Saturday, July 31, 2010

Three down...

Finished third seminar in Kampala--just two days. The journalists were great--very active, attentive, and bright. I was impressed, and hope that they will cultivate the seeds that we planted together. Three down, 21 to go!!

See peace journalism home page and Facebook peace journalism group for more.

Here comes the bride--dancing

From the Parkville Luminary

NEAR ENTEBBE, UGANDA--If Americans families had to dance at wedding ceremonies, here’s guessing that many fewer people would get married. Certainly, the ugly prospect of my family dancing down the aisle at my wedding would have kept me chaste and single lo these many years. (Well, at least single).

At a traditional Bugandan wedding, dancing family members are just one of many delights to behold. The Buganda are the largest tribe in Uganda. Their traditional home is in the central part of the country which encompasses Kampala.

Photo--Me giving the groom "the business" while Park student Andria Enns looks on.

My two Park University students, Andria (Andi) and Keith, were lucky enough to attend a Bugandan wedding toward the end of their study abroad experience in Uganda. Although interacting with Ugandan radio journalists at my peace journalism seminars and producing blogs and radio reports was certainly educational for my students, I especially value events like weddings (and funerals) as invaluable cultural learning tools. Thus, it was with glee that I accepted the invitation to this soiree extended by the groom, Caesar, a wonderful friend with a great sense of humor (necessary when you’re named Caesar) and infectious laugh.

The festivities began, oddly, at a restaurant/pub about a 20 minute drive from the wedding site. The wedding party (sans bride and bridesmaids) gathered here to get a pre-ceremony briefing and say a pre-ceremony prayer. The briefing seemed a bit like our rehearsals—do’s and don’ts, general procedures, and so on.

After getting instructed, we jumped into cars (and one van/taxi), and headed, convoy-style, to the ceremony site. Some unknown guy asked if he could ride with us in my car, we said sure, and off we went. Good thing, too—the free-rider knew the way, and we got separated from the convoy.

A 20 minute ride later on a bumpy, dusty road lead us to the wedding site, the front yard of a house filled with three large tents and lots of colorful decorations. The ceremony began with a traditional procession (women in one line, men in another) into the front yard. The women were striking—colorful, smiling, very feminine, and beautiful. The guys, me included, were dressed in a traditional long robe, a kanju, covered by a standard Western-style suit jacket. I think the kanjus looked better without the jackets, but what do I know.

As the ceremony began, we perched in the back. An emcee, for lack of a better word, seemed to talk endlessly before the action began. Loud dance music played as four or five pretty women emerged from the house into a stage-like area. These women, and literally dozens of others who followed, didn’t walk to the stage, they danced their way down some stairs, then danced around in circles a couple of times before finally settling down into a plastic chair. At this point, the emcee, speaking Bugandan, talked at length with each woman (the men would come later), asking them questions that often got laughs. Smiling, each woman responded, and those responses also got chuckles from the 200 or so guests. I was later told that these women were family members who were being facetiously grilled and teased about accepting the groom into their family.

This procedure repeated itself for the next two hours or so, first with women, then with men. The groom sat in the audience while all of this transpired, while the bride was hidden away.

Finally, the groom was introduced to the bride’s parents, who were asked to accept him into the family. This led to another knee-slapping Q&A session. At last, about two and a half hours after it began, the bride and her bridesmaids appeared, dancing their way to the stage area. The bride was resplendent in her orange off the shoulder dress, and seemed much more happy than nervous. At this point, sadly, we had to leave to drop Andi off at the airport, so we missed the really good part when the groom and bride are finally together on the stage. We were told this would probably occur about 7:00 p.m. We left at 4:45 p.m.

As we discussed the ceremony afterwards, the students and I agreed that the most striking thing was the amount of laughter, and how that contrasts to the almost-funereal tone at Western weddings. Indeed, if we learned one thing at the wedding, it was the Ugandans love to laugh. Also, we learned that Ugandans dance much better than Americans.

For wedding photos, see post below.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bugandan wedding

Attended a Bugandan wedding yesterday near Kampala. Fascinating. Will be writing more later about this. For now, enjoy the photos taken by my student.

Lucky Me

I have an Acholi name now. Acholi is the language of Northern Uganda, and the good folks at my last seminar said that since I'd already been to Gulu several times, I deserved to be given an Acholi name. So, one woman said that she felt lucky to have been in the peace journalism seminar and to have learned so much. So, she decided that I was to be given the name Komagum, which means lucky. The other seminar participants agreed. I do indeed feel Komagum.

