of mozzarella and matooke

what is african pizza?

it seems pizza has entered the Ugandan culinary imagination, if not yet its repertoire. on handpainted signs in front of restaurants, listed after 'african and fast foods' you can sometimes now find pizza, though you're unlikely to find it within. it's more common on the laserjet banners of upscale restaurants, whose menus may not boast the actual item, but whose color advertisements feature a slice being pulled by cheesy strands from a full pie, collaged with photos of ribs, curries, hamburgers, generally international things the restaurant may not actually serve. at other times, you find pizza listed on the menu (assuming you've found a menu at all), but will be repeatedly told it is not available.

there are a few reasons for this:
the first is that menus often seem to be more like five-year plans than statements of current availability: foods the restaurant wants to work up to, whether it's having rice, or dried fish, or luwombo [1], or the mysterious but desired entity Pizza.

another reason african pizza seems not yet to exist might be the difficulty of sourcing pizza's ingredients, especially cheese-- tomato sauce, while not common, could be made, and wheat flour, if not yeast, is readily available. but cheese--that ubiquitous, slightly salty or sweet rubbery meltable dairy substance beloved of the European-influenced, cheese is rare in Uganda, despite a thriving dairy industry (now and then advertised as diary products).

being rare, it is also expensive: while you can get a liter of milk for twenty cents, a big bag of sweetened yogurt for forty, rounds of cheese, typically only found in upscale grocery stores, go for at least five or six dollars, meaning having ingredients on hand to even conceivably make pizza involves a big expense, and risk if customers might not actually know or like pizza.

being both rare and expensive, it is not often eaten, and this is probably the biggest obstacle to pizza becoming an actuality in Ugandan mainstream food: the fact that many Ugandans don't actually like cheese when they try it--regular white cheese is received here something like bleu cheese is in america: by a select few.

on top of this is the challenge of baking. not the actual process, which is easily enough mastered, but the paucity of ovens in kitchens set up for steaming, boiling and frying. add these factors together, and you've got some real obstacles to overcome in bringing those pizzas from imagination to savory mouthfuls.

and yet it remains popular on menus, signs and advertisements around, Pizza, and is increasingly being actually served in very upscale restaurants in bigger Ugandan cities. how to account for this apparent mismatch between local palate, ingredients and methods, and a growing national imagination?

perhaps it is commercials for pizza hut and dominoes, seen between segments of bootlegged american TV shows, watched over and over in homes lucky enough to have TVs and DVD players. perhaps it is a legacy of Italian missionaries, like those who built the extremely-well-attended Catholic church in Gulu, having proseletyzed more than spiritual bread to the local masses. or perhaps it's a growing foreigner presence here, on whose longings a few entrepreneurs have capitalized, and on whose capitalization other entrepreneurs longing for at least the image of success have also capitalized: an image of culinary sophistication, of international mystique, of modernity. i think perhaps the real reason for pizza's appearance in Uganda is all, or none, of the above: it is our infectious old friend Capitalism.

is it working? is a regular Ugandan more likely to buy their plate of matooke, cassava and posho from a restaurant, or roadside stand even, advertising pizza? are the folks waiting for their bus to leave one of Kampala's taxi parks more likely to buy loaves of fried bread from wandering vendors if they are called pizza, despite little similarity to italian food? will pizza in time develop a Ugandan form, as the indian bread chapati has, being now a common sight in every village, toasted over a charcoal fire to be taken with morning tea, or combined with eggs as a 'rolex,' or chopped into beans as a 'kikomando'? will wealthier Ugandans wanting international flavor in their own lives, and able to afford it, begin cultivating a taste for pizza, sure that in time they will learn to love it as they do muchomo[2] and chips?

time and the fickle forces of culture, society and capitalism will tell. for the present, a foreigner in Uganda longing for a taste of home is more often than not in for disappointment, finding instead of sauce, cheese and crust the familiarly unsatisfying taste of capitalism in his mouth, in a restaurant (or nation) claiming to offer more.

[1] indvidual servings of meat, sometimes in peanut sauce, wrapped and steamed in banana leaves, typically served at celebrations

[2] grilled kabobs of meat common across East Africa. FOR A GOOD OVERVIEW OF THIS, see The East African, July 30th 2011.


the road to Juba

was a minefield.

i mean, once, yes, it was mined, by the LRA. now it just rides like all the mines were set off. i'd gotten on Kampala Coach an hour before dawn, body wanting that last hour and a half of sleep, but between explosive lumps and holes in the road, the alcohol-sweat-and-smoke stink of the conductor asleep behind me, and the way our bus teetered on the edge of tipping sideways passing semi trucks on the narrow dirt road to Juba, sleep was the last thing on my mind.

i was rewarded with a sunrise to remember: the perfect red orb of the sun, filtered through low-hanging clouds, rising in the east next to an unnamed mountain and casting its first rays on the grass-thatched huts of another unknown village in the increasingly wilder north parts of Uganda.

i was on my way to South Sudan, a country not yet a month from independence, with not much purpose in my head but to see it, to try and litmus the spirit of weeks-old citizens, see what nations are like in the birthing.

my first taste of that was peculiarly disorganized: after the usual lazy chaos of ugandan emigration, and five kilometers of wilderness in which i imagined myself crossing a line on a map, we were made to file out of the bus, slide down a little path on the steep dirt side of the road to an unmarked house that was apparently immigration. people formed in three lines, apparently knowing what they were doing, and then we were made to wait in the sun, about 45 minutes, me wondering how long the bus was going to stay.

during this time, a South Sudanese soldier who was at least 6'7" (200cm?) had selected out the waiters who didn't actually have the 140 pounds (40USD) needed to enter the country, and herded them over to the veranda of a grass house with other glum-looking veranda-sitters, berating them in an English the rest of us wanted to find extremely amusing, and struggled not to, given his gun, our vulnerability, and his sheer size.

so the second taste of new nationhood was lingering militarism: after i'd made it inside the jammed immigration house, and to the front, a soldier was told to escort me to 'room 6,' without further explanation on my part. and i found, to my horror, that room 6 was outside, one half of a certain previously-mentioned grass house on whose veranda a few of my fellow bus riders now sat. on entering, little explanation was given for why i was there (though it seemed obvious i was there because i was white and my passport said United States of America), and i was told to go to a certain tin shack behind a goat tied to a tree and get my passport photocopied.

