Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Three Notes on Gulu

Cats tune the radio to one of two stations. Either it plays the worst of American hip hop and Ugandan pop music or white people singing about Jesus. This Christian music ain't the soothing sounds of Gospel; it has no listenable value for the non-religious. The hip hop is kind of interesting; I don’t hear any songs about rappers doing their usual violence, so all that is left are songs about bitches and hoes and sex. The Ugandan jams have taken to emulating these styles, so there are a lot of songs that are all autotuned and horrible and far from revolutionary. I don’t know why I thought cats would be playin’ Fela Kuti and Lucky Dube round the clock.

In a town with 65 percent of the population living in poverty, it is pretty easy to tell who has some flow to spare. Look to the men, because they are driving something German. Then look to the women, because they 1) have a hair weave and 2) their skin is lighter than other women. Not because they are actually light skinned, mind you; they have been using the skin cream that lightens skin. And they seem to only use it on their faces; arms dark as mine, face dark as my baby's. Not a good look, you would think. But here it is.

Gulu is slowly taking in mad missionaries and visitors. They are mostly young white college students. Many are with Invisible Children. Aid groups who have been in the area for a while tend to call them “highly visible children.” I pray to God (heh) that one of them will walk up and ask me if I know Jesus.


We waited on the side of the road for half the day, it seemed. I laid out a tarp and mothers and babies sat with toys and a tin of cookies. The sun hit the horizon and faded away, leaving darkness and mosquitos. When our rescue arrived, we determined that the best course was to force the damn spare into place and return to Gulu for a proper survey of the equipment. I drove alone on the way back, listening only to the metal scrape of an ill-sized rim on the rear hub. When we returned, I walked to our quarters under moonlight so bright that it cast my shadow in the grass. Not yet full though. Perhaps tomorrow night.

Replacing the bad tire and searching for a proper spare rim was tedious and partially unsuccessful. The rim could not be found and we were forced back out on to the road with equipment that had shown itself to suck. Still, we had two new front tires. 

I have never travelled this road without getting a headache. Olivia got the biggest jar  of ibuprofen I have ever seen and the pills got popped. After more than three hours of bumpy horror, we rolled up on the scene.

The Earth Birth site is impressive. More than that, it is the architectural manifestation of good ideas concerning development and connection. 

Across from Earth birth lies the beginnings of a school for girls. The school is made with materials that cannot be gotten in Atiak. Cement and metal frames and glass windows. Its construction, then, did not really support the economy of the town it intends to serve. Nor do its walls reflect the culture or its  practices. In contrast, Rachel and Olivia have constructed their future home from the same materials that the Acholi use to make theirs: mud, cow dung and thatch. The shelving inside is made from wood cut from a nearby fallen tree. They have made adjustments to the traditional Acholi model that have shown to be instructive and inspirational to cats who are building huts in the area. The architecture presents the comfort of the cultural style; it does not appear as an imposition on the landscape. Well, except for the roof of the clinic; that shit is made of tin. Scope exceeded knowledge on that one, which is how things often go for NGOs.

We set up as best we could before night fell, then sat beneath the tree by the kitchen. The chickens returned to their roosts as we munched on rice and beans. Life is slow in Atiak. There is no plumbing, no power and no rush. When night falls, the game is over. The light of a lantern is no cure for this darkness.

The moon was full, and we waited for the clouds to drift away so we could behold the majesty of it all. But when the clouds had gone, we saw that the moon was still obstructed. Um, what? Olivia peeped some astrology book and we learned that, yo, this was the onset of a total lunar eclipse. We were on just the right side of the world to see it. 

When a shadow is cast across a full moon, one cannot help but feel that what lies above is a celestial event. As though some giant from beyond time and space has stepped into the moon’s light and the poor rock is powerless to do anything about it. Our most fundamental sense of reference in this verse is darkened by our own cosmic home. It is a metaphor that I don’t care to pursue. 

At each gradation of darkness, more stars appeared. Until the moon was the faintest disk and the sky was a million points of light. The dust of the milky way. Saturn, perched upon the arm of the maiden virgo. The tail of the scorpion flickering by the bow of Sagittarius. Galaxy clusters so far away they seemed to just be a single star. We stared upward until we could no longer hold our eyes open. But we knew when the moon returned, because the roosters announced it with their call. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Kampala, Gulu. Almost Atiak.

