Thursday, December 23, 2010

Kabaka, Amin, a Mosque, and Casinos = one awesome day

My time in East Africa is rapidly approaching its end. I just received confirmation that I will be leaving about 6 days early because of the cancellation of our end of trip excursion. It would have left us with an extra week in Kampala that didn’t appeal much to me. Most of the people and places I care about are up in Gulu where we are not returning. So my friend Robbie and I changed our tickets and now we head to London on the 11th instead of the 17th.

Most of our trip has been spent living in the communities that we are studying and learning about. We have had a number of excursions that get us out to see the countries we have been living in, but our touristy outings have been very limited. My friends Hannah and Allie and I decided that there were some places in Kampala that we should see, and we felt the need to be typical Muzungus at least once.

Mengo Palace

So to the Palace of the Kabaka we went. The Kabaka is the king of the Buganda kingdom, the largest ethnic group in Southern Uganda. The palace sits upon a hill and overlooks the entire city. It’s a new structure because the old one was destroyed when Milton Obote, former President/ Dictator of Uganda, wanted to wrest power from the Kabaka and destroyed it.

The layout of the palace was based on a royal palace in Scotland with a number of architectural cues obviously taken from a more western place and with the addition of a “royal mile” connecting the palace with the parliament. We weren’t allowed into the palace, which is odd because it is not occupied right now (some dispute of some sort) but the grounds were pretty enough. Our guide took us down to the royal lake that was built in order to provide an easier commute for the king to his palace (How convenient).

On the path down to the lake we saw a large tunnel cut into the hillside that led to a dark foreboding looking cave. After gazing at the lake, we made our way down the tunnel. It was lined with vegetation and large concrete walls that ended in a large concrete opening that penetrated the hill. We had arrived at Idi Amin’s torture chambers. Idi Amin was president of Uganda from 1972 to 1979; his life was detailed in the movie “The Last King of Scotland.” He was an incredibly harsh dictator and his torture chambers remain a testament to his reign. There were five rooms whose entrances were raised four feet from the floor of the bunker. Apparently, prisoners would be put in the rooms and the bunker floor would be filled with three feet of water, the water would then be electrified so the prisoners could not escape. It was common practice for them to be thrown in the water once they were deemed unfit to live. Amin himself was hardly educated and most of his prisoners were the educated people of Uganda. Another notch in Uganda’s belt of oppressive leaders.


Uganda is a largely Christian nation, but that doesn’t mean other religions don’t thrive as well. One of the largest structures in all of Kampala is a gigantic mosque in Old Kampala. We drive by it all of the time but we just never got around to visiting it but today we felt inspired.

The Mosque is named after Colonel Qaddafi, of Libya, who donated the money to build the mosque and maintain it for 25 years. Apparently, Idi Amin started it in 1978, but construction was halted when Obote overthrew Amin in 1979. It was restarted in 2003 when Qaddafi came to visit Uganda.

The building itself is incredible: carpets from Libya, lamps from Egypt, the intricate details created by Moroccan artists, and the design by Qaddafi’s architect. The interior space can fit 7,000 people easily and the entire structure is designed to house more on bigger occasions. The minaret of the mosque is one of the tallest structures in Kampala and can be seen from almost every part of the city.

Before we could look around the compound, Hannah and Allie first had to cover themselves as their attire of pants with their uncovered heads was not appropriate according to the Islamic tradition. They made quite the pair once they were decked out in their colorful scarves. When we were all dressed appropriately, we were taken towards the mosque. The building is massive but the designs are all incredibly intricate, truly fascinating.

Our guide first took us up to the top of the minaret where we got an incredible view of Kampala. The climb took a good five minutes, and was, besides the “marathon,” the most exercise I have had this entire trip. The view was spectacular; we picked a perfect day and could see all of the places we had been in Kampala. Our guide apparently makes the climb seven times a day and claimed it made him incredibly fit, fit enough, he decided, to take a Muzungu as his wife. I quickly had to claim both Hannah and Allie as my wives to deter his advances, the ploy worked and we soon descended the tower.

