Friday, July 18, 2008
Saw a tour bus headed to an idp camp the other day. Got mad and wrote this.
There is an activity that caring, conscience but sometimes ignorant cats have been known to engage in. It is called “raising awareness.” Raising awareness, insofar as ignorance is always bad, is a good thing. But it is not unconditionally good. There are many difficulties with the pop phenomenon of awareness. The first is the commodification of awareness, which strikes me as the unfortunate failure that comes with success. Then there is the periphery of horror; the gap in indispensable knowledge that many campaigns for raising awareness unwittingly create. It is a horror because these crucial dark spaces often damage the thing that people are out to help. This particular problem encompasses even the methods by which people try to raise awareness. Like going on a bus tour of an IDP Camp.
I know it is cool to let cats know that you Live Strong! or to rock pink ribbons that show your love of healthy boobs. But some breast cancer officials say that breast cancer researchers don’t need pink ribbons. People know about breast cancer. They know more about it than they do lung cancer, which kills more women per year. They don’t need walks for breast cancer, much of the proceeds of which underwrite the walking event itself. What breast cancer researchers need is checks. But cats who rock lab research are a special case of cool, since the methodology is (mostly) laid out. They know what they need to do. The rules of the natural sciences keep them safe, more or less. But in the case of cats who are on the struggle for skills or snacks it is not as easy as you rolling up with supplies and passing those shits out. The number of complications are unfathomable. And it is ignorance of just this fact, the naive belief that care and cash will make everything better that just royally fucks shit up. Tell you a story. Let’s see if you can tell how it ends.
A while back, cats figured that HIV infected mothers in Africa (because Africa is just one big mysterious place and not a bunch of countries that were crudely and aggressively thrown together by Europeans with no consideration to tribal location, migration, or rivalry) were passing on HIV through breast feeding. So then people were like, mobilize! Save Africa! And started passing out substitute breast juice. But cats in the major affected area didn’t really have clean drinking water to mix this new baby drink into. So then their babies just started dying straight up. The aid program made shit worse because it missed a crucial detail about the environment in which it was trying to spread love. You see what I mean about that lacuna, about that gap in awareness? That’s the periphery of horror. These cats were just aware enough to accelerate a process of death in the name of their care.
Already I can hear a self righteously dissonant voice say: “At least they’re trying to help!” This refrain is as familiar as it is ridiculous. I suppose that implicit in this locution is the moral condemnation of a populace that is very often not moved to caring action. In this manner, it is often uttered as a self reprimand that deifies the seemingly awesome actions of others as it defends against critical attacks upon them. Thing is, this criticism, properly applied, is also a way of helping. People who want to “help” need to know above all how easily they can fuck things up. In addition, it may in fact be the case that those ethereal aid workers you love so much aren’t helping at all and it is just your ‘they can do no wrong’ defense that keeps the planet blind to the style. The bottom line here is that we should be critical of everything. Of efforts to help, of our own need to defend, of our own motivations, everything. If we are going to criticize senate bills that claim to help Americans, then we should criticize the fuck out of Westerners who want to roll up into foreign lands bearing gifts. We should criticize the fuck out of natives in foreign lands who welcome this help with uncritically open arms. And they should listen intently.
And please give up this notion that you are good on your helping mission because your guide or fellow missionary is one of the natives. This beef I am describing is not about race or ethnicity; it is about ideology. When a woman told me one day that her ex-boyfriend, “who is darker than you, Chioke,” didn’t have a major problem with cats flying the Confederate battle flag, it struck me that she thought his claim had equal or greater weight than my own stance for no other reason than his being black like me. Yeah. It doesn’t work like that. Anybody can hold a damaging or ignorant interpretation. Anybody can fail to establish context or locate their place in the grand scheme. And above all, anybody can be made to sell out. Remember what Kunta Kinte said…
So yeah. Don’t roll up in Africa with no knowledge of colonialism. Don’t think that the fact that all of these African natives have European or straight up American names is cool. Because that shit is problematic. Don’t act like the genocide in Rwanda was in no way exacerbated by colonial and missionary power moves that arbitrarily divided ethnic groups according to property ownership. Because that would be a misattribution of historical causes. Don’t neglect the mountain of anthropological literature on the problems of representation and cultural contact in favor of a late night infomercial about naked starving kids. Because that would be letting your suspect emotional response win out over your rationality. You, like everybody else in the world, are attached to a historical style that conditions your actions even when you are ignorant of it. Come on. Google that shit.
