Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Contrasts

It’s a been a busy, crazy, heartbreaking, fascinating, relaxing and fun exercise in contrasts these last few weeks. One of the things that I find to be a big shame is that when I’m doing the most is also when I have the least amount of time to write in either my personal paper journal or here, on my public electronic journal. I’m hoping to do a bit of catching up today, though.

Last weekend I left Kampala on Friday morning, took a cab to Entebbe airport, and got on a 20-seater plane up to the war zone of Uganda’s north. I was on my way to meet my friends and co-project leaders, Zahid and Darren, in the town of Gulu. After averting my eyes from the window for the two hour flight (it just didn’t seem ‘right’ that such an itsy bitsy plane should be allowed to go up so high) the plane bumped along its landing of Gulu’s dirt airstrip, and I disembarked along with the few other requisite aid workers, two nuns, and a priest (when your life is a slice of hell, a little religion is probably helpful) and retrieved my small backpack, my garbage bag of donated stuffed animals, and my case of petroleum jelly, donated by Zahid’s company for the kids in the night commuter centres. (Apparently petroleum jelly is helpful for protection against… something, I’m not sure what.) Zahid, who had gone up on Wednesday with Darren, was waiting at the airstrip with a special-hire (a.k.a. taxi) driver to take me into town, about 10 minutes away. The first thing I noticed – besides the intense heat – was the desolation. African towns are, in general, pretty run-down looking, but Gulu was run down in a more extreme, and somehow different way. While other towns can use a few coats of paint and some rust remover, Gulu just looked completely… ignored, left, shed, and just not cared about. Priorities are elsewhere for these people. Buildings are just left abandoned and empty, or used and completely uncared for. The whole region is like this – ‘fled from’. On the flight up, you notice that below you there are no villages at all – just miles and miles of empty scrub land. No huts, no roads, no livestock, no agriculture. After all, 90% - literally – of the people in the north are living in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps because the villages have either all been destroyed by the LRA or they are in such danger that they are not worth inhabiting.

We arrived at Gulu’s most luxurious hotel, Hotel Kakanyero, where 14 bucks a night gets you clean sheets, clean bathrooms, and Gulu’s best alternative to matoke, the ubiquitous ‘chickenandchips’. (By small-town African standards, these are pretty impressive offerings, and I was pretty happy to pay the ‘extra’ money for it.) The hotel management had done their best to be ‘different’ – every floor had a theme: wildlife, rainbow, and universe. We were on the universe floor – I was in single room ‘Venus’, the boys were next door in double room ‘Earth’. Cute.

Most of our appointments and meetings were to take place in the evenings, since we were, of course, there to meet with our contact people at our target beneficiaries, Noah’s Ark and Charity for Peace, which are mainly active at night, given that they are night commuter centres. Our first meeting was scheduled for the next day, so we hung out on our balconies for a bit, and then met up with an acquaintance (an American graduate student studying the long-term effects on children in conflict) for dinner. There’s not too many foreigners up there, so she was pretty excited to spend time with us. I imagine any sort of social time that doesn’t involve an interpreter is probably pretty exciting. It was another delicious Ugandan dinner of matoke, potatoes, rice, noodles, and goat. As always, deeeeelish. While we were eating a torrential downpour started, and Darren told me about how, the night before the rain had been even worse, with really high winds; Charity for Peace, which houses a few thousand kids every night, had their corrugated iron roof blown off, and the kids had just had to sleep with rain pelting down on them.

The next morning, after a breakfast of ‘English tea’ (as opposed to African tea, which is basically homogenized milk boiled with ginger and some other spices) and boiled eggs (cause you can’t really screw that up) we went off to Noah’s Ark – first, so that we could see it and understand more what they need from us, and second, to meet with some of the kids from the Centre’s art club. Since it was Saturday, and the kids didn’t need to walk back out to their under-a-tree schools, a group of them had stuck around to meet with us. This one boy, about 11 years old, named Innocent, had been put in charge of organizing the kids into making art of us. We were there to collect a few of the best pieces, and to explain to them why were taking them. Our plan is to put the art into a silent auction at our first fundraising event (a family-focused ‘fun day’ bazaar). I was really impressed with what these kids can do with almost nothing – no glue, no paint or markers or crayons. We took home some bean mosaics, some cars made from sticks, and the really incredible thing, a clay camera, with a found camera lens put into it. The kids listened quietly while Darren explained what we were going to do, and Innocent helped with the translations.

The centre itself was fairly innocuous at this first sight. There are a couple brick ‘buildings’ with walls that reach about waist high, and several large tents with the word ‘UNICEF’ printed along the top, and a couple of port-a-potties. It wasn’t until we returned that night, at around 7 pm to watch as the kids started to commute in, that the state of the place really had an impact. Noah’s Ark was started in February 2003, just over a year ago, as Gulu’s first night commuter centre. (Prior to that, all the kids were sleeping on store verandas, school yards, and church courtyards.) It was set up to accommodate 300 children, and had 374 on its first night. The night we were there, the centre was sleeping about six thousand kids. The place is bursting at the seams. About 300 children sleep in each tent, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. They are separated by age and gender, with a special tent for the girl-mothers and their babies.

