Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Ordinary Lives of What?...Ugandans

Finally, I am able to write an entry for you. I have had quite a bit of challenges with internet on this trip and had a tragic turn with my computer. Let's just say the lesson here is to not give Ugandan IT (especially at hotels or guest houses) your computer even if it is just to troubleshoot a wireless connection. Fortunately, I have my files intact even if I cannot access them.

You may be wondering at the title of this post. The title comes from the Ugandan way of using the word "What" in their sentences. They ask the question and then answer:

"We need to go to What? the market, to buy some What? mutoke"

It can be used in any What? context. It is really interesting to hear and it is such a part of their conversations that I not sure they are even aware of it and how different it sounds to foreigners.

Well, this is my second trip to Uganda this year. I always find the second or third time around that a country feels more familiar like you are visiting a cousin or grandparent. The people feel like old friends. I start to interact with the local culture and do what "the Romans do" per se. People open themselves more to you and you do become a little more apart of their world.
I did a number of interesting activities that was not part of the ususal tourist's itinerary. One such activity was attending a pantomime. This comes from the English and involves taking a children's story, adapting it to local context, parodying it and having community actors perform it. The cast include both Ugandans and ex-pats (expatriate--one who has taken up residence in a foreign land). Audience participation and commentary is integral. It was quite hilarious with the male lead role played by a woman and the female lead role played by a man. The one I attended was "Robin Hood". It is becoming a tradition with my old graduate advisor and her family. She moved her family (husband and 4 boys) to Uganda and is head of research at the Infectious Disease Institute in Kampala. It is a small world because I see her more working in Uganda then I did in the states. In addition to the pantomime, I went with one of my collaborators to a special church service that was geared to women. It was a speaker from the states and the church was huge with about 6000 members for that location. From what I gather it had been a presence in the area for 25 years. The pastor is white but the majority of the staff, ministers, and congregation is Ugandan. The speaker was Lisa Bevere. What I gathered was the following:

  • It is not what you inherit but what you leave behind--your legacy
  • Marriage does not add or subtract years from a woman's life, but it adds 10 years to a man's life; therefore, a woman should be very choosy in which man she gives an extra 10 years.
  • Anything a man gives a woman, she will multiply it.
  • Women hold a great deal of influence and power
As you can see it was quite uplifting. Other notes that caused me to pause was how Ugandans use their heads and their bikes. So much is transported on the head, which you will find in many African countries, including wood, bowls, water jugs, luggage. Often times you see a woman with a baby on her back and some substantial item on her head and in her hand. Their use of bikes is even more extraordinary. You will see mattresses, large rice bags, bricks, two or three persons, furniture. Think about it and it can be transported on a bike. I even saw another bike being transported on the utiliatarian bike. During a visit to a rural area where some of the study activities occured, I learned a lot about Ugandan culture:

One thing is that women kneel when they greet someone whether a man or another women. The younger always kneels to the elder of the two. A woman will sit lower than her husband.

When you go to someone's house no matter how small the means of the family they will provide you some food and drink. We were given ground nuts, like peanuts, and jack fruit during our visit.

A household is based on where you eat your meals and who you eat your meals with. A South African teacher living in Uganda told me that it is bad practice to walk and eat. Ugandans consider this very very rude and will tell you so--which is quite out of character. Ugandans are quite agreeable and really patient considering the traffic and chaotic driving environment they must endure--I wasn't even driving and had road rage.

If you provide a good justification or act like you did not know, you can get away with certain laws including property taxes. I stayed at Mums Hotel which was nice but was still having significant construction going on. We were told that it may be a hotel, or a school or a residence. The owner wasn't "sure", so that if, and this is a big if, a government official came to check than they could not say it was definitely a hotel and subject to tax. He can probably get away with this for years. This approach can go for quite a number of things. One can talk themselves out of a ticket, carrying alcohol, or any infarction. You just need an excuse. A main staple of there diet is mutoke which is green banana. They boil it and make a type of mashed dish served with everything.

