Country Hopping

Last week, we travelled to a memorial site in Northern Uganda in the town of Atiak. The memorial marked the place where hundreds of people were captured, forced to march to the banks of a river, and either shot or taken captive by the LRA.

While I was definitely interested in hearing the story about the site, I was more excited for what we were doing afterwards. From Atiak, we drove to the Ugandan/South Sudanese border. South Sudan has only been a country since July 9th of this year, and during the few months before I left to come here, I was very involved in keeping up with what was going on in this country’s infancy. I was worried that we wouldn’t get the chance to cross the border during our trip, even though past groups have done so, because of the rather delicate political situation that has emerged since the south seceded. However, we were allowed.

The town we crossed over into is called Nimule. There was a lot of construction and development going on literally right at the border, which I took as a good sign. Despite Sudan’s terrible history of human rights abuses, their economic situation is actually rather good right now, because the government as well as the international community has tried to distribute stipends and relief packages to people who have been effected. This is good both for the South Sudanese, and the Northern Ugandans, because lots of the South Sudanese people travel across the border with their money to buy the cheaper products which Uganda provides. However, despite this great business opportunity, the government of Uganda has rather blatantly disregarded the upkeep of the ‘Road to Juba’ (there’s pretty much only one road to any main city in these countries). Skeptics claim this is because the government, which is based in the south, doesn’t want to allow the north the opportunity to develop any faster, and making it easier for South Sudanese to import and export goods and services would more directly benefit the north of Uganda than the south. Whether or not this is true remains up for debate, but regardless, the road was terrible. I think I’m going to have to hire a private chiropractor for when I get back to the states.

When we got to the border, we weren’t allowed to drive our car over the bridge which separates the two countries. Instead, we were only permitted to walk about 2 feet into South Sudan, stand around for about 3 minutes going “this is so cool we’re in the newest country in the world!” and then walk back into Uganda and sneak some photos–don’t tell. I’m still wicked pumped that we got to go into South Sudan, even if it only was for such a short time.

The week after that, we wrapped up our homestays in Gulu. I was surprised at how sad I felt leaving, and I realized that I really had enjoyed feeling like I had a home in Gulu, not just a hotel room. The goodbyes weren’t all that bad though, because we will still have another month when we return from Rwanda to spend time with our families. We’re planning on cooking them all a big American Thanksgiving dinner!

From Gulu, we headed to Kampala, which is where we are now. The week has mostly consisted of free time for us to explore the city and work on some assignments. We got to go to a MALL, which was so westernized and fancy it was completely overwhelming. I think I might actually have a panic attack when I land back in Boston.

Also, Kampala is crazy. It is huge, and ridiculously crowded. While we were walking to dinner last night (a walk which ended up taking about an hour because we had no idea where we were going) we almost got hit by several cars and bodas, not because we were walking in the road, but because the vehicles drive on the sidewalks in an attempt to get around traffic jams. I guess it’s a learning experience, but I’m definitely glad we’re only here for a week.

On Saturday we got to take a boat ride to the source of the Nile! As someone who has spent years fascinated by, among other things, ancient Egyptian culture, I was so excited to get to be on this infamous river. The Nile is fed by Lake Victoria, but there is also an underground spring which bubbles up and forms a sort of whirlpool which is considered the official ‘source of the Nile.’ After that, we went to see some waterfalls further down the river which were gorgeous AND there was a mini golf course right along the river, which of course I jumped all over.

Tomorrow we leave for Western Uganda for two days and then to Rwanda, where we will be staying for two weeks. From looking at our schedule, it seems like we’re going to be seeding a lot of memorial sites. We got to talk to and SIT group that is based in Rwanda, and they told us that the sites are not only disturbing, but completely emotionally draining. I’m sure it will be rough, but I’m looking forward to it.

I hope everyone has a great Halloween! I’m debating being either one of the characters from Mean Girls, or a Zebra. Maybe a combo?

Let’s Play Catch Up!

I’ve done a lot of things this past week, but blogging was not one of them. This is going to be a long one…it’s even going to be categorized by event, because I’m just that organized. So here goes:

LOTS OF KONY:

Last Wednesday, we went on an excursion to visit a former IDP camp, as well as the home town of Joseph Kony. Our guide for the day was Jared Kony, who is Joseph Kony’s uncle. Apparently, Joseph’s parents actually tried to name him after his uncle, Jared, but they couldn’t pronounce his name correctly so it eventually morphed from Jared to Joseph.

