Thursday, 31 January 2013

Arterial Walls: part 3


There is something unsettling about your first time drinking large quantities of local tap water in one of the world’s less mechanically-obsessed nations.  Uganda is better than most, as we’ve heard from longtime residents; there isn’t even giardia here (take that, Russia!), much less cholera.  However, our sources DID mention that, as our bodies haven’t been acquainted with some of the friendly neighborhood bacteria yet, we should probably take it slow to avoid getting the P.O.o.P.S. (Pressurized Output of Putrescence Syndrome).  One of my greatest fears in life is the P.O.o.P.S.  Especially when I have to spend four hours cramped in a taxi the next day to get home for an important meeting.  Brrrrrrrr…unsettling.
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The sun was burning at a sharp angle on our way back into downtown Jinja, and I had to stop every twenty minutes to sip on some nervous tap water.  We had left the “park” along a road that skirted the western side of the city, turned to wrap around its southern border with Lake Victoria and eventually came up along the eastern edge.  Besides keeping a wary eye out for potential P.O.o.P-ing sights, we figured we’d scan the downtown from a few angles and then decide the best plan of attack, eventually hunting down some food and a throne from which to enjoy the sunset.         
Our walk took us first through a wealthy part of town that seemed primarily South Asian in demographics; you could hear the dawn-bird cacophony of an Indian daycare from a full block away.  Soon thereafter we passed by the Jinja Town Hall and a series of large, once-ornate old public buildings, decaying reminders of Uganda’s hectic reinvention since the British left.  The road curved around into an industrial district, strewn about with massive containers and all the swooping and grasping apparati of a bustling port.  Then the pavement stopped, petering out into a dirt road that squeaked through rows of concrete barracks.  Our necks were developing a rosy heat, so we decided to make our way inwards.
As we moved towards the city center we encountered an exponential growth of sidewalking Ugandans.  More and more people surrounded us until, in the heart of the bustle, we noticed a classy little South Indian restaurant set in from the street a bit, aloof from the overwhelming turbulence streetside.  The outdoor seating and curried smells were absolutely delectable, but the sun was still too high to eat on the patio and not go blind, so we marked the spot on our map and keep moving to find a cool drink before dinner. 
Two blocks away our quest was fulfilled: a sunless little hole-in-the-wall bar with three stools, four chairs, and a pool table; walls splatter-painted pink and orange and yellow on a deep black background.   We stepped in and ordered a Nile Special, then found two spots in the corner.  A television above the pool table was playing music videos—we recognized our friend Jose Chameleone on screen.  Alex’s face was glowing, whether from exertion or emotion I could not say.  Always hard to tell with that kid…
The woman tending bar started playing pool with a man many times her size.  He seemed impossibly sloppy, she was slightly better; Alex and I watched intermittently and let the bottles’ condensation roll down our knuckles.  A few people walked up to the door or lingered outside, but not many stepped all the way in, except for one woman who started to enter with a big friendly smile and then saw us—at which point the smile straight Houdini-d—and spat a rapid-fire round of hellos before turning back out the door.  She stood with the sidewalk crowd for a while before moving north again.
The music from the T.V. was loud, punctuated arrhythmicly by the neanderthal clack of pool balls knocking together.  The three workers not playing pool had stopped speaking when we walked in, and hadn’t started back up yet.  Alex and I were trying to talk without disturbing the not-our-environment, but we couldn’t hear any type of low decibels over the racket; the resulting exchange was conducted entirely in a kind of apologetic stage whisper.

‘I feel like we’re breaking something here.’  ‘Yeah yeah, right?  Like we stepped into the middle of a Medieval dance or something, started doing the Shopping Cart.’  ‘I don’t even feel like we could ask in on a game of pool; is that a line for next game?  Do you ask to play winner?  Who pays?  I don’t think anyone here plays doubles.’

            ‘Look, it’s silly to worry like this, how can we know? And if we aren’t doing anything outright disruptive—we’re not being hella “Americans” anyway, yelling and grabbing the table and changing the music and whatever—if we aren’t doing anything stupid then what’s the issue?  I mean, we’re trying to figure out the local customs, trying to be a part of things as much as we can—’ ‘But look, Sam, this isn’t exactly a place where tourists go, right?  I mean, this isn’t Kampala, they don’t really see whites here outside of the resorts and raft places.  This is the kind of little local place that has patterns and customs, the kindof place locals go to unwind, not to think about acting the right way.’ ‘Right, so we break that, we stick our pale selves in the corner and create a self-consciousness.  Ain’t no one want a couple of white self-consciousnesses in their corner…’
‘…’
‘Alright, but maybe it could be something like engaging with nature, right?  Like, when you hike down a trail all the local life disappears because what the hell is this loud gangly ape thing doing here?  Then you sit for even half an hour and things start moving again, become, like, acclimated to the palest of presences,’ ‘I dunno man—’ ‘Nah but look, it certainly won’t ever be the way it normally is, on a normal night, with us being here now.  But I feel like if we prove ourselves to be unassuming and generally harmless characters things will start to slip back towards the regular.  Anyways, people here don’t seem mad or hostile, right?’ ‘Yeah, okay, maybe.  Anyways I’m enjoying the music and the cold drinks and the bad pool.  Another beer?’

‘Alright, cheers my friend.  To the banks of the Nile, to learning a new place—to strangers.’
‘Cheers.’

We sat there for the rest of a Guinness (the Foreign Extra Special, brewed in Port Bell right next to Luzira, waaaaaay sharper and hoppier than American Guinness, a truly surprising and beautiful thing), listening and watching and occasionally speaking.  We didn’t get to the root of why some people are happier to have you in their local spaces than others, but we concluded it was a beautiful thing that even here, which wasn’t ‘our’ here, there wasn’t a single person who looked like they were too pissed at our presence.  The last drops warming in the bottom of the bottle we got up to leave, receiving a chorus of “goodbye!” in response to our own. 
The patio of the Indian place was in full shade by the time we found it again.
Mushroom masala on perfectly steamed rice, with hot golden naan and a little plate of fresh carrot, cucumber, and lime on the side.  The coriander and cardamom and cumin and butter coated the inside of my mouth like midsummer air, hot and thick and endless.  Alex made little noises as though reading a great poem for the first time.  We felt good, out there alone on a dark patio above the street.  Once the bill was settled we stopped at another little roadside place to sit off the meal, then we walked back the hostel to play a game of pool before bed.
The air was a sponge bath as we traced our steps back through the fortified mansions to the hostel; damp but light, and slightly invasive. 
The hostel’s bar had two walls and open space leading out into a tight lawn.  Four or five European-sounding individuals sat around in the couches or on the computers, mostly silent.  A loud British woman spoke with an African man, sitting too close to him on a barstool.  We slipped 500 shillings into the pool table and out popped the balls, conveniently bifurcated into red and yellow, rather than the Stateside-standard numbered Technicolor.  Hitting around a bit for warmups we realized that suddenly we, too, were awful at this game, this game we played a whole lot of this summer.  The Guinness wasn’t that strong, was it?
Turned out, at close inspection, that the balls here are smaller than in Wisconsin.  The simplest of combinations sent a sphere ricocheting in some untoward direction—even the trusty ol’ cue ball would slip away from your stick like a wet bar of soap.  We felt self-conscious what with all the people around us we didn’t know; kept noticing little smirks when we shanked a simple shot, or the British woman’s eyes turning quickly away when we looked over.
After a long tick of failure and some soul-searching I finally realized the trick: keep your mind focused real intent on the exact middle of the pocket, brush off everything that isn’t right there in front of you.  Pretend that you’re the only one in the room—no others, unknowns, no strangers anywhere—and somehow things take care of themselves.
We played another game that went a heulluvalot better than the first, and then fell asleep as soon as heads hit pillows.

