Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Jack and Ethel

While the UJV is my primary reason for being here, it's pretty easy to find lots of good, grass roots causes to support in Uganda. One morning I was asked if I wanted to see a school just beside Kitunzi where I live. The School, the Jack and Ethel, is a local community school that offers free primary education, kindergarten through Grade six, to 120 under privileged children who would not otherwise have the opportunity to go to school. The school came into being after a woman, Ethel, who had recently lost her husband of many years, Jack, decided to donate their farm to build a charity school. With the largest expense, rent, out of the way, the principal, a teacher and Ethel and Jacks daughter, needed only to secure funding to pay modest teacher salaries. The Ugandan Ministry of Education has provided bare-bones funding and the school has run for several years. Ethel even provides lunches for children who cannot afford to bring their own.

What is so impressive about the Jack and Ethel is the results they have achieved with such little resource. Not only are 120 children getting education that they would not otherwise get, and doing so without proper funding, they are posting impressive scholastic results. You see children who graduate from primary school must compete to enter secondary school and there are far less seats available than applicants. Most people in Uganda pay high private school fees to place their children in prestigious (and thus expensive) primary schools that boast high secondary acceptance rates. But the Jack and Ethel has posted acceptance rates that a nearly equal to expensive private schools.

The Principal of the Jack and Ethel told me what the budget was and its was pitifully low in American currency terms. She also outlined plans that she would carry out to improve the school if she found a source of funding. This included completing construction on new buildings and expanding the number of students to 200, feeding the kids better lunches, and buying reading materials for the children. The latter being a prime concern as they currently cannot afford books for the kids. The staff don't even have a single computer to view the photos I took of them.

As you can see from the photos, the children are beautiful and very happy to be going to school. As we walked about, they enthusiastically recited oral drills, and each class tried to outdo the last.

The Jack and Ethel is a perfect cause for one of my better funded readers to take up and support. For a few hundred dollars per term you could improve the lives of these kids and expand the services the school offers. This is direct charity support work, as I could put anyone in touch with the school administrators and you could donate the money directly to them. There would be no middle man, every dollar donated would go right into valuable community development services. We could even come back here in a year or two and visit the Jack and Ethel to see where the money has gone.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Africa is Alive; A Dogs Life

In addition to being stacked to the gills with people, Africa is also littered with dogs. And like the people, the multitudes of dogs are ruled by the hard fact that life has a different value here. Far from the well bred, pampered Canadian dogs - the yappy, groomed fluff balls who get dressed in sweaters or carried in purses through Yaletown, or the muscular, strong willed companions, labs, shepherds, or mastiffs, who run through special parks in the city - African dogs are a mangy, roguish bunch of muts who are born preoccupied with surviving the inevitably rough life ahead of them. The streets here range thick with dogs, digging in or sleeping upon the heaps of trash, eyeing the rare scrap of discarded food, ducking bodas or four-by-fours in the city streets, loping through the narrow passeges of the IDP camps, snarling and ripping at each other in alleys, and baying in tormented heat through the nights. Dogs 'mean' something different here, except perhaps to the multitudes of love starved children.

Like African children, the life of a dog is a combination of factors. Where, and to whom you were born, and if they will keep you past birth. What kind of genetic gifts those parents left you; looks, cunning, strength, visciousness, cuteness. Unlike a cow or a chicken, dogs don't seem as well valued by the practically minded Africans, for whom the dogs gifts of companionship, security, and awareness are mooted by the particular nature of African society. An African dog must prove it's worth or fend for itself. There are no African dogs going to canine psychologists. None will ever get a hip replacement. Nor will any be put to sleep in their old age, their owners sad and loving hand on their fur as they go gently into that good night.

