Monday, June 29, 2009
These were taken on my last day in Gulu. Carla and Joyce are a happy duo. Aren't they wonderful together?
I am in Kigali now, after a very fast few days in Goma meeting with partner organizations for the Man Up Campaign. The complexities and messiness of the DRC, the reality of being there, created a kind of static for me, and I need some time to think. We know that the greatest beauty can sometimes be found among the most horrendous pain and suffering. In Goma I was moved by very young Congolese artists, musicians, filmmakers, dancers and painters, working to actively build peace and promote art and dynamic social change in their country. I spoke with women rebuilding themselves and their communitiies after brutal, brutal rape. I met health care professionals treating the sick and the wounded with passion and grace, all while pushing hard to learn more and improve their own skills. At most moments I simultaneously wanted to leave very quickly but also stay, stay, stay much longer to dig deeper, and do more. I will write more about it soon. For now, happy pictures of Joyce and Carla. I'm off to explore Kigali before another Man Up meeting. Love to you!
Sunday, June 28, 2009
For several years Martina went to school, always uncertain what the day would bring. Sometimes she would have epileptic fits, convulsing in the middle of class, or in the schoolyard in front of her peers. As her body shook, Martina’s classmates would run after her, hitting her and beating her with sticks so hard that her young body often bruised. They did this for fun and play, but also to chase the evil spirit out of her that they believed lived inside. Teachers stood back. On-looking adults did nothing. Martina said that she did her best not to cry.
Identified by TPO Uganda as at-risk, last year Martina received a goat. (If you don’t yet know about the Goat Project, please read about it HERE or HERE). TPO considers the Goat Project to be a child-protection program, and I quickly learned again why.
It wasn’t long after the goat was delivered to Martina, during a follow up visit, that the TPO counselor learned about the specific, dangerous trouble she was having at school. A team of TPO staff, together with someone from the sub-county’s child-protection committee went to visit the school. They spoke to all the school’s staff and explained Martina’s condition. They explained epilepsy medically, and the serious physical risks involved with the children’s habit of hitting Martina mid-attack, and then spoke of the emotional impact as well. They coached the school’s staff on how best to explain this to the students, and deal with questions or backlash.
And it worked. Martina goes to school now in peace. Her teachers, the students, as well as her family members all know how to help her during an attack. She says that some students still tease her, but that she doesn’t mind because everyone gets teased for something, and no one is hitting her any more. Not one single person. And then, her face lights up. “Do you want to see my goat?” she asks. It is my turn to nod. Yes, I definitely want to see her goat!
She leads me past the spacious living area, out into a field of corn and overgrowth. She leads the way, and I can scarcely see her emerald dress through the grasses that brush my forehead. And then she stops, turning to find me. “There” she points, without words, the luminescent grin returning. I look, and tethered to a tree with a long rope is a black and white speckled goat, munching happily on the greens. I didn’t know it was possible, but in a moment, Martina’s face lights up even more. She takes a few more steps and clears the way through some of the bush. There, hidden entirely in the growth, are two kids, little baby goats, bleating quietly. And I know what this means without being told: money for school fees. More goats, more babies, more money, more food, something that this child is bringing to her family, a way she is contributing to her own future. And she cannot hold the pride she feels inside. It spills out of her, into the wild grass where we stand.
What do you want to be when you grown up, I ask her spontaneously. She does not wait a moment before answering. “A nurse,” she says. “I want to help people get better and understand.”
I think that it is a fabulous plan.
(Thank you, sweet Leah, for changing Martina’s life last year with a gift of a goat. In this, as in so many other ways, you are here with us. Thank you from her, from her family, and from us. We love you.)
Photos of Martina and her goats to come once I am back home in the U.S.…
(Thank you, generous friends and family who donated goats for our wedding. You were here with me! I have met some of the exact individuals your kind gift has helped and I have no words to explain how wonderful this was, and how lucky I feel Minh and I are to be surrounded by you in our life.)
Thursday, June 18, 2009
I only knew Leah for a few years, but Minh used to joke that he was afraid we’d run away together, kindred spirits. To be honest, I always held pride in this little joke of his. It felt like such a compliment, every time. As her dear friend Maria said: “Leah was somethin’ special. There ain’t no more Leah’s in this world.”
And that, you see, is exactly the problem. And I can’t sort it out. I can’t wrap my mind around this absence. This fact. And yet, today, here, in this moment now, it feels so real. Too, too real. And I am so mad that I shake.
