Friday, February 25, 2011

World AIDS Day: Arua, Uganda

In December, the US Embassy put on multiple World AIDS Day events, and one of them was in Arua, a district in northeastern Uganda which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo and nearly borders Sudan.

It is UP there.

One of the embassy workers, a returned PCV herself, asked the Peace Corps for some volunteers for the day. And she got them... a lot of them. An opportunity to go into a formerly restricted zone (due to rebel activity from both the Lords Resistance Army and DRC/Sudan overflows) where PCVs are not placed, devoid of all but HEAT? Yes please. And, it turns out that the northeast is BEAUTIFUL! Very "Africa" as you would see it in a textbook (minus the wildebeests and zebras).

Depending on who you speak with, the event itself was a success or a failure. I think it teetered between either throughout the day. I made some tremendous emotional connections with a few of the event attendees, and after 8 months in the field, my eyes were further opened to the devastating poverty that 99+% of this country suffers with from day to day (Consider this: Borderline RIOTS over free t-shirts). Looking back, I'm remain proud to have been a part of the event.

Well, I've got a story for the event, but this post is for pictures. So I'll turn off the tap... but stay tuned.

The event started with a BIG parade around the town.

All in all, 11 PCVs turned up for the event. We all got to wear/keep those snazzy red shirts.

Ecstatic spectators. Is there anything funnier than a crowd of dancing white people?

The event grounds. This is a soccer pitch and the marching field for the police.

A woman, backed by a choir sings "Oh Uganda", the national anthem, to kick things off.

A crowd of children watching "AIDS Jeopardy", a game show where all the questions are related to AIDS and HIV. Three different groups of contestants play, (1.) Kids, (2.) Adults and (3.) Local leaders. It is horrific to see just how little the adult population INCLUDING the local leaders (theoretically the most educated in the region) knows about the subject. The kids ROCKED it though! The challenge is to get them to apply all those memorized facts now.

A neighboring district showed up to build one of their traditional instruments: the biggest xylophone on the planet earth! The cross pieces are wood blocks, and the long supports are banana stalks.

The finished product.

JAMMIN'! When they started, the crowd gathered around, and a huge conga (or should I say congO line) formed, and people danced and sang around the musicians. Talk about feeling the music. I felt possessed.

A woman wears a lanyard strung with ARV containers (Antiretrovirals - the medicine to combat HIV/AIDS) ammunition-style across her chest.

The group "Woman living with HIV/AIDS", the event's host (who has lived with HIV/AIDS for 11 years) and Peace Corp Uganda's Country Director.

After a full day's battle, I was finally able to pull through and give his deaf-boys group a bag full of t-shirts. He was gentle, patient, honest and so thoroughly grateful. It made my day. I love this kid.


This kid gave me a ration of shit at the end of the festival for not giving him a shirt. I recorded his spiel on my recorder... something about Obama and how the people of the US need to do what Ugandans want, and that means giving them free T-shirts. Hilarious at first and damn annoying when it didn't stop. The next day, as I had just boarded a bus for Gulu when there was a knock on the window, and guess who it was? Yep. This guy. Well, he was on much more pleasant to be around (no more mob-mentality), and in exchange for a song from his recorder, I took the shirt off my back and tossed it to him. It made his day, and it made my bus ride. We were even.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An outsiders view of my world:

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the steps of a hotel near my house (I actually just moved to that hotel, but that is a different story), hanging out with some new friends from Germany who were 6 months into their From-Germany-to-Capetown-South-Africa-on-Dirt-Bikes trip, when a man road up on a LOADED touring cycle. Long story short, he needed a place to stay so I offered him the floor of my home. Before leaving the next morning, he gave me his card showing his website where he posts about various bike tours he has finished or is planning. This morning, I got around to checking the site, and I found his post about his stay at my place... I've pasted his entry below, as I think it gives a taste of what a true outsider to Uganda might feel visiting.

"At around 4pm I arrived in town after 80km of sweating my nuts off, I found a hotel where a couple of white people where drinking coffee, good start I thought!, So I ordered a beer and asked about a room, after a 15 minute wait i was informed that the hotel was full....strange. About this time 2 of the 3 people got on their motorbikes and headed off, so I asked the other guy if he had a tip for a hotel in town, the options where, cheap and nasty or a $50 hotel. Devon then offered some floor space at his house though warned me that it wasn't much.

If I'd walking into Devons house a year ago I would of walked straight back out, he's living as a local for the " peace corps" for 2 years here and his house is 2 small concrete rooms with noisy neighbours. But for 1 night this became my Oasis for rest and relaxation. After 5 dusty, thirsty days living on rice and self made bread, it was great to have some company, cold beer and some home cooking (he knows where to get the fresh vegi's from at the market). And best of all the " shower" , a 10 litre jerry can hanging on the wall is not what I'd usally call a shower, but I was so filthy, dusty and sweaty that it was probibly one of the best showers I've ever had:)

Thanks Devon for a great evening!!"

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Maybe. Maybe not.

