A Travellerspoint blog

You Need a Bigger Table for a Leg of Goat

semi-overcast 25 °C

After lunch today, I went for a walk in the garden that sprawls down the gentle hill outside the hotel. Statue honouring King George V in the centre, with a monument to independence just outside. Fence around the garden (public but not), people lounged on the grass, dress shoes off, eating lunch and poking at mobile phones. In the centre, a little building with a veranda where, as I watched, a group of people picked themselves up, suspending a meeting for lunchtime, dragging a flipchart with the heading "Sony" indoors. My work, in African garb. Kasese at the core.

It's complicated, taking in how global and businesslike a city like this is, simultaneously what I expected and completely surprising. As traffic-chaotic and exhaust-filled as I imagined, boda-bodas -- moped taxis -- flinging themselves suicidally at people everywhere, dust-covered toyota mini-bus taxis stuffed with overheated people, cars edging into any available space, pedestrians leaping into the middle. It's built on several hills, Kampala is, and is threaded through with traffic circles and cheek to cheek businesses, people dressed formally in office wear weaving among the sim card sales stalls, people selling random books and pens and jewellery on blankets on the sidewalks, curbside shoeshine businesses. These bait the passerby with shoes placed at the curb. There's little of the open air market or beseeching shills I imagined there would be -- just commerce and people going about their business, a random beggar here and there but nothing compared to toronto, sun beating down and exhaust fumes and red dust clouding the bustle over with a slight haze.

I met A today, our partner here in Kampala, and reflected again that I am incredibly privileged to have real work to do here, to not just be wandering as a tourist. He came and met me this morning, took me to have my money changed and for ugandan food in a shady garden for lunch. We talked about the kids, our families, the program, english football (he's an arsenal fan), wars and guerillas and powermongers, HIV and reproductive rights, while we ate matoke (plantain), avocado, rice and a perfect tilapia.

I drank a beer at lunch, reasoning that I knew it was safer than the water. (I have developed something of a paranoia about water, suspicious both of bottled water and my purifying tablets. No trust in chemistry, apparently). A was over the moon delighted with the laptops I'd brought, rhapsodizing about how this would change their work, let them work in the field.

After lunch, I went for a long walk through the city, surprising myself at how comfortable I was, realizing that if I got lost, I would feel quite content hiring a boda boda to take me back to the hotel. I did not get lost (unlike Rome, Copenhagen and every other european city I've been in recently), and did manage to find a tourist-oriented coffee bar and craft shop where I gave in to tourist-type impulses and sprung for an espresso. (My verdict on "african coffee," a mix of scalded milk, tea and nescafe: not yet ready for starbucks). Bought some inexpensive sandals and a bone bracelet ("cow bone" the woman assured me), then sank even further into tourist-type impulse and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around the very cushy pool at the hotel.

I find myself hovering somewhere in a complicated in-between space about how to position myself here, still. Not a backpacker, not a business traveller, but uncomfortably aware of the relational space of being one of about a dozen white people (all others european) lounging half naked in the sun drinking cokes served by ugandans. In the american equivalent, in an afternoon like this, I might have sprung for a pedicure on noticing how fish-under-water my toes looked in my new sandals. But this made me queasy, the idea of having a ugandan woman buff my heels in kampala -- in a way that having a vietnamese woman in the Beaches in toronto never does. And yet, my money in the economy a good thing. Just part of the complexity, I guess.

C&J arrived while I was doing my lounging about, and A came to take us out to dinner. It was a gorgeous outdoor restaurant that had a lot of grilled and roasted meat and tandoori on the menu. I hadn't realized there was so much of what I think of as indian food here in Uganda. We had a masala of a meal, featuring butter chicken, naan, basmati rice, steamed vegetables, grilled pork chops, tomato salad and -- the highlight -- half a roasted leg of goat. After we ordered, our server moved us to a bigger table. "You need a bigger table for a leg of goat," said A.

There is a sign on a butcher shop in my own neighbourhood that boasts of fresh goat meat, but I had to travel 8 time zones to eat it. I am assuming that this goat here was cooked as well as goat could be. It tasted ... like goat. (And I have to confess I was already a wee bit queasy before the goat -- maybe just travel, maybe water, maybe the malaria tablets -- but not iron tummy YUM GOAT ready).

