Thursday, October 23, 2008

Best Week Ever!

My trip to Mbale started with a bang. After driving through the savannah and the hills, we drove up a mountain (on which we got stuck in the mud for 45 minutes) and watched the sunset over Uganda. We could see for miles and miles. The next day after breakfast, we went to Children’s Resotration Outreach and played with homeless street children and learned about the CRO program. CRO gives them two meals a day, counsels them, and supports their schooling, but unfortunately cannot shelter them. We had seen many children sleeping on the streets, so it was both happy and heartbreaking to see them being children during the daytime. We learned that one major problem for them is drugs. When one child was asked why he cannot give up drugs, he said that Mbale is cold at night and he cannot afford a blanket. “The drugs are my blanket.”

Even in Kampala, there are so many street children. You always hear that most homeless in America are children too… but the homeless children are much more visible here. Often they choose to be on the streets because street life may be better than their home lives. They often come from violent homes, and they choose not to go to school because they can make money on the streets. Unfortunately it can be a confusing moral dilemma about whether or not to give them money. Many of them don’t choose street life. Kampala has a large problem with human trafficking. Many of the children (and prostitutes) here are kidnapped from villages or sold by their parents and beg and work for bosses. Thus, giving money to children may mean giving money to their bosses so that they can acquire more children.

Now for the fun part!

Later that day, we got cabins on a hillside that overlooked Sipi Falls. If ever I can post pictures, you will agree with me that it is absolutely gorgeous. We went on a two hour hike to the base of the falls and stood in the spray from the water (though we were not allowed to swim because SIT is currently battling a lawsuit from another program about a swimming-related death). That night, after dinner when we were all singing around the campfire, I snuck to the top of the hill on which we were staying and stood alone in the dark on top of the mountain. From this island in the sky, I could see 360 degrees of other mountains and flatland and Lake Choga for miles and miles. My friend Laura called and had suspected where I had gone off too. She met me on top of the mountain and we decided to sleep under the African stars.

After taking all of our bedsheets and making a little bed on the ground, we talked about life, stargazed, and found shapes in the clouds. We actually saw a star slowly fall and burn out. The clouds above us started moving much closer and much more quickly and we thought maybe it was about to storm. But suddenly everything around us went white and turned to mist, and we could no longer see further than our little island. We realized that we were inside a cloud. We just looked at each other and then jumped up and started dancing. We danced for probably 15 minutes until the cloud had gone. After that we had little left to say and we fell asleep under the full moon. We woke up in the morning to the sun rising over Sipi Falls on our right. Muna, our “minister of transport”/ taxi driver, hiked up the mountain to watch the sunrise and filled us with some fresh parables (as he is accustomed to doing) to start the day. He loves animal analogies, and I think this one in particular was “be a snail. Leave your mark behind.”

The next day, we hiked up to see two other waterfalls and we stood behind one of them and got completely drenched before we split into groups and went into villages to do focus groups. My group spoke to farmers about cattle rustling which has caused a huge conflict in the region for the last fifty years. The Karamojong, a violent tribe in the East, believe that all horned cattle in the world belong to them and were stolen at some point. (interesting fact: one reason for the chaos and conflict in Karamoja is that they were neglected by British colonization. Great Britain said “geez, we are not going to deal with that,” and left Karamoja alone). They justify their cattle raids on the grounds that they are taking back what is rightfully theirs. They kill and rape and burn and pillage while they steal the cows. Cattle rustling affects everything from the education system to the health care system to the economy of Kapchorwa which is a two day walk from Karamoja.

We then left for the rural homestay. It was fun dropping everyone off and seeing where they lived… little mud, grass-roofed houses, hikes up undrivable terrain, baboon territory, etc. Any children we encountered on the way were scared of our car. One time we were swarmed by them until our taxi turned on. They each jumped back about 10 feet and briefly cowered. The last thing our taxi-driver told to us before we got to our homes was don’t walk without a man at night. According to him, the baboons are known to (to censor this for my 5 year old readers) forcibly have their way with women. He is kinda crazy. He said even a newborn male infant could serve as baboon repellent at night.

