Sunday, August 8, 2010

Whoosh!!! "Bye Museveni!"

Hola chicos. Sorry (again) for the gap between posts. It’s been a doozy of a last month, one filled with lots of happenings, but I’m going to make a go at the highlights. This post will touch on my last few weeks in Uganda from the time of my previous post up until Petie and I hopped on a bus bound for Nairobi on July 22. Another post about my travels since the 22nd will be forthcoming. Very soon, mind you. Pinky swear.

In the end, I enjoyed my internship. After almost two months, this gig gave me an inside look at this world of organizations working in constant tension with the government as they strive to at once encourage national programs and fulfill their role as watchdog.

One Saturday, I spent the day simply walking with my camera. A lot of the buildings downtown have unfinished roofs that make for sweet places from which to snap a few pics of the hundreds of taxis (see matatus) clustered below in Old Taxi Park. Back in my nearby neighborhood of Wendegeya, I managed to take some photographs of the magical happenings at Obama’s Takeaway Chapati (they pump out about 3600 chapos per day, btw). Click. Chapo dough flying through the air. Click. The sizzling smoke of the oil. Click. The calloused hands of the dudes working there. I’ve grown much more comfortable with snapping pics of late, especially in Uganda. When I’ve asked to take someone’s picture, the usual response has been, “Of course, you don’t need to ask.” One dude at Obama’s even asked why Americans always seek permission before taking a picture. I know it’s not like this everywhere, but it made for a much more relaxed time, a time when the camera felt less like a weapon and a barrier through which you “shoot” and “capture” the people in your frame and more like a means to preserve something you enjoyed or found interesting.

I also visited the Gaddafi Mosque, a megalithic house of prayer located on the top of a hill in Old Kampala. Donated by the President of Libya, Muammar Al-Gaddafi, this place was furnished with windows from Ethiopia, carpet from Lebanon, and wood finishing from Egypt. The dude (arguably the wealthiest Muslim in the world) really went all out. This is the largest mosque I have ever seen, plenty large enough for the small Muslim community in Kampala. In addition to the beautifully ornate yet simple design of the indoor prayer space, there’s a space just outside (think an enormous stone balcony) for overflow. This space was so vast and so peaceful. Standing in the middle, I almost forgot about the noise of the jam and the hustle and bustle just outside the gates. Talk about fostering a meditative spirit. Before this spring, I really had never spent much time in a Muslim-populated area and thus hadn’t been around very many mosques. I really like the simplicity and the sense of calm that seem to radiate out of these centers of worship. Whenever I see the classic spheres and gentle curves of a mosque, it feels as though I’m staring at the slow and deliberate rising smoke of some newly lit incense.

The next day, July 11th, I went to church with my friend Gerard (though until recently we all called him Gerald-don’t know why he never corrected us). I met Gerard through Petie and Petie met Gerard because he is a pen pal with a friend of ours from Colby. Go figure. He’s a kool kat. The church service was very much like a lot of well-to-do contemporary church services in the US-big screens, lots of music, not knowing when to stand up and sit down, a funny pastor. The service was a bit boring, but at the end a bunch of kids came onto the stage and performed a sweet dance to the K’naan song “Wavin’ Flag”. So good they got an encore.

Later that evening we were watching the World Cup final at a club called Steak Out when we heard about the bombings at a place called Rugby Club and a restaurant called Ethiopian Village. I didn’t know anyone that was injured in the bombings, but almost everyone I knew in Kampala could’ve been at the Rugby Club that evening. Kampala seemed to take on an almost skiddish vibe, with everyone tense and on-edge. Apparently the attacks were organized by al-Shabab, a Somali terrorist/rebel group, in response to the Ugandan involvement in the African Union peacekeeping efforts in Somalia. Whatever the motives or identities of the assailants, the reality of the sitch just blows. The bombings struck at the heart of a vibrant urban lifestyle that is unique to Kampala. So many young people were hurt. I am in no place to assess the response of the government and Uganda as a whole, but it seems that whenever a terrorist attack targets innocent citizens, the reaction is to dehumanize and demonize the other side to a point where maybe it becomes detrimental to a viable solution. Maybe this is exactly what al-Shabab wants-a unified East African oppressing Somalis and Somalia as a whole so as to alienate the general Somali population into extremism. Who knows? But I do know that the bombings resulted in harassment of Somalis living in Kampala and a front page spread of the suspected suicide bombers’ heads.

A few weeks back, a British court ruled that they would accept asylum seekers escaping persecution on the grounds of sexual orientation. The case involved a Cameroonian dude who had fled to Great Britain with his partner after fearing for his life in his home community. For anyone who’s interested (or for those of you who went abroad somewhere in Africa and don’t understand the fierce culture of homophobia and anti-homosexuality legislation cropping up in a few nations) check out a Human Rights Watch report on the origin of sodomy laws in British colonies ( The Brits, in their infinite wisdom, established anti-sodomy laws in an effort to curb what they saw as “sexually immoral” behavior in their colonies during the early 1900s. That original legislation has become entrenched in the culture of these former colonies (Uganda as a particularly scary example), to the point that a few African nations have publicly criticized the British court ruling and are introducing legislation to protect their people from the “immoral and unnatural behavior of the West”. What a messed up merry-go-round.

I visited a gym in Wendegeya with Gerard later in the week. Housed in the back of a seemingly abandoned house with a big tree growing up through one of the rooms, one might call this gym a bit janky. But there was plenty of equipment and some good tunes, so it was all good. Everyone took off their shoes before entering the gym-apparently nobody ever drops weights around here. This little visit simply confirmed what I had already known: I’m a weakling. This may be the weakest I’ve felt since we started counting pull-ups back in the 7th grade. Yup, it’s that bad. I was sore for days afterwards and at one point I thought I might have early-onset arthritis in my elbows because they hurt so much. Needless to say I’m eager to get back home and get into good enough shape where I can at least turn a doorknob the day after lifting.

Kampala was so dry. The dust created a morning haze that might be mistaken for fog and each afternoon many boda drivers could be seen wearing handkerchiefs over their faces. One Saturday morning it rained. I was walking back from an Internet café and rather than just duck into a kiosk and wait it out I just kept walking. My friend Erinn captured the feeling of walking/biking along a road in the rain when she wrote that it feels so good in part because you know that everyone flying by in their safe, comfortable cars is feeling sorry for you, the poor soul caught in the downpour. Little do they know that at that moment, getting drenched as you walk or bike is exactly where you want to be.

During our last week in Kampala, it was time to say goodbye to a few good friends. A few unique friends. Something that wore me down this past spring was the impression of ulterior motives behind any potential friendship between a Kenyan and I. Usually those motives seemed to be financial, but Petie brought up the point that sometimes it’s just curiosity (though this isn’t necessarily a purely negative motivation for friendship), or the ability to strut around town with your mzungu friend. And it wore me down to the point that I didn’t necessarily see the value in pursuing inevitably temporal friendships with peeps in Kampala. But these kiddos were different. Brian, Henry, Gerard, Douglas, Timo-these dudes were just quality peeps. They just wanted to hang out. Plain and simple.

As a bit of aside, I read an op-ed about friendship in an age of economics. The author distinguished between three types of friendship:

Consumer relationships: those that we participate in for the pleasure they bring us

Entrepreneurial relationships: those that we invest in hoping they will bring us some return

True friendships: defined by Aristotle as friendship among the already virtuous. This type of friendship is not defined or accommodated by the age of economics.

Most friendships probably contain threads of all three types (and the first two aren’t inherently negative), but it’s worthwhile to think about what motivates us to pursue friendship. This may be especially true in a time when an economic framework is so engrained into our external perspective.

