Saturday, November 7, 2009

Contrasts and Parallels

It's Saturday, early evening. In a very few minutes, the sun will slide beneath the horizon leaving a sky striped with purple, pale blue, pink and gold. Against this backdrop, dark silouettes of banana trees will create the vision that most of us have when we think of African sunsets. It's quiet at this time on Saturday evenings, after the Born Again prayer services wind down and before the bars heat up. At 7 pm, the Muslim call to prayer will be heard throughout the city, a single voice from each mosque, beautiful with melancholy at the edges.

It is particularly at this time of day when I begin to think of that time in the future when I will leave Uganda and return to the other life I call mine. There is actually a decision to be made about whether and when I will return and at quiet times like these, the weight of that decision presses in on me. I won't be able to figure it out in a blog, of course. But I do want to document, if only for myself, the depth of my attachment here and the pain it will cause me to leave. It is probably second only to the pain I would experience if I left my U.S. home permanently. Family - even my obtuse, hysterically funny, forever slightly off-the-grid family, gets a grip on your spirit and won't let go. And life is finite. We need to be with the ones we love, simple as that.

Speaking of "simple," I think about the magazine in the States called "Real Simple" or something like that and marvel at life's different realities. For only $6.00 a pop, it teaches you how to simplify and purify your life; dried flowers in galvanized steel buckets, exquisite fabric draped over unfinished dowels for curtains, homemade pasta. The pictures are beautiful. But the people I know here would laugh very loudly at the thought of that being simple living. Six dollars for a magazine! That's 12,000 shillings, the price of a trip to the market or school clothes for the kids. For Ugandans, collecting rainwater for washing and drinking, growing all their food, living without electricity or indoor bathrooms - that is living simply. For me, taking 2-minute often cold showers, going without electricity or water at irregular intervals (but not for long, usually), hanging clothes on the line to dry - that is my simple living. They laugh at that, as well. Simplicity is obviously relative.

If you don't mind, I'd like to share what I thought was going to be a nightmare experience with you. It will just take a minute. I recently decided it was time to get a Ugandan driver's permit. I have been driving for months and have grown to enjoy the creative process that is driving in an African country. Like bungee-jumping with a steering wheel. The local police force, however, is capricious at best and although a U.S. license is allowed, I think it wise to give them no excuse for suspicion. So I did what all ex-pats do. I got a Ugandan who "knows about these things" to apply for the license for me. There is a fee for this service (for every service - in this it is just like the States) but worth every shilling, to be sure. So after the initial application was submitted in May, Steven (the man who knows about these things) went by the DMV and checked every few weeks until I was finally assigned an appointment for today at 8:40 this morning. Here's where things get really strange. When I got there, I discovered that the Kampala Division of Motor Vehicles is exactly like every other DMV I've ever been in in my life. Long lines, hard benches, surly employees, applicants waiting with dead-eyed resignation. It was amazing! I could have been in New Orleans. It was all very familiar and a little comforting even. And my DMV picture? Just as hideous as pictures taken in every DMV all around the world. Actually maybe even a bit worse. In Uganda, for some reason no one has been able to explain to me, all "official" photos must show the victim's ears. I politely explain on these occasions that no one sees my ears, ever, not anyone. They're not malformed or anything. They're just very large and I prefer to keep them nestled in the relative anonymity of my collar-lengh coiffure. My obstinance usually prevails but alas, not today. My DMV guy was not moved. I won't describe the resulting photograph, nor will anyone ever see it with the possible exception of the local militia. Anyway, the point of all this is to say that while many, many things are very different here, going to the Division of Motor Vehicles is exactly the same.

So I leave you now with the pictures below. They are a reflection, I think, of other contrasts within Uganda itself. But in these contrasts lie the similarities Uganda shares with all countries - lives of hardship and lives of relative ease existing in the same place and the same time. With no answers as to why.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Small Things

The woman makes money dragging rocks from the stone quarry
to sell by the side of the road.
It does not provide her with money for food or a place to sleep that is not made of mud.
It does not bring her pride or power.

She would like to eat two times a day.
She would like to sleep in a clean shelter and use a latrine that is not filthy.
She would like to bathe her children and herself.
She would like for her children to learn to read, as she never did.

