Thursday, November 08, 2007

Life is güt.

Found my green hat. Mom hid it in the wardrobe. She confessed over email today. Still don't understand Pakistan.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Cycling trivialities

2 months, 3 days, 23 hours and 5 minutes since I touched down in DC from Uganda. Feels like a few lifetimes and accordingly, the world hasn't stopped moving on its dizzying path.

The global [steamy] warmth of climate change (yay Al Gore!) just gave out for a cold front, which, after many fickle weeks, finally seems to have settled in across this city. I'm living in the midst of it now, and my newly acquired fall coat with an obligatory stand up collar is just not cutting it. The cold is already penetrating. The trees are all still full and green, but starting to rustle and brown a bit at the edges, like the macadamia-nut-crusted tilapia I left in the oven too long tonight (note to self - edamame only tastes good raw, salted and preferably at a trendy Cafe Asia). I also lost my favorite green knit hat this week and felt my heart break in two.

Anyhow, I'm now walking to and from work, walking pretty much everywhere. My car is lazily resting in a dark corner of the parking garage, occasionally taken out for a spin to the suburban grocery stores. I shrunk my carbon footprint and in exchange am laying human footprints all over the map of DC's letters, numbers and states.

As I sit directly in front of the space heater in my new-ish apartment with fingers poised at the keyboard, I can't help but feel a little windswept and overwhelmed. There's so much to say and I've been sort of, well, quiet lately. So for now I'm going to keep it simple. Who knows if you'll hear from me tomorrow or months from now. Some fresh things to ponder.

News from Uganda, Vincent Otti is dead. Either that or suffering from cholera, which means he's dead. What next?

I went to see Andrew Bird. His rendition of Scythian Empires made me think of giraffes and elephants and bus rides. It also made me cry big fat public tears.

Pakistan is in turmoil. I am trying to read the news and understand, but it the complexity is surpassing my ability to finish articles, therefore eliminating the possibility that I will one day get it.

Since it's too late to see My Children! My Africa! at Studio Theater, you should read the Fugard's play (like right now), stopping often to pause and reflect.

Shameless self-promotion: I guess you can say that among the cycling trivialities, yoga, self pity and family visits, that's what I've been up to.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

good eats in ngo surreal life

Two fried eggs, a cappuccino with raw sugar, a homemade banana muffin and a copy of the Daily Monitor – all served up under a royal blue umbrella on a quiet little patio opposite a huge bougainvillea. This is the new food of Gulu. Maq Foods opened here in May of this year, to the collective and frenzied delight of the multitude of foreign NGO workers in the town.

Ugandan entrepreneur Patrick Menya saw how rapidly Gulu was changing and decided to “think outside the box” about his latest business venture. Menya spent six months working at a catering center in London in 2001, learning about western tastes in bakery and coffee. He returned to Europe again in 2005, attending an international pastry exhibition in Germany and visiting a bakery ingredients supplier in Brussels. The product of his travels and experience in food service was a comprehensive business plan for Maq Foods – a unique European-style eatery catering to western tastes.

It must be mentioned, however, that Gulu is no ordinary town. Lying at the epicenter of northern Uganda’s twenty-plus-year conflict, Gulu is the home to more than 200 NGOs attempting to serve the needs of a conflict-ridden, impoverished society. The town itself was considered a conflict zone until the signing of a cease fire agreement just last July. The boda boda drivers in Gulu know the location of every NGO. Massive clusters of signs point the way to Catholic Relief Services, Northern Uganda Social Action Fund, World Health Organization, UNHCHR, UNOCHA, UNHCR, Invisible Children, etc. It is a bubble of foreign aid allocations, which means lots of dollars and euros hoping to achieve peace in the region.

A year after the cease fire signing, Gulu is a burgeoning hub of economic activity, but sustainability poses a larger question. As peace approaches, will these NGOs still play a role? More specifically, will there be a market for Maq Foods? Menya thinks so. After all, some of Gulu’s explosive growth has come from an ever-expanding trade network with southern Sudan. Gulu is changing, but are those banana muffins a fleeting extravagance in a town that will eventually be littered with little more than dusty NGO signs?

I will retain my sense of cautious optimism. There is much to do in northern Uganda even once peace is achieved. Perhaps the NGOs will shift from relief to reconstruction, and in that case, someone will have to feed all the hungry mzungus. Maq Foods will be well-suited to do the job – with frothy cappuccinos, chocolate croissants, hamburgers, chips and ice cream (heads up NGO workers - ice cream coming to Gulu this October).

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

those amber waves of grain

The U.S.'s obstinate efforts to maintain its image as a breadbasket
(endless fields of glimmering corn in the soft glow of summer twilight)

The agony and suffering of African famine victims
(starving child, flies in eyes, ribs poking through stretched, dry skin)

The combination of these two competing issues has become a charged topic in the media lately, as the 2007 Farm Bill is up for its five-year renewal in Congress this summer. The resulting changes could have major impacts in the developing world, as the Bush Administration is looking for a shift in policy, “calling for an approach to U.S. food aid that doesn’t undermine regional food systems in the global South.”

They actually want to buy food in local markets.

The concept of U.S. food aid came about in the early 1950s, when the government was buying excess products from U.S. farmers and sitting on surpluses of commodity foods. In 1954, Eisenhower signed the Agricultural Trade Development Assistance Act (Public Law 480), also known as Food for Peace. Title II allows for the donation of U.S. agricultural products to meet Humanitarian Food Needs around the world. A simple solution to avoid the costly storing of surplus food and at the same time feed the world’s hungry.

The downfall – Public Law 480 mandates the food aid be grown by U.S. farmers. As time passed, the purchase of food aid settled out to lucrative arrangements with large agribusinesses – not U.S. farmers suffering from falling commodity prices. In short, circumstances changed and the policy stayed the same.

In April, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report revealing the current system to be rife with inefficiencies: rising logistical costs, dropping shipment levels – only a third of today’s food aid money is actually buying food. There are still over 850 million hungry people in the world, and U.S. food aid is feeding less and less of that population.

One proposed solution is a pilot program to purchase food aid in local markets. Benefits of local purchase are two-fold: it simultaneously eliminates the high costs of shipping food from the U.S. and provides a stimulus for local agricultural markets. As a result, more money will be available to ensure that food aid gets to those who need it most.

In Gulu, the UN World Food Program has a facility just on the outskirts of town – an enormous campus that seems to mock the thousands of individuals living in squalor at IDP camps just a few miles away. As northern Uganda approaches peace, IDPs are resettling to their farmland and villages; returning to an agricultural lifestyle. It’s disturbing to see malnourished children living in camps surrounded by what could be fertile agricultural land. One can’t help but wonder how local purchase could have helped in this situation. As the region stabilizes, purchase from local farmers could have provided a stronger economic base to which IDPs can return, easing the drastic shift from living on WFP handouts to subsistence farming. At the very least, it could have strengthened the surrounding region’s economy while it fed the hungry in the north.

U.S. agribusiness and shipping interests are lobbying hard in Washington to keep the status quo. A NYTimes interview with an Ohio farmer summarized the issue well – an observation that could be usefully applied across other forms of humanitarian and development assistance:
"Vernon Sloan, 81, used to donate and ship corn he grew on his 200- acre farm in Ohio to Haiti, Liberia and Angola to feed the hungry. But after years of working with the Foods Resource Bank, he said in an interview, he concluded that it was more practical to sell the crops here, avoid the huge shipping expense and use the proceeds to help farmers in Africa support themselves.

'It's what's needed there," he said, "rather than what we think they need.'"

Saturday, August 11, 2007

the african queen

Just before 2 p.m. on Friday, I was wandering around in the scorching afternoon sunlight after finishing A Thousand Splendid Suns. With nothing else to do, I decided to walk down to the boat launch to see if I could talk my way onto one of the river cruise rides up the Nile to the base of Murchison Falls. The guide was being pretty firm about not letting me on - so I started inching my way over to a ranger boat and chatting in my extremely limited Acholi - "Copango? Cope" "how are you? fine" with him. Turns out he was from Gulu, and I started gushing about the time I've spent thing you know he declared me his co-captain and I accompanied him on his river cruise up the Nile (and learned a lot about animals and very little about driving a boat). I Bogart-ed a boat ride up the Nile! Literally!