To be Continued, for the last time, I promise!

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Ugandan Rainstorms

Tin roofs really make rain a more fun experience. The joy of sitting inside during a thunderstorm is essentially an emotionally voyeuristic experience: the image that your (conveniently dry) subconscious conjures up when you glance* out the window is of a person--happily, not yourself, but you have to have been this person at at least one point to get the image--outside and getting frog-numbingly drenched. Your mind with or without your consent finds all this quite titillating. And manages to get off guilt free on top of it all, since who ever got the empathetic pang-attacks over a hypothetical projection of their subconscious?

The tin roof in this whole equation compounds the "reality" factor. By its intercession your ears, being I hope not grossly impaired, become quickly quite thoroughly convinced, thank you, that some unhappy fictitious sap is getting feline- and canine-d all over his person; meanwhile your unirrigated skin cells are reporting back through the proper tactile-relay channels about how the enemy hasn't yet made contact, all concluding in a good old-fashioned get-together up in the cerebellum, leading to a healthy amount of dopamine going up like firecrackers, a vague sense of satisfaction every time the oculars report via a brief scan* that Wet Fool is still getting it, and ultimately one of those briefly nostalgic hangovers once all the liquid for the party has dried up.

In short, the reason you don't usually want it to stop raining if you're indoors is because as soon as it does, all the guests at your private, VIP-only subconscious party will have to make hurried excuses, flip the deuces, and skip out, probably appropriating some of your head-cavity's last reserves of actually-consumable-type intoxicants.

And if there's anything I've learned in Uganda, it's that tin roof parties are the best parties.

*And it is always a brief glance out the window, probably because your brain can't maintain the fiction about Mr. Unknown getting soaked if you actually pay attention to the fact that there's (usually) no sensory evidence of any such person, and plus if he really exists, well then you have to feel bad for him because he's wetter than the Pacific.

Arterial Walls part 2


I am hungry about 89 percent of the time.
Alex, on the other hand, rarely admits to being hungry at all, unless his mom is currently cooking kung-pao chicken.  Halfway across the world from any type of Black specialty, you can perhaps imagine my surprise when it was Alex, and not me, who suggested that the first two items on our pre-wander itinerary should be “find food” and “find a place to sleep.” 
The first of those tasks was easy enough, since there was a little restaurant with shaded outdoor tables just across the street from the taxi stop.  We found it almost empty, but the tall, pretty proprietress was willing to serve us after deliberation with her staff.  Only, there weren’t any actual options, just ‘lunch.’  Fine by us!  But, uh, any chance there are perhaps beer options…?
After enjoying this first encounter with both traditional Ugandan lunch (rice, mushy green bananas, and fish/beef in a thin broth) and English-dubbed Korean sitcoms (rice, mushy fake sentiments, and domestic violence/sexism in a thin plot) we set out to find accommodation free of lice, mushy floor residue and doors/windows with thin locks.  Our search led us first through the northern corridor of Jinja’s downtown, which is a scale replica of Kampala’s commercial districts: rambling rows of little cell-phone shops and tiny bars and printer places, interspersed with packs of idling boda-boda drivers, and smelling of half-garden landfill.  Then the quest turned us out of the center towards the river and into Jinja’s tourist district, one of the mainstays of the city’s relative commercial success.
Billing itself as the “Adventure Capital of Uganda,” Jinja attracts foreign travelers in large numbers every year.  These thrill-seekers come for adrenaline-pumping activities such as rafting, bungee jumping, and competitive tanning, not to mention the heart-stopping action of tropical-cocktail-with-a-little-umbrella sipping.  Most of the resorts we passed were well outfitted for this latter contest of livers, replete with authentic thatched-roof huts (air-conditioning included, of course) and well-stocked tiki-bars. 
Alex and I did not go into these places.
Instead we went into the cheapest spot the internet could conjure up: a European-style backpacker hostel with dorm beds for 7 bucks a night.  It certainly wouldn’t be the most Ugandan of experiences, but we haven’t met a Ugandan who does much travelling or hotel-staying, so we felt justified in going for rock-bottom prices—the hunt for best value constituting a totally authentic native practice. 
The place was well-hidden, tucked back into a neighborhood full of swank resorts and huge gated houses, and it took us a full couple of hours to finally sweat up to the front desk.  We were immediately shown the dorm (an entire bunkroom to ourselves) and just as immediately slapped down our cash, eager to start out towards our real destination: The Mother of All Rivers.  Filling our Nalgenes with rich, full-flavored Lake Victoria tap water (topnotes of rotting seaweed give way to lush tannins, with a distinctly arsenical finish...) we consulted the map we’d sketched off Google Earth and left in what seemed a likely direction.  We weren’t too worried, y’know—figure the Nile stands out a bit.
           

The first public space we found in all Africa looked like an accident.  The Jinja golf course rests on a plateau above the Nile, which river glides past to its east; to its west lies a big chunk of undeveloped land, strewn about with trees as though through the greenthumb of an 8th-grade gardener with pretty severe unmedicated ADHD.  The armed-guard-free space was a pleasant surprise, and we marked it for a little future Frisbee-throwing (some parts of our culture we’re not willing to give up just yet).  Eyes on the prize, however, we followed the greater temptation through this de-facto park, carefully stepping over turds of varying sizes (some grass-seed tiny, others about the volume of a soccer ball), and then skirting the northern edge of hole 9 to stand finally on a cliffside, towering over 6,650 kilometers of uninterrupted atomic motion.
I wish I could describe to you the feeling of looking out across that glittering expanse, framed by hills and sky that looked downright drab compared to its nuclear starscape surface, but the sentences (like that last clause) would come out all preachy and full of adjectives so I won’t try.  Suffice it to say that the most coherent sound in my head was a sort of slack-jawed garbling. 
Without a word between us Alex and I agreed to get closer to this juggernaut, to shake hands with a titanness.  The route downhill was steep and loose, constantly threatening to drop us down into the current and wash us through Sudan, so we picked our way carefully along the scorched-red dirt and the rows of crops.  I was amazed at the tenacity of farmers here, who will extend their fields down a 55-degree cliff if need be.  I tried very hard not to disturb any of their plants.
We had finally made it close to the bottom when I spotted a tree that leaned out across the shoreline a bit, promising a great view down into the water.  I knelt to tighten my laces and then started scaling, making it up to the first thick branch before I noticed the blood starting to drip down my wrist.  We wondered, after I got back to earth, exactly why this plant was so angry; is it really necessary to have enormous thorns that start at 7 feet up and can’t be seen from ground level, dude?  As we looked for a cool place to watch the flow of water, and as I wrapped a clean bandana around my shredded palm, we realized that every plant in the area was similarly adorned with festively sharpened ornamentation.   
Weaving our way through the barbed-wire vines we found a little shaded grotto to sit in.  By the time I cleared away the thorns, settled in, and took a real breath, I was realizing that I felt very much like an intruder.  It overwhelmed me how strange it was to be here, with my skin useless in this sun and my sweat too dehydrating for this heat and my knowledge too small to name these birds and my presence so unwelcome in this forest that shrieks of millennia of intruders with its million outraged thorns—I felt out of place; I felt, for perhaps the first time in Uganda, the weight of distance from my home.
Then again, all that might have just been the blood loss.
Alex and I sat there quietly for some time, just breathing.  I cannot tell you how long because I didn’t remember that I had a watch on.  Then, without speaking much, we hiked back up the hill, tossed my Frisbee among the public trees and turds, and started towards town to find another meal.

