Sunday, June 10, 2007

‘Ndiwelimilambo enamagama.’

“ ‘Ndiwelimilambo enamagama.’ (I have crossed famous rivers.) It means that one has traveled a great distance, that one has wide experience and gained some wisdom from it.” (A Long Walk to Freedom, p. 85)

Where to begin? How do I describe these past two months? Honestly I’m not sure I can do it justice, but we’ll see. So after much debate and finally deciding that none of the options I could find in South Africa were satisfactory, I decided to go back up to Kitgum to the Northern Uganda Community Based Action for Children with Disabilities, or NUCBACD or the center, as I will refer to it from now on. So I called Teresa, the woman who runs the center and simply asked if I could come live and help out up there for 7 weeks. And she responded with an “oh, yes that would be great” after a slight pause at not really being able to draw a face to my name. So on April 22 I left Mukono at the crack of dawn, alone, and headed up north to Kitgum.

My time in Kitgum is in some ways very hard to explain. The first month the center was on school holidays so none of the students were there. But lucky for me, Teresa has the largest of hearts and has taken in about 20 kids who she feeds and puts through school. When school is in session, they live in her rented house in the quarters (closer to town while she lives at the center) but they spent the holiday with us at the center. And so I spent many hours in that first month shelling groundnuts, or peanuts as well call them and introducing such games as pelt the g-nut at the person across from you, throw the gnut and try to catch it in your mouth, and my personal favorite, try to get the g-nut in someone else’s pocket. Needless to say we lost a few more g-nuts than we might have otherwise but as far as I’m concerned, it was worth it. The kids also took the opportunity to teach me some words of Luo which I have all but mastered. This is one of my favorite memories of my time in Kitgum and it’s this simplicity that is one of the things I will miss most.

The most amazing thing about these kids though, was their innocence. This is something I also recognized in Ethiopia, but I think maybe was lacking in Ghana and in Mukono. It is amazing to me that these kids, who have experienced far more than I have, are able to maintain their innocence. An innocence, I know recognize I lost quite abruptly around age 7. And it was inspiring and freeing to just spend time with them, to see, even partially, the world through their eyes. It almost, allowed me to be a kid again for those moments. Something that also often comes out with my brother Solomon most usually in the form of food fights at the dinner table, to the chagrin of my mother. I have never so yearned to have my youth back and I will cherish those moments when I got a taste of it again. I also fell in love with a little three year old girl named Nancy, the daughter of Teresa’s sister who has HIV and I gather is not well enough to take care of Nancy, although I did not probe. And I spent a great many hours chasing this wonderful little girl around the 2 acres of the center and reveling in the joy of catching her and scooping her up, only of course to let her down and begin the game again.

In this first half, I tried to implement a community outreach program both in the surroundings areas and the nearby IDP camps. Interestingly enough, I modeled this outreach off the HIV/AIDS awareness that I participated in at Liberia Camp in Ghana. This gave me the opportunity to see many more of the IDP camps which was interesting, and gave me a much clearer picture of the situation than I was able to get on just the weekend.

The truth of the matter is that 20 minutes is not enough time to really understand a place. I feel a strange sense of pride that in the 20 minutes we spent at the center on our weekend visit up to Kitgum back in late march that I was able to see the place for what it is and recognize that it is, quite simply, amazing. Of course, we did not get a clear picture as there are many more problems than appeared on that day. The center has NO funding. NRC (Norwegian Refugee Council) has funded the construction of a 3 room classroom block and 2 dormitories, 2 latrines, 2 bathing areas, and a kitchen/storeroom. Far Reaching Ministries drilled a bore hole and is paying teachers’ salaries now. And that is all. There is no consistent money coming in. The kids are asked to pay 2,500 Ush (roughly $1.25) per term for medical expenses and Teresa does not have the heart to turn someone away just because they cannot pay. The number of the students at the moment is around 85. There are of course no beds in the dorms so kids are sleeping on mattresses on the floor and at the moment some of the younger boys are sharing to make more space. The majority of the kids are deaf, and we have no sign language teacher. There are also 3 blind kids, around 8 mentally retarded children, 5 or so suffering from polio, and a group of older kids consisting mainly of formerly abducted children who are learning tailoring.