We crossed the river to pick up a group of eight very loud Floridians (from Boca Raton), and I fit in just fine. They kept taking photos with the Boca Beacon newspaper (with crocs, hippos and the waterfall in the background). I took a ton of pictures of hippos, Nile crocs, king fishers, darter birds, elephants, buffaloes, etc. The ride was incredible and we stopped at the pool below the falls to take photos as well. It was a perfect boat ride. I walked Nelson, my new ranger friend, back to his village and he helped me make arrangements for a ride to Gulu the next morning.

Robert (Nelson's friend) picked us up at Red Chilli at 6:45 AM and we boarded the ferry to the north side of the river to begin the drive to Gulu. In previous years you couldn't take this route because it was occupied by LRA rebels - one of the most dangerous areas during the height of the conflict. Since last year's cease fire the area has been completely tame. The drive to Pakwach (a small town north of the park) was gorgeous - it actually followed most of the game drive we did the previous morning, and we saw more kob and buffaloes along the way.

We arrived in Pakwach around 9 AM and joined the women with makeshift "restaurants" along the bus park (small charcoal stoves, swirling smoke, boiling eggs, grilling chapattis, little benches). We asked for African tea. A young woman promptly brought over three chipped mugs, poured English tea (tea made with boiled water) into them, and then started shaking in a packet of coffee...which turned out to be non-instant coffee. We smiled, added sugar, and drank down the grainy mixture... We ate a roll-ex (chapatti topped with fried egg and salt and rolled up like a burrito) and boarded the last few seats in the Nile Coach to Karuma - our next stop on the journey.

The ticket sellers for the Nile Coach ensured us "good seats" for the hour long ride - and promptly showed us to the back row. The seats in front of us were permanently reclined and I basically had a boy's head in my lap for the entirety of the hour. I listened to Andrew Bird (I'm obsessed) and zoned out looking at the scenery.

We finally arrived in Karuma, which is a haven for street food vendors - they bum rush the buses passing through, selling ground nuts (g-nuts), a very weird looking orange drink in used Rwenzori water bottles, bananas, chapatti, and gristly goat meat wound onto long wooden sticks. We piled into a matatu and thought it was full and ready to go with the legal limit of 14 passengers. The conductor managed to pack in 9 MORE PEOPLE AND A CHICKEN before we finally left for Gulu an hour later. I put my head down on my backpack and tried to sleep. We finally made it to Gulu around 12:30 PM and checked into Hotel Kakanyero, exhausted, dirty and hungry.

Friday, August 10, 2007

matatu safari

Upon returning to Red Chilli for dinner on Thursday, we were told that a group of four Spaniards were looking for four more tourists to fill up their open-top vehicle for the game drive the next morning. We accepted and met them promptly at 6:30 the next morning....and then our vehicle didn't show up...long story short, we ended up talking a matatu driver into taking us. Yes, we took a matatu on a game drive. We all piled up top on a mattress like the Beverly Hillbillies and had the most amazing experience (albeit ridiculous looking) driving through the park. The landscape is just as you'd imagine (or as you'd see on Discovery Channel Planet Earth or Planet Carnivore or one of those shows)...wide open expanse with yellow grasses swaying in the wind, dotted with acacia and date palms and scrub, the Nile River ambling along its slow, smooth curves in the distance. Every time we saw an animal (and we saw elephants, lions, giraffes, kobs, Jackson's hartebeest, warthogs, buffaloes, and shoebills) I stamped my foot on the roof of the matatu to get the driver to stop. Millions of "oohs," "aahs," and camera clicking ensued. My photos will do much better to explain the experience than my words can - check them out here.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

to the top of the falls

...and were promptly told that all game drives, boat rides and rides to the top of the falls were completely sold out. A group of 40 tourists had arrived in the area the day before and booked everything solid. We spent fruitless hours on the telephone and were feeling pretty cranky and irritable at the turn of events (or lack thereof). After a failed attempt at an afternoon game drive (we arrived at the ferry that takes vehicles to the animal-laden north side of the Nile only to see it floating happily halfway across the river)...we ended up hitching a ride with some adventure-junkies from Jinja on their way to the falls. It was an hour-long ride but took us directly to the top - where you can teeter over the edge.
The experience caused an immediate sense of vertigo - and also a strange desire to jump in...

Murchison Falls is the place where the Victoria Nile and all its famous volume bursts forth through a 7 meter crack in the bedrock, gushing 43 meters to the pool below. Words cannot describe the force of the water as it churns, drops down and swells back up in a frothing, swirling fury, emitting a constant spray of cool Nile water into the air. I instantly had goose bumps all over - it's one of the most amazing natural phenomena I've ever seen. If you still don't get the force of it - fish that go over the falls are temporarily stunned and unconscious when they hit the pool at the bottom - making it an easy and notorious feasting ground for the lazy but enormous Nile crocodiles waitng at the bottom.

road trip: kla - masindi - murchison

Murchison Falls is the sole must-see location in Uganda in my "1,000-places-to-see-before-you-die" book. We tried our best to set up accommodations from Kampala, but everyone we called kept saying "just go up to Murchison, you will be able to set up accommodations from there." We took their advice and hopped on the 6 AM bus from Kampala to Gulu, which dropped us at a random juncture in the road with little more than a few shops and some street food. We found a matatu driver and started the haggling - they wanted 400,000 shillings to take us to Masindi - we talked them down to 150,000 and began the bumpy journey through the bush to Murchison Falls National Park and Red Chilli Rest Camp.

We arrived at Red Chilli - on the south bank of the Nile River - at 2 PM on Thursday afternoon. After what could have been a disaster, the surprisingly easy bus ride and matatu trip left us quite pleased with ourselves. We plopped our things down in the safari tents (basically a regular tent with an actual bed camping with no electricity, if you will). We heard scratching on the outside of our tent and discovered a family of warthogs rubbing their little tusks against the side. Apparently they reside at the camp - we saw them everywhere - eating, napping, copulating, you name it. We ordered some lunch and began the negotiations for activities...

Monday, August 06, 2007

dispatch from the land of the little birds - part II

Ah-Gandhi? As promised, here is the second installment from our journey to southwestern Uganda.

Before I get started, I should mention that we were a bit ambitious when planning the trip. Initially I had the girls convinced to go to Kigali to visit genocide memorials and Virunga to see the gorillas. In the interest of time and money (visas get a bit pricey), they opted to return to Kampala after our time at Bunyonyi and then attempt a safari at Murchison Falls before heading to Gulu later this week. I was disappointed (especially being so close to the Rwanda border - only 60 km or so), but I know I'll be back. I'll have to push Rwanda off for another trip add-on. I'm set on seeing the gorillas, so while spelunking is off, gorilla-tracking has been added to the life list.

Saturday at Bunyonyi was very similar to Friday. We set off from the market launch early in the morning in a dugout and paddled on the glassy water for about 45 minutes, disembarking and walking back on the meandering road that lines the lakefront - about a two hour walk. After the ride and walk, Bosco invited us to see traditional dancing at the orphanage he runs with his Grandmother. We climbed up to their plot and sat on the grass as eleven adorable kids danced and shook their hips to the beat of a single drum. A tiny little baby bounced around to the beat and stole the show. The kids pulled us up and we danced with them, feeling like awkward giants. Afterwards we stopped down at their shop - they make and sell papyrus baskets to tourists to raise money. We nearly cleaned them out of their stock, and of course my mind was reeling trying to figure out how I could ship baskets from Bunyonyi to sell in the US. I don't know if One Mango Tree will ever happen, but moments like that inspire me just enough to keep the dream alive. Plus the baskets are beautiful.

We went back to Overland Camp and I spent the rest of the drizzly day obsessively photographing little birds from the porch of the restaurant and reading my book, The Power of One, which is a story about coming of age and boxing in the early years of apartheid in South Africa. Alexander works as staff at Overland and made it his personal mission to ensure we had a great trip. He's on an apprenticeship for a hospitality management certificate. I've never had better service (he came to our porch to take our food orders and even offered to build a charcoal fire on our porch when we were too cold and lazy to walk the 500 feet to the main restaurant area) and he even took us to the bus park in Kabale Sunday morning to see that we got back to Kampala without any problems.

