Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I tried to do handstands for you...

Handstands normally make me cry. No, seriously.

In yoga class, the second a teacher mentions a handstand practice, my chest tightens up and I feel 8 years old - the lone person who absolutely cannot kick up into a handstand. I lurk in the corner and do headstands, envious and sad as I watch everyone else gracefully enjoying handstands all over the room.

With a friend's solid advice (just kick HARDER) and some serious dedication, I kicked up into handstand today. Over and over and over again, just to be sure it was real.

Feet, over hips, over shoulders, over hands. Followed by fist pumps, shrieking and JOY.

Now I have to re-assess my 2009 goals, as kicking up into handstand was pretty high up on that list. WooHOO!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

magical christmas eve

I watched 3-year-old Ella dance around tonight, bouncing in her little pink pajamas, with a glittery ribbon in her hair, clutching Chaucer [soft new teddy bear] to her chest and hopping from one person to the next, wrinkling up her nose as she smiled and shrieked. The “adults” played Pictionary; shared versions of “flipping the bird” among generations; laughed until our faces were all red and our silly (and sometimes obscene) drawings covered the table. I’m quite sure there was cheating on the boys team, with the game board, the timer, all of it. We, the Butvins, piled into Dad’s SUV and drove back home – Dad barely keeping his eyes open, the new Coldplay EP softly whispering. The clouds looked purple out the car window, matching the hue of the fizzy Arbor Mist wine I drank all night. They billowed and bunched like theater curtains around the horizon, revealing a deep, wide, black sky with glittering stars.

Christmas Eve has always seemed a magical night, starting with a shared memory of lying awake listening for hooves on the roof and ceaseless anticipation. Now, at 27, with an ear long since tuned out to rooftop intruders, this night is one of reflection. For me it’s a few moments I’ve been meaning to take for myself since Thanksgiving. A few moments of gratitude; for the cup to flow over a bit. I rented a car to drive home for Thanksgiving. Shortly after getting on the road, a small rainbow appeared right in the middle of the sky, right in the middle of my windshield - and hung out like the north star. The sky melted to a soft pink, reflecting on icy farm fields. I remember spending those hours overcome with gratitude.

Last week, as I finished up my last yoga class in DC, my teacher said something a bit out of the ordinary. It was a fantastic class, one with many moments of the simultaneous joy and serenity that one sometimes achieves in yoga. As we sat in the dark, sweaty and cross-legged, she said “someone once gave me a box of darkness. It took me a long time to recognize that it, too, was a gift.”

I was the recipient this year – one box of darkness addressed to me. At first I was confused. I opened it up and tried to scrub away the deep black contents. I put on rubber gloves and went to work. But as soon as I had a clean spot, the dark seeped back in. Knowing that I couldn’t change it, I instead tried to wear it. I put the dark box on my head and wore it as a hat, insisting it was stylish. But it kept falling down over my eyes, and I felt annoyed that I couldn't see. It was too big and weighed too much, and it made me hunch as I walked. Finally I set it down on the sidewalk and didn’t know what to do. So I tried to climb into it. It took some contortion, but I managed to fit inside. I closed the lid. But as I settled in and tried to get comfortable, I took a good look around. It didn’t take long to see that this wasn’t my place. This box wasn’t my vessel – or at least, it wasn’t going to transport me to anywhere I wanted to go. So I climbed back out, a little thinner for all the effort, my insides bruised up from the folding and twisting and trying. I climbed out and sat down and took a long hard look at the box. It looked no worse for wear, and sat on the table, beckoning me to make use of it in some way – to do something with it.

The box is still sitting there on the table. I look at it every day. Sometimes I do a little circle around it, and then stand over it - hover a toe with the thought of climbing back in. But it keeps shrinking, day-by-day. Knowing that I could never again bend myself to fit inside, instead I put my toe back onto the solid earth and go for a walk. I breathe, and I feel better, little by little. I walk, I breathe and I dream. I dream that I’m waist-deep in warm, salty water, holding the box in front of me, setting it down in the surf. Sending it off, lovingly, as the sea catches on and sweeps it far from my reach. And then I whisper a little prayer. Namaste.

I’m thankful for so many things, little and big. A floppy Henry belly-up on my lap while I finish the last pages of Deep Survival. Re-learning to ride a bike. Spontaneous and uncontrollable laughter with so many incredible friends. The prospect of one day enjoying long weekend mornings in bed. Couch surfers that end up staying and sharing so much. Finally going upside-down. The joy that’s bubbling up as the year closes and the road opens up. Lucy. Uganda. Even the dark box. The feeling of gratitude for all of what I already have experienced, plus what I know I will someday enjoy, is almost too much to bear.

This life is so rich.

There are moments, like driving home for Thanksgiving with the rainbow and pink ice, where I scream to the divine:


And there are moments, like the purple clouds rolling back to reveal the glittering black sky, where I close my eyes and whisper it

(thank you thank you thank you).

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

holiday presence

Someone once gave me a box of darkness.
It took a while for me to realize that it, too, was a gift.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Departure Date: December 20, 2008

It's been a while, no doubt about that. Many months passed, two seasons even - as proven by the twirling snowflakes out my office window earlier this afternoon. The snow itself almost seemed to apologize for its premature visit, greeted by gasps of Washingtonians in denial about the coming winter months. My fingers are freezing and feel pretty stiff. I'll blame that on the teensy bit of anxiety I'm feeling about re-entering the blogosphere after such a long absence. Please bear with me; there is a purpose for this writing.

In about one month I'll be heading out on the road for a different kind of journey. A prolonged one, at that. I'm packing up my house and office, keeping half of my work responsibility, sending little Henry Ford to his doting grandparents, and jumping ship. As Dad always advises, I've got an outline.

My friend Kevin wrote me last week regarding one piece of my journey, where I'll teach yoga to a growing group of new yogis in Uganda. He told me "Kampala is so ready for you."

