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.)