We were lucky enough to get seats in the middle of the bus for the ride back (significantly less bumpy), but we still did a lot of head bobbing and iPod listening. We also ate a ton of street food (little banana pancakes, biscuits, samosas, etc.). About an hour outside of Kampala we could smell the pollution and see the effects of the heavy rains that had been pounding the city since we left. It truly was a dreary way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but it makes you feel a little better about wasting a whole day on transport. After getting settled in back at La Fontaine and ordering take away (I had a pepper steak from the restaurant downstairs and veggie spring rolls from the Chinese place across the street), our power went out and we sat chatting in the dark for a few hours, sipping red wine our of our chipped coffee mugs.

It's a gorgeous and sunny day out today and Kampala looks freshly scrubbed from all the rain. Sophia (my housemate) and I took a glorious boda ride into town and have been sitting at Cafe Pap enjoying the afternoon. Now on to the next plans - setting up Murchison for the girls...and for me, deciding on an itinerary for the Kenya trip and beyond. Should I be thinking about what happens when I come home? Nah...I'll put that off for a bit. Time to get down to business, drink lots of cappuccino, and piss away lots of time on the internet, just like I love to do.

Click here to see photos to accompany the Bunyonyi trip.

dispatch from the land of the little birds - part I

A lesson in Rukiga, the very philosophical-sounding language of the Bakiga tribe of southwestern Uganda (Kabale District). I never received correct spelling for the phrases, so here's my own pronunciation guide:

Ah-Gandhi - How are you?
Nietzche - I'm fine.

As you might expect, my dorky side came out and I said Ah-Gandhi to nearly every passerby, just to hear them say Nietzche in response.

My friends Keiranne and Brenda arrived safely from the US last Tuesday evening and we set off for our first adventure in the pre-dawn darkness on Thursday. After purchasing Roll-ex (a fried chapatti topped with fried egg and then salted and rolled) from a street vendor, we claimed our seats on the bus - the very last row. Not surprisingly the ride was miserable and bumpy. We did a lot of head bobbing. I listened to a lot of iPod (new favorite for the road trip: Scythian Empires, Andrew Bird off Armchair Apocrypha) and looked out at the passing scenery, which changed from hilly to flat to hilly (soft, bare, golden hills that look like enormous piles of harvested wheat) to terraced cliffs (every inch cultivated with matooke, sweet potato, sorghum, beans). It was pretty peaceful, until a little boy in our row decided to relieve himself on the floor during the first hour of the 7 hour ride, so we had to put up with full wind from the window (just so we didn't pass out from the odor). Ick.

Disembarking in Kabale was overwhelming - being the only mzungus people on the bus (and in the town), we were swarmed with taxi drivers offering to take us to our camp on the lake. A bad choice left us with a driver that snatched my purse and hid it under his seat as soon as we got in the car. Luckily I was tired and cranky and not up for getting a new passport (not to mention losing lots of cash and my debit card). I forced him to stop and found the purse. As you can imagine, I was in full-on bitch mode for the rest of the ride. We were ecstatic to finally get to Lake Bunyonyi Overland Camp in one piece and with all of our belongings intact.

Overland Camp is nestled into a wooded hillside on the lake, with covered eating area, treehouses, tents and cabins. Our room looked out over the lake and had its own balcony. The first thing that strikes you about this part of Uganda is how cool it is. The temperature averaged somewhere around the mid 60s and dropped significantly at night. Our first day we went for a run (my run was about 25 minutes, while hard core Keiranne and Brenda continued on for another 40 minutes). The crisp, pollutant-free mountain air was making me nostalgic for fall in Ohio, so I sat on the porch, read my book and journaled.

Friday morning started at 6:45 a.m., with matte-gray, misty sunrise and breakfast of fried eggs, toast and milk tea before we set off on our hike. Bosco, a 16-year-old local boy orphaned by AIDS, was our guide for the hike. After a brief walk on the main road, we set off into the terraced fields, following a steep dirt path. The first hour of hiking was almost entirely uphill, leaving me completely winded and wondering how on earth I thought I was going to climb Kili this summer. We wound through farmland and villages, at one point inadvertantly interrupting a primary school class - students saw our strange white faces and the entire class (teachers included) ran outside to see what we were doing walking about in the hills. Some of the little ones were chattering on in Rukiga about how we were going to eat them. The turnaround point for our hike was a cave in the hillside, but after climbing in on hands and knees and seeing nothing but a long, very small passageway, I climbed right back out. Apparently I'm a bit claustrophobic (probably from when my brother trapped me in the secret hiding spot in his room so many years ago...). I'll have to cross spelunking off my list of life goals.

Lake Bunyonyi is known in the guidebooks not only for its idyllic setting, but also for its lack of water predators (crocodiles for one, but most notably the lack of bilharzia - a small snail that gets inside your system and eats up your insides...not pretty). Ugandans in this part of the country all know how to swim. Fisherman set nets for crayfish, which is the main source of food from the lake. We spent the rest of the afternoon on Friday renting a dugout canoe (which is made from a carved out trunk of a mature Eucalyptus tree) and paddling out to Bushara Island Camp - one of 29 islands on Lake Bunyonyi. We saw an otter on the way and crested cranes teetering along on a hillside. The national bird is monogamous and rarely seen without its partner. Kind of romantic, no? After docking and hiking up through a forest of enormous Eucalyptus trees, we had lunch at the camp and relaxed (I had crayfish masala with rice - I feared it would be little hardened creatures with claws in a bloody tomato paste, but not so, it was delicious).

Friday night was cold and drizzly, so we had dinner by the fire at the camp and I drank several mugs of hot cocoa and ate "glucose snackies," which are little biscuits that taste a bit like vanilla wafers. I can't go to bed without an adequate sugar intake. I eat so much here I'm starting to think I have a very happy tapeworm living inside of me. I slept like a rock and woke up to day two - another day of canoeing and hiking.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

rainy sunday in kampala

Now it’s really storming.

I mean it. It was perfectly sunny this morning and as I sat inside on wireless at Café Pap, the sky darkened, huge claps of thunder shook the building and opaque sheets of rain began to fall. They haven’t stopped. Last night at 2:30 a.m., I stood outside on the back steps of La Fontaine, leaning against the peeling yellow wall in my pajamas, the hills of the city illuminated by the periodic bursts of silent lightning that streaked the western skies. It looked as if the clouds themselves were exploding, expanding quickly in the white-orange-blue light and then shrinking back into darkness.

I fell asleep immediately and woke up early, even though I’d really only slept for four hours. The exploding clouds from last night had rolled back to wherever they came in from, leaving a slightly hazy blue morning. The housemates are headed up north for a few days, leaving me at La Fontaine by myself…flailing about with all the free time, trying to figure out what to do with it. Lots of tea, reading, writing, yoga, constant musical accompaniment. So I came to Café Pap and ordered a huge cappuccino and I’m still here, waiting out the storm and wondering what’s next.

Friday, July 27, 2007

kitgum on my shoe

I significantly extended my "%-of-Uganda-covered" in the past few days. Traveling the 100 km (which took 2.5 hours) to Kitgum put me within 60 km of the Sudanese border - the furthest north that I've traveled in the country. The road was absolutely terrible (hence the long time to travel such a short distance), and our driver had no idea where Kitgum was. He actually had never been to northern Uganda before and I had to tell him how to get everywhere while we were in Gulu. We left for Kitgum yesterday morning and when we got into the car he asked "where?" Just what you want to hear.

We made it to Kitgum unscathed and eventually found our hotel - the Hotel Veron. It's one of two in the town, and it appeared to be right smack in the middle of an IDP camp, complete with a huge wall around the property (topped with coiled, wicked-looking barbed wire). Inside the gates, the walls were painted with murals (quality and style a la El Vaquero in Columbus), one of an African wedding, one of a DJ with a party scene, one of a pool (yes, Hotel Veron has a painted pool), and one of African wildlife (painted either by someone with a horrific sense of scale, or someone with knowledge of a breed of frogs or rats that are larger than elephants). All joking aside, Hotel Veron is located amidst a community settlement in Kitgum (not an IDP camp), where residents are relatively poor and live in the traditional round huts with thatched roofs - but it's certainly not an IDP camp. Hotel Veron is a bit of heaven in extreme northern Uganda. It's only been open five months, but it really is a great place. The owner, Ben, runs a tight ship -the place is spotless and comfortable and even has a water heater.