Jared was a very nice man, who seemed rather un-phased at having such a notorious nephew. Granted, the two didn’t have a great amount of interaction before the war…but he still told us of his memories of Joseph coming for his mother’s funeral, riding a bike and carrying a batch of local brew.

The former IDP camp we visited was, for the most part, abandoned. Since the war officially ended in 2006, people have slowly been moving out of the camps and back to their land. Many of the huts have been torn down, but there were still a few scattered throughout the area, and we even met a few people who were still living in them. At the height of the violence, there were 7,000-8,000 people inhabiting the camp. I’m not sure as to the milage, but I can assure you that it is not large; people were living in very close proximity with one another for many years. The few people we met who did still live there were a man and his elderly mother, as well as about a dozen orphans. We were told that they had plans to move back to their land, but it seemed that those plans may be rather hypothetical.

After the camp, we drove to Odek, which is Joseph Kony’s home town. It also contains the giant rock/hill on which Kony supposedly had a spiritual revelation which led him to found the LRA movement. We hiked up to the site, and practically scaled the rock face to reach the top. For those of you from the Monadnock region, the top was reminiscent of the top of Mount Monadnock, except instead of scanning the sky for the Boston skyline, we were looking out over the vast expansion of Ugandan countryside. It really was awe-inspiring, and I can see how Kony could have been so influenced by being there.

But my Kony stories don’t stop there. I also spent some quality time talking with my wego (dad) Bosco last week, learning about his experiences during and after the war. He was in secondary school during the height of the war…so while I was complaining about how I had to go to high school in the freezing cold at 7 am everyday, he was telling me about how he had to go to prayers at 5 am, and hope he wouldn’t get abducted like so many of the other boys in his school. But I mean….it was REALLY cold in January in New Hampshire…

Since he is the director of Caritas, Bosco also played a big role in the charity and peacemaking efforts towards the end of the war. He showed me some pictures from when he spent 2 years in the bush in South Sudan, corresponding with the LRA rebels who were based there during the peace talks. He has met Joseph Kony, and also had a few pictures of him eating dinner with Vincent Otti, who was Kony’s commander.

 

LOTS OF STUDENTS:

On Friday, we went to visit Pope John Paul II College. “College” means “high school” here, so most of the students were our age or a little younger. However, since people’s schooling years are often fractured, there were also some who were in their twenties and still finishing up their secondary education. We had the opportunity to talk with students one-on-one and in groups. They had a lot of questions ranging from American family planning methods to whether or not Osama Bin Laden had supernatural powers which allowed him to shift into animal form….apparently that is a prevalent rumor around here, which I find fascinating.

After talking for a while, my group showed me around their campus, which is quite nice. Afterwards, they performed a cultural dance for us and then it started to rain so we had to head back to town. I exchanged a lot of email addresses though, so I don’t expect this to be the last time we see each other.

 

LOTS OF INDEPENDENCE:

Sunday was the 49th anniversary of Uganda’s independence. The day’s festivities were pretty similar to what one would expect on the 4th of July in America: plenty to eat and drink, spending time with friends and family, etc. Oh, except I started the day by doing some washing, which takes about 2 hours (it would take much longer if I didn’t have our house girl, Teddy, to help me) and results in blistered fingers, but surprisingly clean clothes. I think they have some sort of magic soap here that I may need to transport back to the U.S.

In the evening, I went into town with my host brother, some family friends, and our two house girls, Alice and Teddy. Apparently the girls had not been into town in the two years since they’ve started working for Rose and Bosco, because they have to spend so much time at home with the children, and just in our neighborhood in general. Needless to say, they were quite excited, so we all had a great time. We went to Amigos, which is a bar that mainly locals go to; it was great because, since it was independence day, people were really happy and talkative…even though the Uganda Cranes soccer team at lost out on making it to the African Cup of Nations just the day before (some people were still upset about that though…it was pretty sad).

 

LOTS OF RELAXING:

On Monday, we trekked to Mbale, which is in Eastern Uganda. It was about a 7 hour drive, however, it was so much more pleasant than our previous excursions because the road was paved! After over a month of practically driving on craters, it felt like we were gliding. Also, there were median lines painted, speed bumps, and road signs…and when we got to Mbale there were sidewalks. We were all a little stunned/pumped.