Don’t raise awareness without raising history and its problems. That sediment is deep and it is covered over by good intentions and the dirty, fly-covered faces of children.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
As the day progressed, a headache slowly pulled down the halo of restfulness that came with the morning. Over breakfast, I talked with the midwives about their projects for the day and speculated once again about a group of visitors that arrived the day before. Yesterday when I met them, They referred to themselves as being on a pilgrimage to Uganda. I thought about what this term meant for a bus full of Americans with cameras. I decided that I would ask personally, and went out to the gathered group with my microphone. I walked up to the only African-American male in the group and asked to take his audio. He was a really nice guy. Mad chill. Easy to talk to. I asked him about the nature of is trip, about his experience traveling through Uganda, about the intersection of religion and colonialism. His answers were honest, thoughtful and frustrating. They made me think about bell hook’s claim that black americans need to tap their "killing rage." Often, it seems, we don’t appear to be very pissed at various racial and colonial injustices, though deep down many of us are. This pisstivity, properly channeled, might allow more productive action instead of placing a lot of us squarely in the non-reflective, materialistic herd. These thoughts stayed with me as I hit the market with Rachel, took pictures for Olivia, and yapped with the nuns in the kitchen. Eventually, I found myself on the couch in the computer room, clutching my aching dome. Then Rachel rolled up like, yo, its time, they are looking for you. I followed her to the area behind the cauldron-filled semi-outdoor kitchen. There, two men were skinning a goat that they had hung in a tree. They took it down and grabbed a live goat. They suppressed its screaming protests and held it down on the ground with its neck over a metal bowl. I gripped a dull knife in my hand. My heartbeat began to race a bit, just like when I am on the starting line at the race track. Do it, they said, and I sawed away at the goat’s neck, watching as the blade broke the skin and then the throat. Blood rushed into the bowl and splattered a bit upon my legs and hand. The goat was now half decapitated and dead. The men lifted it up onto the tree for skinning. In just a little while, it would be dinner.
During the slaughter, I said no prayer and gave no thanks to the spirits for its life. I did not think to cast my sins or problems into this animal before offering it as a sacrifice. Its just as well, I thought. I don’t want my snacks to take the rap for my problems. For better or worse, I want the rage to stay right here with me.
Note: Today’s blog title (Killer of Sheep) is taken from an old school film that you should watch. I haven’t been able to find it yet, so let me know if any of you cats get it.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Gulu. It is a city that feels the echoes of modernization, of European architecture and style. Boda bodas, small 125cc motorcycles, dominate sometimes dirt, sometimes paved streets as they weave between a few cars and pedestrians on their way to their destinations. 500 shillings will get you a ride to nearly anywhere in the city, but you ladies must ride side saddle so as not to upset the moral order or the curves of your dress. If the base color of New York City is gray, Gulu’s color is the almost-red of the dirt that tracks everywhere on the bottoms of vehicle tires and feet. There is a market at the center of the city. Here, you will find fine African fabrics sold by women who sit diligently by foot driven sewing machines, ready to fashion any yard of cloth into a tailored article of clothing. Travel further into the market, over its crudely constructed rooftops, and you will find all the grains and vegetables that are the staples of northern Uganda. The meat for sale belonged to a living creature earlier in the morning. Inspect it; perhaps we will eat beef stew tonight.
