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.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Uganda: the Mothership

After a memorable sendoff from my beloved Ugandan friends and family, I am now back on the Mothership - the good old US of A. It feels fantastic to sit in my unmade bed and type on my laptop with superfast wireless internet. I've slept three hours and am wired on coffee from breakfast at Bob and Edith's (no time wasted getting back to my old habits), so I figured I'd get this out before my body completely shuts down.

Dad sent me a reminder to be "extra vigilant on your last night in town, as predators assume you won't bother filing criminal charges if you're headed back to the US." Thanks Dad. Upon my demand, Katie set up a goodbye dinner at Crocodile Cafe in Kisementi, the home of delicious avocado salads, banana splits and a phenomenal selection of 1980s movie soundtracks. Our first dinner there, they played one song on a constant loop -- I Wanna Know What Love Is by Foreigner. It's quite a charming place. Our dinner group was Katie, me, Rebekah, Jared (our roommate and the proud owner of a fantastic red moustache, grown specifically for his time in Uganda), Joseph, Howard (our friend from Apac up north that was in town), Enoch and Ortega. We had a great dinner, ate a ton and then headed over to Fat Boyz for Pilsners and reggaeton - and to watch the guys dance, which they do so well in Uganda. Since Enoch had to go study for a finance exam, I imitated his calypso dance, complete with shoulder shrug, arms akimbo and the little foot shuffle. At the very least I had fun entertaining myself. The evening wrapped up for me around 2 a.m. back at the apartment above La Fontaine. I passed out and slept fitfully, dreaming of missing my flight in the morning. I was to discover on the plane that since I slept without the mosquito net, I was completely covered in bites. In the midst of my waking dreams, I can remember the high-pitched hum of mosquitoes in my ears as I tried to sleep. They feasted on my arms and left knee.

I awoke at 5 a.m. to get packed up. Peter was picking me up at 6:30 to get to the airport in time. Our generator was off at the apartment, so I took a cold shower with my headlamp on, in an effort to be clean and comfortable for the plane ride. Rebekah and Katie slowly roused and helped me check to make sure I hadn't left anything behind. I stepped outside in the lavender mist that hangs over Kampala mornings before the sun reaches the horizon. To my surprise, Ortega had returned and was waiting at the gate to see me off. Peter was already waiting, car door ajar. I embraced my friends (several times over) tearfully and got into the car. Peter and I sped off on the pothole-filled road, my last glimpses of Kampala flying by. We passed the NUPI offices, Garden City mall, the Jinja Road-Kampala Road roundabout, the industrial area...all to the tune of the tinny car speakers blaring Sean Paul and Sasha "I'm still in love" on Sanyu FM radio. I'm certainly still in love with Uganda.

Kampala is known among ornithologists for its spectacular variety of birds - especially in an urban setting. The most notable (and infamous) are the enormously unattractive Marabou Storks, which nest in the trees and stand with their knobby knees atop Kampala's buildings, looking down on passerby with their sinister appearance. Last week, I had opened the New Vision to see that the electrical company had cut down trees on the Kampala-Jinja road roundabout without concern for the nesting Marabou Storks. The paper had a color photo of a baby stork, a lumpy pink mess - much like the larger version plucked free of feathers - standing alone on the roundabout as workers, bodas and matatus buzzed past. Katie and I first made fun of the article, laughing about how the appendage hanging from the bird's necks took on the nasty appearance of particularly unattractive human appendage. We were in constant fear of the birds unleashing huge piles of crap as they flew overhead, which was known to happen quite frequently. Now, thinking about the baby stork, looking lost and isolated on the roundabout as the world spun by, I feel sad. Coming back from Uganda feels a bit like being thrown from the nest, not yet ready to face the realities awaiting on the ground. After nearly a month making a home of Kampala and Gulu, I already knew that returning to the US would make me feel all lumpy, pink and vulnerable.

Readjustment is difficult, but I'm going to venture to say that this return will be a little smoother. I spent a lot of time learning to live in Kampala, and making some great new Ugandan friends. The biggest consolation is that I know I will return soon enough, and that each time the experience will be a little bit richer.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Uganda: Final dispatch

Greetings from the NUPI offices in Kampala. Today is [tear] my last day in Uganda (for the time being!). I started the morning with a pleasant boda ride to town to have a cappucino at Cafe Pap (where else would I go???) and read the New Vision. Today the newspaper vendor slyly informed me that "there is something special for you on page 28," which turned out not to be a personal note from the vendor (what I feared), but an insert predicting what will happen in Uganda in 2007. Apparently there will be peace, growth, lower inflation, more mortgages and lower interest rates, and Manchester United will take the cake. Only the most important news here, folks.

