The Eventful Road to Masindi

1/6/15

The trek to visit PCV Rachel in Masindi always sucks because while it is physically near to my site, there is no direct route from my site or nearest taxi park to Masindi Town. Once I arrive in Wobulenzi Town by bicycle, I have to take a taxi about 17km north to the Luweero Bus/Takisi Stop junction where the street vendors peddle their roasted gonja, beef, chappati, and cold drinks. In the past I’ve attempted to take a takisi that the conductors promised would take me to Masindi, but in actuality spends 4 hours taking me to the Kafu junction that should have only taken me a little bit over an hour’s ride. This time around, I decided to take my chances by waiting for a bus that would either bring me directly to Masindi or drop me off at Kafu 115km north of Luweero. Fortunately, a Ugandan man working for IRF (International Rescue Committee) picked me up for a ride. He told me that he worked for an American organization dedicated to aiding Sudanese refugees in Kiryandongo District directly north of Masindi District.

I shared a lot about the values of Peace Corps, my work, and the basics of the Federal Government with him. He also explained to me that while he is from Kitgum, he doesn’t like to share that fact with Ugandans whom he meets as a safety precaution due to some lingering hostile tensions between the northerners and the western/central Ugandans.  At one point we were stopped by traffic officers, but I talked ourselves out of a ticket by speaking in Luganda. He dropped me off at the Kafu junction, where I squeezed into a 4 seat-sedan with 7 other Ugandans. I don’t even get surprised anymore when I see two people sitting in the driver’s seat. I still don’t know how drivers can do that.

We were stopped halfway between Kafu and Masindi by more traffic police who had the most recent passengers leave the Long Masindi Roadcar. The head police officer kept threatening to arrest the driver of the car whose excuse was that he was giving me and this old lady a free lift. After the police officer let him go, he attempted to collect money from me and the old lady. The police officer reprimanded him for lying and then gave me and the old lady a lift to Masindi Town. Along the way he asked me if I had my passport and I retorted that I didn’t have to show it to him. We went back and forth debating whether or not it was legal for him to demand my passport, and I threatened to call the Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura. Instead I called a Peace Corps staff member and asked if I was supposed to show him my passport. I was informed that I had to show him a legal form of identification that could or could not be a passport.

I gave him my driver’s license and Peace Corps identification card which upset him because I could have forged them. His argument was that I could be part of Al-Shabaab and forge my forms of identification as opposed to a passport. I had him show me the Police Act of Uganda, Chapter 303 The Police Act that states with some examples:

Part V.

Power to inspect licenses.

No liability for action done under authority of a warrant.

24. Arrest without a warrant.

A police officer may, without a court order and without a warrant, arrest a person if he or she has reasonable cause to suspect that the person has committed or is about to commit an arrestable offence.

27. Search by police offiers.

Whenever a police officer, not being lower in rank than a sergeant, has reasonable grounds for believing that anything necessary for the purposes of an investigation into any offence which he or she is authorised to investigate may be found in any place and that that thing cannot in his or her opinion be otherwise obtained without undue delay, the officer may, after recording in writing the grounds of his or her belief and specifying in the writing, so far as possible, the thing for which search is to be made, search, or cause search to be made, for that thing.”

In the US, we have judicial review and the concept of precedence whereas in Uganda the vague wordings in the police act grant police officers unbelievable power over the populace.

Unfortunately, he was right in the sense that any cause or any possible cause to suspect something in the future is grounds for inspection of one’s property. Probable cause is met in Uganda if any police officer has reason to suspect that one may at some point in the future break the law. I surmised that this gave the police unlimited power since they could legally find anyone guilty if the mood suited them. This also meant that inept police have unlimited power, since the police man attempted to search for the police act on his cracked iPad, but he kept clicking on an advertisement and refused to let me help him.

I mean, in the end I made it to Masindi Town in record time. It irks me because the ride from Masindi to Wobulenzi Town only takes 2 hours. Whatever, at least I got some new knowledge and another good story out of this trek.

The Futility of Dust

18/5/15 – 21/5/15

I spent the past week travelling with Loucine, the Peace Corps Uganda Country Director, to Gulu and Kitgum for a continuation of the regional site visits. The idea is to create a 5 minute promotional video of each region of Uganda so that when the new Peace Corps Education Trainees arrive in November they will be able to get a taste of what the different regions look like and what Peace Corps Volunteers have been doing in those regions.

I started off by biking to Wobulenzi from my house and waiting by the side of the road for the Peace Corps Vehicle to pick Homeless Man Wobulenzime up. In the meantime, I hung out with the resident homeless Ugandan man on the street. I gave him a piece of my homemade bread that I baked the day before, but the Ugandans who were seated next to me didn’t want any. In my opinion, I assumed that they didn’t want to eat the bread that this homeless man was also eating. As I looked around the trading center, it struck me how different poverty was. I mean, compared to many people in the developed world many of the Ugandans in or near this town are living well below the poverty line. However, I think that sometimes we tend to lump entire countries and cultures into the stereotyped image of a poor and third-world nation. Many of the Ugandans whom I know at least have a roof over their heads, enough to eat every day, and the mobility to travel or celebrate a wedding or graduation event with a bit of saved money.

Pupils LearningBefore I could get too deep into this reflection, the Peace Corps Vehicle arrived and picked me up. The ride was relatively smooth all the way up to Gulu. In the land of the Acholi’s who speak the Nilotic language Luo, we visited PCV’s who worked in mainly primary schools. I was very intrigued to see the work done with literacy and reading interventions with the education PCV’s. One of the volunteers worked at a primary school that used to serve as the school for the children of inmates and the prison staff, and eventually became a general primary school for the surrounding area. It’s really funny how the prison inmates are treated here in Uganda. They all wear bright yellow outfits, and are allowed to roam free outside of the prison walls during the day where they work as free day-laborers, farmers, carpenters, and electricians before returning back to the prison at night like good little boys and girls.

