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 (http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/12/17/alien-legacy-0). 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.’