Monday, August 4, 2008

Make-up post #1

I have a few things to say about Gulu that I will have to post retrospectively, because of the trouble with my computer and the lack of consistent power. Here is one of those entries.


I’m leaving Gulu on Saturday morning with the Post Bus. It’s about 430,000/= ($275) cheaper than hiring a car, and the money that I save … well, I might give some of it to Gladys at the front desk. She works 18 hours a day like everyone else here, and makes 80,000/= per month. That’s about $60, and not enough to eat with even in Uganda. Anyway, Atimango Gladys is special because she just got into the public administration program at Gulu University, and will be taking weekend classes so she can continue to work. For anyone counting, that’s 18 hours of work per day, 6 days per week, plus school. And she can’t afford tuition. So I was thinking maybe I would help her a little bit.

Life has gotten a lot better, with a little adjustment. The lack of water and power don’t bother me so much anymore, and the crazy rain just washes away my bad feelings. I don’t mind so much that people charge me twice the price for everything, or that the kids make a game out of who can catch the munu’s attention. “Munu” is the Acholi version of “mzungu” – white person, essentially. My friend Simone calls this “innocent racism.” The kids especially have no idea they’re being offensive. They just want to rub your arms to see whether the paleness will come off revealing darker skin underneath. It’s fascination, not hatred.

There are just so many little things to appreciate. The frogs here sound like wind chimes. The lightning is like electric diamonds. I found a supermarket yesterday, a real supermarket with boxed juice and bread. It’s run by an Indian who wanted the luxuries of home, and there are as many electronic gizmos as there are kitchen supplies. So you can pick up your television and your Cadbury bar in the same place. It’s got that thrown-together look that everything seems to have here in Uganda, but it’s the best thing I’ve found in town so far.

I also ran into a very interesting person, in my more recent explorations. Any foreigner you meet up here, anyone who isn’t associated with a major group, anyway, is bound to be really interesting. This particular gentleman runs a restaurant across the street from the Institute. It’s called Bambu, and walking in is like stepping into the idealized version of Uganda. Instead of the normal plastic chairs and plastic tablecloths advertising beer, there are real benches with foam cushions and polished wood tables. The landscaping is beautiful, and the bar is very complete. The first thing you will encounter is a stately looking older man sitting at his counter with a beer, watching the sun roll across the sky and chatting softly with his employees. Ask him how his day is going, and he responds with something pithy – “oh, a lot like yesterday.” This is what James Bond looks like when he retires. I’ve wanted to speak with this man since the first time I met him, and finally yesterday worked up the courage to say, “You know, I’m trying to think up better questions for you.”

“What?” he asked.

“Like how did you get here, what was it like setting up shop, what made you come to Uganda – that sort of thing. Slightly more stimulating than ‘how ya doin’.’”

I think this tickled him, somewhat. The mellow look on his face never changed, he just said, “Well, there’s the short answer, the medium answer, and the long answer to all of those questions.” And I knew I had him, at least for a minute. I sat him down and asked him to give me the long version. I got the medium version, until he decided he was tired of company and wandered away. Turns out he used to help the United Nations with security issues, had a cafĂ© in Spain, and left it in 2005 to try his luck in Gulu. Today he’s snuggled in here with a young lady lover and the occasional Skyy Vodka. He says it raises a few of the local eyebrows, but he doesn’t really care. Now just think about this man’s timing. 2005 was when the ICC indictments came out against Kony and the LRA leaders. The first brick of this restaurant was laid down in 2006, while peace talks were ongoing. That means that the land purchase and licensing went on before that time. How did Mr. Mystery know that the talks would more or less succeed, and Kony would never return? He calls it a “calculated business risk.” I call it double-0 status.

You get fascinating people like that, up here. Like Opiyo, who is doing research on child soldiers and sex slaves for his PhD dissertation. He told me some stories that I am not allowed to reprint, stories that could make a big difference in Kony’s trial if only they are published. And if this dissertation ever makes book form, you must read it. Opiyo Oloya: Remember that name! I also met a gentleman named Callum who freelances for the BBC and Al Jazeera. He told some wild stories too, stories which I can actually retype. Callum has been coming to Uganda on and off for the past five years. He was working on a documentary for the BBC when he got a call from a buddy of his who works with the UPDF.

“We have just won a great victory against the LRA,” his friend exclaimed. “You must come see!”

