Thursday, May 26, 2011

out of africa

"I had a farm in Africa" - perhaps, one of the things i miss most is beauty. i know that i glamorize it a bit, that i remember the good and forget the bad, but is that so wrong? is it so wrong to remember the greens and blues and grays of the rainy season? to remember the thatched grass huts build up in a circle, or the people living within. i can hear the rain as it falls through the sky and i know that somewhere a boy is hurrying to drive the cattle home or at least under one of the far reaching trees on the plains. at home, people have taken shelter under the overhangs of their houses, or are gathered together, eating lunch as a family in a hut that's open to the air and cool breeze that accompany the rains. they eat together the maize and beans and leafy greens which they themselves have grown. their own hands planted the seeds a season ago. they dug the field and tended to it, going out every morning and evening, because their very lives depend on it. they lift their heads to the heavens, knowing they can only do so much. if these rains weren't here, the food and life wouldn't be either. life isn't guaranteed. at times even, life relies on the lifeless, and all too often, life becomes that which it relies upon. there's a celebration then, under that open hut, a celebration of family and work and rain and of life itself. "When the gods are angry with us, they answer our prayers," and the comfort and security and life that we think will make us so much happier break us from the bond of celebration that accompanies a simple meal of beans and maize. thunder cracks over head, a dirt floor turns to slick mud under bare feet.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

an ending

Before i came to Uganda I was captivated by the rareness and mysterious beauty of Africa. Even the idea of Africa brought to mind a primitiave substance, an untouched life and vibration, a purity that nowhere else in the world had. I pictured the roaring lion, the painted warrior, the tribal fire.

Then i came to Africa. What I've seen is not what I expected. I haven't joined in the tribal hunt or trecked through the overgrown bush. I've ridden a bicycle through a town with electricity, taught Charles Dickens and Microsoft Word. I've watched soccer being broadcast from England and heard news coming from China. I guess what I expected was a land untouched, allowed to grow and change with the dynamics of its own rhythm. I thought I'd see a people unaware of the world and more aware of themselves than anyone I'd ever met.

What I got was different. I got a school full of kids who wanted to know, who were willing to give me a chnace. I got a community who took me in, who laughed at me, but also laughed with me. I got a group of friends who invited me into their homes, who were willing to travel long distances with me so that i might just meet their friends and family. I got a village full of kids who yell my name in frightened ecstasy when I run by. I got a taste of foods, languages, and people I could never have imagined.

What I'm trying to say is, I came out here because of a mystic, because of a circle of life I thought I was entering into. But it wasn't there, at least not for me, or how I expected. After two years of living in a place that's more or less completely different than what I dreamt, I've learned this: This place has that mystic, that rare beauty, and it's more present and more abundant than I had ever hoped.

I'll tell you what Im afriad of. I mean, what I'm really fearful of. I'm afriad that, everyday countless people pass by me going to the market or to visit a friend in the village, and it's beautiful. I'm afriad that each evening the sun seems to set over this green and brown land where the dusk stirs up insects and the music of man can be heard just across the swamp. Every morning, the kids walk, or run, or wrestle towards school and when they get just past my gate they stop, peak through the bushes as the white man and think I can't see them. I'm afriad that every morning, without fail, the same, hideous-looking chicken comes up to my lawn, pecking for insects and defecating in the same place, and I scare him away. I'm afriad that there's something so kind and true and selfless in the way that people invite me into their homes, spend time talking with me, and are genuinelly happy when I get to meet their family. I'm afraid that all this is true...and that I'm missing it.

As my time in Uganda draws to a close, I constantly find myself thinking of different places and different faces. I have to bring myself back to the here and now and try desperately to take hold of it while I still can. I begin to wonder if my mind and heart haven't been constantly wandering for the past two years. I listened to a man speak of place recently. He spoke about how we tend constantly to be looking for the "right place," or looking towards, "the next place," and all the time missing the fact that the best place for us, for now, is where we are. This isn't to breed complacency or lack of striving, but contentment, then appreciation, then peace.

When I just stop for a few minutes, when I pull in my thoughts and let them rest on the now, I realize how amazing this place is.

