Monday, March 31, 2008

The Fountain [again] and Lucy comes to Kla

It’s gray again, like Easter. I went to sleep last night to the sound of Ugandan-lilted accents arguing over a game of Scrabble – late night customers at La Fontaine. Sometime in the middle of the night, the curtains that one of the staff had closed over the front window billowed out into the room, and I awoke to claps of thunder and a constant, gushing sound of rain. The world outside was being churned into a thick slop of red mud. On Easter, when we went to La Fontaine for brunch, Richard arrived in his Bob Marley t-shirt again, shivering, squealing and hopping about, avoiding the drops and behaving as though a massive cold front had blown through – winter in Uganda. He eventually opened La Fontaine to the public at 2 pm, but no matter, because according to Richard, his fellow countrymen stay in bed when the weather is so terribly cold. Remembering this, I felt a little more Ugandan today, seeing the white-gray sky out the window and snuggling up a little longer under the mosquito net and comforter.

I temporarily moved off of Kate’s couch in Kasubi on Tuesday, bringing a small bag of things over to La Fontaine to crash in Steve’s room while he’s climbing Kili. It smelled like boy when I got here, and I’m either used to it now (and I probably smell like boy) or open windows and my coconut lotion have done the job of airing out the boy smell. My days since returning from Gulu have been a mishmash of busy-ness and same-ness. Daily life in Kampala. This was the week I was supposed to be in Zanzibar, relaxing on the beaches and reading. Instead, I’m hopping bodas from hotspot to hotspot (Café Pap, Crocodile Café, Kabira Country Club), attempting to complete enough AIR work to prove my worth. I get up and work for a few hours in the morning, try and get to the pool to swim and read and relax during the hot hours of the afternoon, and then work again late into the evening. In lieu of a social life, it’s not bad way to live.

Lucy rode the bus down to Kampala on Monday, arriving in Bombo to stay with her sister for the night. After a couple hours of confusion Tuesday morning – getting lost at Mukwano Arcade, and sweating bullets in the punishing mid-day sun – Kate and I trudged up from Mukwano, through the taxi park, and arrived at Kiwempe, where Lucy and her foster son, Cyprian, were waiting for us. Lucy is an active and fervent member of the picturesque Catholic Church in Gulu (recall: her participation in a “Crusade” during Easter Week). A few years ago, Cyprian left Kampala to study at seminary in Gulu. The Church tasked Lucy with being his “mom” while he was in Gulu – he lived with her for three years while completing his courses. In return, Lucy called on him to meet her in Old Kampala to help her purchase the materials she needed to complete our order. Since the post-election violence in Kenya, Gulu’s markets have been sparse, and the cost of transport greatly increased. Things are cheaper and readily available in Kampala. Cyprian also speaks Luganda – the major Bantu language spoken by Ugandans in the south. Lucy speaks Luo – a Nilotic language from northern Uganda. Even though she speaks quite a bit of English, most market transactions are completed in Luganda, leaving her to feel like a foreigner in her own country. After an exchange of a big stack of shillings in a shadowy corner in the market, Kate and I helped Lucy and Cyprian to lug 3 foot long cylinders of sponge, stiff fabric, and rolls of Velcro through the winding, hot and crowded market streets, into the chaos of the bus park.

The bus park is essentially a medium-sized parking lot, flanked on both sides by balconied buildings and one-man vending shows – selling chapattis, matooke, roasted corn, roasted bananas to travelers, who line up on small benches to have lunch as they wait for the buses to fill up. As you enter through the gates, throngs of informal bus guides descend upon you shouting “Arua? Kitgum? Gulu?” and then grabbing whatever luggage you’re carrying (this is totally scary until you realize that 9.99 times out of 10, they are actually putting your things into the proper bus, and not robbing you blind), millions of palms and elbows pushing you through the crowd to board the bus – a human funnel to Gulu. No one seemed to understand that we were merely accompanying Lucy and her things, not actually riding to Gulu with her. I’m surprised the mass of people didn’t lift us up and crowd surf us right through the bus windows. After a few well-wishes and quick hugs, Kate and I darted back out of the gates and spent the next half an hour elbowing our way uphill and out of Old Kampala, onto bodas, and out of the madness.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A good Friday