The problem for me is that I love dogs, and my innate affinity for dogs, the natural instinct to 'connect' with them, is very strong in me. Unlike African children, whom I can try to help, and who actually have a chance at a good life, the African dog that you take a shine to, flea bitten, tick ridden, mangy, but with that familiar and recognizable canine consciousness in it's eyes, is ultimately a lost cause. African dogs seem born with one paw in the grave and to let yourself love them, even just for a bit, is to court sadness.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

What Are The Chances?

In a previous post I had mentioned a Ugandan restauranteur, whose name was Sammish, who had correctly identified my Vancouver accent. This story gets stranger.

Last night I went to Sammish's Restauant, the Tuehende Safari House, for dinner and had the best meal I have had in Uganda. Afterwards we met and had a drink with Sammish's business partner, Wade. The two had been childhood friends here in Uganda and had left when Amin had kicked all the South Asians out. The Tuehende is actually located in a building that they lived in as kids.

Wade called Sammish 'Sammy', and made a reference to how famous his restauants were in YVR. My brain clicked and suddenly it dawned on me, Sammish was Sammi Lalji, legendary Vancouver restauranteur and the former proprieter of both Star Anise and Sammi's. I had always patronized both, and they served incredibly delicious and nuanced food. Star Anise in particular was one of the restaurants back in the 90's, along with Vij's and Tojo's, that pioneered the Vancouver 'west coast+asian' cuisine style and established it as a world class restaurant town. Sammi was a Vancouver celebrity, he even had his own cooking show.

Sammi is now in Kampala, and he and Wade are about to open another restaurant in June, something more fine dining, like Star Anise. It's not as if I need an excuse to return to Kampala, but if I did that would suffice.


Monday, February 16, 2009

A Story For Robyn Hanson

This story, the kind of thing that happens a lot around here, is in response to a comment that Robyn made to a prior blog post.

One morning whilst in the north, I occasioned to find myself taking a 30 mile ride into the bush on the back of a flatbed truck laden with cargo and locals who had been shopping in town. We sat or stood packed between crates, jugs of cooking oil, chickens, and a very valuable solar panel.

My traveling companions had found it funny to highlight to the locals how different I was, my being the first white person they had ridden in the back of a truck with. 'He does not eat with his hands', 'Without lotion his skin will turn bright red in the sun', 'He has never taken a wife', and the final, most shocking one, 'He does not know the lord and does not believe in god'. The Ugandans in the truck gasped and looked at me like a devil worshipper. The friendly woman beside me looked at me with pity. The children hid their chickens from my gaze.

Satisfied that she had alienated me, my companion started singing a gospel song and many of the travelers joined in. I, of course, didn't know the words. After a while the song was finished and my companion decided to twist the knife; "Adams, surely you know ONE gospel song. Why don't you sing it with us?"

In that moment of clarity I started singing 'I Still Haven't Found What I Am Looking For' by U2. Though I didn't know all the versus, and I mixed up the ones I did, I knew enough to lead everyone, church choir style, through the song. We sped through the savannah, under fluffy clouds and the bright equitorial sun, barely interrupted by the huge bumps in the road, whole-heartedly blasting the words of Bono to the countryside.

When we finished, the woman beside me, who had been so cold only moments earlier, turned beaming and said "Adams, I cannot believe that you do not know de lawd, your spirit, it is so whole! I can tell"!


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Beware The Wandering Feet

It's valentines eve and I am the only person in an otherwise riotous Kampala spending the night alone. I made fishcakes with canned Alaskan salmon, which felt like a special gift from the gods. I miss salmon more than I miss all but my closest friends.

You might have noticed that the blog has been quiet since I got back from Gulu. I've even cooled down on iphone facebook status updates. Truth is that, after the camps and the bush and the deep intensity of the experience, nothing has felt worth posting.

After Gulu, Kampala, which felt so exotic before I left, feels safe, gentle, and friendly. I've slept in, read, wandered through the slums, drank with friends in the evenings, and trod the dark, uneven streets home feeling carefree. Even the heat feels tolerable.