Katie and I met with Joseph and Howard for some more discussion on the One Mango Tree project, and after our disheartening meeting with BeadforLife yesterday, today was a bit uplifting. I still have to debrief with Katie, but I think there are some definite cultural differences we need to address while trying to set up a legitimate business. I'm leaving the details out for the sake of those who are not so interested. I can fill in the rest of you later. We're still headed to Namuwongo this afternoon to look at products and meet with the women who make them...and possibly catching a practice of the Namuwongo branch of GYPA's Gomo Tong Football Club. They are beginning training in anticipation for attendance at the 2007 Homeless World Cup to take place in Denmark in July.

In other news, I had a great lunch with Stig Marker Hansen today - the Belgian Chief of Party for USAID's Northern Uganda Peace Initiative (NUPI). Chief of Party - the title which I've aspired to ever since I first became interested in development work. I have lots of experience from OSU - I was Chief of Party for many a jello-shot-filled event. In reality Chief of Party is USAID's term for the Program Director for projects abroad. There are Chiefs of Party all over the developing world, and the position is highly coveted by ambitious development types like myself. Stig's been working on this program on conflict resolution in Uganda for the past three years - Josh joined him last year as a program assistant. I got some great pointers for doing work and making contacts in this part of the world.

I'm headed off to the National Theater Market to pick up random earrings and "a nice red and yellow snack plate" (requested specifically by Carly), as well as other crafty African products to suck up to all you people back home. Just kidding, I love shopping, especially for gifts for other people. My goodbye dinner (hopefully complete with Enoch's calypso dance moves and some Pilsners) is tonight. Hopefully I won't drown my friends in a torrent of tears (though I'm sure they'll come on the airplane tomorrow).

On the bright side, I get to come back and show all of you an interminable slide show of photos from the trip, and reiterate (with greater detail and exaggeration and hand gestures) all the stories I've shared on these updates (and others that couldn't be included in the name of public decency). Barring any flight disruptions, I'll be back in the Western world in something like 48 hours.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Uganda: Sunburnt

I think this is the tenth of the series, but the delirium caused by my intense sunburn may have messed with my numbering. All this time in Uganda has gone to my head - I temporarily forgot that I'm white. The result is a nasty looking sunburn from the pool (think painful red with tan lines that make me look like I'm wearing a white bikini). It feels and looks as though I was blasted with an inferno of radioactive waves. Oh how I cherish my ambivalent relationship with the equatorial sun. On to more important matters.

Katie and I were completely overbooked today with meetings, and it's been a bi-polar sort of day. This morning at 9 we met Immaculate in Namuwongo to talk about selling the women's group products in the US. The meeting was really productive and the women seem to be very organized (seem is the key word - more on this later). We wrapped up, grabbed a quick coffee at Cafe Pap (destination of choice - we are there multiple times per day), and headed up to Kira Road to have an interview with Ben Ikalut at East Africa Business Week. Our overly confident boda drivers actually had no idea where Kira Road Police Station was (East Africa Business Week offices are adjacent) and instead drove slowly by every police station they could think of to see our reaction. No luck. Finally I recognized the neighborhood and we arrived just ten minutes late for our appointment. The newspaper is a weekly for East Africa - the only one of its kind - that serves Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Ben, our enthusiastic writer and new best friend, is writing a story on GYPA and the youth summit - he attended the last night of our summit and wanted to get more information on how Katie and I became involved with GYPA and Uganda. I guess it's a good practice for kicking off the PR tour in Ohio when I return. The article will be out in about 1-2 weeks - I'll be sure to send the link!
Speaking of PR - great news on that. I just received notice from NPR in Cleveland that instead of a 3.5 minute slot on Morning Edition, they are bumping me up to the noon arts and culture section to get a more in-depth coverage interview (10-12 minutes). So exciting and nerve-wracking! I've also been emailing with a journalist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer about an article.

