Reflections from Kitgum

July 28, 2009

It’s remarkable how driving down a dirt road in Uganda at sunset makes you think about life. You just sit back and take in the beauty of the red orange sunset combined with the shoulder-high grass and mango trees and wonder how anything bad could ever have happened here. The entire landscape exudes a kind of calm and beauty that entrances you. And to think that the very road I’m marveling over was impassable just 2 years ago.

            While on this drive, I started thinking, really thinking, about whom I was with and where I was. And all I could think was, “How did my life get this cool?” I was on my way home from a meeting in Gulu with Bishop Ochola and several of our friends, and so many things struck me at once.

            First of all: Bishop Ochola. Such an amazing man. He can’t go a single day without telling you several stories, but it’s obvious that he derives such joy from telling them that you can’t help but indulge. And to think about how much he’s been through and seen. He’s 73 years old. Uganda has only been independent for 47 years. He’s seen and lived all of the history and horrors, and he’s relentlessly fought for peace and forgiveness despite what he has been through. And I’m fortunate enough to live in this man’s home with his family.

            Then let’s think about the fact that I was the only American, only mzungu, traveling in a car full of new Ugandan friends whom I could trust with anything. At first I was so scared to be in Kitgum by myself. I had no idea what to do, who to talk to, where to go. But I’ve made some really wonderful, really close friends because I’m traveling alone and I’m so much more approachable than when we travel in a huge group. I’m so grateful for these friends because I wouldn’t have made it past the first week without them. And I’ve gotten such a personal look into people’s lives, people’s thoughts, people’s pasts. These are all things I would not have had in another setting. Now I don’t want to leave Kitgum because I’ll also be leaving them.

            And finally, let’s think about the fact that I’m just in Uganda. And I’m planning on being here so much more. How did I get this lucky? Some people never leave Knoxville their whole lives, but I stumbled upon the chance to travel to Uganda. I’ve learned more and seen more here in just a few months than I could ever put into word. And despite the fact that I’ll be eating Ramen and peanut butter and jelly for the next 6 months, I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything because they’re priceless.

            Today was definitely one of the best, most productive days I’ve had in Uganda so far. For progress on the folk tale project with Bishop Ochola, we’d only recorded 30 stories and done nothing else. I honestly had no idea what the next step was, and I was internally panicking a bit. So I decided we needed to have a meeting with our artists, with Lindsay, and with someone who could translate the tales. So we woke up really early to make the 2 hour journey to Gulu on a dirt road riddled with potholes.

            We hadn’t gotten far in our journey, and we were passing kids in school uniforms walking to class all along the road. This is normal, so you just honk the horn and drive on. But as we were driving, we passed a young girl of about 8 or 9 passed out on the side of the road. We drive on to the school because it’s only about 100 meters away, and it would be best to talk to a teacher or headmaster. We pull in and there are a ton of kids in their purple and blue uniforms, but they quickly inform us that there are no teachers or adults around. Since the teachers are paid so little (200,000 Ush a month, which is about $100) and there is no inspection to see if they’re doing their job, the teachers have no incentive and they often just don’t show up to school.  Bishop flagged down another truck that was passing and asked them to pick the girl and bring her home. The poor girl could barely walk.

            After this, we were back on our way and we finally arrived in Gulu. We had arranged a meeting with Patrick, a local artist based in Gulu; Vinny, our artist friend based in Kampala; Moses Lanyero, a Ugandan friend; Lindsay McClain, Bishop Ochola, and myself. This was the first time we have all gotten together to discuss what we want to see happen and what we think we can do. It took a bit of time to steer the conversation in the right direction, but we soon made some fairly ambitious plans.

            We decided as a group that we would like to see four things happen with the folk tales: a book, a comic book series, animation, and an audio book. They can’t possibly all happen at the same time, so we decided that the comic book series would be the best to start with. They can be distributed to primary schools, and the format is very kid-friendly. So I’m getting the recorded folk tales to Moses, he’s transcribing and translating the first 5 or so and checking it with Bishop, then we’re sending those few stories to Vinny and Patrick to get started on some designs. The idea is that we can publish 4 or 5 similar themed folk tales at a time and have them come out in a series. Once we get this first bunch done, we can apply for some bigger grants for funding.