I've spent as much time as I could with the kids. Upon my return every one of them came up and shook my hand, welcomed me home. They knew where I'd been, their homeland, and what it means to go there. They seem to appreciate the effort. They've been much easier, more friendly, less defensive with me since. Even the girls, who have always been shyer, have warmed up to me. Today I took them all to the football field and we laid on the grass together, a great churning mass of restless black kids and a giant sweaty muzungu, like some beached manatee, lying together in the sun.

Of course they've asked. And I've answered as honestly as I could bring myself to.

"Yes, I saw what is left of your village".

"I met your brother, he is a good man. His family is well".

"Yes, I went to your mothers grave".

"In your family hut your fathers widow served me a lunch of posho, sim sim, and malakwang .... Yes, I did like it".

What I didn't tell them is what they didn't know to ask. The camp grew around your mothers grave and it's now in the middle of a walkway. Your grandmother, when asked, said that even though she missed you, to keep you at the UJV because it would be a way better life than being in a camp with her. The uncle who sent you here was actually your father. Your brother and you are not actually related at all.

Truth is that after Gulu, being here feels, well, it feels normal, easy, deflated. The adventure is gone. Or rather, the experiencial bar has been raised above what's here in Kampala. In Gulu I feasted at a smorgasbord of raw, concentrated, human realness, the kind that you can't find in places like Vancouver, or New York, or Montreal, or even Kampala. The truth is that I've developed a taste for that particular flesh, and now i'm craving more of it.

So with my trip more than half over, I am faced with a hard choice. Do I just accept that the peak-intensity of my voyage is past, and lounge in Kampala with the kids, satisfying myself that I am doing things for them? Or I could do some tourism, spend some diversionary cash, 'see Africa', go on a safari, or go to Nairobi or Mombassa. Or, if i've really got the teeth and the stomach, I could venture farther out from the comfort zone, and find myself a more dangerous, more real place that is above the intensity threshold set by Gulu. That should be easy, I mean, I'm in the middle of Africa. Congo is closer to here than Seattle is to most of you. That's probably the most fu'd up and dangerous place on the planet! Think of the photos I could get! I could even afford to fly to Zimbabwe or West Africa.

Beware the wandering feet you might not have known you had. Or the ones you might not have despite what you think.

Happy Valentines Day to all my lovely people, may all your knobs and dials get turned the right way.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Myth Busted: Africans Listen To Bad Music

Before I got here, I imagined that a trip to Africa will be an incredible journey to a whole universe of new music. I mean, it's Africa, they know great music, right? Wrong!

I'm on a crowded, hot, scary bus and over the PA they are playing the most awful, sugary, cheesy, American commercial boy-band music. The man beside me, a weathered soldier who has been in the army for 14 years, has his eyes closed and is rocking his head to it. Everywhere I go, expecting to hear cool African music, I hear the worst western commercial drivel, the stuff that you and I can't stand.

And they love it. They love country (Africa's "So You Think You Can Dance" is called "Lets Dance" and regularly features black people in sequined cowboy hats and western boots line dancing..... I s**t you not). They love sappy ballads, like that terrible "Power of Love" song from the 80's, it's everywhere. Nightclubs often Play Kenny G!!!! If it wasn't for the occassional Marley, Marvin, and Prince that they do play, my ears would fall off.

The whole bus was funking to 'Uptown Girl'. WTF? They do love Lil Wayne, but I was starting to get tired of him when I left home.

Even worse, many Ugandans seem ignorant of African music. No one I've met knows who Yossou N'dour or Amadou & Miriam even are. They know who Miriam Mkeeba is, but like Queen Latefah, no one listens to her music.

The African taste in movies is just as bad. Everyone's favorite movies are either 'Rush Hour', 'Sky High', or 'Big Momma'. No one knows Chris Rock or Pacino, but Jackie Chan is god. They know Depp only as Cap'n Jack, one guy I met thinks he actually is a pirate.