And I am so ready for this.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Leptoptilos crumeniferus

I moved into Kampala's central business district yesterday (for the last five nights), which is nice for a number of reasons - one of which being that I can walk more places. However, whether it's the early morning gray-ness or the scorching mid-day heat or the purple-y quiet twilight, I feel like I'm being watched. Perched atop Parliament, National Theater, the Serena, and street trees caving under their unusual birdy weight, the Marabou Storks are the sentries of this town. They peer down at you and pace the tops of buildings, their folded wings hunching behind them, giving the appearance of a sinister old man with a determined walk, hands clutched behind his back, long skinny legs with wobbly knees. When they come in for a landing, one can't help but pause to see if those long filament-like legs will support the girth of their black bodies and long, fleshy pink gullets. As I type this blog in the unusually boiling morning sunshine, I can count 18 of these grouchy, watchful, bumbly old men congregating atop the MTN building, probably handing out their surveillance posts for the day.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Friday, April 18, 2008

Forever and for always

I slept in on Wednesday, waking up only to the sound of Paul's text message at 5:36 am - he was waiting for me with the car outside Kabira Country Club. I stumbled out of bed and realized that I hadn't packed a single thing the night before, blew threw the hotel room throwing things into bags and twenty minutes later we were on the road, with my bad breath and knotty hair. I slept all the way to Kafu and woke up to Paul buying goat muchomo and roasted bananas at a trading center. Ah---breakfast! He only brought one CD, and this time it was a varied playlist: It Must Have Been Love (Roxette), Do Me (PSquare ), Forever and For Always (Shania Twain), Another Day in Paradise (Phil Collins), etc. etc. mixed with local reggae. We made it to Gulu in record time - 5.5 hours. I think he flew over the Luwero bumps (see photo) while I was passed out and drooling in the passenger the diversion at Nakasangola is finally cleared, cutting a half hour detour out of the trip.

Despite Paul's requests for me to rest after checking into Bomah, after dumping out my several bags o' crap, I took a quick shower and hit the ground running. The 36 hours in Gulu were a complete blur - smiling Ugandan faces in smart interview suits, meetings with local organizations, briefing by the UN Security Officer for northern Uganda, shopping for office space. My good friend Howard came to see me on Thursday morning, taking a bus in from Lira. After having lunch at Bambu (waiting 1.5 hours for banana fritters that weren't THAT good), we set off on a ridiculous office space hunt through the wilds of Gulu's outskirts. On a tip from the finance manager at Refugee Law Project, we set off looking for Obia Road - a four bedroom house on a plot adjacent to ACDI/VOCA's food security compound. "It needs renovation, but can be made ready with a fence in two months." After trying unsuccessfully to walk there in the scorching mid-day heat (I'd already taken off my button down shirt and felt lost in the desert, tripping around in my tank top and sweat pouring down my face, hand shielding the sun from my eyes and gazing into the heat waves rising from the earth, hoping to spot a suitable piece of real estate. Just kidding, it wasn't that hot.)...Howard and I found ourselves in front of what had to be the place. I dialed up my contact and listened to the description - just needs some renovation and a fence, four bedrooms...while I stood in front of a never-finished or once-burnt shell of a house with no roof and a full-fledged mini-forest taking root in the living space (see photo). But he was right that there was no fence. After another half hour of searching the country-side for the correct property, we finally found the place, tucked away behind a bamboo fence. If only house-hunting in the US were this adventurous, I might actually be up for buying a home!

The trip to Gulu was a success, including a stop off Thursday evening at the sign shop - a local sign-maker (yes he's the one making the millions of NGO signs littering the streets of Gulu, pointing to-and-fro) painted a One Mango Tree sign for Lucy. It's still being finished, but I managed to snap a couple pictures of the artist and his masterpiece (photos coming soon). Paul and I met Lucy by candlelight in the market to pick up the latest order, and she had everything packed neatly into the red plastic bags - one with London Bridge and the other with African wildlife - with an envelope on top that read "Halle's Mummy and Dad. U.K." - a letter to my parents from Lucy, which tugged at my heart and curiousity, but it's still unopened in my bag for the trip home to Ohio.

After a loooong day of running around, I finally passed out at Bomah and woke up on time, even packing my bags before falling asleep (AND taking a hot shower before bed!). Paul and I got on the road at 6 am, with the Gululian red-fire sunrise blazing on the eastern horizon out my window, palm trees blackened in silhouette. I promptly passed out and drooled. In true road trip style, Paul woke me up at our food stop. We were too early for the lady with the yummy roasted bananas (she was just arriving with the brown bananas in a green plastic tub perched upon her head, and waved a greeting when she saw us), but we spotted a guy making chapattis and both lit up at the thought of a roll-ex for the road. Chapattis are like a greasier version of naan, and a roll-ex is a chapatti rolled with fried egg. We also bought an avocado, sliced and salted, and for the next hour I sat with a smile on my face, mushy green avocado in my left hand, and salty delicious and hot roll-ex in my right, as we sang through full mouths to Shania Twain:

And there ain't no way
I'm lettin' you go now
And there ain't no way
And there ain't no how
I'll never see that day....

'Cause I'm keeping you
Forever and for always
We will be together all of our days
Wanna wake up every
Morning to your sweet face--always

Life is good.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Elusive peace and a visit to St. Mauritz

It's Sunday morning, and I'm fueling (and recovering from a visit from Mr. Honourable) with a mocha and an egg and tomato sandwich at Cafe Pap. Another silent Sunday in Kampala, preceding what promises to be a completely crazy week (and following one that was equally nuts). I returned from Gulu on Friday, to a louder, meaner version of Kampala. Paul [driver] and I were listening to the news as we approached town, and heard the broadcast about riots occuring on the streets of the city. Last week, police in Kampala set up road blocks and started ticketing, arresting and impounding vehicles and drivers that were not up to code (boda drivers without helmets, taxis without seatbelts, etc.). The crackdown created a slow swell of anger from the city's thousands of drivers, which erupted Friday in a city-wide taxi strike. Drivers took to the streets burning tires and breaking windscreens of matatus and buses that weren't striking. The boda drivers joined in, throwing stones at any bodas that were transporting passengers. Kawempe, on the north side of Kampala, was one of the worst spots, and Paul and I were pulling up to the area when we saw a crowd of people throwing bricks at a bus that was passing by - there was glass from broken windows all over the road. A truck filled with police in riot gear pulled up and we eventually passed without a problem, but as we drove into the city, the only other traffic was the stream of empty taxis driving in the opposite direction. Smoldering remains of tires littered the road.