which i did, with 5 of the last 15 pounds i had changed, after paying the 140 at the earlier desk (without receipt). photocopy duly put in a large pile with other photocopies, i returned to the desk, where my details were copied from a form i'd filled into a less-detailed form, and my photos requested.

photos? back to the tin shed. ten pounds this time: i was dry. hopefully that's all that was needed.

it was--after a couple more desks in a couple more rooms, a few more forms, some fingerprints and a lot of nervous smiling on my part, i was done. the unhelpful part of being done was that i'd seen my bus pull out of the parking lot awhile back, and head down the road. i was stranded.

at least, it seemed that way, but other people told me it'd be there waiting, so i walked hurriedly down the road, chased by motorcycle taxis wanting my fare, and found it sitting a ways up, passengers leaning against the bus' shade. safe.

my third impression of South Sudan was it being more like i imagined Africa than i'd ever seen Uganda: from the border town on to Juba, in six hours of driving, there were very few towns, a scattering of grass-hut villages, and the rest was open African savannah, mountains at times rising lumpen in the distance, as though dropped from a heavenly scoop, silver thread of the nile twinkling in the distance. it was gorgeous.

the road was not always as gorgeous: though it was mainly better than roads are in Uganda, it at times broke into muddy rutted shifty dirt roads, bridges that looked unlikely to support our weight (and protested loudly at our passing), and leaning detours that again threatened to flop our bus on its side. i began calculating how many pounds of passenger i would have to breathe under, being in the window seat, if it did flop over; how long before i'd get to climb out the top. it didn't look pretty.

we were stopped two more times by immigration before reaching Juba, once for a perfunctory document check, and later for a more perfunctory recopying of the passport, which was again duly laid in a pile without an indication to the officials who'd sent us to the copy shack that we'd actually done it. disorganization.

waiting to cross the long bridge over the Nile to Juba town, to the left i saw a goat that'd climbed on the hood of a newish car, and appeared to be licking the bugs from the windsheild. this understandably being a funny sight, a lot of us looked over. on the other side of the bridge, our bus was stopped and a soldier boarded, demanding who had taken pictures. i was instantly afraid they'd take me, since i was white and actually had been taking a number of pictures, but they took someone else instead, who apparently had photographed the bridge. i was thenceforth too afraid of becoming a desaparecido to take any photos, til i literally saw my French friend Thierre photo a couple of soldiers on the roadside without repercussion, but i remain a touch afraid of the lingering militarism, which i take as the remnants of a nation that fought for years to get its independence.

my fourth impression, formed on the basis of billboards, banners and signposts festooning the streets, is of pride: everyone from Vivacell to the Islamic Council to Tusker Beer is congratulating South Sudan via signpost for its independence, thanking the martyrs (soldiers) because their 'blood has cemented our national foundation,' commemorating fallen leaders and generally being excited about July 9, 2011, the birthday of brand new South Sudan.

my fifth impression was of a rat warren, of everyone and their goats wanting to take advantage of me, and filth everywhere. but that was the taxi park, and another story.

trust, paper/violence and shady bus conductors

when can you trust strangers?

Marlo Morgan, in her first book about the impromptu walkabout she took with aborigines of Australia, talks about life as a series of tests, which you are given over and over til you pass. this has seemed true to me, or at least a good metaphor for our, and particularly my, inexplicable experience. speaking in her terms, one of the tests i seem to be taking on this trip is how and when to trust people i don't know.

travel is a natural time for this to come up: you aren't familiar with the people or places around you, and often not even the language or culture that informs them: you are a stranger, or put the other way, all things are strange to you. this is part of the pleasure of travel-- the joy of discovering, coming to understand and even embrace different ways of living those universal aspects of human life we often assume can only be done and understood the ways people at home do.

we are also vulnerable in that discovery: to simple error, and to conscious manipulation by others who are reading to take advantage of our error. but mistrust and overprotectivity keep us from experiencing the very wonderful things we have come to experience--instead of following the little clues and hints that get dropped, you stick to what you know, spend too much, find yourself alone in your hotel room dreaming of home. so what to do--get taken advantage, or not take advantage of you get when traveling? let me tell you the particulars of my exams:

ever since i was abandoned by a bus i'd booked in Kigali last year, and saved miraculously by the folks at Kampala Coach, only to find their bus safer and nicer, i've held them in high regard--i trusted them. so there was no doubt in my mind who to take from Gulu (Uganda) to Juba (newly independent South Sudan): Kampala Coach. yet when i showed up at 6 am to board the bus for Juba, the attendant told me it was 50,000 instead of the 40 i'd been quoted the day before. he said this was for a nicer bus, etc., which i only half-bought. i talked him down to 45, then found when i was on the bus that my ticket only said 40: he'd pocketed the five, knowing and exploiting my innocence of the actual price. call it traveler's tax.

a ways past the border, in the rather unpopulated and wild interior of South Sudan, we came across a bus broken down in the middle of nowhere, and took on as many passengers as we had empty seats. these people were very grateful for the lift, and had promised to pay on arrival in Juba--only to find the conductor demanding money of them right there, or that they get off, this time without their bus or other people, in the middle of nowhere.

a long argument ensued, the mechanic getting involved on the side of reason and compassion, the new passengers feeling quite precarious, the conductor demanding unreasonable prices in other currencies they might have, people muddling through each others' half-known languages to defend their interests... and though i wasn't part of it, either as passenger or conductor (i was in the seat next to one of these people), i felt palpably how vulnerable these people were to the whim of the conductor (who smelled of alcohol and cigarettes, had been sleeping most of the trip, and wore his uniform shirt dirty and half-buttoned). how their trust had been in vain, how close he was to abandoning them in a unsafe situation over money, tens of dollars actually. and in feeling for then i wondered about myself, about any of the ticket-carrying passengers, how real our claim to passage to Juba was. whether the next time he came around to check tickets he wouldn't just rip mine up and demand money anew, knowing i more than anyone else here, by virtue of my skin color, would be good for it. i've been told that Uganda's long-time president once said, 'How can i who came by the gun be removed by paper?' how can i, who came by paper, stay except through more? fundamentally, paper (law, rules, order, respect, that is) is always only as good as the people who understand it, whereas violence is universal (and often the real underwrit of paper).

