Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Great North Road

The midwives were to return to Atiak to begin their training with the birth attendants there. We no longer had a guide, so we took one of the sisters' trucks. It is European style; the steering wheel was on the right side of the cabin. We are in a country that keeps left on the road. It was a stick shift, but the stick was not on he floor where it really, really should have been. Instead there was a lever sticking out of the steering column. If not for the clutch down below, I would have mistaken this car for an automatic. But there are no automatics in Uganda, save for the Hummers that the financially unrealistic drive down in Kampala. So I had much to learn on this, my first voyage onto the African roads in the drivers seat. The clutch lever made no sense. It had no readout indicating its gear and I had gotten no briefing about its fearing. I simply had to figure it out. Which was awesome, cause I couldn't find reverse and the maiden movement of the vehicle was on the need to get moving and the strength of Rachel and Olivia, who pushed the truck onto the driveway.
It had rained the night before and the trenches in the road were to a great extent filled with water, which meant that loose dirt was mud and puddles were hiding deceptively deep potholes. More like cauldron holes. I remember thinking that, if it were raining, we would not even attempt this journey. Which meant that these were in fact as bad as conditions could possibly be for the trip. Great. We got gas and tapped the road.
During the war, this particular stretch was as unsafe as a road could be. Cars unprotected by military escort would be ambushed, its occupants robbed, abducted or killed. As night began to fall thousands of children, who came to be called night walkers, would travel the road from various villages and the bush into downtown Gulu where they would find places to sleep. They did this in order to avoid abduction. Many were not so lucky. Girls who were taken were raped. Those girls and their children now make up much of the resident student body at St. Monica’s. Boys were quite involuntarily drafted, forced, as Talib Kweli says, to fight a war they can’t outrun.
Since I have been here, I have met and spoken with both child mothers and former child soldiers. From the cabin of the truck, it was difficult if not impossible to imagine such a status, mainly because I was trying desperately not to hit the people walking on the side of the road. While I managed this alright, I did not exactly leave them untouched. On occasion, I would inadvertently steer the car into a puddle and splash a passerby. I could hear my scolding over even the roar of the engine. In Uganda, there is a fine for vehicles that splash pedestrians. Too bad my getting away with it is not the condition for a clear conscience.
As the morning wore on, I got a bit better at working the gears of the truck. Most notably I became skilled at downshifting, as slowing to a near crawl was very often necessary to navigate a particularly uneven and treacherous section of road. But my skills all fell to nothing shortly after I was waved down by soldiers.
As a point of fact, I was not actually waved down. The soldiers were merely requesting that I stop and speak to them, a request that I did not have to heed. But we were too slow on the buttons to realize this and soon found ourselves asked by these soldiers for a ride to the next village. Rachel explained that we were in a hurry to get to Atiak and could not take on passengers. The commanding soldier asked if perhaps we could just carry some women and children and their supplies. This question was followed by the deepest collective sigh that one can imagine. My total number of passengers then increased by 15. Babies. Pregnant women. My driving skills. The Great North Road. This was some bullshit charles.
When we reached the next village, I was at the height of my general stress index. So when the women got out of the truck and removed their things, I was thankful. And when soldiers then put their supplies and guns in the back of the truck, I was once again at the limit break. Rachel tried to explain that we would not be taking on any more passengers. The soldiers ignored and hopped right on.
As I caught a glimpse of an RPG leaned up against the back window, I thought about my step father. He was in the army during WWII and, as was the general style for black men in the army at that time, he was a driver, a cat who transported arms and sometimes troops in the back of a truck. But to have it happen to my own neck, I thought, is ridiculous.
Finally, we reached Atiak. The midwives conducted an awesome training session. I realized how much of an honor it was that I could even be around to witness this stuff. Rachel and Olivia are doing good work, conscious work that is sensitive to and encouraging of the styles of the people here. They are the future mixed with that Sankofa style in a time when other outsiders are rocking garbage conversions and western ultimatums.
Fortunately, we were not hailed down on the way back, though we did carry a few traditional birth attendants with us. This, however, is the only fortune that we had. The Great North Road is quite narrow in some sections, such that one vehicle cannot pass without another pulling to the side a bit and waiting. This is especially true for massive vehicles, like the supply truck headed toward me. In neutral with my foot on the break, a massive vehicle slowly passed by. From the back, Olivia suggested that I pull up a bit more. From the passenger seat, Rachel said that this may not be a good move since there was a muddy trench to the left that it would just suck to get stuck in. Perhaps it was the sound of their voices that convinced the road beneath us to give way, sinking the truck into that trench where we got stuck.
Eventually, with a little help from the drivers of another truck and my on the spot discovery of reverse, we got out and back onto the road. The girls were muddy and I was quite tired. There was still quite a long way to go. I wonder how much worse this trip could get, I thought. I wonder what other horrible style could go down and make me feel even worse than I do now. Then one of the Acholi midwives in the back of the truck leaned over the side and began to vomit.
By the time we got back to St. Monica’s, I had the worst headache of my life. I wanted nothing to do with the world and couldn’t even hear Rachel and Olivia’s expressions of appreciation for driving that suck road. I simply went to my room and laid down. The road had beaten me. I answered the call and was punished for it.
This road might just not be the kind of thing that one can conquer. It is fraught with pitfalls and winds its way through deep sorrow and struggle. Its travelers have the strength to endure it, but sometimes not the ability or knowledge to extract themselves from its historical and practical meaning. Yeah, I thought. This road is like colonialism itself. Perhaps it was this thought that brought me to tears under the drooping bug net in my room. Or maybe it was the headache.
Back at the main house, Rachel and Olivia told the nuns of our journey. “That truck is hopeless,” one of the nuns said. “By far the worst vehicle for traveling.”


Nic Nice said...

This sounds exactly like the road that we have to travel to get to the nearest town for supplies. If you look on a map it will be called M11, but we just call it "The Choma Road" because it will eventually get you to a small town called Choma. This is where you will find the closest paved road, and landline telephone. I have been blessed because I have been able to purchase one of the best vehicles one can buy for a road like this, a '94 Nissan Patrol. I have to drive this road more often than I wish and afterwards I feel like I've just been beat up when I wasn't looking. I feel your pain, these roads have no mercy. I always wonder why there is no chiropractor or Massage therapist in Macha, He/She would make a killing.

kodomo said...

wow. that is the most moving thing i have read in a long time.