Our rural homestay was amazing. Cara and I got unlucky because we had a tin roof instead of a grass-roofed hut… and we had a mattress to share. Our resentment quickly faded though because we had a wonderful time in the village. They were very fond of feeding us… way way way too much! (For one breakfast … which people out there usually cannot afford to eat… we were served 30 matooke, an entire cabbage, and 4 pounds of rice). Our dad was the chairman on the local council and he took us all around the community to talk to farmers about our research on subsistence farming. We spoke to like 50 cassava farmers and one pot smuggler. We had two one-year-old babies living with us who liked to play with knives. Most children here do. I feel like I missed out when I was growing up because we were not allowed to play with huge machetes or run with knives. But I guess monopoly was the next best thing. Gotta make the best with what ya got.

Our gift to the family was a goat (also soap and salt). When the goat arrived by motorcycle, our dad was really confused, but the look on his face when he found out it was a gift was unforgettable. I have never seen someone so excited and so grateful about a gift I had given. He made plans for the goat—he will build a shelter so it doesn’t have to worry about getting wet, milk it for the children everyday, and borrow a neighbor’s male goat to impregnate ours so that he can save up enough goats to trade them for a cow. Cara and I also got to milk the goat. I accidentally shot both my dad and myself with the milk until the goat kicked me and I spilled most of the children’s breakfast on the ground. I wish I could post pictures!

On our third day in the homestay, Cara and I, hopped on the back of some bicycles and rode to Kenya. We freely walked past customs and wandered around Kisumu Road (two hours from Barrack’s grandmother). Nothing really exciting happened because all the cool shows didn’t start until after dark… but we did get really cheap tea and a stalker!

Our last day was bitter sweet. Our dad repeatedly told us we were good people (as he had told us the whole time). To thank us, he bought 2 one-foot tall mahogany trees named Cara and Alex. We planted them on his property and he promised that they would be there whenever we come back. He even said that he would water them everyday for a month and when Cara and Alex are medium-sized, he will make two cement stones with the names and bury them so that we can always know which trees are ours. He was so cute… and also very protective of us. He had a wonderfully welcoming family. We promised to send him pictures.

I am back in Kampala for now, but next week I will begin an internship with The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) in Mbale, Uganda. I think I will be working with counselors there and hopefully I will be involved in the outreach programs. I will keep you updated!!! Yay!

To those of you interested in learning more about schools and disabled people in Uganda:

Because education is seen as a way out of poverty, schools here are intense! A huge number of children go to boarding school (even when they are five). Two of my host siblings go to a really good boarding school. This is their schedule: They are woken by a bell at 3:30am. “If you are not in the classroom by 4, you just kneel” (they cane you in schools). At 4am, mandatory study hours start. Breakfast is at 6am. At 7am classes start. They have a lunch break and a 30 minute dinner break. At 7pm mandatory study hours start. They last until 10pm. The next day, they are again woken at 3:30am.

As for the disabled… again the disabled are much more visible in Uganda. There are so many more people with natural physical deformities (a huge reminder of the prominence and convenience of both plastic surgery and wheel chairs in the US). Also, many people are crippled in accidents and cannot be helped here. An incredible amount of people crawl around the city with sandals on their hands and calluses on their knees. Not only have I never seen people crawling around the city in America… but I have never seen them try to cross the road of anarchy on all fours. Every time I see a careening taxi with a man crawling in front of it, I hold my breath. It is kind of terrifying. I do enjoy seeing careening taxis with men on roller skates holding onto the back for a free ride.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Roasted Ants and the Choleric Slums

