Tuesday, July 15, 2008

True Experiences and Impressions in the Fictional Space of a Day


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.

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