To be continued...

Monday, 28 January 2013

Arterial Walls part 1


            Every time the taxivan hit a pothole my head rebounded off the ceiling with a dull thumpt, and the four fellow passengers on my three-seat rear bench tried to smile without me noticing.  I didn’t hold it against them, especially once I saw myself reflected in a store’s window while we sat in traffic; I looked like half of Andre the Giant stuffed into a World-War I submarine, sardined tight around with properly-proportioned stygian sailors.
For a few minutes early in the ride I had attempted to brace my head against the felted roof for stability, but it turned out I could only see about three feet of “curb” that way, and something about the smeary tanned babypoop flow of road below made me nauseous. Rather than risk filling our stifling vessel with Italian “breakfast” I decided to keep my eyes towards the horizon, and prepare in advance for the roadchasms…
‘Tighten all my muscles…  NOW!  Hmmm, didn’t work that ti---THUMPT----Owwwww, coddlewhop!  Surely I’ll predict it right nex-THUMPT-Gah, sonuvabrachiophyte!’
As well as a string of minor concussions, this head position also afforded me an excellent view of the landscapes passing by my window.  Their color palette shifted gradually from the dusty browns of Kampala’s suburbs to the insane billboard-advertisement greens of the countryside as we followed the Kampala-Jinja Highway (yeah, that’s its official name) through valleys along the shores of Lake Victoria: most highways here follow valleys since most of Uganda is covered in either jagged hills, rolling hills, or jagged mountains—if the ground’s not jagging or rolling it’s probably a swamp, and then you probably aren’t driving there. 
Where we drove now, the hills were all well-rounded, dabbling in factories and schools and little towns, though clearly most invested in the agricultural arts.  Stands of timber pine (slightly out-of-place: Alex swore he’d seen one of these exact coniferous slopes just outside of Boulder Junction this summer) gave way to meadows of tea, fields of grain, and something that looked like coffee, all interspersed with the small plots of fruit trees that distinguish this region.  Regardless of temperament these fields rarely reached further than ¾ of the way up any given hill, as though gravity sided with the native jungle on top.  Sometimes there were little huts or lean-tos of thatch and timber and corrugated metal among the fruit trees or on the edge of a field.  Once there was a boy in a faded yellow jersey and orange shorts walking away from the road through the parrot-green tea, but at no point were there streetlights or traffic signals.
We stopped a number of times at rambling single-ply strips of stores and dwellings to exchange passengers.  One man who got on halfway through the drive brought a whole bunch of cute chicks with him.  I couldn’t figure out why the cashman seemed so reluctant to let the group on, especially as the he had practically begged the last few customers to join our ranks, but then I heard the noise of a hundred or so baby roosters packed into a cardboard box, which, if you are sensitive to that kind of thing, could be pretty irritating.  I for one am a huge fan of undifferentiated and constant noise—it’s like the ocean—and plus you could just see little beaks poking out of holes in the box to nibble hilariously at the plants printed on his Hawaiian shirt, so I silently cheered on our automotive agriculturalist.
The gentleman and his feathery entourage exited sometime later at a stand of stores that swam with men and women in matching blue vests, each carrying a basket of different goodies and each trying really, really hard to get our attention.  Handfuls of Pepsi bottles and nuts and candy and fried-critter-on-a-stick were shoved through the open windows.  The arms blocked vendors’ faces so that all I experienced was a wriggling wall of oddly delicious-smelling octopus tentacles, accompanied by an overwhelming aural tide of pleas and imperatives.  I kept catching tiny glimpses of an eyewhite or toothflash or rapidly quivering uvula, but everything shifted too fast for complete identities to come into focus.  The commotion was growing towards an impossible level when suddenly the van began to sluuurch forward; faced with mass amputation the less hearty salespeople pulled back quickly, while the truly committed (desperate?) ran along with arms still inside the windows until their Vendor Roulette game got too dicey.
I felt uncomfortable for not being hungrier, or wealthier.
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Soon after the way station more and more buildings began to pop up on the roadside, and it was clear we were approaching the outer edge of Jinja proper.  We’d read that this city on the source of the Nile is Uganda’s second largest commercial center, and had decided to find out which industries allowed it to financially surpass the higher-populated Gulu to the North (besides a lack of recent civil war, of course); the surrounding village/suburbs revealed only goats and papaya trees.
With billies on the brain I wasn’t fully aware of our direction until we turned a corner and saw a rush of steel girders, then the shattered glass of sun off water, and finally the endless lateral sky of a bridge over the longest river on earth.  She’s wide there at the source, wider than I would have thought—in part due to the massive dam just north of the bridge—yet still we passed over too fast, and I kept wishing the engine would stall in the middle of the span. 
Thankfully it was only a few more minute’s driving to the center of town, where we paid the cashman and creaked out of the taxi stiff, sore, and hungry to hike straight back to the siren source.

To be continued…

Friday, 25 January 2013

(Mostly) Back from Jinja

Alex only has three limbs now, but otherwise we are back to the Father's!  Crocs weren't nearly as bad as we thought, figured at least two limbs apiece.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Off to Jinja

Hey!

We're gonna go to the source of the Nile River in Jinja, back Friday night.  If I don't post something by Saturday morning (our time) then we probly got crocodiled.

Bye!

Alone Time? You Mean You’re Sick or Something? Take an Advil, It’ll Go Away.


