Monday, April 26, 2004

Not really an 'upper', this one

Well, I've decided when I'm coming home: I'll be departing Uganda on August 2nd, arriving in Toronto very early (middle of the night, really) on August 4th, with a 24-hour layover in London in between. So now you all know!

The last little while has been sort of strange: After a big night out on friday for a friends's birthday, my friend Tina got a phone call at 6:30 a.m. from her mother in Vancouver: Tina's sister had passed away from a brain aneurism the night before. Quite a shock, obviously. Tina's sister had suffered for years from chronic and debilitating migraine headaches, and had long been on daily doses of morphine. I have no idea if the aneurism and the migraines were related. My thoughts are with Tina and her family this week.

In the spirit of the weekend, things were pretty low-key: I spent both saturday and sunday nights watching movies - Lost in Translation (which I'd already seen in toronto) and 21 Grams. During 21 Grams, the guy behind me only talked on cellphone for part of the movie.

On another note, I've recently started working on a new project here, one that isn't related to my work at U****. My friend Darren, a Canadian teaching at the Aga Khan High School, was talking about the community service project he was supposed to start and supervise, and Sara was talking about her recent work-related trips to Gulu, the epicentre of the horrendous civil war in the north of Uganda. (This is such a tragic issue- if you haven't read about it in my previous posts, follow these links to get an idea of what is going on up there. Save for the occasional token article, this is largely, and tragically, being ignored by international media.) The theme of the discussion, as you might guess, was that both of them really wanted to be able to 'do something' to support the victims.

You often hear about the impact of war on children - parents killed in combat, destruction of homes, accidental civilian casualties, the psychological impact of war on kids. This war is a little different: rather than being bystander victims, this war is being fought by children. The rebel forces, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) simultaneously replenishes its fighting forces and decimates the local population by raiding villages (usually at night), burning down homes, often killing the parents, and always abducting the children for use as soldiers. The target age for abduction is 7-14 years old. Boys and girls are marched for days over the border into southern Sudan, where they are tortured and brainwashed, if they survived the walk to Sudan at all. Often, they are made to kill other abductees from their own village, so that should they escape, their status as a murderer will ensure that they will not be re-accepted by their families or community. Currently, the average rate of abduction is 30 children per night. In response to this, tens of thousands of children walk 2-15 kilometers into Gulu town from their villages in the Gulu District in order to sleep in the relative safety of the city's verandas, churches, school yards, and 'night commuter centers'. They then walk back to their villages again in the morning. 90% of the population (1.2 million people) in the north have been forced to leave their homes - either from fear, or because their villages have been destroyed - and now live in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps, in desolate, dirty, horrible conditions. There are only 25 guards for 25 000 IDP residents, and so the camps are scarcely safer than the villages they've left. Many have lived there for years. Many children were born there, and know nothing else. It isn't a life.

Darren knew that both he and his students wanted to help the youth in the north. Sara knew that she wanted to do something for the IDP camps, the night commuter centres, or one of the youth-organised NGO's she'd come across on her visit. Myself and another one of our friends, Zahid, heard this discussion and decided that we wanted to do what we could as well.

What we've come up with is the Children of the North Initiative. Managed by the four of us, but actually run by 15 of Darren's senior students, the Initiative is going to try and raise the equivalent of $100 000 US in cash and goods for our three chosen beneficiaries: the night commuter centers of Noah's Ark, which houses 5000 kids per night, and Charity for Peace; as well as the youth-run SOS Children's Fund, which provides school fees, clothes, basic health care and nutrition to displaced children. Also in the works is the production of a documentary about the process and the meeting of the Aga Khan students and their counterparts in the night commuter centers of the north.

I'm really excited about this project - it's an opportunity to do something amazing for people who really need it, and whether we raise $100 000 or $1000 it will make a difference in the lives of at least some kids. Wish us luck! (Or better yet, send us money... or building supplies such as cement, bricks, iron sheets, nails, and septic tanks, clothing, blankets, sleeping mats, jerry cans, plastic basins, salt, soap...)

Monday, April 19, 2004

today, it is sunny.

Well, i've made my wedding-speech debut, and I eased into the job by doing it at a wedding where I don't speak the language of every other speech-maker and speech-listener there.

