Worthy Distraction

Some things, worthy to be written about, make more worthy distractions. Some times you’d rather be beyond the page, past the ephemeral, and living the very thing itself, instead of reflecting on it.  Kissing lips instead of telling you, the anonymous public, what they taste like.

Brown-Paper Paperback Book Exchange

I had always dreamed that we’d find the brown-paper grocery bags and deconstruct them like we were in grade school. We’d run a pair of scissors along the seams and fold up rugged copies of our favorite books.

The ones that we’ve dog-eared and scribbled in the margins. Even the ones–before I took it all seriously–that I drew stick figures, so instead of reading, we could marvel at someone being shot out of a flipbook cannon. I’d even put that one in the mail. I’d wrap “The Giver” in a Kroger grocery bag and lick a half-sheet of stamps.

Walking, Fearless and Awake

July 13, 2010

I won’t tell you exactly the circumstance to the last time that I got to spend an afternoon with Daphne, talking about everything in the imaginable world that we could conjure up. But, I’ll say it felt like running through a field and scaring snakes out of their holes and shouting, “WE’RE NOT AFRAID OF YOU!” Like, banging pots and pans while a lion sleeps and mockingly singing The Tokens: “HUSH MY DARLING, DON’T FEAR MY DARLIN’!”

When you sit with Daphne, it’s just you and her and the world isn’t nearly as big and scary as it was when you were seven, or as big and scary as it is when you’re honest. It’s because she’s brave. Brave like jumping from the top bunk without a pile of pillows. Fearless and awake.

It took me far too long to get to Daphne this time. She’s in boarding school in Mpigi, which isn’t the next neighborhood over from any where. You have to purpose to get there. And, after the two hours in the bus from the Old Taxi Park in Kampala, we arrived at her school.

The anticipation was palbable. Daphne is extremely dear to me, and I am also her sponsor in the FOCUS Child Project. I’ll admit, when I was first her teacher in 2007, we became quick friends. The picture below is the two of us brokering a deal after she chased me around the yard in pursuit of a Polaroid I took of her outside the classroom. She has the Polaroid that resulted from the deal, and I have the original in a frame in my bedroom.

We are seconds from a handshake deal

I have expected to find her miraculously the same size, in the same blue jumper that she always wore, smiling as broadly as she did every time that she saw me. But, it wouldn’t be that easy to find her.

Upon our arrival at school, and after a roundabout conversation with the administration, we learned that Daphne had taken her brother home to seek some medical attention, having fallen sick, and left just that morning. So, two hours West of Kampala, without a word of departing to the school, we gathered ourselves and made for another taxi to return to the city.

We sent a message home that we’d be arriving around midday, and after the long, dusty trek back to Kalerwe, we found Daphne at the office.

She was taller, of course, and carried a purse instead of the polyurethane backpack she used to. She was 17, now, after all. And, you don’t stay the same from 14 to 17, no one does. Her cheeks were fuller, even. She bore all the changes in resemblance you’d infer from growing for three years.

Mutually Buried in a Hug

But, when she wrapped her arms around me and I squeezed back, not a moment had passed between us. I was as ready to ask her about her P.7 exams as I was to make sure she hadn’t been talking to boys in the new boarding school.  I felt like her older brother again, and the world disappeared around us.

But, the world that dissolved into the background has already taken its toll. Poverty fosters vulnerability and fear; no matter how brave you are, it breaks you every day. And, she has struggled through three years of coming-of-age in a circumstance that would break her every day. And, it broke me, too, to hear her say that she felt hopeless, directionless.

How loud do you have to shout to drown out something as overwhelming as poverty? I would have yelled until I was hoarse, “You matter! You inspire us all! You’re going to make it! Don’t listen to a word they say!” if I believed it would have been louder than the circumstance. Instead, we sat together; I listened.

We recalled memories. We had lunch. We looked at pictures on my computer.


We walked together through Kalerwe and Mulago toward Kifumbira and Kamwokya. And, I felt the memory in our footsteps, like walking to the house, down the driveway from my mailbox. It’s practically so engrained in my day that it happens unthinkingly. Each footstep with Daphne felt so much a part of who I am, it happened almost unconsciously. So, I can’t describe to you the steps, like the impact of my foot into the dirt would have been the downbeat to some well-paced, singsong revelation about being with a friend.  It’s that her story and mine have so intertwined that it’s almost more fitting to walk the same way I would from my car to the mailbox and to the house as I would with her back to her home from the Child Project office.