Out on the street, check the demographic. Mostly slender, dark-skinned figures make their way chillfully around the town. Most men shave their hair close and many women keep very small afros (when they are not done up in braided extensions). Styles such as this cut down on the cost of hair products and overheating when the sun is at its height in the summer. Perhaps the first covered head you will see will belong to a nun making her way to a nearby church or a Catholic school for young children. Most likely, she will be able to talk to you in fluent Italian as well as her native Acholi, among other languages. Gulu, like much of Norther Uganda, is mostly Catholic. Priests from Italy were among its first missionaries and many of its religious officials studied in Italy. Missionaries and religious people from Europe and America walk around through the market, into popular muzungo hangouts, into churches, into the offices of aid organizations. You will probably think Gulu is all Christian until you hear the call for prayer from the loudspeaker of a nearby Mosque. Maybe if you search hard you will find explicit Acholi religious practices. Let me know if you find any.
On the streets and at the school I am a bit of an aberration. An American, but black. And with hair. I have been asked if I am a musical artist, a Rasta, the son of Bob Marley, a Catholic. But I am none of these things. I am just a guy with a microphone, really. Not even that sometimes. Natives and foreigners are surprised to hear that I do not smoke weed. Nuns are surprised to hear that I do not drink. I am surprised at the prevalence of images of White Jesus. In the morning, I slip on some shorts and a shirt that I had made. My white tees have turned orange with dust, so I am rocking a different color and design over my chest piece. At breakfast I eat Chapati and mango marmalade. I sip tea. I record some audio of the midwives conducting a story circle. Then I jet. In a bar I hear American R&B and hip hop. I wonder about message of crass materialism in places that are low on materials as I shoot pool and sip Fanta with some newfound friends.
At lunch, a kid introduced to me as a former child soldier asks me if I have heard of Bolo Yeung. I think about classifications, and how this kid’s past status is so much larger than student, or Acholi, or human being, for he seems to be all of these things currently. I wonder if he would ever introduce himself as others have. Like, yo, stranger, identify me first and foremost by the trauma I have suffered and the killing I was forced to do. Somehow, I think he would rather be known, at least by me, as a cat who digs kung fu movies. Out on the street, I see a cluster of missionaries. Since I am not white, they look past me and for once in my life I am thankful for my invisibility. Then I think harder about what this invisibility, this “condition of the inner eye”, as Ellison writes, might mean for the cats those missionaries may be headed for and feel bad for ever giving thanks for such a thing. Back at the school, in a makeshift office set up next door to my sleeping spot, I cut audio, listen to Killah Priest, and read A Song for Lawino. I swat at mosquitoes.
At dinner, I eat cassava, salad, rice and beans. The nuns inform me that I and another American will be killing a goat in a few days. Afterward I watch addictive Nigerian soap operas on tv in the main house. As the credits roll, I look for my name, as it too is Nigerian. I do not see it. As night has fallen, I go outside and stare at the sky. Once again, for some reason, I think about that damn line from Pascal: The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me. I get on the net in the nuns’ office but the net is not up. When I lay down to sleep I think of my friends back home and wonder how they are doing. I think of my projects. I think also of my bike and how 250ccs is considered a large displacement here. The power, of the whole city perhaps, goes out. Then the darkness takes me. The dreams I can remember have not been pleasant. But the sleep is restful.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
I first learned about the call half way through a forest in Ocala a couple years back. I was on a mountain bike, following my homie through some of the worst terrain I could imagine at the time. Around every turn I would fall. I lacked the strength to ride up most of its hills. And I was overcome with fear when it came time to descend. I left the bicycle course bruised and upset. It wasn’t even fun. But when it came time to decide if I would ride it again, for real this time, I chose to do so. I rode that hellish course again, more than once even. Yeah, I pedaled this madness because of the call. There are many times in life when one feels the call of a path. It is most often figurative, like a particular choice in life or some such. But for me and many others, the call to the path is more literal. I experience a deep need to travel this road. For I do not want to do it. There is something in this. The vulgar masculinity that drives me to want to conquer. The humanity that drives me to endure. The thirst for adventure, perhaps. But believe that it is a need. When I was out there on the mountain bike course, the path taunted me. When I am out on the R1, the road invites me. And here in Africa… Well, I cannot tell which. Perhaps it is something much deeper.