After settling a bit we headed off to meetings - the first of which was with someone from the Justice and Reconciliation Project at Kitgum's version of Bomah (the only thing worth mentioning is how much better Bomah is in Gulu than it is in Kitgum). The whole day was spent in meetings - several with local government officials and with the Amnesty Commission - meant to gather information about what's going on in terms of peace-building and justice and reconciliation on the ground in Kitgum district - the hardest hit by the war. Lots more talk about the lack of capacity at the local government level (not surprising - we were shocked to find that people were actually working in the post-apocalyptic-looking office block - conditions were deplorable).

At the Amnesty Commission we learned about the realities facing returnees in the area - stigma from the community, lack of resources, post-traumatic stress, etc. The government-run Commission provides returnees with an Amnesty certificate, a blanket, mattress, seeds, hoe and 243,000 shillings (about $130). This is very rarely enough to get a former child soldier back on his/her feet.

Back at Hotel Veron we had drinks with a guy working on an organic cotton project in the region - providing local farmers with training and equipment to grow organic cotton that is shipped and sold in Kampala. I was happy to learn about a seemingly successful project that a) is serving 33,000 farmers, b) seems sustainable (the market is pretty solid and farmers also get land for food crops to feed themselves and their families), and c) doesn't destroy the environment. The area was a big cotton producer before the war, so it's good to see a return to the crop with an environmentally-friendly twist (cotton production can be really rought with pesticides and such). It can be pretty depressing trying to come up with viable economic recovery ideas for a place like Kitgum (and the north in general, where lack of markets and infrastructure is a huge impediment before you even mention that the entire population is living in dire poverty). The cotton project at least seemed to put a positive spin on an otherwise depressing day.

Funny then, how Uganda always seems to redeem itself when you want to lay under the mosquito net and sob. One of Hotel Veron's past residents was an Italian with a flair for cooking. When the all-Ugandan staff brought out a menu in Italian, we were both confused and delighted. The guest had taught the staff to make homemade pasta and sauces. I had lasagna with fresh pasta in Kitgum and a glass of chardonnay. We woke up to the lavender non-sun rise, spanish omelettes, bananas, tang and spiced African tea (to which I added drinking chocolate, which made it DELICIOUS)...and promptly got on the road back to Gulu. Such a short trip, but it was definitely worthwhile.

After a brief stop for meetings in Gulu, we started the long haul back to Kampala. We literally were run off the road by enormous trucks at least five times. If potholes and bad roads are ever a novelty or an adventure, it wears off really quickly. I'm glad to be back in Kampala - even with the fact that La Fontaine has no running water right now, I'm filthy, and Iguana Cafe next door is blasting Snoop Dogg circa 1993.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

domestic bliss at la fontaine

A dispatch from the balcony at La Fontaine:

The housemates have all gone to see Montell Jordan (of early 90s "This is how we do it" fame - yes fans, he is still making music!) and I just tore myself away from the weirdness of Game Control to write on the stolen Linksys that wafts in and out of our balcony. Today was a transition day of sorts as the GYPA Immersion just drew to a close - I planned to spend the afternoon at the pool, getting some sun and reading all day (drilling through the library I brought along), but the East African weather gods had other plans (demonstrated angrily by the thunder claps and persistent gray drizzle). Instead I ended up back at Crocodile Cafe, where I've become a sort of pathetic regular (the whole wait-staff knows me now, enough to be forgiving when I forgot my wallet the other day and had to run home to get enough shillings to pay the bill). I don't know how many more banana splits and avocado salads I can tendency to frequent restaurants has clearly translated to Uganda, as staff at Crocodile and Cafe Pap will testify.

I had a fast enough internet connection last night to download two new albums - Stars and Andrew Bird. It's essential to have music for the iPod, as the apartment is right next door to Iguana Cafe, which spouts R&B and mid-90s hip hop until at least 2 a.m. My bedroom window backs up right to the bar. Even so, I really cherish La Fontaine. Richard and Jacob, who work in the restaurant downstairs, are wonderful and seemingly ecstatic whenever we come home. The cleaning staff loves having us here - they baked us a fresh loaf of bread yesterday (heaven) and tonight brought us a TV (complete with rabbit ear antennae) and a chocolate cake with whipped cream - fresh out of the oven. I also learned the skill of cooking on a campstove, which is basically what we have in the kitchen - just two simple burners (our oven is broken and used as a storage cabinet) - the fridge, though new, has door issues (aka it's held on with duct tape and often falls off - much to the annoyance and pain of the person opening the door). Tonight for dinner I made a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (yes, I was nostalgic) and I couldn't eat it without applesauce. With little else to occupy my afternoon, I stopped by the nearest fruit stand, bought some apples, and came back and made applesauce myself. Apples, cinnamon and some water in a pan on the stove. Domestic bliss.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

taking stock

The skin of my stomach feels stretched, expanded, constrained within the waistline of my jeans. Filled with meat samosas. Six of them washed down with red wine and Krest. I’m sitting on my taco bed at MUBS, and I pulled back the blue, chemical-doused mosquito net (my saviour) so I could sit on the edge instead of inside the misty blue room. The dormitory is generally filled with evidence of weariness. Mold blossoms fill the corner of the wall and ceiling on one side, their gray-white-green edges peeling back the paint above the water-stain-darkened tackboard. Remnants of last term are on the walls – Akena for MUBS guild, with a corner ripped off. Smells Fresh. Go Getters. Malaria consortium. A lone, misshapen wire hanger with blue plastic coating hangs from a nail in the wood trim above the tackboard. Holes in the screen over the window. Mosquitoes seem to pour forth from that opening, they buzzed in my ears all night before the blue net. The pack that weighed the same as a very fat 8-year-old on the way here now hangs slack and awkward from a nail on the closet door. The old wooden table against the wall in our room is overflowing with random pieces of travel flair – Cutter mosquito repellent – orange lid. Green candle from Chico’s meant to make the room smell like home. Rite Aid tissue pack, used tissues crumpled up and strewn about. An open back of makeup, mascara protruding. My barely used green leather travel journal – have I really started traveling yet? Toothpaste – green and sparkled herbal mint. Makeshift stack of GYPA business cards rubber-banded together. White three-ring binder filled with student passport and personal information. An old copy of the Daily Monitor. Q-tips in a blue plastic case. A hair brush. Pieces of leftover African fabric – fish, abstract palms in red and black. The Trouble with Africa open to page 137 on my bed – about Discord in Central Africa. Never to be read again. Gatorade powder. A mini-brochure about gorilla-tracking. Remnants. I’ll pack tomorrow morning and then on to the next stage. There’s one bare tube fluorescent light on the ceiling, and pretty much every night at varying times the power goes out, sometimes for five minutes, and sometimes until morning. If it happens when we’re still awake, everyone lets out a collective sigh. You can hear headlamps clicking, book pages turning, soft laughter. Generators kick on and sound like the rumble of thunder.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

ugandan pastoral

Imagine a rickshaw – the red vinyl padded seat and unmistakable nylon fringe, the jostling ride along congested city streets, jerking and splashing through puddles of old rain and run-off, past busy markets and yelling hawkers, bleating horns and static from a thousand local radio stations.

Mute the sound until all you can hear is the soft, tinkling bell of a line of bicycles. Erase the people – all of them, and the dusty, reddish brown familiar look of the city streets. Fill the horizon back in with an empty blue sky, stretching in all directions and meeting a green horizon, the thin winding thread of the red dirt track. Round mud huts with brown, white and gray geometric designs and thatched rooftops appear in the foreground. An occasional cow (long pointed horns), a solitary goat (it’s bleating replaces the horns). The red vinyl padded seat with the yellow nylon fringe is adhered to the back of an old ten-speed bicycle. The owner welded little handles and pegs to make the ride smoother, but it already feels like you’re floating. He is in front of you and you glance at his t-shirt; his sandaled feet, peddling diligently to Achora school on the outskirts of Apac Town.

The column of bicycle bodas (all 16 Americans and three accompanying Ugandans) turns the corner into the school’s fields and the bells tinkle once more, filling the quiet air like a stream of cold water over smooth rocks. A large acacia tree and the open air classrooms come into view, as well as hundreds of school children in blue-and-white checked shirts, blue shorts and purple dresses – all seated below a large mango tree and patiently awaiting the arrival of the mzungu parade. One little boy kicks the dust and the chickens scatter. Giggling ensues.