Next was the mosque itself. I have been inside many monumental churches, full of pews, paintings, and elegant statues. I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the mosque. The inside was just a vast expanse of open carpet and columns. The columns ended in large domes that had openings in the top to let in natural light. Instead of statues and carvings, the beautification was in the architecture itself, intricate designs were set in the domes and the lamps were wrought in incredibly miniscule detail. In a space composed of relatively simply architectural forms, incredible beauty accentuated the interior.

After walking around for a while we were headed out of the Mosque and we bumped into a white robed man entering through the doors. We were told he was the man responsible for the call to prayer, what a wonderful chance encounter. We were just in time to listen to him do his thing. As he walked over to the microphone he told us how he had started calling twenty years ago at the district level, he had worked his way all the way up to the national level and was incredibly proud of what he had done.

He approached the mic and we sat down to watch him do his thing. He covered his ears and then started speaking Arabic in a hauntingly melodic manner; I could see how he had become the main caller in all of Uganda. It was simply beautiful. It went on for a few minutes and his voice echoed powerfully through the mosque.

After he finished we gathered ourselves and left the mosque, ending a great cultural experience that I never would have thought would have happened to me in Kampala, Uganda.

Suit Up

We returned home in the late afternoon where I was greeted by Robbie who was decked out in a suit. Obviously curious, I asked him why he was dressed so smartly. He looked at me and said simply, “Suit up.” And no questions asked, I did. Let me explain.

In Uganda there are a limited number of TV shows that are truly bearable. In order to get by, we shared a lot of movies and TV shows amongst our group. The most widely liked and widely viewed show was “How I Met Your Mother.” I have heard some heathens call it a mediocre show, I beg to differ, but in Uganda it was pure viewing gold. One of the most beloved characters is Barney. Barney is on all counts a pretty bad person (egoistic, chauvinistic, and selfish) but for some reason he is strangely endearing. One of his catch phrases is “Suit Up,” used whenever it is time to go out on the town and impress a certain gentler sex. To turn down his demand is travesty in his eyes. So naturally, when asked to suit up, I did.

Turns out we were having a guys night out to the casinos of Kampala. Three guys from my group (Steven was sick) and the two guys from the other group, Jason and Luke. It’s been a long time since I gambled, at least three years, and it’s not something I particularly enjoy, but I was excited for the night ahead regardless. We all bodad over to Kampala City Casino to start the night off right. Luke and Jason had been there for a while; Luke was doing well, while Jason was a few shillings down. Luke made his winnings through the slot machines so we decided to give it a try. I changed out about 20,000 shillings for tokens and started off my night. I stayed pretty even for about fifteen minutes then won a little bit which prompted my buying drinks for some of the guys.

 I was down to 10,000 shillings and was about to call it quits when I switched to another machine. I sat down and played a few rounds, and was about to leave and made one last pull… and won. A lot. The machine kept spitting out tokens and when it was done, and after much excitement from the guys, I gathered my winnings and brought them to the cashier. I went from 10,000 shillings (about $5) to 200,000 shillings (about $100). Not bad for one night in Kampala.

Not wanting to push our luck, we decided to switch casinos and headed out to Simba Casino. We failed miserably at every turn at Simba and resorted to giving money to Robbie to play Blackjack on our behalf, the dealer won almost every time and before long we figured Simba was not the place for us.

The rest of the night saw us sing karaoke and find our way home. A good night of suiting up was had by all, and my winnings paid back the money owed to me by my shifty advisor Oliver. Win win.

-Muzungu currently in Notting Hill slowly adjusting to life away from Africa after experiencing a rousing carol show at the Royal Albert Hall

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Stuff I Couldn’t Tell You

There are a number of things we aren’t allowed to do on an SIT trip: drugs, “relations” with our academic directors, riding boda bodas, rafting the Nile, Staying out after 7 p.m. in Gulu, using ISP money for alcohol, etc. This blog is about the times where we did some of the above, and lived to tell the tale. I have saved this post until the end of the trip because I have enjoyed my time in East Africa, and I didn’t want it to come to an abrupt end. Below are a few fun times we had outside the bounds of SIT law.