Alex told me the other day that English is the only language he’s heard of with a word for “privacy.”  Other languages have adopted the concept since (in Russia they pronounce the new word “privacy”), but no culture has used the idea frequently enough before American influence to merit its addition to the lexicon. This would suggest to me that it had been assumed throughout history that you relied pretty heavily on family and friends to avoid famine, cold, and giant cave bears, until a bunch of existentially-prone folks emptied out a huge continent by means of infected blankets, steely muskets, and shady contracts, and decided that surviving on one’s own was way cooler and harder core than “relying” on “other people” (whatever pansy crap THAT phrase means), and in that process the lonely new term was born.
            Judging by the ridiculous quantities of barbed-wire fencing and wrought-iron spear tips that ornaments hilltop homes here, I would imagine that some Kampalitans© have become acquainted with the word; however, based on the complete lack of spatial boundaries I’ve encountered otherwise, I’d say those numbers are pretty low.  Indeed, I rarely see people here walking alone, and never sitting or working or playing or doing much of anything else alone, unless they are talking alone and then they are probably crazy and thus outside the purview of mainstream Ugandan society.  Children run in packs along the street, women always have a friend or smaller offshoot-pack of children around when they’re at home during the day, storekeepers work in pods of at least 3 or 12.  People hold your hand for sometimes like three-and-a-half minutes after a handshake ends, and sometimes just grab your hand to lead you somewhere like it’s a date.  It is assumed that you greet everyone in a room when you walk in, and if you act like you’re moving too fast to stop and say “hi” because you’re American and don’t know these rules and anyways really do need to go talk to Samuel because he said it was important, people will act all indignant and totally make fun of you until you get it right.  Not that I’ve experienced that firsthand or anything.  Just, like, hypothetically or whatever.  It was probably Alex.  He would totally do that type of thing.
Anyways, after I got scolded for not saying hi to everyone (shoot, I mean, after Alex got scolded), I made the mistake of telling Walter, one of the Father’s doormen, that I was going to go on a walk alone to clear my head.  He gave me a quizzical look, and I wondered if perhaps he thought this was dangerous?  No no, he said, not dangerous during the day, not at all.  Okay then, good doorman, did you not understand something?  No, I understood, Walter says—which I believe because Walter spends his whole day reading English newspapers from front to back—I did, he says, but I just don’t understand what you mean by needing to go walk alone.  Isn’t Alex your friend?  No no, I say, Alex is my best friend, but he would impede my thought process—sometimes I need to walk alone, you know, independence and freedom and ‘MURICA and all that.  Walter just shook his head and gave me That look, the look that Angela gave me when I shouted hello to her just outside the door to morning mass, the look that says “Lord, Americans really ARE as weird as they look on Jersey Shore...”
                                                            ---
I have found in my life that time alone fulfills a function that nothing else will.  The clarity of thought I get in a place without any other human input, the ability to let my mind flit and twist and suckle on sweet flowery neural nectars; I have tried at times but never been able to replicate this comfortably with other folks around (perhaps because they’re unnerved by the whole neural-nectar suckling bit…).  Now, obviously, there are incredibly wonderful and important things to do around others, and the most fulfilling parts of my life have almost exclusively been with fellow humans—not to mention the fact that it is very hard to make the world significantly better alone—but I really do think it’s important to take some small private time most days to settle all of the input a social city life provides.
I seem to be alone in these sentiments here (sorry); especially at the Father’s home we are constantly swarmed—though kids everywhere are staunch opponents of strange grown-up concepts like “stop bothering me”—to the point where I’ve been scheming how to scale the barbed wire and come in a less obvious way.  I won’t, because the festering tears in my flesh would be in themselves pretty obvious and anyways I kinda like the rock-starrish entrance the crowd accords me, but it can still be difficult to deal with sometimes, especially after the maddening rush of the city outside.
To paraphrase Douglass Wood, I think this shall be a good experience, if I survive it.  I would like to build the ability to trust more of one’s thoughts and feelings to others, and the ability to free your mind even in a crowd; I think these things are important if I want to be a good man moving into adulthood.  It would also be a shame to live in this beautiful country without attempting to honor its culture through such simple participation.  Again, it will be hard for me; I’ve never really lived this way before.  Maybe, if you have a little extra energy, you could keep your fingers crossed for me, please?  Even as I type this post stray soccer balls threaten to knock out even my barest socializing abilities, those being primarily manifested through laptop and noggin.  Though it would be easier to always be around other people in a head-trauma coma, I guess… 
I hope everyone reading this is doing well, and I hope for vicariousness’ sake you’re doing it in a calm, quiet, otherwise uninhabited nook of the Private World.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things:

An Exploration of Popular Political Theory in Uganda


I was eating breakfast[1] before Mass on Sunday, extra early because Alex and I joined the church choir, when our accountant friend Samuel handed me a newspaper.  As I unfolded the journal I saw in a smallish textbox on the front page that the Prime Minister of Uganda, a man by the name of Amama Mbabazi, had just been arrested for embezzling over 5 billion Ugandan shillings—equivalent to about 2 million U.S. dollars—from f:unds sent by the British and Irish governments to aid the people of his country. 
            In equal parts due to my long-honed hatred of political pissbisonry and my newfound Ugandan Patriotism, I was outraged. Not only did this man steal from an aid fund, he stole from an aid fund designated to help research and treat infectious diseases in a country that still marks the ebola virus as a health concern.  The Ebola “I have a 90% fatality rate and don’t even replicate well because I kill my victims too quickly and efficiently” Virus.  He was literally helping more people bleed internally unto death!  Worthy of outrage?  I think so!
            The people of Uganda, on the other hand, do not seem to think so.  Samuel was calm. He explained patiently through my sputtering protestations that all politicians in Uganda do this type of thing, so best not to get too worked up just because one got caught.
            But surely Samuel, surely you are appalled that money designated to help people like your war-ravaged tribesmen in the North was greedily hoarded by this barbaric ogre of a man?  No?  Not even a little bit?  Okay, I guess I’ll go find someone else to be indignant with then.  Harrumph.
            Only, no dice there. 
From Michele, the Italian businessman who’s very job it is to attract investors to a country that he claims “will always have these types of people,” to our new friend Jose Chameleone (he’s a Ugandan musician, more on that later), not a single person showed serious concern over this seriously concerning (to me) event.  I was angry at the indifference I felt was rearing its dull head all around me, and beginning to subconsciously write off Ugandans as nihilistic apathetistes—so I buried my worries for a moment by singing really hard during Mass.  Calmed slightly by this obnoxious exertion, and after a lunch spent replacing all the nutrients I sweated out in the fission reactor they call Bbiina Church, Alex and I hopped a couple of boda-bodas[2] into Kampala to clear our heads with a little downtown wanderin’.

 [1] Italian people must not have mothers, because I was taught that cookies, candy, and coffee were not, in fact, acceptable breakfast fare.
[2] Turns out they’re not dangerous at all (hi Moms!) mostly just waaaaaaay fun!          
            
