Oct, 2019 back to Apr, 2007: (nothing)
Today is International Women's Day. It is a public holiday in Uganda (and has been for the past ten or so years). The women here in Gulu are quite excited about it: yesterday they were running around town with brooms, cleaning the town in preparation for the big day. Today I will hopefully get a chance to spectate some of the celebrations.
I hesitate to comment on sexism in a public setting such as this, since I do not wish to offend some of my readers. Specific stories might single out my friends here.
Instead, I will admit with shame that since arriving in Uganda I have made some comments, in conversations with men, which objectify women. I have no adequate excuse: peer pressure is a cop-out, and there will never be a valid reason to treat people like objects. In celebration of International Women's Day, I promise that I will not make such comments in the future.
Sexism is not a joke. It is a very real problem facing the world today. And no, North America hasn't overcome it yet: not by a long shot.
(This is part 3 of 3 in my series on culture shock. As a reminder: Part 1, Mzungu, discusses my unavoidable position as an outsider. Part 2, Life is Cheap, attempts to illustrate that Ugandans live life on the edge.)
(Oh, and I'll say one last time: NGO means non-governmental organization. They're the people funded by governments and by donations, with a goal of helping people. Nobody I've met here, mzungu or otherwise, seems to know the term. Except NGO employees.)
(Okay, on with the show.)
Two weeks ago, in the slum in Kampala, I volunteered for an Ugandan NGO called Meeting Point. At the time, my mind was still reeling after my first trip to Gulu. At the forefront of my thoughts were the two ideas I mentioned previously: I am a mzungu, and I will always be different, and the people here live life day-to-day. Beyond wanting to help random people I've never met, I wanted to evince some meaning from it all. Maybe it was the hot sun, or maybe it was hearing child number 12728 yelling mzungu!.... Whatever the cause, I understood something about culture shock.
I will be in Gulu for the next week. Somehow the idea has entered my mind to add a little gimmick to my blog: Fun Facts. For the next few entries (or, potentially, for the rest of my visit to Uganda), I will append a Fun Fact to the end of each blog entry.
My goal is to raise awareness back home. In fact, last night (which I spent alone, so I could recuperate from a mild cold) I had a lot of ideas about which directions my blog should take. It's quite clear in my mind that I can't just write stuff like I went to a camp in Gulu and took pictures of children. That carefree, happy-go-lucky form of blogging would connote the exact opposite of the situation here.
Since I'll be up in Gulu, my first few Fun Facts will be Gulu-inspired. I hope my readers enjoy them.
Fun Fact: In and around northern Uganda, two million civilians have been displaced by the LRA, which is estimated to have fewer than two thousand combatants. That's one thousand civilians per rebel!
After a night out with the Concordia bunch I mentioned in a previous blog entry, I got a ride home. The power was out (at the guest house, there is a generator; but they don't turn it on after midnight), and so it was very dark. As I approached my door, I saw a cat. (There is a cat on the premises, known as Jinja.) So, of course, I said: Hi, Jinja!
Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a rat. So I said: Oh, you're not Jinja. Well, I'm going to open the door now, and you're blocking it, so I hope you don't bite me.
And I did, and it didn't.
Only a few minutes later did I register my utter lack of fear, disgust, and even surprise. That rat was big enough to eat Jinja, and I was entirely unfazed.
(This is part 2 of 3 in my series on how I am dealing with culture shock.)
When visiting the camp in Gulu last week (back when I was young and innocent), I was told by a cynical Canadian expat that life is cheap in Africa. It took me a few days to fully understand this statement. (And trust me, words alone cannot convey the meaning.)
How can I begin to describe it? Well, let's take a step backwards for a minute and look at some statistics. 900 million people live in Africa. Malaria will claim maybe two million of those lives this year. HIV will claim another million. (I'll save my thoughts on these numbers for another blog posting.) Some contrast: in the United States in 2001, nearly 3000 lives were lost when terrorists hijacked some airplanes and ran them into large buildings. It was considered a tragedy beyond equal. This very day, three times that number will be killed by malaria or HIV.
Nope, statistics don't convey my meaning. Let's zoom in on Uganda.
I am a tourist. And there is quite a bit of tourism to be done in Uganda. The book Gen gave me for Christmas, 1000 Places to See Before You Die, lists Murchison Falls as a must-see. So I did. One down, 999 or so to go! (Okay, actually fewer. But well over 900.)