Eastern Uganda has never really been effected by any of the conflicts or violence in the country, which means it has had time to develop in relative peace, and it shows. It felt almost like Europe compared to Gulu.

On Tuesday we drove up Mount Elgon to Sipi Falls. The drive was breathtaking, and hiking up to the waterfall and standing underneath it was even more so. We got to see some native coffee plants too!

After returning from our hike, we were taken to the Mbale Resort Hotel. Usually when things in Uganda have names like this, it is very misleading (ie, we passed a ‘Hilton Hotel’ on the way that I’m sure Paris Hilton would laugh and/or cry at the thought of staying in) but this was quite the exception. It was like paradise. We all opted to indulge in different activities…I went for a swedish massage and a piña colada by the pool (real mixed drinks are a huge novelty here). I don’t think I could have thought up a more perfect way to spend a day if I tried.

LOTS MORE TO COME!

Kitgum Really Knows How to Party

We spent this past week in Kitgum, which is a town about three hours north of Gulu. It is smaller, hotter, and was even more effected by the LRA war. Traveling there was a nice break from our routine; we all got to stay together in the Silicon Valley Guest House rather than in homestays, so of course much fun ensued…and some learning I guess.

Every time I hear someone’s war story I still get a little thrown off. Yesterday, we heard from one of our Acholi professors whom we affectionately have named Fro-yo, since none of us can seem to remember his real name. After having 3 weeks of lessons with him, you might imagine the surprise we had when we learned that he was at one time a top soldier in Alice Lakwena’s army (Alice was a sort of precursor to Kony/theLRA). Apparently Fro-yo was in line to be her personal assistant, but was passed over for someone else who didn’t have glasses. He was also shot 6 times (with the scars to prove it) and eventually captured by the government army and taken out of the fighting.

Every few days or so I hear a new story of this sort, and it just serves to constantly remind me that it is impossible to go a day here without interacting with someone who was not intimately involved with the war. I’ve tried picturing how American society would deal with this sort of  dilemma–I can’t imagine that everyone would be so willing and able to work forward as most people seem to be here. That’s not to say that there aren’t still plenty of issues involving peacebuilding and reconciliation, but for the most part, it seems that Ugandans have been able to reaccept one another at a rather impressive rate. I guess a lot of it has to do with the fact that they really don’t have many other options–they could continue to fan the flames and hold old grudges, or they could learn to move forward in such a way that proves more productive for themselves and the country in general.

While in Kitgum, we also visited the newly-created district of Lamwo, which is right on the border with South Sudan. We got to speak with some of the district representatives, and then went to a memorial site. The site commemorated the lives of 417 people who were murdered there by Amin in 1971. We were all a little taken aback when the car stopped for us to get out, because it seemed that we were looking at nothing but an empty field of tall grass. However, our guides began stomping down an area of grass and soon revealed the small memorial which had been hidden by the overgrowth. Our initial reaction to the state of the memorial was one of confusion–it seemed strange that such a tragic event would be essentially forgotten and left unkept. However, after thinking about it for a while, I guess the concept of memorials here is not really the same as in America. First of all, this is a memorial for something which occurred under Amin’s rule, and since then there has also been a 25 year-long war, which is hardly a time to be concerned with the state of a memorial. Secondly, as pessimistic as it may sound, this country has had so many tragic things happen, I can’t imagine it would be easy to keep up with all of them. That being said, the district commissioner did tell us that there are plans to revamp the area and make it into more of a typical memorial site.

So there has obviously been a lot of devastation in Kitgum, but there’s also a lot of fun to be had. Wednesday night we went to the Acholi Pub. It was ladies night, so all of the girls got in for free, while the boys had to pay a heft 2,000 UGS (which equals less than $1). There was lots of loud music and dancing, and we were able to request some American songs so of course we all had quite a time losing our voices singing along to “Party in the USA.” Last night, our program director organized a dinner at our guest house with some of Kitgum’s community leaders; we all got to eat, drink, and dance together for quite a while. A bunch of locals attended as well and there were some pretty adorable children who totally showed us all up when it came to dancing skills.

We arrived back in Gulu this afternoon, and will be heading to our homestays shortly. It was a little surprising, and I guess comforting, how much Gulu felt like home when we arrived back.

Hope you all are well, thanks for keeping up with my babble!