What We Lose

Staring at a blank laptop screen is frustrating; white like the static of a television channel you can’t quite receive, but in high definition so that it looks smooth and purposeful. That’s what a MacBook does when it’s starting: the silhouette of an apple missing one bite appears (if everything is normal), and then the operating system starts.

It’s April 12th 2016. I boot my laptop to check Ugandan daily newspaper websites as I eat breakfast. The Apple silhouette doesn’t appear, instead replaced by a file folder silhouette bearing a question mark, flashing like a warning light on a car’s dashboard. After a few retries yield the same results it becomes obvious that my laptop, my faithful MacBook, is not booting this morning.

My forehead compresses atop my nose, lips purse, I sigh deeply. I don’t have time to fiddle with hardware or software issues.

Arrow, my roommate and co-intern, is preparing for travel to Kibuye and leaving later in the morning, and lends me her laptop. I pack it into my bag and leave to catch a matatu.

There are programs on my laptop neither free nor common that I was using for work at Arise and Shine. But it’s just a machine.

It’s the connections you lose that really burn, not the functional things. My mom recorded videos of my family wishing me well and gave them to me before I left, instructing me to open them only in April, roughly half-way through the six month internship. I had only stored them on my laptop, along with all my photos of the first three months. I hadn’t even kept those photos on my camera’s memory card.

I would have kicked myself every moment for the rest of that day, if that was physically possible, though I think the following week of sleepless nights made up for that. Losing videos reminders that people care about me and the memories I had chosen to capture in my camera was like being pierced foot to forehead by a steel rod. Knowing I could have saved those videos and photos was like removing that rod myself.

…which I think is why I didn’t even tell my roommate and co-intern, my mum herself, or anyone else until now that I had lost my mum’s videos. I felt idiotic enough to have lost my photos, so I just left it at that. That was the event that curtailed blog entries in the last three months of the internship. I had and still have almost two dozen written, but those, like that loss, remain unshared.

That will change.

Equal Hemispheres

I traveled over the Equator a couple weekends back. I have never been to the southern hemisphere of Earth, and learned it didn’t feel any different than the North. I also learned the monument was not tall enough for me.

The drive from Jinja to Kabale, the capital and namesake of the district where Lake Bonyoni and Bushara Island are located, was long and uneventful. Kampala was predictably jammed with traffic, and there were virtually no vehicles on the road after leaving Uganda’s capital city.

We reached the lakeshore amid bleating goats, cawing chickens, and shouts in rukiga (roo-chee-gah, the local language). It was market day. Animals, clothes, vegetables, and a hundred other things were traded, sold, bought, and boated to small communities around the lake.

Lake Bunyonyi lies between hills. Very steep hills, where even the most stable vehicle would fail to maintain its grip. Some roads existed on the peaks of each hill, but transport to everywhere near the lakeshore was by boat. There were some with fibreglass hulls and low-power motors. More common were dugout canoes; you know, canoes carved out of tree trunks using only hand tools.

We – two VIDEA interns stationed on Bushara Island, our driver, and my co-intern at Arise and Shine Uganda – used a massive dugout canoe to travel around the lake. I was told it could fit 20 people, if necessary, so our party of five was very comfortable. We visited another island, Byonna Amagara (boo-nah ma-gar-ah; the words spoken almost as one) for lunch on Saturday, and spent every free minute (every minute was free) talking about life in each of our slices of Uganda and our plans when we return to Canada.

Sunday was a hiking day. Previously, I mentioned that Converse All-Stars aren’t the greatest hiking shoes. Sunday June 5th was the day I tested that purpose, the steep hills around Lake Bonyonyi was the crucible.

Led by a tall, lithe gentleman named Enos, we hiked up and over one of Bonyonyi’s edges, climbing roughly 900m in what felt like a very short horizontal distance. The slope was slippery with loose gravel and dirt. A third of the way up, a pair of children moving faster than us despite carrying 20 litre jerry cans filled with water waited for us to pass and then began to follow.

Once on the other side of the hill, we descended a couple hundred metres or so, following a road until it reached a schoolhouse, and then continuing across the hill by way of paths barely wide enough for a cautious goat. Our descent resumed briefly as we wound through trees, Enos following a path I wouldn’t have seen without his lead. At its end we found a cave that made the Equator monument’s height seem palatial. Enos told us that women and children would hide in the cave in times of war, men standing around the hill to keep watch.

It was just before noon when we began ascending the hill to its peak, interrupted only by excited children shouting “muzungu!” and groups of men bearing loose-fitting suit jackets, slurred greetings, and wobbling gaits. The road snaking along the peak led to our next destination: blacksmiths who used techniques stretching back to the Bantu expansion 3000 years ago. A crowd formed as we watched the smith pound iron against a rock to form simple knives. I enjoyed the process, though I felt like we were a local attraction much as the blacksmith was a tourist attraction – persons walking or driving by stoped for a brief conversation or simply to look at us.