Yes, it’s quotidian. Really, it’s liturgical. Everything is repeated, but it’s new in each utterance, spoken in a new point in time, walked in a different path each time. And, each repetition is revelation enough, a layer built on this friendship with each step, made deeper and more true while we walk.

The Aftermath of a Storm

July 12, 2010

Ordinarily, I don’t write strict commentaries or even specific narratives, but after the events of July 11 in Kampala (Violent Image Warning on Link), I felt the need then to organize my thoughts, same as I feel the need now to post them here. And, for that reason, it’s taken some time to edit and select what to say. Forgive me if this departure is stark in comparison or overly prosaic and a bit late. I promise there’s backlogged entries here to compensate. Kampala remains a place full of such overwhelmingly beautiful stories that it would be a shame if this was the only one you read.

To say, I could have been there wouldn’t necessarily be true. I really wouldn’t have been there. I’ve been to the Ethiopian Village, and I’ve been to Kyadondo Rugby Club. And, I’ve even watched one of the World Cup games outside the house this past week.  But, I wouldn’t have been there–not tonight. But, that doesn’t change the tangibility of what just happened.

It’s palpable in the air. It hangs. Like the layers of the moisture changed their form, a new thing that feels old hanging over us all, wrapping this whole city in uneasiness, pangs of fear in the humidity. And, though violence is something that Uganda has known in its history and regionally, it feels foreign to me to be so unsettled on these streets I know so well. It’s not normal to step out of a taxi well before the park to avoid a crowd, or to be home just as the sun sets.

Even now, Al-Shabbab, a Somali militant group, is claiming these attacks. And, I can’t help but wonder why anyone would claim this? Why would someone want this to be theirs? And, it makes me think of “the problem.” Someone reminded me that Al-Shabbab means “The Youth,” and most likely, these bombings were perpetrated by those younger than me. Young men poisoned by something that says bloodshed is the way to God. And, the problem isn’t that their young, or even what tells them that bloodshed is the way to God, or that they don’t know something, or that they inherently are some horrible thing.

The problem is poverty. It’s certainly not Islam. It’s not some thing stored up in humanity’s hearts, secretly hidden, tied to their nature. If it’s that, then we’re all murderers, rapists; we’re all gunshots and bullets and bombs. But, we’re not all that. When you strip us bare, though, how different are we? Any extremist ideology has to have its breeding ground. The ideologies can always be swept from the streets, but if the circumstance remain the same, the next ideology will come up and run rampant and violence will follow. Or, sickness. Or, whatever malady might spring up in the other’s place. As long as the circumstance remains the same, as long as the systemic problem remains, the symptoms will always continue.

In the day after these horrible acts of violence, I sat in a familiar place: the pews of Namirembe Cathedral. I used to spend every Tuesday morning here, seated in the long wooden pew, poring through my journal, trying to make celestial sense of what was unfolding before me, reading the works of Wendell Berry and Elaine Scarry. Now, a Monday, I do nearly the same. I leaf through A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979 – 1997 and find this passage:

“Great deathly powers have passed:
The black and bitter cold, the wind
That broke and felled strong trees, the rind
Of ice that held at last

“Even the fleshly heart
In cold that made it seem a stone.
And now there comes again the one
First Sabbath light, the Art

“That unruled, uninvoked,
Unknown, makes new again and heals.
Restores heart’s flesh so that it feels
Anew the old deadlocked

“Goodness of its true home
That it will lose again and mourn,
Remembering the year reborn
In almost perfect bloom

“In an almost shadeless wood,
Sweet air that neither burned nor chilled
In which the tenderest flowers prevailed
The light made flesh and blood.”

— Wendell Berry, 1980, III

The words remind me. It’s not pedantic. It’s people. Youth, gathered to watch the spectacle of sport, seated in white plastic chairs, as Spain and Holland dragged out a stalemate in the first half, couldn’t suspect that they would go from rapture to panic. Young men, their hearts bursting at the thought of the life they left in Somalia or the life they lead now in circumstances so dire we could never comprehend them if we have the means to even access the words on this imaginary page, held that unseen coercive power. And, it struck like lightning, grand and incomprehensible–so much so that it felt like it had been suspended in the sky above us. Now we walk through the aftermath of a storm as the Sabbath light breaks.