My co-worker, Ruth, was married on Saturday, and in the Ugandan tradition of keeping the speeches looooong, and of showing off the white people, I was asked to make a speech, despite the fact that I've only been working with her for 2 months, and i've never seen her outside of work or met her husband. So my speech was pretty creative - she's wonderfull at work, so hard working and friendly, i'm sure these traits will help her go far in life, and to build a wonderful marriage, blah didee blah blah!!! I think i did okay, because later in the evening I was ceremoniously presented with a sort-of-stale cake that was decorated to look remarkably like a woman's hat. Despite the gloriousness of the event though, because i chose to wear a (borrowed) shiny green satin dress, there will be no photos.

A quick, funny story i wanted to relate: The white water rafting companies in Jinja all employ kayakers to go along on their rafting trips - to fish people out of the water after they've bailed out of the raft, and to take digital pictures and videos of the rafting, so that they can sell picture CDs and DVDs to the rafters at the end of the day. The kayakers put the cameras into plastic dryboxes, which they stow under their legs in the kayak, and pull out when they clamber on shore or onto mid-river rocks to do some filming. Well, a couple of weeks ago, one of the kayakers was summoned to a village council meeting at one of the villages that is towards the end of the section of river that is rafted. He was told to bring the box with him. It turned out that the whole village was upset and angry about this box they always saw him carrying around all the time, and pulling out of his boat with such regularity - this box, this magic box, that he was obviously using for witchcraft. Yep, that's right. He had to go to a village council meeting,open it up, and prove that his yellow plastic box didn't have any powers, and that it had nothing to do with voodoo.

I can't decide if that tops the story of the major league soccer match that decended into a chaos a couple of months back after the losing team decided, mid-way through the game, that the winning team was obviously using voodoo.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Happy Weekend Everyone

Happy Weekend!! I'm off to meet somebody 15 minutes away in 5 minutes (I just thought everyone at home might be comforted to know that some things, like being chronically late, never change!) I've been really crappy about emailing lately - so here's a hello to everyone, and a message that the realisation that staying here an extra three months means not seeing my friends and family for an extra three months, and so i wanted to say that i love/miss everybody! (where appropriate, of course ;-)

And where the heck am i going to get an extra three months worth of contact lenses?

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Take two

This entry is called 'take two', because, well, its the second time i wrote it. Trust me, the first time (before the power went out and I lost all my work) it was so absolutely hilarious and eloquent. This time, you're just going to have to settle for this:

Its tuesday evening and I'm about to leave work. I have a really bad cold, so i'm feeling kind of draggy and I'm looking forward to getting home. I know, I know - a cold in Africa. ha ha.

Gorilla tracking was great - i'm going to post some pictures on here soon. It was a gorgeous hike, and not nearly as hard as everyone made it sound. Because wild gorillas don't exactly stick to the trails, a lot of the hiking was off-trail, and it was quite a lesson in what the 'Impenetrable' in "Bwindi Impenetrable Forest" means - as soon as we left the path, we ended walking over the forest rather than through it. The vegetation was so dense that our guides were just hacking or trampling the vines and branches ahead of us, so that sometimes we were walking probably about 2 feet above the actual ground, stepping on layer upon layer of dense plant life instead. We were lucky in our tracking and viewing experience - it took us only about two hours to find the gorillas, and when we did, we had amazingly clear views of them, including the silverback (the leader of the group, and absolutely huge) as well as a couple of baby gorillas. We were really close to the gorillas - at times only about 2 meters (6 feet). I would have thought this would be a little scary, considering the warning we got of "If a gorilla charges you, don't run or move, just stay still and avert your eyes" before heading out. Instead, it was just amazing and awe inspiring. It was fascinating to watch them - peeling away the outer layers of plants to eat the tender stalk, feeding the babies; despite the hairyness and knuckle-dragging, it seemed wholly beleivable that we share 97% of our DNA with them!
It rained while we were actually watching the gorillas, so the walk down was pretty muddy and slippery! I actually prefered the walk up, beleive it or not - not so much fear that a slip would send me careening down a mountain! By mid afternoon, we were back on the outskirts of the forest, where we went to our banda to change out of our muddy clothes and reward our hard work with a beer and some trail mix :-) (By the way, if you're interested in gorilla trekking, you can read another account i really enjoyed, by a weblogger with much better writing and web-design skills then me, at Vagabonding)