Friday, July 13, 2007

we are the world, we are the children

As my third trip to Uganda, this was also my third trip to Paicho Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, home to just over 11,000 outside of Gulu. It is a four hour walk from town in the oft-scorching sun of northern Uganda. I never get used to witnessing the poverty in the camps; seeing Paicho hasn’t ceased to turn my stomach. I am immediately and consistently struck by the desolation. The charm of rural life around Gulu is lost on this space, which is congested enough to disorient, eternally dusty (except when it is eternally muddy), and seemingly devoid of all hope.

Half of Paicho’s residents are children, many of whom lost their parents to either the conflict or AIDS. It is this issue of missing parents that struck me the most during this visit. It seemed as if the camp’s adults had all mysteriously disappeared. Aside from a few elderly and some men drinking local brew in a bar, it was now largely overrun with kids – dirty kids, naked kids, kids carrying baby brothers or sisters on their backs, kids suffering from kwashiorkor, kids filled with worms and kids chewing on plastic bits found on the ground.

The Juba Peace Talks reached a milestone in the last few weeks when the third portion of the five-part agreement was signed, signifying a consensus reached on accountability and reconciliation. Involved parties are saying that the talks have reached a point of no return - anticipating a finalized agreement by September of this year.

On the ground, this translates into anbother notch of success in strengthening the fragile sense of security in the region. After a decade of life in the camps, IDPs are going home. At Paicho, this means that during the day adults and older children are traveling to their ancestral lands to begin digging and planting – a return to the rich agricultural tradition of Acholiland, and a hopeful sign for a people beginning to feed themselves. The signal of a future step away from the packs from UN World Food Program. It truly is a sign of hope, albeit a mixed one for the children back at Paicho, who are unsupervised until about 2 p.m., when the adults typically return from tilling the land. Another fold in the ever-complex issue of achieving peace and development in this region.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Thursday, July 05, 2007

bamboozled on the equator

The first few steps off the plane in Entebbe in January flooded my senses - that woodsmoke smell and the vague dampness in the sun-drenched equatorial air. Walking down the steps onto the tarmac I breathed out the dry, recirculated Heathrow air and took in huge gulps of Uganda. Six months later I looked out the rain-streaked plate glass window and saw a sky full of thick, blank clouds. I shuffled out of the plane and felt goosebumps from the cold. It felt just like March in Washington.

Rainy season technically ended in May in Uganda, but I learned from expats and locals alike that the weather has been very strange here lately. The temperatures are cool and the rain pours down a couple times per day. It's thrown me for a complete loop and I can't help but wonder if maybe Mr. Gore is onto something. Shivering at night in my travel sheets certainly feels like climate change.

The combination of the unruly weather and that 12-hour transitory gap in Dubai rocked my physical and mental well-being. After running this morning (dodging Ugandan pedestrians, boda bodas and pits of thick red mud), I almost collapsed while brushing my teeth. Instead of feeling invigorated and excited, I'm feeling completely disoriented - as if a giant magnet messed with my internal compass. Where am I?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

a note from the transitory gap. dubai, uae

My backpack weighes some 25 odd kilos, about the same as a fat, annoying 8 year old kid. My intense fear of running out of reading material far surpassed any other reservations I held about spending two months in east Africa. All those kilos are countless pages of 16 books wedged between my yoga mat, tank tops and malaria meds. So at least I have that.

It is 12:45 am in Dubai, and while I am fervently typing on my shiny new international blackberry (two thumbs, lips pursed, forehead scrunched), all the reclining seats in the glassed-in Quiet Lounge are filled with mummified travelers wrapped tightly in stolen Emirates Air blankets and eye covers. Everyone is waiting to be lurched forth to their final destination, and there is a dunkin donuts calling me from across the concourse. It is one of the weirder moments I've had...feeling entirely unrooted in space and time.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Le Musique Afrique

My taste in music has diversified at an alarming pace this past year. While I still get melodramatic to the likes of Sigur Ros and Alexi Murdoch, warmer weather has me craving faster, more up-beat-beats. Happy stuff. Something that makes me as happy as I am when I'm all dusty on the back of a boda-boda. Or floating upside down with my head in the Nile. Love for music, I'd like to introduce you to Africa. Check out my two favorites.

Issa Bagayogo (Mali) - a good friend burned this CD for me when she first heard I was traveling to Uganda. Even though it's West African, it provided a memorable soundtrack for the visit. Historically, Mali is the source of much of the world's pop music (blues, R&B, hip hop, funk, etc.). Unlike other new artists that blend traditional African beats with Western pop, Techno Isso (as he's called in Mali), records his tracks at home - in Bamako. He's doing a great deal to continue the Malian music tradition into the 21st century.

The Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars (Sierra Leone, photo above left) - when I first heard this band at my friend Carrie's house last fall, I immediately liked the music. It wasn't until last night that I learned the story behind the band's beginnings - through a documentary (see it on PBS June 26th!) of the same name at the DC Filmfest. In short, six Sierra Leonean musicians, all refugees of their country's brutal civil war, came together to form the band while living in a camp in Guinea. Facing deep physical and emotional scars, they found healing in the creation of their music, and used it to give a voice to the masses of Sierra Leoneans living outside the borders of their homeland. The reggae beats definitely have a universal appeal (what initially attracted my attention), but the lasting impression is in the honesty of lyrics expressing the difficulties of the refugee experience.

you left your country to seek refuge in another man's land
you left your country to seek refuge in another man's land
you will be comforted by strange dialects, you will be fed with unusual diets
you've got to sleep in a tarpaulin house, which is so hot
you've got to sleep on a tarpaulin mat, which is so cold
living like a refugee is not easy
living like a refugee is not easy

Monday, April 09, 2007

Of blooms, melting ice and despots

It's spring in DC, which means that cherry blossoms are in full bloom, there's a green mist spreading over the city, and a good number of days with temps over 70 degrees. I've been running/climbing/down-dogging like a maniac, and generally enjoying the good fortune of this weather and my new-found energy. That said, I'm finding that while frolicking amongst all of this beauty and activity, I have less to actually say.

I am reading some interesting things, and I'm pleased with the coverage that two issues have been getting in the media lately:

GLOBAL WARMING (generally)
ZIMBABWE (specifically)

When I say "the media," I'm actually referring only to The Economist and NYT - because I've been catching up on back issues and my daily NYT emails. This week's Economist alone included pieces focusing on things like pros and cons of ethanol, Supreme Court ruling on the Clean Air Act, drowning seals in Canada, and the scary findings of the latest report from the UNS's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - which found that we may lose 25% of all species by 2100. I hope that all of this press must mean good things for the green movement, and swift policy least the IPCC's report has laid to rest the argument that global warming is a fictional idea made up by crazy liberals. All of this information is complimented visually by Planet Earth in HD on the Discovery Channel, where Sigourney Weaver's smooth, NPR-like voice guides us across our amazing planet - and pays careful attention to flora, fauna and landscapes that are deleteriously affected by warming.

As for Zimbabwe. Public acts of violence against the opposition party leaders in the country have served to bring international media attention once again to Robert Mugabe's ridiculous dictatorship. The Economist has been covering the story for the past few weeks, pressing the international community (particularly Zimbabwe's neighbor, South Africa) to encourage his stepping down. Regional support for bringing his disastrous rule to an end has been weak, to say the least. Mugabe's leadership was birthed amidst the "freedom fighters," when he led a guerilla war in the 1970s to liberate what was then Rhodesia from minority white rule. Despite hopeful beginnings, his persistent presidency has seen the freefall of Zimbabwe's economy, the highest inflation rates in the world, and a tragically plunging life expectancy (now only 34 for females - down from 63 ten years ago). Hopes were much higher a few weeks ago for transition to new rule - it doesn't look like Mugabe, 83 years old and planning to rule to 100, is going anywhere. At least not for now.

Friday, March 16, 2007

'Cause ev'ry little thing's gonna be all right

In 1989, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 38, proclaimed "State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities." This is one of many sections of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law that condemn the use of child soldiers. Despite these laws, Amnesty International estimates that there are more than 300,000 children involved in violent conflicts around the world today - with 200,000 of those children living in sub-Saharan Africa.

I can remember the most minute details of the afternoon I spent at GUSCO in northern Uganda last June - with an 11-year-old boy that had escaped captivity the day before our arrival. I can see him sitting next to me right now, looking down, kicking at the dusty ground with feet that looked too large to be attached to his skinny legs. He is fumbling with a pack of gum - a gift from one of the American students. I remember the enormous smile that spread across his face when I rubbed his back, and then I remember putting on Leketa's enormous sunglasses to hide my tears when we were waiting for our matatu to leave. The small moments I spent with him triggered a landslide in my mind - shifting the war in northern Uganda from being something I simply read about to being something both tangible and horrifying.

