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.