True Grit

From the Parkville Luminary

GULU, UGANDA--As I poured a half-dozen dried ants into my hand, I almost lost my nerve. In fact, had my two Park University students not been with me, I probably would’ve backed out. However, to maintain an illusion of toughness and machismo in front of my students, I closed my eyes, and swept my hand up towards my open mouth.

I have no one to blame but myself for having to eat dried ants.

My descent into insect consumption began when my students, Andria (Andi) and Keith, and I took a stroll around the center of Gulu. It’s remarkable how the place has grown and recovered since a nasty civil war ended about three years ago. I noticed increased commerce and activity here since my last visit to Gulu one year ago.

During the 20-year war, Gulu, located in north-central Uganda, was the epicenter of the fighting which pitted Ugandan government forces against the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal band of fighters with no apparent agenda save for killing people and kidnapping children. Our guide, Caesar, told us that the center of Gulu was nearly deserted during the war, with just a few food stalls open and only a handful of shoppers brave enough to buy food for their families. I heard the same story from another Ugandan friend last year. He told me that sitting in an outdoor bar in Gulu and nursing a beer would’ve been suicidal just a few years ago.

Near the market, Caesar pointed out a church where people took refuge during the war. He told us the story of a priest who, to this day, hates the light. Why? If the rebels saw a light on in your house during the war, they often broke in, taking everything in the process, including children. Male children were “drafted” into their army, while females were taken for indecent purposes. The lucky ones escaped with their lives. So, this priest now sits in the dark every night, paying homage to his inner demons and to those who were lost during the war.

Today, absent of any physical scars here in bustling central Gulu, it’s hard to believe that any of this actually happened. In fact, Gulu has all the appearances of a town that’s healthy and growing.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the enormous outdoor covered market that snakes through back alleys and courtyards in the center of town. Our stroll through the market was fascinating and revealing. There were women drying, smoking, and cutting fish everywhere, and the whole place had the rancid odor of nearly-expired seafood. Dozens of stalls featured appetizing looking fresh vegetables, as well as some dubious looking (and smelling) meat. Vendors also hawked millions of shoes and shirts, all of which were second hand. The aisles were packed with shoppers who looked more happy than harried.

As we enjoyed our stroll, one item caught my eye. Initially, I thought it was chopped up red chilies. (Ugandans like to add chili paste to their food.) However, Caesar spoke up, and said they were dried flying ants. The wings are removed, and the ants placed on a mat to dry in the sun. Andi asked how the ants were killed. It’s a good question, but one which I didn’t want to ponder. Once I discovered the items for sale were ants, I foolishly blurted out that I would buy and consume some if my students agreed to share in the feast. Keith assented, Andi hesitated, and I bought a big bag of insects for about 40 cents.

We wisely waited until our return to the hotel to share the bounty. I went first, just in case. The initial sensation in my mouth was crunchiness. Then, the vile taste hit me. There is no way to adequately describe this except to say that it was a rotten, spoiled taste mixed with the taste of mud and sand. In fact, the texture was as gritty as it was crunchy. Not only was it awful, but it lingered like the bad taste in your mouth when you’re hung over. The dried ants were the worst thing I’ve ever put into my mouth. Bravely, Keith tried some ants, too, even after being warned. His animated reaction was the same as mine. Andi, being smarter than Keith and I, declined to imbibe.

As I reflect on this experience, and pick ant legs from between my teeth even after brushing, I feel a bit guilty for nearly poisoning Keith and generally setting a bad example. After all, as Andi and Keith have learned, you don’t have to munch insects to ingest a healthy helping of the fascinating culture here in Uganda.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Great meeting in Gulu
At each of the 24 seminar sites, we're holding a separate meeting with community leaders. We want to enlist their help as advocates of peace journalism, so we are asking them to connect with and monitor their local radio stations to ensure that the stations are not engaged in hateful, violence-inducing speech. The peace activists at the meeting last night were great--energetic, engaged, and ready to unite to ensure harmony in the Gulu region. If the other meetings are this good, I really believe a peaceful election may be possible here.

Peace Journalism radio program
I have posted a program where I discuss the peace journalism project and a recently concluded peace journalism seminar. My two Park students also made a few brief comments. This program was broadcast live last week on Life FM in Fort Portal, in Western Uganda. Go to:

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Queen Elizabeth Park

After our first seminar, my two students and I stopped at Uganda's spectacular QE park. For video highlights, click here.