As if a premonition, Friday's violence was quickly followed by headlines that Kony had failed to sign the peace accord. My initial reaction was disappointment and fear, partially invoked by the Daily Monitor's reportage - that the signing of the peace agreement was "put off indefinitely" and that with the Cessation of Hostilities Act due to expire on Tuesday and the government showing no intention to extend it, "war could easily resume." My week in Gulu had been filled with optimism from all sides - stories of people returning to their villages (Lucy returned to her family's land in Awac for the first time just last week) and discussions on the way forward and new economic opportunities. The absence of conflict in Uganda has helped raise hopes, but as one man described to me - "the people of northern Uganda have one foot in transition camps and one foot in their villages, with a hand cupping their ear to the north, waiting to hear the news from Juba." The importance of Kony's signature on that final document in this process cannot be overestimated and neither can the disappointment and frustration that everyone in northern Uganda is feeling.

After a week of running all over Gulu to meetings and scanning hundreds of Ugandan CVs to look for quality job candidates, I had an opportunity to visit Lucy's home. She's asked me to go before, but this was the first time that the trip actually worked out - and I had an evening free [and Paul offered to drive] to make the 2-mile trip to St. Mauritz parish, where Lucy lives with her aging parents, 12 orphaned nieces and nephews, and her own two daughters. She is a single woman supporting 16 people - 14 of whom need their school fees paid. As soon as we arrived, Lucy bounced out of the car with a smile and led us through the compound - an impeccably swept dirt yard with a clipped circle of turf, surrounded by tukuls - the round clay huts with grass rooftops - resembling the ones seen in IDP camps, but with much more space between them - the way Acholi families lived before the war.

Lucy's family was somewhat lucky in that her brother had purchased this plot of land outside of Gulu just as the conflict was worsening. Instead of moving into a camp like so many others, Lucy and her family moved to this land, and were able to maintain (to some extent) a bit of the life they had in the village. The first tukul belongs to Lucy's father, a very tall and thin man whose face broke into a million wrinkles as he gave us a welcoming smile and leaned on one of his crutches to shake our hands and greet us in Luo.

The next tukul is Lucy's own, which she shares with the four nephews who are in primary school nearby and Catherine, one of her brother's eldest daughter. The inside is spotless and cool, with plastic chairs surrounding a small table with a lace table cloth and pictures of Jesus (several versions), Lucy sewing, a photo from a European friend, and a framed photo of one of the two brothers she lost during the war (one to a rebel attack, the other to AIDS). Her father came inside and spoke to us in his soft and scratchy Luo, as Catherine translated stories of his life, his land, and the war that ravaged his family. He spoke with resignation, a man who prayed that peace would come for his grandchildren, as he admitted that he'd never see his family land in the village again - due to his failing health he couldn't make the journey. Such is the consequence of a conflict lasting as long as this one.

Lucy opened up to us in her home and told stories about moving from the village and hiding from rebel attacks in Gulu. Catherine poured cold water over hands and served us beef stew, rice, cabbage, and bananas. Shortly after our arrival, the sky opened up and poured one of those heavy opaque rains for half an hour, chilling the air. Lucy insisted it was a blessing. After the meal we followed her to the kitchen tukul, where her mother has been staying since her stroke two years ago. She spends her days on a mattress, a small white cat by her side, the walls and grass roof smelling of cooked food and streaked with oily black soot, tendrils of smoke still wafting up the clay-black walls from our recently eaten beef stew. She can see out a small window cut into the wall of the tukul, with a little shutter. I looked out briefly and saw the grave of one of Lucy's brothers, with a small neighbor girl perched atop it biting into half an orange, the pulp and juice dripping down the front of her gray school uniform. She saw me watching and smiled and darted away, scattering some chickens clucking in her wake.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Back on the map

I started to get a combination of emails wondering when I got home and emails saying "where the f* are you and what are you doing?" I'm still in Uganda, and I'm working and living. I think I'm now in week 4 or so (maybe week 5? I lost count), and that's the point where being over here starts to feel normal. Normal = I forget what it's like to be in an office, to wear anything beside wife beaters/t-shirt skirts/flipflops, and I've stopped brushing my hair. Wait, I'm portraying this all wrong...I promise you I don't look like a crazed vagrant hippie!

In the past week or so since my last email/post, lots of things have been going on over here. In addition to working on AIR stuff and getting started on my consulting assignment (lots of reading and some logistics so far), here's the run down of some of the highlights of what the f* I've been up to for those who asked - and the rest of you.

Local news:

Kony's delayed signing the peace accord (due to illness or something) - now scheduled to take place mid-April.


It definitely bears mentioning that it's back to hot and sunny in these parts, lots of blue sky and occasional passing clouds. Where'd rainy season go? ( cares?)


I'm still staying at La Fontaine, moving back and forth between my own room and Steve's room (he's traveling again, so I'm back to camping out amidst his stuff). I cleared a spot on a table in the corner for my books and the newest addition to my home - a two-foot tall blue-bodied, yellow-mohawked, wire-legged carved wooden crested crane who seems to say "hey ladies...." (a la Demetri Martin) with his sideways glance.

The balcony at La Fontaine is admittedly one of my favorite places in the world, especially after spending a late afternoon swimming at Kabira, showering and reading, my skin all shiny and stretched from the chlorine and sunshine. Everything looks golden and breezy and eventually the sun goes down and leaves wide brushstrokes of pink across the darkening blue sky.