Pizza is something that I have missed immensely while here in Uganda and Rwanda. After months of eating rice, beans, and goat meat, little cravings for food back home start to come creeping. When we made it down to Kampala at the end of the Uganda section of our trip, we checked out Robbie’s guidebook and discovered that there was a Dominoes Pizza in town. Our travel weary bodies needed to at least make a slight effort to taste the delights of this pizza oasis. For God’s sake, they even offered delivery! So call we did. We ordered four medium pizzas and one large pizza. Our excitement was palpable. The delivery guy called us and told us that he was waiting outside the University. We scrambled up the hill to find our pizza messiah. He saw the approaching Muzungus and walked towards us, his pizza carrier looked thin, too thin. He pulled out one pizza. What! He recognized our order but said they only made one pizza. Damn. We begrudgingly sat down on the sidewalk to try our smaller than expected meal. It was out of this world delicious.

At that moment, it was decided that the rest of our order must be had. We elected two members of the group to head down town to find this Dominoes (not the American chain). So David and I hopped on a boda and sped into downtown Kampala. We reached the pizzeria and walked inside. We re-ordered our original order; the owner looked at us and said, “Oh, you are the order from Bativa hotel.” The guy knew our order from half an hour ago, but didn’t send the pizzas along. AWA. We waited thirty minutes and our order was ready to go. Five pizzas, two guys. Two guys with five pizzas are incredibly hard to fit on one motorcycle while maintaining the structural integrity of said pizzas. So we split up and snagged two bodas.

There are very few rules when it comes to negotiating the traffic in Kampala. People go when they want to go, motorcycles often use the sidewalk as a road and gridlock is frequent (locally known as “Jam”). This fine evening, traffic was heavy and any westernized rules for travel were well and truly disregarded. We zipped between big trucks that could have easily crushed us, not to mention the pizzas; we dodged other bodas; and we made great use of the sidewalks. At one point, we burst into an intersection and another boda stopped just in time to allow its front tire to rest softly on my calf. Phew. We finally whipped around the corner to our hotel and dismounted gingerly. Our lives and pizzas intact, we brought our Americanized feast home. Because it was the 5th of November, we watched “V for Vendetta.” Pizza, a movie, and for some, a beer, life doesn’t get much more American than that.


And by that I mean The Nile. On our last Sunday before our ISP we had a free day, a day to relax and work on our ten-page comprehensive Uganda essay. We had gone to Jinja the day before to see the source of the Nile, even swim in it a little bit. But for us, that just wasn’t enough.

Ever been rafting? It’s a pretty good time. When I worked for Overland Summers in Massachusetts I got to raft three times in one summer! We got to raft a nice gentle Massachusetts river with Class 1 to Class 3 rapids. The scale goes up to Class 6 (Highly likely death). Ever been rafting in Uganda? We got to raft the Nile, one of the largest and longest rivers in the world. Class 3 rapids are as low as the Nile goes. More common, Class 5.

We left our hotel early Sunday morning and were picked up my Adrift rafting Company and bused back to Jinja. A nice Belgian man joined us on our trip over. We arrived, checked in and grabbed our gear. Five people in our group decided that it would be a good life choice to go Bungee jumping over the Nile, more power to them, but I wasn’t even close to thinking that was a good idea. After they all plunged headfirst off of a metal platform over a cliff, we met our raft guides and set off down the river.

Meet Lee. He is Scotsman who works as a raft guide in Uganda for half of the year, and Canada for the other half. Tough life, right? He has been bitten by both a Sac Spider (?) and a monitor lizard in his time in Uganda. Why he still comes back is anyone’s guess. Lee was tasked with keeping our group fully alive for the entire day while also keeping us entertained. As someone who survived the day, I can say he did a good job on both counts.

We began the day by practicing strokes, capsizing the boat, and then hitting our first rapid. For some reason, the guides get a real kick out of flipping the rafts during the rapids. Apparently the Nile is “the safest rafting river in the world,” so they feel justified in this. And I will give it to them; the thrill of being tossed underwater by the full force of Nile and getting popped back to the surface safely is certainly exhilarating.