Walking through Kampala you witness the results of this political “finagling” first-hand.  Public parks are surrounded by barbed-wire and blocked off by armed guards; the largest of these (Independence Park) was originally public until the army closed it off and made activity there illegal for no discernible reason(according to Chameleone on a late-night tour of the city).  You see massive gorgeous homes on the hilltops that are apparently owned by a few hyper-rich politicians and tycoons—Chameleone and Samuel and Michele have all told us that the politicians are the ones with the real money here, using government funds as their personal coffers—and a hundred meters down the hillside you run into the tiny storefronts manned by three or four individuals apiece, each hoping to bring enough money home to survive that day (over thirty percent of the population here lives on less than a buck twenty five per diem).  It feels like a way more colorful and friendly version of the Paris in Les Mis, and yet no revolutionary fervor grips these people who are shown evidence of their own capital subjugation on the front page of newspapers constantly.
           Really though, outside of two or three honest-to-goodness pavement beggars the people act the exact opposite of Hugo's peasantry.  Many live meager material existences yet smile and joke and party more often than any other populace I’ve ever seen (University of Minnesota students might party more, but they smile and joke a whole lot less).  The Ugandans I know speak with complete resignation on the topic of greedy boss-hogs, yet do not fall into existential crises or apathetic despair.  In the course of just four sentences Chameleone informed us that both “Yes, Ugandans are the friendliest people, they really do care!” and “No, at their hearts they are greedy though, and will take everything they can.”  A similar paradox infested a talk we had with Michele about ‘development’ here—“This corruption is so entrenched in the tribal system here post-colonization” but “yes, I think that people are growing to understand and help each other more.”
            How can all of these things coexist? Because they do, for all I’ve seen.  Men and women will barter like rabid storks, fighting to make the most personal profit from any given situation, and then smile and wave at each other as they part, for all the world like no feathers just flew.  People still go to vote (though in decreasing percentages since the start of President Museveni’s reign in the 80s), even though they claim that their politicians are helplessly corrupt.  Men and women pay large parts of their small paychecks for fancy new clothes so they can stick out and live up to the image-consciousness that is so important here, to the point where it becomes not a luxury but a necessity to feel fresh and fly and forward-moving.  They are either the most resilient sonuvaguns on earth or completely and utterly insane.  And really, how thick is the line between those options?
                                                                        ---
I was singing my guts out in the church choir when a sun broke through the clouds of my paradoxilated mind. 
Religion.  The enormous population of believers here (over 84% of the population is Christian, some 12% Muslim, and I haven’t even heard the word Atheist or Agnostic yet); this is the closest thing I could find to an explanation, the closest parallel to this mad paradox.
            The Catholic Church would say that people are sinners; people are marked from the start with original sin and cannot be complete as imperfect as they are, yet—yet a believer must always hope and pray to God and trust that things will become better despite this inevitability. An acknowledgement of the weakness of the present; a soaring faith in the future, no matter how inconceivable reaching that future may be.  This is a nation of realists and believers, a nation of down-to-earth hope.  A nation of dreams.  Sorry America, but I have to give it to Uganda on this one.  The people here can move despite the crippling realities that confront them on all sides because they are homo sapien, in all of its post-rational glory, and because they have found the tools to cope with the paradox of their existence.  The reason that our #whitepeopleproblems is so funny is that these people smile through things that transcend even the concept of problem for us.  How foolish and petty I felt, yet how uplifted.  I could learn to live like this too, right[3]?

            Before I left the aforementioned United States I had a lot of worries about my potential role in Uganda.  Would I simply be a new kind of colonizer, a cultural and linguistic colonizer removing a people from their uniqueness and bringing them into the great glinting American apparatus?  Would my teaching trap these people into an intellectual subservience?  Was I just Kurtz in a less hand-chopping way? 
In the small time that I’ve been here, however, my conscience has cleared markedly.  My spirit lightened with the same revelation that brought me out of my sadness for Ugandan apathy.  I cannot know that my teaching here will help anyone, cannot know that it won’t add towards some larger and more sinister design.  People may use this knowledge to do horrible things; or perhaps others with greedy plans will use these new English speakers towards socially devastating ends.  I have figured out that I cannot change what these others will do; I can only seek to understand best what results my helping creates, and have faith; faith like my new neighbors’ faith that if I work hard and further the skills that they're asking for they will bring about something more beautiful in the future--even if that future lies long past anything I can see.

Some of my students might go to jail for squandering billions of dollars, it's true.  But that in itself takes a heckuva lot of cunning, right?  Maybe if I'm lucky even one of these stubborn, bubbly kids will be in the papers for an entirely different reason.





[3] Even if maybe, you know, I don't believe in any of the existing religious groups I've seen…

Sunday, 20 January 2013

On Storks and Why, God?


I feel a special affinity towards pigeons.1 Ours was not a bond formed of one chance encounter, or a fleeting glimpse across a subway platform. Rather, pigeons are beautiful for their constancy. In my home city of Chicago, they can be found anywhere there is trash nearby.2 When I moved to Brooklyn sophomore year of high school, they were among the first living things that greeted my entrance into the world's capital. When I went to college, pigeons were there, solidly dependable. Even in the course of my travels in Europe, pigeons were never far from my side. 

In short, I have always been sure of one thing upon arrival in an unfamiliar airport or train station: sometime in the next few hours, I will see a pigeon, and it will probably try to shit on my shoe.3 Such was my certainty that upon arrival in Kampala, I was so convinced that pigeons abounded here that I did not even spare them a conscious thought. I took our relationship for granted, and only after a gnawing feeling somewhere around my kidney4 realized that there weren't any.

Anywhere.

Pigeons had abandoned me.5

1 Also towards pidgins, but that is neither here nor there.
2 Except, curiously, rarely in the trash itself. Foreshadowing alert: not all urban pests are like this.
3 Punk.
4 Also notable as probably the part of you a pigeon would most like to gnaw on.
5 My aforementioned shoe wasn't too broken up about this.

Thankfully, I've moved on. The reason is that Uganda has their own indigenous pigeons, which could probably eat American pigeons.

They're called storks.

Aren't they cute?

Storks are like pigeons in every important way. They are throughout the city nearly as numerous as human beings. They hang out on top of streetlights, in the middle of roads, and clustered in trees.




They actually eat garbage.

And they are denser than a truckload of cement.6

The phrase bird-brain expresses a questionable claim that birds are really stupider than most animals, an idea which crows and falcons, for example, give the lie to. But I submit that this claim is in fact true, solely because storks are so head-spinningly obtuse as to negate the relative advantage gained by their brethren.


6 Their abysmal intelligence has probably led more than a few to become trapped in cement at some point, so perhaps their density is more or less equivalent to that of average Ugandan cement.

Why did the stork cross the road?
Probably to play in traffic.
The Marabou Stork, the particular variety that infests Uganda's capital, is without a doubt the ugliest bird I have ever seen. It doesn't look capable of enough independent brain activity to keep its head upright, and you'd better well bet I judged the book by its cover, because it turns out the book's contents are really just the word “dur” repeated a few million times. 

Storks' terminal stupidity is illustrated quite well by the specimen appearing above in the middle of the road, which was captured exactly two seconds before a car whizzed by, missing it by inches. The bird in question made a little clucking sound, flapped its wings as if in indignation—and stayed in the same goddamn spot. And then another car passed by, coming just as close, and elicited the exact same reaction.

More than once while walking around Kampala, Sam and I have come across storks picking up sticks in their beaks and standing there as if waiting for something wonderful to happen. Perhaps it needed the stick to keep its oversized jaws from absent-mindedly knocking together. More likely they haven't had a thought in their lives and instead picked up the stick because who the hell knows why they do anything.

They poop on their own legs. Really.

