Having been to Gulu several times before, I admit to being (overly) quite confident about the prospect of moving to it’s town. Visiting a place and assuming you understand how it would be to live there, however, is like eating a strawberry slice placed on top of icing all over a birthday cake and instantly proclaiming to have an affinity for red velvet. That was a tough analogy, but the point is that it doesn’t work.
I was struck immediately with insecurity on my first day, just after I was left “to organize & rest a bit,” which basically is the blanket phrase for “you travelled today, and therefore you don’t do anything of value.” Walking the streets of Gulu is not unsimilar to any other populated place in Uganda, and yet signs are clear enough that this place has some pretty distinct differences. 85% of cars passing are 4 wheel drive gas guzzling giants built to be the first vehicle to summit Everest; 95% of these cars proudly adorn some clever acronym describing the organization and who have supported them. Not surprisingly, therefore, I am constantly reminded of the national colors of my homeland.
Traveling around and stopping at the one place I remembered from my last trip to Gulu, I chanced upon a friend from New Zealand who I worked with while at Northern Camp BUILD. She quickly recited the weekly recurring schedule of ultimate Frisbee, poker, trivia, and Mexican nights which the white people hold. I was quite clearly overwhelmed.
Gulu is the only place I’ve been where I actually feel I have to explain myself to others. This feels comes almost entirely because no one seems to care. There are so many foreigners doing so many things (some worthy of sainthood, others of the 8th circle) that Ugandans have become completely unimpressed. This foreign fatigue might seem nice to some; not being stared at quite so long or ostracized quite so much---these seem like things that one would welcome. Yet for me it is the first time I am being grouped in with a “whole,” whereas I used to BE the whole. People didn’t define me as a white person, they defined white people as Opolot (me). Here, suddenly people I’ve never met are shaping the way people have and will see me in the place that I live. That is frustrating to someone grown used to shaping his own identity---even if it was at his peril.
To be certain, I am taking the good with the different. I’m currently staying in a hotel where I have free reign to a swimming pool, gym, steam & dry saunas, hot showers, a fridge in my room and a king size bed. They had me at “no rats,” to be honest—everything else is just bonus. The food is amazing (I had chicken tikka masala last night) if a bit expensive. We are in the meantime searching for a place for me within town. More importantly, my organization is seemingly extremely well organized, not to mention obviously well funded. The work environment is friendly and up-beat; you’d be hardest not to hear someone laughing every 30 seconds in some part of the office. The light heartedness could never be mistaken for follishness or associated with lack of ability; it is a supreme confidence that has come from the successful completion of the last 4 years cumulative work. Their wheels are quite clearly greased, lessons learned and patterns formed as a result.
As I move forward, I will continue to try and give Gulu the chance I gave Ngora. It certainly has a lot to live up to, but perhaps once I’m able to accept them as different entities entirely I’ll be able to more appropriately appreciate such a town. Hell, maybe I’ll even play a game of ultimate or two.