And, in that light, whatever sense I try to make from it, falls through my fingers like grains of sand. It’s about poverty, yes. It’s that poverty strips us all, haves and have-nots, of our collective humanity. It’s about vulnerability. But, it’s not all that.

It’s young men and women who’s lives have been cut short, and there’s little sense we can make from any of that.


From July 11, 2010

It’s a regular sight to have my red moleskine notebook on hand, to have a pen tucked behind my ear, to scribble on a blank page as people around me talk. What’s strange is the numbers. The sign for Ugandan shillings next to words like “cross-training shoe” & “Bata sneakers” and Mr Price receipts. It’s accountability–my own–for the best expenditure of money I’ve made in a long time.

Between the 12 kids that my family sponsors in the FOCUS Child Project, there are seemingly infinite stories. There’s so much depth of experience with each child, things you couldn’t imagine as a Westerner, no matter how much empathy you think you could muster; there are simply things that they’ve already experienced that you never will and could never completely understand. And, yet, there remain places in this small city of Kampala that they have never been, stories that would seem commonplace to others in this city.

And, they don’t go, because they don’t feel welcome, don’t feel comfortable, don’t feel like they deserve to be there. Places like the nicest shopping mall in the city or an Indian restaurant with columns lining the courtyard feel exclusive to them, because they’re from Kalerwe or Kyebando or Katanga.

The gift of my family to those kids was to take them to those places, and tell the whole world that these kids deserve every second they spend in the nicest places in town.

Latifa, Jonah, Mark & Farida in style

We went to Garden City, in a taxi-bus rented for the day, and the kids shuffled into Uchumi, a Kenyan supermarket. We split into groups of three, two and two; the kids picked up soccer balls from the wall and wondered, almost aloud, if someone would chastise them just for examining the ball, feeling its weight and texture in the palm of their hand. We went up the stairs to Bata, to pick out shoes and buy them for the kids, and once the disbelief disappeared, they discerned which shoe would fit best, which would look the smartest, which they preferred over another, making their own choices.

The personalities came out: no, not that one, I don’t like that color; maybe something more adult, more mature–these loafers; look at these sneakers, I’m going to be the talk of school with these. And, the choices continued at Mr. Price in the Nakumatt and a boutique shop near city square. This one, not that one. Jo-el-o, what do you think? Walking out of fitting rooms like catwalks, taking pictures on the digital camera and immediately reviewing how it makes them look. Aya! Have you seen me?

Brown or black?

And, they stayed within their budgets, as I marked down receipt after receipt. They shined. They picked shoes practically; they picked blouses because they were vibrant with color. And, each one picked whatever they bought as who they are.

Lunch at Khana Kazana, easily my personally favorite restaurant in Kampala, was an adventure, too. The prayer before the meal contained something along the lines of “And, God, please don’t let this new food upset our stomachs.” But, we played it safe: buttered nan, vegetable rice, Chicken Tikka Masala, Vegetable Korma–no ghee, avoided cheeses of all kinds. And, the kids drank every soda, polished the plates, and leaned back in their chairs, completely full.

Doing the Dew

And, it’d be cliché to say that it was as much a gift to them as it was to me to see them so satisfied and outfitted. It’d be trite, because it’s not that simply put that what’s done to someone else is done to you; it’s not all Karma and the Golden Rule. But, it can be as simple as the gift is beauty, to see a child whose never been told in her whole life that she’ll amount to something, that she deserves better than her circumstances would have of her, that that same girl could lace up a new pair of shoes, pull on a new blouse and you could say: “yours.”

New and Immediately Familiar

Author’s note: The next few entries will be post-dated to show when I actually wrote and experienced them, as I lacked the Internet connection to post them as they happened.

July 9, 2010

There was a time in 2007 that I rode through Kalerwe market on the back of a boda boda with an earphone in and my iPod shuffle playing the Geto Boys. We deftly maneuvered through the crowd of buses, lorries, taxis, handcarts, foot traffic and cows–yes, the road is infinitely shared. And, with each turn, the sample cycled, and I nodded along.

And, now coming down from Namirembe Cathedral and through Old Kampala to Kampala Road, I hear:

“Tell me your listening ’cause you’re all up in my system I can feel you from my head to my toes/
Lucius Leftfoot got his best foot forward, darling Lord have mercy how them flows stay so cold?”

Doesn't the scenery immediately make you think of Big Boi's highly anticipated release of his solo album? Me, too!

