun, if incredibly messy, to try. I’m not entirely sure what was in the various pots I ladled food out of, but I figure that’s probably for the best.

Speaking of questionable food, for lunch on our way up to Gulu we stopped at a roadside hotel where I had my first experience with my meal staring back at me. We had a choice of either fish or chicken—I opted for the fish, and it actually wasn’t that bad, if a little disconcerting. Usually fish at home doesn’t include the head. This lunch stop also marked my first encounter with a pit latrine, which I shan’t go into any more detail about other than saying it wasn’t a “VIP” latrine, as it lacked a pipe extending up through the roof to get rid of the smell.

Following lunch we crossed the Nile, which was incredible. But don’t expect any pictures—the UPDF soldiers guarding the bridge across the rushing water would’ve arrested us for spying. This bridge was a significant military outpost during the war—up to the bridge you could travel pretty safely on the road, but upon crossing it you were in LRA land. As we drove from the Nile to Gulu, it was a little weird to realize we were traveling the road that Matthew Green (not to mention many others), author of Wizard of the Nile, which was part of our required reading, had written about—the one where, a few years ago, you couldn’t travel after dark and in the early morning, and even if you were traveling during the day you probably wanted to do it with an armed escort to ward off an ambush. But the LRA are long gone from the area and we arrived safe and sound.

(Sept. 8)

Wurii maber?

I hope the answer to that is Eyo, warii maber, or that you (plural) are doing well in Acholi. This section of the entry is coming four days later, sitting out front of Rock Lines Traders, a computer shop werhe one of my host sisters, Harriet, works. She very kindly came to fetch me from nearby National Water, Gulu Branch, when I got myself lost coming back from lecture. This, as I’m sure you can imagine, is a slightly disconcerting experience, not in any way aided by the fact that my culture shock seems to have hit a bit early. It is, in an impolite word, a bitch.

I hope you don’t think that the somewhat wibbly-wobbly state of my emotions is reflective of my host family, though, because so far they’ve been wonderful. All of our families descended upon our hotel in town yesterday, with big hugs and even bigger smiles. My host mother, Lamwaka Dorine (surname first), came to pick me up and take me back to my home for the next three weeks—a small compound made up of two concrete structures, plus a VIP latrine with attached shower bloc. Oh, and a bunch of chickens that my host mom sells for broilers as a side business. All the neighborhood children were there to greet me when I arrived—it seems that a munu (white person in Acholi) in town causes quite the commotion. I was a bit taken aback when all the little girls dropped to their knees when they came forward to take my hand—I knew that it was customary for Acholi females to do this in the presence of an elder or someone else of importance, but had never considered that I would be counted among them. Eventually the crowd thinned, leaving just my two (unexpected but much adored) host nieces, Claudia (2 going on 3) and Kadija (6). Claudia ran into another room to grab her doll to show off to me and seemed to take a shine to me when I set about plaiting her hair. Both of them were quite talkative…in Acholi. They seemed to like my exaggerated befuddled expressions, though, and I am happy to report that peek-a-boo is a universal winner. Soon thereafter we moved outside to begin preparing a dinner of chicken, beans, rice and cabbage. I wasn’t allowed to help, though that’ll probably change soon.

(Sept. 10)

Hi all,

Culture shock is still alive and kicking. I’m really hoping that’ll pass soon. But anyway, onto fun stuff: Yesterday we went to meet with a traditional Acholi chief and the chairman of the elders, which was quite an experience. The chief wore a Hawaiian shirt and khaki cords. Both of them seemed to think that the Acholi traditional justice system, which emphasizes truth-telling and cleansing, was the best way to deal with the war, and that the ICC case presented a huge roadblock to peace. They also distributed a booklet that details the Acholi Customary Law system, including a detailed list of the various fines one must pay for various offenses. Our personal favorite was the fornication fee. During the visit, a group of youths performed traditional dances that I got some video of—one was for young, unmarried girls to show off their “talents,” a couple were courtship dances, and another was for visiting dignitaries. We joined in at one point, much to the amusement of the locals who seemed happy to watch us make fools out of ourselves.

Tomorrow we go to Patiko Baker’s Fort, the old Arab slave trade post where the strong slaves were bought and the weak ones were beheaded. We’ll apparently be able to see the indent the axes made on the execution block, strategically placed so that the heads would simply roll down the hill. Cheery stuff.

For any early birds reading this, a good time to call (my time-7 hours ahead eastern, 8 hours ahead central) is when I take my lunch from 12:30-2:00 (though it’s usually more like 12:45). Also, I have a 40 minute walk home from classes at around 3:30ish most days, and then I have to be back at the compound usually by 6 p.m., which could also work—I’m usually in bed by 10, though, but am up at 6:30ish, which could work for the night owls. Just be aware that when I’m at the compound I have absolutely no privacy, so I might not be able to talk as freely as you may like.

Other than that, there’s not much else to report.

Until next time,