once in Juba, i found the taxi park to be (as usual) a den of thieves--all wanting my money in one way or another, many claiming to be advising me against other thieves in the process. all of this is familiar and unfazing in Uganda--but here, on top of the chaos of vans, buses, motorcycles, goat herds and humanity jostling each other on their way somewhere, the situation, the currency, many of the languages, and fundamentally the people were unknown to me. i at first felt everyone was telling me inflated prices for lodging (12 dollars instead of the 3 i'd been paying in Uganda, 100 dollars in a place that looked worth 25), til i realized everything in Juba is actually about three times the price of Uganda. so i spent about an hour refusing actually legitimate prices, honest vendors, feeling cheated, targeted for my apparent ethnicity--not trusting anyone.

and yet, in the end, you have to trust someone. you have to sleep somewhere at night. eat something. buy water, take a taxi, talk to someone, enjoy yourself in this place you've come so far to see. so, around the time i was feeling this, i let a Kenyan bus driver convince me to go for supper with him and his wife--and give me lots of that old advice on how to stay safe, who not to trust, what foods not to drink, etc. he seemed genuinely concerned for my welfare, and a nice guy, if not entirely logical in his thoughts/English abilities. we went to a dingy tin-walled place with decent-looking food, where he insisted i get an entire half a chicken for myself, with beans and bread, and i just followed along... only to find he wasn't eating, his wife only getting something small, and the other unexplained man with us not eating either. and that he wanted to hold my change for me til i was done eating.

only, when we were done eating, he wanted to take me somewhere else--we ended up in a bar, one of these classic taxi park bars that are playing Ugandan music too loud on old speakers, dark interiors with half-broken chairs facing a small tv set showing the accompanying music video, men nursing bottles of beer, not talking, likely having seen and heard those videos multiple times. they have always struck me as depressing and very uninteresting places, and in this instance i'd just lugged a 50-pound bag around looking for lodging after a hot and bumpy ten-hour bus ride, and was still wondering why he wasn't giving me my change back.

so i decided enough was enough, id given him the benefit of the doubt, and he remained doubtful. i demanded my change, and he led me back to the guesthouse first, where he was going to bring it, later, apparently (his English was not always intelligible). i demanded it then, there, and gradually the whole character of our relationship shed skins from him being an altruistic guide for me, the needy foreigner, to he just another person seeing in me money and wanting to use it, in this case to get money for drinking apparently. i had to lead him back to the bar, feeding his sense that i was still buying it just enough to get my change (i'd paid with a big bill; otherwise i would have just left him), then finally let him down/let him know we could only be friends, and that i could only trust him, if money wasn't involved. at which point he, like Justin, lost interest and left me.

to be honest, like Justin, i'd seen the signs. i actually don't really trust people who are very ready to give me advice on how to be safe, who to trust, etc.--because they are typically the ones ready to use me. but can i on that basis ignore everyone, assuming they just want to use me? there are always good people around, and they are usually the best part of travel, hearing from them about life. so despite my drinking partner Matthew back in Gulu saying 98% of people weren't going to get to heaven (which prompted me to mention Kenny going to heaven in the Southpark movie), maybe my skills at reading people just aren't good enough yet. it took most of an hour before i decided this Kenyan was using me, and even then it turned out he wasn't after my riches so much as someone to buy him beer. this, apparently, came from having had such a white friend earlier, whom he kept referring to as though i knew the man, though i kept reminding him i didn't.

so who can you trust, among strangers? no one? may be that is the safest answer. it is also the loneliest and least interesting: it would have left me in my room an hour after arriving, wondering if i'd been overcharged for lodging and the meager meal i was eating there alone. at other times, trusting people has led to great experiences and good friends--and part of both of those has been the leap of faith involved in saying 'i don't know you, but i will trust you.' on this trip, over and over, i have made that leap only to find i jumped into thin air, and had to catch myself in the way down. what lesson am i to learn from this? i don't think it is to trust no one. it also can't be to trust everyone, because then i would get taken for everything i own. so how do you know whom to trust? life is apparently asking me to answer, and will keep asking til i get it right, til i trust myself enough to choose the right person.

maybe it's life to choose for me, and me just to read the signs: wednesday night, trying to call a friend of a friend in Juba who wanted to host me, i had almost given up on asking people to use their phones (i offered to pay them in return), having met only with non-English speakers or those disinterested if i didn't want to change money. then without speaking a tall boy asked me the number, dialed it, and handed it to me. after talking, i tried to pay him, and he refused, his friend saying "He has given you his phone." i paid him instead in gratitude, a smile, and was on my way. am i innocent in feeling his one gift has counterbalanced all the attempted takings i've met with?


big f&%k off camera

[this post involves a bad word.]

i finally own, as my friend Stacey would put it, a big fuck-off camera. before embarking on the peaceboat ride we took in 2007, Stacey bought a large and expensive camera, a Nikon maybe, a fuck-off camera, so named not only for its imposing size and apparent technological superiority, but also flagrant display of wealth in places where few can afford to have a camera at all. on top of this, add the typically intrusive, insensitive tourist's use of this to document 'the locals,' and you have a big fuck-off camera. as in the camera itself says 'fuck you' to the locals, because you have the money, and the power, and with that camera, you're using them.

