– A ‘munu’ goes to Uganda
Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 3:20pm
In a couple of days I will be off to Uganda for the next few months. If you don’t hear from me in awhile, don’t fret! I’m likely still alive but not in the vicinity of a working dial-up connection.
What to say…
Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 1:33pm
I’ve been wondering what to write here, wondering what people expect me to say really . . . Uganda is amazing? Check. Uganda is hot and humid? Check. Uganda is beautiful? Double check.
So far this country and trip have managed to surprise me every single day. I’m a constant mixture of sweat, dirt, sunscreen and bug spray, but I wouldn’t really change that for anything. I actually don’t really remember what it feels like to be clean, nor do I seem to care that much . . .
I’ve done so many things already, but my actual volunteering won’t start until Tuesday. I’ve spent a few days in Kampala where we checked out an SOS Children’s Village and got to play with all these incredible orphan children for the afternoon. I also visited one of nine Bahai temples in the world, said to be home of one of the most peaceful religions. The sits at the top of a peak in Kampala and I got to attend the Sunday service.
Everywhere I go, people yell out ‘muzungu!’ or ‘munu!’ which means white person in two different languages, but they seem to say it with love, especially the children. One of the things that has really opened my eyes is the sheer number of children here. Uganda has one of the lowest HIV rates in sub-Saharan Africa and yet still about 50 per cent of their population are below the age of 18. There is really an idea of the community raising a child here so children roam the streets freely with their friends, running around and playing, always wanting to shake our hands, then turning back to their friends while giggling.
The city of Gulu is a pretty big eye opener also. The streets are pure red mud and the houses are shacks. My compound is luxury compared to what they have and we’re lucky to get electricity at night and running water at all.
I did my first set of laundry out of a bucket today and loved it, I’ve gotten my first sunburn and yesterday, a youth group came to visit us and we got to learn some traditional African dancing. I actually got pulled up for one of the dances they did for us which . . . I mean words cannot describe. It might’ve been the best day of my life . . .
Today was pretty intense . . . we went to an International Displaced Person’s camp this afternoon and it hit us pretty hard. It was the day for a food drop and a lot of the people there were just sitting around, waiting for the monthly dispensation and HIV meds. There were so many of them, mostly mothers with children. I’ve never seen anything like it and didn’t know exactly what to feel. So many things were running through my head . . . I was sad to see all the kids, even though they were laughing; I was angry at the people for becoming so dependent on aid and not wanting to leave the camp, and angry at the government for allowing this to happen. I was also kind of numb at first, being led around the camp, looking at the huts and into people’s lives like they were displays at a museum.
I felt guilty having a bottle full of water and a luxury like sunglasses to cover my eyes. It was weird and wrong and painful to see, but then I also felt guilty about not wanting to see it because I think I needed to. Maybe if more people saw what I did today, the way we look at and aid countries in Africa and other parts of the world would change. On the way back home I was just thinking (everyone was . . . the van was dead silent) and eventually my thoughts went to my family. Out of nowhere I said out loud, ‘I miss my mom’ and just started crying. I didn’t get to talk to her yesterday or e-mail her a happy mother’s day because the Internet was down again. It was hard and I wasn’t the only one either. I think everyone was a little shell-shocked. My friend Cassie said it’s so much better than it was even a year ago, but I can’t imagine that. These people have almost nothing and so many of them are children. It’s not supposed to be this way. Not for anyone, ever. I don’t think I’ll ever get some of those images out of my head, but at the same time I kind of don’t want to.
After this very emotionally varied day, I think we all needed to let loose a bit because on a completely unrelated note, we had a big, spontaneous dance party in the rain that started off with a little Bowie and lasted quite a few hours. We’re currently collecting the rainwater in buckets because there has been a bit of a shortage and we’d like to be able to flush our toilets and do our laundry at some point. Insane how priorities shift . . . Shower? Nah, I’d rather flush my toilet today.
I’m sweating as we speak.
Sunday, May 18, 2008 at 4:00pm
My first official week of volunteering is over and so far it’s been pretty up and down. Community development is interesting in a way I never thought possible. Things move at an entirely different pace here, and in an entirely different way. Obviously we aren’t here to impose our way of doing things, so it has taken some adjusting on our part. For one, time is not a factor here. At all. Meetings are always an hour later than the scheduled time and nothing ever gets done before tea time in the morning.
I’m working with the Family Strengthening Program (FSP), which involves a whole lot of things. Families in Gulu enrolled in this program are considered beneficiaries for things like livestock and school fees. Sometimes they get houses built, sometimes an older child will get to learn a trade through vocational school, and sometimes they get accepted into the revolving loan project to start up small businesses. During the week we go out, visit the families and check the family home and hygiene, as well as the businesses. We also do goat checks. Sounds laughable, but it’s true. Me and my three fellow volunteers have become somewhat of the goat authority around here, so if you ever need to know how to build a proper goat shelter or how to maintain said goat, look no further. GPS (Goat Protection Services) is here for you! We also get to paint houses and participate in meetings.
