Due to some conflicts in planning, Nicole and I were apart for a few days while I journeyed North to Gulu. She would have come too but she had to remain behind for a trip to Kiyindi, where her prized football tournament extravaganza will be taking place in a few weeks– the likes of which is progressing wonderfully! However, a few of us were due for a trip north to do research for TOMS shoes and to meet with contacts in that area to plan some projects for later this summer. I must admit that initially I was not a fan of up and leaving on the first week that schools were in session and our work there was finally about to start, but after two and a half days, I was madly in love with Gulu.
Brooke Z., Lexi, Ryan, Oscar, Rob and I began our adventure at noon on Friday, under the assumption that we’d be at our destination in about 3 hours. We caught a taxi to Kampala where we met up with the two young men who would be our guides, David Opiro and his friend Franco. They both grew up in Gulu, just graduated from Makerere University, the best college in Eastern Africa, and they now work in Kampala. They’ve set up a women’s group that we’ll be working with on income-generating projects, and they’re probably my new heroes. There is really no sufficient way to describe the madness that is downtown Kampala’s taxi & bus parks. I have never in my life seen that many swarming people in one place. It was stressful and terrifying and crazy and hot and made me very much nostalgic for the calm Mukono life. We walked through mobs of people, squeezing ourselves and our backpacks in between the endless masses of taxis and buses. Then we had to sit on the bus for over two hours waiting for it to fill up. Meanwhile, vendors yelled from the street below and walked up and down the narrow aisle trying to sell strange orange drinks in old water bottles, flashy plastic hair bows, gum, and awesome bags plastered with Obama’s face. I could devote an entire post to the Obama obsession here. It’s quite humorous.
Once we finally got out of the sweaty noisy city, the sales technique I mentioned became quite useful when it allowed me to buy a banana and chapatti (our staple tortilla-like snack) out the window at various stops. We stopped so much, in fact, that our three hour drive took nearly seven. Luckily I brought multiple books for entertainment. I wish I could express how beautiful that drive is. I’d do it over a hundred times again if I was ensured a window seat. Granted there was a stretch where it started pouring rain through the broken window pane and pelting me angrily in the face, but other than that, my seat was prime for a view of the setting of the sun on the rolling green bush. It was magical. Ten hours after we’d left the house, we found ourselves walking the pitch-black streets of Gulu during a late night power outage. We ended up at this awesome restaurant where we feasted on a delicious candle-lit meal before heading to our hotel. There we dead-bolted our door, snuggled up in sketchy hotel sheets, and tried to think positively about the state of our bathroom and the fact that we actually had one. It made me think back fondly on the vast extravagance of the various scary hotels and motels I’ve slept at in the United States.
The next day we got an early start, splitting ourselves between David and Franco to head even further north into the villages and Internally Displaced People’s camps that were affected by the insurgency and rebel attacks a few years ago. They acted as our guides and translators. Because Gulu is part of a different kingdom than the south and thus has a different language, even our arsenal of basic Luganda was unhelpful. I did learn a few things in Acholi, but all I remember is the basic greeting “Kop’ango?” and the response of “Kope.” It was a hot, productive day involving lots of walking and a lot of extremely helpful research findings. I wish I could describe it all in detail, but this post is getting absurdly long as it is. Life is just different there. I’d never really comprehended the various levels of extreme poverty before that trip. There’s the extreme poverty of rural Mukono that makes my heart ache for the kids and their future. And then there’s the extreme poverty of a school in rural Gulu where only 5-10% of the students have ever owned a pair of shoes and they are lucky to have a spare piece of raw cassava to bring for lunch because most of them go hungry throughout the entire eight hour school day. They have no money, no food, and little hope for changing that in the near future. I saw a boy lying in a field by a school, sick and in pain, with no one around who knew how to take care of him. I was on the verge of tears multiple times during the day, and it was hard, but it left me motivated to do what little I could to relieve even a small part of what they live through every day.
As usual, the people were friendly, inviting, and generous. I can’t say enough how much I’ve learned about being a good host from the Ugandan people. I felt more welcomed in the twelve foot diameter hut of a stranger than I have in a lot of places at home. That evening we visited David and Franco’s women’s group and within fifteen minutes were able to dive into a plan to cut their costs for making paper bead necklaces by about 80%. It was one of those times when something so simple makes you feel really useful. It’s nice to feel useful every once in a while, especially when most of the things you’re working on seem to open your eyes to all the other layers of problems you just can’t penetrate. The next morning, after a world-class pancake breakfast at our new favorite restaurant, we had a meeting and then stopped by the Invisible Children office in Gulu. It was awesome. If you don’t know much about Invisible Children, I would strongly suggest doing some research about what they’ve been up to recently.
The ride home took just as long as the ride there, although this time I had the privilege of being the sixth person squished in the middle of a backseat bench meant for five. It only got awkward the one time I nearly fell asleep on the shoulder of the man next to me. And again on the stretch when there were 45 large speed bumps in a row. We’re still not sure what the purpose is of having so many, but we were sure to count each time we were violently propelled into the air. The whole trip was probably one of the most memorable experiences of my life, but I cant tell you how good it was to get back to our friends and our cozy little house. I’m going to be terribly upset when I have to leave. I'm trying not to think about it.