Most of what I feel I did at the center was more administrative. I rewrote the proposal and it can now be resent out to all the NGOs and anybody else who is interested. The rest, was more theoretical: trying to help Teresa make a plan for what to do with funds when they come in. The center is practically brand new. The land that I know to be the center was not purchased until this past December 2006, and the first classroom building not completed until January 2007. And this of course, is overwhelming. So I made it one of my goals to set Teresa up with a plan she feels comfortable with, a plan she believes in, and one she feels she can implement on her own. More than anything, that was simply talking things out. What should happen first? What gets precedent? And coming up with a list and rough budgets so that if an organization comes through with a donation she only has to pull out her list and figure out what works.

The other side of my time in Kitgum I will refer to as an emotional somersault. Before heading up a number of issues had come up that I recognized I needed to deal with more adequately before going home. And this is the reason I was not in touch. I put myself in what call, a self-imposed isolation. I had to face some personal demons and in order to not be distracted, as I so easily am, and not continue to ignore some of these issues which have been present for many many years, I needed to be alone and without contact. This is also the reason for the lessening of and lack of contact as this year has progresses. It really had nothing to do with anything (although internet access was sometimes an issue) except that it was what I needed to figure myself out.

I was quite a spectacle in Kitgum. Amidst a town where whites are people who drive big white, 4 wheel drives with NGO stickers and a huge antenna, I moved on foot (or walk as we would say). I would walk the roughly 3 km to town and back almost every day. And due to the placement of the center most of this walk would be on the Kitgum airfield which is now used as a highway, a sidewalk, planting grounds, and yes of course, as an airstrip. And I would walk to town and back regardless of whether I had anything to do in town simply because I loved being with the people. Seeing the children flee from their houses to watch me walk by. Seeing them squeal in delight if I smiled and waved and jump up and down with glee if I walked over to shake their hands. Seeing kids frozen in terror and then start wailing at the sight of me and my white skin. And so, I was given an Acholi name: Acan (pronounced Achan but there is no “h” in the Luo alphabet) meaning to persevere for the people.

And that is what I will miss most about Africa: the simply joy of being able to make a kid’s day with a smile and a wave. And what they don’t know and probably never will, is that they made me feel just as special as I hope I was able to make them feel.

Kitgum drew the world of war closer than it’s ever been before, and I don’t hesitate to say that war scares the SHIT OUT OF ME! Many of you probably don’t know what is going on now in Northern Uganda. Well peace talks are sort of happening but no one in the north actually believes they will work. I lived in Kitgum with an undertone of fear. The center is in the bush. Should peace talks fail at any point, the center will need to close, the kids will have to go back to their families, and Teresa will have to move back to the quarters. How strange to know that should Kony simply have decided to walk away from the table at any point during the past 7 weeks, I would not have been safe in what became a temporary home.

And now, the year as a whole: This year was the most necessary thing I have ever done in my life. When I was planning it I didn’t really know why I needed to do it and I still don’t know that I can explain it, but somewhere between India and Uganda, I found myself. Each segment of this journey has served its own purpose.

Costa Rica although unsatisfying in many ways, served to excite me for the rest of my travels. I was so scared when I got on the first plane ride headed to San Jose, and then leaving San Jose 5 weeks later, I couldn’t have been more ready to experience everything else.

Ecuador gave me a very small taste of the simplicity of a life of manual labor. I also learned much more about agriculture and environmental science than I realized at the time and that came back to help me in many of the other places.

India as far as I’m concerned was the real beginning. Costa Rica and Ecuador were almost a warm up for everything else that came after. India was the beginning of feeling challenged, both physically and mentally, although in retrospect, I think I resisted the NOLS “doctrine” somewhat, I gained more from that experience than I think I’ve been able to realize and it helped prepare me even more for some of the things I would face later on. At the very least, my time in India instilled in me a love of the mountains, of this overwhelming, unshakable energy that just envelopes you and takes you into its fold and you really have no choice but to lose yourself in it.