Last week I finished reading A Long Way Gone, the first account of child soldiering actually written by a former child soldier - Ishmael Beah. I was lucky enough to meet him at a lecture and book signing at Politics and Prose on Monday night. I was immediately struck by his small stature - the way he looked like a child lost in his father's corduroy blazer. But as he began to speak to the age-diverse crowd of 300 readers, his presence grew to fill the entire room.

Beah's writing picked up where I left off that day at GUSCO - when I drove off on the dusty road with a pounding headache and a feeling of helplessness. He spends a great deal of time in the book relating details about his rehabilitation process at the UNICEF camp in Freetown. He speaks honestly about his roiling anger, his withdrawal from the "brown brown" that numbed his senses as he fought, his painful separation from the military unit that had become a family of sorts. When asked at the book signing "which was more difficult - learning to kill, or re-learning to lead a peaceful, civilian life?" Beah didn't hesitate - losing your humanity is easy - it's re-gaining it and healing that is the most painful process of all. While the boy at GUSCO was safe from the horrors of war, he had a battle to fight that I couldn't have begun to comprehend.

As conflict-ridden countries approach peace, they teeter on an abyss of psychological healing that is so vast as to be immeasurable. Individual stories like Beah's enliven the resiliency of the human spirit...and give us hope.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Head case

Copout. I'm suffering from blogger's block. I've been burning up my brain cells every day from 8 to 5, and wearing my glasses constantly, which makes me look even more dorky and exhausted than I actually feel. It's number numbers numbers and still playing catch up from the Uganda interlude.

On Wednesday morning it started snowing when I took Henry out before work. At about 2 p.m. I spun around in my chair to look out the window and saw that the snow from the morning hadn't stopped falling. I stared for what must have been a quarter of an hour, in awe at how gently the snow was falling. It was like I'd never seen it before. I pushed my printer to the side of it's cabinet and propped my feet up to continue watching the tiny little flakes dance and caress the ugly gray patio bricks.

The past week has been a ball of frenzied activity, from trying to set up coffee with my always-elusive Darfur/LRA expert to setting up a wholly unrealistic workout schedule that involves running, biking, climbing, pilates, and yoga. Yeah, right. Each night it's as if the Orange line runs right over me in my apt. I eat about 13 Chips Ahoy cookies, chug a glass of milk and wake up at 2 a.m. in my clothes wondering what hit me.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Ryszard Kapuscinski

Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007)

You know that get-to-know-you game, where someone asks you if you could spend a day with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? Kapuscinski is probably in my top five.

Where would we go? I like to imagine we would be somewhere on the Continent, maybe up in Gulu, on the balcony at Hotel Kakanyero, sipping ice-cold passion fruit juice. I could easily see us sitting at the be-checkered tables with the little metal chairs, fuzzy radio crackling BBC in the background. That's probably a bit too cliche. Instead maybe it would be winter, and we'd sit shivering on a park bench in some unidentifiable city somewhere in the northern hemisphere, peering over our scarves. I don't even know what I would ask him. I tend to talk constantly. Maybe this time I would just listen. Would he be speaking Polish?

Early on in The Soccer War, after his first assignment in Africa, Kapuscinski asks to be sent to Congo. He plainly states "I'm already caught up in it. I've already got the fever." I prefer his writing about Africa, which is blunt. Honest. Maybe I'd tell him about my affliction with Africa, so as to relate my experience to his. My bug likes to creep up on me with cruel subtlety - debilitating me one tiny cell at a time, until I'm in full-on "Africa mode" and can't much concentrate on anything else. Sometimes it looks like a social life (drum circle, African dance classes), and others it just looks like depression (why am I here, and, consequently, not there?).

Maybe I'd ask him what he recommends as a cure. He might inform me that it's actually an incurable ailment, to which I'd likely nod. And let out a nervous laugh.

Pack the suitcase. Unpack it, pack it, unpack it, pack it: typewriter, passport, ticket, airport, stairs, airplane, fasten seat-belt, take off, unfasten seat belt, flight, rocking, sun, stars, space, hips of strolling stewardesses, sleep, clouds, falling engine speed, fasten seat-belt, descent, circling, landing, earth, unfasten seat-belts, stairs, airport, immunization book, visa, customs, taxi, streets, houses, people, hotel, key, room, stuffiness, thirst, otherness, foreignness, loneliness, waiting, fatigue, life.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Keeping the Peace?

Keep this tent empty! At the height of the conflict in northern Uganda, this tent at Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO) housed over 400 formerly abducted child soldiers.

The critical ceasefire agreement, signed last summer by the Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan military, is set to expire today. Do your part - call on Congress to act and do their part to put an end to the fighting in Northern Uganda once and for all. The suggestions for action that follow are provided by Uganda Conflict Action Network (Uganda-CAN):

We are asking you to join us in calling Members of Congress to sign a resolution introduced by Senator Feingold (D-WI) and Senator Brownback (R-KS), which calls on the Government and LRA to return to the peace talks, and for the U.S. to do all that it can to make sure this opportunity to achieve peace in northern Uganda is not lost.

Call Your Members of Congress to Pass the Feingold/Brownback Resolution Today!

  • WHO TO CALL: The resolution has been introduced into both the House and Senate, so please call both your Senators and your Representative. To find out the contact information for your Members of Congress, click here and type in your zip code. You can also call the Capital Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to be connected to your representatives.

  • WHAT TO SAY: Here is an example of what you can say: "Hi, my name is _____ from ______, and I'm calling Senator/Representative _______ to express my concern about today's expiration of the ceasefire in northern Uganda. I urge Senator/Represenative _____ to vote in favor of the resolution led by Senators Feingold and Brownback, which urges the Government of Uganda and rebel Lord's Resistance Army to resume negotiations and renew the ceasefire. The lives of two million people displaced by this conflict, and tens of thousands of abducted children depend on the success of these negotiations."
    If you can, it helps to personalize the message; a personal connection emphasizes how important the issue really is to you.

  • WHAT TO EXPECT: Most likely, the staff members in the Congressional offices you call will just take down your name and zip code and thank you for your call. If they ask you for additional thoughts, you can say more about why you care about the crisis in northern Uganda, or consider mentioning some of the following points:

The Juba talks are the most viable opportunity there is to achieve peace in northern Uganda, and with international attention, they can succeed.

The U.S. should send an envoy to show support for the talks, and provide assistance to the team that is monitoring the ceasefire.

The Ugandan military should also be expected to and assisted in protecting the millions of people in northern Uganda who have been displaced by the conflict.

A return to civil war, as may result from the expiration of the ceasefire truce, would yield disastrous results for the people of northern Uganda and for regional stability.

Together, thousands of us will demand today that this new Congress shows moral leadership for peace in northern Uganda!

Friday, February 23, 2007

IYVS 2007 + a scary bat rumor

After a very [very] long ride from Midway on the "L," I'm currently living it up in Evanston, Illinois, representing GYPA at the second annual International Youth Volunteerism Summit (IYVS) held at Northwestern University. We're leading three workshops:

"Building bridges between grassroots activism and high-level international decision-making"

"Maximizing Short Term International Learning Experiences"

"Critical Reflection"

I will post more info and stories from the summit in the coming days, so stay tuned for some in-depth analysis of what we learned here.

Until then, here's a tiny tidbit from the odd news feed. Earlier this afternoon I received an email from "Bat Demon," notifying me of a strange phenomenon that's been plaguing East Africa as of late. It appears that superstition and witchcraft are alive and well, especially in the rural parts of the region, where this bat demon has been sexually assaulting villagers. Locals claim it originated in Zanzibar, where reports of its existence have been common for many years. Check out this BBC news story for more details. The bat demon story reminds me of jinn, a genie-like spirit that makes frequent appearances throughout the Muslim world, including areas of Somalia and Uganda. The existence of these spirits seems to run parallel with the presence of brutal conflict and a lack of education in a particular area. Tradition supports this line of thought, as jinn are supposedly repulsed by the mental "noise" created by education. Hence they tend to torment rural, illiterate women. The Economist wrote up an interesting piece on the topic in their holiday edition this past year.