Our talk at dinner turned sobering, back to war and leaders who will not leave power, and the Rwandan genocide, what followed, and whether Uganda is already furtively involved in the current conflict in Congo. A believes they are, and laments the government that can't be trusted to protect the people. He told harrowing stories of bodies in Lake Victoria after the Rwandan genocide, and horrific details from the war in the north of uganda, more searing details of genocide. We talked of the kids' origins, and how they've come to be in our care, and how we have a mix of Hutu and Tutsi children, among others. I try not to imbue this with too much audacious hope.

We meet the children tomorrow, after a long drive. They are feeling more and more real to me.

I'm not sure how much internet access I'll have after tonight, and whether I'll manage to post any pictures. This is a borrowed computer, and when I tried to load pictures from my camera, it just sort of yawned at me gently. I'm trying to download software, but it's an extremely slow connection, and sleep may overtake the process. My head is full, as active as our wobbly table at the lunch restaurant. "The table is dancing," said A, as he asked our waiter to move us to a different seat. The phrase encapsulated my day, wobbles either tiny or grappling at a level of global complexity, but completely, utterly, fascinating.

Posted by CateinTO 21:24 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (5)

Fresh Cuts

That was a sign on the road between Entebbbe (airport) and Kampala. Fresh Cuts. Meaning impenetrable - meat? Trees? It was a business closed up.

First impressions: darkness, no city light spill. Life in outline on the road between Entebbe and here -- people walking, side-saddle on motorcycles, crowded on the edge of the road, on balconies, in little hut businesses with blue bare tube fluorescent lights, turned sideways. Shell the most visible brand, with the shock of the same gas station convenience signage as the potato chip and lottery ticket purveyors at home. Acrid smell in the air, the chaotic traffic I find I take for granted.

Saw the road in shadows and through the chatter of a fellow passenger, ex-pat american from CT living in the netherlands, software sales, friendly and unnerved by the driving.

I'm kind of reeling from the absurdity of driving through this african strip of life and ending up in... a Sheraton, complete with white terry bathrobe and wifi that works better than the wifi in the KLM lounge at Pearson airport. Waiting for room service pasta and a glass of wine. Through looking glasses darkly.

A long slow gurgle of a journey, but leavened by two things. One: meeting an american political scientist who teaches at Syracuse, of all places, and who lives part time in Madrid. The perfect seatmate -- I want to take him on all my trips. We'll connect again.

And the serendipity of gazing out the window casually after sleeping, mid-trip, and seeing the sahara below. Desert as it is supposed to be, cartoon desert, camels. Sharp intake of breath. This IS africa. Shared it with K, my seatmate, and watched the sand shift for a while. When I woke up again, it was dark.

Am glad to be here. Can't wait to find out where here is, tomorrow.

Posted by CateinTO 11:58 Comments (2)

Two things

Here's what it is. As I get more hyped up as I get ready to go, I have two thudding pulses that I keep going back to.

First, I am almost shamefaced that I am so untravelled, that I have never even skirted toward the truly unfamiliar, despite my self-image of a Worldly Cosmopolitan Person. Europe, North America, New Zealand. Not even *Mexico*, not the North. One day trip to the north tip of Morocco when I was 9 (children playing hopscotch barefoot in narrow streets, a man in a tent with tea, camels, a scratchy hat). But except for some truly in-the-bush paddling and hiking trips, always the land of espresso, even if offered in gargling Danish. And because of this, I do feel like I could wheel around, off balance, and tip off the edge of the earth. This takes the form of being breath-gasp nervous thinking about arriving in the dark by myself, nights without power. I have lots of books.

Second, I realize I'm still fumbling to describe even what I'm doing. I think I mentioned before in this blog that I have some pretty strong opinions about what we're even doing in this project. It's something about how I'm positioning myself, how "we" (westerners, our little group) position ourselves in relation to this project, to the kids, to the continent.

I met a woman last weekend at the event I was at who said that the thing is, I'll be a white woman in East Africa, like she was a black woman in East Africa. And the world being its polysemous self, I don't know what she "meant" by that, exactly, except that I do. I think that is mostly about the fact that my whiteness has meaning, probably different meaning in different contexts, but I can't assume what that meaning is.

I keep coming back to the word "witness" -- and I get more and more tentative about what we're doing. Kianga -- this woman I was talking to the other day -- talked about a traumatized culture. (I didn't get her words exact, and that seems to matter, but I'll go with that as a placeholder). Where that takes me is -- "first do no harm." And what I've realized in the two+ years I've been involved with this project, it's easy to do harm when you have all of the good intentions in the world.