Stacey went on to take gigabytes worth of pictures during the course of the trip, more than anyone had time to actually sort through (i've tried). on the voyage before that, the web writer also had a big fuck-off camera, a Canon i think, which she used judiciously for covering the activities of the boat. i had the opportunity to use it a couple of times, and was entranced: the flashing lights in the sight as the lens whirred into focus, the satisfying snap of each shot, the flash which snapped up cobra-like from the frame when needed, the bewildering array of buttons and dials on the back. more than anything, the shots she took were what got me: the pyramids of giza, sunset on the carribean, the jungles of sri lanka, all in vibrant, golden hues my few-hundred-dollar point-and-shoot couldn't come close to.

i've wanted one since. the point-and-shoot was finally stolen in Uganda, after two full trips around the earth and numerous private excursions to photogenic locations. in preparation for this trip to Africa, i decided enough was enough. i will not let the beautiful sights of my life go without at least attempted documentation. so i did it. i bought a big fuck-off camera.

and that is what it has felt like since: a large expensive middle finger to Uganda. so i am caught between wanting to document the things i see here, because i appreciate them, and not wanting to appear a totally unappreciative foreigner by pointing my big black camera at things (let alone people) and shooting them, for me and me alone to later relish, print out, show my friends, chuckle bourgeoisie chuckles about the backwardness of the dark continent. it is very much an unequal relationship, another sort of marx-inspired alienation.

to be clear, the inequality is not because of my camera. the inequality is because our global economic system is skewed towards countries like my own, at the expense of countries like Uganda. my camera is just a focal point for it, the shooting of pictures a moment when the economic disparities between me and my fellow human beings here becomes embarrassingly, or rudely, apparent--instead of the muted undertone it always is, that my ability to be here at all implies. owning it is also such a moment for me, because i am acutely aware how very much money this would be for a Ugandan, when sold, so though thieves are comparatively few in Uganda, i am paranoid about it being stolen, and consequently carry it at all times like a rich person clutching their wallet in the ghetto. it's embarrassing, but real.

what this has meant, beyond an extra-heavy bag (its not called a big fuck-off camera for nothing; it's big and heavy), is that i have a lot of photos of landscapes, of things, of plants, and few of people save in the background, where i'm hoping they'll be less likely to take offense. i am reluctant to raise the Canon's middle finger at the people i am trying to live and study with, and this reluctance has mostly won over my desire to remember the texture of a grandmother's face, the wonder of four adults and a baby on a single motorcycle, the beautiful people i meet everyday walking around Gulu town. the only exceptions to the rules are kids, for whom the world is not yet an economic reality, and a glance at the playback screen after the picture is taken is more than enough entertainment to justify the fact that i get to keep the image and they don't.

maybe a polaroid would be less of an inequality, if it could be made to take two photos at once, one for me and one for them. but it would also be grossly expensive and cumbersome to use. so i am photoing lizards, picturesque doorways, sunsets, blossoms, but not a lot of what actually drew me back to Uganda-- its brilliant, beautiful people. i guess the middle finger of my big fuck-off camera has proven true the expression that when you point one finger, four point back. the awkwardness of forced self-awareness, of facing my own privilege each time i want to capture something of the beauty i'm seeing, has been enough to keep me from pointing much. but it is still there, the unseen reality that actually makes all this so picturesque, because it's so different from the place where i come. we don't have handmade wood benches this polished from constant use. buildings that dilapidated from decades of use. technology that quaintly archaic still in parlance. and most of all, we don't have people like the people here, who have to do this kind of work this hard, who take the hand life has dealt them and manage to produce this much laughter and peace from it, whose faces tell stories faces at home never could. but i will not retell them, can't bring myself to distance and possibly offend the very people i am appreciating in the act of appreciating them. so i keep them like most Ugandans do, in memory, in a fondness that, lacking 10 megapixels of detail, makes up for it in detail a photo can never have: the story of how you got there, what you shared with this person, the sounds, smells, tastes you remember of that place, that day--all the (other) details that make up a life.

that's the best way to remember things anyway. no big fuck-off needed.


some moments crystallize

walking up from the clothes vendors along the marsh, i pass an audio rental shop, blasting Aerosmith's song from Armaggedon from the speaker cabinets. and i don't know how to explain this to you[1], but some moments just crystallize--
i don't wanna close my eyes
ahead of me, the intersection opens on market stalls of tin sheets, motorcycles crossing in rivulets of dust, i take another step
i don't wanna fall asleep
and my mouth begins moving of its own along with the words, ladies in bright dresses caught in the wind midstep across the road
cause i'd miss you babe
and i feel, a grin spreading from corners of my mouth, each moment here is precious--realize again that it is a privilege to be here,
and i don't wanna miss a thing
that there is more to see than i can take in, white-breasted crows wheeling over the rusting chimney of a pork joint:
cuz even when i dream of you
that i have been thinking of this country, these people, carrying them like secrets a year and a half in my head, singing their songs
the sweetest dreams will never do
to myself--ahead a young boy in white shorts carries a plastic pail of sesame wafers on his shoulder, dodging cars across the street
cause i'd still miss you babe
and i feel myself at once here, now, and living in Boulder, in North Dakota, in Thailand, in Japan, passing through the thousand places i've passed through, right here
and i don't wanna miss a thing
how all they are all tied together--me, aerosmith, Gulu, and the young boy in white trousers with a pail of sesame wafers on his shoulder. i hurry after him, singing

[1] i am maybe one of the few of my generation not desensitized to the effect music on everyday life: i thought for a long time part of the lure of ipods, aside from commodity fetishism and novelty, was how a small wafer in your pocket could generate a wealth of soundtracks to take the edge off everyday life, to at least set the background of the ground you were moving through, something only you could hear. music is powerful: having a song in the background can suddenly imbue everything with meaning, emotion--but if it is on all the time, if you need your ipod to walk outside, i think it loses that charm, and becomes mere distraction, something to take you out of rather than add color to the place and time you are in.


boda stories, ch. 1

i am the disappointer of boda (motorcycle taxi) men. Gulu is rife with them, leaning on their 100 or 150cc bikes at every corner, scanning the crowd for anyone in likely need of a ride.

i should be a prime example of such a person: most of the foreigners you see on the street are whizzing by on the back of boda, so its assumed i will want to do the same. i don't, usually--aside from a fear of falling over backwards and blacking out into nonexistence (helmets are rare), id rather walk, because i see more, can stop easier, greet people, explore the little things i see. that, and i usually don't have a particular place i'm going. so i am endlessly turning down offers for rides by boda drivers, disappointing hopes for a good fare every time.

so today i step out of the Montana Hotel with a bit of anticipation--not only do i have somewhere to go, but i need a boda to get there in time. within sight are four separate clusters of boda drivers. i raise my hand and not one but two bikes converge on me from opposite directions. i ask them to decide who takes me, not wanting to get involved, and they are polite but both obviously wanting the fare; i find out why on my ride out to the Boma Hotel.