When growing up, I never expected to go on safari. It seemed too expensive. But there were six of us (from the Mulago guest house) and so we got a great deal. We had two nights in a fancy hotel (with buffet! I ate so much!), two game drives, and a boat ride near the fabulous Murchison Falls on the Nile. Three of us got off the boat and hiked up the falls.
Pictures speak louder than words. Here are some low-quality ones. (It takes ages to upload things from Uganda; but rest assured, I have the high-quality ones and I'll publish them at some point.)
The sunrise on Saturday:
Mzungu, n. Swahili word for white person. Various spellings and pronunciations appear in all of East Africa, Central Africa, and Southern Africa.
(This is post 1 of 3 in a series which describes how I am experiencing the phenomenon known as culture shock.)
Yesterday I went to one of the slums to volunteer for an organization called Meeting Point. Meeting Point is a local NGO which helps families struggling through AIDS. This includes running an orphanage (complete with a school) and distributing food to families without bread-winners. The organization itself seems very sensible. It is not just a charity: clients must request the aid themselves; it provides food, counselling, and other services; and it gives its clients a deadline of one year in which to improve their lives, after which support will be cut off (in favour of other needy persons).
My work was quite simple. We started off by divvying up rice from big bags into smaller bags. Then we loaded rice and oil onto a pickup truck and drove from house to house, distributing it. (The rice was donated by Japan, and the oil was donated by Denmark and Canada.) Funnily enough, I watched myself suggest slight improvements in processes (e.g., we don't need to measure this particular oil, because we know that it's exactly 2 litres...). Nothing major, but it goes to show that an engineer's mind certainly comes in handy.
Africa is closer to the sun than Canada. The rays hit it perpendicarly. And while it's not excessively hot in Uganda, I think the sun may still explain the cultural phenomenon of sauntering. Or maybe it's the fact that there's less oxygen in the air. Or maybe they know something here that we don't understand.
Walk down the streets of New York at a leisurely pace, and you will get in the way of countless businessmen, students, children, and just plain random people, who have a destination and a deadline. They'll brush past you, and you'll mutter an apology and check your pockets to make sure you weren't robbed.
Or not. More likely, you have an agenda also, and you're fixated on accomplishing what you need to do today. So you'll walk at a brisk pace. I mean, who in his right mind has the extra five minutes it takes to stroll from departure point to destination, in this day and age?
But here in Uganda, everywhere I have been, the people do not walk: they saunter. Literally and figuratively. When an appointment is made for a certain time, the implication is, well, to meet sometime within an hour of that time. When setting up a list of things to do in a given day, one must keep in mind that only one task on that list will actually end up completed (no matter how minute the tasks). People amble in to work sometime in the vicinity of the beginning of the work day, and they leave sometime around when their work day ends. And nobody ever runs (or even hurries).
There is a fun game to play on the streets of Gulu, while walking downtown. It's called Spot the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization: that is, the people you invest in when you donate money to Save the Africans, Save the Children, Save the Dolphins, etc).
How inspiring, right? That so many people care about the lives of mistreated and traumatized Ugandans? Yes, that is the positive side of the story. But, of course, there is a negative side as well.
The economy in Gulu is booming. Many NGOs are arriving in the recent very few months, bringing so many outsiders here. And this makes commodity prices go up. And it makes costs of sleeping arrangements go up. Basically, it makes the cost of living go up. Every NGO which comes here (and there are a lot) carries with it a certain cost to every citizen of the region. Mzungus can afford higher prices, but most citizens cannot.
Of course, there's a downside to everything and this observation may seem rather pedantic: the net effect is positive, right? Well, short-term it certainly is, and long-term it seems like it should be. When things get better, NGOs will trickle away slowly, and the economy will stabilize.
I hopped onto a bus to Gulu Friday morning, with Chris and Chelsea. The bus was very nice, with nice people. On the way to Gulu, we crossed the Nile and we got pictures of baboons.
History lesson: in northern Uganda, for the past twenty years, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has been abducting women (for raping purposes) and children (for recruiting purposes). They would have the children murder their own families as part of their training. The government set up camps with guards to protect the Ugandans; but corruption made the camps unsafe, because the guards were purchasable by the LRA. The camps were also boring, which led to large increases in HIV. And they were also cesspits for disease. An unbelievable situation.
Now, the LRA is in peace talks with the Ugandan government. I am pleased to report that Gulu is safe. I have not died yet, and I am unlikely to die soon.
The camp was incredible. Erin is helping to build community among youths in the camps. Because the LRA has been gone for a while, people can return to their land and farm. Unfortunately, land ownership is done solely by the community in a completely undocumented fashion: so upon return, two families will contest the same land and this can escalate to violence.