Back here in Evanston, I'm still thinking of bats. I can't help but wonder if this mischevious bat demon is actually "Icebat" the Uglydoll plush toy Carrie purchased at the local Evanston comic book store, where we spent upwards of a whole dorky hour yesterday trying to choose which Uglydolls to bring home with us. The winners? Icebat, two Moxys and a Chuckanucka. They really are ugly.

The wind is howling in off Lake Michigan, reminding us of how frigid it is outside. Luckily with the massive amount of noise in my head, I don't have to worry about jinn paying me a visit tonight. As for Icebat, he's on the nightstand and he's creeping me out.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Open Season: GYPA Summer Trips

This summer Global Youth Partnership for Africa (GYPA) will send 40 American students to Africa to meet with their counterparts in Uganda and Cameroon. The Immersion trips will give American students the unique opportunity to explore the role of youth in development, peace-building, and health promotion first-hand. Our goal is to expand international youth networks, encourage greater understanding about Africa, and inspire an ongoing dialogue and partnership between young American and African leaders. Participants will engage in discussions regarding conflict resolution, economic development, post-conflict rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS, and gender issues, among others. Students with backgrounds or interests in any of the above fields are encouraged to apply! Interested students may apply to just one or all three of the programs. Applications, accepted on a rolling basis, are due no later than Tuesday, April 3, 2007. Please visit the GYPA website to download the official immersion program descriptions and to fill out an application. Contact Carrie Stefansky at with any questions.

I will be leading the following trip:

Uganda Immersion: “Youth, Development, and Peace-Building”
July 2 –18, 2007
Uganda faces dramatic challenges, including poverty, political marginalization, and HIV/AIDS; however, it is also at a crossroads. This fall, peace talks brought about a cessation of hostilities in the 20-year civil war in northern Uganda. Now is a critical time to examine the many questions that remain regarding reconstruction and rehabilitation and, particularly, the role youth can play in solving them. What factors brought about a transformation in the conflict? What role do Ugandans see for the international community in the post-conflict environment? How can Uganda help to provide stability of the Great Lakes region? What steps need to be taken to protect and provide for vulnerable populations, such as refugees, internally displaced persons, and orphans?

The Immersion will provide a first-hand look at Uganda through dialogue, cultural exchange, and direct service. Students will gain a unique perspective on issues such as economic development, democracy-building, and transitional justice. The program will include opportunities to meet directly with community-based organizations, international non-governmental organizations, and other young leaders in Kampala and northern Uganda.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Feel-good shopping news?

Way back in October I wrote a post about Product Red -- and half-jokingly talked about how ethical shopping can change the world (in reality I was just trying to make myself feel better about my excessive consumerism). Today, as I was reading up on Inhabitat, I came across EPIC. Are you an ethical, progressive, and intelligent consumer? Hell yes I am! My first thought was to book a plane ticket to Vancouver as soon as possible so that I could be among other cool EPICs...but then I began to wonder if it might be the new millenium's yuppie-fest. How beneficial can ethical shopping really be?

The Economist article "Voting with your trolley" (7 Dec 2006) sparked a lively debate on whether or not ethical food shopping actually makes a difference in the world. When faced with the enormous challenges of world poverty and climate change, the average person feels overwhelmed and helpless. Buying locally, choosing organic food or purchasing Fairtrade products seems like an easy enough lifestyle shift that can make a difference. But does it?

Many argue that ethical food shopping is like the traditional "vote with your feet" argument (tip of the hat to Mr. Charles Tiebout). When you don't like the package of public goods (schools, infrastructure, etc.) being provided in the community in which you live, pack up shop and choose a community that provides the mix and quality of public goods you're looking for. This forces communities to be competitive...or so the argument goes. Now apply this to shopping. If the masses start purchasing more organic/locally-produced/fair trade products, the market will have to respond - the message will travel the lengthy journey of the supply chain from the consumer to the producer. This phenomenon is pretty visible - lots of grocery store chains (including Wal-Mart) now carry their own organic food lines. But are all aspects of these products actually beneficial? Here are some interesting arguments against the buzz words:

  • FAIR TRADE: Economists argue against subsidies because they encourage overproduction. So while Fairtrade farmers are earning a higher price for their crops, the overproduction is driving down the prices received by non-Fairtrade farmers making them relatively worse-off. In addition, the Fairtrade premium creates a disincentive for farmers to diversify their crops. Some also argue that the Fairtrade certification policies to not help the majority of poor farmers - those who work on large plantations that are ineligible for Fairtrade status.

  • ORGANIC: A Nobel-peace-prize-winning agriculturist (think Green Revolution) argues that organic farming (without fertilizers and pesticides) produces less output, which in turn requires more land - leaving much less land for forests. How environmentally friendly is that?

  • LOCALLY-PRODUCED: The main argument for buying locally combines supporting local farmers and decreasing "food miles" - the distance your food travels from the source to your table. However, a study in the UK found that majority of food miles are racked up between home and the grocery store/farmers market. In addition, studies found that it's (in many cases) more efficient and environmentally-friendly to truck in veggies from someplace warm than to grow them in hothouses. And what about the boost in trade and development received in developing countries get when we import our food from outside the US?

My opinion remains the same - expos like EPIC are creating a more mainstream and popular image of the "sustainable lifestyle" - and this makes it more easily digestable for the yuppie masses, who aren't ready to turn in their pointy-toe boots for Birkenstocks. The stereotype of the environmentalist/social activist is changing, and I think that's great. Keep the talk going - the more people become aware, the more solutions we'll see - and maybe (just maybe) the movement will advance beyond changing consumer habits, to something more concrete like changing policy. In the meantime, I'll look for flights to Vancouver.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Shameless self promotion

2006 Uganda Best of Blogs Awards.
Go here. Scroll down to Best Photography selection. Vote.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Wanderlusting on Thursday night

Henry wakes up every morning at 5 a.m. to start the long process of waiting for me to take him outside for his morning walk. He persistently follows me around, occasionally whimpering, constantly trying to make contact with his pleading eyes. Once my hair is dry and I am dressed in some random concoction of pajamas and outdoor gear, we venture out into the pale light of Northern Virginia morning. When the "wintry mix" blew through the DC area on Tuesday night, it left an un-impressive three inches of wet snow and slush. Twenty-four hours later, it's a rock solid sheet of ice over snow, and I'm ice-skating in cowboy boots as Hank pulls me across the shimmering backyard.

I'm reminded of the first lines of Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel

It was hard to say when exactly winter arrived. The decline was gradual, like that of a person into old age, inconspicuous from day to day until the season became an established, relentless reality.

Yes, it is winter, but that doesn't change the fact that twenty degrees with a stiff wind in your face is really freakin cold.

So, that said, is it any surprise at all that I can't get my mind off of travel? Even the yoga instructor tonight was playing ocean sounds and encouraging us to breathe in the "fresh and crispy air." Crispy isn't exactly how I'd describe the constant wind blowing across the Caribbean in Belize. I've mentioned Belize before, but I think it's time for a re-visit.

Last April I was on a deserted island just off the coast of Belize – my second annual girls-only vacation with Venessa. We spent the week camping on a tiny island about thirty miles off the coast, on the barrier reef. Our journey there was an international flight, then a prop plane along the coast and a single red, dirt road and jungle. Then a bumpy ride to Placencia and a bumpier hour and a half boat ride out to the island. The journey is cleansing for me – it’s always been one of my favorite parts. I look forward to the feeling of being suspended with absolutely no purpose aside from arriving at a destination. The feeling of Belize was not dissimilar from the detachment of the travel itself. Life simplified itself to rhythms – the surf, the tide, the sunrise and sunset, dips of the kayak paddle into the sea, jumping schools of fish, laps of osprey and pelican, the measured dance of sand crabs amongst the bleached shells and seaweed. It was a feeling of absence and complete presence. And when the sun set and the stars rose up to fill the sky, the opaque blackness gripped the surface of sea and eliminated the feeling of gravity. Lying in the sand, I could actually feel the Earth’s slow spin – a deep, fluid, ancient movement. The oldest rhythm of all.

I think Wordsworth (goofy looking as he may have been) had it right. As de Botton explains:

"...we may see in nature certain scenes that will stay with us throughout our lives and offer us...both a contrast to and relief from current difficulties. He termed such experiences 'spots of time':

There are in our existence spots of time.
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue...
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen."