I was on the bus the other day, looking around me, and realized what a love for color this place has. I was sitting in my standard soft green shirt and khaki trousers, but all around me were people in bright greens, blues, yellows, and reds. Heck, half the shops in town are painted either bright yellow or bright pink! There is life here in the midst of the seemingly toilsome monoteny of waking up, farming, caring for the house, and farming again. There's something unique. Maybe it has to do with the reliance and connection to the earth. Maybe it has to do with the family of eight or ten or twelve all staying together; all doing their part. I don't know. I don't claim to know why exactly or from where this subtle, sustained glow comes from. But i do know, that very soon, there a chance i wont get to see it anymore, and I desperately want it to take hold of me and change me while there's still time.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

get jiggy with it

When the students dance, they dance. Three drums in the center, a tall skinny one, a medium sized one, and a wide, fat one that's barely off the ground. Three different beats, coalescing into one rhythm, one movement.

A multicolored wrap from chest to knee circles each body. A ruffled cloth hangs down from behind the waist. Their shoes are off, the ground is hard and dusty underfoot. The medium sized drum begins, establishing the beat and so the type of dance. The faster the beat, the more the girls move and jump and bob. the other two drums join in. by this time, the dance is established. A leader has emerged from the group and directs the rest of the group where to go and what to do. Form a line here, now circle around the drums, now break into two. If one was to watch only the upper torso, the dance might look commonplace, rather reserved even. But the hips and the feet tell a different story. The bare feet pound the earth in unison. Two steps here, one there, jump, now back together. As they slam back to earth, the dust rises. It's an ankle high fog at first, but the dance continues. The fog rises, and soon, the cloud of dust is part of the dance, commanded up by the drums. All this time, hips flay in wild ecstasy. The ruffled fabric vibrates back and forth at a quickened, continuous rate, the multicolored wraps and fabrics blending into one wave of sound.

It's emotion. Some of it is scripted and directed by the leader, but the looks of happiness on the girls' faces reveals the truer tale, a tale of losing one's self to a higher feeling. Why is it they take so much pleasure in dancing, I wonder? Why is it they're able to revel in the heat and motion of the drum when so many other people, who are seemingly more "well-to-do" than these students, just aren't? I wonder what it is they're celebrating exactly. i mean, I know the purpose of the occasion, but what's the origin of the emotion? Where is this joy coming from?

Before a while, the dancers exit. The leader comes back into the center, and in one final beat, dictates the drums when to cease. Under the setting sun, the dancers have sweat and grown tired. But oddly, I get the sense that it's for us, the spectator's sake, that the dancers have stopped. I get the feeling they could have kept going, gone on into night in fact. But they concede for our sake. I guess I could write that when the drums stop the dancers snap out of the hypnotic trance and back into reality. Perhaps though, they've been in reality this whole time.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Kung Pow Chicken

my little brother and i sat at a restaurant table facing a big window that looked out at one of the Shanghai malls. people passed. then more people passed. an endless river of persons, which the world had come to see as one body: china

we spent the new year in Shanghai visiting my father, and perhaps the most reoccurring inhabitant in my eyes was the reoccurring inhabitants. no matter where we went: the underground tram, the business and shopping centers, even just stepping out into the street, the people molded into one mass, each with his or her own destination, but moving there together.

In uganda, we have a few areas, especially in the capital that are like this; where one has to push and slide through if one wants to move. but it was different in Shanghai. In Uganda, no matter where you are, the busy city or the seemingly lonely village, there are eyes peering at you. Normally the eyes belong to a small boy or girl, silently and curiously looking from behind his mother or around some tall grasses. He's looking at this strange singularity he's never seen. You're interesting, whether you want to be or not. But in China, I wasn't interesting. Though we might have been the only three foreigners on the street or in the metro, no one seemed to notice. I could look around at all the surrounding eyes, and for the first time in a long time, none of those eyes were looking back. I don't know how I feel about this. It's peaceful, easy, but strangely individual and alone also, i think. Every one's doing his or her own thing, and you should too. Maybe i never noticed it before, but when you see that person looking at you, you realize they're silently inquiring, wondering about you, and though oftentimes it certainly seems invasive, like an attack on your privacy, before you know it, you're wondering about them too. You're aware of another, and maybe that's a good thing.

my brother and i spent a little over a week in Shanghai. we rode to the top of Pearl Tower and looked out at a city as vast and busy as I've even seen. Dad took us to The Bund, a cityscape stretched out across the entire horizon, bordered by the freight and steam slowly drifting off a snaking river. We climbed the stone steps of a Buddhist temple, lit incense, and watched as an aroma of ancient transcendence and unswerving devotion wafted through the shrines. We rode the underground metro to wherever it would take us: Shanghai University, the Museum of Science and Industry, a community of houses and shops where people much like us lived lives that probably weren't all that different either.

