Saturday, May 28, 2011

I love this place.

Here's why.

Through my continued service in Eastern Uganda, I am able to see the remnants of discrimination against Indian inhabitants of Uganda who were so openly berated in the times of the reign of Idi Amin. Over 2 decades later, and I still hear Ugandans talk about the local Indian shopkeepers in offensive ways, with bad looks, biased reviews, and generally derogatory comments about their appearance, and even their smell. As a result, but also supporting the continuation of such abuse, the local Indian residents have remained completely inactive in society, never going so far as to even try to learn the local language or travel outside for events or gatherings.

Being a foreigner, but also generally accepted and even revered in most parts of my community, I was in the odd position of natural intermediary between the two communities. The Indians liked seeing me, feeling that we shared a common bond of being a person in a distant land much different than their own, and felt more comfortable and more trusting in talking to. The Ugandan's like me because I'm white, because I dance in the streets, bring in revenue to their shops and teach them cool things about America.

One day I was talking to one Indian Shopkeeper in particular, who owns a hardware store in Ngora. We became acquainted randomly (is there any other way to become acquainted?) and instantly found a liking for one another. After a few months, there wasn't much I didn't feel comfortable talking to him about. In fact, I actually talked to him for relationship advice. One day I decided to ask him about his relationship with Ugandans, to which he responded with a sad, seemingly wounded smile of resignation. He doesn't know their language, doesn't like their attitude, and, if speaking frankly, he puts his hands up "I don't trust them." But he mentioned that he would very much like to become more acquainted with at least his immediate community, if for no other reason, to have more fun in this country while he's working. I can understand that completely.

The next day he came up to me and talked to me with great excitement. He said that he got to thinking about our conversation, and asked if I couldn't do him a favor. He took me to a nearby carpenter, who was in the midst of making some odd shaped, three foot wooden dowels. The Indian shopkeeper (I don't even know his name, I just realized) showed them to me as if he were Bob Barker, showing me a brand new car. I didn't get it. Frustrated, he screams at me, "Cricket! I want to play cricket!"

This wonderful man decided he wanted to integrate with his staff and the community at large through sharing his passion (it couldn't be described as anything less; talk to the man for 5 minutes, and you'd understand. Or just watch him bowl, once) of cricket. We started it last Sunday, after the equipment had been made to the shopkeeper's approval. We went to a nearby field, flanked by community onlookers wanting to come and see what the American and Indian were up to. We started playing. Ok, we'd play, and then stop and he'd explain why what I did was illegal, or ignoble, or just terrible in general. 15 minutes later, A man (Ugandan) came and announced that he knew the game, and wanted to bowl (to throw). Yeah, he knew it; I couldn't touch a single ball he threw. I left an hour and a half later, to a cheering crowd of people enjoying a game. I couldn't help laughing, throughout the entirety of it, just from looking at the look of pure joy from the shopkeeper. We all know how rewarding it can be to teach something that you have such a passion for to willing participants, and to see them also enjoy it. I daresay that now, so too does this shopkeeper.

We play everyday, barring bad weather, and sometimes even through it. Other Indians in the community are starting to perk up their ears, although it seems that right now the competition between the Indians themselves is preventing them to play together. I don't think this will last long; another man who owns a market always calls me over after each days event. "how's the arm?" he asks, knowing that I'm not using to throwing in such a way. (Think of fastpitch softball player, but reverse the spin of the arm, releasing at the top but with a straight arm. It's harder than you think.)

I love the fact that these people are able to do the things that I've come here trying to do. It gives me so much pride to live in this community, and it reinforces the fact that I want to ingrain in every American I talk to: These people can take care of themselves. They can fix their own problems. And hell yeah, I'll be there every chance I get to watch it happen.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Day in Reflection

Yesterday, 5th of May, 2011
By the Numbers

Number of hours the Bishop was late: 1.5
Number of hours the Jubilee was late: 2.5
Duration in hours of the Jubilee: 5
Number of couples married: 48
Number of people confirmed: 71
Attendance: ~2000
Number of white people: 2

The Ngora Parish is celebrating it's 100 year anniversary in quite a drawn out fashion. The event itself will take place on May 1st, 2012; it will be the third consecutive year that the event will have been celebrated. To the thousands of people who attended yesterday, it was, well, it was a chance to dress up and be apart of a crowd.

It's no secret to those close to me that I'm less than excited about having big events in the parish. Events means people, which means among other things people eating food, which means cooking in the stand-up shelter located directly adjacent to my house in large quantities, at absurd times of the day/night/time that should never be named because normal people SLEEP. This proximity of food preparation also means that old ladies will be eating off my veranda, spilling beans and posho all over my previously well sweeped concrete, and preventing my entrance/exit of my home without 10 or 11 Yogas & Biai Bos.

Lack of privacy is not a surprise here, but every time an event happens, it's like the microscope over top of me clicks from 5 to 100 multiplication. It's not all a bad thing; sometimes it's quite fun knowing when you say "yoga kere" you'll automatically get an overly enthusiastic "yoga noi!!!" from 200 people you don't know. It also, in some ways, makes it a bit easier on me and mental sanity with regard to showing respect to the community. Not dissimilar to school or dating, if you make the right impression on the moments you know they'll remember, on the key points on the right stage, they will look the other way at less public, conspicuous times. I bathe about twice a week these days for lack of water, and wash my clothes at best twice a month...but make no mistake that at 6:30am I walked out of my room in pressed gray slacks, an immaculate SOLID white button down (dangerous) and a "smartly" tied tie with a cleanly shaven smiling face to greet all the visitors seemingly camping on my front step.

