And Just Like That

And just like that, our work was coming to a close. Frankly, I considered the project to be pretty much complete the previous day, once we wrapped up the survey, but this discussion day was easily my most involved discussion of the three. Because we had four men show up to participate in the survey, we also wanted to include them in the discussion, and luckily we had the resources to facilitate a conversation that with all of the males. George, Joffrey, and I were given the script and ran a discussion that I expected to take only an hour or two, since there weren’t nearly as many participants in our group as there were in the groups of women. However, we were actually the last group to finish, which probably says just as much about our inexperience when it comes to facilitating discussions as it does about the volume of conversation. I was very curious as to why these men had chosen to seek membership in a female-oriented group, and while their responses weren’t to be included in the report, they will hopefully help the team if the decision is eventually made to include men in the project. As one might expect, the men shared many concerns with the women we spoke with, but they amplified their desires for vocational training more than I felt I had heard in the female discussion groups. They had a lot to share, and while I don’t think the conversation was nearly as fluid as those facilitated by the professors, I hope that useful information was gleaned from what we recorded.

Later in the afternoon, Joffrey took me and George out for drinks, and we visited a compound that reminded me a lot of St. Monica’s. As it turned out, it was founded and run by the Camboni brothers, who were responsible for the construction of St. Monica’s as well. After a few hours of wonderful conversation, Joffrey gave us a ride to the Iron Donkey. He also asked why we were going to the Iron Donkey, an American restaurant, two days before returning to the States. I couldn’t provide a good answer, because I had no idea that it was American food. And it wasn’t all that great, either, although I probably would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t foolishly shocked my system with two massive cheese quesadillas after two weeks of abstaining from dairy. But honestly, in hindsight I would’ve avoided the American restaurant not because of the food, but because of the other American people we interacted with. A medical mission team showed up halfway through our meal and immediately went full “Fellow White People” on us. Oblivious to their surroundings, the adult leaders of the group loudly expressed their shock at just how poor Ugandans are and how miserable their lives seem. I was not impressed.

And just like that, our time in Uganda comes to an end, for now.

I’m heading home, I’m almost there.

Privilege

Our group discussion in Atiak was the first to mention climate change as a major concern. Many of the women were farmers, and they were adamant that recent harvests were being decimated by excessive exposure to sun. I did not expect such a concern to be raised, but I am glad that it was. As weather patterns continue to become more extreme, many of the poorest regions of the world will be the first to suffer. Rising sea levels will devastate countries like Bangladesh, which is a low-lying, densely populated coastal nation. And as the women of Atiak explained to us, their livelihoods and food sources are being threatened by extreme heat and solar exposure long before most Americans will feel the direct consequences of anthropogenic climate change. And to make matters worse, rural Ugandans contribute exponentially less to greenhouse gas emissions than residents of western nations, yet they suffer disproportionately. Furthermore, the people of Atiak are at the mercy of world leaders like Trump who see climate change as a non-issue, a total fabrication, or a necessary evil in the pursuit of progress. I fear for our neighbors in the Global South.

The Atiak Massacre Survivors have seen much more action from NGOs than the residents of Unyama, but few outsiders opted to see the recovery of Atiak through. I can’t help but wonder if the organizations that flooded Atiak to collect information and interviews visited solely for the purpose of capturing compelling stories that would secure grants and raise money for their cause. If this was the case, then surely the people of Atiak deserved some sort of compensation for their role, and for the emotional and mental toll inflicted by the forced recounting of the scarring details. Unfortunately, according to the women we spoke with, no such compensation came their way. They feel forgotten, strewn aside. I know that our team plans to return to Atiak later in the year, but I have no doubt that some of the women we met with are expecting more of the same from us. I hope that we are able to secure the funding to make multiple return trips and provide the people of Atiak with useful reports and a sense of closure.

The Sisters of the Sacred Heart hosted a celebration for the opening of a new primary school just down the road from where we conducted our research in Atiak, so once we wrapped up our work, we hopped in the vans and high-tailed it to the party. We arrived at the tail end of the program, which was running about an hour behind schedule. A few officials gave long-winded speeches, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear these men give credit to Sister Rosemary for her role in the project. However, I was less pleased by the classist and racial divisions that were highlighted by the organization of the event. Our group of white Americans was seated in the main tent, right by the Sisters, despite the fact that we showed up late and had no hand in orchestrating the project or the party. Meanwhile, hundreds of other attendees were relegated behind us under what little shade was available. Notably, not one of them was white. I wasn’t fully aware of the disparity, though, until an older, African gentleman attempted to sit under our tent, only to be promptly kicked out. I suddenly felt very uncomfortable with the cameras and speakers that kept focusing on us, so I got up and found another seat. Lupe asked me about this experience after dinner, which led to a rather tense discussion among the group. I appreciated the points that my peers brought up, but I firmly believe that Jesus would have invited the poorest, most downtrodden members of the community to sit next to him at the table, rather than forcing them to watch from the outskirts.