After the interview this morning, Katie and I went to meet with Torkin Wakefield - one of the founders of BeadforLife - for a sort of "technical assistance" meeting. Our original intention, since the meeting with Immaculate had gone so well, was to just talk about shipping methods and fair trade pricing. Torkin's been in the business for four years selling beaded necklaces in the US, and she had a ton of information for us - but most of it was not good. One of the warnings she gave was in regards to dealing with paying the artisans. To stem corruption, it's necessary to have trusted staff on the ground paying the artisans directly and providing quality control of the goods. It's an enormous undertaking that Katie and I are nervous about - and we're also more than a bit nervous about the issue of transparency and accountability with the group in Namuwongo. We're in limbo at the moment.
While that was a setback for the morning, we more than made up for it this afternoon with a visit to Kizito - a Ugandan artist that teaches art history at Makerere University. He attended art school in Ireland and he and his wife (a textile artist) decided to reject job offers from abroad to reside in Uganda and work on making a contribution. Kizito, who is an amazing artist (his major influences have been Picasso and Matisse, and his style is an abstraction of traditional African - he focuses mostly on human subjects), has been selling his paintings all over the world. Since he lives off his University salary, he uses every penny from the sale of his art to build an arts academy that is located in the hills on Lake Victoria, about halfway between Kampala and Entebbe. We toured the school today (see photo top) - it's nearing completion - he needs about 25K (USD) to complete his work and plans to open the school for enrollment in 2008. I am completely inspired by his vision (not to mention his magnetic artist's personality - wearing a bright blue collarless Zanzibarian shirt and carrying around a cup of loose tea), as he plans to incorporate arts therapy into the curriculum - and a certain percentage of students will come from camps in the north. Needless to say, I purchased my very first artistic investment - an original painting. After traveling to Zanzibar for holiday (some of you know I've been going on and on about future travel to Zanzibar, so it felt like destiny), he started focusing on using a canvas with lots of textured white space and then a small segment with bright color and the subject. I love the style and bought a large piece - it's actually two paintings - he had started a painting of a boat in Zanzibar and then painted all of it white and started over with a small square of orange and red with a figure to the left-hand side -- you can still see the outline of the boat underneath. It's been years since my last art history course, so my description is lacking. It's an oil painting, and you'll just have to see it to understand - I'll have a gallery opening at my place (next to the original painting of Henry from the Washington Very Special Arts School). I'm REALLY looking forward to working with Jeremy (GYPA) on incorporating Kizito's school into GYPA's work. It was the perfect end to an emotionally stormy day.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Uganda: Godwin Ortega

Yesterday Katie and I met Ortega and Abramz, two of our new Ugandan friends, to open bank accounts at Barclay's. Abramz, as a refresher, is the founder of Breakdance for Social Change Uganda. For all you myspace junkies, you can find his site there. Ortega, who is 23, lives in Namuwongo - a slum neighborhood in Kampala. He is raising his two sisters - Makito, 11, and Judith, 7, all on his own. He brought the girls to the bank with us - Judith brought me her report card - she's 4th in her class of 45! You'll recall from past emails that Ortega was robbed during the conference. Some awesome American students got together to raise money to help Ortega out (please remind me again which of you donated money for Ortega), so we spent the morning with him and his sisters getting things situated at his place in Namuwongo. Yesterday was extremely difficult, as Ortega had not yet returned to his home (see photo left) following the robbery. We purchased a mattress that he'll share with his sisters, but when we arrived at his house, someone else had moved in and padlocked the door. Many of the plants that he cares for in jerry cans outside his home had been broken. It was extremely difficult to see his expression, but Ortega never ceases to amaze me in his strength. We took the girls out for chapati and milk tea at a local restaurant and agreed to meet the next morning to continue to sort things out.

Later on yesterday afternoon, Katie and I went to the breakdance class at Sharing Youth Centre in Nsambya, where tons of kids come out to learn breakdancing on the veranda. Every Monday and Wednesday, Abramz and others teach the youth as a goal for promoting peace and reconciliation - uniting Uganda. The class was great and the kids came from everywhere to learn - and they were so good! After an hour or so I decided to join in (believe it) and Abramz taught the crazy muzungo to do a "baby freeze." Yes, I actually balanced on my head. Katie took a picture - so you all can see it for yourselves. We also met another crazy muzungo - a Belgian freestyle rapper-cum-travel-agent named Wim.

If yesterday's experience with Ortega in Namuwongo was disheartening, today's was extremely redeeming. Today has been a very good day. I met Ortega in Namuwongo at 9 this morning. He'd been doing some work since we last talked yesterday. The best news to start with? He gets his house back on Friday. I am so sad I'll miss the homecoming when he and the girls move back in. The new tenant is being given three days to move elsewhere. He is thrilled (as am I). The next big piece of news - Ortega had to stop attending school back in 2003 for financial reasons (secondary school charges more expensive fees than primary). This morning I took him to his academy, met with the headmaster and paid his school fees. He starts classes on Monday! We also made arrangements to pay for Judith and Makito's fees, as they start school on Monday as well. After collecting the girls from playtime with their friends, the four of us picked up some swim costumes for the girls and headed out to Munyonyo, where we've been all day. They've never been swimming before and have been screaming with joy since they first saw the pool. They are like little fish and refuse to stop swimming. I have about a thousand pictures of their smiling faces.

