A Travellerspoint blog

Taking it Back

-17 °C

I wandered around Kampala today in a sleepy, queasy haze, my body having fully succumbed to the bacterial clamor in my intestines last night. When I was here at the beginning of the trip, Kasese felt like a blur of Chaotic City in Developing Country. Now I can start to pick out features -- and it feels so posh, so clean, after Kasese. (Although I can't quite process the absurdity of the tinny Christmas music everywhere and the twinkle-lighted trees in the hotel lobby).

I couldn't sleep much last night -- I was wired in too many ways -- reconnected with my north american world through a steady stream of wifi, thinking hard about everything, trying to remember and get in the frame for a return to client work in 2 days. Trying to process the absurd drama that Canadian politics apparently spiraled into while I was in the time-free mirage of Kasese.

While I was walking around, I was thinking about what I was taking back with me -- the trinkets I picked up for a few people, and the intentions, commitments and list of actions for the kids. What I'm taking back in changed meaning about Africa.

I think it's a lifetime to gain a really nuanced understanding of sub-saharan Africa -- and I've been here about 10 days, in one tiny pocket, at a particular point in time. But I'm already sort of shame-faced about what I wrote about before I got here -- all of the focus on fear and conflict.

I was reading through the conversation of my online community about my blog while I was gone, and I so appreciated knowing that they'd been following and hoping that I was doing well -- but I also picked up a sense of anxiety about this being a scary place. And I know I certainly had that too -- fed it, paid attention to it, almost let it suggest I shouldn't come.

Before I came, I had that conversation with Kianga, the woman I met at Syracuse, who told me I'd be a white woman in Africa. And again, while I still don't know what she "intended" by that, the meaning I now get from that is that I should pay some attention to the frames I brought to this, the stereotypes and assumptions and stories that I let shape my relationship to the project, to this trip, before I actually came. I'll always be muzungu here -- which means white person, and can be affectionate, directive, derisive -- but it always brings a question -- "why are you here, exactly?"

When I was on the plane from Amsterdam, I was talking to my other new pal from Syracuse who happened to be seated next to me, and he pointed out that western children are always taught about the animals in Africa and very little about the people, the history. "It just reinforces this idea of the Dark Continent," he said.

I got that -- and was conscious that my own fears were part of that story too. I just didn't know how else to read them, how to shift it.

But today, walking around Kampala, a little lost but ultimately finding the bookstore I was looking for, very comfortable with where I was, I had a blinding flash of the obvious. Part of my anxiety was about Africa, and part of it was about traveling in a developing country in general -- how I would manage the issues with water, uncomfortable travel, bugs, heat, unfamiliar food. Chaotic roads. How I could shave my highly honed needs (tall-half-caf-americano-with-room-please) into the unpredictable, available slots.

And, I was afraid that muzungu would mean animosity, somehow, that the thuggish stereotypes of African rebels, barbaric dictators, savagery, would somehow thread themselves over me in a way I couldn't possibly manage. I could not have possibly constructed a concrete story of what I feared -- I just feared it. The conflict in Congo just laid itself conveniently over it.

But. But. This is what I'm taking back -- the desire to take that all back, to recant, to pinch myself for not trying to understand more before I came. The fervent wish that I could figure out how to turn off that drip of fear about Africa that I think is so deeply, un-excavatably embedded in the history of European colonization, slavery, racial uneasiness. Just, mythic history, atavistic worry about Other.

It is obvious. But so obvious that it envelops us and we don't probe it.

My other flash, today, while walking around the Parliament buildings by accident, was about the concept of developing country. I think the term contributes to fear -- implies that there are stages of country growth, and that a developing country is in an earlier stage compared to our uber progress, and that we will naturally be uncomfortable because it is less-than what we expect. I think evolving country is so much more apt. Uganda is not moving toward becoming an imitation of Ireland, or an equatorial tracing of Sweden or Colorado. Its evolution fuses technology and medical advances and well-intentioned NGOs and its own history and culture and environment into something that will look as different from Canada as a zebra from a beaver.

On the drive yesterday, I was leafing through a newspaper that our driver had bought, and came across a Woman's Page article about preparing for a stress free Christmas. Exactly the same shape of this kind of story at home. And among the predictable instructions to try buying small gifts throughout the year to avoid a last minute crunch, was the suggestion to buy your turkey early. Wait a minute, I thought -- I don't think people have freezers. "Of course you will buy a live turkey," the article admonished, "unless you live in an area with load shedding restrictions. Your turkey will be very happy in your yard for several weeks before Christmas. Just be sure to buy a female one -- the males can be very vicious and can attack your other animals."