In conclusion, storks are worthless wastes of oxygen and I want my pigeons back.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Islands in the Sun


            I am sure it’s obvious to all of you that Canada and Africa are not particularly similar,[1] but I was overwhelmed with a feeling of deja-vu yesterday as we crossed from Port Bell to a small island in Lake Victoria.  It might have been that I spent two very important weeks of my summer living on islands in Quetico Provincial Park,[2] and that this was my first time heading towards a patch of green-on-blue since; or perhaps that any little chunk of trees rising from a lake will look similar from a long distance, I don’t know.   I just couldn’t shake the blatantly misplaced (Canafrican?) familiarity that was Guineau-worming its way through my head.
            Thankfully this pleasantish but bothersome feeling was soon shaken out from me, like a ripe popo[3], by the violently resolving shoreline; no Canadian banks ever looked so tangled and Impressionist.  Captain Dixon, our chauffeur d’eau, pulled his vessel up to the low point in the island’s middle[4] and allowed us to disembark.  The next twenty minutes were very much not like Canada, except inasmuch as they were my first time alone in a wilderness environment since my trips this summer.
              I will not say that I pretended I was Henry Morton Stanley the whole time I trekked through the brush, because I hope not to act as precursor to a number of years of Ugandan colonization; however, I DID keep twirling an invisible mustache and speaking to myself in a British accent—and in the end I could not but think back to the stories you hear as a kid about machete-wielding men hacking their way through the stifling African foliage.  From the second you put a foot anywhere near shore these plants are thicker than Oprah holding a copy of Infinite Jest.
            Anyways, in case you, like my friend David, are confused about the geographic relationship between islands in Ontario and Kampala, here is—
 [1] Unless perhaps you are our construction friend David, who thought that all of North America was owned by the U.S.A.
[2] By which I mean I spent two weeks canoing about the Quetico, as it’s known.
[3] Papaya, as they call the watery little orange squash-fruits here.
[4] The island is long and thin, with a hill on each end and a small flat spot in the middle, like a half-submerged number 8.

An Elucidation of the Differences Between an Island in Lake Victoria and an Island in the Quetico

1)  Birds
            Now, the Quetico has birds, but in this city (and even more so on this island) birds serve a dual function as both native animals and landed aristocracy. Much of the terrain surrounding Lake Victoria at the Kampala hillbottoms comprises something that the locals call Nunaviku, which we assume translates as “terrible snake-infested Smeagol-guide-necessary swamp[5].”  Thing about swamps is, flying critters love ‘em.  Thus, waterfowl of all types are endemic to every inch of this city (even the particularly dry parts), and the cream of the avian crop seems to have chosen this prime ape-free real estate as their summer[6] abode.  Cream-white egrets, circling hawks, a dark cormorant-looking bird, and a squadron of swinging, diving kingfishers—silver and black feathers resplendent in the midday sun—perch on every available rock and root over the water.  Inside the tangled forest this diversity suddenly ceases—methinks ‘tis too dense for maneuvering—but the borders all around thrum with a net of crossing flight-paths.  You are hemmed in by birds, and where the birds cannot reach the spiders reign.


2)    Spiders, good Jesus spiders.
            Again, Canada has spiders.  But nowhere on earth could possibly have as many spiders[7] as the underbrush of this island.  And not just spiders, no no no, that would be too pleasant—these guys are about the size of your slack-jawed mouth, and dressed in the colors of what must be the Hell’s Angels of spider gangs.  Which would make this particular island Sturgis, North Dakota[8] , except not for just the weekend (I assume?).  Hiking up one of the hills I must have disturbed 30 or 40 webs a meter, and as I couldn’t avoid this density no matter where I stepped I spent most of this time praying to Anansi to keep my tender white meat safe from prying mandibles.  A spider check after the ascent revealed only a few passengers; that didn’t stop the boat trip back from being a particularly itchy-feeling one…

3)    Density
The forests of the Quetico are exactly what Walt Disney pictured when he imagined how the average school child would want to imagine a North American wilderness.  Plenty of bare rock and empty space between pines for a surprisingly Caucasian-featured American Indian woman to frolic through, talking pets in tow; large and majestic thick-furred mammals to stumble across (they can talk too?!?), thick beds of fallen pine needles to lay your weary head upon when all that frolicking and interracial-tension-reducing tuckers you out—the whole scene rather moving-ly picture-sque, if you will.[9] 
Ugandan forests won’t take any of that crap.  They are too dang busy.  The sheer numeric quantity of plants and animals that directly contacted my person at all times was unbelievable, and that is just the organisms I could see.  The weight of all that life was incredible; the air was heavy and oxygen rich, a Wall of Smell Phil Spektor-style that hit your face like the first chords of Born to Run.  In the Quetico each individual smell presents itself neatly for examination like daintily-perfumed soldiers at inspection— here they gang up on you in more of an anarchist black blox kinda way .  I am sure that some of this amalgamationing was due to my ignorance and lack of local knowledge, but it would take a helluva sergeant’s eye (nose?) to pick apart this particular bouquet.

4)   Snakes
            Okay, fine, so I didn’t see any, but the whole place just had this sorta…snake-y…feeling.  You know, like there are just probably snakes everywhere, watching, waiting, eating bird’s eggs and giant spiders and plotting your demise.  I’m not crazy, the place felt like snakes!

            I realized that I might be going crazy as I stood alone for a moment on top of the hill.[10]   The sense of being completely unimportant in an environment so busy and moving (and probably full of snakes) was at once too much and perfect; this is nature when it has all the resources it needs in abundance, nature that can divide and multiply nearly without limit; this is the mothersunning equator.  I love the ruggedness of Canada, the creatures who can take so little and survive—even turn off for six months if necessary—but this is a whole new type of life altogether.  Now all I want is to see what would happen if you could put the two islands next to each other for a little bit to talk about their respective life experiences.
            “Wait, you die every year and then come back to life?  But that makes you… ZOMBIES!!!!”
            Undead Canadian Pineapple Trees.  Perhaps even scarier than invisible snakes.





[5] Really though, don’t follow the lights, precious.
[6] Which is, may I remind you, every season here for the last 10,000 years
[7] Cross your fingers, knock on wood, say a rosary—do whatever you need to do short of research to insure that this fact is true.
[8] Which, come to think of it, isn’t really that far from The Quetico!
[9] Alex won’t.
[10] Alex didn’t come that far because he’s scared of widdle spidy-widies*
*Okay, terrifyingwy huge spidy-wides.

Doctor Robert, I Presume?


We Bazungu are map-obsessed. Samuel has already documented our nearly-fruitless eight hour search for a map of Kampala; in addition, we thought it would be swell to create a map of our own, detailing our surroundings and associated points of interest.1 We haven't really done so well at this task, partly because every time we go out to walk around and do some low-tech surveying,2 something more interesting happens.


“But Alex, what could be more interesting than maps?” asked no one ever

1 I still haven't told Sam that I got lost in the neighborhood when I was here in November. I don't think he suspects that my motive for mapmaking includes not only the beauty of man naming his environs, etc., but also a desire to not die in a dark alleyway.
2 Low-tech in this context having the meaning of “involving our eyes.”


On one recent occasion, we got out the door, and headed down the bumpy dirt path-road to find out where it went. The answer was goats.

I'm going to pause a moment to allow anyone from Monroe Hall reading this time to stop laughing.

The goats marked a dead-end, so we turned back and went down another side path-road, one that we had traveled before. After making a turn onto an almost-road, we heard a man calling our names.

The first time you run into someone you know in a strange city is a near transcendental moment. You experience a feeling of such comforting familiarity that mom's meatloaf for once wouldn't even make your mouth water3, and a sense of wild, carefree excitement that leads you to conclude that all time and space has conspired to bring you to this moment, and that you are invincible.