I watched some 'Nollywood' films, popular English language features from Nigeria. They were at the level of production of a Rogers Cable show and put me to sleep like two Ativan.

It all became clear when I gave 'I'm Not There', the surreal Dylan biopic to my travelling companions. They had never heard of Dylan, didn't like the music, and barely made it 1/2 way through the film. They hated it.

Forget saving orphans or food aid, someone needs to micro-loan these people some decent media.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Munu Bids Adieu to Gulu

(munu = Acholi for muzungu = white man)

Traveling is all about shifting frames of reference, the things that you think, do, and feel in a foreign place that you wouldn't at home.

I'm taking my leave of Gulu today, taking the bus back to Kampala. My mission has always been about photos, although my dear readers wouldn't know from my recent blog posts, and there are no more new places that the girls are visiting for me to snap. (rest assured that I took LOTS of photos while in the camps and the bush and the posts I made will be updated with them as soon as I can upload them).

It's ironic how ones frame of reference can shift so quickly. When I got to Kampala it felt so foreign and I felt so far from Vancouver. Then I got to Gulu and I felt so far from Kampala. Then I got to a nearby refugee camp and I felt so far from Gulu. Then I got to an outlying camp and I felt so far from the nearby one. Finally I found myself in the deep bush and the shifting of frames of reference just stopped and I was just there..... far away from everything.

Going back to Kampala feels like exiting a deep rabbit hole that I've been tossing around in and returning to the regular world on the surface.

Afoyo Gulu

PS After riding a bus in Africa, I will never complain about a Greyhound again. I would be so happy to be boarding one now.


Gulu; C64 vs. Afrocrats & Eurocrats

I stayed in town today, decided to let the girls go outland without me. As good as it is to have two educated locals with you, there I things I can only see without them.

Right behind the hotel is a large open swamp. In the middle is a fen that is the range of the local Marabou Storks. They cluster there in large numbers. Around it's edge is what I can best describe as a slum. On the other side of that is the 'good' part of town where one finds schools, hospitals, World Vision, and Gulu University. The town is small and all of this is in view of the back of my hotel.

Of course I have to try to get some close-ups of the storks so I thread the huts and mounds of trash to the swamp. In the slum young men are washing the cars of the rich and one, Patrick, helps me to a good shooting spot.

He asks "do you want to see a fish pond"? Of course I do, so I follow him, stopping to shoot some huts and people washing clothes in a drain. Some boys are huddled nefariously under a shelter. One of them shouts at me;

"Eh, I iz called C-64 Overdose! I am dah gangstah! Dis is de ghetto! ....."

....his Jamaican gangster accent is laughably bad, but he doesn't know that.....

"... My boyz and I fuck you up! You cahn't shoot photo 'ere unless you gives me ten thousand".

I really should be scared, but I've gained an over-inflated sense of my own physical strength here - he's about 80 LBS smaller than me, really high, and probably hasn't eaten in days...

"I don't have ten thousand", I lie, "how about I take your picture?"

"Yah you do! Den you gives it to me", he replies.

I shoot the photo, waiting for him to stop doing gangstah poses. I tell him I'll bring him a copy. I will.

"Eh, you likes to get high wit us?" He makes a 'joint smoking' gesture with his fingers, I think he's warmed up to me.

"Opium cigarette, marijuana", Patrick tells me.

"No thanks, I don't do. I will bring your photo".

Patrick and I march on, heading through an alley past a main road to a ghetto on the other side. Safe? Probably not, but I'm 100m away from the market and the police if anything happens. Patrick takes me to a lake of sewage lined by reeds and storks, surrounded by round Acholi huts and small crops of maize.

"Fish pond", he tells me. I can see the churning of the fish underneath the layers of scum and algae. The smell of sewage is rank in the air.

"The government doesn't care about us, so we have to survive any way we can. Me, I have two children, so I wash cars". I understand and give him some cash.