Ugandan's drive on the left side of the road. Sinister. I walk on the right side, runner-style, so I can see the cars racing towards me, weaving, their imbalanced wheels threatening to to dislocate and shoot outward like a Looney-Toon Cartoon with every wobble.

In The States, I call my method "taking precautions." In Uganda, I call my method "Death Control."

But like it's antithesis, sometimes the condom breaks. And sometimes, it only almost breaks...

On my walk to school this morning, I was nearly flattened by a bus. In my minds eye, it wouldn't have been a steam-roller flattening as in "Who Killed Roger Rabbit?" No. More like a Devon-meets-bus. Devon flattens on bus' grill and sticks. Devon screams like the after-shave scene from "Home Alone" straight through town center as Ugandan's look on and announce to no one in particular, "It was god's will", heads nodding solemnly.

But I won't pin the almost-homicide on the bus driver. You see, a safari vehicle was passing through town at the sluggish pace of ~50 mph. And 50 in a residential portion of town is GETTHEFUCKOUTOFMYWAYASSHOLE-slow. Especially when the road is lined with kids heading to school, with wo/men heading to work and drunks of all ages heading to the bars.

Gotta show 'em: might makes right. Gotta show 'em: I've got a car, and you've only got legs.


And a bus is bigger than a safari vehicle, and...

Might makes right.
Might makes right.
Might makes right.

A mantra.

The bus swings wide, the turning radius of a freight train, and accelerates. The corner of the bus whips past me, 2 feet away. The gust of hot air pushes me sideways, off the road. My heart is pounding and my exclamation of "WHAT THE FUCK?!?!" is lost in the explosion of four or five pitches of the bus' bull horn and the diesel engine hidden beneath its tacky pink exterior.

The incident is over. I watch as the two vehicles battle for first position: the safari vehicle accelerates, the Kalita bus weaves to-and-fro.

A vision of me sprinting to the bus stop, pulling the driver from his seat and inciting the townspeople to drag him through the streets like Mussolini flashes briefly. The thought is replaced with the following:

When I leave Africa, I may decide never to return. But, by no choice of my own, I may never leave Africa.

I am shaken by the thought.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Meeting Gone Awry

The beginning of the year meeting was scheduled for 10AM today. With classes scheduled for 11, I knew that there was no way we would make it on time... meetings last forever.

For. Ev. Errrrr.

Come 10:40, the attendance had reached critical mass, so just before starting, I quickly ran to my room to let my students know that I would be late to class (after all, if we can't finish a meeting in one hour, we surely can't finish one in 20 minutes).

The meeting starts. I drop the book I am reading (The Audacity of Hope).

The speeches are drawn out and follow protocol to a TEE.

(1.) Opening Prayer.

(2.) Statement from the Chairperson, the Madam Head Teacher

(3.) Statement from the Deputy Head Teacher

(4.) Statement from the Director of Studies.

(5.) Review of Minutes from the last staff meeting sometime in November of last year ("Minutes" = Detailed report, i.e. EVERY SINGLE WORD AND HAPPENING OF THE MEETING, "Review" = Reading the "Minutes" word-for-bloody-word to a bored audience comprising 25 and one borderline suicidal Devon).

(6.) Remarks and "Way Forward"

(7.) Closing prayer

It is now approaching 12, and we are only half way through the meeting. This does not mean we are at #5. No. We are at #6, and everyone is adding their opinions to the mix... which is strange because there hasn't been a single damn thing said to rain these opinions onto. Nothing. People are literally spouting a whole lot of nothing about... nothing. Only those talking have any further interest. Everyone else is "LOST."

I too am lost. I pick up my book again and begin to read.

A few minutes go by, and in my peripheral hearing the words "Mr. Murphy" buzz.

Mr. Obama is talking about is road to the Senate. He's quite a writer.

It tries again. "Mr. Murphy, are you with us?"

The words break through, and "It" becomes "She": the new Madam Head Teacher of Kyenjojo S.S.

A bit shocked, I look up, realize what she is doing, and I take the truthful way out... and dive right in.

"No, I am not."

Giggles swell and are stifled from the crowd.

"Well, it is very rude of you to be reading while a meeting is in session."

Welp. Now you've gone and done it, lady. You've been here three days and you're all ready power-tripping on me over my desire to avoid listening to speeches that will literally de-brain me if they penetrate through the thick membrane that is my selective hearing, in front of a live audience, no less..

And, you're done.

"Well, I think it is very rude towards our students to be missing class because we could not show up to a meeting on time."

"Would you like to be somewhere else?" she poses.

"Yes. I would like to be teaching my class."

"You should ask to be excused then."

"Thats fine," I say standing up, book in hand. "May I be excused?"

"You are asking to be excused from a meeting. That is very rude."

"Yes, but I should be teaching my class. May I be excused?"

"You want to leave the meeting?"

"Yes. I want to go and teach my class. May I be excused?"


I walk out of the room in front of surprised, whispering faculty, faces plastered with varying degrees of awe, and head to my room to salvage what is left of my lesson.

The meeting continued straight into and through lunch...

...and early 1100 students were deprived of one-third of their studies today.

...but all the teachers got a coke or two, "so there's that!"

Thanks for reading.

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)