            Now we’ve got the whole team working on it so the next steps should come fairly easily. The biggest challenge will just be communication once Lindsay and I are back in the US. And it’s great to finally have a real game plan for how we’re going to approach this thing.

            It’s been a long day of working on a spread sheet with Bishop. We’re mapping out all the characters so the artists can have an idea of who comes in where.

            Hope things are good at home. I’ll be there in just two weeks! (eek!)



July 17, 2009

Okay, this blog should have been posted on July 13th, but I wrote it and then I was unable to post it so now it’s like 6 days late. But here it is plus some added up to date things at the end.

So, this is my 4th day in Kitgum, and it’s really growing on me. I’ve been staying with Bishop Ochola and his family and everyone is incredibly nice and hospitable. We’ve been having some great traditional food and everyone’s been going out of their way to make me comfortable (even though I protest every time they do). Though they’re also going out of their way to stuff me with posho every chance they get. 

They just recently moved into this house from one they were renting, but they were not done building this one yet. When they are finished there will be quite a few guest rooms, toilets, showers, running water, etc. But for now, we have pit latrines and bucket showers outside under cover of a thatched grass shelter. There’s nothing quite like bathing out of a bucket under the stars (and I have never seen stars as incredible as the ones I can see here).

We’ve spent our time meeting people in Kitgum, going around the town, and most importantly working on the folk tales. We have recorded 22 so far with an English explanation followed by the entire story in Luo. The idea is to put the folktales into a book (fully translated into English and Luo). Then they will be made into animation. So after we get these recorded, it’ll be time to figure out how to compile them into a book. Then we need to have a meeting with artists so we’ll get some animation started. Everyone seems really excited about the project, though, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get people on board.

We went to a Catholic church service on Sunday, and not only did they make me sit up on the stage with Bishop, they made me get up and talk to the congregation of about 300 people. The first thing I said was, “I should tell you that I fear talking in front of this many people.” Eloquent, right? But it was fine… just had to reign in my high-pitched nervous voice haha.

Now that I’ve picked up some Luganda, I desperately need to learn some more Luo. It just seems so much harder to learn. I’m getting there, though. I’m heading to Kampala tomorrow with Bishop, and I’ll come back to Kitgum when he does in about a week or so.

New stuff:
Okay so I’ve been in Kampala for a few days now. I haven’t really been doing a whole lot. I’ve been helping Lilia input pre-course survey data for Educate!. It’s a little monotonous but interesting to see student responses. Especially for the question asking whom their hero is. Answers range from parents, siblings, and neighbors to Barack Obama to Idi Amin.

I’m a little sad that I’ll be leaving Kampala again on Monday. I’m not sure if I’ll be back here before a couple of days before I leave. And it just stresses me out a little to be so disconnected and out of touch in Kitgum.

I’m also in a weird place of wanting to go home to see everyone and wanting to be here at the same time. I miss the comforts of home, but then I get so sad when I think about the fact that I’ll be leaving here in a few weeks. I’ll just have to say goodbye to so many people and hope that my plans work out for Spring semester.

It should be a good weekend. I’m going to see the break dancers on Saturday and then going to Vinny’s art exhibit on Sunday; both should be phenomenal. Hope you have a great weekend as well!

Home from Kenya

July 6, 2009

Well, after 24 hours on a bus (Mombasa to Kampala), we’re FINALLY back in Kampala. There were a lot of interesting things that we witnessed on our trip, and I’ll try to remember it all.

