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.
-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,