Belize is one of my 'spots of time.'

Monday, February 12, 2007

Music Monday

And I see you hiding your face in your hands
Talking bout far-away lands
You think no one understands
Listen to my hands
Alexi Murdoch - Song for You

H Street NE is an "up-and-coming" neighborhood in DC, and home to the relatively new venue on the scene - Rock and Roll Hotel. What that looks like is a bunch of emo/mellow music enthusiasts (me included) crowding around freezing on an otherwise desolate street on a Sunday night at 10 p.m. to watch Alexi Murdoch - a folksy/acoustic/Nick-Drake-ish-type fellow from Glasgow perform music from his album Time Without Consequence.

Murdoch's voice - backed up only by guitars - is at once syrupy and crisp. Kind of like hot waffles in the dark. It really just pours over you, and I think you can pick this up simply by listening to his CD -- but it hits you even more when he's performing live. His voice and the guitars were the sole energy in the [hot and airless] room, and it easily filled the space. The audience, a captivated and absolutely still cluster of fans, stood with mouths slightly ajar, heads tilted back to get a better view. Bravo. Murdoch also sports my latest fashion obsession, the "Communist beard."

I strongly encourage you to spend upcoming frigid Sunday nights lying in bed, half-watching the snow fall outside, and half-listening to Alexi Murdoch.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Tour de Ohio: So Long CBus

Starting at 4:00 a.m., I traveled by car (still dark in Joey's car), plane, shuttle, train, metro, and arrive at my office for work today by 9:30 a.m. In a cruel twist of fate, Mother Nature was beating down on Washington D.C. with blasts of absolutely frigid air. My [gasp] Starbucks mocha, meant to shake the frost and exhaustion from my bones, was iced before I walked the block to my building.

With a caffeine- and wireless-internet-filled weekend now behind me, I can comment a bit on the Tour de Ohio. Part of being an Ohio State alum is having a neurotic obsession with all things Ohio. While I no longer live in the state, I am still immensely proud when I talk about Cleveland, Columbus, or the Buckeyes (even despite last month's misfortunes). Over the course of the past week, I gave five lectures, two NPR interviews and set up two movie screenings - all to boost awareness about the situation in Northern Uganda. Coming back from Uganda, I didn't know what to expect in terms of level of interest on the ground in the Midwest. I couldn't have been more impressed with the reactions and attendance at the events. As a result of the two movie screenings, 700 people (400 in Strongsville and 300 in Columbus) who likely didn't know where to find Uganda on a map now have a basic knowledge of the atrocities that have been committed and the international community's failure to act.

All we can hope for at this point is that of those 700 people that watched Invisible Children - or of the others that listened to lectures and radio interviews - that there is one person that does not forget.

Is it you?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Roethke - dig it

"Light takes the Tree..."
Second consecutive day at Cup o' Joe. My brother is lost somewhere in a dense fog of World of Warcraft. I couldn't take the magic and swords any longer and headed down the street. I could have a very happy life sitting at coffee shops and writing all day long. Came across this poem again while talking to a friend (Kevin, you vile imposter!). Roethke seems appropriate for this Sunday afternoon.

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Tour de Ohio: Buckeye Nation

I'm not sure if my Tour de Columbus is more for publicizing the GYPA trip or embarking on a gastronomic adventure. Anyone who knows me well also knows how deep my love runs for this gritty little city - especially the restaurants. I may have been born in Cleveland, but Columbus is surely my home.

The tour started Thursday morning with the Butvin team's dinner at PF Changs, but the real eating started on Friday morning at Jack and Benny's on the corner of Hudson and High Street - the coconut and chocolate chip pancakes are still the best. Note to self - avocado and swiss omelettes would ONLY be good in Uganda -- not in Midwestern USA. Lunch was a letdown - a stop at Eurocafe just south of Broad and High in downtown CBus (my weekly lunch destination when I worked for the State of Ohio). We arrived to find out that they were out of pierogies until the end of the month. I almost cried out in agony. I brought my spirits back up last night with a trip to El Vaquero's - my weekly stop for margaritas and the #40 (a chicken burrito, enchilada and a side of Mexican rice). Much to my dismay, they've expanded the restaurant and remodeled it (no worries here - the inside is still covered with cheesy murals and Scarface-esque chandaliers). It's no longer attached to the Super 8 motel - since my last visit they tore that wonder down and built a Hilton Garden Inn. What's this town coming to?

Aside from eating, I also gave a lecture to the Ohio State City and Regional Planning class, which went very well. With a little luck we'll have a Buckeye contingent on the trips to Uganda this summer. I also did another interview with NPR - this time for WCBE, the Columbus station. The interview was recorded and will be cut up and played during morning rush hour on Monday. I will post it when it's available online.

I'm now doing what I rarely get the chance to do - spending the day at Cup o' Joe on Tulane and High Street, working on my caffeine binge and catching up on my reading - What is the What by Dave Eggers. It's a fictionalized account of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese Lost Boy, and his journey from a war-torn Sudan, to life in refugee camps, to a difficult life in the U.S. Stories from Sudan have been popping up a lot in my life lately, from the Darfur photography exhibit at the US Holocaust Museum, to God Grew Tired of Us (go see it immediately), to my conversation with Lisa Moser about African refugees in Cleveland. It's impossible to learn about one war in East Africa without having to then learn something about the others, which leaves you mired in a web of seemingly insolvable conflicts. On that note, back to my reading.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Tour de Ohio: Cleveland rocks

After a metro ride, a transfer, a sprint through Union Station, a train ride to Baltimore, a flight delay, a flight and a very long taxi to the gate, I arrived in Cleveland bleary-eyed and freezing. The ground was covered in snow and it was so cold that the top layer was blowing over the pavement, dancing in swirls and zigzags across the frozen ground. Henry greeted me with his butt-shaking dance and underbite. My Dad cut his "bangs" so he can actually see and it looks a bit weird - but otherwise he's the same lovable ball of fur I missed so much.

Wednesday was a frenzy of activity, starting at 7:20 a.m. with four back-to-back presentations at high school classes. Dad picked me up at 11 a.m. to drive downtown to Playhouse Square for the NPR interview. Being in a studio was surreal, with the sweet sounds of monotonous NPR broadcasting gently wafting from the speakers. I had a ten-minute slot on Around Noon. It may or may not be the hallmark moment of my life to date. Listen to it here.

In the evening we had dinner with my high school English teacher, Linda Lackey (check out her awesome blog) and her family, the Junior Statesmen of America students that helped organize the movie screening, and Operation Deep Freeze - the Invisible Children road crew that are showing the film. The screening was a huge success - almost 400 people came for the free screening in the auditorium at SHS. It's amazing to think that maybe (just maybe) this was more than just a screening for one of those 400 people. You never know what might change someone's life.

I had coffee with Lisa Moser, of Migration and Refugee Services in Cleveland, to talk about the possibility of students volunteering with newly arrived African refugee families - to help them adjust to the culture shock that accompanies a move from the refugee camp to America.

Now on to Columbus!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

And God Grew Tired of Us

"The U.S. being a big melting pot, Americans can walk the streets without noticing all the different nationalities. That is a good thing. On the other hand, it means Americans stop asking questions about their neighbors and stop learning about their problems." John Dau, Sudanese Lost Boy
Stop what you're doing right now and go see this movie. God Grew Tired of Us (reviewed here in the NY Times), a documentary produced by National Geographic and Newmarket Films, follows the epic journey of a group of Sudanese Lost Boys from war-torn Sudan to Ethiopia, to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, and finally to Pittsburgh and Syracuse in the US. The film is filled with emotional ups and downs as you learn about the Lost Boys and their journey, follow their at-times-awkward transition to American life (learning to use the freezer, escalators, eating potato chips), and see the difficult and lonely realities of life as an African refugee living in the U.S. In a similar vein to "Borat" (albeit more poignant and graceful), God Grew Tired of Us revealed some of the laughable and shameful ignorances that are commonplace in interactions between Americans and foreigners of all stripes.

I am so pleased to see the increase in films and books about African issues and conflicts. In the same way that An Inconvenient Truth introduced a dialogue about global warming into the mainstream media, I really hope that films like Blood Diamond, God Grew Tired of Us, and The Last King of Scotland will heighten interest in what's going on in Africa. For Africa's sake and ours, start getting educated.