One afternoon in this last week, I visited my friend Douglas and his family (an SIT homestay family, one of the nicest and most genuine families I’ve met). Our program (see plan, schedule, etc) was to walk to some rock outcroppings that were “just behind the house” according to Douglas. But first we took a little jaunt over to his uncle’s half-built house to clear some grass and weeds that were growing up amongst the shoulder-high brick walls. The tool of choice: the Slasher, a sort of altered machete often used in lieu of the lawnmower. I got a blister after two minutes with the Slasher (another indicator of just how weak I am and how long I’ve been away from rock climbing). But it was great stuff. Hooting and hollering as we downed weeds the size of trees that were trying to make a name for themselves in what would one day be the living room. Then it was off to the rock outcroppings. We walked for about two hours up and down a few hills, until we reached ‘em. So yeah, they were “just behind the house”. In the rock quarries we found a bunch of dudes singing into the rocks. Apparently the quarries are a good place to practice because if you sing into the rocks then you’ll improve your endurance and strength of voice. That’s all good, but some of these dudes were terrible. One dude was just screaming at the top of his lungs. If I were a small child I would’ve been scared silly.

Another night a couple of us hit up the primo Indian food joint in town and then went to an open-mike night at the National Theater. As we listened to a friend named Daisy expertly improvise to the song “Lean on Me”, my friend Casey commented that no matter where she was in the world, it seemed that everyone always loved this song. That could be true, but I think Daisy’s version of the song was probably the best I’ve ever heard.

The day before Petie and I left, I went on a search with my Kenyan friend Brian (he’s from Mombasa but attends Makarere University) to find the elusive and rumored Bahai’ Temple. It’s the only one of it kind in Africa, and the only Bahai’ temple in the US is located in Chicago. Before hearing about this temple, I knew nothing about the Bahai’ faith. This unique religion was founded in 19th century Persia and focuses on the unity of humanity, mixing parts of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity to create some feel-good vibes. Well, we saw the temple on a hill and about two hours later we arrived at the front gate. We walked fo eva. But that was no biggie because Brian can talk fo eva. For about the last half of our walk, he gave me a detailed and lengthy account of the time his older brother was ceremoniously circumcised in their Western Kenyan village. By the time we made it, the temple was closed for the day. Hogwash. What if I was a pilgrim coming all the way from South Africa just to pray in the temple?

So I went back the next day. It was the last day of my internship and I just stopped by to tie up a few loose ends and get an evaluation from my supervisor. This time I made it with plenty of time to spare. The temple itself was in an octagonal shape with a set of massive wood doors on each that are opened up during the Sunday church services. This was probably the most peaceful and serene church I’ve ever set foot in. Maybe it was the elaborately adorned rugs or the smooth curve of the pews, but it just seemed to be a place of deep thought. Or maybe it was just that no one else was there.

On my way back, I picked up a Rolex (omelet rolled up in a chapo). My second and my last. Sitting in the back of the matatu bumping along a dirt road kicking up dirt I realized that this is something I would remember. I had been in the back of so many matatus this past spring and summer. With the extremely hot Rolex slipping out of the polyethylene bag, I realized that I had been out here in East Africa for a bit. I’m doing a shoddy job at describing the feeling now, but it just felt very normal. Not that bumpy roads and matatus were ever a problem or inconvenience, but for a long time they were just something different, something new. But during that ride I noticed that I was in a state of normalcy, a state of routine here in this East African city.

Later that afternoon, Petie and I boarded a bus with some pretty sweet interior wood furnishing. Like so many young Ugandan kids when they see they see an airplane or helicopter flying over Kampala, it was time for us to say ‘bye Museveni.’

Sunday, July 4, 2010

And those others, they are us too.

This one’s a doozy. We’re talking real long. If you don’t want to read it all just know that things are good out here in Kampala. Real good.

The cattle in Kampala are crazy creatures. The first time I went for a jog I happened upon an especially large bull that was grazing on the side of the road. This beast had horns that could do some serious damage if it decided that it didn’t like the color of my shirt. I mean, we’re talking spear like capabilities here. So, I gave it some room, enough room that I ran on the opposite side of the road and sped up my pace considerably. Since then I’ve become used to them. There’s a dude that seems to always be walking his herd down our road around the time I’m coming home from work, so now I can even walk through the herd. Just as long as the big bull in the front with the snot hanging from his nose doesn’t give me a look.

So, I’ve been working full-time at the Uganda Debt Network and it’s…okay. I still haven’t had many tasks on a day-to-day basis, but I have had the opportunity to do some cool stuff too. A couple of weeks ago I was asked to attend a civil society dialogue about the proposed HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Bill 2009 that is currently tabled in Parliament. Hosted by UNAIDS, the dialogue was held at a nice hotel in town with lots of interested parties in attendance. This bill essentially criminalizes many people living with HIV/AIDS and is really just a piece of regressive junk that will do way more harm than good if it becomes law (if you want to know more about the dangers of this bill, check out the Human Rights Watch Report from March 2010- The civil society organizations, like the international community, have reacted very strongly to this bill and this dialogue was held to organize civil society and come to a consensus on how to take action to prohibit this bill, as it is, from actually becoming law. With so many interested parties and differing opinions, a consensus was hard to come by. At one point during the afternoon discussion, one dude got so frustrated with what he perceived to be a stubborn colleague that he shouted out “Jesus Christ on a bicycle! Think about it.” That one got a few laughs from the group.

I’ve been able to work on preparing a few reports to be used during community monitor training sessions. A big part of UDN’s work is training community monitors in rural areas who are then able to evaluate government programs and point out unfulfilled promises, acts of corruption, ghost schools, etc. All this information then comes back to UDN where it takes the form of official concept papers that are often distributed publicly. Basically, they’re trying to act as a watchdog on all the big government promises of development, progress, etc in Uganda. Part of what I’d like to get out of this internship is an understanding of what impact civil society organizations actually have on policy and how much they really aid those they are trying to give a voice to. There are all these lofty goals and exciting ideas, but what actually happens when a report is submitted to the government about an uncompleted government-funded development project? If we think of Human Rights Watch as the epitome of this watchdog ideal, then it’s obvious that these organizations can make a difference. But just what that difference can be is much more blurry than the impacts of an ARV-therapy program for people living with HIV/AIDS.

I also got the opportunity to become the office delivery boy. My supervisor was organizing a dialogue about the newly introduced National Budget and needed someone to deliver about a 100 invitations/publications to all sorts of places. With the help of a driver, I visited Parliament, numerous Ministries, tons of international development organizations, etc. It was a cool time. There was one moment in particular that stands out from those two days of pizza-style delivering: We were parked outside the USAID building in a bit of a traffic jam. Leonard, the driver, knew all of the places in town after working in the development field for over ten years. Out of the blue, he points to a man walking down the street. This man was dressed in rags, with no shoes, and seemed to be living homeless. As he’s pointing to the man, Leonard says, “That man there, he has a master’s degree in development economics.”

Amidst some of this more interesting stuff, there’s been a lot of unoccupied time. Just a lot of time in which I didn’t have much work to do for UDN. At first, I looked at this time as a big bummer. I really wasn’t learning much or getting much experience, kinda the goals of an internship, right? But after awhile, I started seeing this time as an opportunity to reflect on my past semester, explore all the curious stuff I’ve always been interested in but never had the time to explore, and think about my future after Colby.

With Internet access, the possibility to venture in search of random knowledge has really been quite enlightening. Back at Colbs or at home, I don’t really make time to simply read about issues, countries, current events, or those random bits of knowledge that as a whole create the world in which we live. I can only think of a good friend back at Colbs, Scotty Hill, when this random knowledge curiosity comes to mind. I’ve become somewhat up to date on current events around the world after reading the Times and Al Jazeera through and through almost every day. Opinion articles in the Times? So good. Basically whatever comes to mind I look into. After living in East Africa for the better part of 5 months, I’m really trying to understand the political, economic, and regional realities of this part of the world from an academic perspective. I’ve read about Somaliland (a semiautonomous region in Somalia that’s working real hard for democratic stability) and the history of King Leopold II in the DRC. In some ways, this is all stuff that I could easily do back home. But time is of the essence back home, and a lot of this knowledge really informs and changes my time here. I can talk about stuff with Petie and Ugandan friends, and I can better understand news headlines in the local paper if I know the background history.