On one rapid our entire boat capsized and only Caitlin and I returned to our original boat with Lee. It wasn’t very long before we hit another rapid so the boat of Caitlin, Lee and I, in a boat built for 9 mind you, took the rapid on our own. We made it through no problem. The other boat that had taken our stragglers was now a boat of thirteen, they capsized again in no time.

Through out the day we dropped over an eight to nine foot tall waterfall and didn’t capsize, we rafted the largest commercially rafted rapid in the world, and we relaxed and floated down the River Nile. Oh, and in an earlier post about Jinja I mentioned Bujugali falls and the man who rode a jerry can down them. Well we ended up rafting down those falls as well!

Our day went as smoothly as we could have hoped. All thirteen of us had a great time. Our day ended with a strong row against the current to shore where we had a short walk to a hut where a meal of brochette (meat on a stick) and chapatti awaited us along with plenty of beverages. We perused photos of our journey and after a while boarded the bus for the ride home. The following day we all nursed our sunburns (mine were so bad one section of my leg blistered…)

During all of our fun I couldn’t help but notice the large amount of people that actually use the river as an everyday part of their life. Not a kilometer went by where we didn’t see at least 20+ people washing their clothes, bathing, fishing or cooking. We were accompanied by safety kayakers, all of who were local Ugandans. We were told that many of them joined the company because they make a lot of money compared to other jobs. As kayakers they get paid 25,000 UGX ($12.50) a day compared to a teacher who gets paid 5,000 UGX ($2.50) a day. For all the fun we were having rafting the river it was really important to see the way the river impacted the lives of the people of Uganda. With environmentally friendly and sustainable tourism like this rafting organization was providing, local Ugandans are making a great living while not taking too much away from the local environment. It’s unfortunate to think that they are soon going to dam a large section of this part of the river. I am curious to know how much the government has done to help relocate those who will be displaced by the reservoir. My guess is unfortunately not much.

-Muzungu currently in Notting Hill slowly easing his way back into the western world

Friday, December 10, 2010

All Good Things Must Come to an End

I have turned in my ISP and I just presented my project to the group yesterday (19 minutes and thirty seconds, yikes). It's time for me to go. Because of the way things worked out with the evacuation from Gulu, our end of trip safari was cancelled. So there is an awkward four or five days to play with. It sounds like SIT isn't providing the money to fund another expedition so Robbie and I have planned an exciting European trip with my friend Andrew from the UK. We are flying out of Uganda tonight and getting into London at 7 in the morning. After a day in London we fly up to Edinburgh and make our way to St. Andrews were I have some friends doing their study abroad. After two days there, if we survive the snow, we fly to Paris for two days to soak up some European culture, and then back to London on the 16th to meet up with my mother dearest.

I have a blog post that I have been working on for my last few days in Uganda and I will probably have a few more with reflections and tales of reintegration and reverse-culture shock that are certainly going to affect me. I might be out of internet range for a while due to my travels but I wish you all the best. I appreciate you taking the time to read my blog. It's been a joy for me to write and I hope it has been equally enjoyable for you to read. I'll keep the posts coming but the end is in sight. Goodbye Uganda, Goodbye Rwanda, it has been a truly incredible experience. The Ugandan saying for "don't burn any bridges" is "Don't up root your pumpkins," I hope I take this advice to heart and keep the relationships I have formed here strong.

I am excited to come home, but incredibly sad to be leaving. I'll keep you posted on my life in the next few weeks. Thanks again for following.

-Muzungu on the way out of East Africa, about to lose his status as a Muzungu

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Evac, Europe, and Nakivale Update


We went the way of the Peace Corps. A few days into the much talked about plague we received a phone call from our academic advisor telling us that we were being evacuated to Kampala. Most of us were pretty upset to be leaving Gulu and our Homestay families behind, but the logic was pretty clear. We packed up all of our things and loaded them onto our trusty matatus. We were supposed to leave at 11 but naturally we left at a little before 1, AWA. We encountered the usual bus matatu break down on the way to Kampala so our four-hour journey turned into an eight-hour journey. Our driver, Tycoon the Man, also decided it would be a good idea to buy a chicken, still clucking, and set it under the back seat. I don’t know how the little guy didn’t make any noise or try to escape but it was definitely still alive.

