Monday, October 20, 2014

Kigali

Just a week after landing in Uganda, I packed up what little I had unpacked and took a midnight bus to Kigali, Rwanda. For those of you that don’t know about the little gem that is Rwanda, let me give you the low down. The entire country is no larger than Maryland, but it’s insane what they’ve managed to pack into their borders: a handful of dreamy lakes, a big portion of everyone’s favorite endangered mountain gorillas, and endless, intricate farmland stretching over a world’s worth of rolling hills in what I’m sure is Mother Earth’s favorite patchwork blanket. It is this last earthly delight, the zigs and zags of every shade of life imaginable that had me mesmerized once we crossed the border. 



After 15 hours of drifting back and forth from sleep to scenery, I truly couldn’t tell where the hills ended and my dreams began. I kept seeing myself within the frames of a film and could nearly hear the narrator’s script describe our winding journey into the green. But, my daze ended when we reached Kigali, Rwanda’s sprawling capital. 


Kigali is a proper city with stoplights and everything. In just two days, we managed to see the entire thing from the backs of motorbikes and the tops of hills. Tiny, wooden houses were packed into the carved out slopes, seeming to balance precariously on top of one another. Like an ant hill in the middle of a forest, Kigali is a sudden explosion of life in an otherwise mellow country. 


But, like any other visitor, the most memorable and astonishing and heartbreaking part of our time there was the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. Even after learning about the genocide in school, I had never fully understood it until that day. The irrational ethnic division, the atrocities that built up to the final outcome, and the horrendous role the Western world played. It had all escaped me, blurred together simply as tragic history not to be repeated. But seeing the facts, the figures, the timeline of events laid out before me made my head spin. How could this have happened? How could we have turned our backs on human beings like that? From the beginning, it was our fault. Us, the outsider, those who rule with no understanding, those who must claim everything for themselves and ruin what they can’t hold. Nevermind race or nationality, this was a problem caused by ignorant dominance, imperialism. Blindness. 

I sat, surrounded by skulls with holes and cracks so precise you could feel the moment of impact. Femurs and clavicles shattered. Floral summer dresses taken from anonymous bodies. Piles of shoes and keychains and combs and toys; things that used to belong to people that should still be alive. Then, I entered a room where rows of photos of victims hung heavy with scribbled notes from their survivors. Tearful children who never knew their parents, and regretful parents who never got to know their children. Needless to say, I didn’t make it out the same. 

Kigali broke my heart, my perception of humanity. I tried to imagine the frank internal monologues of world leaders. I tried to imagine what was happening in the mental haze of the Hutu as they brutally murdered their Tutsi neighbors and friends. It made me sick, and it made me question our minds. So fragile, so receptive to persuasions of evil, so easily apathetic. Our flaws are magnified in masses. We are so weak, it’s frightening. However, it’s humbling to remember that we are incredibly imperfect as a species. There’s endless room for growth, for betterment. Evolution hasn’t stopped yet, people; remember that! Keep your eyes open for ways to improve our condition. Keep love in your heart and justice in mind. And open your eyes to the world around you while you’re at it; these kinds of things are still happening despite what we claim we’ve learned. There are atrocities happening right now; don’t fall easily into the idea that we’re so far beyond our past. If you want to learn more about this dark time of human history, read this


Photos:
1. Pictures from inside of a bus don't do this place justice. 
2. Kigali.
3. Truth.
4. The mellow end of the taxi park.
5. Rainy night on the back of a ticky-ticky
6. Little houses on the hillside.
7. A boy and some hills.
8. "Let us prepare future generations so that they do not experience what we have experienced". It didn't seem right to take photos at the memorial, but this was the last wall I saw before leaving. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Breathing 101

It’s incredibly easy to point out the gaping holes in the American education system. Our US-centric way of thinking infects our classrooms, keeping them void of foreign language, global geography and even an accurate world history. The arts are deteriorating, collateral damage in our power hungry, left brain race with China. And don’t even get me started on the quality of extracurriculars and electives. But last year, we ranked 35th, 25th and 28th in the areas we strive to perfect (proof). It doesn’t make any sense! Yet still, some mixture of guilt and gratitude hits me as I walk into schools in Walukuba, the village where my organization works. 


You can hear their chants from the road outside. Each classroom has an off key chorus: weirdly melodic, yet just plain sweet, layers of tiny voices reading the words written on their chalkboard. The charm, however, is deceiving. What those songs really mean is regurgitated information, uniformity, mindlessness. Teacher writes the lessons on the blackboards and the most adorable robots you’ve ever seen read them back with one voice. One thought process. No room for individuality, no space for thinking differently, no real understanding. 


The kids don’t know any better, they’re honestly just happy to have enough money for school fees. But I do. I know. It makes my blood boil and it makes it difficult for me to do my job effectively. We teach them one way of thinking and every hour of their day they’re hammered with the opposition. And these kids are sharp, masters of practicality. When I pass eight year olds tending to their family plots or taking care of their infant siblings, I often marvel that they’re tougher and wiser than me in so many ways. Yet, they can be silly. They can be artistic. And man, they’re insightful at times. They just don’t understand how that could ever relate to their education. And I'm overwhelmed. I mean, how do you teach creative thinking? I feel like I'm teaching people how to breathe. But each moment I hang my head in frustration and disbelief and heavy helplessness reinforces how badly our program is needed. It’s not perfect; we’re constantly adapting our curriculum as we see fit and I won’t lie, I think there’s a lot of work to be done. Expansion, depth, all elements of growth, really. But it’s the least I can do.