There’s also been time to just fulfill some curiosity.

Have you ever wondered what happened to the Tasmanian devil? Or how the microwave was invented (a candy bar was involved)? Or what’s going on with the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses? Or why we have daylight savings time in the US? Or why coltan is a necessary mineral for making mobile phones? Or what the phrase, “Let them eat cake” actually means? Well, if you want to know just check out Wikipedia or ask me about it sometime. I’m in an office, in front of a computer, with no pressing tasks and no way to leave…so my curiosity gets the better of me. And really, if you think about it, all these seemingly random bits of knowledge do influence our lives. I want to know why there’s daylight savings time because it either steals an hour from me or gives me one as a gift twice a year. And I use a microwave all the time. I don’t just want to take for granted all the ideas, things, and aspects of the world that influence my life. I want to know and understand them. The renaissance man/woman, though impossible, is a cool idea in this world that’s been specialized up the wazoo.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about my time after Colby. This past spring has mixed up my ideas for next year even more than my past semester at Colby. As I move away from my medical-related interests, I’m left in a space of uncertainty. This uncertainty is both a bit alarming and hopeful. I’ve been looking at law school requirements (international, civil rights, and human rights law seems kinda cool to me right now), teaching careers, journalism/media gigs, Watson and Fulbright Scholarships, Teach for America, and whatever else stirs a sense of excitement in me. I really appreciate having this time to reflect on where I want to go and I like where I’m at with all this. I just wish I had been at this point back in my freshman year at Colby. I sort of feel unprepared to go into some of these fields after devoting so much of my time at Colby to biology/natural sciences. With law school, for example, I haven’t taken a philosophy or history course at Colbs. Uh oh. I guess it’s just taken me three years to know exactly what I’m not interested in doing and then find a new path to travel. I envy those who have a more focused direction, but I also enjoy the ability to move between directions and create new directions. That ebb and flow, though maybe a bit ADD on my part, is something that I feel so so lucky to have. When I’m speaking with a Ugandan I’ve just met and they ask me what I’m up to with my studies I just say I’m studying anthropology and a bit of biology. Then the question becomes, “What are going to do after university?” When I say that I don’t know I’m usually met with a look of surprise. To be in your fourth year of university in Kenya or Uganda and not know exactly what you want to do is very rare. It’s even rare in the US. Why do I have that opportunity? Or is that opportunity even real? Maybe I’m actually way behind with whatever I want to do. Maybe in actuality it’s way more beneficial to know what you’re going to do for the better part of every waking hour for the rest of your life as an 18-year suburban kid who doesn’t even know what exists beyond the borders of what’s been told to you.

I met an English-born Indian dude last weekend at a friend’s party who talked with me for a bit about all this life path sorta stuff. He has been a very very successful businessman working the TV service industry. When I told him that I just didn’t know what I wanted to do, he said it’s easy. Just sit in a room alone with a beer and write a list of what you like to do. Not what jobs or work-related stuff you like to do, just things you like to do. Then find something that fits in with as many of those things as possible. Sounds like a half-day’s work. Piece o’ cake.

A couple of weeks ago, I bused it up to a town in the north called Gulu for the weekend. It’s the largest city in the north (about a 6 hour bus ride from Kampala) and home to many a humanitarian relief organization. The past 2 decades have been witness to a civil war between the national government and a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army. The north became an ungovernable land and the center of violence during this time. Internally displaced persons camps became a norm and human rights abuses perpetuated by both the government and the LRA wrecked the communities living in the north. The Juba Peace Agreement in 2005 greatly reduced the violence and the LRA has generally been dispersed or sought hiding in neighboring DRC or the southern Sudan.

Thus Gulu became a hub for humanitarian relief agencies working with victims of the conflict and efforts to rebuild the war-torn north. I met up with one of Petie’s friends from her program and two girls who were on an SIT conflict studies program. I visited one of the girl’s homestay families, walked around a strangely calm and organized market, and ate a cinnamon roll. Yup, with all the wazungu (plural of mzungu) in town as a result of the humanitarian relief efforts, you can eat all the foreigner food you want. I enjoyed the cinnamon roll and the trip, but I think a weekend was plenty of time for me to spend up there. There’s a strange inequality dynamic up in Gulu with all the wazungu-influenced businesses and amenities. It seemed to me that there are two general lives you could lead in Gulu. Either you’re a foreigner and could, with the resources available to you, lead a life full of wazungu food, wazungu fun, and work at one of the humanitarian relief organizations. Then if you’re a local, you lead another life. You probably can’t go to the café down the street every morning to eat a cinnamon roll, and maybe you don’t even know what the signs about a cinnamon roll joint even mean because no one has ever shown you a cinnamon roll. It’s just weird to have these two parallel lines of society, at once very separated and connected. It’s a dynamic I don’t really want to be a part of for long, though I do see the allure of living there as a mzungu.

On the way back from Gulu, I sat next to an older gentleman who has been working as a psychiatrist in Gulu for the past 30 years. After explaining that there were only 26 psychiatrists in all of Uganda, this man talked a bit about what some of the problems were in the north after the conflict. I guess most of his patients are suffering from PTSD, depression, or worse. And there are lots of kids who have grown up during the war and are now dealing with the realities of its impact. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to do what this man does in this part of the country. And he looked tired. It really stood out to me because for most of my time in Uganda I’ve been around spirited young Ugandans and wazungus with tons of energy. His face just looked tired, like he had seen and heard about a lot and maybe it was taking a toll on him.

This past weekend, Petie and I got the opportunity to trek it south to Rwanda for a long weekend. The bus ride was quite long (13 hours) and we crossed the border around 4am. It was probably the chilliest I’ve been in East Africa, by far. Rwanda is quite mountainous and thus gets a bit colder than the rest of the region. Anyway, at the border, the customs officials went through most everyone’s bag looking for illegal goods-the most common being plastic bags. They don’t allow them in Rwanda and any that were found were thrown away before we got back on the bus. We arrived in Kigali (the capital city) early in the morning, checked into a hostel, and proceeded to take some boda bodas into the city centre. Everyone riding a boda boda has to wear a helmet-aka very different from Kampala. We got off at a closer spot than we had talked about with the drivers, and my boda driver wouldn’t let me pay him because we hadn’t gone all the way to the place we had agreed upon. Wow.

We started walking around the city centre and quickly realized that we were walking in a ghost town. We were in the center of the largest city in the country at 11am on a Saturday and all the shops were closed and there was absolutely on one in the streets. It was very eerie, but also a bit peaceful after getting so used to the constant activity in Kampala or Nairobi. We soon found out that the last Saturday of every month is a mandatory community cleanup day across the whole country. So everyone was either hiding out in their homes or cleaning up their neighborhoods. Since the genocide in 1994, the national government in Rwanda (the Rwandan Patriotic Front) has led Rwanda into peace, stability, and economic prosperity. Kigali is so clean, so Western, and so orderly. But the flipside of this scenario is that it’s a sort of totalitarian rule in some respects. A number of personal liberties are restricted in Rwanda, and democratic rule is in its infancy here as compared to neighboring Uganda (though there are plenty of issues with democracy in Uganda too). In some ways, you could say Rwanda is a police state being run by a benevolent dictator. One justification for this type of government is that there is a need to prevent ethnic conflict from arising again and thus it’s crucial to develop a sense of national identity through peace and unity (the community cleanup days are also designed to be a community building and unity time). But it’s strange. There haven’t been true multiparty elections here yet, and opposition leaders and journalists are often arrested for speaking their voice. I don’t really understand what’s going on in Rwanda, I just don’t know enough. But it’s so different than Uganda or Kenya because of this political situation. With all this rule of law and order, one could say that Kigali also becomes bland and boring. Are people repressed because of these personal liberty restrictions?