A side note on the warmth of Ugandans - last year I met Gottfried - a young guy in Namuwongo who happens to be very tall and plays basketball. Of course I started talking about my brother and his bball skills. This morning I saw Gottfried - he had heard I was in the neighborhood and wanted to bring the gift he had for my brother - it's wrapped in silver paper with roses and a note - to joe, from africa. Joey's going to have tons of friends here before he even arrives.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Uganda: Kabalagala...not so quiet

Note to all traveling to Uganda in the future. Embassy Hotel in Kabalagala is a cruel, mean trick. Upon check in, you find a spotless, modern hotel with large rooms and full en-suite bathrooms, balconies overlooking the lively neighborhood, and pretty reliable electricity. However, Kabalagala turns out to be club/party central in Kampala, and the walls of Embassy Hotel might as well be made of tissue paper. I lay awake all night long on the mattress (which I think is actually concrete), listening to reggaeton and full conversations of Ugandans (through ear plugs, no less) at bars up and down the street. These crazy people partied until about 6 a.m. on Sunday. Unless you happen to be deaf or an insomniac, I suggest choosing a different hotel.

Luckily we received a call from Rebekah saying that a room in her house was available for Katie and I to share for the remainder of the trip. After spending the day at Cafe Pap drinking coffee and working with Abramz on his Breakdance for Social Change project (setting up email, teaching him how to keep a ledger book of expenses and receipts), Katie and I packed up once again and moved to Kisementi, the beloved neighborhood of Fat Boyz and Just Kickin. We can see the bars from our quaint purple balcony. The house sits atop a "French" restaurant called La Fontaine. Oh, and for dinner last night we tried the rumored Mexican menu at Fat Boyz - it was actually pretty good (think chapati with beans, rice and chicken).

The last two days have been relatively uneventful (especially compared with hiking Sipi and running around with all the students), but I think that was a good break before the start of my final week. Sundays in Kampala are beautiful. The town is quiet, as everyone (and I mean everyone) is at church. Precious few places are open, so we spent the whole day at Cafe Pap. I took a walk around Parliament as well. It's a completely different place during the week, full of whizzing bodas and car horns, dust and crowds of people.

Today we are in town early to take Abramz and Ortega to open bank accounts at Barclays. We're taking Ortega to pick up mattresses and some other things that were stolen from his home last week. Tonight we're attending a breakdance class that Abramz will be teaching in Nsambya. We've also been working a lot on "to do" for the fair trade project with the women in Namuwongo, and we'll be moving forward with that in the next few days.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Uganda: Bat caves and waterfalls

Katie and I just returned safe and sound to Kampala after two nights in Sipi Falls. The journey began on Thursday afternoon, with an advisory warning from the desk at the Sheraton that we were getting started too late in the afternoon...and that we most definitely shouldn't make the trip from Mbale up to Sipi if it was past 6 p.m. when we arrived.

We made our way to the Old Taxi Park in Kampala, which is a treat in and of itself. It's a sunken parking lot completely jam-packed with buses, matatu van taxis, bodas, and vendors. When you want to get somewhere, you just find a matatu headed in that direction, pile in, and wait for it to fill up while vendors shove any and all goods in your face, from the practical (water, food) to the absurd (used scrunchies, fake rolexes, misc pieces of plastic junk). The matatus themselves are made for about 14 passengers...we had at least 18 in ours. As usual, I spent the ride in and out of consciousness. We arrived in Mbale around 7 p.m., and (against the Sheraton's advice) followed some Ugandans that were headed to Sipi...and piled into another jam-packed matatu. I dozed for a few minutes and woke up in total darkness - we were heading up Mt. Elgon -- Sipi is situated on the slopes of this enormous extinct volcano. The road was so steep and dangerous, I was glad for the darkness. In the meantime, the Ugandans were telling us about how muzungus (white people) had just died in a traffic accident on this road, and kept reiterating how taxis "turn into aeroplanes" on this one hairpin turn. We made it to Sipi safely, but in total darkness and with no clue where Crow's Nest was (our destination) or whether or not they even had a cabin for us. Luckily one of the locals took us to the gate and there was one cabin left just for us.

The next morning I awoke to roosters (my favorite wake up call - definitely not) and stepped out of our cabin to stretch --- we could see the falls right off our porch. AMAZING. I drew a picture. We spent the day with Malishe, a local guide who took us on a 4.5 hour circuit hike of the three falls. The first (and the most commonly photographed) is 97 meters. The second is smaller and the third is 78 meters. The scenery was bucolic and the hiking exhausting, and we were completely covered in mud by the end. Due to my spill on the metro escalators in DC last year, I now have this intense fear of slipping down steep surfaces --- not helpful when hiking on muddy slopes. At one point I "butt-climbed" down some rocks...I ended up with a butt and feet completely covered in mud by the end of the day. During our hike, a group of tiny kids started chasing us yelling "muzungu!" and "something!" Later on in the hike one got the idea to make fart noises and we were soon chased by a huge herd of kids and a cacophony of farts. Needless to say, Katie and I were hysterical and may or may not have made fart noises back at them.