Ethiopia: my introduction to Africa and the only country that I’ve been that I have no doubt in my mind that will be back to. The country touched me, the people touched me, the project touched me. I will never forget going to pick up the first 4 kids and watch them be introduced to their new home. I will not forget the look on their faces, the mixture of fear and excitement in their eyes and the joy of making them laugh that very first night. I will never forget the feeling of teaching those 8th grade students, all 150 of them looking at ME, to change their future.

Tanzania: An interesting experience and one that I had a lot of trouble with at the time. I was suffering from what I now know to be reverse culture shock and had trouble with an experience that was still Africa but was so different from what I know it to be. And not know how to convey that adequately to my family.

Ghana: Hard to sum up, but I think it was the experience I was most ready for. I came into it frustrated by the safari world and ready to fully be there. I made a number of friends that I know I will have forever. And although it was definitely challenging, it was a situation in which I was able to adapt myself to and find my niche and I relished that. And it was probably one of the hardest places to leave.

Mukono, Uganda: The truth is that for this segment, my heart wasn’t in it. I was spent from Ghana and reeling from certain things that arose from being there and was never fully able to get myself to be there. I did what I needed to do and enjoyed my time in the classroom with my p4 class, but I didn’t love it. I thoroughly enjoyed the group that was here and appreciate what they added to my thought process about Africa and life in general.

Kitgum, Uganda: You’ve heard about this one already, but I think more than anything it served as a time to ponder on the journey so far and my life as a whole and try to fit these things together and understand them. It was a time of reflection and emotion turmoil.

So now that I’ve probably inadequately gone through each step individually, I must face going home. As I write this I will be leaving for the airport in roughly 8 hours to start a 2 day, airport hopping extravaganza to get home.

A benefit of never staying anywhere longer than two months is that no place ever really felt like home, but rather were all short-term visits. So as far as I’m concerned, NY is still home. But regardless of switching countries and switching projects, the way of life was very similar. And I think I often overlook how comfortable I have become in this life of on-and-off electricity, no running water, bucket showers, pit latrines, etc. This has become normal.

And I don’t know what it will be like to come home.

I wonder how different I am. I wonder if I’m the same person that left almost 11 months ago. And the truth is that I don’t know that I am. At the core, I think definitely, but a lot of things have changed. Changes I don’t know that I’ll be able to realize fully until I’m back into what used to be normal.

The truth is that I find myself more confused than ever before. As a friend would say, I’m in a lot of grey. Should we be in Africa? I don’t know. Are we doing any good? Yes, I think we are doing some. Are we doing more good than bad? I really don’t know. How do I reconcile some of the things I’ve seen with some of the things from western society? How do I go home and support a culture that so values thinness and body-image in general that we drive people to starve themselves on purpose? How do I reconcile that with the fact that I’ve seen probably hundreds of kids who are starving because they can’t afford food? How have I lived in America for almost 19 years having not met a deaf person or a blind person or a mentally retarded person? How do I go back to a place where the biggest news of the day is who in Hollywood has hooked up or broken up or is entering rehab? How do I go back to a world that doesn’t seem to care about all that things that are going on here? How do I make you care? How do I explain it? Can I explain it?

I have come to the realization that we live in a very strange paradox: we know so much about the world but most of what we know we see through someone else’s eyes. We see through the eyes of a journalist, a teacher, a textbook, an author, a director, and even sometimes a regular old 19-year old from NYC taking a year to travel before heading to college.

Saying this, I want to thank you for reading my blog this year, for allowing me to share some of my experiences, my stories, my views. I want to thank you for letting me, for just this short time, be your eyes.

But I leave you with this to ponder over: that if you think you understand the world, than maybe you haven’t seen enough of it with your own eyes.

For the donations, that support, the encouragement, and the love, I sincerely thank you from the bottom of my heart.

See many of you very soon!

Acan Molly

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