This feeling may be misleading. Do not attempt to experience if under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other mood-altering substances. Side effects may include feelings of invincibility.


3 Nothing on your meatloaf, mom.


In short, this alien place, no matter how much fun and stimulation it has heretofore provided you, this place in one instant becomes home.

The man calling us was named Ignatius, and the backstory he's going to get here is none, because we knew very little about him at the time—he's an interesting enough character to get a post or two of his own later on. Ignatius is a wiry young man who hunches forward slightly when he talks, which he does often, quickly and excitedly. He has narrow features, which as we learned later he attributes to his suppositious Ethiopian ancestors,4 and a confident air that manages to be both energetic and disarmingly friendly. Nevertheless, any interaction with him causes a very slight sense of unease, as if some neurons meeting in congress in the long-forgotten regions of one's brain have checked and double-checked the calculations, and come up with a number just a bit different from normal.5

After a bit of small talk, mostly centering around the subject of “what the hell are you muzungus doing down this backalley?”6 Igantius invited us to come to an orphanage where he claimed to volunteer.

4 Ok, so I lied about the no-backstory thing. You don't have to get all bent out of shape about it.
5 As will become clear from the following, neither Sam nor I read the report those neurons handed in to Central Command.
6 I'm not sure we provided a satisfactory answer; there's a distinct possibility that every single African we've met in our wanderings thus far thinks that we have a mild case of never knowing where we're supposed to be.

As some of our readers (hi, Moms!) may know, evaluation of locals' claims is always a dubious art during your first time in a foreign country. You never know, for instance, if the chap you just met sporting the huge skull tattoo7 can be trusted when he claims to be third in line for the presidential succession: perhaps the tattoo is some sort of regional custom denoting political power and not a penitentiary custom denoting terrifyingness.8


7 No, Ignatius did not have a huge skull tattoo. Thank you for your concern.
8 The above is an excellent example of the little-known danger of the word “perhaps.”

In any case, we went with our gut9 and allowed him to lead us away. As the almost-road receded, we found ourselves weaving in between dwellings that gradually reduced our way to a path-road, then a not-at-all-road, then a careful-don't-run-into-that-wall-what-is-this-not-road, and finally an I-didn't-know-people-could-fit-through-spaces-that-tight-road. With each reduction in peripheral manuverability, Sam and I looked at each other with just a bit more misgiving on our faces, wondering if after being beaten and robbed and chucked unceremoniously in the sewer they would at least give us a map so we could get back home.

None of that came to pass.10 Just as we had resigned ourselves to our impending doom, Ignatius, motioning for us to follow, ducked through a small doorway of the type that commonly open into courtyards here—a child-sized pop-out set into a massive 10-foot painted iron gate. When we emerged from under the gate, we found a crowd of teenage boys who seemed to know Ignatius smiling at us.

9 Which was in conflict with the aforementioned Neurological Council, the latter having finally unequivocally decided that something here was the matter.
10 Although I can state with near-certainty that the “they” who never materialized would not have given us a map.

After being shy-smilingly greeted, we were told that the courtyard, which was ringed by dilapidated-looking one-story concrete structures, was in fact a secondary school, although from the look of things it was the one-room thatch-roofed country schoolhouse to Fr. John's Swanky Ivy-Covered Red-Brick East Coast Prep School. Our welcoming committee, naturally, was made up of the boys, mostly orphans, who lived and studied in this sorry-looking compound.

Having obtained the name “Brother Robert” and a guarded assertion that the aforementioned was both an American and the local head honcho, Ignatius volunteered to bring us to the Brother's house.

When you have to get up the cojones to trust that someone who could be leading you to a messy death11 is in fact bringing you exactly where he promised, and he goes and does bring you exactly where he promised, it builds a certain kind of intrapersonal bond, albeit somewhat one-sidedly (Ignatius probably had no inkling of our unease throughout our previous journey). So we meekly tagged along on more I-guess-you-could-call-this-a-trail-but-it-certainly-isn't-a-road-roads until we reached a house the size of your average suburban bungalow in an upscale neighborhood nearby.

11 Dear family, I promise that I have not been in any real danger at any point here.


Brother Robert is what you picture when you picture a westerner running a school in a place like Uganda. He is medium height, ruddy and with a paunch and white hair no doubt donated him by increasing age that hasn't yet managed to get at his vitality. His heavy and unplaceable accent led us to believe at first that we had been unwittingly tricked into entering the lair of a Canadian (believe me, we were 'bout ready to turn and bolt), but it turned out to be from New Hampshire.

Crisis averted.

We let him take us back to his school in a Land Rover that I would classify as one step up from “bombed out,” where he gave us the grand tour, which largely consisted of him pointing out how little the school had of everything: space, supplies, desks, concrete that wasn't in the process of quickly eroding, etc.12 He managed to accomplish this without once complaining or pleading, but rather smiling and laughing, stating things matter-of-factly and not expecting any reaction, sympathetic or otherwise, from us his guests. In this, the Brother is much like the Ugandans we have come to know in our time here, and spending an afternoon with him was a genuine pleasure.

The upshot of our adventure was that we may become doubly employed: at a meeting that very morning we had learned to our dissatisfaction that we would likely only be teaching a few classes at Bishop Cipriano, the school run by Fr. John's organization. Since Brother Robert's school is short on teachers,13 and experiencing his school would provide a wildly different perspective from that afforded us by our current position, we will hopefully be able to teach a class or two there as well.


12 According to him, the only criteria for admission to one the school's limited posts is poverty: “the poorer the better.” This is, he notes, in marked contrast to Bishop Cipriano, which explains the incongruity between the two.
13 Other things in short supply, aside from those listed above, include everything.

I note with some remorse that I have not significantly reduced the number of footnotes from my first post as promised. Therefore, I will finish this up posthaste in order to not run afoul of the internet.
Burn the footnoter!

Happy Saturday to you all.

Friday, 18 January 2013

An Ode to Piri Piri

O, African wonderdeath pepper, your size in no way foreshadowing the destructive capacity you harbor within, why do you haunt my dreams?

O, diminuitive red teardrop, capable of releasing the fires of a thousand suns, wherefore your hatred for the innocents you have this day harmed?

Do you possess some emnity, as yet unguessed, towards your fair-skinned owners, far from home and susceptible to your trickery and corruption?

Has the power of love and mercy remained unknown in your distant land and given all over to cruelty and death?

O, scourge of tastebuds and ravager of digestive systems, how can you even now lie so meekly upon the table, luring passers-by into your inescapable jaws?

O, crimson tide of spice, sorrow, and pain, when we and the captain of a local skiff chanced upon you on the shore not four hours gone, how were we to know the events that would follow?

O, you of intensity that burns beyond all imagination, when we greedily filled our pockets with the fruit of your tree, was the seed of hatred then planted that would bring about our demise?

Was the scorn we laid upon the mild sauce stewed from your brethren a thorn in your mottled gleaming side?

Should we have evinced more respect towards the potency we knew of not before this fateful hour?

O, unhappy merger of brutality and artlessness, did you grin in evil anticipation as we lifted you high and began to drop your willing form towards our mouths?

O, forsaken offspring of Satan, as you were crushed between eager jaws were you aware of the potency escaping through your broken skin?