I try to imagine what she would say to me here, sitting under this mango tree, hot tears blazing down my face, children coming home from school staring at the mzungu trying hard not to make a scene in public. “But I had a wonderful life!” she would start, gesticulating with her hands, and tilting her head. “But you are in Africa! C’mon. Get up and go visit your friends, do your work. Keep going! I am fine.”
No, I say. It is NOT ok. How is it ok? How can I believe in a world where Leah is senselessly gone? Someone doing such good…real good in this world. Someone with such passion and spirit and life! How can that life be gone? And if it is, since it is, what the heck are we doing here anyway? I feel like her death is supposed to make me feel even more strongly about my work; more committed. We always talked about our work, compared our work, took turns being amazed then wonder-fully jealous of one another’s work. We complained in good humor, and dreamed in good faith. Neither Leah nor I ever knew what was going to come next, but wasn’t that the beauty of it? Leah was ok with the uncertainty and made me feel confident too, proud and more comfortable with flowing with life, asking questions without real answers, and taking risks for the beauty and humanity of it all. I sit here now, and I hate to be this way, but I don’t want to flow or dream right now. Right now I am only asking, really, what is the point?
I used to have an answer to that question. When asked about the point of it all, I pointed to my favorite, favorite quote – an Irish proverb, actually: “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live,” it says. Take care of one another, love. To me, this seemed so completely crystal clear. This was the point. But now, now….I’m honestly not that sure. God, I am angry.
In Jewish tradition, focus is not placed on the afterlife, but rather, the life we are living now. Even the Kaddish, the prayer said for the dead, speaks only of the miracle that is this world, this life. But you see, I whisper in between the lines of the Kaddish, we really need Leah back in this life. We really, really need her here. Surely, there has been some terrible, terrible mistake.
Here in Uganda, a country where she has never been and will never be, her absence to me is profound. Perhaps it is because we talked of traveling here together one day. More likely, though it is because this is a place where Life and Death are intimate partners and good friends. Here, the joy and the pain, the ins and outs of a day, they are all raw. There is no pretense of “forever.”. Everything, and everybody will one day cease, and that day…well, it could be today. I feel Leah here as I walk the path in the morning past the chickens and goats and cows, down into town. I feel Leah as the grass tickles my legs and the breeze gives a momentary respite from the searing mid-day sun. I feel her so much as I simply go about my day.
I look down. The red dust is swirling around my ankles and knees as a storm brews across town. The road is pocked with holes– the mark of rainy season – and a truck rushes down the road, like an elephant on a balance beam. Everything can be swept away.
An old woman walks past me now, hunched over a walking stick, eyes cloudy, dress to match the grasses. “Apoyo” she greets, and raises a hand. I smile and greet her in return. Three children in blue-checkered uniforms balance on the back of their father’s bicycle, returning from school. They smile and wave wildly “Muno, Hiiiiiiiiiiiii” they shout, using the word for “foreigner”. “Acholi, Hiiiiiiiiiiiii,” I offer and they erupt in gales of laughter that I have met their call of “foreigner” with the word for their own tribal identity. Six strong women turn around in passing and smile at the exchange. They are each holding a day’s worth of labor on their heads, doubtlessly walking home to bathe the children and prepare the evening’s meal.
There is something faint in the distance. Wailing. Is it screaming, even? In a moment I recognize this sound. It is the sound of mourning. Somewhere nearby, a family has lost a member. Someone beloved is gone. Yes, I want to say….yes, I understand. The void is too deep for words or flowers. I know, and I am sorry. So, so sorry.
Friday, June 12, 2009
As soon as I left Entebbe airport and was securely seated in the front seat of my guest house's car, my driver had one question. It had clearly been burning on his tongue since he had greeted me, 10 minutes earlier. He was having a hard time containing himself. "So," he said with excitement, "I am hearing that you are from the American capitol, Washington." Yes, I said, I live in DC. I smiled. I knew exactly what was coming next.
"How is the one, Obama?" he launched in. "Are you knowing him? Are you seeing him? He is so smart. I am reading about all Obama policy. His wife, she is also so, so smart. What is she like in Washington?”