Trekking down the hill back to Lake Bunyonyi was on trails similar to the goat-paths already mentioned. We emerged from a field of tall sorghum to a view of the lake. We smiled in a moment of visual ecstasy. Continuing down, the path was no steeper than that which we ascended; it was littered with even more loose stones and dirt, making it much slower going.

View from the top: Most of Lake Bunyonyi

Back on a more level path, we walked back to where our canoe was moored. For the second time, wobbly-legged men followed us repeating their sentences until we memorized every slurred word. I couldn’t manage more than an embarrassed smile – I’ll admit to a midday beer or two during vacations or party weekends with friends, but friends, family, and I tend keep that to ourselves instead of showing off to tourists. Enos greeted many community members along our way, but didn’t speak to any day-drunk men other than to shoo them away. We canoed back to Bushara Island, thanking Enos profusely for his excellent guidance. I was pleased to note that my Converse All-Stars had survived, though the soles of my feet would tell you a longer, less pleasing story about the hike.

My roommate and I asked for another tour the next day: a bird watching walk around the island. Eos obliged, arriving before 8am to begin. Binoculars in hand, we were introduced to a couple dozen species of avians ranging from miniscule bee-catchers to black kites and cormorants. I left my camera in its case; I was busy enjoying the birds.

We boated back to the mainland shortly after the end of the tour and group hugs with the Bushara Island interns. We reached the car and started the 10 hour drive to Jinja, eager to return home yet sad to leave the other IYIP interns behind.

Through Shoes

I’ve done some reading here in Uganda. I consumed what novels I brought, Good Omens and The Lies of Locke Lamora, within a month. Left with my roommates’ books, I have demolished them with equal fervor. They are enlightening, and sometimes difficult to read.

Canada in Africa by Yves Engler and Farewell Kabul by Christina Lamb were both excellent. However, they expose decisions, motives, and people that aren’t pleasant to read about. The first tears apart the last 300 years of Canada’s international aid and exploitation. The second, which I completed last week, describes in excruciating detail the 2001 – 2014 war in Afghanistan.

Both books draw a lot of parallels to the development world that I am currently a part of. Engler references every failure, corruption, and questionable motive in Canada’s foreign affairs. Lamb notes development aid that went in to Afghanistan – especially aid which should have been but was not given. Fantastic treatises on greed, hubris, and poor decisions, I recommend both books because they are filled with history people may not know about and mistakes best not repeated. I also recommend they be read while in a positive state of mind.

It’s very easy to be wrapped up in others’ bullshit, feel powerless against the malicious, greedy, and outright stupid decisions people make every day. That’s why I’m glad I chose to bring my Converse All-Stars to Uganda.

Insubstantial, boasting no stories of ethical production or foreign development, and virtually useless against Uganda’s fine red dust, oceans of rain, and uniquely sticky, fabric-penetrating mud, they make it easy to feel the ground through their thin soles. Walking through Jinja town’s ancient broken sidewalks or around Mpumudde’s barely-paved roads, I register every pebble, undulation, and crack. I can contact the ground through the not-really protective layer of rubber and canvas.

Connecting to the ground is as good as being told “there is nothing you can do about other people’s dumb decisions. Saddle up and keep doing great work”. The bullshit fades away. I don’t feel weighed down by the malicious, greedy, and stupid. Of course, insubstantial shoes are no help when hiking, but that’s a story for next week.

Three Months

April 17th marked the half-way point of my internship. Now, a month since, I am just about two months from a long plane ride or four back to Canada.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about being closer to going home than arriving. The 17th and the past four weeks have felt a lot like the plane trip here: hurtling inevitably toward an experience that will be exciting, confusing, and new. My original home in Canada will have familiar people, but it’s hard to imagine living there again after having created a home in Uganda.

…and, for those in doubt, four months don’t go by without creating some kind of home. Friends; family (not blood related though they may be); storekeepers who recognize me and ask about my day; routines like breakfast, second breakfast, walking to get water, and favourite restaurants; and a place where I sleep, store my stuff, and recharge are all here.

All here and all must be left behind. I paused after typing that sentence, staring off into space with anxious thoughts about how it will feel to leave this. Never mind returning to Canada – I have a support network there and will be given a week-long reintegration briefing with some lovely folks from VIDEA – I’m realizing now that leaving a life behind is more disconcerting.

I have left a life behind before. I did that so I could come here. But I am guaranteed to return to that life; the IYIP program contractually obligates me to return to Canada. Flights are already booked and paid for. 