It’s really easy to forget there was a war going on here, or that it just ended and is still ending. The people are no different than you and me and talk about the things that have happened to them like we talk about going out for groceries. It’s just a part of life. It isn’t until we chat with someone who was abducted or shot or raped that we have to remind ourselves. Twenty-two years of war have taken a toll, only it’s one not always visible to the eye. Having scars in Canada might mean a nasty fall as a child or a surgery of some kind, but here they always mean something horrible. And they are everywhere. The scars these people carry, both physical and otherwise, are just another facet of their lives.
At the same time there is also so much to smile about. The children are amazing and adorable and smart. The local volunteers working with us are such a great resource and are fun and funny as well.
On a completely unrelated note, the animals here are insane!!! Just around our compound I’ve had a conversation with a large cockroach, had a praying mantis the size of my fist lurk on my bedroom door, have seen geckos every other second and got pooped on by a bat on Saturday. There are also these very large and very ugly birds that kind of look like balding storks flying around all the time.
– Welcome to China
I’ve always felt as if something was off, as if a miniscule detail was standing between me and true happiness. I was 16 when it hit me; I was in the wrong place. I turned to my friend who was sitting next to me on the bus and said, “I don’t know where I’m supposed to be, but it’s not here.”
Five years later, I’m sitting with the same friend and I lean in close to hear what she’s saying over the bar’s loud music, “Aren’t you at all nervous?” The answer was no, not at all, and it wasn’t the alcohol speaking. In less than four days, I would be leaving for China to take an intensive Mandarin class for two months, and it felt right, not scary. I was going to lead a monastic life in China and maybe receive a couple of marriage proposals and buy gigantic swaths of silk. True enlightenment.
After getting off the plane and nearly getting killed on the highway, the bus drooped us off at our dorm. It was so excruciatingly disgusting that after spending 16 hours on an airplane, Aley and I still went out to buy what we thought was cleaning solution and scrubbed it top to bottom. I later got used to the two cockroaches that crawled around in the communal fridge, the spiders that hid behind it and my very special friend, the bird that lived atop my microwave.
I also discovered that my love of food did not extend to authentic Chinese cuisine. I was, gasp, a food racist. Over the next two months, I struggled with chicken spine on skewers, pork fat and tofu, not to mention duck head, duck tongue and duck blood soup. I stared at street vendor’s live turtles wobbling about in red plastic bags on the sidewalk, wondering how people ate them. In order to stay alive, I eventually learned how to order pizza and cheeseburgers in Chinese, which involved a lot of pointing. I also discovered a couple of good Chinese restaurants, but really, who wants to read about that when there’s mention of duck heads? I’ll give you a hint – you’re supposed to suck the brain out. And scorpion tastes like bacon – apparently.
Mandarin class started on our second day. For the first two weeks, I understood absolutely nothing. My teacher had to add “I forgot” to our vocabulary list, for my exclusive benefit. But miracles were performed and I eventually got it. I crowned myself Chinese master after a taxi driver actually understood where I wanted to go.
Aley and I eventually felt brave enough to go on a day trip to Shanghai. We visited the aquarium, where I got to see what I deemed the world’s ugliest fish. We then headed down to the station, where we missed our train and a strange man tried to convince us that he would drive us home. Never ones to panic, we headed to the other train station across town. There was standing room on the one a.m train.
So Aley and I headed out to the waiting room, where middle aged men guarding burlap sacks of vegetable took pictures of us. We bought beer, the only thing to do in such circumstances. Aley spontaneously began serenading a 16 year-old boy in one of the three Chinese songs we had learned. We then proceeded to ask him every question we knew in Mandarin, including “When is your birthday?” and “Where is your brother?” After bonding over Mariah Carey and Jackie Chan, it was time to enter the rundown train, where people were sleeping with their babies on their knees while police patrolled the cars, performing doubly duty as janitors. We were the only non-Chinese people on the train and we felt awful when the policeman forced people out of their seats to accommodate us, but we instinctively knew it wasn’t the time to make a scene.
Back in Hangzhou, general excitement was growing around the Olympic torch coming to town. We promptly chose one of the worst spots and found ourselves surrounded by thousands of people chanting “Let’s go China” for hours on end. It was so hot that a woman behind us fainted. No one could see anything and we were starting not to care. Finally, people starting pushing forward and screaming – it had to be the torch. Yet it was nothing. The torch was still two hours away. When it actually came, I was busy asking a little girl if she wanted me to lift her on my shoulders so that she could see the proceedings. So I missed it.