I guess parties just aren’t my scene.

Speaking into the worst mike to ever grace the Earth

Atiak, NGO Exhaustion, and Bob

Having completed our work in Unyama, we moved onto Atiak for the third day of research. Initial impressions of the site revealed that the facilities were much more spacious than those at Unyama, which was an encouraging start to the day. However, after introductions, we realized that there were far fewer English speakers in this group of co-researchers, so our student/translator teams would have to be more efficient than they were on Monday. The group of women that met us in the stone hall included many survivors of the Atiak Massacre. In the mid-1990s, a unit of LRA fighters, led by a former resident of the area, routed the national defense forces from Atiak and slaughtered hundreds of civilians. Most young boys and girls were spared from the killings, but only so that they could be abducted and put to work for the Lord’s Resistance Army. We are now about 25 years removed from this tragedy, but such horrific experiences tend to lurk right beneath the surface, waiting for the opportunity to reappear. Our survey was bound to bring back painful memories for some. That being said, the massacre pushed the residents of Atiak to international prominence and garnered significant media attention, so many of the women we spoke with reported previous dealings with NGOs and researchers who came to Atiak to speak with the survivors. Of course, no amount of debriefing and deconstruction of such an incident can truly harden someone against the searing flashbacks.

I was still a spotter, so my interaction with the co-researchers during the questionnaire was limited, and most of my information is second-hand. Nevertheless, I had a number of our interviewers tell me in no uncertain terms that the conversations were painful for everyone involved. Given the nature of the study, this was going to be difficult to avoid, and it would be improper to silence the women who wanted to share their stories. We were not there as emotionally-detached data-collectors. We were humans trying to understand the experiences of fellow humans, and the recorders did a terrific job, per usual, finishing at approximately the same time that they did on the first day despite having half as many English-speakers. Had we attempted to survey this group of women on the first day, we would have been in Unyama until midnight.

At 8:40pm, I heard a knock on my door. I had opened our living room up for a kickback session that was to start at 8:45, so I assumed that one of the guests was fashionably early. To my great surprise, I was greeted by none other than Bob Okello (the nicest, most charismatic leader to ever grace the OU campus)! Bob is a student from Lira, Uganda, and he is taking the year off of school to run an educational start-up that recently placed first at Uganda’s National Hack-a-Thon. He graciously went out of his way to visit us in Gulu and attend the opening of a new primary school by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and George and I thoroughly enjoyed introducing him to the rest of the team and catching up over an evening of UNO and charades.

Moving On

I felt a strange sense of melancholy today. I can’t explain exactly how this feeling found its way into my throat, but I do know that we’ll be back in the cramped airplane seats soon, rocketing above the people I will likely never see again, and this realization made me sad. And the place I return to exists in a shrinking window, which will soon collapse and catapult its contents to who knows where. This place is a phase in my life that I have shared with so many incredible, loving, wise people, but it cannot last. It is the past four years, the journey alongside friends and mentors that is ultimately not about the journey, but the destination. And I still have no idea where I will land, but I do know that most of the people I’ve shared a ride with will be stepping out and onwards come May, with or without me. I don’t fear being left behind. I just can’t conjure up a clear image of what comes next for me, irrespective of anyone else’s path. And, for what feels like the first time, I have no desire to put on the glasses, see clearly, and move on. I’m not ready, but it doesn’t matter. Those words have a bitter taste. I have loved every fleeting minute of this trip, and I wish I could hold onto every second forever. And yet, at the same time, I am not sure whether I am more or less enticed by the notion of serving with the Peace Corps. Hopefully these next few days provide clarity.

We put this puzzle together in the late nights and slow days, on the couches and restaurant tables and intramural fields, and it felt like we had all the time in the world to finish it. And it very well might be finished, but I doubt I’ll ever know for sure. Anyways, the pieces are falling away faster than I can replace them, and trust me, I’m trying. The others would help, but they’ve just found a bookcase of new puzzles, and they each chose a new, shrink-wrapped box of their own. Some stood on tip-toes to grab a hundred-thousand count masterpiece from the top shelf, but there were plenty of options at eye-level for those who wanted a head start. All noble pursuits, every single one. I would go nab a new challenge too, but I’m not quite finished here. Five more minutes.