And so they jumped into the friend’s car and drove from Kampala to northern Uganda, out to the village where the battle had been fought. Apparently, this particular village had only two rifles to guard itself, and the LRA took it very early on in the conflict. Winning the place back involved decimating the troops on the ground. Callum said there were about forty bodies, all told. These villages are tiny, just a small collection of shops, so that number is a lot of people.

The first thing Callum saw when he got out of the car was the body of a four-year-old boy.

“Of course, you realize that when you’re talking about a victory against the LRA, what you mean is that you’ve killed a bunch of children,” Callum explains. “I hadn’t really realized it until that point. It isn’t much of a victory.”

I could see this in my mind’s eye, dozens of corpses, all child soldiers with guns their own size. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the hurt that their mothers feel? Can you even begin to conceive of what a nightmare this has been for Uganda?

Opiyo and Callum talked a lot about what it takes to turn a child into a killer like that, stories they discovered during interviews. The LRA abducts these kids, maybe three of them, and they make the two youngest kill the oldest child on the pain of death (their death, the deaths of their families, whatever it takes). The entire village sees this, and so the boys are ostracized. They are disowned by their remaining families and their friends. No home will take them in. Schools won’t accept them. They are considered too dangerous to interact with normal society. And so the LRA presses them into service, preying on the children’s cultural prerogative to take orders. Other soldiers beat them constantly and march the boys around in circles for days on end. The children say that they will march three days straight without sleeping, time and time again. Then, when they are finally physically broken, the senior soldiers begin to grant them respect and make these boys feel included. They are given a new identity within their community, and the need to belong somewhere is enough to make many of these children commit to a life of war. Those individuals who still retain enough of themselves to attempt escape are amazing – and there are many.

I knew all of this already. It bears repeating.

Circumstances are better today, though. Victims are going home; the IDP camps are emptying out. Some of these former child soldiers are in school, and you can watch them laughing. There are a lot of people hopping around on crutches, covered in burns or missing limbs. But that doesn’t stop them from living. They keep right on at it. I was right; when I got out here I was too overloaded to see the situation’s reality. But now I can see the exhaustion, despair, mistrust, devastation, and fortitude despite it all. These people maintain a strength that is truly inspiring.

What concerns me, though, is the way the post-conflict situation is being addressed. A lot of NGOs are reducing aid and pulling out, not really thinking about how to re-stabilize society. I talked to one guy working with the Norwegian Refugee Council. He was furious. “Everyone says return to the villages should be voluntary. But if you stop distributing food, what’s voluntary about it? You have nothing to eat, you have to start farming so maybe you can eat something next year. Meanwhile, people are starving!”

A lot of promises have not been kept. The government said it would give farmers basic tools. No such luck. Medicines donated to Uganda are spoiling at Entebbe Airport because there isn’t sufficient transportation to get them to villages up north. Civil society organizations are trying to help, but a lot of them are based in municipalities and never reach the people who need help most. And the schools are so understaffed that they ask parents to pay for extra teachers. This isn’t exactly a request to some suburban PTA; this is demanding money from war victims so that their children can be in a class of 60 or so students. That is, if the camp even has a local primary school. Many of the transition camps do not.

I’m going to stop thinking about this for a minute. I’m getting angry, when what I should really do is work on the problem constructively.

The other day I took a cue from Emily and tried to get a dress made somewhere. It was a mess, and eventually I just gave up. I guess out here, you have to have a dress so the tailors can copy the pattern. Material stores don’t even sell bolts of cloth big enough to make a dress for me, so even if I had a dress to copy, I probably would have had to make it a skirt and blouse, instead. And trying to communicate with the tailors was nasty; they didn’t really want me to hire them. Eventually I gave up and bought a book of East African poetry, instead. It’s surprisingly good; I wasn’t expecting educated literature, and this stuff is on par with the anthologies I’ve got at home.

The next day I went with Fabius and Simone to the main campus to listen in on a discussion about developing an HIV policy for Gulu University. Attitudes towards HIV patients are pretty atrocious out here. The general sentiment seems to be, “well, you asked for it!” This policy is really necessary, and I wish there were some NGOs in the area to inform the committee’s research on the matter. The university and the community both need to confirm that people with HIV/AIDS have legal rights, including the right to work in public places. And if you’re sick, that doesn’t mean God has disowned you. I heard that attitude, too.

Anyway, after the meeting the dean of students gave me a traditional dancing stick made from a cow’s tail and a cork-like staff wrapped in beads the color of Uganda’s flag. You use it to dance for the king, balancing it on your bicep while you flap your arms up and down. I was very flattered to receive a traditional gift like this. Maybe I’ll take it out clubbing, sometime.

Oh, there goes the power again …

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