The most incredible thing happened though, when a group of girls noticed the centre had visitors, we were called over to an area near their tent, and they all began to sing these incredible welcoming songs. Despite everything they were enduring they still wanted to make sure that their guests felt welcome and happy, and it was really heartwarming and heartbreaking to see that they still had some happiness and humanity inside of them despite where they were living. One of the songs asked that their visitors “not go home and change their statement.” I guess they’ve had a lot of people come and promise help, only to go home and do nothing. When the singing was done, we walked back down to the main area of the camp where a few boys had started drumming earlier and where by now there was a huge crowd – maybe a few hundred kids, mostly boys, dancing and singing and drumming. Spontaneous African music, no matter what the circumstances, is a pretty amazing, full body experience. The beat, the passion, the intensity… it’s very hard for me to describe it, this moving, pulsing island of joyful fury, in the sea of the misery of that camp. It was easy to experience, but very difficult for me, still now, to understand it or express it to others, in a way I feel gives justice to how it felt. How it still feels. To walk in to a place where people are living in hell, to try to understand how they are coping with something that to me looks un-cope-able, and then to be able to walk out of it, and back to my hotel room… Its not that I feel guilt, it’s more that I feel…a lack of understanding of it all.

Back to the hotel, nap, eat, out with the boys and the American grad student, Jessica. She doesn’t normally get to go out – to gulu’s only bar – because as a white woman alone it’s just too much hassle. Up really early the next day (Sunday) to see the wake-up/departure process at Noah’s Ark. Pretty impressive actually, considering that they are dealing with 6000 kids to seven (yes, that’s right, seven) staff. Each tent has a ‘prefect’ and they make sure everyone is up, folds the blankets if they have them, and is out of the tent and at the gate by 7 a.m. The kids sit in neat rows radiating out from the gate entrance like spokes on a wheel, each of their backs tucked into the ‘v’ of the legs of the crouched kid behind them. Each row is let out the gate one by one, to prevent too much mass chaos from occurring out on the road. It was hard to watch a lot of the violence taking place during the wait, and once the gate was opened. A lot of pushing, shoving, poking with sticks, general aggression. Can’t say I blame them though, really, I don’t know how well I’d be behaving in their place.

Back to the hotel, a nap, and then Zahid and I, the Muslim and the Jew, went off to spend the rest of our Sunday morning with one of the hotel waiters at the town’s Catholic Church. The church was actually really beautiful, and definitely one of the prettiest churches I’ve seen anywhere. Everything was painted in bright, pretty pastels, and all the church-goers in the packed hall were wearing the beautifully colourful clothing that is so common here. It easy to see why photos of Africa are often so beautiful – everything is so colourful and intense looking. After sitting through the first 20 minutes of the English-language mass (which followed the Luo-language mass, held a bit earlier), Kenneth (the hotel waiter) led us out of the church and on a fantastic tour of the town’s massive market – I bought mangoes – and of the edges of the town. A bit past the market is the strangest little village area. In most Africa villages, the houses/huts (aka ‘bandas’, picture smurf houses but without so much mushroomy-ness) are made of dirt or dung, or sometimes painted clay, with straw roofs, but this village area had uniformly spaced huts, built in the traditional size and shape, but made entirely out of sheet metal. It was sort of eerie and surreal, this pre-planned subdivision-like village. It was explained to us that a village that had been just outside the town limits (a few kilometers away) but had grown too dangerous (again, because of the LRA), so rather than relocating to an IDP camp – a truly truly horrible place to go – somehow this village had picked up and moved a few kilometers over, until they were within the safer perimeter of the town. I have no idea how the sheet metal was paid for though. Some things are just too complicated or sensitive to ask.

That night, the three of us went to Charity for Peace, the other organization we are trying to raise money for. Charity for Peace is a CBO (Community-based-organization) run by local Gulu youth. They work to convert Gulu Public School into night commuter centre every evening, and then back into a school again in the morning. They sleep about 3000-4000 kids each night, in classrooms each labeled with a country name. It’s a good system in that it gives the kids some sort of identity – cause instead of being in Tent 3, they are in Sweden, or Ghana, or Canada, and they can feel like they’re on a ‘team’. Charity for Peace had a really different atmosphere, probably mostly because they have about half as many kids, but also because the staff have goals above and beyond giving them a place to sleep. Their slogan is ‘Children at Home’, and they try really hard to make it feel more home-like, even when they are sleeping, once again, shoulder to shoulder on dirt or concrete floors. (Concrete is for the lucky ones – usually the girls – because they can avoid a lot of the insects.) The staff provides homework help, they do music and dancing and cultural and religious activities. They are also stretched way beyond there ability to provide a safe and sanitary atmosphere. The school is a mess, since not only is it serving its day population of students, but its two toilets are also serving 3000 kids every night, and the place just reeks of urine and feces (as did Noah’s Ark) , and there isn’t even a fence around the perimeter of the property, significantly lowering the level of security there. But the kids were thrilled to see us, and chatted and sang and were excited by the screen of the digital camera. We left the school that evening just as it was starting to rain.