Unyama

We conducted our first day of group discussion in the People’s Voice for Peace meeting room in Unyama. There was not enough space for all 45 or so women to form circles in the room, so two groups remained inside and one crossed the street to circle up under the porch of a different house. George and I were transcribers for John’s group, so we did our best to follow the conversation and document the translator’s words on our computers. The women were much more open and relaxed than I perceived them to be on the first day, but that likely did not ease the difficulty they experienced sharing their struggles with the discussion group. It was tough to gauge how much these women knew about each other already, for the information they shared was not something one would ordinarily discuss with most people, outside of perhaps family and close friends. Furthermore, the group consensus was that the primary function of their womens’ organizations was to act as a savings and credit group, as opposed to advocacy or counseling, so these women may not have had much experience sharing about their wartime hardships. That being said, the discussion was, in my opinion, very productive, albeit dominated by a few more vocal women.

As I have mentioned, the women of Unyama were adamant that their most urgent need was financial. Consequently, the groups that they have formed as women tend to be focused on addressing this need. The majority of the women in our group were members of credit/savings groups, in which the members pool together their money to be loaned to a single member, which provides said member with an influx of capital to send their children to school, start a business, or seek medical treatment. It was sobering to learn that many of these groups serve as caregivers for sums of money that they consider significant and vital, but that we spend on frivolous consumer goods back in the States. Additionally, many of these groups suffer at the hands of influential men in their communities and local government. Many NGOs distribute aid via the members of Parliament other officials, who often take a cut of the aid off the top – aid that is meant for their poorest constituents. As a matter of fact, we conducted the discussion in a building right next to an MP’s property, where he or she grazes goats that were given by NGOs to the MP to pass out in the community. It is simply a slap in the face.

O Café gets Weird

This evening, we found ourselves where we always seem to end up – O Café. Nothing out of the ordinary, just a way to pass time between a trip to the market and dinner. Sit down, have a drink, all that good stuff. I suffered my most serious order envy yet, as Jessica sat beside me and ordered the most delicious looking chocolate shake I’ve ever seen. It was thick, topped with chocolate syrup, and served in a mason jar, as any self-respecting hipster restaurant would do. And it put my beer to shame. So my new New Year’s Resolution is to make sure I pick up a chocolate shake from O Café before I leave. But despite the obvious tension between our drink choices, things didn’t really get weird until a party of four showed up and sat across from us. It was four men, of which three were African and one was Asian. The Asian man was the oldest at the table, and wore the strangest fashion accessory around his neck: a thick, horseshoe-shaped travel pillow. This of course drew my attention, but it was the mannerisms of the group that really caught my eye. The Asian man told his companions where to sit, and then instructed them to order from the menu. Innocuous enough, perhaps, but these directions came out more like heavy-handed commands. He then proceeded to sit up as straight as a rod for the duration of the meal, which he spent on his phone. The African men sat with a slouch and a grimace, and did not say a word to one another until the Asian man stepped out for a few minutes. When he spoke, he did so in a very demeaning manner, as if he was educating children. We came to the conclusion that we had probably witnessed a superior bringing his subordinates to lunch, but he sure as hell didn’t act like any boss I’d ever want to work for. The power disparity between the individuals in this group was evident from the get-go, but I don’t think that there was anything that we could have done to rectify it. I suppose that some Ugandans have to put up with foreign employers who treat them poorly, which surely has to do with race in some or most instances, but it is a shame that such behavior is tolerated. While we did not witness any verbal berating or blatant abuse, it was evident to me that the man in charge believed that his tablemates where inferior and less intelligent, and this behavior is equally unacceptable.

Also, for the second time, our waiter at O Café had a stunning smile. Just beautiful.

Bag Secured

On this day, George recovered his bag. George’s bag was lost somewhere between Oklahoma City and Entebbe, leaving him with the outfit that he wore on the plane (a blue and white striped shirt and jeans) and a set of pajamas. George spent four arduous days waiting for his luggage to arrive in Gulu, and despite confusion and delays on the part of the airline, I never once heard him badmouth the responsible parties. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, because that’s just who George is. He never needs an excuse to smile, and those around him often join in.

