Postcards from Uganda

Thursday, January 31, 2008


I touched down in Uganda in February 2007 with too much luggage, airplane hair and many anxieties about the weeks and months ahead.
350 days, 20 books, 4 countries, 3 bottles of sunblock, 2 riots and 1 ebola outbreak later, this once foreign land "in the heart of darkness" now triggers memories of countless acts of kindness and cultural faux pas, of good weather and good friends, of red earth and green tea fields, of matooke and posho, of wonder and frustration and laughter.  It has moved out of the shadows of my imagination into my habits, into my humor, into my prayers, into my verbal and facial expressions, into my ipod and photo albums, into my stomach, into my heart.  I think I finally understand, in some small measure, what people mean when they speak of falling in love with Africa, of falling under its spell. 
When I board a plane in a few days, I will be both going and leaving home.  Saying goodbye to people I've grown to love in order to return to others who I've deeply missed is a bittersweet affair, but it's part of a larger experience that I would neither trade nor forgo.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

I don't usually do this

I have a litany of excuses.  I'm in Uganda.  I didn't understand the rules about overseas absentee ballots.  I expected the California primary to take place in March.  The bottom line is this: for the first time since I became eligible to vote, I really, really want to vote; but I can't.

So, if you're able and willing, please do me this one small favor on 5th February: vote for Barack Obama.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Is this thing on?

Last night, I sang karaoke in public for the first time. It was also the first time for a couple of my friends who were with me and the predominantly Ugandan audience was very kind to us mzungu performers. Even though I've belted out "Hotel California" in the car and in the shower more times than I can count, singing it into a mic in front of a group of strangers was an unexpectedly challenging and hilarious experience. The karaoke tape did not edit out any of the guitar solos, so I spent a good 5 minutes on stage, drumming my fingers and, finally, playing air guitar to amuse my patient audience.

Would I have expected my first karaoke experience to take place in Uganda? Nedda (no). But this place, this year, has been full of such surprises.

Friday, January 18, 2008

If you want peace, work for justice

Earlier this week, my colleagues and I went to court for a hearing. The courtroom was overflowing with spectators because, according to a friendly news reporter, a high-publicity case was set to be heard. When that case was called, the defendants' lawyer announced that he was not ready to proceed because he had been "disorganized" by the holidays. The case was rescheduled. As the defendants were making their way out of the courtroom, they were attacked by some people in the gallery (many who are plaintiffs or sympathizers). There were no bailiffs, no security personnel. People clamored and climbed to take a swing or get a better look. Eventually, the defendants managed to exit the courtroom and the commotion continued outside.

As it turned out, the scuffle was the most excitement to take place in court that day. More cases were called, including ours; all were adjourned to a later date because somebody wasn't ready. There were neither consequences nor resistance to delay. Too many people involved in the process - the magistrate, the clerks, the lawyers, the parties - seemed resigned that justice will be delayed and, often as a result, denied.

When the post-election events first unraveled in Kenya, I wanted desperately for peace to be restored. Now, I want justice. I still want restoration of peace; I don't agree with violence against innocent people as a means to vent discontent with the government. Yet I'm glad that people are not passive, are not resigned to be ruled by a questionable leader produced by a questionable election. Some occasions call for indignation, without which inaction and despair - and the injustices they perpetuate - would go unchecked.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Home away from home

I traveled to Kenya and Tanzania during my year-end holiday and spent Christmas in Zanzibar. Saw incredible wildlife, gorgeous beaches and met some great people. After living out of a duffel for two weeks, I found myself ready to go home. To go where I know the taxi driver who meets me at the airport, where I know the places to go to find things I need and the fair prices for these things, where friends and familiar faces abound.

Kampala, Uganda is not just a place I'm visiting; it's home.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

1 and 30

A parcel from my mom arrived a few days ago. Wedged in with packets of taco seasoning, parmesan cheese and various Chinese snacks were dietary supplements that "enhance memory, support healthy aging."

Earlier this week, as I took in the scenery along the road connecting Kampala and Jinja, I could hardly believe that I'm here, that I get to live here, to experience the things and meet the people that have filled the bulk of my days as a 30-year-old. Much of it has felt like starting from scratch. Everything seems new and different. Nothing could be taken for granted, even something as small as looking in the right direction for traffic before crossing the street. Daily life requires... more. On the roughest days, I feel tired and old. But on most days, I feel curious and stretched and alert and engaged; I feel like a kid again.

Whatever I had imagined my life to be at 30, this year has not been that. I'm glad life is not predictable; I'm delighted it's beyond my control and expectations. Perhaps surprises and challenges are God's supplements to enhance memory and support healthy aging.

2008 is a leap year. I'll have 366 days as a 31-year-old. I wonder where and how I'll spend them. I wonder who and what I'll discover and love and lose along the way.

I can't wait to find out.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

CHOGM redux

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will take place in Uganda on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend.  In these weeks immediately prior to CHOGM, preparations have taken on a frenzied pace.  Construction around the clock.  Digging crews lining every main road, patching potholes, creating sidewalks and busting pipes.  Road closures for "convoy rehearsals."  (Heaven forbid the visitors should wait in traffic!)  "Are you ready for CHOGM?" has become an acceptable greeting. 
Just when I had abandoned all hope that CHOGM would bring any benefit to Kampala residents, Parliament declares two CHOGM public holidays - on Thanksgiving day and Friday!  I will join some other Americans in town for a Thanksgiving meal on Thursday, then a Thanksgiving potluck on Saturday.  Thanksgiving is not an official holiday in Uganda, but a long weekend of no work and overeating?  That's the true spirit of Thanksgiving!
So thanks, CHOGM and Parliament, for these extra holidays.  More sincerely, thank you, friends and family, for your care and support, for emails and packages. 
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.