As easy as it may be to leave things status quo and spend the year galavanting around collecting foreign friends and photographs, I can’t walk away from this knowing I could improve it. I can’t walk away from these tiny, little human minds that deserve to develop properly in a country that deserves to develop properly. Because they’re the way it’s going to happen in the long run. I mean, if you want to truly tend to the garden, you’ve got to start with the seeds. 

Yes, I know I’m an optimist. Yes, I know that I’m young and dumb. Yes, I know that I haven’t been in Uganda or development long enough to really understand how tiny of a drop I am in this ocean of resistance. But, I like it that way. Let me dream.

Photos:
1. Part of the Day Star Academy campus
2. Everyone's curious when we come around
3. Masese Co. fourth graders and the famous Ugandan crane
4. Getting Day Star students pumped up on the first day of lessons
5. Trying to find shapes in the clouds. They thought we were insane.
6. "Portrait of Miss Kate" by Patience 


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Welcome to Jinja Town


It’s always difficult to put a place into words. Places are meant to be seen, you know? To be felt, to be listened to. To be interpreted with your own senses and mind. I can’t really describe the layers of bird songs that are the soundtrack to my days. And if I can’t depict this unpredictable chorus of wild things, how can I describe the light? The vibrancy of the colors? The thoughts I’m filled with as I ride down Main Street on the back of a motorbike? These are the ineffable things that surround me and swallow me whole. Pictures sure as hell don’t do real life any justice. If anything, they make us feel as though we know a place when we don’t know a damn thing about it. And a false sense of knowledge is a dangerous thing. So keep these ideas in mind when reading anything I write about Uganda or the places I venture off to while I’m here. Know that this is just my flawed, human attempt at putting an entire unique and irreplaceable world into the limited words of a single language.

I guess I should start from the beginning of my three weeks here. This will be a cliff notes version if there ever was one, but it’s better than nothing when attempting to keep hearts and minds back home at ease. 

*

As most people who have traveled around any developing country will tell you, the real fun begins the moment you get into your chosen mode of transportation. While my shuttle was more predictable than other options, the journey was surely a proper welcome to my new life. The roads here are a rich coppery red and their dust seems to permanently hover in the air, kicked up from the parades of motorbikes, bicycles, running children, women with baskets and bushels balanced on their heads and pickup trucks with beds stuffed full of sweat drenched men. After a bit of driving, we could feel Kampala approaching; once unpaved and one laned, the roads now widened to reveal an epicenter of movement. A mess of sound and color under a hazy sky that makes Los Angeles look fresh. To avoid the tangle of trucks and vans, we ducked into the winding roads of the nearest slum weaving in and out of wooden shacks teeming with the disarray of daily life. Chickens and goats roamed freely between big mamas in radiant dresses cooking local dishes over black smoke barbecues with naked babies wrapped tightly on their backs. Packs of children entertained themselves with bike tires and sticks, rocks and ropes and whatever else they could find; after spending a year in Orange County where I often saw brats on the beach, backs turned to the tide with iPads in hand, the simplicity was refreshing. 

I didn't take the following photos of Kampala due to major exhaustion and a certain timidness and respect that I wish more people had when whipping out cameras on this continent, but I thought for the sake of breaking up some words and showing you what the city looks like, I'd include them anyway.







After a while of this sensory overload, we made our way into the rural area between Kampala and Jinja. Long grass and banana trees lined many of the miles we drove, but we passed a few villages, too. I sat in the front seat of the shuttle, and my pale skin sparked some interest in the kids who played in front of their homes that evening. Eyes  grew wide and hands waved as they shouted “Muzungu!” which means foreigner. I have mixed feelings about this, because as cute as they are, and as much as it’s a sick sign that I’m out of my own world, out of the majority, out of America, I never really know the motive. Is my appearance simply a novelty? The way kids here in Jinja grab fistfuls of my hair and closely investigate my freckles would lead me to believe that. But there’s also their idea of what white skin means. Candy, money, fancy cameras they can see themselves in instantly. And it bums me out to think that may be why they’re cheering. Because they think I’m another tourist who doesn’t understand my place. But if they’re getting rowdy because some white skinned weirdo is passing by in a big van, that’s another thing. I’ll gladly be a sideshow if it’s something funny in their day. Either way, I didn’t quite feel deserving of the welcome.

Life since my arrival has been more mellow than most of you would imagine, I’m sure. The primary schools are still out for summer, so my work days are relaxed and I spend a lot of time getting to know the town. Some days are spent lounging at resort pools, and some are full of wandering around the local market which consists of endless rows of cramped wooden stalls stacked high with everything from four cent mangos to soccer jerseys to machetes. Nights are dollar beers at bars on the banks of the Nile and family style dinners or movies with my hilarious roommates. I live in a tiny room tucked back into the garden of the main house, surrounded by exotic flowers, palm fronds and creatures of every kind. Electricity and hot water aren’t ever guaranteed, clothes are hand washed and hung to dry, and the internet is used only when necessary. Life is simple and I couldn’t be happier. 

Jinja itself is a busy little town, streets filled with motorcycles and missionaries. Like many other African countries, Uganda is a place where time is a figment of the imagination, and no two minds imagine things exactly the same way. While frustrating at first, the change of pace reminds me that all the organization and stress of our Western ways sucks the life out of us. We lack the ability to relax and roll with the punches of hour late busses and receiving a meal completely different from what we ordered. At home, these things are the cause of tantrums, but in Jinja we just laugh and say, “Uganda always wins”.