    Many of the people in the villages subsist on farming the land. They wake up very early to tend their crops and then rest in the heat of the day sometimes gathering to play games.

    Traditional garb of Ugandan women. Although most young women wear western clothes, it is a requirement when going to see parents and when considered old.

    Soccer is a popular sport as with many places in the world except the U.S.

    This Muzungu's (any foreigner but initally referred to Europeans) next stop is Mozambique which is a new destination. I am actually writing from there now, so check back in a week for my window into this world. It will be juicy.

    Sunday, November 2, 2008

    The Eyes Have It

    "With eyes that look'd into the very soul-- . . . . Bright--and as black and burning as coal."
    Lord Byron

    Some of the best sourvenirs that I acquire in my travels abroad are the pictures that depict the heart of a land--the people. The differences and the similarities of two peoples on opposite sides of the globe are great studies into humanity. I see hard working men and women trying to make a living for their families, continuing and breaking traditions, believing and worshiping in their faith, laughing and joking about their neighbors and their politics, and proud of their country but frustrated about their government. I also see conditions I would find unlivable where these same people not only survive, but live and grow.

    It has been such a privilegde in my life to visit a place and not come as a tourist, an outsider yes, and see the inner workings of a culture and environment. The famous landmarks and attraction are nice to behold, but the most wonderful treat is to meet new acquaintances, eat great food among friendly hearts, and hear interesting stories about another's reality.

    On this recent trip, I returned to Kisumu, Kenya and the Karemo District, known for the violence following the Kenyan elections and the birthplace of Obama's father. Kenya is becoming a familiar stop that I become a little more intimate with each trip. One new tidbit I learned was that you may find people in this western part of Kenya more welcoming than in central Kenya where there is more suspicion and less openness because they had a lot of their land stolen. Also, some tribes are known by very interesting traits--the Masai acquire or steal tires to make these sandals that are known for their durablity and at one time was a fad. The Kamba tribe are known to sell tires and no matter what city or town you go and find a tire store, it will be a Kamba there.

    The pictures I love most are of children. During one of my visits to a local primary school where the mobile field station for our study was located at the time, the school children spotted my camera and surrounded me with pleas for me to take their picture for which I gladly complied.

    It was quite funny later on as I moved toward my work that they would pass in twos or stand and sit in a pose that I might capture them on "film". I love the eyes of children, for in them lies so much depth, potential, dreams, and hope.

    On a humorous note while traveling to the KEMRI/CDC field station, the driver would tune to a morning radio show host similiar to Tom Joyner who would take calls and input on a question that was submitted. The questions were wild:

    • Wife wants forgiveness for cheating once on her husband who has cheated numerous times even bringing one and two women at a time into marital bed--should he forgive her?
      How to tell man that he is lousy in bed?
    • Future mother-in-law wants to train husband in bed matters? (This was a little weird, we weren't sure what that actually meant.)
    • A woman financially supported a man for 10 yrs, and is tired and decided wants to cut him loose. He has run up much debt. Should she cut him loose and should a woman support her man financially?

    There were others, but those are the ones I remember. I also find that I find some interesting fare on the T.V. as well. During this trip I saw a movie about a call center girl in New Delhi, India, who connects with a rich music producer in the UK handling his bank account. There was conspiracy to kill him by his wife who he was divorcing and all this was garnered from his bank account. He falls for her and eventually visits India and of course they end up together happily ever after.

    In addition, I learned that a large majority of hair extensions come from India in two different ways. The cheaper lower quality hair comes from the hair balls that children gather from the hair from the brushes and combs of their mothers. These hair balls are collected by hair dealers who take them to factories where women work for pennies to tease, treat, and prepare the hair for commercial use. This lower quality grade is used for stage and costume wigs. The premium hair often comes from the practice of Hindu women (and men) of sacrificing their hair (sometimes the only thing they have to give) to their gods. This is carefully removed from the scalp and the temple allows (for a price) the hair dealers to come and take the hair for processing. Much of this hair is shipped to China who is the number one processor of weave in the world although their supplies from Chinese women have lessened because of the trend of shorter cuts. It kind of makes you look at weave in a new light.