This is Uganda. Frames that feel familiar, with sudden inversions that yank you upside down.

Uganda is this. This mixture of passionate Jesusy religion, mobile phone profusion, post-colonial formality in blazing heat, offerings of roasted goat, people pushing a week's worth of firewood on a bicycle, mud-sided thatched huts, a man carrying a briefcase on his head the way exactly as a woman carries a basin full of beans, malaria, workers talking on cellphones while peeling matooke to cook over a fire, children singing spritely songs about AIDS, mini-buses with unique identities plastered across their windscreens -- Bismillah! God is Able! I <8 Savona! -- sim card and phone minute sales in huts adjacent to open hanging goat and beef, children teaching each other tribal dances and asking for my email address the next, concern about education, a fine bookstore fronted with the most modest of signs, over-inflated currency and a complete cash culture, English inflected with Luganda, Swahili, Runyarwanda, Runyankole -- this is all Uganda.

I've been here for 10 days, and I have not had a single moment of fear. Irritation, and frustration, on occasion, and a bit of recoiling at the strong smell of goat, but not a moment of fear. Never felt threatened by another person, never saw anyone do anything that gave me the kind of frisson of adrenaline I get every. single. day at home. Trying to avoid blanket statements notwithstanding, this is an open, warm, friendly, kind culture. Even persistent requests for more money than we agreed on are amiable, delivered with a grin.

And of course, our children are with us because of poverty, petty and extravagant wars, brutality, disease and abandonment that I can't possibly parse. I'm not squinting rosily at any of that. But what I'm taking back? Is that this is not a broken continent, this is not a place to be feared, this is an evolving land -- as it's been evolving for millenia -- and that my place as a white woman is to help strengthen a few kids so that they can help this country lean just a little bit further to a place where much more of it looks like Kagame's smile when he's singing than like the stories they tell of where they came from. I don't know what that evolution will look like -- I can't know that. But I can believe that it's possible.

Posted by CateinTO 16:17 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (3)

Nikibasika

I slept for the last time under my mosquito net at the Margarita last night. Tucked into my steamy little fort with my headlamp, the final pages of A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, earplugs, my ugly little clock. Listened to the fan whirr on and off as the power flickered into and out of life. Stretched myself across the top fence of sleep without ever managing to fully surrender. Was snatched almost awake at 530 by mournful crowing and an equally mournful call to prayer from a mosque I hadn't even really registered before. I guess the fan's white noise and my ear plugs other nights had blunted it. My insomniac hallucinations fondled dreams around the noise and I floated across many countries.

I keep edging sideways into thinking about saying goodbye to the kids. Yesterday was a blur of queasy succumbing to the constant hammering of bacteria I've been fighting off for a week, rushing to finish up our video profile projects, visit with the landlord to ask him to pretty please put up a better fence. In the middle, Freeman kept giving us feast gifts. Roasted goat (majungo?). Undercooked maize still in the husks. I put one bite of the goat in my mouth and had to spit it out. We fed it surreptitiously to the little kids, who gnawed on it happily, shared our maize with them. Moses didn't get a second piece, so the other shared theirs. He put a handful of kernels in his pocket and ate them one at a time, for later.

Brian tried to give his maize to me, an offering. My sweet needy Brian who sobbed his eyes out when I left. Alex wouldn't let go of me all afternoon, his droopy yellowed eyes and tiny little hands clinging at me. He's always the first in line for sweets, though, and he's too small to really get that we were leaving.

We had a forlorn looking cake that said Nikibasika, had the kids sing Skinamarink (which we taught them and they love), O Canada (which they finally got) and Motherland Uganda (one of the only songs they know that isn't about Jesus or parents dying of AIDS) for the video. We talked to them about our commitment to them, about how we believe in them and that they can grow up to be contributing members of their communities, that we'll support them until they're grown and educated. About how we will be arranging for them to do voluntary service work in Kasese. They nodded, and got it. Then we hugged and there was sobbing.

Bizarrely, I didn't really cry. During O' Canada a bit -- they are so proud of themselves - but I went into parent mode, held the crying girls and poor inconsolable Brian and Kagame. Told them all I loved them.

They fell into my lap, these kids. They have so much to teach us. I had Freeman spell it out for me yesterday. We have kids from Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. We have Tutsis and Hutus, both. We have three different Ugandan tribes (Bakonjo, Banyankole, Botoro). The kids have emerged three shared languages -- runyankole (one of the local kasese languages), runyarwanda (the rwandan language) and english. They're teaching each other their tribal dances.