Another PCV was working on involving the schools of the surrounding districts to take part in the My Language Spelling Bee for Luo while another volunteer worked with blind pupils who took their exams using Braille books specially printed by the Cheyanne and Brailleschool’s Braille machines. The interesting dynamic about Gulu is that it has many municipalities and resembles a small grid-city system with 4-way intersections at every block. Due to the influx of NGO’s and other refugee organizations in response to the rebel activities years ago, a large western population consisting of expatriates and travelers exists in Gulu. This in turn has led to an increase in the quality of hotels, restaurants, cafes, and other amenities that travelling and working expatriates would enjoy.

I travelled to Comboni Samaritain where we stopped by the Wawoto Kacel Cooperative Society Limited which consisted of people living with HIV/AIDS, disabilities, and single parents to sell handmade and hand-woven goods to travelers as a way to provide a means of sustaining their livelihoods. We ate the best traditional food at Mama Kristina’s restaurant shack near Sankofa Café. Mama Kristina is this big Ugandan woman who operates a small restaurant business inside her shack where she cooks local dishes such as: lakoto koto (ground and fried simsim/sesame seeds), malakwang (pasted sour greens), fried beef, rice, beans, Odii (ground and roasted g-nuts and simsim), fried fish, and Bo (another green). It was one of the best local meals that I have eaten in this country, and many other Acholi and visiting Ugandans would agree because her stock runs out around 2pm.

Weaving at Comboni

Weaving at Comboni

Mama Kristina's Restaurant

Mama Kristina’s Restaurant

Aside from great Luo, Indian, Ethiopian, and Café food, I even got a chance to experience the expatriate life when I played a game of Ultimate Frisbee at the Acholi Inn field. Man, it just felt so good to run and play a competitive sport again. I missed that feeling of letting loose and just giving it your all. After the game, I hung out with one of the PCV’s and her Ugandan boyfriend at one of the traditional restaurants. One interesting point of discussion was that this Ugandan worked at the Invisible Children organization and at one point was also one of the Invisible Children. Out of respect for him and his girlfriend, I won’t share details, but he had to go through some very violent and scarring events during his time as a child soldier.

Currently he works as a videographer and media point person for the organization and shared some of his interesting viewpoints. I was told that the organization was very familial and a lot of the proceeds from donations went to the families of those Ugandans who worked in the organization, also the promotional videos about child soldiers didn’t tell the whole story. Like any good video or documentary, the narrative was specifically crafted with anecdotes that didn’t tell the whole story. It left out a lot of the more graphic and violent parts. However, as a whole it is a good organization that supports its main message.

The next morning as I was walking past the prison and through Gulu Town, I saw one of the cleaner women sweeping the Village Ellendust off the road. The rising sun illuminated her silhouette, and with every sweep of her broom the dust would swirl around her. I almost felt that her effort was self-defeating, because the dust would simply settle around her as she continued on with her endless task. I moved on past this futile task, and continued onwards to the Iron Donkey café where I would meet up with Loucine. That morning, Loucine was slated to attend what would have been the final court case of Danielle Gucciardo who died when struck by a drunk driver in Gulu back in April 2013. However, even two years later justice hasn’t been served. The Magistrate in-charge of this case conveniently decided that she wouldn’t show up for the scheduled court date.

What struck me the most was that even with the backing of the US Ambassador, the media attention, and the weight of public opinion against this driver still wouldn’t lead to a guilty conviction. There is a reason why mob justice exists, and that’s because of how difficult it is to go through the arduous process of court cases. Last year, even with all of the evidence against him the driver was not convicted; the reason being that he was drunk when he killed her and thus was not in control of his actions.

We spent the last two days of the trip going into Kitgum where we met the PCV’s over there. We visited a child care primary school, another prison primary school, a MercyCorps branch, and Uganda HipHop Culture. One of the most interesting things at the child care primary school was a book project by PCV Mary Williams. When she arrived at the school, she discovered a lot of books in the school’s library that did not respect or reflect diversity. Many of the books were not culturally appropriate, such as a picnic day, the beauty of Barbie and her white skin, an Aboriginal princess, or books that Ugandan pupils couldn’t relate to. Fortunately, a generous donor sent over a box of multicultural and diverse books showcasing the beauty of one’s skin color, picture books primarily featuring African-Americans, or stories featuring sub-saharan African characters.

One of my favorite sites was PCV Leah Walkowski’s Northern Uganda HipHop Culture Site. The members of this organization focus on reaching out to local Ugandan youth about HIV/AIDS through hip hop dancing, beatboxing, rapping, and dancing that would appeal to the youth. They regularly do HIV testing and seasonal male circumcisions. One of their coolest projects by the Kitgum youth was an HIV Song warning youth against the dangers of HIV performed by the members of Northern Uganda HipHop Culture (NHUC) in conjunction with StraightTalk Uganda with the lyrics in being both English and Luo.

https://www.facebook.com/nuhculture

Artists: Lil Nicha, Black MC, Kim, and Benny

Once again, I was exhausted after this week. All I wanted to do was just sit down alone in my own house and teach my students. I feel like I’m racing towards the end of my service, while also being stuck where I am right now. There is already so much to do, and I’m trying to accomplish it all before the end.