Colin welcomed me to the "inner circle" on Thursday, over dinner at Mama Ashanti's - a West African restaurant on Bombo Road, just down from the ginormous Kampala Pentecostal Church (KPC). Having read some Nigerian authors on this trip (Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun), I was thrilled to try the spiced tea, jollof rice, a plate of plantains, chicken stew, and beef stew. All of it was delicious, and I went home with quite a fat Nigerian food baby in my belly. I'm still not clear on Colin's insistence that the dinner was my induction into the "inner circle," and his quick scribbling an illustration on a napkin didn't help (a circle with a dot in the middle of it). It looked like a boob. But I guess I'm "in."

Additional food item worth mentioning - yellow curry and mango sticky rice at Krua Thai - you MUST try it if you're ever hungry in Kampala.

Cultural Activity:

The Bookend - On Wednesday afternoon, following a suburban moment at Garden City (where I broke the scanner at the internet cafe and purchased the aforementioned creepy crane at Banana Boat), Steve and decided to walk back to La Fontaine, stopping off at The Surgery, which is my go-to medical clinic (I've only ever taken students there, knock-on-wood I've never had to go myself). The reason for stopping had nothing to do with health, but with a blog post I'd read back in the states before I left - about a little used book store that opened up on The Surgery compound.

The Bookend - a mini wooden house on stilts, with a large porch and a tanned, tiny woman sitting in a hand-tooled leather chair – blue apron, several masai beaded bracelets and glasses perched in her short blondish hair. She held a cigarette, said hello, and continued reading her book How to Quit Smoking. We walked inside and set down our bags, marveling at the simplicity of it all. The salvaged hardwood floors begged me to take off my shoes. Breezes blew in through the side windows and wind chimes tinkled on the porch where Karen (the owner) sat reading and smoking. Two armchairs angled into the room, facing the hand-carved bookshelves. All books are only 6,000 shillings, and if you bring them back, Karen gives you 3,000 and puts them back on the shelves. She'll also buy your used books for 3,000 shillings each. I immediately wanted to live there in the tiny book house on stilts, where the porch is bigger than the house, all wood and windows - and spend the rest of my days reading, retiring at almost-27. I chose a Pico Iyer book about Cuba, Out of Africa, and a verse translation of The Bhagavad Gita (free from Karen). It was one of those moments that puts a smile on your face for the rest of the day.

Nagenda International Academy of Art and Design (NIAAD)- On Thursday afternoon, I hitched a ride with Ed and Katy - two people I spent some time with this week that are starting a social investment fund that will link wealthy donors directly with innovative local organizations - out to visit Kizito's school on the way to Entebbe. This was my fourth visit to NIAAD, yet every time the setting leaves me speechless. The buildings are nearly complete (Kizito and his very-pregnant-wife Ruth have moved onto a small compound on Makerere's main campus) and white-washed. The grounds (photo, left) overflow with bougainvillea, ficus, pawpaw, a row of huge and cartoonish cacti, and scattered bits of Kizirto's sculpture. From the main studios you can see the long blue fingers of Lake Victoria stretching into the marshy coast, reaching up to the reflective pale green plasticity of Expressions Flowers' greenhouses.

I paid another visit to Kizito yesterday morning - this time to his studio at Makerere, where we drank cup after cup of the loose tea that always reminds me of Kizito. We talked about his visions for NIAAD, his process in accrediting the school through the Ugandan Ministry of Education, and the 80 million shillings he needs to finish it up. I'm still floored by the fact that the entire project has been funded through the sale of his paintings (many of you have seen the painting I bought - it's in my bedroom at home - which paid for a large pile of bricks that are now somewhere in the studio walls out at NIAAD). In between visits from Kizito's 2 year-old daughter (she kept bringing me her teddy bear, which is larger than she is), Kizito and I discussed possibilities for a partnership through One Mango Tree. On the table for the next year is an exhibit and auction in DC, to correspond with having a set of his paintings made into prints so that they can be mass-produced and screen-printed on American Apparel shirts and sold via One Mango Tree - to pay for scholarships and supplies for NIAAD. I'm also talking to his wife (a textile designer) about a line of baby/kids t-shirts with her unique print designs.

On the agenda:

I'm heading up to Gulu on Monday morning (at 6 am), and with a driver this time (woohooooooooooo!). I'll be there all week, staying at Bomah, eating salty spaghetti bolognaise and banana muffins... and working my butt off. I'll try not to be so distant (and then my emails won't be so damn long. Sorry.)

Friday, March 28, 2008

Periods of sun and clouds...and exhaust

Let me first summarize the pros and cons of working at a petrol station coffee shop all day:

PRO: Delicious and rich café mochas, ice cream sundaes, good bread
CON: Licking your lips as your aforementioned delicious food arrives and finding a gritty layer of dirt has settled over them

PRO: Infocom wireless hotspot (comparatively cheap at 3,000 ush/hour)
CON: White Sony Vaio now has a gross reddish tinge, no matter how often I towel it off

PRO: Cute patio outdoor seating with green umbrellas
CON: Pretty hedges and palm trees do a crap job of blocking out the black fog of diesel exhaust and constant settling of red dust from Bombo Road (see above reddish tinge)

As some of you already know, I’m staying in Uganda. You all predicted it. No, no, no. Not forever. The planned three weeks has now morphed into seven weeks, as I move on to some new and exciting work in the north.

Speaking of, the Juba Peace Talks formally ended yesterday. The trusty Daily Monitor printed a full front-page montage with a huge headline reading “Peace Talks End,” leading most people (or me and Kate) to think that they had failed. In reality, the parties in Juba just signed the monitoring and implementation agreement – a final step before the formal signing of the accord, which is scheduled to take place on April 5. The Monitor also included a bulleted list of important stages in the peace process (courtesy of source: wikipedia), which began in July 2006. Since then, the LRA and GOU have signed agreements on cessation of hostilities; comprehensive solutions; accountability and reconciliation; permanent ceasefire; and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR). While the signing of the peace accord will be a historic moment and a huge step forward for northern Uganda, there is still a massive amount of work to be done to ensure that the peace is actually sustainable. I’m excited to be heading back up north immediately following the upcoming signing, where I’m sure many people will be talking about what’s next.