I don’t know what to think. Because we were only there for a few days, we kind lived a bit of tourist lifestyle. Nakumatt kinda became a home base (I brushed my teeth there one morning), and we both realized how hard it is to travel in East Africa without following the tourist track. Petie pointed out that she really appreciated studying abroad in Uganda because she was able to break from that tourist style and get to know Ugandans and experience a lot that she just couldn’t if she was on her own. We really just got a surface level view of this place.

In Kigali, we walked around quite a bit. We visited the Hotel des Mille Collines-the hotel featured in the movie Hotel Rwanda. Then I went to the Kigali Memorial Center, the main genocide memorial site in Kigali. Petie chilled in town because she had already been there and wasn’t too keen on a second visit. It wasn’t fun experience, but I’m glad I went. Some mass graves at the center held about 250,000 victims of the genocide in 1994. I’ve learned some things about the genocide but this made it a bit more real. While I was there, a few groups of people were visiting to pay their respects at the graves. I guess purple is the color of mourning in Rwanda. As I was walking through the actual museum part of the center, I walked past a few people from one of these groups who were crying. I felt like I had no place being there amongst mourning that had persisted for almost 25 years. How deep must that hurt be for it to surface so strongly after so long? There is a permanent scar on this place, a scar that will never heal all the way but will always affect everyday movement.

In one large room of the memorial center, there were about 2000 photographs of victims pinned up onto lines. Family members of victims had donated them to the center for this exhibit. Like clothes drying outside on the clothesline, these photos kinda hit me. Here were photographs of so many different people. Photographs of so many people smiling, crying, giving faces, going for a jog, sitting with friends, drinking beer, getting in the car, jump roping, eating at a family reunion. It’s so easy to see a common thread in us humans when you look at these photographs. How could you not? They are us and we are them. In fact, there is no them, there is just us. All I could do was sit there in front of these photographs. There were so many. When I look at a photograph I try to fit a story to it, imaging what was going on that was worthy of a photograph and what the people in the picture must have been thinking or feeling at that moment. Well, there were just too many. I couldn’t focus on one before another caught my eye and grabbed my thoughts.

We also traveled to Gisenyi, a town in the Northwest situated on a huge lake and bordering the DRC. The bus ride was amazing. Up and down mountains, winding through this valley and along that ridge on a perfectly paved road, we listened to some sweet French hip-hop and just enjoyed looking out the window. Mad cool country out there, that’s fo sho. We chilled on the beach, walked to the DRC-Rwanda border, ate some potatoes and bruschetta (rather than be the little pieces of bread with tomatoes on it, in Rwanda bruschetta refers to a stick with roasted meat and beef on it, just so ya know.), and found ourselves at a local state fair. At least it felt like a state fair. Music, booths, kids running around, lots of food and drink. Ya know, the whole kit and caboodle. The next day it was another epic bus ride (probably my favorite part of the trip) back to Kigali. We tried to meet up with the brother of a friend from Rwanda (Jean-Jacques) who goes to Colbs. Without mobile phones it was kinda tough. We were all set to meet at a hotel coffeshop but the dude was running a bit late and we had to catch a bus back to Kampala so it didn’t work out. When we got to the bus station we found out that our bus was stuck in Burundi. Apparently there were presidential elections that day and the authorities weren’t letting any vehicles cross the border. But they got us on another bus and we were off. East African elections-when will the words “rigged” and “opposition” cease to become a part of that process?

Back in Kampala, the FIFA World Cup has been THE center of attention for many (including myself a bit). It’s so sweet to be here during the tournament. Everyone and their brother is into the game and there’s just some genuine support for the spirit of futbol out here, as opposed to back home where as a whole Americans just don’t appreciate the game. Futbol is an integral part of life out here. Petie invited me to visit her homestay family the other weekend and we watched one of the matches. I discussed the merits of the Argentinean players with her hostmother, who knew much more about the stardom of Messi than I did. On my way from work each day, I can tell when there’s a match being played because there’s a slight drone of the vuvuzelas from every TV on the block that permeates into the general city noise. And you can see crowds of people crowded around the restaurants and shops hoping to catch a glimpse of the match. Its wonderful and I think I’ve caught the bug, watching most of the big games at bars surrounded by Ugandans cheering their hearts out. Sai-back at Colbs this fall I’m totally down to watch English Premier League games with you at 2am.

The journey of the Ghana national team (the only African team to make it to the quarterfinals) was an especially exciting part of the tournament for everyone. When we were in Kigali, after Ghana beat the USA we could hear hooting and hollering from all over town. And back in Kampala, the bar we were at was crammed full of people cheering for the West African team during the Ghana-Uruguary match. Watching that match was one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had in Kampala, even though it was also very heartbreaking. For those of you who don’t know, Ghana had a penalty kick at the end of overtime to win it all, but missed. Then they lost during the subsequent shootout. And they really played their hearts out. There were just so many people at this bar, and everyone was cheering for Ghana. And there were a bunch of friends I’ve met through Petie, and Petie was there. One of these dudes who I’ve gotten to know a little bit kept talking about how he couldn’t watch anymore because he was going to die of stress and anxiety. There were vuvuzelas adding some slightly annoying but nevertheless energizing vibes to the bar. No matter how frustrated I get when we talk about all of Africa as if it is one country, there is (or was, seeing as all the African teams have been ousted) definitely some pan-African pride surrounding the tournament. It’s really cool actually.

Alrighty then, this deal is getting too long. So, a few other quick random bits of reality from Kampala.

I’m so thankful to Petie for letting me become friends with her friends. They add a lot to my time here and she’s gotten to know a bunch of cool people, real quality people. I’ve had dinner at one of friend’s homestays, twice. So good. And these two dudes from Kenya are so genuine and just really enjoy life. We went to a Kenya vs Uganda rugby match yesterday. After Kenya dominated the Cranes all the Kenyan fans ran out on to the field and proceeded to dance around the field in unison singing and bragging about their team. I happened to be right in the middle of it all. At one point everyone dropped onto their backs and started shaking their legs in the air. There’s some good old fashion ridiculousness if you ask me.

There’s a joint about 10 minutes away from our hostel called Obama’s Takeaway. All they do is make chapati but boy do they make chapati. With an assembly line style production model, this place employs about 10 people all pumping out chapos like it’s their job (which it is). These chapos have some secret ingredients, I don’t know for sure but it’s gotta be crack. There’s also a huge poster of President Obama hanging in the back to top off the epicness that is Obama chapos.

I kinda like some of the Uganda music out here. At times it gets a bit repetitive and stuff sounds the same, but the music scene is vibrant out here. Way more lively than in Kenya at least.

Three more weeks left in the internship, then it's off to Nairobi, Addis-Ababa, and Mombasa for some travel time.

Wherever you are, just be there.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The land of bananas.

The day after the Perkins family arrived in Nairobi, we visited my homestay family in Ayany for lunch and a walk around Kibera. This was a place that had become so familiar and comfortable to me that it was difficult to step out of my own perspective and realize how different my parents must have felt while we walked around the neighborhood. This whole perspective deal was something I had to work on throughout the trip. The next afternoon we went to the City Market for some open-air bargaining and procurement of this and that. There are some overly-eager dealers in this market and at first it was a bit overwhelming for everyone, but by the time we left Mom had gotten used to just how different shopping was out here compared to the Galleria in Edina. I would say it’s definitely not the most enjoyable or relaxing experience. We ate at Carnivore one evening. Crocodile meat tastes like leather soaked in a dead walleye stew. Nasty stuff. Three days in Nairobi is plenty of time for a tourist’s satisfaction.