after the usual greetings, me talking into his ear and he replying as he weaves through pedestrians, overloaded bicycles, asian cargo trucks and a host of expensive NGO SUVs, Vincent and i begin lamenting the current state of Uganda. it's too hot, there's no rain, food prices keep increasing, along with petrol, and passengers are getting less and less. it's always like this, he says, after an election: the public officials spend all the government's money on their election campaigns, and then everyone suffers for a few months because there's no money.

at this point we've passed the swampy area, and traffic slacks a bit as we round a deteriorating roundabout onto a dirt road. the worst thing, Vincent tells me, is that for drivers like him, who just rent bikes, they need to first make at least ten thousand shillings to give to the owner. everything above that is profit. fall below it too many times, and the owner will just rent the bike to someone else, and you're out the only work you've got.

i'm familiar with the system: a lot of teachers or low-level businessmen save up to buy motorcycles, then employ otherwise-redundant young men to drive them, for a guaranteed return every day. but today, Vincent tells me, and most days lately, he can't even make it to ten, so not only is the owner angry, Vincent works all day for nothing, leaning on his bike in the dust and heat and exhaust, scanning the road for potential passengers, making 500 or 1000 shillings at a time.

here's the moment of perspective for us first-worlders: the money he's trying to make, ten thousand shillings, it's four dollars. it's six in the evening, he's been working all day, and Vincent says he has 6000--he's made a little over two dollars all day, and unless he lies to his boss (which he can't do every day), he won't keep any of it.

i believe him: he's got no reason to lie, asks me for no more than the standard fare when i get off. i've seen how hungry these drivers are, how there are far too many for the amount of people needing rides. i give him something extra, wish him luck, and watch him head back the way we came, towards the next waiting spot, the next ride, the next fifty cents towards being able to buy supper tonight.

what i forgot

was the value of soda:
not the 8 to 1500 shillings you'll pay for it at a store, but the cultural value--soda makes an occasion special. indicates a time for celebration. lends a meeting extra weight. turns a meal into a feast. the whole process is elaborate, is imbued with significance far beyond the suspension of sugar, water and chemicals ought to allow: there is ritual here. it is brought forth laid over on a clean bowl, paper-packaged straw beside. the server opens it, but leaves the half-bent bottlecap resting on the lid to indicate it's clean, it's fresh, this is your bottle of soda, to be taken at your leisure.
as a guest in Lukaya, and an old friend welcomed back, i have been treated to many a soda in the past week: when stopping by a friend's place, they will send a child away with quick Luganda, to return bearing soda, sometimes only one for me, if they can't afford to share the privilege; when i come over for a meal in the evening, either hot tea or a glass bottle of orange fanta is waiting for me; visiting a school i'm friendly with, the headmaster suddenly asks me, "please, what soda can you take?" for him, he's taking Mountain. dew, that is, which came to Uganda with much fanfare when last I was here, and still appears to be the hip choice--its glass bottles still bear fresh logos, not chipped and fading like the reused bottles of Coca-Cola, Stoney Tangawizi and Mirinda that have born the celebratory beverage for many a wedding, introduction, feast and special occasion.
in Uganda, soda is not a beverage, not to be taken when merely thirsty, save by the monetarily-privileged few. for the many, it is the mark of a special time, a celebration that comes rarely in a year.
unless you are an old friend from abroad coming visiting: then Christmas comes every day.

what i forgot was how to walk:
i found myself constantly coming up behind road/sidewalk/shoulder/path-blocking slow-walkers, wondering what my bad luck was, til i realized i was breaking the East African speed limit: what's the hurry?
i stayed here long enough last time to realize people don't walk slow because they've got nowhere to go, nothing to do (after all, Americans walk fast even when they don't have somewhere to go, something to do): they walk slow because it's hot. they walk slow because they might not have eaten in awhile. they walk slow because there is much to see, people to greet along the way. they walk slow because it isn't slow here--that's normal walking speed; it's me who's getting unnecessarily sweaty just to arrive somewhere sooner.
i was even joking with one of our kids, Namanda Grace, that we walk so fast in America, that there's no way she could catch me. Namanda is a little spunky, so she went on disagreeing with met, til we finally decided to end it in a walking race. well, i did end up outwalking her pretty severely... but that might have been culture, or it might have been her being 12 years old. i told her we'd try again next time i came back. anyway, since then i've remembered to slow it down a pace. what, after all, is the hurry? i wouldn't want to miss something.

what i forgot was that i am made of money:
i remembered all over again as strangers began randomly asking for money, sometimes half-joking in Luganda, sometimes in all seriousness, sure i had plenty to spare. then friends began asking, more discreetly, but also with much more compelling reasons. then my organization began asking, in roundabout ways. and i remembered all over again what it is to accept my own limits, to give what i can when i want, and to be able to say no in other cases, without being rude, feeling targeted, etc., but simply kindly from a place that knows i can't personally solve the world's problems, but i can personally make my own by giving more than i can afford. still, compared to Uganda, the bums in Boulder are nothing (though they often are more clever in asking), and i've had to remember again what it is to daily face poverty, instead of just noting it as an ongoing phenomenon over breakfast, reading the news.

what i forgot were the smells:
smell of charcoal, smell of truck exhaust on the highway, smell of mangoes, ripe or rotten, smell of food on the fire, dry clean smell of eucalyptus groves in the wind. i forgot the smell of friends, how i can individually distinguish many by their body odor, as im sometimes told friends in the states can distinguish me. the smell of african earth after a rain. the smell of a kerosene lantern on a night with no electricity. the smell of our kids, smell of our gardens, smell of Uganda.

what i forgot was the heat of the sun:
it didn't take long to remember.

what i forgot was how hard it is to get food:
when you are hungry midday but not ready to commit to the course-and-a-half of mainly starches that is a Ugandan restaurant meal: non-restaurant vendors are few, and they usually start cooking at dusk, serving after dark, so unless you have the facilities at home to cook, and some food there, you find yourself as i did, many times, wandering around wondering what i was going to eat. fortunately, the few ladies i knew who have fried cassava, sell avocadoes and tomatoes, or samosas at midday, were mostly still in their usual places, and i got by with a little help from my friends.

