Friday, April 18, 2008

Forever and for always

I slept in on Wednesday, waking up only to the sound of Paul's text message at 5:36 am - he was waiting for me with the car outside Kabira Country Club. I stumbled out of bed and realized that I hadn't packed a single thing the night before, blew threw the hotel room throwing things into bags and twenty minutes later we were on the road, with my bad breath and knotty hair. I slept all the way to Kafu and woke up to Paul buying goat muchomo and roasted bananas at a trading center. Ah---breakfast! He only brought one CD, and this time it was a varied playlist: It Must Have Been Love (Roxette), Do Me (PSquare ), Forever and For Always (Shania Twain), Another Day in Paradise (Phil Collins), etc. etc. mixed with local reggae. We made it to Gulu in record time - 5.5 hours. I think he flew over the Luwero bumps (see photo) while I was passed out and drooling in the passenger the diversion at Nakasangola is finally cleared, cutting a half hour detour out of the trip.

Despite Paul's requests for me to rest after checking into Bomah, after dumping out my several bags o' crap, I took a quick shower and hit the ground running. The 36 hours in Gulu were a complete blur - smiling Ugandan faces in smart interview suits, meetings with local organizations, briefing by the UN Security Officer for northern Uganda, shopping for office space. My good friend Howard came to see me on Thursday morning, taking a bus in from Lira. After having lunch at Bambu (waiting 1.5 hours for banana fritters that weren't THAT good), we set off on a ridiculous office space hunt through the wilds of Gulu's outskirts. On a tip from the finance manager at Refugee Law Project, we set off looking for Obia Road - a four bedroom house on a plot adjacent to ACDI/VOCA's food security compound. "It needs renovation, but can be made ready with a fence in two months." After trying unsuccessfully to walk there in the scorching mid-day heat (I'd already taken off my button down shirt and felt lost in the desert, tripping around in my tank top and sweat pouring down my face, hand shielding the sun from my eyes and gazing into the heat waves rising from the earth, hoping to spot a suitable piece of real estate. Just kidding, it wasn't that hot.)...Howard and I found ourselves in front of what had to be the place. I dialed up my contact and listened to the description - just needs some renovation and a fence, four bedrooms...while I stood in front of a never-finished or once-burnt shell of a house with no roof and a full-fledged mini-forest taking root in the living space (see photo). But he was right that there was no fence. After another half hour of searching the country-side for the correct property, we finally found the place, tucked away behind a bamboo fence. If only house-hunting in the US were this adventurous, I might actually be up for buying a home!

The trip to Gulu was a success, including a stop off Thursday evening at the sign shop - a local sign-maker (yes he's the one making the millions of NGO signs littering the streets of Gulu, pointing to-and-fro) painted a One Mango Tree sign for Lucy. It's still being finished, but I managed to snap a couple pictures of the artist and his masterpiece (photos coming soon). Paul and I met Lucy by candlelight in the market to pick up the latest order, and she had everything packed neatly into the red plastic bags - one with London Bridge and the other with African wildlife - with an envelope on top that read "Halle's Mummy and Dad. U.K." - a letter to my parents from Lucy, which tugged at my heart and curiousity, but it's still unopened in my bag for the trip home to Ohio.

After a loooong day of running around, I finally passed out at Bomah and woke up on time, even packing my bags before falling asleep (AND taking a hot shower before bed!). Paul and I got on the road at 6 am, with the Gululian red-fire sunrise blazing on the eastern horizon out my window, palm trees blackened in silhouette. I promptly passed out and drooled. In true road trip style, Paul woke me up at our food stop. We were too early for the lady with the yummy roasted bananas (she was just arriving with the brown bananas in a green plastic tub perched upon her head, and waved a greeting when she saw us), but we spotted a guy making chapattis and both lit up at the thought of a roll-ex for the road. Chapattis are like a greasier version of naan, and a roll-ex is a chapatti rolled with fried egg. We also bought an avocado, sliced and salted, and for the next hour I sat with a smile on my face, mushy green avocado in my left hand, and salty delicious and hot roll-ex in my right, as we sang through full mouths to Shania Twain:

And there ain't no way

I'm lettin' you go now
And there ain't no way
And there ain't no how
I'll never see that day...