The whole gorilla trip was good - the group of girls was great, we were all a lot more 'on the same page' as far as what we wanted to do and our travelling style. On the way back to Kampala, we broke the drive up over two days (its about a 12 hour trip, three hours of which you are circling up down and around really sheer hillsides, half a foot from the edge of the road), so we were able to stop at interesting places along the side of the road as we went. We stopped and bought some sugar cane to chew on at a crazy busy roadside market, where apparently there was no shyness about cirlcing our truck and staring at us, unwaveringly, for a good 15 minutes, while our driver bought some matoke; we tested the 'water swirls down the toilet in opposite directions in the north and south hemispheres' theory at the 'Equator' marker, and sampled some unidentified fruit at a roadside stand. (The woman there told us it was called 'tomato', but since it was, well, definitely not a tomato, it's still a bit of mystery.)

This past weekend, Easter, was fun too. I had the opportunity to go on another trip to the western part of the country, but decided that i just didn't want to go on another long car ride so soon after the gorilla tracking trip. So instead, on friday night I went to a Sean Paul concert, which is quite weird - what he was doing in Africa i'll never know!! It was a lot of fun, and I even managed to get all the way up the front, right by the stage (Sean Paul gets pretty sweaty, by the way.) On saturday morning i drove to Jinja with two friends - Sara and Kristen - to hang out during the day by the pool at Jinja Nile Resort (although it was too cloudy to really suntan or want to swim), and then go to a 'full moon party' at Adrift, the rafting company that hosted the last party i went to in jinja. That night (saturday), we went to the pre-opening of a fancy-shmancy new restaurant for dinner, where it POURED for a couple of hours, effectively stranding us there, and then Kristen's car broke down - for apparently the millionth time this month, so we had to get a ride squished into the trunk of someone else's SUV back to the party location, where we were also camping for that night.

The next day, i went on a trial run of this 'village walk' a couple of kilometers out of Jinja. (Sara works for the Ministry of Gender and Youth, and is helping a local youth group there develop this village walk as a way of encouraging business skills and local tourism, and needed people to test the walk out on.) It was really interesting - we walked around the village and learned about all the different different local crops (i saw things like coffee and vanilla growing, which i hadn't seen here before), visited the local medicine man and learned some local practices (I now know which leaf to squish around in a cup of water to 'cure' malaria, and which one improves male potency - although our guide made a big deal of insisting that he had no idea which leaf this would be), and had a story told to us by an old woman - translated by the guide. Getting the chance to interact with an older Ugandan is quite a unique experience - with an average lifespan in the late 40's, the elderly are quite rare and respected. My favourite aspect of the walk though were all the kids - a group of about a dozen kids followed us the whole way, at first hanging back, sort of nervous and scared, and then smiling at us, and holding our hands while we walked. It was really cute! At the end, we ended up having to huddle in a hut while we waited for rain to end, and all the kids sang us songs they learned in school. After the walk, we returned to the Adrift campsite and stayed an extra night, which was relaxing as most people had left at that point.

When i got back to kampala on monday, i ended up going to bed at noon and not waking up until 7- i am so definitely sick!! But when you have a cold here, you just have to be glad that its not malaria or dysentery, or one of the mysterious viral infections, like a few other people i know!!

On an entirely different note, I am pretty certain that i will be staying here until july - working until June, and then travelling in July. U**** has extended my contract, and I don't have any pressing need to go home, so I'm going to stay - it will make my work experience that much more substantial. It also means that I either have to pay rent in toronto while I'm not there, so try to find someone to sublet my room for those extra three months - So if you're in toronto, and need somewhere to stay from May to July, let me know! (But my roommates have to like you!!)

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

I've done a bunch of stuff... Here's some photos (follow the links)...

Around Christmas & New Years, I went to Zanzibar. I played the "bathing beauty" (note use of "air quotes"), went snorkeling , took walks on the beach at low tide, saw gorgeously dressed Zanzibari women take their kids to collect water, and shelter from the rain.

About a month ago, my friend Heather and I hosted a potluck dinner.

And a few weeks ago I went upcountry to Murchison Falls National Park. We went on a game drive and saw lots of elephants and hippos, and some baboons crossed the road. Later that evening, a family of warthogs snuffled around the banda we were staying in, and then we all recovered around a campfire.

I've hung out with a bunch of primates at Chimp Island and in the home of mountain gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Photos from those are coming soon...