We hit up a 2-day classic safari in Amboseli National Park, just north of the Tanzanian border and situated in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We stayed at a surprisingly swanky place called the Sopa Lodge. The name of the game at most of these luxurious resorts? Never-ending service. This kinda got to all of us by the end of the trip. Every little thing was taken care of and all our needs were met. The pool had some striking views of the mountain, which seems to have lost some snow since I last saw it in March. Amboseli is known for the famous elephante, and boy did we see ‘em. Elephants swimming in the swamps, elephants eating lots of grass, huge male elephants staring us down, yup, we saw ‘em. Very cool. We also saw a plethora of other creatures, namely a whole herd of giraffes (they stared us down for about 10 minutes) and a lone hippo walking around. Then it was back to Nairobi for a night before flying out to Zanzibar the next morning. This group of 50 islands off the coast of Tanzania is collectively known as Zanzibar, though the largest island is usually holds that name. That’s where we went. It’s a semi-autonomous entity of Tanzania and there are some complicated political issues surrounding Zanzibar that I just don’t understand. It’s also one of the birthplaces of the Swahili culture. Though we stayed in a sun-baked resort out of town, we got to go on a spice tour and check out Stone Town (the historic part of the island complete with Swahili architecture and a narrow streets). For those of you who are familiar with Mombasa, Stone Town is similar to Old Town. Makes sense I guess. Zanzibar used to be the numero uno spice production site in the world, so they kinda know how to spice it up. I ate cloves off the tree, black peppers out of the pod (bad idea, don’t do it), and had the opportunity to smell the bark of a cinnamon tree. Spices are where it’s at.

We spent a lot of time on the beach just relaxing. Back in Nairobi last Tuesday, it was time to do some mad packing, eat some Ethiopian delicacies with the homestay and Perkins fam, and then head out to Kampala, Uganda on an overnight bus. All in all, I had spent four months in Kenya. My mind if still a bit of mush about the whole spring, so I really can’t say how this time has changed me or changed how I perceive the world around me. It’s been grand, but I have yet to reflect about my time there in a fully holistic way.

Before I left for Uganda, I thought a lot about how I approached my time in Kenya and how this might be different. I really want to approach Uganda with the same energy, enthusiasm and curiosity that I so cherished this past spring. After a week out here in the land of many a hill, I think I need to make more of an effort. It’s been good, no doubt, but I think I need to recapture some of that energy. On the other hand, it’s good just to be here with Petie. It’s funny being here in a place that is at once very different and very similar to Kenya. I’ve found myself taking note of every little difference or similarity. Petie’s probably hearing a lot more than she wants to about the transportation system in Nairobi compared to Kampala. There are motorcycles (boda bodas) everywhere here. It makes for a bit more alertness when crossing the street, but they’re supa convenient. They also have matatu-like vans out here that are simply referred to as taxis. The drivers aren’t quite as crazy as Kenya and they’re relatively safe at all times of the day.

A few other tidbits about how life in Kampala seems to be different than Nairobi? It’s a bit safer, maybe a lot more safe than Nairobi. I walked and hopped on a boda boda to meet Petie for dinner the other night and it was a surprisingly new and unfamiliar experience to be out and about at night. Living in a hostel near Makarere University adds some youthfulness that I didn’t really experience in Nairobi. Petie is friends with a lot of cool people and in retrospect I think one thing that I could’ve done better in Kenya was to make more university-aged Kenyan friends. But so it goes. Matoke, a cooked banana dish, is THE staple dish out here. Bananas prepared in any way are a hit. There’s also a delightful food called g-nut paste. Odd name, tasty taste. Most of the other food is comparable to Kenya. The currency exchange is something like 2000 Ugandan shillings to 1 US dollar, as compared to 74 Kenyan shillings to the dollar. Needless to say, I’ve yet to master the money. I feel like I’m walking around with a grip everywhere I go when in reality I’ve got a couple of bucks. Kampala is built on a bunch of hills (at least seven) and it adds a lot of landscape to the place. People also go out a lot here with Tuesday and Thursday nights as the primo party nights. I think the Ugandan folks may also be friendlier than Kenyan folks as a whole. Oh yeah, the interwebs here are quite frustrating at times and it looks like cyber cafes with looming time deadlines will be my connection back home these days.

In the newspaper yesterday, there’s was a story about two nuns who had been arrested after a marijuana field was found in their convent. They said it was for the pigs.

I started my internship with the Uganda Debt Network last Friday. I guess I’ve been placed in the Policy Analysis and Socioeconomic Research program, but in reality I just don’t understand this organization well enough to know where I fit in. As of now, it’s been a bit unfulfilling. I haven’t been given many tasks by my supervisor. She’s real smart on fiscal policy stuff, but it’s tough to be a supervisor and I don’t know if they’ve had many foreign interns. I’ve attended a few meetings and perused a lot of readings. It’s a strange situation to be an intern out here. I don’t understand any of the work dynamics and I don’t know how assertive to be or not be in my search for mental stimulation. I guess I’m learning how to approach an internship. I’m not here for very long, so at some point I just need to man up and make some moves.

Word on the street is that Sai Chavali was driving a golf cart all over the Colby campus last weekend. Who in their right mind would allow such a public danger?

I miss the freedom to be ridiculous. There were some times this past spring in Kenya, but Colby and the friends back home just foster an air of pure mayhem that I can’t bring here all the time. There’s a certain mask that I don out here, something that just doesn’t let me wear all the neon I want, or try to read a book while slacklining, or help choreograph a dance to Umbrella with the Sally Bros, or tackle Peter into a huge pile of snow, or climb anything that looks climbable, or just lay down in a perfectly grassed field. I wouldn’t choose to be back home right now, but I do miss that span of absurdness and its ability to just let me be me.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A funky time of flux and running pumbas

Alrighty, sorry about lagging on the blog deal. But I’ve got an excuse or two, so Hillbill, just wait and see.

Since my last post, a part of my life can be defined in a sentence or two. I wrote. And then I wrote some more. In the last week of our Independent Study Project period (May 2-May 8), I spent the better part of each day perusing interview notes, reading journal articles, conducting follow-up interviews, and attempting to organize my thoughts about community and social media. Writing this paper was unlike any paper back at Colbs because my audience wasn’t just a lone professor. I was writing this paper for a number of individuals and organizations that may actually gain something from my writing. It was the sort of pressure that made me scrutinize every sentence, but I enjoyed it. Media space/journalism has become an increasingly tempting future I may want to explore. I learned a lot from this project and I felt that I was contributing to something more than a grade or my own writing skills. At times my project became a bit intellectual, almost stepping away from what’s actually happening in reality to a theoretical fantasy world. But that fantasy world was also exciting because I began to understand the possibilities for media in Kenya, and they are bordering revolutionary. I keep coming back to a phrase coined by a sally bro I know. Jacobo Marty once said, “The realization of possibility nourishes life.” It’s a lot of blah, but if you’d like to take a gander on some rainy day just let me know and I’ll email ya a copy of my final paper.

Living with my homestay family and becoming more a part of the community around me added so much to my project and my last month in Nairobi. I now appreciate the series of unfortunate events that prohibited me from going to the refugee camp and I would not have wanted it any other way. Throughout the semester I was a bit frustrated by all our traveling around Kenya and Tanzania. On one hand it’s mad cool to move around and foster a wider world perspective, but on the other hand Nairobi and my homestay digs were already a place so different from my home that I just wanted to spend as much time there as possible. The first two months of this semester represented a time in which I could only understand (and thus become a part of) a certain degree of life here, culture and all. There was some barrier I would always hit, something that inhibited me from truly understanding what was going on. Most often I think that barrier was all in my head.

This may sound a bit negative, but it’s what I’ve felt and I’m just going to let it flow. For a while, I felt as if I could explain everything. Political corruption? Ah, that just has something to do with who Kenya’s leaders are accountable to and the sense of entitlement amongst the political elite. The dude walking around in full Maasai get-up? He just wants to make some bills. After a couple of months, I thought I had grasped the whole picture of the general Kenyan culture and how that culture influences daily life. Yeah, it’s a weighty statement, one that I was pissed at myself for even thinking. Maybe part of this view comes out of the fact that where I was living in an urban metropolis, so many Kenyans have no time to build upon the existing culture because their days are consumed by the basic necessities of life. There’s literally no time to even think about something outside the daily tasks. But this past month has given me glimpses of something more. I’ve realized that part of living somewhere away from home involves patience amidst whatever it is you’re experiencing. In order for the pull of home and the foreignness of the unknown to fade, there’s got to be a whole lotta patience in the mix. There needs to be a patience to see what’s not at first apparent. It’s all about the layers.