Highlights of the trip:
– When you hear the word “Africa” and that stereotypical image pops into your head, that’s what almost all of Kenya looks like. It’s pretty cool.
– I met some really awesome people at the beach who go to school in Nairobi.
– We went out dancing at a club in Mombasa with them on July 4th. We celebrated Independence Day by requesting the DJ to play a few American songs.
– On our first day there, we happened upon a cove just north of Mombasa. We sat around, had lunch, watched the tide go out. Then a ton of people showed up to play football. When the tide was low enough, they waded out to a sand bar to play.
– Vinny got to see the beach for the first time.
– We swam in the Indian Ocean.
– Matatus in Kenya are pimped out. They’re like party taxis. There are posters all over the place, and the roofs are upholstered. And music is always rap being played on a fantastic sound system. At night, they all have blue neon lights on the inside.
– We got to tour Fort Jesus, the old port, and Old Mombasa.
Lowlights of the trip
– I don’t have my camera. So I went to Kenya, and I don’t have proof. I have to have a camera before I go to Kitgum.
– I lost my cell phone. Or it was stolen. I’m not sure which. The good part is that whoever has it has to pay to have it unlocked for Kenya and buy a Kenyan sim card. So they didn’t really win.
– It’s apparently rainy season in Kenya. So while we did have a few hours of sun, it wasn’t as much as I would have liked.
– We had no idea of the rates in Kenya. It was about 27 shillings to the dollar instead of 2100 like it is in Uganda. So we probably got ripped off all the time because everything sounded so cheap.
– The rest of my stay in Uganda is now on an economy budget. Since we paid $250 each for the apartment in Naggalama but didn’t stay there and paid to stay in other places, I’m low on cash.
– I got car sick every time I got on a matatu in Kenya. Learn to drive well, please.
– It took 22 hours to get there and then another 24 hours to get back. That’s 2 days of my life spent on a bus.
– “Hakuna matata” is not enough Swahili to be respected.
– No one made a single Obama reference all weekend. It’s strange because half the time when we walk down the street in Uganda, someone yells, “Obama!” But that didn’t happen in Kenya.
– Matatu drivers/bus drivers/taxi drivers/street beggars are MUCH more persistent. They will not take no for an answer and will follow you for blocks and blocks trying to sell you on it.
– While they’re persistent, Kenyans are generally nicer than Ugandans. Even after haggling, the matatu conductors still smiled at us, gave us a thumbs up, wished us safe travels,etc. You’re lucky if they don’t push you out of the matatu while you’re exiting in Uganda.
– We learned a lot of Swahili from the Lion King.
I’m happy to be back in Uganda, though, as good as the Kenya adventure was. It’s nice to be somewhere that you can navigate. And speak some of the language. And know when you’re being cheated. It really did feel like I was returning home on the way back in.
Dustyn and I bought some macaroni and cheese for lunch today. I can hardly explain how excited I am for it. I’ve been thinking about mac & cheese for days.
Dustyn leaves on Thursday, and then I should be heading up to Kitgum/Gulu around that time. I’m a little nervous and a little excited. Nervous because I have no idea if I have the qualifications for our art project. I’ll be writing proposals, offering advice, etc. and what experience do I have in this? Nervous because I don’t know anyone in Kitgum except for Bishop Ochola. I’m really hoping I make some friends there. Nervous because I don’t know much Luo at all. I’ll have to learn a ton of it. But then I’m excited for all of those reasons. It will be new and challenging. I’ll make new friends and meet new people. I’ll learn Luo. And I’ll get to spend so much time in the north.
Hopefully, I’ll be spending my weekends in Gulu (like 2 hours away) with some friends there. I’m not sure if there’s much to do in Kitgum on the weekends or if I already have plans made for me. But we’ll see how that works out. I’ll be traveling back down to Kampala/Naggalama with Lindsay and maybe Jeff for Vinny’s art exhibition (and the Harry Potter premier!). Then I’ll go back to Kitgum and finish my work.
For the next few days in Kampala, Dustyn and I are researching methods of finding the disposable income of a population for Educate!’s projects. They are looking for ways to be sustainable, and one way might be to charge a fee to attend the class. So our research will hopefully show them some ways to go about that.
Okay that’s a lot of stuff. I hope you read all the way through! I’ll try to be better at updating ( I think I say that every time.) I hope everyone had a wonderful July 4th! I’d love to hear from you because I’m totally missing everyone at home!

about erin

I graduated from the University of Tennessee in May 2011 with a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. I am currently taking the year off to enjoy a less stressful life while applying for graduate schools in Anthropology. Without sounding too cliche, it's true that we are all life-long learners, but I still miss the challenge and excitement of the classroom. This website is a combination of personal and professional so that anyone who wants to can get to know me better. I will also be keeping up with my blog, where you will be able to read about the life of an undergraduate student about to embark on the real world. Feel free to contact me; I’d love to hear from you!