After hiking past the first waterfall and bat cave, we were persuaded by some villagers to taste the "local brew" - a corn maize, yeast and water concoction served in rusty tin cans (see photo at left). It tasted a bit like when you burp and get a little vomit in your mouth. Actually that's exactly what it tasted like.

We also went into a bat cave - this was my first real spelunking adventure. It reeked of ammonia from all of the bat dung. The creepy part was when we got into this open area and you can see thousands of orange eyes staring at you from the ceiling... and tall people in caves does not really work so well.

So yes, Sipi was great - the food, relaxation, hiking, waterfalls, sunsets, sunrises, all of it. After looking at a map, I realized that I have now covered the furthest points west (Fort Portal) and east (Mbale/Sipi) of Uganda. I've almost reached Sudan (about two hours north of Gulu)...and I have yet to travel down to Lake Bunyoni, on the Rwandan border.

Katie and I claimed shotgun on our matatu rides back to Kampala today, and as a result my left arm has a glorious trucker tan (I'm talking 3 shades darker than the right arm). We just booked our room at the Embassy Hotel in Kabalagala for the week (it's semi-close to Namuwongo, where we'll be spending a lot of time). I can't believe there are only 6 days until I come back to the US!!!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ugnada: water

It's hard to believe that the Kimeeza has already come and gone. After a night out celebrating at Tandoori Pavement (Indian for dinner) and Fat Boyz (sports bar) in Kampala, most of the students pulled all-nighters with their new Ugandan friends. We departed for Entebbe Airport at 5:30 a.m. this morning, amidst tears and a fog of exhaustion. After a delayed flight, Katie and I just received notification that the students are all on their way to Heathrow. After lots of cheering and fist pumps in the parking lot, we (Josh, Rebekah, Katie and I) boarded a very lonely bus back to Kampala. On to the next leg of the journey. I am excited to have lots of free time here for the next 10 days or so (I contemplated skipping through the streets to celebrate not having a trail of 13 American students following behind and asking for Immodium AD), but it already feels quite lonely to not have everyone around. I made some amazing new friends and I will really miss them all.

Katie and I checked in at the Sheraton Kampala for some R&R (aka our first hot shower, laundry service, super fast internet, clean down comforters and a gorgeous balcony with a view of Kampala's charming skyline). Kampala really is a manageable city - and a beautiful one, despite the congestion and poverty. While browsing at a supermarket yesterday night, I realized that I really could spend a lot of time here (sorry Mom and Dad but it's true).

So here's the plan for the next week so far:

We'll check out of this glorious hotel tomorrow morning and embark on an approximately 5 hour journey to Sipi Falls, which is about an hour outside of Mbale and apparently has incredible waterfalls and hiking.

My Dad has shared some really exciting updates about his Public Relations project (didn't I tell you dad's my PR guy?). I'm going to be interviewed at the NPR studio in Cleveland on January 31. I will keep you all updated with the URL so you can listen if you're interested (hopefully I won't say "dude", "it's cool" or "and stuff"). Also, WKYC Cleveland may be sending a film crew to Strongsville High School, where I'll be meeting with classes to talk about my experiences and promote the screening of Invisible Children. In addition, I just received an email from an editor at East African Business Week and Katie and I will be meeting with him for an interview next week to discuss GYPA and our programs. I'm thrilled -- and that means I'll be hard at work on presentations for the next few weeks!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Uganda: Wrapping up

We returned from Gulu on Saturday and a group of 6 of us spent all day Sunday white water rafting at the source of the Nile River - Class 3, 4 and several class 5 rapids. Once again I was trapped under the boat when it flipped, but I'm sure it somehow made me a better person (following the whole "what-doesn't-kill-you-only-makes-you-stronger" paradigm). We rafted for an entire day and there were long stretches of flat water (hopefully no schistosomiasis) where I lay on the boat with my head upside down and my hair floating along in the Nile - experiencing the world with a ceiling of water. We had the same guide I had last time (Tutu) and he said when I come back again my rafting and an overnight stay at the campgrounds will be free (as if I need another reason to return...).

Now - the end of our Gulu trip. After the day of mentoring programs, we allowed the students to have free time to visit organizations in which they are interested. I visited The AIDS Support Organization (TASO), an indigenous Ugandan HIV/AIDS organization that has had some major success in cutting the incidence rates in Uganda. There are still serious challenges in the north, as the national rate is 6 or 7% and the rate of HIV/AIDS incidence in northern Uganda is 13%. TASO provides ARVs, herbal treatment and counseling services, as well as a children's center and dance and drama team. The facility was definitely the best I've seen in the country, and while it's outpatient only, it seems to provide a safe, clean haven for the clientele.

