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”.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Africa: it's a continent.

So, I'm moving to Uganda soon and the whole process has obviously gotten my friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances asking questions. That being said, I'd like to take a minute to discuss my frustration with people who directly or indirectly refer to the African continent as a country. With questions like "What's Africa like?" or "Are you going to learn African?" (SERIOUSLY, AN ADULT ASKED ME THIS) I am saddened for those that have been failed by our education system, and furthermore, embarrassed for those that have failed to educate themselves. I have been fortunate enough to experience a few countries, and I will happily tell you about those. I cannot tell you about Benin or Ghana or Angola. There are countless languages, religions, traditions, foods and people all over the enormous continent of Africa. And trust me, enormous is an understatement. Check this out:

BOOM! Click on the picture to read about how skewed our global maps are. With a continent that big, how can it all be the same?

While I believe there is a cultural side of pan-Africanism (in the sense that there are commonalities and overlap due to early nomads and migration, and a tangible brotherhood between many enlightened people based solely on the fact that they are Africans), there are extremely diverse cultures existing all over the continent.

Morocco, for instance, is essentially completely Islamic. Deserts stretch over a vast majority of the country and it has a population that many of our untrained eyes would consider "vaguely Middle Eastern". Oh, and couscous. Lots of couscous. 

These photos are from my badass friend Abbey who is currently serving in the Peace Corps in Tata, Morocco. You can get more insight into her life and experience with Moroccan culture here.

Zambia, on the other hand, is constitutionally Christian. It also boasts a beautiful tropical climate, is full of black babes, and upon visiting you will eat copious bowls of mealie-meal. Mealie-meal wishes it was couscous.

These photos were ruthlessly stolen from the internet. I know it's an extreme example, but they're clearly different countries, right? Thank you.

These contrasting lifestyles exist from North to South, East to West and are often right next to one another within the borders of a country (thank you, Berlin Conference). This causes chaos and conflict because as much pan-African love as you see, there is xenophobic ignorance and religious opposition at every turn. Sooo not the stuff of one singular community!

Ignoring the wonderful differences within and between each country not only belittles their national identities, but it perpetuates and validates the ignorance that Western society has subjected them to since their varied beginnings. Now, I think it's safe to say that no one who dreams of someday, "going to India, Brazil and Africa" actually THINKS Africa is one nation, but you don't know the damage your words do to the global perspective on the region (Plus, you sound silly and then it gets awkward when I ask you where exactly in Africa you want to go and you say you "have no idea, on a safari or something"). It's bad enough that so many media sources give us an overarching image of the poor and starving African, but if we continue to assign this singular identity to an entire continent, we're no better. Let's use this wonderful thing called the internet to educate ourselves and those around us and be mindful of our words. It doesn't cost nearly as much as a plane ticket. BBC posts awesome country profiles, or you can Google it! You can do just about anything, but don't ask me what Africa is like.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Nicas and Ticas

Before I continue with all of the word writing and picture posting, here's a video that exemplifies my experience in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. These countries are vibrant in every sense of the word and I hope that my dreamy love affair with them is adequately conveyed through this old school iMovie mashup. You do what you can with what you've got, ya know? Enjoy!