Walking through the genocide memorial at the church in Nyemata I am dull, disgusted by the broken skulls and bones of people murdered without mercy–babies and their mothers, toddlers, adolescents, and elders, 50,000. Trudging inert after the tour guide, so distant from the frenzy of violence that raced to outdo every act of humiliation, rape and torture. I descend steps into the mass grave behind the church where shelves of skulls are neatly arranged in rows and columns, rescued from jumbled tangles where they lay dead, pulled from rivers and latrines. I question my reason for looking at these horrors. Am I learning something that will save a life or stop a hand from violence? Or do I indulge ghoulish curiosity like the creative fiends with their long knives?
The border into Rwanda has its share of bureaucratic mysteries. Which line do you stand in first? What happens to your passport when it is passed to unseen sets of hands further along the counter? Who will hand over the change for the dollars you paid for the visa? Why don’t they tell you where to go next? The officials were civil but offered few clues and no human connection. We made it through with minimal delay and were on our way toward Musanze. We were prepared to notice the lack of litter compared to Uganda–plastic bags are even against the law! The roadsides felt more manicured and were lined with young trees. The thatched roofs of Uganda gave way to peaked metal roofs of French colonial Rwanda. In the background, we glimpsed looming volcanoes rising up from the vast highland jungle spanning the boundaries of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo. Vehicular traffic is sparse, but the flow of walking people and bicycles is steady. They carry the cargo of rural life, bundles of sticks and straw, water jugs, baskets of fruit. Nothing to reconcile the news reels of chaos and massacre that had defiined my image of the country.
Our tour with Emmanuel from the Gorilla Organization takes us behind the tidy borders of the main thoroughfares and into the worlds occupied by the people we see walking the roads. His organization grew out of Dianne Fossey’s work to save the mountain gorillas when the research-centered American organization split from the European organization that was more interested community centered approaches to habitat preservation. The latter kept the name The Gorilla Organization and had been Emmanuel’s employer for twelve years. We took a small tour around the neighborhood while waiting for his staff to arrive at the field office. The narrow streets were hemmed in by stucco walls. People looked on curiously–this is not a tourist destination. On the other side of the block, we came into an open marketplace, sellers of beans and charcoal are on one side. In the middle of the plaza was a crowd of people and goats. It was hard to discern the process of buying and selling. On the next street, tailors and cobblers have more permanent stations along the street.
When we got back to Emmanuel’s field office his staff had arrived and we toured the small office. He introduced his staff and explained that they are of the Batwa people who were removed from the national parks to protect he natural habit for the mountain gorillas. In an effort to downplay ethnic identity after the 1994 genocide, the government refers to the Batwa simply as historically marginalized people. The Gorilla Organization is working to help the Batwa to adapt from a hunter-gatherer livelihoods to agriculture. The Batwa staffmembers showed us the storeroom where their communities store seed potato for the next year’s planting. We traveled into the forest to visited one of the relocated communities, conditions were very basic and, according to Emmanuel, both parents are often at home and without work.
Signs in Kisoro pointed toward the parks and gift shops advertised trekking services. Lunch was delayed as restaurant staff worked to accommodate a group of several hundred Ugandans in matching polo shirts gathered to celebrate the launch of a local credit association. Waiting for my fried chicken, I walked back to the main road to explore where the students might spend their remaining Ugandan shillings on souvenirs. A coffee shop promised free wifi, but had no airtime. A ragtag gathering was loitering in front of a store with wooden carvings, assorted sizes of identical mountain gorillas and a selection of masks. A man out front began to play the drum and another danced in rhythm. Was that young guy sniffing glue? As I retreated from the shop one of the crew reached out to shake my hand. His bleary eyes gleamed and he showed his teeth in a manic smile. His jacket and pants were stained and dark with dirt. I noticed how small his hand was in mine and, though he looked to be more than thirty, he stood only to my chest. It hit me that these were what we once called a Pygmies, however remote from what National Geographic and the movies portrayed. The man’s face is one of the images that my camera missed, but my memory engraved.