what i forgot was my bicycle:
the same 15-year-old specialized rockhopper i rode and carried through East Africa has been my friend Anthony's the last year and a half, and it was sitting unchanged in his courtyard, some local additions notwithstanding, when i first walked in and saw it there. i guess i have a sentimental attachment to my bicycles, as they've been my main form of transport the last ten years, and i tend to have just one or two for each country i live in. so seeing the old rockhopper was seeing my time in Uganda all over again. we spent another week together riding the dusty backroads of Lukaya town, another old friend among many.

what i forgot was Luganda:
how to greet, how to listen, how to intonate, how to barter, how to have a slow afternoon chat. but it all came back: i guess listening to those gospel songs and talking to myself in some obscure african language while riding my bike to school was all worth it. friends were as amazed as i was at how much i can still speak. in Gulu it's become my one proof that i am more than a clueless foreigner in Uganda, so long as I get a chance to speak it in a primarily-Lwo speaking district (remember, Uganda has around 44 languages in a country the size of Oregon state in the US).

what i forgot was that western culture in Uganda comes mostly as interpreted by China:
because we export very little to Africa, and China much, but people here as former European colonies want European-like things. with the influx of US media (our one mainly unfiltered import, though you'll often find crudely dubbed half-commentary half-translated versions of our movies instead of the originals), people now especially want the life of the United States--in this China has found a niche industry. the nice things, it manufactures and sends to Wal*mart. the knock-offs and flimsier versions of all those things, it sends to Africa, with less time spent on design, on marketing, on quality control, and on safety. yet these things are taken as commensurate with the things Ugandans see foreign people manipulating in the media, and so they are a measure of monetary sucess here, and treated very well, and sold in the most expensive stores in the capital city, and treasured as the signs of a life well lived, even if they remain on a shelf in the house unused, while the locally-produced, totally appropriate, typically-environmentally-friendly, durable and cheap goods are used, abused and replaced when needed as necessities but not niceties of life. for me, it is all foreign, but i'm in the special position of being expected to see something of home in China's marketing of Western life for an African audience.

what i forgot was how much i love this place:
but i am also remembering how much i wanted, after five and a half years abroad, to be back in my own country, and how true that still is, much as i enjoy a visit and spending a little time in a place i once lived. the US is still home, is still the place i can do the most, and ultimately will feel the happiest and most settled. so friends there, don't get worried i'm not coming back this time. and friends here, don't get worried i won't ever come back: the life i've lived so far has condemned or committed me to a consciousness that's split between a few different countries, a few different cultures, and will always need all of them, at least a little, to feel complete. so i have the feeling, much as i love my home in Boulder, that i will be back again.


facing poverty

does need excuse dishonesty? can murderers change?

it's not easy, working with people in actual poverty, when you come from a position of relative wealth. it's not easy because there is no line between actual need, and the amount people in need think they can reasonably get from you. from me, that is: the inhabitant of the most developed country in the world, who spent five million shillings on the plane ticket alone, who owns both computer and camera, and likely a car... what are the small costs of Uganda to such a one?

i do not resist or deny this perspective: it is warranted. i am rich, by many standards (though not that of most people in my home society). people here are in real need: not only has Uganda been in a drought that's caused food prices to more than double, but this part of Uganda is still recovering from a 20-year civil war that destroyed a lot of traditional safety nets. into this need i drop, like a bloody piece of meat among unfed piranhas, then want to be friends with the people i find here, and expect them to help with my research out of the goodness of their hearts.

well, i understand at least that this is a little unreasonable. in Lukaya, i entered a similar situation willingly, saying that while i did not have money to give, i had time, skills, and connections, and for a year and a half, i did my best with these things to ameliorate the global economic inequalities that make me, a regular person in the states, a rich man to folks here. and i had to accept that all the people outside my organization, and many of those within, who asked me for monetary help were just beyond my means. i did what i could.

now in Gulu it's different: i am not here to be administrator of an organization, i've not come with a chunk of money to distribute, nor do i personally have such a chunk. as a matter of fact, i have borrowed money just to be here--but these are unknown details to people i meet on the ground, who see in me only excess/plenitude in a landscape of absence.

this is not the easiest situation in which to research.

and so i have already run in to problems, beyond the regular requests for money i get on the streets everywhere in Uganda. the first person i found willing to tell me about his experiences, and who seems in fact to have a fascinating and relevant story to tell, is also now fixed on getting some of my money for his own. this is James, the one written about in a previous blog. the day we met, he asked me kindly for help feeding his sick sister, and himself, because they had no money, hadn't eaten in days. i gave him the benefit of the doubt, and about six pounds of dry food. yesterday, we met up and he told me the outlines of the amazing life he's lived, a story which would take a couple more intensive interviews to really unravel, at least for my purposes.

at the end of it, James asks for another ten thousand shillings, to buy charcoal to cook the food with. now, this excuse seemed a little thin (i knew ten thousand was too much), but it didn't need to be thick: the context we both understood is that i am much richer than he, and for his help, i ought to help him a little.

is that wrong? maybe, not, really. but when i went to the hospital that night, only to find his sister alone, and after consulting a nurse learned shes not his sister at all, hasn't been fed for days (in Uganda its family members to feed and care for patients), and in fact has no family left in this world, then it started to seem wrong. he lied to me, repeatedly, even took me to see this sister, in order to get money out of me.

but how wrong is that? should i blame him for being hungry, and seeing in me a chance? i certainly dislike his use of someone innocent and actually much needier to get what he wanted out of me. i appreciated his participation in research, though from the start it smelled a little fishy, but now because i know he is at least in part manipulating me to get what he wants, i have to doubt the authenticity of everything he's said, believable and compelling as it is.

do i blame him for having had a hard life (being abducted by the LRA and forced to kill, and living in a refugee camp since escaping), and seeing in me a chance at equity? do i apply my own morals in saying he ought to have asked directly, and that equity cannot be taken by force, but only made when agreed on by all parties? or do i have compassion on his situation, forgive him for what he's done, keep working with him?