That night, we went out to a club for “foreigners,” where, of course, we were the only foreigners, as well as the spectacle. We danced until four in the morning. At five we had climbed a fence across a busy street to grab a taxi and made the hostel keeper, who slept under her desk like many Chinese people, unlock the front door for us. At seven, we were headed for the Great Wall.
Once we got to there, we realized that the Wall splits into two paths. The right passageway was jammed with thousands of tourists, the other, completely empty. As it was scorching hot, we chose the later, which was, of course, deserted for a reason. The climb was excessively steep, with stairs sometimes reaching two feet high. With no water bottle in site, I clung to the stone walls still reeling from my hangover, taking a break every 15 seconds. After what seemed like hours, a little sign informed us that we had reached the end of the segment. The next day, we went back home to Hangzhou.
After that, life went on as it always had for us in China. We ate dumplings and took walks and I studied my characters while Aley napped. We kept wishing that we could slow down time, but it kept on going and we eventually had to come back to Montreal and real life. The moment I stepped off the plane, I wanted to get right back on it. After a couple of months of being back, I’ve had time to think about my trip. Was I happy? I was definitely closer than I had ever been before. Will I ever go back? Yes. Will I ever eat duck tongue? No.
– Life in the bush: A treeplanter’s tale in the wilderness of BC
We are about 25 people gang-banging mother earth, opening holes with our long hard shovels, sticking our spruces into the soil and bootfucking the air pockets closed. This is all being done on a 40-degree angle going up. My legs are tired and my back is breaking. I’m trying to move faster to finish this bloody piece of land and get out of here. I have to hold on to the branches that are popping out of the ground in front of me, just so I can maintain my balance and plant a tree.
There are moments like these were I just wanna pull an “Into The Wild” run for it. But my balls are too soft, and I always end up toughing it out.
“Keegan wake the fuck up before there’s a clusterfuck around the lunch table, I’m not gonna wait for your lazy ass,” said Nick while shaking my tent. “Fuck off,” I said, drifting back off to sleep.
My alarm rings 30 minutes later (6:30 am) and I struggle to roll out of my sleeping bag in one-degree weather. I slowly take off all my clothes and proceed to put my dirty ass planting gear on. The worst part of the day is getting out of that sleeping bag. You’re cold as fuck, and aware of the battle ahead against bugs, the scorching sun and tree checkers.
I slowly make my way down to the mezz tent to start my routine of making lunch around a table full of people, eating breakfast around more people, launching a rocket in a hole that I helped dig, smoking a cigarette and bouncing to the block. All in half an hour. I never complain about anything anymore.
Sixteen hours later, I am plastered off my ass as usual. I walk into the mezz tent stumbling, looking for a last beer before I pass out under the BC stars. She comes towards me with her eyes wide open and her jaw moving back and forth like an old hag trying to fix her dentures. I stop to observe her as she stops to sensually touch herself to Portishead. Her hair in her face and hands running up and down her body, I can’t help but stand there and watch.
Bushwhacked is the term most frequently used amongst guys out here to describe the incomprehensible urge to have sex with women that you wouldn’t normally take one look at in the city. After a few months in the bush with women that proudly wear backpacks with tags that say; “Fuck razors” in bold letters, your standards take a back seat to your urges. You spend endless nights trying to satisfy yourself to a mental picture of women with clean bodies. You can almost smell their perfumes in your tent.
But then you meet a creature like Shirley, the obese manager of the motel we stayed at on a rare night outside of the camp, and you think the hairy chicks aren’t so bad.
“I’ve had it up to my cunt with you fucking tree planters,” the bitch said, her face turning bright red. “You guys are nothing but trouble around here. Get the fuck out, and by the way you’re not getting you’re deposit back.”
I am pretty pissed right about now, but I don’t say anything. I’m hung-over and in no mood to engage in any argument whatsoever with the stupid whale. To her surprise I let one rip right at the door, and she walks right into it to hand me a piece of paper, titled: “TO ALL TREE PLANTERS.”
My eyes scrolled down to the last rule of seven: “ALL POT SMOKING to be done outside by fence, if we smell it or get any complaints you will be asked to leave NO REFUND. If we smell it in your room you will lose deposit.”
It had not really occurred to me until that point that a dozen people smoking pot in a little motel room might cause some problems. It’s a good thing you can’t smell mushrooms.
Aside from the redundancy of planting trees, the beautifully hairy women, the sexually frustrated motel managers and the state of the art toilets, life in the bush is horrible. Ten hours a day, in the sun, tired, hungry, horny, lonely, listening to “the great gig in the sky” under the influence of your lingering lunacy.
Life in the bush can make you lose your mind, but it can also heal it. You’re working alone most of the time surrounded by nature. You can’t help but think all day about how complicated your life can be. You have moments of extreme frustration but also of immense understanding. Tree planting changes you in ways that you did not think possible.