Since arriving one week ago, it is not an exaggeration to say that I receive a version of this same, enthusiastic question at least once, if not several times each day – usually, as soon as people learn that I am from DC. I am frequently asked about the president’s personal habits, what they “take for lunch”, and, most often, about the well being of “the ones of Obama” (i.e. the family), and how they are doing.
The funny part is, I am expected to hold a knowing answer, like a cousin. I do, afterall, live in the same city.
Yesterday over lunch, a colleague here raised the O question for the first time, admitting she had wanted to for some time, but had been waiting patiently. “Well,” I told her with a sly grin, “my husband works across the street from the White House.”
“Ahh!” she shrieked. “You are not serious!!! He must be a very important man…”
In our beading cooperatives, the interest is most assuredly on our intelligent, compassionate, fashion-forward first lady, a committed mother, like our beaders. They connect with her. They love her. They want to know why I haven’t yet personally delivered one of their gorgeous paper-bead necklaces to Michelle Obama, perhaps over tea. They have spent hours imagining which of their creations would best compliment her neckline, her coloring, her style. “But you live in Washington! So close!!” they say with exasperation. “You take it to her house.”
I explain that it is much more complicated than that, but that yes, I would also love to see Michelle Obama wearing one of their necklaces, elegant paper jewels made from the rubble of camp life, made from the hopes of women who are just now, 20 years later, reconstructing their lives and returning home after so much war. Too much war.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
I'm sorry. I didn't fall off the face of the earth. I was just a tad sick and unable to do much internet for the past week. But I'm better now, and I have a little smile for your day. This was taken my first day in Gulu, just after I arrived. Joyce has grown! She is healthy and strong, and sassy as ever. Her shyness has disappeared, and I can hardly sit for 5 minutes with Carla and the other women before being pulled and tugged at with choruses of "Aimee, you just come play! Aimee, you just come play now!" The game of choice is a hybrid of monkey in the middle and dodgeball, played with a soft sock ball, and I must say, I'm getting quite good! Joyce has a killer throwing arm.
I'm sorry I have not been in touch. I know many of you have been waiting to hear from me, especially about Joyce. I caught an African Bug...or rather, the bug caught me, and I have been in my hotel room (thank god for my clean hotel room with flushing toilet, hot shower, and mosquito net without holes) for the past 3 days, a sick puppy. Today I'm feeling better and have made it up the road to the Acholi Inn, where I am sitting outside and using their wireless internet -- so fancy -- while I recover a bit. Doctor Jolanna, the Czech doctor I met two years ago while caring for Joyce, saw me this morning and gave me some new medicine and eating instructions, so I"m well on the mend! It was nice to see her familiar and friendly face, too.
I have a lot of Paper to Pearls work to catch up on, so it will be a busy week or so, but I'm looking forward to seeing the women I have worked with in the past, again. Especially those at Awer. Most have left the camps now and are back in their villages, working their fields. As always, my objectives for the trip have shifted dramatically since I arrived, but I enjoy the fluid and ever-changing nature of this work (even if it can sometimes be frustrating!), and the kind of thinking and response it requires of me. I learn so much in each single encounter I have here, and only hope I have within me a fraction of as much to give in return.
I miss you all and think of you every day!
Love and "Greetings" from Gulu,
Wednesday, June 03, 2009
I'm so out of the blogging "groove" that I am not sure what to write. That, coupled with travel fatigue and a brain of jello, makes it hard to hold a coherent thought. But just wanted to let you know that I am sitting in The Future, and it looks like the Dubai airport. In the new Emirates terminal, light pours in from long, glass skylights and tall arched windows. It is pristine. So much glass makes it feel spacious and open. Cosi (this is new!) sits across from Hermes, next to a prayer room, and I have never seen such a beautiful, colorful mix of people, seamlessly flowing through the corridors to their destinations...
This past week many people asked if I was excited for this trip. I sounded crazy, but I wasn't. There was too much going on, too much to do to be excited. And as great as it is to travel and work, I hate leaving Minh.
But now, backpack strapped on, boarding pass in hand, only one flight away from Uganda and two travel legs away from old friends and my favorite 5 year old, now I am excited! This will be a unique trip for me. Short in comparison to those of the past two years, and much, much busier.
I'll be gone almost 6 weeks in total, in 4 countries, working for 3 separate projects. I'll do my best to stay connected here and let you know how my days are filled (Nana, Mom, Uncle Scott...and anyone else out there :) )
Oh, the plane is boarding, so off to Kampala I go. Thinking of you all.