The return of the bag was a splendid way to cap off the day, but it wasn’t the only highlight. After lunch, we took some time to unpack our experiences in Uganda thus far. I shared a sentiment that had been simmering in my mind from the moment we arrived. I believe that humans have a great deal in common, and I resent the individuals that attempt to gain power by using our differences to divide us (I’m looking at you, Trump). However, I have struggled with overcoming the feeling of being an outsider here. I am the minority in Uganda, and the color of my skin makes that apparent for all to see. This might be the first time that I have even scratched the surface of how people of color in the United States feel in some parts of the country. And by no means do I think that experiencing Uganda as a white person is anything like the experience of a colored person in America, because I am not persecuted for my differences here. I might turn a few heads, but I have not felt any of the malice or prejudice that is directed at minorities in the USA. Nevertheless, I could probably let this obvious difference be the story of my time in Uganda, or allow it to deter me from engaging with the residents of Gulu, but I am not going to let that happen.

We also made a group outing to purchase fabric for tailored clothing, which will be made by Florence over the next few days. Most stores were closed for the New Year, so we squeezed into a hole-in-the-wall shop that was covered in an overwhelming variety of cloth. The floor and walls were plastered with fabric of every color and pattern, and choosing just one or two was no small task. I left the store with enough for three clothing items, although I’m still not sure what I’ll have made. It was disappointing to learn that none of the fabric was actually made in Uganda, but I suppose it’s good that our money was still supporting a Ugandan shopkeeper. I only hope that globalization has not entirely wiped out the Ugandan textile industry.

Six of us went for drinks at Café O after dinner. It was a pleasant little jaunt, but we clearly arrived far too early in the night. We were one of two occupied tables at the restaurant, and people started arriving as soon as we left. Judging by the music that is piped into our rooms all night but really kicks it up a notch after midnight, you probably need to stay up past your bedtime to truly experience the parties during this time of year.

Ushering in the New Year in Uganda

Hello reader! Welcome to the first entry in my account of a short experience in Uganda. I am writing on my laptop while perched on the striped couch in my residence, which I share with George, the only other male student in our group. We are eleven students and three faculty strong, and we are representing the University of Oklahoma and a diverse collection of disciplines and experiences. Most of us are visiting Uganda for the first time; we come as students of the country’s history and culture, and as participants in a research project that will be discussed in later journal entries. We have traveled to Gulu, which is a city of around 100,000 in northern Uganda, a few hundred kilometers from the border with South Sudan. We left the States on Friday, December 28th, and spent two full days in transit. I joined the team in Atlanta, and flew from there to Entebbe after making stops in Amsterdam and Kigali. The journey was not complete, however, as we still had a seven hour drive to Gulu. After a long, taxing weekend, we arrived at St. Monica’s Vocational School for Girls on the evening of Sunday, December 30th.

Incidentally, our first full day at St. Monica’s was also the last day of 2018. I have never experienced New Year’s Eve abroad, so I did not know what to expect. The day began slowly, with a hearty breakfast and a free morning, which we were encouraged to use to visit town. All eleven students trekked to the market together, and collectively navigated the streets of Gulu as a caravan of wide-eyed outsiders absorbing wave after wave of sights, sounds, and interactions. Crossing the street with such a large pack is a delicate art, akin to playing multiple games of Frogger simultaneously. Thankfully, none of us strayed too close to a one of the countless motorcycle taxis that whip through the avenues at full tilt. After a quick stop at the supermarket, we found our way to the Gulu Main Market, which moved to its present brick and mortar location in 2015. The exterior of the building is large but unassuming, and belays the sheer scale of the operations that take place inside, namely three stories of booths operated by hundreds of vendors selling all manner of wares. You can do your grocery shopping, have a dress tailored, and pick up toys, jewelry, and artwork all in one trip. Neither words nor pictures can do it justice, but I will use both in this attempt to convey the enormity of the Gulu Main Market. I didn’t buy anything during this visit, but I anticipate being sent back on assignment from our professors at some point, and although I didn’t leave much room in my bags for souvenirs, I will definitely be purchasing some coffee to bring home.

The afternoon saw us preparing for the New Year’s Eve celebration. The Sisters enlisted us to help cook a variety of dishes, so we split into small groups assigned to cake, bread, chapatti, and goat. I’m not a vegetarian (yet), but I believe that it is important that those of us who eat meat understand where our food comes from. If we cannot stomach the slaughtering of an animal for our consumption, then we probably shouldn’t be blindly eating meat. In any case, we should not condone the torturous lives and suffering of animals that are mass-produced for the American diet, but that is a different topic for a different journal. I am thankful that I did not swing the cleaver, and frankly I’m not sure that I would have been able to. However, I witnessed the killing, skinning, and butchering of the goat, and sampled it later in the evening. It was too tough and muscular for my tastes, but I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the dishes at the last dinner of 2018. Dining with the Sisters was a joyous experience, and I was pleasantly surprised to see them enjoying the fireworks as Gulu ushered in the New Year. For all I know, the Sisters celebrated late into the night, which honestly would not surprise me. A Happy New Year indeed.