This week I have been further acculturated. I danced traditional dances with my sisters while the help were cracking up laughing at me. I also ate ants at tea time the other day. During the rainy season, so many flying ants are disabled, and you can find them in swarms on the ground after the rain. In fact, while they were cooking the ants, I walked around to the side of the house and found thousands of wings lying on the ground from where Kiisa had been preparing them. For those of you are interested in trying them the recipe is simple:

Roasted Ants:
Ingrediants: Ants (dewinged)

First, put the ants in a pot. Roast over a charcoal stove until they cease looking like maggots and turn brown (about 45 minutes over low heat). Remove from heat, put in a bowl, and gross out your friends or your foreign exchange student. Watch them eat the ants for your own entertainment.
Warning: the dismembered insect heads, legs, and bodies get stuck in your teeth. You may choose to pretend that the thorax caught in your molar is popcorn. To each her own.

While we are on the topic of food… I will talk about traditional Ugandan food. Food is only food if it is cooked and served with sauce. Otherwise it is not food (example: fruit is not food nor is chicken). Food includes rice, matooke, cassava, posho (millet), and potatoes. The sauces include beef, chicken, fish, gnut, and beans. I learned that chicken is not considered meat pretty quickly. When I moved into my home, I told my mom that I did not take meat. Fine. A couple days later she began serving me pieces of one of our chickens. I pawned them off on our siblings thinking she had forgotten. She was offended and asked me why I would not eat chicken. I think we were both confused, so she asked me why I told her I didn’t want meat but I neglected to mention I didn’t want chicken. Anyways, meat is a sauce, because it is mixed with water when cooked and the stew like liquid is poured over food. Gnut sauce which I have grown to love is ground peanuts cooked with water and salt (it doesn’t taste to much like peanuts). These meals are eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in HUGE proportions. I can stomach a dinner finally, but an African lunch is still ridiculous for me (I tell them I want little more than the amount given to Buwembo- the almost three year old who lives with us. I can barely finish that). Here no one ever leaves any food on their plate after a meal. The plates are left looking almost clean.

The meat (and chicken) is another story. I have been told that the beef tastes 10X fresher than America’s. None of their food or animals are given any kind of chemicals or pesticides to grow. However, meat here isn’t refrigerated when sold. It hangs everywhere in little stands without windows along the dirty streets and traffic fumes. Meat can be brought to the butcher from the trunk of a taxi, from a boda boda man, from someone walking with a couple cow legs thrown over his shoulder. Boda bodas can tie 30 chickens to their motorcycles. Some hang in front of the exhaust pipes. Another thing I learned is that most other countries don’t refrigerate eggs. Here, we have about 5 dozen eggs that sit outside my home until we decide to eat one.

Also, Ugandan tradition is to make extra food in case visitors come. In Uganda, visitors aren’t usually scheduled even if they plan on staying overnight. People just stop in and are always fed. For example, the town drunk frequents my home and gets a little food each time. Also, I will never forget being scared almost out of my seat on my second night in the homestay when our auntie literally popped her head through the curtained window in the dark dark night during our dinner to say “hi.” People are much more trusting and inviting. There is a saying that “In a house, there is no road.” Meaning people don’t come to your home in order to get something or go somewhere. They come to socialize, just to be there. I love that quote.
Okay, enough about food. This week was a real learning experience for me. As part of my gender studies course that I took last week with 5 other girls, we went to the slums this week with the Slum Aid Project. Many of the shanty houses I see on the side of the road are already worse than anything I have seen in America. But the slums are so much worse. They are buildings with about 5 or 6 one-bedroom homes. The homes are 10ftX10ft. We talked to families that share these rooms with 11 kids. Most of the families have at least 5 kids.