All well; on to Gulu

We're in Kampala for a few more hours, then it's on to Gulu for the second peace journalism seminar. The students are doing well. Keith Taylor and Andi Enns both taught a segment at the first seminar. (Click here for photo album)

They are each posting blogs and photo albums of their own.
Keith Taylor blog
Keith Taylor photo album
Andi Enns blog
Andi Enns photo album

In the meantime, yesterday was harrowing--a slowly leaking tire (fixed); then a second leak (mostly fixed--slightly leaking); then it was fine for awhile; then bought a new tire, but had to go shopping for a tool that would remove my weird lug nuts; then under-construction road so dusty that driving on it was like driving in a blizzard. Bottom line--a trip that usually takes six hours took 11 hours! But, we're alive, and that's something. Back on the road in several hours--ugh.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

We're all okay

My students and I are fine. In fact, we weren't even in Kampala when the bombings occurred. We are in Fort Portal, where we just finished day two of the first of 24 peace journalism seminars I'm leading over the coming months. See below for my reflections.

The internet commection in Fort Portal is glacial, and my Park email barely/rarely works. So, if you have sent me an email, please be patient--I will respond when I can.

We'll stay safe. I promise.

Living through, and mulling over, a tragedy

FORT PORTAL, UGANDA--In the living room of my apartment in Kampala, I have an ad clipped from a newspaper that was printed a few days before Sunday’s tragedy.

If you didn’t see the news, bombs exploded at two sites in Kampala, a restaurant and a rugby club, on Sunday night. The bombers chose sites where crowds would be gathered watching the World Cup final. 74 innocent people, just soccer fans enjoying an exciting night out, never made it home. Authorities said both Ugandans and foreign nationals were targeted.

On Sunday, I was en route to Fort Portal, a small town in Western Uganda where I was to begin teaching a peace journalism seminar the next day. I was joined on this journey by two Park University students, Andria Enns and Keith Taylor, who are in Uganda on a special study abroad program. We arrived in Fort Portal at 8:30 p.m. after a ridiculously long, dusty, detour-riddled, six and a half hour journey. It usually takes four hours, but road construction and a traffic jam in Kampala slowed us considerably.

My students and I had made plans to find a place to watch the World Cup together. But by the time we arrived, we were so tired that all we wanted to do was stretch out on a bed in our rooms.

The soccer match started at 9:30 p.m., and I settled in comfortably to watch the game. I drifted off about 11:00, but woke back up about 11:30—right about the time the bombs went off several hundred miles away. My students, they told me later, were asleep by 11:00. I hadn’t given their safety, or mine, a second thought.

When I stumbled into the breakfast room at the hotel, it was a little before 8:00 a.m. on Monday morning. I immediately noticed something amiss. There were perhaps 10 Ugandans in the room, and they looked stunned, silently and intently staring at the TV hanging from the ceiling. The images on the TV were horrible—bloody bodies, victims of some sort being carried from the scene of a disaster, cries of anguish. This was just raw video, and it seemed to run for 10 or 15 minutes before a commentator came on and filled us in on what was happening. My mind raced, and I was shaken.

I took some deep breaths and composed myself before my students joined me at breakfast. Andria came down first. She was calm and attentive as I relayed the bad news. Keith already had CNN on before he came down, so he knew what happened. I asked them point blank if they were scared. Both said no, and I believed them. I was proud of their bravery.

At my seminar a few minutes later, we were greeted by 19 radio journalists and announcers. After the usual introductions, I addressed the two-ton elephant in the room—the bombings. I thought it might be cathartic for them to discuss what happened, and the way it was covered by the media. I figured if I could make 9/11 a teaching moment (I held three classes that day), I could do the same this time. I was wrong. The journalists were silent, perhaps too stunned to say anything, perhaps put off by my directness.

As I moved into my planned lecture, the seminar participants opened up a bit, and commented about how the media reported the words of the police chief who had prematurely assigned blame for the incident. These students and other Ugandans I talked to seemed upset, but also appeared to handle the incident in stride.

One reason I was so shaken by this tragedy is that newspaper ad sitting on my living room end-table. About a week ago, I saw an announcement for an Ethiopian restaurant in Kampala, so I clipped the ad so that I could find the place, since I love Ethiopian food. As I mentioned, two different locales were bombed Sunday night—a rugby club, and a restaurant—the same Ethiopian restaurant that I had planned to visit.