Lucy asked for a sign for her stall on Friday. I love her smile. Good Friday in Gulu. I felt a slowness enter my bones when I woke up. Breakfast was slow. I walked slowly. We got to Lucy’s stall and I sat down and watched her work. She was starting to cut fabric for the reversible bag my mom bought as a sample at Wal-Mart. She was teaching Kevin how to cut oven mitts, watching with a discerning eye over her shoulder, remarking quietly in Luo while she held the pattern (pineapple explosion) and cut oven mitts into the large swath of blue guinea fowl. I wanted to sit there all day on the reed mat and just exist as a fly on the wall –

to try and understand/feel what a day is like there. Eventually the three of us (Lucy, Kate and I) left the stall behind and went to Pamela’s office to talk about the grant. Lucy walked us through Oweno’s food market, passing by row after row of smoked fish from Lake Albert – stinking and dry and covered in flies. Lucy patted backs and exchanged greetings throughout the market until we emerged on the other side, adjacent to Pamela’s office.At our last meeting, I’d asked Pamela to explain our project and the grant to Lucy in Luo so that nothing would be lost in translation. I was worried that she wouldn’t want to go out to the camps. We sat there in Pamela’s office, listening to the Luo conversation between two women, unable to glean anything from their tone or dialogue, until Lucy smiled her big smile and Pamela explained that Lucy was really excited about the project. She asked for a sign for her stall to show that she, too, is One Mango Tree.

After the meeting and a round of fabric shopping, I sat again on the reed mat, propping myself up against the rough wooden post holding up the porch roof. Lucy sat next to me as she finished cutting the pieces for ten reversible bags in cherry blossom print. Holding and cutting and eyeing and cutting and pausing and cutting. Every now and then an Acholi would stop by and greet her, occasionally pulling up the small wooden bench I’d been resting my elbow on and having a conversation while Lucy continued to cut.

A church mother came by and taunted the girls about their singing in choir, urging them to be prompt at practice that evening. From inside the stall I heard one of them singing.

Prisca moved her sewing machine onto the porch and hunched over it, sewing aprons and apron strings.

I sat partially in the setting sun, as it filtered in between the small break in the rooftops, shining gold on the red dirt and reed mat. Threads and scraps of fabric covered everything. Whirring sewing machines, Lucy’s quick and quiet Luo. The sound of Kevin’s scissors on the kitchen fabrics. Francis sewing on Lucy’s machine, assembling the remaining lunch bags. Cutting sponge for the oven mitts. A couple of hours passed without my even realizing it, and I gathered the completed items and said goodnight and a Happy Easter, with the huge blue plastic London bag thrown over my shoulder.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Behold, a novel awaits...

The Gulu tape worm reared its fugly head. Or maybe I shouldn't have eaten pepper steak and honey pancakes last night for dinner. Eh.
I really love taking you on this circular journey of my days, so thanks for reading these missives. It's truly a cathartic exercise for me – an outlet for the tumult of emotion that goes along with these trips – the constant up-and-down and up-and-down (sea-sick and slap-happy).
Speaking of circular, we are back to Thursday. I woke up feeling fugly (see above) and tried my best to shake it off. Kate and I had a 10 am meeting with IYEP (Information for Youth Empowerment Program). After stuffing my face with Patrick's lovely banana muffin x2, Kate and I hopped on bodas and headed out to the new IYEP office (see photo below) – adjacent to the GUSCO Resource Center.

In the split second it took to pass by GUSCO (Gulu Support the Children Organization), I couldn't help but think back to that day in June 2006, when something small came unhinged inside of me, triggering the landslide that has been my constant involvement with Northern Uganda. It goes back to an 11-year-old boy that had just arrived at GUSCO, which is a child soldier rehabilitation center – the first stop on a painful journey towards regaining his place in society. I'd made eye contact with the boy earlier as the Director explained their programs, noticing a vacancy in his eyes. As we sat together in silence, one of the nurses casually explained that he had escaped captivity the day before I arrived. Instead of words, we exchanged brief glances. I drew Bert the Jolly Mail-Bee and smiling flowers and suns. Gave him a pack of gum. Reached out, rubbed his back, and saw a smile sneak onto his face. A nice, wide smile, and a small glitter where all that emptiness had been. And so it goes. I offered him nothing, and I knew it. His smile set loose a tremor in my mind that would grow and torment me into returning and returning, trying to understand why I keep coming back to Uganda.

We paid our boda drivers and Moses stepped into the road to meet us, wearing metal-tipped cowboy boots. Big, huge hugs all around. It's not without meaning that we are working with IYEP and that its new office is adjacent to GUSCO. Moses is a formerly-abducted child soldier that, with a group of others in similar situations, started an organization targeted at restoring Acholi culture and breaking down the stigmas that the formerly-abducted and child mothers face upon returning to their communities. Kate and I sat down with the group in their office and explained our ideas for partnership.

IYEP is playing an increasingly large role in restoring peace and stability in the region, and they've expanded their reach to groups that have returned to their villages. These returnees (as they're called here in dev-talk) face a host of challenges as they leave the squalor of IDP camps and try to reclaim the rural lives they'd lived prior to this conflict. IYEP is easing the transition by providing agricultural assistance to returnees – namely livestock, pigs, goats and chickens.

