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.