The Fountain [again] and Lucy comes to Kla

It’s gray again, like Easter. I went to sleep last night to the sound of Ugandan-lilted accents arguing over a game of Scrabble – late night customers at La Fontaine. Sometime in the middle of the night, the curtains that one of the staff had closed over the front window billowed out into the room, and I awoke to claps of thunder and a constant, gushing sound of rain. The world outside was being churned into a thick slop of red mud. On Easter, when we went to La Fontaine for brunch, Richard arrived in his Bob Marley t-shirt again, shivering, squealing and hopping about, avoiding the drops and behaving as though a massive cold front had blown through – winter in Uganda. He eventually opened La Fontaine to the public at 2 pm, but no matter, because according to Richard, his fellow countrymen stay in bed when the weather is so terribly cold. Remembering this, I felt a little more Ugandan today, seeing the white-gray sky out the window and snuggling up a little longer under the mosquito net and comforter.

I temporarily moved off of Kate’s couch in Kasubi on Tuesday, bringing a small bag of things over to La Fontaine to crash in Steve’s room while he’s climbing Kili. It smelled like boy when I got here, and I’m either used to it now (and I probably smell like boy) or open windows and my coconut lotion have done the job of airing out the boy smell. My days since returning from Gulu have been a mishmash of busy-ness and same-ness. Daily life in Kampala. This was the week I was supposed to be in Zanzibar, relaxing on the beaches and reading. Instead, I’m hopping bodas from hotspot to hotspot (Café Pap, Crocodile Café, Kabira Country Club), attempting to complete enough AIR work to prove my worth. I get up and work for a few hours in the morning, try and get to the pool to swim and read and relax during the hot hours of the afternoon, and then work again late into the evening. In lieu of a social life, it’s not bad way to live.

Lucy rode the bus down to Kampala on Monday, arriving in Bombo to stay with her sister for the night. After a couple hours of confusion Tuesday morning – getting lost at Mukwano Arcade, and sweating bullets in the punishing mid-day sun – Kate and I trudged up from Mukwano, through the taxi park, and arrived at Kiwempe, where Lucy and her foster son, Cyprian, were waiting for us. Lucy is an active and fervent member of the picturesque Catholic Church in Gulu (recall: her participation in a “Crusade” during Easter Week). A few years ago, Cyprian left Kampala to study at seminary in Gulu. The Church tasked Lucy with being his “mom” while he was in Gulu – he lived with her for three years while completing his courses. In return, Lucy called on him to meet her in Old Kampala to help her purchase the materials she needed to complete our order. Since the post-election violence in Kenya, Gulu’s markets have been sparse, and the cost of transport greatly increased. Things are cheaper and readily available in Kampala. Cyprian also speaks Luganda – the major Bantu language spoken by Ugandans in the south. Lucy speaks Luo – a Nilotic language from northern Uganda. Even though she speaks quite a bit of English, most market transactions are completed in Luganda, leaving her to feel like a foreigner in her own country. After an exchange of a big stack of shillings in a shadowy corner in the market, Kate and I helped Lucy and Cyprian to lug 3 foot long cylinders of sponge, stiff fabric, and rolls of Velcro through the winding, hot and crowded market streets, into the chaos of the bus park.

The bus park is essentially a medium-sized parking lot, flanked on both sides by balconied buildings and one-man vending shows – selling chapattis, matooke, roasted corn, roasted bananas to travelers, who line up on small benches to have lunch as they wait for the buses to fill up. As you enter through the gates, throngs of informal bus guides descend upon you shouting “Arua? Kitgum? Gulu?” and then grabbing whatever luggage you’re carrying (this is totally scary until you realize that 9.99 times out of 10, they are actually putting your things into the proper bus, and not robbing you blind), millions of palms and elbows pushing you through the crowd to board the bus – a human funnel to Gulu. No one seemed to understand that we were merely accompanying Lucy and her things, not actually riding to Gulu with her. I’m surprised the mass of people didn’t lift us up and crowd surf us right through the bus windows. After a few well-wishes and quick hugs, Kate and I darted back out of the gates and spent the next half an hour elbowing our way uphill and out of Old Kampala, onto bodas, and out of the madness.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Friday, March 21, 2008

A good Friday

Lucy asked for a sign for her stall on Friday. I love her smile. Good Friday in Gulu. I felt a slowness enter my bones when I woke up. Breakfast was slow. I walked slowly. We got to Lucy’s stall and I sat down and watched her work. She was starting to cut fabric for the reversible bag my mom bought as a sample at Wal-Mart. She was teaching Kevin how to cut oven mitts, watching with a discerning eye over her shoulder, remarking quietly in Luo while she held the pattern (pineapple explosion) and cut oven mitts into the large swath of blue guinea fowl. I wanted to sit there all day on the reed mat and just exist as a fly on the wall – to try and understand/feel what a day is like there. Eventually the three of us (Lucy, Kate and I) left the stall behind and went to Pamela’s office to talk about the grant. Lucy walked us through Oweno’s food market, passing by row after row of smoked fish from Lake Albert – stinking and dry and covered in flies. Lucy patted backs and exchanged greetings throughout the market until we emerged on the other side, adjacent to Pamela’s office.

At our last meeting, I’d asked Pamela to explain our project and the grant to Lucy in Luo so that nothing would be lost in translation. I was worried that she wouldn’t want to go out to the camps. We sat there in Pamela’s office, listening to the Luo conversation between two women, unable to glean anything from their tone or dialogue, until Lucy smiled her big smile and Pamela explained that Lucy was really excited about the project. She asked for a sign for her stall to show that she, too, is One Mango Tree.