My past month has also been defined by transition. After everybody was done writing, the whole group trekked it out to a swanky beach resort in the coastal town of Malindi to wrap up the program. We went a bit mzungu chzi chzi (crazy tourist) with the three swimming pools, buffets, and outrageously large beds. Each student also presented his or her ISP topic. Back in Nairobi it was time for peeps to head off in all directions. In an effort to see more and experience things much different than what I know, I’ve necessarily chosen to be in a constant state of flux. So many people move in and out of the mix with these transitions, and this time the flux kinda got to me. One day in particular threw me into a bit of a funk. On this day I had to say goodbye to a dear homeslice by the name of Kags. Not fun. Then I joined my friend Erinn’s American family as they walked and talked around part of Kibera. We spent awhile in the hills just outside the slums where I had run countless times before. As we were walking on the narrow trail towards the slums, five finely dressed men tried to mug us. All in all they were crummy thieves and didn’t have any weapons, so they only got away with a broken camera case with no camera. The whole deal lasted all of 10 seconds and started with Erinn mightily yelling at the first man who grabbed her arm. Erinn’s mother got pushed to the ground but held fast to her camera. Right after, we kinda bolted into the slums and onto a main road, quickly walking back towards Ayany. As we were walking on the main road, a great many people were telling us that they were very sorry for what had happened. From this part of the slums, anyone outside could see our little incident unfold on the hill. Afterwards, I had to say a quick goodbye to Erinn, a sal who also became a very close homeslice.

It was about the time when I got back to my homestay that this funk sorta settled in. Part of it came from what had just occurred. It wasn’t so much the act of getting mugged that shook me up, but the fact that we had been mugged in a place that I frequented so often this past spring. As a mzungu group of five with a few cameras, we were prime meat for thieves. That situation would never have arisen if Erinn or I had been on our own in those hills. So I was bummed for helping create the conditions that led to some people taking such strong and violent action to make a few bucks. But even more than that, the reaction of the Kibera residents hit me as an unfortunate response to unequal circumstances of existence. To me, people saying sorry as we walked through on the road meant that they were ashamed of the stereotypes of Kibera and how those stereotypes are perpetuated by incidents such as this. It was almost as if to say; “We’re sorry, that isn’t what it’s like to live here. Kibera is not THAT.”

The other part of the funk came from these two best buds heading out. As I walked through Ayany later that afternoon, I realized just how much a part of my Kenyan experience Erinn, Kags, and a few others had become. These are the sallys I had adventured with and contemplated with and found mad tasty homemade peanut butter with. Without them, it felt as though I were at Colby after finals when everyone else had dipped out. It’s an eerie feeling and one that has the potential to drive a person crazy. I think I approached this semester as a very independent experience, one that I was determined not to be too mzunguish about. But I’ve found that I’m not as independent as I thought I was, and maybe that’s a good thing. Without these folks, my time in Kenya would not have been a period I look back upon with such joy and nostalgia.

Amidst this funk, I scrambled out to Hell’s Gate National Park for a couple of days with a friend who was still around. We rented bikes and saw lots of running warthog (pumba) butts, fearless zebras, and an unknown varmint with big teeth that chased us away from a primo snack spot.

A few days after the program, the Perkins family came out to visit. We explored Nairobi, visited Amboseli National Park, and chilled on the island of Zanzibar, which is definitely not a chilly place. Right now I just want to post this so y’all don’t think I’ve gone AWOL, but I’ll talk about this family trip and Uganda a bit in my next blog, which will be much timelier than this one. Oh yeah, I’ve made it to Kampala and found the fabulous Petie Pabs. It’s my third day here and I just started my internship with the Uganda Debt Network, but more on this later.

Enjoy the summertime steez for those of you back home. And, as always, I’d be tickled to hear about your hooliganisms and adventures, even if it’s just a story of a seemingly uneventful day.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Four paws and a voice.

Alright, I’ve got a show that you simply must see. I don’t think its on air in the US…yet. The name: Love Spell. The best part: It’s a Mexican soap opera dubbed over with English. In terms of drama, it’s a soap opera on steroids. Emotion is basically pouring out of the TV. Every weeknight during dinner Mama and I (and whoever else is around) laugh and cry as we become spellbound by the latest turn of events. At first I watched the show because it was on during dinner. But I think I might have a problem now. I might actually watch it even if Mama wasn’t home.

Besides watching the greatest show ever to grace Kenyan television, I want to offer a bit of advice when it comes to mailing packages to Kenya. Just don’t do it. I haven’t gone through the experience personally, but I know people who have and they just aren’t the same because of it. At first, you get a little slip of paper asking you to come pick up your package from the post office downtown. Sounds easy, right? On the bus into town you’re probably trying to guess what US-born goodies are tucked away in your package, unaware of the saga that awaits you. Once you’re at the post office, you’re directed to a room with tellers on either side. You get your package (it’s in your hands), but then the process hits you. You need to go back and forth across this room, checking the weight, getting that stamp, paying that fee. One unfortunate young student has told me that the room becomes a sort of dungeon out of which you may never return. I may have dramatized the experience a bit, but you get the idea.

Last week I hopped on a few matatus and a piki-piki (motorcycle) to visit the Dandora Dump, located just north of Nairobi. One of my friends is doing her Independent Study Project there and offered to show me around. It is truly a different world. We’re talking about 30 acres of trash from all over Nairobi with a whole informal economy built out of innovative ways to use trash. Picture rolling hills of trash with the occasional pig or giant stork scattered about. Yup, that’s right. The only birds to frequent the dump are giant storks that circle overhead trying to act like vultures until they spy some scrumptious morsel. My friend is following around a bunch of reformed thugs who raise pigs in the dump.

Though it’s a place we usually label as decomposing and devoid of life, this particular dump has a vibrancy of activity likened to a construction site. I’m not trying to paint it as a fairyland. Kids grow up homeless in the dump, most of the pig-raisers are just scrapping by (and putting some very unhealthy pork in the market), and the daily arrival of trucks carrying all the waste (mostly food trays and such) from international airlines flights is one of the big money opportunities. But there’s something unique happening there too. In the absence of government services, people are starting to create a waste management system that is both resourceful and somewhat environmentally friendly. Economics of Globalization 101: Informal economies really run the world.

Back home, I recently convinced Mama Angetta that registering to vote in the upcoming draft constitution referendum would be a great idea. Granted part of the deal was that I had to wait in line with her, but she’s registered to vote nonetheless. This draft constitution has been the big news in Kenyan politics of late. It is a big deal. The existing constitution enacted after independence reeks of failed African democracy. By the way, I’ve come to believe that democracy has failed so often out here on the African continent because of misplaced accountability. Even when we discount the repercussions of the colonial era and the scramble for Africa, us foreigners are still helping to screw up governance out here.

In Kenya, donor aid accounts for a large portion of the government revenue, oftentimes the largest single source of revenue. Because of the flood of dolla bills coming in from international institutions, churches, and individuals, government officials essentially become accountable to the foreigners giving them funds. It makes sense. A leader (or leadership body) is only truly accountable to those who give them a source of revenue or support. In a well-designed democracy, taxpayers are the main source of revenue, thus creating a political environment in which the government is actually accountable to their citizens. With Kenya, it’s a case of well-intentioned foreigners deciding how an African government should serve their citizens. Though it’s a totally unsustainable system, it’s there and it wouldn’t help to ask that USAID stop sending millions to the Kenyan government. If that happened, say goodbye to free HIV/AIDS medications.