When we met with the probation officer yesterday, he stressed, in his officious, deadpan, extravagant way how important it is that the children retain their original identities. We agree -- and all but 12 return to relatives or their original communities in the holidays. They learn to cook, the layers of history, their family stories and rites. And at the same time, they're making something completely new, shredding the edges.

This, I think, is why I didn't cry. It's the right work. I will be back soon. And I am lucky.

Posted by CateinTO 17:46 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

The kids

I brought two cameras on this trip -- my sturdy little canon powershot elph and N's much fancier Powershot D9, the top of the line point and shoot. I let the kids run around with mine and take each other's pics for hours, and some of them are fantastic - they just need to be edited and cropped a little here and there.

There are more than 1000 pictures on my two cameras from the past week, and sorting through them will be a huge, bittersweet project. Terribly frustrating to try to post any with the slow computer, tinny wifi and lack of editing software here. But, a taste. The stunning (in every way) Phiona. And me with two of the ones who really clenched my heart, Baba and Anita.

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Posted by CateinTO 17:28 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (1)

Elephants. Balloons.

We're back in Kampala, and I can jerry rig a few photos. Balloons. Elephants. The Kasese food market. All of us at Kepp Resort for our swimming party. (Note to self: do not ask non-english speaking waitstaff who don't know how to use a camera to take group photos when you are short. This is the only one in which you can see more than a tuft of my hair).

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Posted by CateinTO 17:17 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Mr. RDC

The sun burns white dust today. Our last day. We do errands this morning to avoid thinking about tonight, saying goodbye to these kids.

One of the big things we need to work out is that we're not actually a legal entity here. We need to register, get paperwork, get each of the kids' guardians to approve a care order so that the kids are with us legally. The process is like one of those lion fences you drag together in the serengeti. The Impenetrable Forest. "First you need a letter from the head of the LOC council 1. Then you need a letter from the LOC council 2. Then you need a letter from the LOC council 3. Then you take these letters to the Kadde-Net." It ends with a visit from the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. And only THEN can our director visit all of the kids' guardians to get care letters, 1 by 1.

It feels impenetrable, but the probation officer is on our side. And so is Mr. RDC, the head bureaucrat of the entire district. After our hallucinatory four hour meeting with him last week, we invited him to the house for a concert last night. To our surprise, he came. A honk at the gate, a pick up truck with a soldier with a rifle standing in the back.

A triumph. Declared himself 100% behind us, gave the children a little speech about growing up healthy, how AIDS was a kind of gift because we know how to look out for it, not like if a mosquito bites you. Talked about peace and how only with peace can we have people with good hearts come to help us. People who are not even the same colour who love the children like parents. We couldn't have asked for anything more.

The little boys slipped out of formation to harass the soldier, but the big kids heard. They know we are committed to them, that the community is there. We had the kids sing him a frayed version of O Canada we've been teaching them. We made up actions. They love to stand on guard, little salutes with one arm at the side.

While they stand on guard, in the background, our watchman becomes untrustworthy, trying to quietly disrupt -- disorganize us, as they say here -- because of his loyalty to the founder. As we drive back to the hotel, full of the RDC and community support, the feel of the little hands of the kids stroking our curious skin and hair, the littlest ones clinging to each of us like babies, we have to give the director permission to fire Ronny with his spear and his whistle and hire an auxiliary police officer for a couple of months. It barely causes us a ripple. The kids are all.

All day yesterday, the kids were slipping us folded pieces of paper. Love letters. Requests for pen pals. Letters To the Canadians. Complicated folds to make envelopes, colourful drawings. Passionate pleas. "Auntie Cate I love you so so so much." I cannot bear to think of leaving. I drained tears steadily while the RDC was speaking.

My sleep was feverish last night. The electricity was going on and off, and everytime I woke, I realized I was dreaming of the children. Wilson, grown up, the Mayor he wants to be. Baptista a doctor, his prized fedora still askew.

The mountains here are rounded, sensual, inviting. But Able is adamant that no one who could afford anything better would live there. The green ridges hide congo and all its chaos. They call to me to climb them, but I know that up close the paths will be slippery dust, few handholds. In this work, I climb those ridges, find my footing one step at a time, have to constantly decide where momentum will provide the most balance, where I need to steady myself after every step. This is the work.

Tonight, we bring cake and farewells. Promise them our commitment, again.

Posted by CateinTO 00:29 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (2)

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