So I have no choice but to leave. I do have a choice how I spend my next two months of evenings and weekends. Two months of eating too much popcorn and staying up too late watching movies, walking around town for ten minutes before settling in shade because the sun is stupid, wolfing down ice cream in front of a supermarket before it melts, and just hanging out and living it; that sounds pretty okay to me.

Simple Pleasures

You know those movie moments where old friends who haven’t seen one another in a long while run towards one another with arms flung wide, wearing expressions of joy, and sometimes shrieking with equal or greater joy? Yeah, those do actually happen. I experienced one last week.

A Ugandan volunteer at Arise and Shine and a very good friend of mine, Sam*, used to live with another girl, Jen. Jen also volunteered at Arise and Shine, which is where I met them both.

Starting about a month and a half ago, Jen started Senior 2 (roughly equivalent to grade nine in Canada) at boarding school in a town/village, Nyenga, a couple hours away from Jinja. Boarding school rules dictate visitors are allowed only on prescribed days, so none of her friends in Jinja have been able to see Jen.

Visitation day was last weekend. Jen and Sam’s reunion was a movie moment: arms flung wide, smiling and shrieking while running to embrace one another.

We stayed for most of the day. Late in the morning someone suggested I play volleyball. Eager to experience what locals do and show that I’m not a stick in the mud, I accepted.

I played with mostly boys for what must have been a couple hours. Nobody kept score. Serves were sent by whichever side had the ball at the time. Out-of-bounds was observed only when someone couldn’t reach the ball before it touched the ground. Heads, fists, and feet were all used to return the ball. Players came and left as they pleased. The only rule I could discern was the number of touches – three, as in any volleyball game.

I was the only person wearing shoes. A few wore sandals. Most were barefoot. None were deterred despite uneven ground and rocks.

Most were more skilled than me. I could serve with some effectiveness, but my overhead sets weren’t confident or consistent, and my bumps were often too strong or sent the ball in an unintended direction. The students laughed at my mistakes and I laughed with them.

I left the field smiling and sweating. Mid-day sun in Uganda is a vicious master, but I didn’t notice its heat until I walked to join Jen and Sam in the shade. They had been talking the entire time I was playing volleyball, exchanging two months of life stories.

Jen lead us on a tour of the school water pump and each classroom after Sam and I announced we had to leave soon. We lingered at each tour stop far longer than necessary. She told us when the next visitation day would be. As we neared the school gate, Sam asked her about the visitation day again even though I was sure she had already memorized it. They embraced again, arms and fingers alike pulling one another close in the way the very best of friends do in movies. Sam smiled all the way home.

*Names changed.

Kibuye Photo-Teaser

Today’s post is simple: a tease for your eyes…and some exposition.

Kibuye is a village North of Jinja in the Kamuli district of Uganda. It takes about three hours to get there. 27 by 35 kilometres in size, Kibuye is not your cliche village.

Yes, there are huts with thatched roofs, plants and animals everywhere, and no electricity save for some solar powered radios and cell phone chargers. No, the people are not uncivilized, dirty, or stupid. Yes, there are schools in Kibuye (Arise and Shine maintains one) and there is some (terrible) cell service. Nights are silent except for insects. There are no lights at night, save for my headlamp or cell phone, so the stars are brilliant.

There are many more photos to come after my next visit to Kibuye. I just didn’t feel like pulling out the camera very often. I wanted to soak it in through my eyes, not a lens.

The Honeymoon Phase

We all know the honeymoon phase. I imagine it like running through unending fields of flowers the way they do in prescription drug commercials. It is bliss, nirvana, and unrepentant joy.

My honeymoon with Uganda has been far from perfect. I have spent more than one night fretting for hours, thinking that I can’t go home, I can’t see my friends and family, and I can’t get café mocha with a pine tree motif in the foam.

Nonetheless I wake up every day intent on making it great. I have succeeded every time short of a couple days in my first few weeks.

This week, however, the honeymoon period ended. I often feel like billions of small insects are crawling under my skin when I walk in public spaces. Like a rising chorus, I want more and more tear the head off anyone disturbing my peace.

I sense this is full-force culture shock. Last weekend I went to the sardine-can-packed streets and sprawling concrete metropolis of Kampala, Uganda’s capital and largest city. On Wednesday I traveled to Kibuye village, 27 by 35 kilometre square area with no electricity, no running water, and probably about as much concrete as Kampala has in a city block. Kampala life is driven by stress and diesel fuel, while sitting in the shade and slowly nursing a cup of tea moves life in Kibuye.

Much like Uganda and Canada, Kampala and Kibuye compare about as closely as a goat and an elephant. Yeah, they’re both four-legged animals, but even brief inspection proves they aren’t the same.