Case in point. There was a kid in our group who was horribly mutilated when he was five. Rebels killed his family in front of him and castrated him. A couple of years ago, when a few canadians went to the orphanage to meet the kids, set up some programs, one woman promised the boy that she would bring him to canada to get him medical help. Hm. Well-meaning promise in the face of heart-breaking life. So she did it -- she corralled the resources of her world, got a grant, brought him here, got him surgery.

And then. And then?

Well, of course the lived story wasn't nearly as simple as the imagined. He was re-traumatized by the surgery, had nightmares every night, woke up screaming. No one slept. There was some follow up. Surgery was successful, but life was impossible. So our woman moved him to a family who had other internationally adopted kids, and that didn't work out. So he was moved again. He can't go to school because of fuzzy immigration status, because he's 8 years behind his age group in learning. So he's living in an untenable situation, his third home in Canada in less than a year, health repaired but a looming question mark.

It's complicated, and it's so easy to feel like the right thing is obvious, when it turns out to be totally the wrong thing. There is another woman, a german woman, who met the kids when her husband was volunteering for MSF. She took a shine to a girl who is 13, who has HIV, who is a total orphan, as the jargon puts it. She bought her a cellphone (never thinking how this would change the girl's status among her peers), wants to bring her to germany "for a visit." How is this a "treat," how is this a good idea, to take a child out of her own world and show her a world that she can never have?

I don't know the answers, and I know it's proven almost impossible to persuade people like these two women that their "loving and generous" impulses are the wrong ones. And then I also find myself positioned in a kind of ignorant judgment -- I don't know the answers, but I sure can say when I think someone else is wrong.

So that's what going is about. Witnessing, observing, posing real questions to myself about what it really means to be useful in this situation.

Posted by CateinTO 17:44 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (3)

Details, schmetails

To answer the basic questions...

I leave Toronto on Saturday, November 22, fly through Schiphol, and land in Kampala at 9 pm local time on Sunday, November 23.

I'm in Kampala until Tuesday, November 25th. (My colleagues will arrive midday Monday). I'll meet with our partner on the ground on Monday in Kampala, and he'll drive us to Kasese on Tuesday the 25th. We'll be in Kasese until the following Tuesday. Our goals are to work with our program partner and the director of the orphanage on budgets and upcoming program about the kids' education and work training, hang out with the kids, take pictures and videos that will support our fundraising work, tour the schools, meet with local officials, and make sure everything's in order. Maybe take the kids on a field trip.

I might try to take a day off on the final Monday and go to a nearby wildlife sanctuary for one night. And then, on December 2nd, back to Kampala, and then flying home on December 3rd. Will be back midday on the 4th.

And that, said John, is THAT.

Posted by CateinTO 14:54 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Primate behaviour

I was listening to an interview with Jane Goodall on Talk of the Nation the other day, and she was talking about what kinds of things primatologists are observing in chimps these days -- like doing DNA analysis on feces to try to determine whether biological fathers have any special role with chimp babies. And I was thinking, if I had some kind of sciencey bush-lurking observer type in my apartment, they would be very puzzled about my packing techniques. "There seems to be some sort of ritual that requires her to carry one tiny object at a time over to an untidy pile and then scurry around and look for the next tiny object." "Hm, she gets up in the night and utters nonsense syllables as she suddenly roots in a pile for ziplock bags and adaptor plugs."

My packing technique is very slow release. I have all of these intentions about Organization and Segregated Piles and Having Exactly What I Need and No More in the Perfectly Sized Bag.

But then I get this. For a week.


I toss things on one at a time as I think of them, find them, take them out of the dryer, acquire them, print them. It's an ADDish approach that's like cutting one fingernail, replying to an email, cutting the second fingernail, making toast, cutting the third fingernail, going out to buy coffee. And so on.

In the pile? Lightish clothing, new hiking shoes, water tablets, two headlamps (power outages), knitting for the plane, travel meds, first aid kit, new pack, pile of "stuff" for the kids: balloons, frisbees, playdoh, k'nex, candy, magic markers. (Will buy footballs in town). N's much-better-than-mine camera. Still to add to the pile: two or three used laptops just acquired by generous donors (requires a lot of driving around this week); all of my clothes that are in the wash; books; paperwork.

I've been watching the most ungodly concoction of Africa-themed movies this week, about which I'll write in a different post. But, getting very jumpy with excitement.

Posted by CateinTO 09:05 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (2)

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