We say to her, this is a good place for a business that is not selling stones.
This is a busy place where people wait in the hot sun
while their cars and trucks are washed
in the stream by the side of the road.
It is a good place for selling drinks and maybe nuts or chips.
It is a good place for a bench for resting on and an umbrella to protect one from the sun.
Maybe music from a radio.
It is a good place to start a living.

A slow smile emerges.
She can see the small kiosk from which she will sell cold drinks and snacks.
She knows a man who will make her benches for little money.
She can feel the shade of the colorful umbrella and hear the laughter of men waiting for their cars at the “washing bay.”
She can taste the food she will give her children at night and feel the safety of brick walls that will surround her through dark, Ugandan nights.

Such small things. A wooden bench. A place to store drinks and food. A bright umbrella.


I wrote the piece above following a meeting with the Entrepreneurial Department of BeadforLife concerning one of our member's efforts to start a viable business. As the photos below show so clearly, with a little capital and some basic business training, the women of BeadforLife combine hope with hard work to create a life of self-sufficiency for themselves and their children. They are a constant source of inspiration.

Just a brief update on life in Uganda.. The rainy season has come at last bringing beautiful afternoon showers and late-night downpours. Everything is green and blooming. My garden is a wild chaos of color, completely without theme or order. And Moses, the Luckiest Cat in Uganda, is a year old now; a year has passed since the grisly demise of his newborn siblings under the wheel of a truck. I learned something interesting about Moses a few months ago. It became apparent, in a painfully loud way, that Moses is actually a girl. A girl cat. Yes, I too was shocked and more than a little undone (I have no idea why) but I've adjusted to the idea and for the most part, have switched pronouns effortlessly. The name stays, however.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Year II

Yes, I realize it has been months since I've written anything here. A lot of interesting things have happened but time to write about them is almost impossible to find. Plus, internet capacity continues to earn me ever higher points in patience.

For those who are interested, here are some highlights from the last few months: my friends Margie and Alana visited from Ireland and we spent a weekend in a cottage on Zanzibar with Steph and two of her colleagues from Dar es Salaam; I threw up on the two-hour ferry ride from Zanzibar to Dar starting a chain reaction among the other passengers; my daughter Marti visited me to celebrate my 60th birthday and we spent a long weekend in Murchison Falls, saw two lions and two leopards on a game drive, were attacked by a giant crocodile on a Nile boat ride, and a good time was had by all; I moved to a new apartment and the monkeys from Salama Springs have apparently followed me, hanging around on the porch like they're paying rent; I bought a 1994 Toyota Carib and I have joined the madness that is Kampala traffic; Moses loves the new crib as he can come and go at will through an open window and has a huge compound to roam around in. That's about all the personal stuff that's been going on. My God, even in Africa my life sounds boring... um, except for the crocodile incident.

But work proceeds at a lightening pace, everyday more interesting than the last. In March, I travelled to Lira in Northern Uganda with the BFL Market Linkages director and other BeadforLife staff to investigate the possibility of starting a shea nut project employing some of the poorest women in that region. The trip was long over very rough roads in very hot weather. Lira is a fairly good-sized town which has been severely affected by the twenty-year war with the rebels of Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army. The town itself is flooded with rural villagers who settled there after the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps were closed two years ago. As we headed into the rural area north of Lira Town, we saw evidence of the war's destruction everywhere. But it was not until we interviewed individual women for the project that the devastation to human life became clear. Every single woman we talked to had lost family members in the conflict with the rebels. Husbands slaughtered in front of their families, children abducted and lost, homes and villages burned, livestock and livlihoods stolen, each woman caring for as many as 9 and 10 children orphaned by friends or relatives. I've attached some pictures of the region and the folks who live there as no narrative can accurately describe this situation.

And for an upbeat update- BeadforLife has had coverage on 2 national tv shows in the last 6 weeks; the News Hour with Jim Lehrer and the Today Show. The response has been amazing - which accounts somewhat for the fast pace of work these days. It's fun to tell some of the beaders that their interviews were seen by over 19,000,000 people in the U.S. The most common response is a wide-eyed "Ehh-hhh!?" uttered in kind of a rising and falling bass melody. If/when I ever leave here, I think the musical language is one of the things I'll miss the most.

