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.