One of the first things that struck me about the slums was the awful stench. They smell like rotting food, burning trash, and the sewers that run through the slum which you have to be careful not to fall into. SAP does advocacy and counsels people involved in domestic violence, child sexual abuse, drugs, prostitution, etc . We talked to the community leaders and to citizens who lived in the communities. We saw hungry children, battered women… spoke to a former prostitute, to internally displaced persons from Northern Uganda, to refugees from DRC, Eritrea, and Somalia.
That’s all for now. I am leaving for another week of traveling yay!!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Mpanga Forest

So last Friday, I went to the US Embassy to vote. The security guard was surprised and looked at my driver's license. She said I did not look lke I was old enough to vote. I have heard from three separate people that I look 12, 14, and 16 years old. I think ths is partly because of my new do... but also partly because I am thin. Here in most schools, the girls are not allowed to have hair. Also, the women here are and want to be very curvy. In opposition to all of America's sketchy informertials about how to lose 10 lbs in a week are even sketchier Ugandan posters on the street advertising weight gain. The streets are littered with black and white print out with phone numbers at the bottom. They say nothing more than "Get Fat" or "For hips Gain" or "Gain Bums." I am considering calling one of these companies so that I can look older than 12.

On Saturday, I went with some friends to Mpanga Forest. I cannot wait to post pictures because it was absolutely gorgeous. We went on a 3+ hour hike through the dense tropical forest. Red-tailed monkeys greeted us when we entered. Huge Horn-Billed Birds also said Hi (Sqwauk!) The trees were massive... some so big that i don't think all twelve of could hold hands and reach around it. We saw rainbows of colors all over. We got a little lost, but we found some villagers working in the swamp (we had not seen anyone else since we arrived). A nice little boy looking down on us from a rock with a machete cocked over his head greeted us and his sisters showed us the way out of the forest.

After we left the forest, we were tired of walking. But because we were in the middle of nowhere, we had much more walking to do. When we got to the only road from there to Kampala, the skies opened and we walked in the pouring rain for 40 minutes until we hailed a Post Bus. In spite of us 6 soaking, dripping Muzungus yelling "Stop Ssebo!" it drove right by all of our friends who had been walking ahead of us. They were not very pleased with us. We had originally planned to drive to a hostel on Entebbe beach and spend the night and to see the Botanical Gardens and the zoo the next day, but we were exhausted.

Also... on my way home, I saw a funny boda boda (motorcycle/ moped) combination. A goat sandwiched between two men. T.I.A.
I then saw someone's rabbit (dinner) grazing on the trash on the side of the road. T.I.A.

On Sunday, I was home when one of our chickens was being slaughtered. Although I couldn't watch the head come off... I learned a good deal about what's iniside of a chicken.

Take care!!!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Rwanda Whew!