The highlight of any event, especially with white skin which grants instant access to all the high status places, is the food that comes with. Chicken, pork, goat, irish potatoes, dirty rice w/ bull's meat, deep fried bananas, everything is there and slopped on a plate to be eaten. As long as you feel confident handling it with your hands, you can even go for the greens with peanut butter sauce. I was in such a brown-nosing mood yesterday that not only did I offer to say grace at said meal (Knowing that the Parish Priest would do it, but also knowing that in front of the Bishop he'd love that I offered, being HIS muzungu), but I even baked a cake for the occasion, from which both the cake and strawberry flavored pink icing were made from scratch, without even an oven. Opolot "betty crocker" Matthius. Nevermind that it took me two tries, or that my shoes were sporting red strawberry extract from a mishap which occurred that morning, while trying my hand at making icing.

Speaking in generalities, yesterday was like most of my days here in Uganda. I play the game when I have to, bend it to my own advantage when I can for later on, and try and remember the humor in things as much as I can. On a good day I find that in hindsight, probably without realizing it, I've shown something from my culture that I can be fairly proud of. By his own decree, for example, the Bishop of Soroti ate "from the kitchen of a man" for the first time in his life. The gender equality lesson might not have been entirely welcomed, but at worst, it was bitter-sweet.

I have received a lot of response, to my surprise, from my last post. I apologize if it was a bit too graphic in nature, to an extent. My matatu experience is pretty tame to other stories I could tell, especially ones that have happened to other volunteers even in my class. It is my goal through this blog that people get to experience a small bit of Uganda, as I am, but keep in mind that I'd never write anything to intentionally offend anyone.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

(De) sensitization

One of the great buzz words of the country of Uganda is sensitization. What is the first step of any project? Sensitizing the community at large, of course. How do we fix the HIV problem in the village? Let’s sensitize people about ways to prevent it! Just like How are you Muzungu, I’m Fine, and Byeeeee come standard with every Ugandan kid’s vocabulary, so too do community empowerment, gender equality, and sensitization for Ugandan adults.
Amongst all of my active sensitizing in my past 6 months at site, I hadn’t realized the equal and opposite action also being put on me. Children wearing rags and no shoes no longer shock me. I’m fully expectant that 85% of the cars I see in a week will have a cutely abbreviated NGO name printed on the door, with a “donated by” written just below it. I certainly don’t expect these vehicles, anymore, to stop and give me a lift. Many of the things I’ve been desensitized of are very similar to not having a tv. You don’t really miss it, and don’t really notice it until your situation changes.
The other day I was on a matatu towards Soroti (Ateso’s most well known town, approximately 45 minutes NW of Ngora). I picked up the taxi in Mukura, where I was shuffled in and followed by an elderly lady. Quite obviously, she was sick and disoriented, and it was only with a fireman’s carry-esque effort from me ad her daughter that she was even able to fit into the taxi to the driver’s satisfaction (think a highschool dance couple, but remove the room for the father, son, and holy spirit). About 20 minutes in, I realized that this jaja (grandmother) was a bit more seriously sick than I had at first realized. Some people don’t “look like” something, but rather take on a look of their own, or “have a look.” The difference is small enough to be interchangeable in normal talk, but in this case the dichotomy was shown quite clear to me and everyone else in the car. She had a look, completely transcendent of any language, sex, race, or age barrier (all of which were present to me) that said, with the clarity of sincerity, that this was more than a sickness. I found myself holding her hand, stubbornly resisting the bodily urge to revel in how great of a picture it would be. In fact the entire time on this trip, I was struggling against kitsch-like ideals of quality and oneness of the world. The jaja didn’t have this struggle, or at least her look didn’t mention it.
When the daughter saw my hand holder her mother (or grandmother), she started to well up. Proof of something bad can be verified when people who’d normally never give you the time of day decide to help you. More proof is that everyone is willing to help, probably because everyone knows there is not actually anything that one can do. I clasped an ice cold, wrinkled old hand that wasn’t concerned with the courtesy of grasping back, and instantly the daughter knew her mom was not coming back from Soroti.
We made the stops for people just like normal, despite my proclamation of a need to “get to the damned hospital, now.”
Quietly the matatu driver drove past our designated stop in Soroti and to the referral hospital. When we finally arrived, everyone but the jaja started moving. She still had the look, and that was as good as she could offer to us. We carried her out of the matatu without changing her seated position, where three other men easily carried her into the hospital. The taxi driver didn’t look back, wanted to continue, but the conductor (assistant who collects the money) was helping carry the elderly lady. I decided not to wait; I was close enough to where I wanted to be in Soroti, and sitting in the matatu in the hospital was the last place I felt like sitting.
5-10 minutes later, I was sitting under a mango tree, drinking yogurt from a bag and straw with 3 other PCV friends. Putting aside kitsch-manufactured feelings of shock or remorse, there really wasn’t anything that was bothering me. I even wished the driver of the matatu a nice day with my best friendly smile. Obviously I was upset, but mostly just because I wasn’t upset at all.
A couple of times in the drive the jaja nodded off. She didn’t lose the look. At these points I made sure I was holding her hand, finding it somehow important that if she did die en route to the hospital, at least I would be holding her hand. Once she was taken from my grip out fo the matatu, however, the burden slipped away immediately. Responsibility fulfilled-I was a good person and able to continue on in my day.
I’ve been trying to sensitize Uganda about solar dehydrators, hammocks, proper methods for hand washing, re-usable menstrual pads…and simultaneously Uganda has been desensitizing me of everyday life. Every Ugandan in that matatu knew exactly what was happening to the jaja, even the ones who made the taxi stop 200 meters in front of the hospital so that they could get out and continue on with their day without a long walk. For me, I wasn’t going to actively abandon the jaja, or pretend she wasn’t hurting, but I also wasn’t even considering willing to do anything grossly out of my comfort zone for her. Equal and opposite? Sorry Newton, but it feels a little lopsided.