'Cause I'm keeping you
Forever and for always
We will be together all of our days
Wanna wake up every
Morning to your sweet face--always

Life is good.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Elusive peace and a visit to St. Mauritz

It's Sunday morning, and I'm fueling (and recovering from a visit from Mr. Honourable) with a mocha and an egg and tomato sandwich at Cafe Pap. Another silent Sunday in Kampala, preceding what promises to be a completely crazy week (and following one that was equally nuts). I returned from Gulu on Friday, to a louder, meaner version of Kampala. Paul [driver] and I were listening to the news as we approached town, and heard the broadcast about riots occuring on the streets of the city. Last week, police in Kampala set up road blocks and started ticketing, arresting and impounding vehicles and drivers that were not up to code (boda drivers without helmets, taxis without seatbelts, etc.). The crackdown created a slow swell of anger from the city's thousands of drivers, which erupted Friday in a city-wide taxi strike. Drivers took to the streets burning tires and breaking windscreens of matatus and buses that weren't striking. The boda drivers joined in, throwing stones at any bodas that were transporting passengers. Kawempe, on the north side of Kampala, was one of the worst spots, and Paul and I were pulling up to the area when we saw a crowd of people throwing bricks at a bus that was passing by - there was glass from broken windows all over the road. A truck filled with police in riot gear pulled up and we eventually passed without a problem, but as we drove into the city, the only other traffic was the stream of empty taxis driving in the opposite direction. Smoldering remains of tires littered the road.

As if a premonition, Friday's violence was quickly followed by headlines that Kony had failed to sign the peace accord. My initial reaction was disappointment and fear, partially invoked by the Daily Monitor's reportage - that the signing of the peace agreement was "put off indefinitely" and that with the Cessation of Hostilities Act due to expire on Tuesday and the government showing no intention to extend it, "war could easily resume." My week in Gulu had been filled with optimism from all sides - stories of people returning to their villages (Lucy returned to her family's land in Awac for the first time just last week) and discussions on the way forward and new economic opportunities. The absence of conflict in Uganda has helped raise hopes, but as one man described to me - "the people of northern Uganda have one foot in transition camps and one foot in their villages, with a hand cupping their ear to the north, waiting to hear the news from Juba." The importance of Kony's signature on that final document in this process cannot be overestimated and neither can the disappointment and frustration that everyone in northern Uganda is feeling.

After a week of running all over Gulu to meetings and scanning hundreds of Ugandan CVs to look for quality job candidates, I had an opportunity to visit Lucy's home. She's asked me to go before, but this was the first time that the trip actually worked out - and I had an evening free [and Paul offered to drive] to make the 2-mile trip to St. Mauritz parish, where Lucy lives with her aging parents, 12 orphaned nieces and nephews, and her own two daughters. She is a single woman supporting 16 people - 14 of whom need their school fees paid. As soon as we arrived, Lucy bounced out of the car with a smile and led us through the compound - an impeccably swept dirt yard with a clipped circle of turf, surrounded by tukuls - the round clay huts with grass rooftops - resembling the ones seen in IDP camps, but with much more space between them - the way Acholi families lived before the war. Lucy's family was somewhat lucky in that her brother had purchased this plot of land outside of Gulu just as the conflict was worsening. Instead of moving into a camp like so many others, Lucy and her family moved to this land, and were able to maintain (to some extent) a bit of the life they had in the village. The first tukul belongs to Lucy's father, a very tall and thin man whose face broke into a million wrinkles as he gave us a welcoming smile and leaned on one of his crutches to shake our hands and greet us in Luo.

The next tukul is Lucy's own, which she shares with the four nephews who are in primary school nearby and Catherine, one of her brother's eldest daughter. The inside is spotless and cool, with plastic chairs surrounding a small table with a lace table cloth and pictures of Jesus (several versions), Lucy sewing, a photo from a European friend, and a framed photo of one of the two brothers she lost during the war (one to a rebel attack, the other to AIDS). Her father came inside and spoke to us in his soft and scratchy Luo, as Catherine translated stories of his life, his land, and the war that ravaged his family. He spoke with resignation, a man who prayed that peace would come for his grandchildren, as he admitted that he'd never see his family land in the village again - due to his failing health he couldn't make the journey. Such is the consequence of a conflict lasting as long as this one.

Lucy opened up to us in her home and told stories about moving from the village and hiding from rebel attacks in Gulu. Catherine poured cold water over hands and served us beef stew, rice, cabbage, and bananas. Shortly after our arrival, the sky opened up and poured one of those heavy opaque rains for half an hour, chilling the air. Lucy insisted it was a blessing. After the meal we followed her to the kitchen tukul, where her mother has been staying since her stroke two years ago. She spends her days on a mattress, a small white cat by her side, the walls and grass roof smelling of cooked food and streaked with oily black soot, tendrils of smoke still wafting up the clay-black walls from our recently eaten beef stew. She can see out a small window cut into the wall of the tukul, with a little shutter. I looked out briefly and saw the grave of one of Lucy's brothers, with a small neighbor girl perched atop it biting into half an orange, the pulp and juice dripping down the front of her gray school uniform. She saw me watching and smiled and darted away, scattering some chickens clucking in her wake.


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