I am grateful for the dozens of sincere messages that I received expressing concern about our safety. Thank you. For those who would have me board the next plane for Kansas City, I am just arrogant or foolish enough to think that perhaps the work I am doing here can help prevent the next tragedy. I will be more watchful, and avoid crowds and Ethiopian restaurants to be sure, but I’m not coming home until my work is done.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Students enjoy interesting first day in Kampala

Park University students Andria Enns and Keith Taylor made it safely to Uganda, and enjoyed an interesting first day exploring some of Kampala's neighborhoods, a huge outdoor market, and generally making new friends. The kids seemed especially enamored with Keith, for some reason...Tomorrow, it's off to Fort Portal for the first peace journalism seminar.

For a photo album of the students' first day in Kampala, click here.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Students on the way!!

Two Park University students, Andria Enns and Keith Taylor, are stepping on a plane as we speak, and are on their way to Uganda. Once here, they'll sit in/assist at my first two peace journalism seminars. The first is in Fort Portal, and the second is in Gulu, in northern Uganda. We'll also have some fun at Queen Elizabeth national park. Stay tuned for updates about their activities.

NEW--Video blog

Click here
to see the first of many video blogs about my Ugandan experiences.

Semimars start July 12

The first of 24 (!) Peace, Development, and Electoral Journalism seminars around Uganda will take place starting Monday in Fort Portal, in western Uganda. It looks like everything is planned out and ready to go, thanks in no small part to my smart, dedicated assistant Gloria.

Getting, and giving, the boot

From the Parkville Luminary

KAMPALA, UGANDA—As I reluctantly climbed abroad the boda-boda (a small motorcycle/motorbike), my knees were literally shaking so bad that I thought I’d fall off the bike before the driver even started moving. As the boda-boda began to accelerate, I put my arms around the driver’s waist, and yes, he and I spooned. I was too terrified to even ponder the homo-erotic ramifications.

How did I end up on a boda-boda?

This ugly tale begins several hours earlier when I got ambitious, and decided to take my new aircraft-carrier sized SUV downtown to a great coffee shop called 1000 Cups. I was proud of myself as I wheeled through traffic on the left hand side, with no wrong turns, and steered into a good parking space along the road.

I enjoyed a good cup of African tea (similar to the milk-based masala tea) and a meaty slice of pumpkin bread, and took my time perusing newspapers and listening to what sounded like Aretha Franklin on the stereo.

After about an hour, I left the coffee shop, and decided to take a walk around the downtown area. As I walked past my car, I noticed something amiss. My left rear tire was fitted with a boot (called a club here)—a heavy metal device that can’t be removed from your car. A boot always means you’re in trouble with the parking cops. Upset, I tried to call three different Ugandan friends for assistance, but was unable to reach them. So, I talked to the boda-boda drivers lounging nearby, and asked them what happened to my car. They said that I got a ticket for not paying to park on the street. Of course, I didn’t know you had to pay—there were no signs, meters, or attendants who I could see. I’ve since learned street parking costs about 25-cents.

Anyway, when the meter maid ran my plates, I guess the computer lit up the way a slot machine goes berserk when a lucky player hits a bountiful jackpot. As my plates came up on the screen, I imagine steam whistles tooting gleefully and bureaucrats high-fiving at parking headquarters. It seems that my car had registered a prodigious 34 unpaid parking violations. Remember, I bought the car just a week ago, so none of these violations were mine, save for the fresh one that I just received. Yes, the *&%hole who sold me the car also sold me 34 unpaid parking tickets.

So here I was, in the middle of Kampala, unable to reach help, staring at my booted car. Taking matters into my own hands, I got directions to the parking office about a mile and a half away, and hoofed it there. When I arrived, I was shocked to learn about not only the ridiculous number of unpaid violations, but the cost of clearing things up and getting the boot removed. A polite clerk told me it would cost 103,000 shillings—about $45. That doesn’t seem like much to us, but believe me when I say that, for Uganda, this is a king’s ransom in unpaid parking tickets.

Naturally, I did not have 103,000 shillings on me. My ATM card was also at my apartment. So, not seeing any taxis around, I hailed a boda-boda, and told the driver to head for Kololo, the Kampala district where I live. I was nervous not only because I’d never been on a motorcycle before, but mostly because Kampala’s boda-boda’s are notoriously unsafe. Indeed, boda-boda “chauffeurs” usually drive like maniacs, zipping in and out of traffic, cutting off cars, etc. Many Ugandans have told me that the hospitals are full of boda-boda accident victims, and I believe it.

I picked out a driver with a helmet, thinking that at least he might be predisposed to driving safely. As we started out, I told him that I would pay him extra if he went slowly. He took me literally, and went about half as fast as he normally would have, thank God. The driver was very safe as we went to my apartment and back to the parking office to pay the tickets and get the boot removed. My knees stopped shaking after a few minutes on the boda-boda, but I kept hitting my glasses on the back of his helmet. As I said, we were spooning.