O, unquenchable all-consuming flame, as your heat grew and peaked, did you feel some grim satisfaction in the accomplishment of your nefarious task?

Were the cries of “oh God make the burning stop” as music to soothe your wounded soul?

Are you even now plotting some new revenge against which we poor outsiders will be unable to defend?

Should I eat another one?1





Why dost thou glisten in feigned harmlessness like ain't nothing the matter?





1 Sam's contribution to this post: “Captain Dixon picked a peck of piri piri. They weren't pickled. That's, uh, all I got."

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Straight outta Kamp-ton


Straight outta Kamp-ton

I have alluded previously to a day spent map-searching[1] in downtown Kampala; however, no mere couple of sentences could hope to sum up the overwhelming amount of sensory input we received that urban diem.  To be honest, anything less than an infinity of sentences wouldn't come close, but we didn’t want to look too touristy what with the whipping out a camera every few seconds, so you’ll just have to accept the thousand words I’m posting in lieu of a picture.[2]

The fastest way to get anywhere from Port Bell Road (the main thoroughfare at the bottom of our hill) is on the back of a boda-boda[3], the independent moto-scooter taxi service which entrepreneurs run from really whatever spot they choose to run their services from.  Thus, any convenient street corner, sidewalk, streetmiddle, front yard, or wholestreet in the city can serve as a staging ground for these crafty businessmen.  Though self-employed, they are always found in gaggles of 2-6, seemingly so that some can sleep on their handlebars while others keep an eye out for customers and then steal said customers from the drivers sleeping on their handlebars; as in any good capital-based culture a boda-boda man receives from the game whatever he’s willing to give to the game. 
Now you might be wondering how these sleeping drivers (who perhaps aren’t even aware that there’s a game going on) are able to survive in such a rough economic landscape as Kampala, but that is actually the secret to their continued success: as far as I can tell it is so dangerous to work as a boda driver here (the concept of “right-of-way” is about as foreign in Uganda as Herman Cain[4]) that the only way to run a sustainable business is to never actually drive your motorcycle anywhere.  The implicit paradox here has not escaped me, lest ye worry; I will do my best to investigate this issue and come back with a topical and precise economic model.[5] 

[1] That’ll teach all you haters out there, a Geography major really IS good for something!
[2] Or not accept it and go read Alex’s insufferably visual and populist posts. 
[3] Boda-boda translates roughly into English as “suicide death machine of suicidedeath from hell”
[4] the lack of either hurts a general populace’s ability to truly enjoy life to its fullest, I feel.
[5] Haahahaahaaha, precise economic model, I slay myself.
         
             Having been warned by Father and Samuel not to trust the boda-boda due to its aforementioned “unreliability” we decided to try a different option, the independent cargo-van taxi services which entrepreneurs run from really whatever spot they choose to run their services from.  These rickety white vans, printed all around with religious statements and various motivational bits, filled with anywhere from 2-20 people in a space meant for 1-10, will pull over at streetcorners, sidewalks, streetmiddles, front yards, or wholestreets; really anywhere they see you  waving from.  They generally have destination points, but are willing to completely break route if you are willing to pay a ridiculous sum of money, regardless of the complaints or time table of the other riders.  I have not yet seen a bidding war break out between clients; I don’t rule it an impossibility.
Sans map we caught the van whose cashman[6] was shouting “Kampala Road” in hopes that said road was actually in/near Kampala; after an uneventful half-hour ride with my head bouncing against the top of the van this turned out to be a correct statement (see footnote 1).
We got out where we could see the skyscrapers, paying the cashman 1,500 shillings each (about $1.20 for the two of us) before looking around to see exactly what we had stepped into the middle of.  I don’t think I am a good enough writer to construct a narrative of the next 8 hours, so instead I will attempt a series snapshots—which is actually, given the heat and overwhelmity of it all, exactly how I experienced the day.  While reading everything imagine a background of grey buildings and red dust, intensely black people, and an overbearing sun…
 [6] Kind of like the taxi’s hypeman, his job is to get people pumped and into his vehicle by any means short of abduction.*
*hopefully short of abduction

An entire city block (but not a block like you’re thinking would be a block, twice as long [or half the size] that is, a Kampala block) of printer shops; concrete buildings all two stories but not a single one the same height as another; printers and stationary and other goods for making signs and advertisements and CVs literally as far as the eye can see until the road wiggles off left juuuust too much for unbroken ocular capability.  Sidewalks raised above the street maybe, or a little lower. Like the street (or parts of the street) they are formed in hard-packed ochre clay whose edges are wavy and distempered things eroded by the chaotic variability of water and feet and stray boda-tires.  Pits between the sidewalk and street filled with oil, paper, plastic, fruit rinds, excrement, and things fouler than excrement; sometimes this mixture runs downhill and sometimes it sits trapped like a little crater lake, waiting for just a touch more filthic downpour before it can begin its own journey into Victoria.  People pass in every direction, staring at us for at least a moment.

Walking down a block with four banks on it, separated each by a storefront or two; the first bank has a guard sitting out front in police uniform holding an AK-47 with no shoulder stock, the second bank has a guard sitting out front in police uniform holding a World-War II era bolt-action rifle, the third bank’s police guard swings a sawed-off shotgun from his shoulder sling, and the final guard has sacrificed originality for another AK.  People pass in every direction, and the guards’ eyes never seem to move.

Sitting in wicker chairs out front of a store, drinking a Bell’s (Uganda’s Heritage, the beer’s label claims!) from its half-liter bottle and watching the world pass.  A woman comes out with two china bowls of what I assume is food, places one on top of a public phone booth.  A truck drives past full of beer crates, a man rides on top.  I raise my bottle to him; he salutes back.  Beautiful women pass in every direction; they never to look at us for too long.

We enter a little opening between buildings into a food market, suddenly everything is for us.  “Yes, come, please, look!”  “Chicken, you no like chicken?”  “Spices, yes spices” “Yes, yes!”  I try my hardest to keep up with Alex but the press of people in this narrow space is intense and the uneven floor is littered in obstacles.  The smells are so heavy that I find it hard to breathe; piles of tripe and sweetbread on platters buzzing with flies, neatly ordered rows of whole chickens beheaded and plucked, burlap bags of beans and rice and millet that must weigh hundreds of pounds—and no way to get a vehicle into this labyrinthine space—fruit and fruit and fruit and squash and more fruit; we exit the market onto street again and face the largest pile of rinds I have ever seen, tumbling from dumptruck onto a raised plaza, ignored by even the poorest because who cannot find fruit here in the Pearl of Africa?  People surround us, people engulf us, and though most look for a bit life presses them on.

              Not quite a thousand words, but I imagine you get the picture[7].  By the time we found our map the sky had sucked all our water out, leaving our mouths parched and skin baked despite the Nalgenes and sunscreen.  We found Kampala Road, found a taxi, and returned to the Father’s in time for a shower and dinner.  As I washed the burnt clay and fried skin from my hands I looked in the mirror and realized that my shoulders were about halfway to my ears; I hadn’t let down my awareness once, not even with that beer in hand, and my body was still trying to shake off that day’s incredible and indescribable newness.



[7] sorry