The bride, Uganda, shows its most and least desired qualities through each city. Seeing both so quickly is like compressing a decade of getting to know a person into less than a week.

This marriage isn’t over, of course, there’s just a lot to think about. After all, I just discovered some truth about my lover: who wouldn’t need some time to think?

Sipi, Crow’s Nest, & the Tourist Experience, Pt. 2

Day two of our visit to Sipi Falls started with another sunrise chase. Yet again I missed the sun coming over the actual horizon, but it was just as beautiful, if less colourful, when it broke over Mount Elgon literally next to the first of Sipi’s falls.

P1010464 Sunrise copyThere was an obligatory morning selfie to prove that we all survived the night. Sunlight had not changed overnight. It was still very bright.

20160314_072120 copyThough it moved quickly (we were short on time because our driver was needed in Entebbe), the tour was excellent. Juliet, the guide, told us the coffee plants take ages to grow and don’t get very large. There was a 30-year old tree nearby where we sat that was less than double my height. The plants fruit after heavy rain, and are picked soon thereafter. The flowers begin white, turning to beans that change from green to yellow and finally red when they are ripe.

Once picked, the bean has three “covers” (shells). The first is removed by a machine, the next is pounded in a mortar. The beans themselves are surprisingly resilient and survive this process in flawless condition. Every one of us had a go at smashing the beans’ second layer off.

Juliet separated the husks and beans by flipping both and blowing so the lighter husks flew free. After that the beans are roasted, which they were, right in front of us in a frying pan. They are then pounded into a powder; the coffee grounds we all know and love. We also tried out hands at grinding the beans. Simon was better than all of us

…and then the most important part happened. Juliet made us coffee. I drank a cup and a half because one of my companions couldn’t finish hers. I was momentarily tempted to take some artsy photos of the coffee. I chose to enjoy it instead of feeding my inner tourist.

I broke into tourist mode to get a shot of us with Juliet. My inner tourist also photographed notice boards at Crow’s Nest in case any of you want to play tourist there and need an idea of what is available.

The drive home was on the same terrible roads, but in reverse, meaning they improved as we got closer to Jinja. I turned to music instead of photographs. The tourist was gone, satisfied until the next trip.

Sipi, Crow’s Nest, & The Tourist Experience, Pt.1

Nestled on a plateau of Mount Elgon about 6500 metres above sea level, the town of Sipi could be just another sleepy mountain town. A dozen hostels and guesthouses along less than two kilometres of road told a different story. A man shouting “Sipi falls, this way!” as our van passed him confirmed the hypothesis – this is a tourist town.

We were well shaken when we arrived, having traveled for five hours on roads that were under construction or filled with elbow-deep potholes. We stayed at a hostel named Crows Nest. Built on a slope facing all three falls, two of which were visible, every guest house and dorm had a view worth being jostled by the road. Their food was basic but filling, tasty, and inexpensive. I would recommend Crow’s Nest to anyone.

P1010375 View from the Dorm
The view from our hostel dorm. Well worth the trip, even without tours.

Simon, a local tour guide, led us on a trek to see each of the three falls. The first gave me an impromptu shower. Tall boulders surround its pool, holding in spray and making the air damp like a cool sauna. There was also a chameleon called Joseph. Dang chameleon eyes are weird.

The second falls make a natural shower, as well as a beautiful view from the top. I asked a co-traveler to take epic photos of me looking over the Ugandan plains.

The third we could only see from a distance. It also offered a brilliant view, which I used to take numerous group selfies wherein sunlight wouldn’t let us fully open our eyes.

On return to Crow’s nest, we ordered dinner. Tomato curry was a good idea even though it was more like a spiced tomato sauce. We walked to watch the sun set into pillowy purple clouds, still far above the horizon line. I’ve no photos of that – I left my phone and camera in our dorm, choosing to lay down my tourist hat and be present for a Ugandan sunset.

Searching for Sunrise

My stomach growls. I stand less than fifty metres from the Nile river, just North of the Nalubale/Owen falls hydroelectric dam, making a mental note to my future-self that one piece of bread with a thin layer of peanut butter does not count as breakfast. I’m not yawning yet, but less than four hours’ sleep is telling my eyelids to stay shut.

The air feels like late spring back home: cool and wet, yet comfortable in a t-shirt and shorts. I see a half dozen wooden boats near the dam. Moses, a coworker and friend from Arise and Shine Uganda who lives on the land where we stand, explains they are fishing for talapia. Sunlight appears on a hill many kilometres away on the opposite side of the river. The clouds are bright pink that slowly swallows on purple remnants of twilight. I flick my camera’s power switch and wait to line up the right shot.

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