Yes, it’s almost anachronistic to be listening to Big Boi as I descend past Gaddafi Mosque into Old Kampala, a single earbud poked into my ear and directing the driver away from the taxi park route. But, if there’s one thing I continue to learn it’s that experiences, no matter how disparate they might seem, are congruent. No matter how many pounds I’ve gained, now matter how different my direction in life appears to be, I’m the same person that rode on the back of that boda boda down Gayaza Road to my internship site that rode to the internet cafe in city center from Namirembe Hill.

It’s that sameness that makes a moment like smelling the gray cloud of exhaust behind a taxi and hearing the “Vuh-vuh, vuh-vuh-vuh, vuh-vuh-vum” in the background of an infectious single feel immediately familiar. Not as though you’ve done it before, but same as the variation on a theme–familiar sounds in a new form. And, that’s what the past week has felt like: that I know sounds in a new form, being heard in ways I never thought they would be heard.

Something as simple as new street food made from the same flour and oil, just fried differently, or balled instead of rolled. Or, something with more depth, like hearing experiences of vulnerability from kids I always thought indestructible, but experiences that are themes of life in these contexts. It all feels familiar, but it is all new. A new moment occupied in this place, completely unique.

Shifting House

A short lesson for Americans: In Uganda, you move from place to place. Saying: “Man, we really moved today.” Is like visiting Mpererwe, Kyebando, Kalerwe, Kamwokya, and Katanga in the same day–which was my Tuesday. I was covered in dust. The rains haven’t come for almost two months. It’s been all sunshine and evaporation. The dust is like red fog on the road. When you bathe, the water runs red into the drain. And, on that day, I shifted.

My dusty walk through Kamwokya

In Uganda, you shift when you “move.” I’ve been spending about the last week with my host family, the Edakasi’s, from 2007. They’ve become some of my dearest friends, and I’ll be sharing many pictures and stories from our time together as I continue to reflect here. But, on Tuesday, I shifted, carrying my suitcase to the FOCUS office, where I went from for my rounds of visits. At the end of the day, and after a lot of conversation with my former supervisor, Audrey, I called a trusted boda boda driver, and took to the offices of Bishop David Zac Niringiye, where I would find him and eventually go to his family’s home.

I could dedicate the rest of this entry about Zac, and how he mentored me in 2007 when I was at a very seminal moment in my life and continues to mentor me even now. And, I probably will dedicate some entry down the line to exactly that. But, for your sake, I’ll stick to the narrative.

I looked like a complete anomaly on the back of that motorcycle. One hand wrapped around the carry-on bag-sized suitcase and another hand holding on the back of the seat. Something that is not altogether that strange to see in Kampala; after all, I’ve seen riders on boda boda carrying a windshield and a TV just in the last week–not to mention the ridiculous cargo I saw in ’07. It’s the strangeness of seeing an American, I’d imagine, that garnered the looks of disbelief.

But, I arrived, dust-covered and smiling, to All Saints’ Cathedral in Nakasero and waited outside the Bishop’s office. When he arrived, he wrapped his arms around me and said, “Welcome back, Jo-el.”

There is that sense of belonging, I’ll admit. As we’ve passed homes and neighborhoods as we’ve gone out visiting the kids that I used to work with, I’ve commented, “Doesn’t Emmanuel live there?” or “If we branch this way, won’t we get to Juuko’s home?” And, I’ve surprised myself. It became a part of who I am, and it still is.

Pen & Pad on the Veranda

And, having the space of the Niringiye’s home in Namirembe has been such a respite for me to write and reflect on those sensations of being somewhere you belong. I’ve spent early afternoons taking tea and journaling, and despite the recently personal, narrative entries in this particular blog, I won’t be sharing those thoughts here.

The view helps with the clarity of mind, too

But, taking in the view, letting myself relax, playing table tennis with Zac in the morning, losing horribly, sitting on the couch with Aunt Theo, sharing stories about the kids in the Project, talking with their son and daughter about “UgEnglish,” watching the World Cup together, all of it makes me feel like everything belongs.

Laughing with Theo

Instead of overdoing it with this lengthy entry, I’ll just say this and finish here: there are people that simply being with will lend you clarity and give you that keen sense of belonging. And, I’m finding that in Kampala, I have a whole lot of those good people, and it’s making being here as complete a set of two weeks I’ve felt in years.