ultimately, i am planning to do none of these: i will rather tell him up front that money can't be part of our relationship, beyond maybe sharing lunch, and much as i want to hear the rest of his story, accept that this may mean he no longer wants to cooperate with me. i cant blame him for being money-focused in a situation of such need. what's sad is that ultimately i feel we are united by a noble purpose, and divided by another: that is, i want to understand his experience, and people like him, and share that understanding with the world through my research, ultimately bringing more international awareness and understanding to the area, and similar situations, hopefully preventing further conflicts from starting. i think he shares this desire with me. but we are divided by me wanting it to be purely that goodwill relationship of working on something good together, and him wanting it also to be a relationship in which he gets paid, and not even up front, but through trickery at that.

the part i didn't mention is that he used to command a platoon of two hundred child soldiers, and once presided over the massacre of an entire school, around five hundred people... so i'm a little nervous to confront him! and my anxiety stems directly from one of the central questions of my research, and, really, my life: how much can a person change? how much of character is permanent? how can we ever know if someone has been transformed, as born-again christians and former murderers may claim to be? how could they ever know, really?

i'm not sure these questions are ultimately answerable, except in the negative, in practice, or for oneself. i am meeting James at eleven tomorrow: i guess then i will know the answer, for one person at least.


is this the walk of a killer?

following James down the broken cement tiles of Gulu market, rusted tin and black plastic roof overhanging crowded stalls, i kept my eyes down, watched his gait: a long lope in loose brown slacks and worn plastic sandals. was this how he learned to walk in the jungle, in the Sudanese desert, gun across his back, leading a platoon of child soldiers?

James was almost the first person i met when i stepped off the bus this morning in Gulu, a city in northern Uganda that for many years was the epicenter of a conflict between the party/army in power, the NRM, and the Lord's Resistance Army. the LRA was, or is (they're no longer in Uganda), a group of rebels notorious for abducting children and forcing them to become soldiers, sometimes inducting them by forcing them to commit atrocities.

i had no idea James had been connected with them: as i was taking my first steps into Gulu town, thinking of little more than finding a cheap place to stay and maybe an internet cafe, i noticed him walking next to me. he greeted me, and i responded, then tried the one word i know in the local language, a greeting. he was soon telling me he would teach me more Lwo, would like to take me to his community...

and alarm bells started going off in my head. by this time, a year and a half into africa, the bells are facially silent--i don't let on that i think i may have been targeted for a scam, any more than i look awkward and glance constantly to and fro when i arrive in a new place, like i would if i wanted everyone to think i was a clueless newcomer.

instead i walked with him, neither encouraging nor resisting his enthusiasm for a deeper relationship between us, until we came to a guesthouse, at which point i said i'd like to check it out, so he might as well continue on. he said instead he wanted to just tell me his story briefly. i assented, and in moments i was reading a hand-written letter explaining that he was from a nearby refugee camp, and had come to town with his little sister, who was coughing up blood, but their mother hadn't yet arrived, and they'd been two days without food. a sad story, i know, but also a likely one--the alarm bells continued clanging unabated. i try to mix this cynicism, born of experience, with some benefit of the doubt, born of hope, into a cocktail that takes the edge off my distrust without getting me totally duped. so i didn't immediately discount his likely story, but asked some questions.

it became] less likely and more interesting: he was not only living in the camps, but said he had been abducted by the LRA as a child, and had been made into a commander, before escaping with his company and undergoing rehabilitation through World Vision and settling in the camps. this so happens to make him exactly the kind of person i am interested in, the kind i came to Uganda to talk to this summer: after having researched a different topic that i was told was too politically volatile to safely research, i have been searching for a new topic to make my focus, and have come here on grant money from my university to test out different possibilities.

the best among these, in terms of fitting what i'm interested in (intersections of spirituality and conflict), and being specific (rather than just 'spirituality in Rwanda post-genocide' or 'spirituality overcoming ethnic violence in Burundi') is the rehabilitation of former child soldiers in northern Uganda, following the end of the war with the LRA. not only does the LRA's leader, Joseph Kony, claim to be possessed by spirits, i have been told the rehabilitation of children forced in the LRA to rape, maim and kill is also being done in religious contexts. so spiritual messages were used both to induce them to do terrible things, and to try and fit them back into a society in which such things are not allowed. im interested in exactly how both of those conversions took place, whether either of them were really successful, and basically hearing from kids and rehabilitation workers alike about how spirituality has played a part in what's happening here.

so here James falls into my lap, the moment i set foot in Gulu. or is his perfectly sad story, like so many others i've heard here ending in pleas for money, not totally true? mixing belief and doubt, i took the middle path with him: i said i'd buy some food for him and his sister, then we'd meet again tomorrow to talk. i think i am good at reading people, but they are not open books to me: looking into his eyes, i didn't know if the disturbance i read there was a former life of anarchy and violence, counseled into one peaceful enough to ask quietly for money in a desperate situation, or the more familiar young male disturbance of wanting to get ahead in a very difficult environment, and finally being ready to do things like lie and manipulate to make money.

so as we walked into the market to buy him some food, i kept my eyes on his step, wondering who he was and had been, really, and whether i was being duped or taking my first step into a project that might become my professional focus for years to come.

it's hard to say. he wanted to buy more food than id planned for, so i cut his ten pounds of maize flour to four, trying to keep the total cost under ten thousand shillings. after getting some beans and cooking oil, i left him at the entrance to the market, promising to meet tomorrow at the same place and time, for him to tell me his story, and also visit his younger sister in the hospital. i'm looking forward to it with antipathy and anticipation, born of still not knowing whether ill be helping some people who really deserve it, or just getting taken advantage of. i feel naked here without the disarming power of decent fluency in the local language, and also that i am now beyond my experience, in dealing with former child soldiers and a society that was for years terrorized by civil war. are the instincts ive built up around other people and places adequate or appropriate for people here? does war really change a person and place? how, and for how long?

whether meeting James was a lucky or unlucky coincidence remains to be seen; either way i believe it will bring me closer to answering my questions.


what i remembered

of Uganda was burning pink sunsets, banana plants, ladies weaving mats in afternoon shade, the city crunch of people, cars, exhaust and waste, a myriad of jumbled two-year-old memories that together make a world separate in my mind from the others in which i've lived: africa. and now i've come back to that world, to see if and how it still exists.