The following morning, I made an appointment to visit the World Vision centre for rehabilitation. (Darren and Zahid had already been on a previous visit a month before.) The World Vision centre is unique in that it is designed exclusively to serve the needs of kids who have escaped from captivity (i.e. they had previously been abducted by the LRA for use either as child soldiers or child ‘brides’.) Amazingly, despite the fact that the majority of the children there had been in captivity a mere few weeks ago, and that many of them had been in captivity for years, when I arrived, I arrived to the laughing, shrieking sounds of a hundred kids playing duck-duck-goose and a tug-of-war. They seemed like the world’s happiest children. It was hard to look at these kids – whether they were playing, resting, doing laundry – and imagine that they had all, at some point or another, killed someone, frequently their parents. And that somehow, they weren’t doing that anymore, and that now they will be expected to move on and… do something else. If this war ever ends, and after going on for 18 years it sometimes feels like it won’t, except you know that it has to, the next problem is going to be a generation of children who were trained to be murderers and sex slaves, with no skills to speak of or family support systems, and with massive massive psychiatric problems. (That last part is is just my assumption, but I really don’t see how that could not be true.)

Later that day, the three of us got back on the plane (Zahid was coincidentally seated next to this Bishop who just last month had been abducted – and then rescued – by the LRA, so that was fairly interesting) and we went back to a delicious homemade meal of chicken curry, courtesy of Zahid’s housegirl.

And now, for the ‘contrast’ part I referred to at the beginning of this extremely long post.

Okay, got back on Monday evening. Wednesday night I went to a concert by Ismael Lo, a Senegalese singer who supposedly sings in French, but in a dialect that makes it impossible for me to understand. It was at Hotel Africana, in the courtyard around the pool. Altogether lovely, but I’m not going to be rushing out to buy the album, you know?

Thursday went to see ’50 First Dates’ with Heather and these two American girls who just arrived in Uganda last Monday, and moved into the flat right across from us. Going to movies is a good little two-hour pocket of Americanism, that sometimes is nice to have. Its relaxing to be in your own culture for two hours, and then go back to living an interesting, exciting, foreign life right after. It was a cute movie but I could have done without the walrus vomit.

Friday: out with quite a crowd of people to O’Leary’s, Uganda’s “answer” to an irish pub. Generally also good fun, and a really minimal number of prostitutes for a bar that attracts about a 50/50 split of expats and wealthy Ugandans. My fellow project-leaders and I managed to really ‘amuse’ (and by ‘amuse’ I mean ‘bore’) our friends by continuing the month-long tradition of spending the majority of our time talking about the project. (Oh, remember a few weeks ago I mentioned that we are struggling to pick a name? We’re called the N*** Y*** C*** now. The kids think its super-cool that our acronym is NYC. Thumbs up on the cultural hegemony, America!) [update: I've deleted the name, because, well, I'm not sure i want this site to come up if a potential donor googles the project.]

The rest of the weekend was quite the looooong continuous blur. It started Saturday morning at eleven when I had a meeting with the kids who are on my committee. (They are so used to Saturday detentions and clubs that they don’t mind having to go to school on Saturdays, so it sort of forces us to go to school on Saturdays too.) As per usual, there was excellent attendance but none of them had done any of the work I’d asked them to do. Sigh. So I just sat there and made them do it all then and there. Take that, kids!! Bwahahaha. Anyways. After the meeting I raced home (not so far, now that I live across the street from the school), got a bunch of stuff together, and zoomed off to the Munyonyo Resort (about 30 minutes outside of kampala) where about 15 of us suntanned by the pool and rented this awesome super-luxurious cottage specifically because the resort…. got ESPN so that we could watch Game 6 at 3 a.m. on satellite. That’s right, even in Uganda I’m watching hockey games. (Although I must admit I did fall asleep before the end of the first period; I was however kept up to date on the score via all the yelling that permeated my sleep, and was forcefully woken up for overtime, because ‘I just couldn’t sleep through overtime.’ Wanna bet?  ) And just to keep things really consistent for me, the next day people got up and played ultimate Frisbee. (insert eye roll here.)

All in all, two very good weekends, for very different reasons. Tomorrow night I’m off to a party at the family home of one of the students on my committee. Should be another interesting cultural experience.

Okay its 1 a.m. and I’ve spent way too much time writing this. Good night!

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