We made it to Kampala by nightfall and returned to the trusty Bativa Hotel where we started our trip three months ago. Most of us were pretty exhausted so we passed out. The following day Dr. William, our Academic Director, gave us a briefing on the situation. Apparently there were confirmed cases of Pneumonic Plague and a strong possibility of Ebola, I’m glad we got out of there as soon as we did. It’s still upsetting to think that us Muzungus can escape so easily but we leave behind all the residents of Gulu to fend for themselves. There is nothing we can do, but it’s troubling that the actual Ugandans really have no escape. We also learned that our safari at the end of our trip has been cancelled so our trip might end earlier than expected.


Because of the premature end to our trip, my friend Robbie and I have been planning a little European adventure. We were originally going to fly out on the 17th in the wee hours of the morning but now we might be able to fly out on the morning of the 12th. I have a lot of friends studying abroad in Europe right now so there is a chance of us going to visit folks in Italy, France, Scotland, London, etc. The most viable option seems to be Scotland right now, and considering I just finished Braveheart, I’m pretty excited about it. Although I realize I have literally no winter clothes.

So a few days in Kampala it is, I have finished my Independent Study Project, longest paper I have written yet, and I feel good about it. Our presentations happen next week and then this African adventure ends for me. It’s been an amazing experience and it has really changed my outlook on the world and how I plan on living my life. I am sure that I will find uncountable ways that this experience has changed me upon my return home.

Nakivale Update

I don’t know if I have mentioned this before but a lot of my studies in Nakivale were focused on an event on July 14th, 2010 when a large group of Rwandese was forcibly repatriated to Rwanda. The official story is that two people died because they jumped out of trucks taking them back, but the refugees told a very different tale involving Ugandan troops rounding up the Rwandans and shooting at them and then forcing them into trucks. They claim up to 27 people died.

I mention all of this because I received a call from Everest, a Rwandan refugee in Nakivale, last night. He was terrified. He told me that about 100 Ugandan troops had showed up at Nakivale and were not telling people why they were there. He fears another event like the July 14th massacre. Hopeless does not even begin to describe how I felt after that phone call. He asked me what he should do, where he should go. I felt so powerless. This man wanted me to tell him the best way for him to preserve his life, and I had no idea what to say. All I could tell him was to avoid going to large gatherings organized by the Ugandan troops, because that could too easily turn into a similar situation as the July events. Beyond that, I had nothing to say, I don’t know where he lives, what his finances are like, where he can go, or how legitimate this threat is. I have no pull with any political or Non-Governmental organization. My role as a student has been a blessing and a curse. People feel comfortable talking to me about their lives and their struggles but the information I get at this point doesn’t have much readership or much sway in the world of academia. I am able to get solid information but it goes into a paper to advance my own personal learning and that’s about it.

At this point it seems I can only look forward and hope that this experience helps build an understanding of the world around me and allows me the possibility of enacting changes in the future that prevent similar situations as described about from happening or happening again.

I hope this blog post finds you well wherever you may be. Happy Holidays.

-Muzungu currently back in Kampala, contemplating his time in Africa and his coming time in Europe.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Counting, ISP, Illness Update and Home


Math isn’t my strong point, never has been, probably never will be. But life abroad is a lot about the little calculations; my simple math skills have increased tremendously while here. Firstly, figuring out how prices. In Uganda, to figure out how much a given meal or item costs you have to consider the exchange rate. One US Dollar equals around two thousand six hundred Ugandan Shillings. To get an extraordinarily rough estimate of cost we simply divide whatever the price is in shillings by two, then drop three zeros. In Rwanda, one dollar equaled 600 Rwandan Francs, so double every price and drop three zeros.