So, in addition to buying recycled paper beads from IYEP's child mother groups and working with them to develop a line of Peace on Earth holiday cards, we'll be running a unique holiday campaign, similar to Heifer International and with the guarantee that every single penny gets to the ground – you'll be able to directly support returnees in Northern Uganda by purchasing the animals they need to jump-start their livelihoods. That's right, give a goat for Christmas this year…coming soon. Dear Santa….

Following our uplifting meeting with IYEP (and round three of group photos, which we do every time I visit their office), Kate and I headed to the market to see Lucy and take her to open a bank account at Barclay's. We've grown increasingly nervous about her moving about town when we pay her the large sums for each order, so the logical solution is to legitimize things a bit and open an account. Unlike many people in the north, Lucy does have a photo ID. We stopped off at the photo shop (specializing in passport photos, light bulbs, PVC tubing, and cell phone gadgets) and perpetually smiling Lucy put on her best solemn stare for the photographer. With one more step of getting the LC5's signature for a letter of recommendation, Lucy will have a bank account.

We parted ways in town and Kate and I headed to see Angwech Pamela at GWED-G (Gulu Women's Economic Development & Globalization) – our NGO partner for the Davis Project for Peace. We were both admittedly exhausted from the morning's activities, but seeing Pamela (more giant HUGS!) took our happiness to new heights. Pamela, like us, was beyond thrilled to hear about the grant, and immediately told us her plan for mobilizing GWED-G in the camps to get things started. We set up a meeting to introduce her to Lucy and align all of the important pieces. Pamela, after an amazing monologue about our partnership (and ever the teacher), sent Kate and I packing with the instructions to draft a study design – we're going to conduct research in line with the peace project this summer, surveying households before and after the project to better understand the grassroots impact of One Mango Tree's work.

A few hours later I ate some Chicken a la Cream Sauce and chips at Bomah and enjoyed an hour-long massage, a milky twilight-y sky, and a cup of African tea – and you, my friends, are now up-to-date.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

P.S. Gulu loves you

Indeed, Gulu seems to love me very much (except for the tendency for digestive disorders that I pick up here - malakwang, ground nut paste…cabbage). Today closed with one of those milky, quiet evenings, the sky fading from blue to lavender and then to darkness filled with invisible crickets. Staving off a much-needed nap and realizing we'd only eaten Maq Foods banana muffins all day, Kate and I headed to Bomah for an early dinner and some reflection. (read: I'm fresh from enjoying my favorite Gulu massage - oily, relaxed and clean, and drinking a cup of African tea.)

Things instantly improved following the rainy bus ride from Kampala. The clouds cleared and I moved up in the world, dreaming anti-malarial dreams on a twin bed at Hotel Kakanyero instead of Kate's pygmy African couch.

Immediately following breakfast on Wednesday morning, we walked the short distance to Lucy's market stall. After lots of uncontrollable laughter, smiles and hugs, Lucy and the girls cleared out a seat for us on a bench in the stall, which now seems unbelievably crowded. The stall itself is part of a larger, permanent structure – a sort of mini-shopping center with 10 ft. by 10 ft. stalls. It has two huge metal doors that open up onto a small concrete pad and a bit of a porch constructed with wood, woven mats and corrugated metal sheets. The path into the market and between the stalls also serves as a sort of drainage ditch – an uneven red riverbed winding through the market and collecting cast off fabric scraps, remnants of lunch and dirty dishwater.

Inside Lucy's stall, tons of un-labeled lunch bags hang in bunches from the ceiling. The walls are covered with fabrics for sale and stock posters of traditional African clothing. There are so many sewing machines that we can barely move around. Every surface is covered with fabrics, scissors, scraps, thread and scraps of paper with designs and measurements.

We sat down and met the new girls working with Lucy (there are two, Sarah and Monica), and unpacked our bag of samples and goodies: bananas (during a bus window transaction, we accidentally bought two full bunches instead of two single bananas), several One Mango Tree t-shirts (photos all around – thanks Mom!), and lots of samples for new products (an over-sized tote, a reversible sling shoulder bag, a headband, a mini-tissue holder, and tiny stuffed animals). After making orders with the fabrics I purchased at Mukwano Arcade in Kampala, Kate and I ventured out into the market to see what Gulu's tailors had to offer (no details here, you'll have to wait to see the new patterns – except I will say that there are Swahili Virgin Mary aprons and oven mitts coming your way).

After another hour of haggling and buying rainbows (and miles) of liner fabric from Mr. A. O. Latigo, Textiles, I headed to the internet café to catch the wave of morning emails from the other side of the Earth.My gmail loaded like a sea slug…basic HTML version? Yes…and then there it was – the announcement that "Growing One Mango Tree in Northern Uganda" had won the Davis Project for Peace grant. And that kind of day is why I am convinced that Gulu loves me (and man do I love the sh** out of Gulu).


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