But I think something needs to change. If there were a system in which the Kenyan government was accountable to its citizens, rather than foreign donors, then issues of corruption, ethnic politics, and government inefficiencies might just go away. In Kenya, this process starts with empowering citizens, and I think the best way to do that is through a media democracy. But that’s my project stuff creeping in and maybe I’ll talk about it later.

Back to the draft constitution. There’s going to be a nationwide referendum in June, and everybody and their mother is talking about the ‘No’ or ‘Yes’ campaigns. The big players in the ‘No’ campaign are the majority of major Christian church leaders. In the draft, there’s a clause that allows for abortion in cases where the mother’s health is in danger. The clergy has their britches in a bundle over this one. There’s also a clause that allows for a Muslim civil law court, the Kadhi’s Court, to be legitimized by the state. In the words of a Kenyan friend, this court has been around since time ‘immortal’. So obviously, the Christian church is going to be against any blurring of church and state, except when it comes to social issues, ya know…such as abortion (which is really a public health issue, not a political issue).

I think the church organizations are being completely ridiculous with their opposition, but what’s even more frustrating is that these church leaders are convincing their congregations to vote ‘no’. And people are buying it, blindly. The church in Kenya has a lot of sway, way too much sway in my opinion. Since when did it become the role of the Protestant clergy to make political decisions for those who listen to their Sunday morning lectures? My host mama is in this ‘I’m voting no because my pastor said so’ mode, but we’ve had a few chats and there’s still hope. There’s nothing wrong with a Christian voting ‘no’ because they are truly against the draft, but the clergy is openly exploiting the unwavering trust of their congregations.

That’s not to say that every Christian is going to vote ‘no’ in June. I’ve talked with a few pastors who say that Kenya needs to ratify this draft constitution because it’s much better than what they’ve got, even if there are a few uncomfortable clauses.

I played billiards the other day at a one-room pool hall on the main road that wraps around Kibera. I had walked by this particular pool hall a number of times and finally just decided it was time. The room was so small that there were at least three different size cues to be used throughout the game. Also, if you’re ever in Kenya playing billiards and someone makes a sizzlin’ shot, just slap the table a few times to signal how impressed you are. The number of slaps increases with the impressiveness of the shot.

The last three weeks have been filled with me bouncing around Kibera checking out how community media works here. It’s been awesome, simply awesome. Some highlights? One evening, I spent three hours talking with a Nubian elder about the history of Kibera, which was originally a Nubian settlement. He was talking about his family’s common history. His teenage son was sitting there with us and I couldn’t help but think how cool it is to have such a rich historical knowledge. This teenage dude was probably bored out of his mind, but this history has really shaped his family’s life and the growth of Kibera into the well-known African slum it is today. Grandpa and Grandma, when I get home I’d like to have a chat. I think it’s time I learned a bit more about the history of my people. Or at least the fam.

I’m also writing a couple of articles for one of the local newspapers and the online blog up in Kakuma Refugee Camp. I really want to write these articles, but it’s been tough. As a non-Kenyan and non-refugee, I felt a bit out of place offering my opinion on the urban refugee situation in Nairobi. In the end, I just wrote what I thought and sent it along. It’s funny that I can so easily write an article for a Kenyan paper when so many Kenyans don’t have that opportunity. I’ve realized that the right to freedom of the press is really just a form of property rights. Essentially, if you don’t have money, you have no voice.

That’s kinda what my project is turning into. I won’t ramble about half-developed ideas but basically there’s an idea of ‘open data’ that is starting to creep into the Internet realm of Kenya. With respect to community media in Kibera, this means that community members can write articles, reports, or whatever on a site called the Voice of Kibera. Check out participatory journalism. Publish first, filter later. It’s kinda the opposite of traditional journalism’s sense of filter first, then publish. And in a poor community such as Kibera, where people don’t have consistent Internet access, there’s an idea that you can SMS (text) in a report. I’m not being very clear, but the potential of this stuff is bordering revolutionary. If enough people are participating, then it can be used as a medium for a poor and marginalized community to be empowered through a collective voice. Think media democracy. Everyone has a voice and the means to speak out. I’ve stumbled upon the folks starting this project in Kibera, and even they don’t really know what might happen.

During the Post-Election Violence of 2007, a dude named Solo 7 went Kibera painting everything he could find with the words ‘Keep Peace’ in white paint. I’ve seen this phrase everywhere. But a friend of mine recently caught sight of a stray dog walking down the street with a faded ‘Keep Peace’ painted on its side. Do you think it’s public vandalism because the dog is a stray? Walking symbol of peace for sure. This dude Solo 7 is able to creatively find his own voice. We need more dogs like that. But not more of the dogs that chased me the other day. We’ve got plenty of those sorts.

Amidst all this, I’ve also spent a fair amount of time slipping away from the present. With class selection, housing stuff, and only two weeks left in the program, how could I not imagine the steez that will ensue next fall up at Colbs? Congrats Han and Jacobo on your newly acquired Outing Club head honcho roles! With a lot of help from Petie Booth, I’ve also spent some time figuring out my summer plans. Things have just come together. After the Perkins fam comes out to Kenya at the end of May, I’ll be interning at a civil society organization called the Uganda Debt Network with a little dough from a Colby grant. Petie, who’s been studying in Kampala for the semester, will be working on some stellar project with the Refugee Law Project. We’ll be chillaxing in Kampala until the end of July, travel around for a bit, then head back across the pond in mid-August. I’m missing the Minnesota lakes and all the friends, fam, and extreme tubing that goes along with ‘em. Prepare yourself Justin.

I’ll leave you with a question that has stumped my friend Luke and I for a bit. At his house in Jamhuri, there’s a poster in the bathroom with two monkeys dressed in suits, sitting on toilets, eating bananas. Quite the sight. Along the bottom, there‘s a quote that says, “Nature has no medicine for troubled minds.” What does it all mean? My hunch is that to be troubled is to be free. Let me know what you think. Hardcore paper writing is set to take over my life this week, so if you don’t hear from me for a while then pray that I haven’t got some sort of finger malady from too much typing.

Take care, but not too much. I just learned that some cats have a disease called ‘risk-assessment syndrome’. I wish you a bit of that wherever you are. Just enough to try something new or take a different way home.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Holy Chapos Batman!

What’s McCracken? That’s what every Kenyan youth means when they ask ‘Safi?’ It really means, ‘How is your health dear friend?’ but slang (called Sheng here) has done wonders to proper Kiswahili and now you can hear every teenager spitting ‘safis?’ left and right.

Our time in Tanzania was very much a tourist vacation. And maybe I just need to accept that, in the end, I’m a tourist whenever I travel. We spent a day in Arusha visiting the UN International War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda. It’s a somber place. After the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, the UN organized this tribunal to prosecute those who had committed crimes against humanity and crimes of genocide. After almost 15 years of operation, the Tribunal is wrapping up its proceedings. We sat in on one case during a discussion about how to measure the height of a witness. Law can be sooo slow, especially when it comes to prosecuting those who acted as the masterminds of genocide without actually committing any acts of violence themselves.

The mini-Utopia we stayed at is called the United African Alliance Community Center, and there was a family from Florida staying there while they worked on an orphanage project through their church back home. Luke (Wayzata dude), Erinn (St. Cloud gal), and I stayed up one night talking about who knows what. After a bit, we got talking with this family about this and that, mostly to do with missionary work, their belief that whites were living in a post-racial America, and how they felt about poverty in the US as compared to Africa (think bootstraps, read: Nickled and Dimed, Savage Inequalities).

An hour later, I left this convo feeling very frustrated. I felt like I had very very different views from them, and that I wasn’t able to explain why in a way that they could accept as legitimate. Erinn was also mad frustrated and we concluded that in our Northeastern elite liberal arts schools we never really need to defend our beliefs and opinions. Everybody agrees with us when it comes down to the fundamentals. But this family represented the way a LOT of Americans think about these issues. It can be so important to have the ability to discuss ideas about society, religion, and culture with someone who has very different views.