For lunch, Neeko and I would find the smallest noodle shop possible, point to the picture of what we wanted, and slurp noodles gripped between struggling chop sticks. For dinner, Dad would take us to eat at the best restaurants I've even eaten at (yes, even better than the peanut butter sandwich which served as my staple food for the past decade). Glistening chicken bathed in flavor, vegies cooked in garlic and butter, dumplings and Saki that made me smile in more ways than one!

But better than all, and continuing to be one of the most amazing facets of life no matter where it congeals, I got to spend time with my family. Riding the metro, watching TV, sprinting to the nearest restroom, it's always more with the fam. But the dumplings were a close second. Kung Pow!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cut That Meat

About a week ago I got to be a part of one of the best things that i've experienced here so far. some amazing Peace Corps volunteers put together (through an impressive amount of planning and organization) a girls camp where 150ish freshman-aged girls from all over uganda came together for a week of life skills teaching, games, and empowerment. rather than tell you all the details, let me put down the website which was created for it, and if you have time, you can see pictures and read about the week-long event. Know though that when/if you see some of the pics, for a lot of these girls, it was their first time out of their home village, their first time to interact with girls from other parts of the country, and definitely their first time to interact with so many white people!

my role was small at the camp and it was a blessing that i was even allowed to come. but because my responsibilities were small, i had time to just observe and to appreciate. What I saw was this: one person can matter. What i saw was individuals making a difference in the lives of others. Individuals teaching about malaria prevention, a leading cause of death in Uganda, and in the world. Individuals dancing and laughing with those of different tribes and languages. I saw individuals loving and upholding kids who otherwise might not get that love, who otherwise might not be told they're of value, they matter, and that they're worthy of love. There's a lot of cliche sayings about, "changing one person changes the world," or "if you touch the life of one, you touch the life of all," something like that. People generally accept them, though whether they accept them as true or simple niceties is uncertain. But is there really truth to these sayings? If not, does it matter? Is changing the world supposed to be one's goal, or is simply loving people enough? I don't know that the world was changed by the camp, or even the country, but I'd like to think the lives of 150 girls were changed, and that might be enough. I guess i don't even know what I mean by "enough." As if we have some quota to fill, some level of influence that we have to reach. Before I came here, I talked to someone about changing the world. i said that this was not my goal or my measuring stick to success. But perhaps it was. Perhaps, further underneath ideals which were already subterranean, i had this idea of changing the world. I might have failed in this regard. As my time gets closer to the end though, Im left with thinking, however ambiguous or even selfish it might be, "Did I do, enough?"

in a completely unrelated topic, Christmas is coming up. that means time to buy Christmas meat. the butchers will be bouncing, the shop-keepers smiling, and the cooking oil will be cracking as i drop 10,000 shillings to get a couple kilos of goat. worth it. but i guess, in a way, the fact the Christmas is coming up is not all that unrelated to the prior topic. I mean, as one man, Jesus made a difference. Though He might never have walked on Ugandan soil, the sons of the soil still know Him. I mean, ultimately, Christmas has nothing to do with Christmas meat. It's one man (no matter what people may or may not say about Him), making a difference. So as Christmas comes, make a difference, know you can and at the same time, don't have to, which makes it that much better. Treat yourself to some Christmas meat.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

friend to sheer khan

Sometimes, people here, in describing their understanding of the U.S., tell me things that are simply baffling, and leave me wondering where this information is coming from. "In the U.S., there are no black people, only visitors from Africa, and there is no land to farm on." Likewise, there are things I believed about Africa that turn out to be vastly incorrect. "In Africa, everyone is running around with no clothes on, toting spears, and not having an education (though this is misleading, our school watchman does have a spear with which he protects the school). Then, there are some things that turn out to be true, even if rare.

Imagine getting to work, or home, and having someone tell you, "Welcome back. Oh, by the way, there may be an enormous, venomous, angry snake somewhere in your bedroom. I thought I saw him go in there, but I couldn't find him. Have a good night!"