much of what i remembered is still here: the sun still sets in a crimson gold flush, air thickening as the light sparkling slows, caught in dust and humidity and the collective exhalation of the billion plants and animals that make up this place, now including me.

my kids are still here too: the minute i crested the small rocky rise on the road that leads to the center, the kids i worked with for a year and a half were running, screaming my name (Uncle Levy, that is), arms wide, faces beaming. id wondered somehow if they'd remember me, really, or me them--whether the intervening year and a half had been more insulation between our feelings and reality could again be crossed... but after the initial crush of hugs and laughs and greetings rushed out in a jumble of languages, it was clear these were the same kids i'd known, worked with and worked for since november 2008. the reunion went on for days, as i kept finding more of our kids at the center, or resettled with families, others boarding at school, even two we brought back from the streets--and every minute was magic.

the food is as i remember it too: my first morning here, i had to walk into Entebbe town and get a heaping plate of it: steaming yellowish substance (matooke, steamed mashed local plantains), triangular white sticks (cassava), crescents of yellow squash (nsuju), and rice brown with seasonings and frighteningly crunchy from the occasional missed rock or clump of dirt. all of this seasoned with a third of fresh-caught tilapia in its own yellow broth. since then my friends have been spoiling me with home-cooked meals: slow-cooked beans with bitter eggplants or dried silver fish, white potatoes, meat in its own broth, spaghetti boiled with fried onions and tomatoes, smoked fish in peanut sauce, and variations thereof. on my own, i grabbed a couple of street food staples i'd been longing for, rolex (from 'rolled eggs,' fresh flat bread rolled up with an omelet, cabbage and tomatoes) and chikomando (deep-fried flat bread chopped up and mixed with beans, a local favorite made fresh nightly by Mr. Fire Base). the consensus is that America has been good to me--in other words, i've gained weight since leaving Uganda, but people were trying their level best to get me to 'increase' again, and i just may have!

the highways unfortunately remain true to recollection: permanently under construction, torn up and deteriorating in places, a series of bumps and near-misses as you careen past oncoming traffic. though to be fair, the main highway seems to have improved some: mainly in the run-up to elections, apparently. on the flipside, the backroads of Lukaya also remain basically unchanged: quiet, meandering, bright in afternoon sunlight or peaceful in light of stars and moon. i have a habit of remembering roads in places i've lived--the roads i drove often in nebraska, routes id bicycle to work in Japan, and the dusty red backroads of Lukaya i walked so many times chatting with friends.

the rest of Lukaya is much as i remembered it: a few more trees gone in the towering eucalyptus plantation behind town, the road toll taken down for rebuilding but mobs of white-coated vendors still there chasing cars, same ladies i knew working in the same crowded dark stores, everyone happy to see me again, me or maybe both of us amazed we remember each other after all that time.

the best refreshers of my memory were friends, all the people i knew and worked with the year and a half i was here. much as we've all grown older, some of us started families, changed life paths, etc., i couldn't help feeling no one has really changed: the special things i came to love in each person were still there, shining, making me grin. i guess we just go on being the people we are, learning some and adapting to our environment, but all the while expressing who we are and what we've experienced to date, how we are drawn to live life. i am grateful to have known so many people who do it with such grace, on both, on all sides of the water. more than anything else, they are the parts of life most worth remembering, and hardest to forget.


six hundred months to live

today doing homework in the kitchen, i thought about having six months left to live. mike and his friend from WatchTower--they always come in pairs--had just been here to unsuccessfully proseletyze me, and talking to them id watched the snow, falling since morning, fall in thick tufts from the trees. going back to the reading i would be doing all day, 1970s feminist theory in anthropology, i thought about an email my dad had sent, about how they'd found a malignant spot of skin cancer behind his ear. chances are good it will be completely frozen off in the usual procedure, but he'd warned us all to get checked. the year and a half i lived in Uganda, i never wore sunscreen, and the back of my neck now itches some times, has large bumps on it. so i thought about if those bumps were cancer, if i'd waited too long to get them checked, if the cancer was even now spreading through my body. this morning i woke up and found a poem a friend had written to me on facebook about how much she valued our friendship, and recognized that i feel the same love. i imagined telling her i had six months to live, telling all my friends here, telling my family. thought then what i would be doing with my life, instead of reading this 1970s feminist anthropological theory--

probably spending more time with friends, with family, maybe editing some books i've half-written. going back to Japan, going back to Uganda, to Montana, to Nebraska, to all the places i lived and seeing the people i knew and love once more, not to say goodbye but to say thank you. i thought about taking my family with, if i could, to show them the parts of me they didn't yet know, my friends in other countries, so that all the important people in my life could meet and know each other before i die.

i wondered if i would try to make a child, if biology would take over and push me to recreate my combination of genes in harmony with some else's, maybe an ex-girlfriend still in love with me, if some of my last days of earth would paradoxically--or naturally--be spent trying to make more life.

snow on a the pile of firewood behind our kitchen was individual white blankets two inches high lining the top of rough bark, bottoms still dark brown, expressions of a life now gone, the nature of trees living and dead from which they'd been cut. three days ago my friend's two-and-a-half-year-old daughter had laid such a blanket on me, as we pretended to sleep, made painstakingly from torn squares of toilet paper. i realize how fortunate i am to not--so far as i know--have only six months to live. i probably have much more than that: ten, two hundred, five hundred... if i live to eighty, and i am twenty-nine, i have about six hundred months left to live. only six hundred. SHOULD i be making children? shouldn't i be spending more time with friends, with family, with all the people ive known and loved in life, making sure they know that i love them? should i really be sitting here reading 1970s feminist theory in anthropology?

i believe the answer to all these questions is yes, so long as what i do is guided by what i love, what i feel fulfilled in doing. i have been given and made a good life, three hundred and fifty months of it, and whether the months remaining are six or six hundred, they are gifts to be spent in gratitude. today doing homework in the kitchen i realized i have too many things to be grateful for, that my heart is still struggling to hold them all at once. even the opportunity to do this homework is one of them. smiling a quiet smile, letting this moment too into gratitude, i turn back to read.