The Great North Road to Atiak made quite an impression o n me when I first traveled it as a passenger. I remembered thinking that, if not for the dedication of the people with whom I was traveling, I would not be here, on this trip, prepared to document what was coming. . This thought was a quiet expression of frustration with the road itself. Fifty miles of dirt road, traveled in two hours. And this dirt is not packed. Rainwater had long ago carried off many parts of the road, leaving massive ridges and craters all over. They do not let up. There are no moments of peace; at every moment you are jarred within the cabin of your vehicle. There is no significant stretch in which you are in a high gear exclusively. No, the Great North Road is great only because of its overall length, for it stretches from Cape Town to Cairo. But this stretch is no fun at all. Not even a little bit. On this journey one passes many people. Women returning from the fields. Children returning from school. Workers and nurses headed to Sudan. The mud huts that comprise IDP camp. There are hitchhikers. There are cars and Boda Bodas honking from behind trying to get by. And along the side of the road are just a few cars that did not have the power to complete their journeys. Some lay on their sides, wrecked. Others simply sit on the side of the road broken down. This road, I thought, was the roughest I had ever seen. So when I had the chance to drive it myself, I took it without hesitation. Looking back, perhaps this was a bad idea.
Saturday, July 5, 2008
Friday, July 4, 2008
The Kenyan morning was quite chilly. This I knew even before I ventured outside of my tent with my microphone to sample the songs of birds I could not see amidst the trees. We ate a chill breakfast of toast and eggs and rocked exit back to the airport, in the back of cab driven by a chipper cat from eastern Kenya. Traffic moves quickly here. Aside from the city center, I am told, there are no street lights, only a complex system of roundabouts. As we cruised on, I thought about the people at breakfast in the hotel, all of whom were going on safari later in the day. Like so many predominantly european activities in Africa, I am unsure how I feel about going on safari. I feel as though the impulse that takes people on holiday from the west to the kenyan wilderness is based on a perverted sense of authenticity. The further away from civilization I can get, goes my unreflective construction, the more seasoned and real a person I can be. All I have to do is pay this guy to take me and view the scene safely from this armored Land Rover. People back home will marvel at my journey through a land that we westerners have largely constructed anyway. I know that practices like these are good for the Kenyan economy. But there are many things that help the economy which hurt or distort every other social sphere. Maybe I would think differently if I went on Safari myself. Or maybe I would feel more like a full throttle contributor to neo-colonialism. Maybe I am just a hater. I didn’t think about it too much more, though, ‘cause the site of AK-47s tend to pull one out of wayward thoughts.
Our cab was hailed by a police officer from the street. The automatic weapon hung without concern or care from his shoulder. He told the driver to get out and spoke with him briefly. They did not speak english, but I did hear the officer speak of seatbelts, of which there were none in the back seat in which we sat. Soon, reluctantly it seems, the officer let us go. “He wanted money,” explained the cabbie. “But I had no money to give.” Apparently, when the cop asked the cabbie about his passengers, he said only that I was his relative from the states, not a tourist who needed to be held down by a seat belt.
At the airport, I sat patiently as tickets to Uganda were purchased. A televangelist on the overhanging TV reminded me that today was Sunday. I watched the sermon unfold, trying to find a difference in service or message between this televised congregation of kenyans and the TV churches of America. There was none and for some reason this angered and depressed me a bit. Perhaps it is my own perverted sense of authenticity that makes me wish Africa was a country free of the religious stylings that give my own country its status. Maybe my hope to catch a glimpse of an Africa free of Europe is my own idealized safari, the hope for a return to a source that is as mythological as the image of Africa I attribute to my brief breakfast companions. Maybe I should stop searching and start listening. And I guess I will get my chance to do just this, ‘cause the flight to Uganda leaves in an hour.