Today’s blog will be longer and more somber than the rest. Last week really got me thinking, and many of the activities we did on our excursion to Western Uganda and Rwanda were sad and educational to say the least. We did have many fun and exciting experiences along the way though too. I stood on the border between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Rwanda’s natural beauty is incredible. We drove through mountains the whole way to Kigali, which is a beautiful city… and because Rwanda is run by a dictator, the city is much more organized and well kept than Kampala is.
To those of you interested in learning more about the genocide one good book is We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Two movies we watched were Sometimes in April and Hotel Rwanda. Both are decent.
The day before we left on our excursion, I got a chance to go to Kiboga and work on one of the Building Tomorrow Schools. We met the children who will attend the school and worked alongside the community. We helped dig the foundation. Getting my hands dirty felt awesome because last year at school, I was a (small) part of a club that raised $35,000 to build a school. Plus I am totally an observer here, and I felt like I actually did something. The people were so nice and invited us into their homes. After we finished our work, the locals took us up to their old school which was a 45 minute hike up a large hill. A little girl named Sharifa held my hand the whole way up and excitedly introduced me to her teacher. The primary school was a single room with a chalkboard and a few wooden benches.
Our first day in Western Uganda we went to the United Nations Millenium Development Project Village and learned about the systems the UN is implementing in select villages in developing nations to learn how to help communities successfully develop. Then we went to a Rwandan Refugee Settlement an briefly spoke to the refugees about their situation. I think about half of all the refugees from the Rwandan genocide entered Uganda, and Uganda has been trying to get rid of them now that Rwanda is peaceful again. The refugees live in extreme poverty. The children looked like those you see in charity infomertials with bloated bellies and crusty faces. The adults looked disgruntled and angry that we were not bringing them food or money. They told us they were starving and didn’t have enough room to grow their crops. Uganda has cut back on assisting them partly because they want them to leave. Many of them do not want to leave because they fear further persecution and prosecution should they return home.
Rwanda has a very bloody modern history. When it was colonized by the French in the 1800’s, the Catholic Missionaries decided to categorize people based on physical characteristics (particularly the width of the nose and the skin color). They arbitrarily created two main groups—the Tutsis and the Hutus. The minority were the Tutsis (with thinner noses and lighter skin) and they were treated as more intelligent and given positions of control over the Tutsis. The Hutus were mistreated and then in the middle of last century they were told by the Europeans that the majority should rule the minority and not vice versa… so a genocide started. I don’t think the first one was as terrible as the second, but it displaced countless refugees and launched a period of crazy tension. In the early 90’s, the tension once again boiled over and about 1 million people were slaughtered (mostly by machetes and mostly Tutsis) in about a year… with the world watching.
So the Kigali Genocide Memorial is amazing. It is not so different from the Holocaust Memorial in D.C. You can learn a lot of history (about a few other genocides too), hear personal stories, see pictures and skulls, etc. It is located on a plot of land with several mass graves right in the middle of the city. The part that hit me harder than the Holocaust memorial is that I was in the city and surrounded by people who were there. Everyone living in Kigali was affected… was either a perpetrator, victim, family member, or friend. Our tour guides lost parents and several were refugees for at least 5 years.
We went straight from learning about the atrocities to talking to those who performed them. At the last minute, we decided to make a stop at the Kigali Prison. I don’t think I will ever be able to fully comprehend this experience. It was extremely bizarre and emotionally confusing for all of us. If I came to hang out at an American prison, I would expect to be behind glass or bars, with guard supervision… etc. This prison was nothing like that. We walked in… some of us were told to leave cameras, but we were not searched, and some people freely carried in pocket knives, etc. when we walked in, I felt uneasy about the fact that the prisoners were freely walking around in the same area where we were. Plus the prison seemed like a resort. I was surprised to see men and women in same sex groups but not physically separated. We walked into the administration building and a prisoner who was lounging outside the head office kindly smiled and gave me her chair. We learned about the makeup of the prisoners, people aged 14 are mixed in with the rest, there isn’t a problem with torturing prisoners (like in Uganda), the prisoners are very well disciplined and kinda self-governing in that they hold elections to elect leaders for different sectors, etc. … the windows of the office were wide open, prisoners ambled by, no gunned guards seemed to be concerning themselves with either us or with protecting the administrators. We learned that Rwanda got rid of the death penalty after the genocide because they “didn’t want to see any more death.”