I have only ever passed through Kampala until now. This place is sprawl all day. Every other place in Uganda is a township or a district. This is a city by any measure.  

The vast majority of NGOs are based here. It was explained to me once that this presence has given rise to its own economy. There are areas of Kampala in which the cost of living is comparable to european styles and these are the places in which aid workers live and conduct most of their business. In such an area you will find a coffee shop, a place for laptops and lunch meetings. It even specializes in American food. Order the BLT and you will learn the timeless truth that much is lost in translation; The lettuce and tomato are cooked along with the bacon. 

At the supply store, the poster for Nestle baby formula boasts that the product will give your child “shiny hair” and “good posture.” A certain brand of soap advertises that it is “one hundred precent effective at reducing cases of sickness.” Either this soap is magic or regulatory powers are weak on this scene.

The streets are vibrant. Cats are hustlin’, there can be no doubt. All motorcyclists are men and most are taxis. Traffic itself is culture. I know this but cannot help but feel the immanence of peril as I ride pillion. There are holes in the road. Not potholes. Holes. In Japan, apparently, it is law that vehicles must be replaced every ten years. Those old cars and trucks end up here. “New from Japan,” says the salesmen at the dealership. The guy tells me he has a good buy. I ask who makes it, as he walks us through the dirt lot. “Japan,” he says. Nice. 

I strike out one day to witness the installation of a bishop. I don’t know that I have the wrong address as I make my way down a chill shopping district, the poverty stricken equivalent of a strip mall. Within I find a church, the wrong church. I get directions from a woman who stands beneath a picture of White Jesus. I remember a professor once telling me about a preacher who had to sneak into his own church to replace such a portrait with one he thought more fitting, a pic of a man with hair like wool and feet like brass. It is a start, though it is a poor one.

Eventually, I make it to the right church. Even the stuffy ceremony of Catholicism cannot stifle the desire to dance that seems to be the only universal on this continent. I always think of myself as dark skinned until I get here. I welcome the disruption of that frame.

At the hotel, the baby follows two children at play in a large foyer. She walks well enough to walk out on her own, until she encounters steps or an incline. We are not far behind. 

The quest for the cosmopolitan ends in snacks. We eat Indian, Greek and Chinese food, all of which are quite tasty. At the family home of a friend, a whole pig is roasted. Ugandans will have none of our bourgeois distinctions between cuts of meat. Fuck your tenderloin and your pork chop. We just cut that shit into … parts. 

After a week of searching and fundraising, Rachel and Olivia get a new vehicle and it is time to rock exit. They pick from the many applications for drivers and a prospect comes down to drive us to Gulu. He sucks and the trip feels itself to be all danger. We have gotten off to late in the day to see the monkeys that chill on the side of the road hoping for a banana from suckers like me. 

We arrive at St. Monica’s and are swarmed by nuns. The baby grows comfortable with her new popularity. Less comfortable with her ever increasing number of teeth. 

We hit the market for food and supplies. Last time I saw that meat with the flies all on it I thought that it was a road that westerners should never tread. Now I am like, yo, that shit is fresh. Two kilos please. Olivia introduces me to cats selling veggies and such. I get that question again, the once that hurts: “What tribe are you?”  It aches to have no answer. Though I suppose this is an appropriate lack; the mark of my membership in the diaspora, the lostness from which my mother and grandmother marched. But I know better now than to go searching for promised lands. If they are not made, they will never be found. 

If you go to the bank and you are white, a banker will come out and lead you by the hand into an office where you can conduct your business without lines or prying eyes. The darkies just stand in line. 

With the truck loaded down, we head off to Atiak. Once again, I have the sorry fate of being the driver on this road. With babies in the back and everything. We pass the World Food Program. The tents are being taken down. Through an act of classification, IDP camps no longer exist. Atiak is a town now. And towns don’t get UN sponsored food. I wish somebody told that to the drought. 

The road is as suck as I remember it, which is funny because I demonize this wretched stretch in my nightmares. Still, the new transport works well and I get into the groove of movement until a tire blows out.