After TASO, I took a walk with one of the participants to see the World Food Programme Storage facility - where tons and tons of food are stored in huge tents behind barbed wire - this is the distribution facility from which food aid is distributed to the camps. After seeing thousands of kids with swollen bellies in the camps, it's pretty surreal to know that there are enormous tents of food just five kilometers from their squalid camps. Conditions in the camps (as far as congestion) have improved since the last time I was in Gulu, but if you haven't been following the news, you should know that the peace talks are in limbo once again, as the LRA has demanded to move the talks from southern Sudan to either Kenya or South Africa for reasons of insecurity. This is another major setback.

I've spent a significant amount of time on the balcony of the Hotel Kakanyero, reading The Places Inbetween, by Rory Stewart - a Scot who walked across Afghanistan amidst the fall of the Taliban. Our last day in Gulu I visited Janet, a 19-yr-old Acholi massage therapist at a health club (highly recommended by Josh, our summit coordinator). My massage was an hour and a half (and the best I've ever had) and followed by a body scrub -- total cost? 15,000 USH, which is about $8. YES! I have to get in my little luxuries here and there.

On Saturday we returned to Kampala from Gulu via the Post Bus, which also delivers mail between the two regions. While the bus was less claustrophobic than the tiny and bumpy matatu taxis we had been taking, we stopped every five minutes to deliver mail or buy groundnuts, meat on a stick, matooke, or live chickens from villagers that rushed the bus as we passed by.

We returned to Kampala on Saturday and since then have been spending some free time with our Ugandan friends here in the city, exploring the town and finalizing our action statement for release (see below). We officially closed the program yesterday evening and the national Chief of Police for Uganda came to speak at dinner (he provides protection for our group). The goal of this Youth Summit is to produce a working document that outlines the role of youth in post-conflict northern Uganda. My group, poverty relief and economic development, produced the following bullet points:
  • Promote the restoration of local culture and break dependence on foodaid by encouraging development of agribusiness tied to resettlement. By participating and sharing knowledge gained from agriculture-based training, youth will be prepared to lead the rebuilding of a peaceful northern Uganda.
  • Facilitate increased access to capital and markets through expansion of microfinance to rural areas and improved transport and communication infrastructure. Integrate practical and entrepreneurial training into educational curriculum to develop a generation of job creators

The students are going home tomorrow, and I will miss them a lot - but I'm really looking forward to spending the next 10 days experiencing Uganda at a slower pace. Lots of students have been really sick this past week with the typical travelers stomach afflictions, and one participant seems to have malarial symptoms - we visited health services yesterday for a test, which came up negative. One student was robbed at an ATM in town and another student decided to spend the entire night out without informing us. I'm getting some seriously stressful leadership challenges, and now I know how my parents feel when they worry about me!

Also, Godwin Ortega, one of our Ugandan participants that lives in Namuwongo was robbed this weekend, losing all of his money, documents and possessions. Ortega is only 22 and takes care of his 3 sisters, one of which - Judith, age 7 - he's been bringing to spend the days with us. She's adorable and I've been spending lots of time with her teaching her how to use my camera and giving piggy back rides and tickle fests. I gave her the Hello Kitty purse from Auntie Paris, which she LOVES and carries around with her everywhere (she even wrote her name on the back and keeps a 100 shilling piece inside). The American participants have really bonded with Ortega and are contributing some funds to help him keep his sisters in school and get documents back. Once the students leave I'm going to take him to try and open a savings account and pick up some things - and we're taking Judith and some other girls from Namuwongo to spend the day at Munyonyo Speke Resort for swimming, slides and ice cream.

To my delight, Katie - my American co-leader, has decided to extend her stay and we'll be traveling together.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Uganda: Gulu as Paris

Roosters crow promptly each morning at 6:54 a.m. I un-entangle myself from the mosquito netting and step barefoot onto the cool concrete of the Kakanyero courtyard. The air is crisp and I dart dripping and shivering from the showers. Sitting at the red-and-white checkered cloth-covered tables on the balcony, eating fried eggs and drinking milk tea, I watch the town come to life.

Gulu town is laid out in the typical British colonial style - a small grid of manageable streets with a few roundabouts. The cool morning air is already starting to burn off by 9 a.m. and the dusty streets are filling with pedestrians carrying goods on their heads, bodas and bicycles, rickety trucks and NGO Land Rovers. Around the corner the market is filling up with goods - flies are descending on the fish, women are peddling avocados, mangos and bananas, and tailors are busying themselves on their foot peddle sewing machines - bright and stiff cotton fabrics fluttering in the shady breeze under the market stall rooftops.

Around midday the sun beats down relentlessly in the clear blue sky and the streets are packed with noisy activity for the remainder of the afternoon. Trucks filled with soldiers or matooke wobble down the road. I spend these hours either drinking a Pilsner at Havana Pub or flipping the pages of a book on the balcony at Kakanyero until the heat begins to dissipate.