    Monday, October 20, 2008

    A Minute in Paris, A Second in Nairobi

    I have accomplished quite a lot since 5 days ago when I published last. Thankfully, my plane rides were uneventful which was quite a feat since I have been on 4 planes touching three countries in two continents. Maybe there will be some juicy plane gossip on the way back. As I indicated earlier, my first stop on this current journey was to the City of Love, Paris. Although I found no love, it proved to be a beautiful experience. In brief, the following were interesting to note:
    • Everything is designed for small people--the elevators, the hallways, the roads, the clothes. I see why it is the City of Love, you become quite intimate with people when crowded into a lift.
    • The subway system was extensive and efficient (as reported in Barcelona) leading me to the conclusion that European subway and railway systems are far superior to our best in the U.S.
    • The computer keyboards are quite different with added and rearranged characters. This becomes a challenge for those who have had the structured 10-fingered typing classes of old to shot an e-mail to a friend.

    • Some interesting 3rd party information: 1) It was heard from a fellow from the Philippines who has lived in Paris for 17 years that he has never witnessed a fight meaning that the city is pretty safe 2) There are many tunnels, including the one where Princess Diana had her fateful crash; it was told that people still leave flowers and mementos at the site; in addition, it is thought that she might have been saved if she was rushed to a hospital instead of treated at the scene where they may have missed her internal injuries. This appears to be standard practice in Paris, so be advised to not get into any accidents.

    • The Eiffel Tower sparkles at night.

    • The wine menus at French restaurants tend to be larger than the food menu. Our table was provided a two page menu of entrees and a 10-15 page menu of wine.

    • Erotic art is the norm and you will find naked breasts and other naked body parts in the most common places--the subway terminal, a restaurant, a hotel room or hall, a prime time commercial. As a matter of fact, the french are comfortable with the naked human form.

    • Achieved goal #1--Have sumptuous meals: I had 2 wonderful meals--Cameroonian and French.

    • Achieved goal #2--see the Eiffel Tower: I not only saw the Eiffel Tower but saw many of the well known landmarks including the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Musee du Louvre, and other architecturally impressive building for which I do not know the name.

    • Achieved goal #3--buy outfit: This one was only done in part. I got a hat although a very cute hat. In addition I was able to get a few souvenirs as well which I wasn't sure was going to be possible given my itinerary. My meetings were so close that the stores all closed except for a small souvenir shop next to Notre Dame (shops close by 7p.m. yet restaurants are open all night)--God's grace was upon me that day for I was almost sure to have left empty-handed otherwise.
    So that is Cherise in Paris. Early Friday morning, I was flying to the African continent. The plan was to stay in Nairobi for 3 days to connect with an old friend. I met Chad at Hopkins when he was a medical student and I was a public health graduate student. He was the twin of a guy I knew in undergraduate who either I did not know or forgot had a twin. This was quite a surprise to come face to face with the spitting image of someone you know but knew they were not supposed to be there. Awww, the funny moments in life. From this point, Chad was to be my friend. That was 7 years ago and since then we have only spoken by phone, each making moves in our respective fields.

    It ended up that Chad decided to work for a mission in Kijabe, Kenya for a year after finishing his residency in Boston, and it just so happen that I take periodic trips to Kenya with my current job. Thus, the two meet again face to face. Alas, it was but a brief meeting due to his clinical obligations but a fun one no less--a taste of authentic African cuisine, bartering at an open door market, and strolling around Nakumatt, the equivalent of Walmart. I must say that Chad is one of the most beautiful people I know and he is doing wonderful things in medicine so look for his name in the near future.
    It is a national holiday in Kenya today; I am not sure which one. It is my impression that they have many more holidays then we do in the States. In the morning, I will be headed to Kisumu for 2-weeks so expect more updates. Au revoir and kwa heri.