Then comes time. I have been trying my hardest to keep in touch with my friends and family back home. The time difference obviously makes it difficult, especially when daylight savings time came into effect mid-semester. Right as I got used to figuring out the eight-hour time difference with Nashville and the seven-hour time difference with Bowdoin, it went and changed on me. Uganda doesn’t participate in that Daylight Savings Time nonsense. Now it’s nine and eight respectively, still trying to get used to that.

Lastly, Cards. Yeah, when power isn’t always a given and you only brought two books for a three month stretch, cards are a life saver. Spades and Hearts are the most played games among my group, each requiring their own little calculations in the score keeping. I went from having to write out the addition and subtraction to figuring out scores quickly in my head, helps on the long bus rides on pothole ridden roads.


I just finished my ISP. Procrastination failed to get the best of me. I wrote the longest paper of my life, and the first real research involving interviews of my life as well. I’m happy. Now I have to figure out what to do over the next five days, I’ve got a lot of time to kill.

Mysterious Illness Update

The Peace Corps were evacuated yesterday. The CDC and the US Embassy have kept quiet on anything that might be happening, their responses to emails claim that nothing is really amiss and that we shouldn’t be worried. But the fact that the Peace Corps bolted to Kampala certainly isn’t reassuring. Robbie talked to one of them who had 10 months left in country who said he thinks they might just send them home.

Another group of Muzungus got so spooked that they didn’t just leave the North they left the country entirely. They are currently biding their time in Nairobi, Kenya. Apparently they heard from a nurse who was here in 2000 (when there was a big outbreak of Ebola), that she saw one of the new cases and it was definitely Ebola. This is unconfirmed, but unsettling nonetheless.

We have already checked the prices of private hire cars and private jets (fifty bucks a head to Kampala, not bad) to Kampala just incase this blows up, but all signs are pointing to it not being a big deal. Although there is some concern that the government in Kampala will try to cover up whatever happens because of the upcoming election in February of next year. Hmm….


Two weeks until I am no longer in Africa. It’s currently my warmest December on record, hasn’t been cooler than 75 degrees any day yet. This is while I am hearing about negative fifteen degree centigrade weather in Vienna and massive snowfall in the UK. This news comes as a shock to me because I am spending ten days in London after I leave here to spend time with my family and friends. I have a legitimate fear of freezing to death once I step off that plane; my warmest clothes are khaki pants.

I am really excited to get to London though. I’ll meet my mother at the airport and spend the day with her and then Robbie and I are going to see a show in London before he flies out the following day. Over the course of ten days I hope to: See Dave (my good friend and freshman year roommate), Tobi (another Bowdoin friend), Catherine (a friend from Nashville), and the Speers (Friends from London). It is certainly shaping up to be a hectic few days. I’m sure I will experience debilitating culture shock, but I cannot wait to get my hands on some greasy western food.

-Muzungu in Gulu reveling in the fact his paper is done and eagerly awaiting a reunion with family and friends.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Unknown Illnesses and the Help that Hurts


Ebola. One of the most deadly diseases known to man, with in a week 89% of people die. It’s one of the diseases that I learned about in Miss. Hutchison’s 5th grade biology class, one of those things that’s so rare and deadly that 99% of the people in that young class wouldn’t be within 1000 miles of a case in their entire lives. So imagine how excited I was to get this email:

U.S. Embassy Kampala, Uganda
Warden Message - November 30, 2010

Outbreak of Unidentified Illness in Northern Uganda

Ugandan press are reporting an outbreak of an unknown severe illness in three districts of Northern Uganda, characterized by fever, vomiting and diarrhea.  The districts identified as being affected are: Abim (specifically Morulem sub-county), Agago (Omiya P’Chua, Adilang and Paimoi sub-counties) and Kitgum (Orum, Namokora and Kitgum Town Council).

While we are seeking to confirm these details, the U.S. Mission in Kampala and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) office in Uganda recommend U.S. citizens residing and traveling in Uganda minimize their travel to these affected areas until further information becomes available.  Non-essential U.S. Government official travel to the three affected areas is presently restricted. 