The sun, a dusty orange ball, sinks quickly below the horizon, but not before shading the the sky first in lavender and then a creamy grayish hue. Market vendors pack up their wares, women and men alike piling shoes and fabrics into large woven plastic sacks that are hoisted away, either on the back of a bicycle or held high atop the head with one slender arm to balance the load. They begin the long walk home. At twilight the empty market stalls take on the lonely look of a forest in winter - branches that held colorful fabrics now lain bare.

Night falls quickly and an inky, opaque darkness settles in - the appearance of the road as an endless abyss. Potholes are masked in this thick cover and the solitary light of a boda driver quietly passes by. Fireflies dance in a frenzy through the fields surrounding the town. And then, suddenly, all is silent. The metal doors of the shops are latched shut to block out the night. I close my book, walk down the stairs and entangle myself once more in the mosquito net, awaiting the crow of the rooster at dawn.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Uganda: From Gulu with Love

Yesterday afternoon, following our visit to Paicho IDP camp, we returned to Gulu and had some free time. I stopped the local market and bought some fabric -- I hired a tailor to make a dress and some bags and other things out of the traditional African fabric. For fabric and labor the dress costs about 24000 USH, which is about 13 or 14 USD. I can't wait to wear my new African gear in the US. The tailor, Susan (see photo), is fantastic, and the cuts are modern. You all know I can't go anywhere without finding some kind of clothing to buy.

Today was the Gulu Mentoring Program. As I mentioned yesterday, Gulu is filled with NGOs - there are 217 NGOs in town, all with varying levels of involvement (which is a nice way for saying that some of them do nothing at all). Many of them are relief agencies, which provide food relief for the IDPs. While this seems essential, the long term value is questionable. The war has been going on for 20 years, and these people have become dependent on food aid, which will make the transition back to agriculture more difficult. Anyhow, we paired our students in small groups to visit the NGOs for the day and learn more about what they do. I visited a USAID project for HIV/AIDS, which provides reproductive education courses for youth in the IDP camps, as well as HIV testing.

After the visit, Christopher and Hon. Oola Patrick Lumumba, two of our Ugandan participants, and I had a very interesting conversation about Acholi traditional practices. Polygamy is very common in Uganda, specifically in the Acholi culture. When they found out I was 25, Christopher and Patrick wanted to know why i was not yet married, and when I intended to marry. I'm an old woman in Ugandan terms. Life here in the north is inherently communal, and raising children is the responsibility of everyone in the clan, which is composed of several families. Technically, there should never be orphans in Acholiland, which makes for a very complex problem when you look at the thousands and thousands of orphans in the camps (for example, the largest camp has 50,000 residents, 40,000 of which are children).

This afternoon I took a group of students via boda bodas (motorbike taxis) to Coro IDP camp just outside the city. A representative from Invisible Children joined us and we saw their bracelet making campaign in action - making bracelets provides valuable work for more than 200 individuals in the camp, and enables them to pay school fees via their sale in the US market.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Uganda: Gulu, Northern Uganda

It's a sad day for Ohioans. I made a bet with one of the participants on the score of the Buckeyes game - and heard on CNN World this morning (yes Buckeye fans, be proud - it made WORLD news) that the Buckeyes got their butts kicked by Florida. We both lost the bet and have decided to drink ourselves to oblivion at the local pub. Just kidding of course, but my heart goes out to the Buckeyes fans out there...such sad sad news.

We arrived yesterday here in Gulu, which is a small town in northern Uganda. Dad will be happy to hear that since last September, Gulu is no longer in the midst of a conflict zone, since the LRA has signed a cease fire that is still in effect. Our running group has resumed our morning runs, and the air out here in the rural areas is much friendlier than the heavily polluted air in Kampala. Gulu has been transformed from what it once was, as it now houses hundreds of NGOs and humanitarian relief organizations that administer services to the millions of Acholi who are living in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. Yesterday evening was dinner with the northern Ugandan participants (the American students are introduced to a whole new set of 11 Ugandan students who have been attending Gulu University). They are an extremely intelligent bunch (evidenced by the debate on the bus about theories of economics). The Director of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the university greeted us last night, welcoming us to northern Uganda.

Today was a difficult day for the students, as we visited Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO) in the morning, and Paicho IDP camp in the afternoon. GUSCO was featured in Invisible Children and is a center for rehabilitating child soldiers that have come out of the bush -- to better integrate them into society and provide psychosocial therapy. Paicho IDP camp is about 15 km outside of Gulu and home to more than 17,000 IDPs. We toured the camp and talked with Ugandan students about what will happen to these camps when peace is achieved. Jan Egeland (United Nations) called the situation in northern Uganda the "worst humanitarian crisis in the world." Surely that was visible during our visit, but the resilience of the Acholi people is remarkable. They are extremely hopeful for peace so that they can return to farming their ancestral homelands.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Uganda: Munyonyo Resort

Luganda Lesson: Olyotya? (How are you?) Response: Jendi! (Fine!)