I believe that fate allowed me to survive this ordeal so that I might hunt down the former owner of my car like the dog that he is and apply my own boot to a sensitive part of his anatomy. Then, I’ll collect my 103,000 shillings.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Not bad for a muzungu

I love shopping for a car the way women love to shop for shoes.

However, my Ugandan friend Emmanuel is so smart and so helpful, he took most of the fun, but also all of the inconvenience, out of the process. Thanks to Emmanuel, I am now the proud owner of a 1998 Mitsubishi Challenger.

Though I’ve lived abroad before, this is the first time I’ve ever bought a car overseas. I’m living in Uganda for 11 months teaching peace journalism to radio professionals on a State Department/USAID grant, so getting a car really wasn’t optional.

When I was told that I’d need a car, I immediately thought of Emmanuel. I met him last summer, when I was in Uganda for five weeks teaching peace journalism. Emmanuel was at the time the driver for my State Department friend, and we got to know each other during some long drives on Uganda’s moonscape roads. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone that I genuinely liked as quickly as I liked Emmanuel. Smart, funny, and very, very humble and soft spoken, he’s the kind of man I’d like to be when I grow up. In addition, he knows everything about cars, and about Uganda, so I knew he’d be a great resource for me.

I first broached the subject of buying a car in Uganda with Emmanuel two months ago via email. He immediately volunteered to help, and started quizzing me about my vehicular preferences. Emmanuel knows more about my vehicular preferences than my wife, and I’ve been married 22 years.

As Emmanuel sent me specs on available models, I was pleasantly surprised that virtually any kind of car is available here. I thought I’d have to learn to drive a stick (yes, I am a weenie for not knowing this), but this is not the case—automatic transmission cars are widely available. I knew also that I’d have to get an SUV, since “roads” outside of Kampala are pretty awful, and sometimes impassable with anything but a big 4-wheel drive vehicle.

Three days after my arrival, Emmanuel showed up with a list of three finalists—the Mitsubishi, an Isuzu, and a Toyota. Each vehicle had been personally test driven by Emmanuel and inspected by a qualified mechanic. We looked over photos he’d taken of each vehicle, discussed the prices, and finally summoned the owner of the Mitsubishi.

I liked the vehicle as soon as I saw it, though I would’ve preferred white, since that’s the stereotype of the African 4-wheel drive safari vehicle. The Mitsubishi is in good shape, and has just 75,000 miles. It is, however, quite a heifer—even bigger than my wife’s highway patrol issue Mercury Grand Marquis. I nervously test-drove the vehicle around the block, and except for handling like a school bus, I enjoyed driving it.

Now, the seller was told I was buying the car for Emmanuel. Without this, I would’ve been charged a muzungu (white man) price. The seller named his price, which had already been pre-negotiated with Emmanuel—dang!. Still, since I love dickering as much Ugandans love stewed meats, I couldn’t resist. I gently explained to the seller that I had allocated only a certain amount for the car, and that his price exceeded my limit by about $250 dollars. He seemed flustered a bit, and offered to meet me in the middle. I’m not proud of what happened next. I told him that my first offer was firm, and as high as I could go. A small grin curled up around the edges of his mouth, and he shook my hand and agreed to my price.

I now feel guilty about talking down the seller, for whom $250 dollars obviously means more than it does to me. To assuage my guilt about this, I pledge to find a deserving charity here in Uganda, and donate $250. Perhaps this will restore my good karma. I need to let Emmanuel in on this, so that he doesn’t think I’m a total jerk.

I am eternally grateful to Emmanuel for his kind assistance. Without him, I probably would’ve been fleeced, since I know nothing about vehicle prices or car buying practices in Uganda. I guess I do know enough, however, to save $250, which is not too bad for a muzungu. ####

For more photos of my car, and my apartment and neighborhood, see my online photo album.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Uganda peace journalism project update--

Great planning meetings today with my new assistant Gloria and partner organization Uganda Media Development Foundation. First seminar in Fort Portal (in western Uganda) ready to go, thanks to some great planning before I even arrived.

Two Park Univ. students studying abroad will be joinging me here in about a week. I'm busy also planning their visit, which will include a stay at the spectacular Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Got my new car serviced--oil/filter changed, gas filter changed, new spark plugs, lube, fluids topped off, etc.--all for about $80, including labor! I can get used to this.