We walk back to the road and shake the 4 part, Ugandan shake (hand, bro grip, hand, fist bump). I go up the road to the good part of town, him back to washing cars.

I walk up the hill past the university to the 'Acholi Inn', the best hotel in town. The paking lot is filled with idled NGO trucks and armed soldiers lounging around. Though I am dressed like an Ultimate frisbee pro, the guard at the gate doesn't even notice me. I'm white.

After a week of eating in the bush, it's time to splurge on lunch - a real lunch - and this place, with its 'old colonial', Rudyard Kipling vibe, will do the trick. The good looking Ugandan staff make me a table on the patio beside a large group of dining NGO types, Afrocrats, and Eurocrats. They're all pretty distinguished, distinct people. The Eurocrats are older Germans or Danes with blow dried silver hear wearing cool Marlin-Perkins-meets-Jinrah-Nehru outfits (fashion icons both, google them if you don't know who They are). The Afrocrats wear elephant patterned Miles Davis shirts over pressed slacks and dress shoes with designer eye glasses. They all have big bellies and they look 'international-man-of-saving-the-world' chic. (Why did they let me in here?) They have a special buffet laid out for them and they laugh alot as they eat. They are talking about Barack Obama's security budget (according to them, $1m per day) and how the president of Uganda can't visit Gulu cus they can't aford to keep him safe.

Lunch, which f'n rocked, was fresh coleslaw with avacodos, deep fried fresh fish strips, french fried 'irish potatos', and a glass of beer. It cost about 25,000 shillings. That's about $15, or enough to feed a lower-class Ugandan family for a week. A one-eyed cat from the garden slinks under the table and meows until I give him some of my food.

Even here I am covered in flies.

A sudden thunderstorm whips in just as I finish. The cat finds shelter and the Eurocrats and Africrats leave in a convoy of trucks escorted by Ugandan Soldiers. I retire to the bar and drink pineapple Mirinda (which is da bomb), while the staff watch 'Total Recall' on the bar TV, until the storm blows over.

Just another day in Africa.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Strange Economics: Soda Pop

An anecdote about the twisted economics of Africa;

I haven't drank pop of any kind in years, but in this hot, dry place, a bottle of Fanta Orange, or even better an African soda called Mirinda, (Fruité, a grape like flavour, is my favourite), is a godsend. When you are sitting at a computer desk in the developed world, sugar water just seems like a way to fatten a herd of pixel-pushing cattle. But after a 15km trek through the Ugandan bush in 45degree heat it seems like one of mankinds great inventions. In fact I have seen remote places where the only electricity in use for miles is a solar panel hooked up to a fridge filled with Mountain Dew (MD btw, is a bit of a novelty here, apparently it's a new product and people take their time to savour their first few sips and then proceed to tell you very seriously what they think). Much socializing, what we call 'having drinks', takes place over pop. In a hot country where many people are religious and don't drink alcohol, pop has a different meaning and takes on a more elevated importance.

So pop, or 'soda' as it's known here, is serious business. However, more serious is the bottles. You see, Uganda imports all it's bottles and then bottles the pop here. Given the sorry state of transport, that means that a premium is placed on bottle recycling. Despite the ground being covered with garbage in many places, I've yet to see a single broken bottle anywhere. Indeed, judging by the bands of white scratches around the middle of a soda bottle, every one has been washed and refilled many many times.

Now the point: this means that the bottle is worth much more than the contents. It costs 400-600ugx (shillings) for a Mirinda, but the deposit for the bottle is often 1000ugx or more. Sometimes a small vendor, who is responsible to return every single bottle that is delivered to them, will not sell you a pop, at any price, without you first giving them empties to replace the full ones you are taking. This can put one in a strange chicken-and-egg position. A vendor will regularly request that you drink the soda right where you bought it, or suspiciously inquire how they can trust you to bring back a bottle. Taking two bottles home might cost 1200ugx for the contents and 2-3000ugx deposit, a lot of money for some.