After the meeting and a round of fabric shopping, I sat again on the reed mat, propping myself up against the rough wooden post holding up the porch roof. Lucy sat next to me as she finished cutting the pieces for ten reversible bags in cherry blossom print. Holding and cutting and eyeing and cutting and pausing and cutting. Every now and then an Acholi would stop by and greet her, occasionally pulling up the small wooden bench I’d been resting my elbow on and having a conversation while Lucy continued to cut.

A church mother came by and taunted the girls about their singing in choir, urging them to be prompt at practice that evening. From inside the stall I heard one of them singing.

Prisca moved her sewing machine onto the porch and hunched over it, sewing aprons and apron strings.

I sat partially in the setting sun, as it filtered in between the small break in the rooftops, shining gold on the red dirt and reed mat. Threads and scraps of fsabric covered everything. Whirring sewing machines, Lucy’s quick and quiet Luo. The sound of Kevin’s scissors on the kitchen fabrics. Francis sewing on Lucy’s machine, assembling the remaining lunch bags. Cutting sponge for the oven mitts. A couple of hours passed without my even realizing it, and I gathered the completed items and said goodnight and a Happy Easter, with the huge blue plastic London bag thrown over my shoulder.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Behold, a novel awaits you...

The Gulu tape worm reared its fugly head. Or maybe I shouldn't have eaten pepper steak and honey pancakes last night for dinner. Eh.


I really love taking you on this circular journey of my days, so thanks for reading these missives. It's truly a cathartic exercise for me – an outlet for the tumult of emotion that goes along with these trips – the constant up-and-down and up-and-down (sea-sick and slap-happy).


Speaking of circular, we are back to Thursday. I woke up feeling fugly (see above) and tried my best to shake it off. Kate and I had a 10 am meeting with IYEP (Information for Youth Empowerment Program). After stuffing my face with Patrick's lovely banana muffin x2, Kate and I hopped on bodas and headed out to the new IYEP office (see photo above) – adjacent to the GUSCO Resource Center.

In the split second it took to pass by GUSCO (Gulu Support the Children Organization), I couldn't help but think back to that day in June 2006, when something small came unhinged inside of me, triggering the landslide that has been my constant involvement with Northern Uganda. It goes back to an 11-year-old boy that had just arrived at GUSCO, which is a child soldier rehabilitation center – the first stop on a painful journey towards regaining his place in society. I'd made eye contact with the boy earlier as the Director explained their programs, noticing a vacancy in his eyes. As we sat together in silence, one of the nurses casually explained that he had escaped captivity the day before I arrived. Instead of words, we exchanged brief glances. I drew Bert the Jolly Mail-Bee and smiling flowers and suns. Gave him a pack of gum. Reached out, rubbed his back, and saw a smile sneak onto his face. A nice, wide smile, and a small glitter where all that emptiness had been. And so it goes. I offered him nothing, and I knew it. His smile set loose a tremor in my mind that would grow and torment me into returning and returning, trying to understand why I keep coming back to Uganda.

We paid our boda drivers and Moses stepped into the road to meet us, wearing metal-tipped cowboy boots. Big, huge hugs all around. It's not without meaning that we are working with IYEP and that its new office is adjacent to GUSCO. Moses is a formerly-abducted child soldier that, with a group of others in similar situations, started an organization targeted at restoring Acholi culture and breaking down the stigmas that the formerly-abducted and child mothers face upon returning to their communities. Kate and I sat down with the group in their office and explained our ideas for partnership.

IYEP is playing an increasingly large role in restoring peace and stability in the region, and they've expanded their reach to groups that have returned to their villages. These returnees (as they're called here in dev-talk) face a host of challenges (see this awesome BBC map/article for reference) as they leave the squalor of IDP camps and try to reclaim the rural lives they'd lived prior to this conflict. IYEP is easing the transition by providing agricultural assistance to returnees – namely livestock, pigs, goats and chickens.

So, in addition to buying recycled paper beads from IYEP's child mother groups and working with them to develop a line of Peace on Earth holiday cards, we'll be running a unique holiday campaign, similar to Heifer International and with the guarantee that every single penny gets to the ground – you'll be able to directly support returnees in Northern Uganda by purchasing the animals they need to jump-start their livelihoods. That's right, give a goat for Christmas this year…coming soon. Dear Santa….

Following our uplifting meeting with IYEP (and round three of group photos, which we do every time I visit their office), Kate and I headed to the market to see Lucy and take her to open a bank account at Barclay's. We've grown increasingly nervous about her moving about town when we pay her the large sums for each order, so the logical solution is to legitimize things a bit and open an account. Unlike many people in the north, Lucy does have a photo ID. We stopped off at the photo shop (specializing in passport photos, light bulbs, PVC tubing, and cell phone gadgets) and perpetually smiling Lucy put on her best solemn stare for the photographer. With one more step of getting the LC5's signature for a letter of recommendation, Lucy will have a bank account.

We parted ways in town and Kate and I headed to see Angwech Pamela at GWED-G (Gulu Women's Economic Development & Globalization) – our NGO partner for the Davis Project for Peace. We were both admittedly exhausted from the morning's activities, but seeing Pamela (more giant HUGS!) took our happiness to new heights. Pamela, like us, was beyond thrilled to hear about the grant, and immediately told us her plan for mobilizing GWED-G in the camps to get things started. We set up a meeting to introduce her to Lucy and align all of the important pieces. Pamela, after an amazing monologue about our partnership (and ever the teacher), sent Kate and I packing with the instructions to draft a study design – we're going to conduct research in line with the peace project this summer, surveying households before and after the project to better understand the grassroots impact of One Mango Tree's work.

A few hours later I ate some Chicken a la Cream Sauce and chips at Bomah and enjoyed an hour-long massage, a milky twilight-y sky, and a cup of African tea – and you, my friends, are now up-to-date.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

P.S. Gulu loves you

Indeed, Gulu seems to love me very much (except for the tendency for digestive disorders that I pick up here - malakwang, ground nut paste…cabbage). Today closed with one of those milky, quiet evenings, the sky fading from blue to lavender and then to darkness filled with invisible crickets. Staving off a much-needed nap and realizing we'd only eaten Maq Foods banana muffins all day, Kate and I headed to Bomah for an early dinner and some reflection. (read: I'm fresh from enjoying my favorite Gulu massage - oily, relaxed and clean, and drinking a cup of African tea.)