Kitgum is about 50 kilometers away… Word on the street is that it’s either Ebola or Dysentery, that’s right, the Dysentery that your character always died from in Oregon Trail. The Center for Disease Control and the US Department of State websites have yet to mention any thing at all so my level of concern is pretty low. But our group is a little on edge nonetheless, we leave Gulu in about 8 days so our level of possible contact is hopefully pretty low. Won’t stop me from keeping my fingers crossed for this next week for this little outbreak to sputter out. The fact that people here actually have to worry about contracting Ebola is mind-boggling. I was talking to my host mother, Jackie, when I was here last, and she mentioned that a few years back there was an outbreak in Gulu. Apparently the Ugandan government sent troops who had been stationed in the Congo, who were showing signs of the virus, to Northern Uganda to keep them away from the favored south. Almost 100 people died. People may question our government in the US sometimes, but sending infected soldiers to a separate region of the country instead of quarantining them? That’s a whole new low.

Watoto: A reflection on service and mission trips

Mission trips and service trips are unique experiences. They allow you to leave the comfort of home and travel to a place that is drastically different from whence you came, to see how people in different cultures live. Most of these trips have a service element to them, to allow participants to give back to the community they are visiting. I have been on three trips like this, to Ecuador, Jamaica and Peru. I realized very quickly, right after my freshman year of high school trip to Jamaica through my church, that these are much more about personal growth than the growth of the communities. A week spent by thirty American highschoolers in the hills of Jamaica helps about thirty-four people: Four Jamaicans who benefit from the laying of a concrete floor in their house, and thirty Americans who learn about a new culture and can take their experience there back home to help expand their idea of the world around them. My biggest problem with mission trips is that their brevity only allows for a glimpse of the culture and situation at hand. Most of the time is spent among fellow Americans and that can seriously cloud the actual situation at hand. I think personal growth is a very important thing as well as increasing your awareness of the world around you. And I have no problem with giving back to the community to which you have come but active steps need to be taken to make sure the giving back is going to be more helpful than detrimental.

            Building structures on a trip for a foreign population is a concrete, tangible creation that can benefit a certain number of people for a considerable amount of time. Unfortunately, it still increases dependency in the area where the structure has been built; now other people from the community have a reasonable expectation that a group of foreigners will come and build them a house. The more frequently this happens, the more the receiver comes to expect anything and everything from these visiting peoples. Work ethic becomes an unnecessary trait as one can now expect to be given what they need to survive without working for it. Teaching someone to make something is more sustainable than giving it to them.

            I go on this tangent because of something I witnessed this past week. We have been in East Africa for three months now. There is no service aspect of our trip, we are here strictly to learn about the culture and post-conflict situation in both Uganda and Rwanda in order to apply our learning to later experiences in life to affect change on a large scale if necessary. In Gulu, where NGOs and mission trips abound, simply being a white person from anywhere means that we “have to give” people things. You’ll walk down the street and children will demand that you give them money, adults too. I wondered where this mindset came from, who was handing out money and clothes and food so freely and happily to these people that they had come to expect that because of my skin tone that they were entitled to receive something from me. Then, my question was answered.

            Watoto is a mega-church created by Canadian missionaries. There is a large church based in Kampala and another one in Gulu. They have very noble goals, to help orphans and widows in Uganda.

            I was sitting in a local coffee shop, The Coffee Hut, a western establishment (great for food with a little American kick/ shakes). The cafĂ© has large glass windows that let you see right out into the street. We saw a bus pull up with a large number of Muzungus all wearing either bright blue or bright red shirts that had big white letters that said “SERVE” on them. The swarmed out of the bus and within seconds saw a young resident of Gulu in a T-shirt that might have looked a little ragged. They immediately grabbed a bag and a brand new shirt and gave both to the boy. Then they surrounded the boy took lots of pictures with him in his brand new shirt and with his bag. Then they left him to go into the Coffee Hut. They all came in smiling and cheerful, and they were extraordinarily nice people. They had been in Uganda for a week and were going to be here for one more week, pretty standard mission work time period. They had come all the way from Los Angeles.