Can the Earth Survive Us?

Humanity has made its presence known. Over our relatively short history on Earth, we have had an unfathomable impact on the progression of the planet and the countless organisms to which it plays host. The human population is rapidly approaching the Earth’s capacity to sustain life, which is forcing animals and plants out of existence as we consume land and resources. Organisms that can avoid humans or adapt to our behaviors will live to reproduce, and the traits that allowed them to do so will be passed on. And in some cases, animals or plants that we deem necessary to our survival or lifestyle might even thrive, but our breeding practices may favor certain qualities and seek to have them passed down. Anthropogenic climate change has already and will continue to change the habits of Earth’s flora and fauna. For example, rising sea levels may eventually fill in the low points in coastal landscapes across the planet, creating isolated islands on which species evolve divergently. Furthermore, hunting and destruction has driven myriad species to extinction, or the brink thereof, and the populations that recover will demonstrate far less genetic diversity, per the bottleneck effect. Evolution is not a speedy process, but human activity is certainly going to influence the evolution of the vast majority of the living world.

All of this begs the question of how the Earth might respond to the human nuisance. James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis could provide one answer to this question. Lovelock argued that the Earth is a living being, because it possesses many characteristics of living things, such as the ability to capture useful energy, extract materials, respond to stimuli, reproduce, and adapt to change. For starters, the Earth “captures useful energy from its surroundings,” in this case the sun, which sustains chlorophyll-containing organisms and drives many of the processes that make life possible. The Earth may not extract materials from the rest of the Universe at the present moment, but it probably did so during its formation. The environment is very responsive, and can use the energy and byproducts of volcanic eruptions to create fertile grounds for life after destruction. Conversely, the environment can also respond to negative stimuli, such as anthropogenic emissions, by making the planet far less hospitable towards human life. Alas, the Earth does not reproduce, which admittedly is a fundamental ability of a living organism, but this all the more reason to preserve the one that we have. Finally, the Earth and its environment can adapt to change, an ability that will probably be magnified as human activity becomes more pronounced and damaging. This explains in part how the atmosphere, a combination of gases that should have reacted with one another and come to equilibrium, is instead in a semblance of steady state, despite human emissions. According to the Gaia hypothesis, the Earth and its many organisms will adapt to human behavior, perhaps by sacrificing to accommodate human life at the expense of other forms of life. Alternatively, the planet could choose to wipe out the human nuisance entirely, just as we reflexively swat at a mosquito looking for a meal.

Silent Spring in 2018

In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson predicted that the rampant use of pesticides like DDT would bioaccumulate and harm humans and the environment, kill animals and birds, become ineffective as insects develop resistance, and potentially even bolster the pest population by killing off their predators. She died shortly after the book’s release, but many of her claims have been borne out over the past 50 years. Pesticides and herbicides have threatened countless species that they were not designed to target, have enabled the expansion of other populations by reducing their predators and competition, and have become less effective over time as insects gained immunity. For example, in countries like India that continued to over-apply DDT to control insect populations, malaria-transmitting mosquitoes developed immunity. However, there is less scientific consensus on how low or moderate exposure to these chemicals impacts human health.

The pesticide industry reacted quite negatively to Silent Spring’s publishing, as Carson had anticipated, and manufacturers like DuPont and Velsicol defended their products and threatened legal action against the publisher and the magazines that serialized Silent Spring. However, the attempts by the pesticide industry to stir up controversy about the book actually generated public interest in and awareness of the risks posed by pesticides. Nowadays, the pesticide and herbicide industries uses pseudoscience and artful PR campaigns to spread misinformation about the dangers of pesticides. This past August, Monsanto was ordered to pay almost $290 million to a man who contracted terminal cancer from the chemicals in Roundup, the omnipresent commercial herbicide. Monsanto has denied the connection between its products and cancer, and continues to fiercely challenge any such assertions, but the evidence is clear and ironclad. Unfortunately, with so much money at stake, the pesticide industry will continue to misrepresent its products and poison the environment. And it is important to remember that the pesticide industry is capable of getting away with far worse in other parts of the world, where regulations are less stringent and the threat of inset-borne diseases more severe. It will take unanimous international cooperation to effectively combat the influence of this massive industry; until then, the citizens of the Global South will continue to suffer disproportionate harm at the hands of companies like Monsanto.