Some friends from the U.K. and U.S. stayed with me for a few weeks while they were doing workshops at various youth-centered NGO's here. One was an orpahanage called M-LISADA which is really an intriguing place. Briefly, the orphanage was started in 1999 by five young men who were street musicians and orphans themselves. Today, there are 74 children from 4 to 20-years-old who call the orphanage home. Most were street children abandoned by overwhelmed parents or orphaned through AIDS. Their stories are nightmares. True, the building they occupy is a wreck and the children usually eat only one meal per day, but they are safe and astonishingly happy to be there. Part of it is the care they receive, mainly from one another and part of it has to do with the way the orphanage supports itself. The founders, now in their mid- to late twenties, have taught their musical skills to the children and M-LISADA now has an accomplished brass band, traditional dancers, tumblers and acrobats and musicians who use traditional African instruments. They have become well-known in Kampala and are enlisted to perform at many local functions. The pictures I've attached are from a special performance they did for my friends and I on a Sunday afternoon. This place is a stunning example of what can be accomplished by "nonprofessionals" when they are guided by passion and experience and strength. The motto there is "Music to the Rescue!" Indeed.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Wasuze otyanno!

Good morning... (how did you sleep?)

Just practicing the newly-acquired Luganda I am learning in language class. I finally decided that if I'm going to live here, I need to learn how to talk to people who can't speak English. Learning Luganda is not going to solve all my communication problems - after all, there are over 50 languages spoken in Uganda alone! But it will help. And it's fun. And I've already learned an invaluable phrase in my very first class. It is "Tonseera." It means "Don't overcharge me." With that phrase alone, this class will pay for itself..

The holidays are very special at BeadforLife. Before leaving for Colorado on December 10th, I was able to experience the BFL holiday party we hosted for the Beaders and a party for the staff at my place. I'm telling you, no one knows how to party like Ugandans. The Beaders' party was held at Terrace Park Gardens, a venue we use for BeadforLife events like graduations. The most interesting thing about Terrace Park Gardens is an almost-but-not-quite life-sized cement statue of an African man who sports a green terry-cloth towel, presumably for modesty's sake.

That day, the Beaders came dressed to the nines in everything from nightclub wear to business suits to the traditional gomesi, an African dress with pointy sholders worn with a wide sash at the waist. Each group of Beaders had prepared music, dances and skits and the performances ranged from very skillful to hugely entertaining but not so skillful. Lunch was served during the usual Ugandan deluge, and gifts of BeadforLife umbrellas were distributed after the storm. Yes, I know, but that's the way it went.

The staff party was another highpoint of the holiday season. In my effort to be "sensitive" to my co-workers' varied financial situations, I suggested we have a white elephant exchange, gifts of things just found around the house. I was very careful to stress that the gifts be small things that we no longer needed. I noticed that my colleagues were having trouble grasping the concept. It wasn't until I heard one staff person say to another, "I don't think there's anything in my house I do not need," that I realized how uniquely American it is to have large amounts of useless crappola sitting around our homes, piled in closets, heaped in garages. I have an entire storage unit filled with things I can live without... It was a quick culture check and one I very much appreciated. In any case, we decided to proceed with the idea and see what happened. What happened was a wonderful party in which each person was delighted with their gift and with each others' gifts. Each time a present was opened, there was a loud chorus of laughing and clapping. If someone claimed the gift of someone else, a general uproar ensued with much hooting and carrying on. I have attended many of these parties in my day, but this was by far the most enthusiastic. There are a few pictures attached to give you the general idea.

Though I had almost a month in the U.S., I was sick the first two weeks and did not get to see all the people I wanted to see or talk with some very special friends I miss. But, I got to spend time with my family members (every one of them!) and it was a blast. It made me realize, again, how much they mean to me and it helped me get re-energized for my return. Thank you to each.

And what a return! When I got home from the Entebbe airport, I was greeted at the apartment with decorations of shredded toilet paper streamers (courtesy of Moses)dozens of welcome home signs, homemade pizzas (by buddy William) and lovely friends to welcome me back. It truly made the transition from one home to another much easier.

One last update. My Ugandan friends and co-workers joined me and a few other Americans to watch and celebrate the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States. Here is the part of his speech that moved all of us most deeply:

"To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work along side you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed and we must change with it."