The next morning, we trucked it out to a small Maasai village for three days of mingling and understanding. Though it was a bit of cultural tourism, I think I came to enjoy my time there. As a bit of a tangent, cultural tourism implies one culture paying to see another culture on display. It can be wicked stuff because some level of significance in a community is lost when they are coerced to authenticate their culture to an outsider so they can pay the mortgage. Or in the case of this Maasai community, feed the family. In essence, the fake becomes part of the real. It would be a whole different ball game if this Maasai community had the opportunity to travel to Minnesota and see my own culture on display. I imagine my family out on the front lawn barbequing some burgers. Someone would probably be mowing the grass; maybe we’d take some of the tourists on a walk through the neighborhood with Rossignol, the family golden retriever. Some of the Maasai tourists would probably let out hoots of amazement when we cleaned up after Rossignol’s business. They might think, “It looks like the dog runs the show around here. He walks around and the human picks up after he goes to the long call.” Oh, we’d fo sho have a bonfire and play some night games when night rolled around. Yet even this cultural display would not be a good representation of the broader American culture. It would only be a display of my family’s interpretation of American culture. What do you think you would put on display if you were in the Maasai community’s position?

My point isn’t to make myself feel guilty or hopelessly question cultural tourism. I was there in the Maasai village whether I liked it or not, and to imagine myself in their position changed how I acted and reacted during my time there. Our guides, a Tanzanian named Chaka and a Maasai dude named NgoNgoi, really made this time something other than cultural tourism for me. Chaka was mad chill and had been working with this Maasai community for years to help reconcile true Maasai culture with the need for cultural tourism. NgoNgoi, an older Maasai warrior, was the most impressive person I have met in East Africa. Because he spoke Kimaasai, Kiswahili, and some English, he was able to guide us through whatever we were doing. This dude knew what was going on. Everything he said or did was significant because he had this deliberate and dignified air. He, more than anyone else, pushed us to share things about ourselves rather than just see what was going on in Maasai land.

We had a bonfire the first night with a bunch of Maasai elders. We asked questions. Chaka would translate into Kiswahili, then NgoNgoi would translate into Kimaasai. The Maasai elders asked questions. NgoNgoi would translate into Kiswahili, then Chaka would translate into English. We were put on the spot to come up with a consensus about what Americans thought and then let one person answer. It can be quite the challenge to decide how all Americans think about marriage.

I think I’ve said this before about the chai in Shirazi, but I had the most scrumptious cup of chai while visiting NgoNgoi’s boma (house). I actually drank 3 cups and then tried to find out how it was made. No luck. There’s some sort of root in the mix, then other goodies, and poof! you get a cup of chai far superior to any Starbucks blend.

The next morning we were part of a ritual goat slaughter. A group of young Maasai boys helped us wrangle in the poor white goat destined for the lunch plate. After the initial death by suffocation, we watched and helped a couple dudes expertly skin and prepare the goat. There was a blood drinking and some questionable organ tasting. In many ways this act, though kind of intense, was much more humane than how we get red meat on our plates back home. The Maasai community had much more of a connection with their source of food, and out of that connection comes a sense of respect and sustainability that we miss out on with our factory farms.

Later that day, we got some glimpses of the magical white stuff atop Mt. Kilimanjaro off in the distance. Nick Cunkelman, word on the street is that you made a few ski turns at that one place…what’s it called? Oh yeah, Chamonix! I thought we were taking this season off with so many of us in snowless places? We also met an mzee (elder) who was wearing a “Jack’s Bait and Tackle Shop, Duluth, MN” hat. A few of us had a spear-throwing contest with NgoNgoi. The next morning, we left for a small town near NgoroNgoro Conservation Area.

NgoroNgoro is a massive crater that formed when a volcano erupted a few kazillion years ago. Thanks to the steep crater walls and a lush vegetative environment, high concentrations of animals chill in the crater for the majority of their lives. We got up early, piled in a few Land Rovers, and went on your classic safari through the crater. Besides a funky-looking bird named a Gory Bastard, I enjoyed the landscape more than anything. It was a surreal place. I was much more comfortable with the whole ecotourism deal than the cultural tourism. If the natural environment can be conserved, then the benefits of wealth redistribution via ecotourism far outweigh the negatives.

After safaritime, we traveled back to Pete O’Neal’s community center for the night. Early the next morning, with half the group down and out for the count with stomach issues, we drove to the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro for a day hike up what’s commonly known as the Coca-Cola route. I guess you can buy a Coke on the way up. Anyway, we hiked through a magnificent jungle with lots of vines and moss and other green stuff. Vines and moss really make a jungle a jungle.

Upon returning to my homestay digs, I slept and ate some mad chapos, short for chapati. If naan were to be a person in history it would probably be the dude who invented the Starter jacket. And chapati would be the dude who invented Velcro. Sure Starter jackets are styling and all but they just don’t compare to the magical adhesiveness of Velcro. And the noise Velcro makes? Yeah, chapos are that good. The next day I washed clothes for about two hours. It felt really good, and I think I did a marginally good job because Mama Angetta was impressed enough to dig out her camera and take a picture. If she ever shows you her pictures, I’ll be the one holding up a half-washed t-shirt trying to figure out how in the cow’s hay I got red dirt stains on the left shoulder.

This past week in Nairobi has been filled with me visiting different humanitarian relief agencies begging them to let me go to Kakuma Refugee Camp for my Independent Study Project. I’ve learned a great deal about the whole world of refugee camps and asylum seekers, especially in regards to the work international organizations are doing in the camps. Basically if you want to go to a refugee camp in Kenya it works like this: You need to find a host organization willing to accommodate you and feed you during your time in the camp. You handle the expenses of course. Then you need to get government approval. My Academic Director graciously went to the Department of Refugee Affairs everyday for a week to get this part done for me. Then you need to get the UN High Commission of Refugee’s approval to interview refugees. I started all this way back in the ol’ days, but last week the organization I was going to work with, the International Rescue Committee, backed out on me. Big bummer. I got to know the system well enough that I started pulling some strings in a last ditch attempt to go to the camp, but alas, the system kicked my butt. Why was it so tough to get permission? Aside from some legitimate reasons about overstressing the refugee community, there is definitely a lack of accountability that is threatened by bringing in an outside perspective. The organizations working in the camp don’t want people coming in to point out the flaws. These aren’t just Kenyan organizations either. These are American and international organizations run by Americans and Kenyans alike. It’s just the reality of the sitch I guess. I was a bit disgruntled about it for a while, but whatever.

So, I’m staying in my homestay for the month and studying the potential for collective political action in poor and marginalized communities such as Kibera. This community has become a major asset in the national political scene, probably because of the sheer number of people living in such a small area (check out: Post Election Violence 2007, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, ethnic identity in Kenyan politics). I’ll be checking out different media outlets and how they can influence and foster a sense of community strong enough to bring about political action in support of pro-poor legislation. There’s a local newspaper, a TV Network, and a radio station. I actually visited the radio station, Pamoja FM, yesterday. It’s designed to service the needs of the Kibera community. I’m going back soon to see how radio works out in this neck of the woods, and I might get on air a bit. I might even snag a talk show for the month. Who knows. I’m taking this project on the fly, so we’ll see where it goes.

One last blurb about something I’ve learned this spring: Trying to explain why I believe something can be so good. It’s uncomfortable to be put on the spot and siphon through my thoughts to explain why it is that I think what I think. But going through that process adds so much depth to my opinions and beliefs. Or I can’t explain why and then I’m open to change. That may be what I esteem to most in my identity; to be a seeker of change and an open perspective. What if a friend asks me why I think we should be a part of something larger than ourselves? Or what if they ask me why I like Dunkaroos so much? Once I tunnel past the obvious emotional or authoritative responses for belief I can really start to foster an identity that is fully mine.