Things instantly improved following the rainy bus ride from Kampala. The clouds cleared and I moved up in the world, dreaming anti-malarial dreams on a twin bed at Hotel Kakanyero instead of Kate's pygmy African couch.

Immediately following breakfast on Wednesday morning, we walked the short distance to Lucy's market stall. After lots of uncontrollable laughter, smiles and hugs, Lucy and the girls cleared out a seat for us on a bench in the stall, which now seems unbelievably crowded. The stall itself is part of a larger, permanent structure – a sort of mini-shopping center with 10 ft. by 10 ft. stalls. It has two huge metal doors that open up onto a small concrete pad and a bit of a porch constructed with wood, woven mats and corrugated metal sheets. The path into the market and between the stalls also serves as a sort of drainage ditch – an uneven red riverbed winding through the market and collecting cast off fabric scraps, remnants of lunch and dirty dishwater.

Inside Lucy's stall, tons of un-labeled lunch bags hang in bunches from the ceiling. The walls are covered with fabrics for sale and stock posters of traditional African clothing. There are so many sewing machines that we can barely move around. Every surface is covered with fabrics, scissors, scraps, thread and scraps of paper with designs and measurements.

We sat down and met the new girls working with Lucy (there are two, Sarah and Monica), and unpacked our bag of samples and goodies: bananas (during a bus window transaction, we accidentally bought two full bunches instead of two single bananas), several One Mango Tree t-shirts (photos all around – thanks Mom!), and lots of samples for new products (an over-sized tote, a reversible sling shoulder bag, a headband, a mini-tissue holder, and tiny stuffed animals). After making orders with the fabrics I purchased at Mukwano Arcade in Kampala, Kate and I ventured out into the market to see what Gulu's tailors had to offer (no details here, you'll have to wait to see the new patterns – except I will say that there are Swahili Virgin Mary aprons and oven mitts coming your way).

After another hour of haggling and buying rainbows (and miles) of liner fabric from Mr. A. O. Latigo, Textiles, I headed to the internet café to catch the wave of morning emails from the other side of the Earth.

My gmail loaded like a sea slug…basic HTML version? Yes…and then there it was – the announcement that "Growing One Mango Tree in Northern Uganda" had won the Davis Project for Peace grant. And that kind of day is why I am convinced that Gulu loves me (and man do I love the sh** out of Gulu).

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The mystery of my reduction

Greetings from the Ostrich Suite at Hotel Kakanyero, Gulu, Uganda. Kate and I splurged for a self-contained room, which means it has a cold shower and a real honest-to-God sit-down toilet (instead of a pit latrine and outdoor cold shower). Breakfast included (African tea, fried eggs, toast, pineapple on little checkered tables – Gulu food). We're tucked into the far corner of the first floor courtyard, with a 2-chair balcony overlooking our ostrich mural and several UN Land Cruisers with scuba tubes.

We got a bit of a late start to Gulu and ended up on the 11:30 am bus,which was a luxury liner – plastic-covered seats (sliding and sweating the whole way) and a TV and sound system blasting a variety of greatest hits – Lucky Doobie reggae-thon, Swahili rump-shaking videos, several boy bands and a really bad Nigerian flick where all the actors seemed to scream. 6 hours, lots of rain and one dead goat later, we arrived in Gulu unscathed, devoured dinner at Bambu and escaped the evening rains back at our "suite."

A re-cap of the past few days.

Sunday mornings in Kampala always seem freshly-scrubbed; the week's grit rinsed clean with the Saturday night rain showers. Traffic jams dissolve and the boda rides (palm leaves tucked in mirrors and matatu windshields) are fast and chilled in clean sunlight. Kate and Ibrunched at La Fontaine – fresh yogurt, fruit and honey,fresh-squeezed OJ, African milk tea (non-spiced), fried eggs, French toast, and Scottish pancakes. Daily Monitor and a new character –Kate's friend Steve.

Enter Steve, stage left, fresh from bagels at I Love New York Kitchen. He is working at Refugee Law Project and hasn't cut his hair or shaved in three months. Ugandan children commonly mistake him for Jesus.

Our extended brunch was served by a Marley-shirted Richard and background music courtesy of the CD player – a Peruvian flautist version of Dust in the Wind. I was excited to see Richard again (this being my first visit back to La Fontaine since returning), and he greeted me with a hug and a high-pitched "ah! You have been reduced?!" To clarify he rounded out his arms to motion the shape of a football player, puffed out his cheeks and repeated his question. He refused to believe that I had not lost a great deal of weight since the last time I saw him. The mystery of my reduction remains unsolved.

Tonight is a rest night, letting our backs recuperate from the 110 speed bumps in Luwero District and preparing for a long day in the market tomorrow…when we get to see Lucy!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Stocking up at Mukwano and lunch at a gas station

Sorry. I'm at the pool again. I'd been happily baking and reading The God of Small Things when a storm cloud rumbled in, half the pool bright and sunny and the other half ominous. That's how I found myself at the dark bar eating another damn good fat bad fat salad and writing to you all.

Kate is back at home on the other side of town, sick with stomach problems - she thinks it's giardia (I'm knocking on wood every chance I get, since we've eaten exactly the same food since I arrived). When she wandered out of her bedroom yesterday morning with that look on her face, I suddenly felt a little bit lost. Poor planning on our part - not taking the possibility of sudden stomach problems into consideration...

Instead I called Frances (our most reliable boda driver, who Kate insists does not charge us the mzungu prices), and rode out to Makerere U. main campus to pick up Colin - who agreed to make the overwhelming trip to Old Kampala with me.