            The world has a need for nice people who want to give of themselves to help others, but misguided help is a dangerous thing. By giving the young resident of Gulu a new outfit and bag, merely because they encountered him in the street, most certainly instilled a sense of dependency in the young man. If he can just walk around town, the Muzungus will come and give him things. This sort of charity is exactly why many people here simply expect that any foreigner in Gulu is only here to give them something and then leave.

-Muzungu entering his last week in Gulu while dodging Unknown Illnesses

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The House and the "Marathon"

The House

I am back in Gulu and I couldn’t be happier. I spent a few nights at the Acholi Ber (Yes, it’s spelled “Ber”) Hotel but realized that my budget couldn’t support the 20,000 Shilling Per Night fee so I decided to move into the house that the group has been renting for the past few weeks. I needed to buy a mattress to actually sleep there so I paid about $15 for a thin foam mattress, more or less a glorified ground pad, and headed over. The house is great, besides bright orange color. We have running water that works most days, and electricity that also works the majority of the time. I am in the largest room of the house with three other people. There is a large chain-link fence with barbed wire and a nice big metal gate to keep us safe. It is pretty close to town as well which suits our needs very well. So the settling in process begins again…

The Gulu Corporate Marathon

A few days after I arrived, the group began seeing advertisements for a Marathon. A few of the people in our group have run marathons before so they were intrigued. After inquiring at the main offices we discovered that a marathon in Gulu apparently means a 10 Kilometer run, suddenly a lot more people were interested. The sign-up fee was $5, and since I missed that annual Thanksgiving Day Boulevard Bolt in Nashville, I felt like I had a long run to make up. My fitness regimen in East Africa has been nothing short of abysmal. I ran once in Kampala and once in Kigali. Every once in a while I will do some pushups and sit-ups but besides that I really have not done much. So the thought of a 10-kilometer run was somewhat daunting but I still felt like it was something manageable. Six of our group decided to wake up early on a Sunday morning and head to the Acholi Inn to participate. We soon discovered that not many people in Gulu come to races for fun, especially when there is a 1 million Shilling ($500) prize on the line. Our competition looked fierce, so we decided a slow and steady tactic would be best, let the fast guy run as they will and we would keep our own pace. Before the race started, thirty minutes late naturally, we were told this was the first ever “marathon” in Northern Uganda.

The starting line was marked by a plastic Coke banner and soon enough, we crossed the line and began our run. Because most of the roads here are dirt, they marked the course was with ash, which showed up very well on the reddish roads. Robbie was in it to compete, so he bolted ahead, and we didn’t see him until later in the day. The rest of us stuck together as a group for the first bit. Stephen, David and I pulled ahead about a quarter of the way in, and Hannah and Allie stayed together. We got totally smoked by 85% of the runners. They were kilometers ahead of us within twenty minutes. But we held our own against the rest of the field and we kept a tally of those we passed (24). The run dragged on and on in the day that was slowly becoming sweltering. The three of us encountered a fellow runner along the way, Patrick, who joined us in our suffering for the last half of the race.

The route itself was awesome. We ran on main roads, down little village paths and by Gulu University campus. It was a really great way to see Gulu. There were plenty of Acholi who found us supremely interesting and watched/followed/greeted us during the day.

As I mentioned the race dragged on and on for an hour and a half, our pace was considerably faster than almost twenty minute miles, so our confusion kept growing, if this was indeed a 10k race, we should have been done a long time ago. Our friend Patrick told us about an hour and fifteen minutes in that the race was 15k, but it still felt longer than that. Our main problem was that we forgot a valuable lesson. Much like “Africa Time,” “Africa distance” is also highly fluid and subject to change. Once we finished the course, we were told that it was actually a half marathon, 21k. What!!! The cross country runner in our group decided that it was actually less than that so we decided to call it an even ten miles. From not running for three months, to finishing a ten-mile jaunt in under ten-minute pace, I was pretty content with my performance. I am assuming my legs will hate me tomorrow. We finished pretty far in the rear but we were happy with what we had done and had a good time while at it.

I hope everyone’s Thanksgivings went extremely well! My time in Africa is growing short, thank you for following the blog for as long as you have!

-Muzungu currently in Gulu nursing his blisters and sore legs after a deceptively long run.