The other day, I was at school, when one of the teachers said, "Hey Hunter, look at that." I looked up, and over towards our administration building a few feet away, was the biggest, most existing snake I've seen outside a zoo. It was gray in color, probably six feet long (though it's possible my fear is exaggerating this number, I also think it might have been even larger), and in the process of inserting its fangs into the back of a frog. It saw us coming. A few people picked up stones. Someone ran to get a hoe. We got closer. As it saw us, it entered the administration building and, finding the headteacher's office at the back of the hall, slid underneath the door. That was the only way in, or out.

A few minutes later found about four of us, with sticks and bricks in hand, cautiously opening the headteacher's door. The headteacher was out of town, and what we found upon entering, were cabinets and bags and books, but no snake. As we lifted furniture and emptied bags, I was superficially prepared, armed with my brick, while internally thinking, "Boy, I might be in a little trouble here." But we couldn't find it. We searched everywhere, under desk and chair, and you wouldn't think a six foot snake would be hard to find, but it wasn't there. We lit a piece of tire on fire and tried to smoke it out. We stood, watching the door, waiting for it to come. It never came. "The ghost snake," some were saying. I knew I had seen it enter though, and felt foolish (and a little thankful) we couldn't find it. But what I kept thinking was, "Who's going to tell the headmistress there might be a snake in her office?" That's one welcome I hope never to get.

(As a necessary side note, I'm probably required to condemn the relentless and unprovoked killing of any animal, and there may, no doubt, be some reptilian-minded advocate that rests unhappy with our intention to kill, but a six foot snake near a school of kids mandates a hierarchy of action, and snake survival is not on the top of the list.)

All worked out though, thank God, and that night, as we left her office door open, the watchman said he saw a big snake moving off the compound, away from the office.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lavar Burton

When I was younger, my mom used to read me this story about a caterpillar who started off small and worm-like, and who then proceeded to decimate this leaf in a scene of natural, allowable gluttony. He then took an postlunch nap, and awoke as a brilliant butterfly. The thing about caterpillars though, and the thing the book failed to mention, is that they're harbingers of pain and suffering. In Uganda, people are terrified of them. I would say that ants, snakes, and caterpillars are the three most feared organisms in the land. One type of caterpillar is large, about thumb-size, with brown and black hairs sticking out of it. Though i thankfully haven't experienced it yet (b/c I mercilessly kill every caterpillar I find), I heard those hairs burn like a thousand suns if they touch your skin. We might be sitting on the grass for a school assembly when all of a sudden, fifty girls get up screaming. A snake? no. A swarm of bees? Negative. Caterpillar on the move.

You ever watch a caterpillar move? it's kind of got this rolling, wavelike, undulation, where one end of it might be lifted in the air, and then it rolls forward, hitting again, the ground beneath (I think this is how it moves. As I said, i don't study them too long, im (and my biology professors and classmates might be ashamed of this ) more interested in eradication than observation at that point). Yeah, that's pretty much how I feel on a weekly basis. There are those days, weeks even, when I appreciate all that is about me. Im motivated to teach, start projects, and go to the roads and paths and speak the little local language i know. I'm patient with people, patient with myself, and generally happy and active. That's about the time the body pushes forward and that part of me that was so high, that enthusiasm and appreciation, is now scraping across the floor, burned by the friction that comes from a lack of understanding. I get angry at people, desiring only to be alone and in my house. I lack the motivation and even desire to be with the students. I almost search for reasons to be upset and exemplify the epitome of pride and blurred vision. In a word, I suck. Perhaps worst of all is this doubt that creeps in and this fear that Im going to come home and think. "I could have done better." I don't know what to do about this. Thankfully, God allows the caterpillar to move on, and in its turn, I find myself up again, breathing air that is fresh and filled with love. I appreciate the way my neighbor sometimes brings over sweet potatoes for me. I revel in the conversations I have with the farmhand, talking always about Manchester United football, and even appreciate the way the butt-naked kids (isn't that kid like twelve years old?!) playing in the swamp greet me in the local tongue.

I guess my only hope is that the caterpillar is constantly moving forward, towards a peaceful, loving, more accepting life, and that if seen by an on-looker, that person will be more merciful than I, and certainly more merciful than the girls I teach.