Mukwano Arcade is labyrinth of multi-story market stalls adjacent to the old taxi park. It's in one of Kampala's many valleys, which collects the humid heat in thick pools, and combined with the bursts of exhaust, it can be hard to breathe as you navigate among people (shoulder to shoulder), bodas (whizzing in and around) and matatus (bumper to bumper "hey mzungu I love you have a seat here"). Ever thankful for Colin's guidance and Luganda language skills, we popped in and out of the stalls, searching for the right fabrics for One Mango Tree's spring/summer line (we're going for lighter and brighter colors this time around). Passing up the wax print with high-heeled roller skates, we opted for some kitchen prints with apples and bananas, as well as several florals - I'm finding them to be decidedly un-African, but I know customers back home will love them. The next stop was thicker foam for oven mitts (Gulu is clean out of foam), and it was a blast trying to haggle for products when you have absolutely NO idea of their true value. Ignorance is bliss, because then everything is a good deal.

A couple of hours and two bright red shoulders later, we hopped back on bodas with all of our purchases and headed to Javas for lunch. Javas is the newest hot spot in Kampala - on Bomba Road just outside of Wandegaya (I think my spelling is atrocious). It also happens to be part of a gas station and Colin just will NOT stop talking about it. I promise you, this was the classiest gas station I've ever lunched in. We hashed out some ideas for the youth summit with Central Buganda University (the next project I'm taking on), and it was inspiring to get our wheels turning about content and structure. Colin packed me up solo for the ride home, and I clutched the 3 foot tall by 2 foot thick cyclinder of foam and six bags of new fabrics for the long ride.

In an effort to keep out of the sick house and give Kate some time to rest, I spent my Friday night at Crocodile Cafe at Kisementi, writing and chatting with Joey about the new journey - Kili in 09. The power went out several times, leaving me as the eerie customer in the corner whose face reflected bluish gmail light. I'm creepy.

Back to the mother ship

My new Sony Vaio has a reflective screen, which I've discovered is good for one thing and one thing only - seeing the wrinkle I'm getting in between my eyebrows. I can actually see what I look like when I'm cussing out the slow/unavailable/corrupted internet here in Uganda, and my brows are most definitely furrowed in anger/frustration.

On the other hand, it's about 80 degrees and gorgeous in Kampala, and I made it here at what seemed like warp speed - only 15 hours in the air and two hours on the ground in dreary Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, where I enjoyed a $10 shot of espresso and made a new friend.

The warm Ugandan air felt like a big hug when I got off the plane and walked across the tarmac to the shiny new arrivals hall (marble floors and velvet ropes - remnants of CHOGM improvements from this past November), and a smiling Kate was there to greet me at the front door. We went back to her adorable new place ($100/month anyone?) near Kasubi Tombs and spent the evening catching up, drinking tea made by a domesticated Colin ("can I make some tea for you ladies? green tea with jasmine?") and finally fell asleep on the new and STIFF velour African couch (made for a pygmy).

So if you're looking for evidence of my having made any great One Mango Tree achievements, you will want to stop reading this post now.

We spent the day yesterday at Kabira Country Club, after trying [unsuccessfully] to sneak in. I only got a minor sunburn in weird spots. Kate and I spent most of the afternoon giggling at the laughing crows in the trees and eating goodfat/badfat salad - avocados and bacon. I love Uganda! We also got a chance to catch up with our friend Abramz (of Breakdance Uganda fame) who happened to be there as well. Hotel Africana hosted a dance contest a few weeks ago to celebrate the new flavor of Mirinda soda (pineapple) and Breakdance Uganda took first place! Watch out world - this man is on the verge of something great.

As for real OMT work, that started today and will continue as we venture to the markets of Old Kampala tomorrow afternoon to scout out fabrics and other materials Lucy will need for her new products. With the help of an NGO in Gulu, we're finding some women in the camps that will be weaving handles of banana leaves for purses. Lots to do - we're taking the bus up to Gulu on Monday morning. We talked on the phone to Lucy yesterday and she shared her excitement about participating in a "real Catholic crusade." We didn't ask questions, but will surely get some details when we arrive in Gulu.

So yes, I'm back to the mother ship. I used to refer to the US as that...but I've come to realize that my Ugandan-ness makes me a little more alien in my true home country. I enjoy being the weirdo.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

schiphol schiphol schiphol

I'm finally on my way. The view from here is caffeine-charged (post-coffee and chocolate muffin) and gray. Quick post, but things are about to get much more interesting.

In the meantime, read these two on the way over thus far:
A New Earth (Eckhart Tolle of The Power of Now and Oprah book club fame) and Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe, African literary master) - both worth reading and for very different reasons.

PS I totally ripped this pic from a flickr stream...credits to be added later.

Friday, February 01, 2008

[almost] on the road again

I know, it's been months. And the 24-hour loss of my green hat really wasn't keeping you entertained. It's DC and everyone here seems to be constantly busy, but the last 5 months have been a literal blur.

Things are about to get even more interesting - trip #4 is in place (!), March 10-31, 2008. I'm heading to Uganda on my own this time (read: no youth leaders to meet at the airport, no bedbugs at MUBS dorms, no showering in 33 degree water with grasshoppers spying on me). This is a One Mango Tree trip - the one I've been dreaming about since 2006 when I first arrived in Uganda.

I'm heading back to stay at La Fontaine with Kate and spend lots of time in Gulu with Lucy and the ladies (looking forward to paying many banana-muffin-filled visits to Patrick at Maq Foods) - expanding the product line and coming back with new stories, new photos and lots of new products to share. My list of things-to-do and people-to-see is growing exponentially, enough that it's looking like a second 2008 trip in the late summer will be in order. Look out world, One Mango Tree is really branching out.

With a little luck I'm going to spend some time in Rwanda (I know, I know, I was all talk last time). Some close friends will be there working on their own projects (Anahata International and Gardens for Health), and so it seems the perfect time to go. And maybe I'll pay the gorillas an overdue visit.

And as per usual, I'll be posting regularly while I'm there, and a little more frequently leading up to the trip.