Today is the first relaxing day of the trip - we've taken all of the students to Munyonyo Speke Resort on Lake Victoria - a place that our Ugandan participants wouldn't normally have had the opportunity to go. It's gorgeous and has a large pool and lots of fun things to do - like eating whole tilapia poolside (see below). Even the eyeballs were eaten. I've spent most of the day giving swimming lessons to Enoch and Ortega, two of our Ugandan students. And yes, I am getting a killer tan.

As for the trip itself - it could not possibly be better. Very few cases of any traveler's "D", just a little fatigue here and there. We've had some more incredible speakers - the Permanent Secretary of Internal Affairs, who is in charge of the Juba Peace Talks, spoke to us on Friday morning. We spent the afternoon exploring Kampala and introducing the students to getting around on matatus (taxi buses) and boda bodas (the much quicker and extremely dangerous motorbike taxis). Friday night we were back at Rouge - the night club we went to in June. Good times were had by all, and I even received compliments on my Butvin bounce dance moves (they love reggaeton here). Colin told me I need some more work.

Yesterday was our first day working with communities. We split into two groups and took half to an orphanage (where they cleaned dishes and cooked) and the other half with me, to Namuwongo. Henry, the youth leader in Namuwongo, lead us on a tour of the slum community that he and thousands of other people displaced from the northern war call home. Conditions are horrific and life is extremely difficult. It's a lot to digest for the students, and the upcoming week will be even more difficult. We are easing them into the issues and having lots of discussion and interaction with the Ugandan students, which has been tremendous in keeping the morale up.

In the afternoon yesterday we arrived back at Namuwongo, where Immaculate, who I met in June, had arranged entertainment, complete with a DJ and tent to shelter us from the scorching midday sun. I was overjoyed to see everyone, including Faith, the 11-year-old girl that my friend Julie is sponsoring. The women and children in Namuwongo performed dances for us and gave speeches, and then asked me to give a speech! I was totally unprepared, but it was a very touching experience to thank the community for setting up the performances and welcoming us into their homes. I even had a Luo interpreter so that the residents could understand my speech.

Last night at dinner we had a nice surprise - Otim Jimmy, a formerly abducted child soldier, came and shared his experiences with the group. Since his abduction in 1996 (he was in captivity for 9 months and met Kony several times), he has finished school, completed university and two additional degrees, and now works as the Public Information Officer for the International Criminal Court (ICC) which has issued indictments for Kony and 4 other leaders of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA).

As you can see, it's been quite a week. We head up to Gulu tomorrow on the postal bus, and are leaving at the crack of dawn. It's about 200 km or so, but the trip will take 6-8 hours, depending on the bus and the road. So to relax and enjoy before that trip, we're spending the day at the resort and having a blast. Tonight we are seeing the Ndere dance troup - an internationally renowned traditional dance group.
Enoch enjoying the poolside at Munyonyo: "I am so happy right now."

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Uganda: Back on the Continent

Greetings from Uganda!

We arrived yesterday at 8:30 a.m. local time - with only two lost bags in our group -- quite an accomplishment! The trip is going extremely well so far - the American side of the group is 12 girls and one guy, while the Ugandan side is just the opposite. We have much to learn from one another! We are staying at M.U.B.S. this time (Makerere University Business School) and accommodations are similar to the last trip. I have to pinch myself occasionally for two reasons - to believe I'm really here, and to remind myself that I'm helping to actually lead the trip this time. It's a whole different level of responsibility this time around.

Uganda is as beautiful as I remembered - we were greeted with sunny skies (yes!) and gorgeous views of Lake Victoria on the ride to Kampala from Entebbe. I am thrilled to be here, as you all can guess, back to eating matooke (green bananas), rice, and potatoes. A group of us went for a run this morning for about 4 miles (yes I almost died) up and down the hills...a great way to see the city waking up to life. I'm hoping to keep up the habit throughout the trip. The Ugandan students are enjoying teaching me Luganda (the most common tribal language in Uganda) and they all get excited when I mimic the phrase back to them.

More than anything I am so happy to be back in the company of old friends - and making lots of new ones. It feels as though I never left.

Our trip schedule is about to really take off - we had a busy day of meetings with the Minister of Youth, the Chief of Party for the USAID Northern Uganda Peace Initiative contract, and the exective director of Uganda Microfinance Limited (Uganda's largest microfinance firm). Tomorrow is a panel discussion with the man in charge of the peace talks in Juba and then a round table on Global Citizenship. Back to Namuwongo (I can't wait) on Saturday. We leave for Gulu on Monday and will be there for a week. Rebekah (of Jackfruity fame), our marketing coordinator, is updating our trip blog