So, if you find yourself being served soda in a mud- hut in a refugee camp, as I did yesterday, be careful with the bottle. The empties alone are worth more than a weeks worth of food.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Savannah Social Work

It's about 2pm when we reach the refugee camp, we've just walked 8km through the grassland to get here. My travelers thermometer reads 45 degrees. A group of children forms around us and follows at a distance as we enter, staring at me even more intently than in the other camps. A woman brings a grass mat for the three female social workers I am with, a folding chair for me. The children don't stop staring. I drink the last water from my steel flask, and pull out a full, new, plastic bottle from a backpack. As I refill the steel one with the contents of the plastic one, the children become more intent. I finish, recap both bottles and look around. I lock eyes with a girl of about 8 wearing a soiled green dress. As I hand her the empty plastic bottle she leaps towards me triumphantly to take it, and runs off enthusiastically. The other kids sit motionless and wait to see what other treasures we will discard or dole out.I've spent the last 3 days following the ladies to remote villages in the grassland surrounding the refugee camps. A local social worker is guiding us to surviving relatives, guardians, or family friends of each of the orphans back at the UJV. The mission is twofold. In the more mundane cases, where relatives are known, they are given their childs report cards from school, records are updated, and legal custodial documents are renewed. In the more difficult cases, at least half the time, the task is more like personal archeology. Being orphans displaced by war and epidemic, most of them once taken by or having fled the rebels who had roamed this area killing, raping, and kidnapping, many of the kids have cloudy personal histories. Who their families were, how they died, where they are from, when they were born, and even what is their actual age are often incorrect or disputed facts. Some of the kids have records that conflict wildly with their physical traits or the accepted facts of their personal history. For instance, one child's birth certificate identifies them as being a solid ten years older than they could be.

Additionally, the process of clarification often reveals shocking secrets about the kids, and the two UJV representatives are very good at sniffing out hidden 'truths'. Today I saw a man admit that he was not in fact an orphaned childs uncle, but his father. And it was discovered that children who were thought to be brother and sister, having survived to this point believing so, are not related by blood at all.

Desperation, scarcity, and fear often combine to force people who might otherwise be loyal and good to make terrible decisions. An extra child, one belonging to a dead relative, neighbor, or perhaps one-to-many of your own can be, in the sharp calculous of survival, that awful tipping point. One extra mouth to feed, one weight too many to carry whilst fleeing in the night, a burden whose odds are slim anyhow. So names are forgotten, stories are changed, responsibilities lapsed. Who cares if it is not who it thinks it is, maybe it's better that an unwanted child be taken by these Munu's (Acholi for white person) to an orphanage far away from this place. Out here, where life is so close-to-the-bone, perhaps a lie, even a huge one, is a favour.

Looking out over the tranquil grasslands, dotted with circular huts, termite hills, and occasional mango trees, it's easy to forget how devastated this area has been by war and HIV. One does not need to travel far (far in these parts can easily be 10 miles by foot) to find a burned out, abandonded village, a place where families once dwelt, with the often shallow and unmarked graves of the former inhabitants aside the shell of the circular home. Even the inhabited villages, the cleanest and most prosperous, will have a well stocked graveyard out back. The lucky souls will have their resting places covered with a cold duvee of formed, smoothed, cement, their names and dates inlaid below the crucifix. '1965-2005', '1978-2007', '1986-2006', and of course '?-2004'; dates of lives too short. Every graveyard has an all-too-large flotilla of small graves, little underformed things, easily mistaken for early stage ant hills or the mounds of mud sometimes formed by the surging runoff from a thunderstorm. But you know who lies beneath them, forever claiming a lifetimes worth of unclaimed naps. There's often 10 of them for every adult sized one.

So as we trundle across the plains, at least 40 miles by foot in the last 3 days, I can't help but feel that anything we are doing to improve the life of a child who did survive this place is amongst the only useful things I've ever done with my days.