On our way to the chapel where we would meet the prisoners, I actually asked if we had left the prison. I saw a small fence abuout a football field away and many town houses within feet of it. Then I realized prisoners were strolling along the fence and the guard was facing the other way. We were still in prison. So I asked if it was a low-security prison. “No. This is our high security prison.” Wow. We entered the chapel which was covered in murals of a white Jesus. After we sat down, I noticed prisoners start strolling in and sitting behind us. This also made me a little nervous. They kept trickling in and then moved to the stage in front. By the time we began asking them questions, they significantly outnumbered us, and the administrators were sitting in the front of them with their backs turned to them. Not a guard was in the room with us. And they all seemed so friendly to one another. They truly and honestly looked like a family. The prison felt like a big commune or home. What’s more, two of the women talking to us actually had babies—one an infant and the other a toddler, who was passed around between a few of the women. Children under the age of three live with their mothers in prison.
Anyway, several of the prisoners stood up to tell us about their involvement during the genocide. One woman was an announcer on RTLM, the most popular anti-Tutsi radio station that gave orders to the Hutus to slaughter the Tutsis. Others were leaders or teachers and killers, must were conspirators. We then asked them questions.
One: “This has happened so many times throughout history; how could it happen again? Why didn’t you see that history was repeating itself?” --- the man who answered told us that they were not taught about that stuff in class. They do not have world history until secondary school. They were unaware and hatred had been building up so long.
One of our students gracefully asked: “Yeah the government told you to kill, but you are all thinking and rational beings so what made you think it was okay to brutally murder so many people?”--- the man told us about how they were taught since they were young that the Tutsi were the enemy… were terrible people who were trying to keep the Hutus down and use them. They were animals.
They all spoke of prayer and seeking forgiveness. They all thanked the prison system for helping them reconcile. Some of us students began to doubt their sincerity once we learned that by confessing and apologizing, many of them could get off or lessen their charges.
After the talk, the prisoners wanted to get a picture with us. We walked out as many of them shook our hands and we didn’t know how happy to look in the picture… some had their arms around us, told us “thank you” in French.
We didn’t know where to go from there. All during lunch, we tried to process what we had seen… the atrocities and those who did them. I was excited to see a prison system that seemed to treat the prisoners so well… they seemed more than comfortable. Someone asked me “Well, is that justice?” I thought about that question for the rest of the trip.
Right after lunch, we visited a church that was the site of a huge massacre. The priest of the congregation led the Hutus to his prison where he was hiding 10,000 Tutsis. Only a few survived. The priest now denies it and lives in Texas. Walking in, you notice bullet holes in the tin roof and in the bricks… but the most striking feature is the huge heaps of the victims’ clothes that cover the benches and the floor around the outside of the church. Seeing children’s clothing was especially difficult… especially when you could see that it was ripped or had large holes in it. Two forgotten machetes lay on the altar. The tabernacle is still open because of the bullet that broke into it. mary glowed in the sunlight splattered with faded blood. And the place smells like dusty clothes… 10,000 musty outfits. Many massacres happened like this one, and the church memorials are set up similarly.
In the basement of the church, one woman who died during gang rape has a special casket visible under the glass floor. Outside, two mass graves lay open with stairs leading into the grave. We walked into the tomb which has shelves from the floor to the high ceilings. They go so far back that they are too dark to see the back wall. On the shelves are the skulls and bones of the 40,000 men, women, and children who were killed in the church and in the surrounding neighborhood. Both of our tour guides’ parents were in the grave. It was her first time seeing the church.
After dinner, we had a lecture about the justice system and about reconciliation. Millions of cases and thousands of judges arose overnight. Many judges are illiterate. The focus of the whole ordeal is not retribution but rehabilitation and reconciliation. They basically don’t want to put away all the killers and ostracize all the Hutus because then the hatred won’t end. I can’t imagine where this leaves the victims.
Well to change gears, we shopped in Kigali the next day and then drove through the back roads of Queen Elizabeth National Park… where we saw elephants, warthogs, Ugandan Kobs, etc. We saw salt lakes being mined, and the mountains and the sky right before the storm were incredible. So far since I have been here… I have seen four of the five international borders surrounding Uganda. I probably wont see the fifth because it is too dangerous.
And on a lighter note…. One of my Muzungu colleagues saw a hobo jogging naked through the busy street market. I will leave you with that… and possibly with a few of my pictures… which will reveal a fun surprise… though Aunt Rosie: be warned that you might not like what you see. I will post more later.
Also to those who read about “slashing” the lawns here… I learned how a lawn is planted also. 100 community members each take a handful of fully grown grass from a grass pile… and a stick. They dig a small hole with the stick, put in one little grass rootlet (a few strands of grass) and repeat every few inches for the next 2 days. Sorry the blog was soooooo long and arduous!