Our days and nights at Entusi retreat center on Lake Bunyoni feel most like a dream. The WIFI was not working, so I fell behind on my blogging, but maybe that just made it more full and more absorbing. Lake Bunyonyi nestles in a bowl of verdant mountains, a string of islands poking heads up like a family of turtles. For us, it was a retreat from the chaotic bustle of Kampala and the recovering war zones of the North. Even more, it offered its own set of riches–gauzy veils of mist that soften the sunlight, villages perched on ridge lines, fishermen and charcoal sellers paddling across the water in dugout canoes, delicious cool water for swimming, a graceful pair of crested cranes landing on a tree top. And, what a treasure to be with the people of Entusi. They built the physical structures of Entusi, but even more, they are building an institution that supports the surrounding communities and creates viable livelihoods.
When we arrived, they offered a warm welcome matched that of any five star safari lodge, but with a crucial differences. The Entusi staff are not brought in to work from all over the country, waiting weeks to visit their families back home and to speak their native tongues. They are picked up by boat each morning from villages across the lake and returned each night. They are not scolded for getting to know the guests or talking about how they like their jobs, but are encouraged to share their histories, their homes,tall tales and ideas about what Entusi should become. With soaring unemployment among young people in Uganda, any job is cherished, but working at Entusi is much more than this.
Raymond told a few of us about it over lunch at a resort where he used to work. The other resort was owned by a wealthy Ugandan who took all the profits–when the boss came around everyone tried to stay out of sight and step oh so lightly to not get in any trouble. The pay is better at Entusi without the constant worry of keeping your job. And there is the matter of community– “When we started building Entusi, it took a while to get used to being asked for our input at every step of the project. Now we know our ideas are valued.”
On our last night we shared in a feast with the Entusi staff and their families, the women’s association, neighbors from around lake, and other community leaders. It started out a little formal with speeches and thank you’s, but soon we were enjoying roasted goat and a delicious meal prepared by Chef. There was even some local porridge, a fermented drink from cooked grain, Nile Specials, and wine. When eating was done, the DJ took over and the real party began. As the music started, the four coolest looking teenage guys in the crowd walked out on the dance floor and started to dance with each other. I have never been at a dance party where people were less concerned with how they looked or who they danced with. Everyone danced with everyone– from Manager Regan to the UCCS crew to the women’s association to Donboro the boatman to the Sabimana family to Martina and Gilana–in the warm embrace of the African sky.
We have been without Internet for the past six days, so I am playing catch up on writing and posting as the trip winds down.
We are on our last drive through Kampala as we head toward Kabale in Southwest Uganda. Thankfully it is Saturday morning and the traffic is somewhat lighter. For all of the amazing places we have visited, I will not miss these urban bus rides. The pace is not as frenetic as India where vehicles seem to move in all directions and are interspersed with throngs of pedestrians and the occasional sacred cow. The Kampala roads simply have no capacity, with two lanes accommodating four lanes of traffic. And, the system as a whole affords few alternatives for travel in any direction. The rich must certainly have a better time of it than others, leaving the aggravation to their drivers, and never having to take the risks that go with hanging on the back of a Boda Boda,or the discomfort of a jamming into a collective taxi. But short of President Museveni,who can clear the streets for his motorcade of black Range Rovers with tinted glass, everyone gets jammed,
When we finally break free of the city and its gravitational field, everything changes. On the stretches of good pavement, we move easily at seventy to eighty kilometers per hour, slowing occasionally for the speed bumps of a town. A calf grazes along the road staked on a short length of rope. Shopkeepers stand beside wooden tables offering potatoes, tomatoes, tilapia. Men trim roadside weeds with long knives. Bicycles transport everything from water jugs stacked four high to full length fluorescent bulbs. The landscape folds into rolling hills as we approach Mbabara and we keep eyes peeled for zebras.
The road improves again on the last leg to Kabale and we climb into the higher reaches of the green hills. Farming terraces step their way high up the slopes. Homes of rich brown adobe spread over wooden frames are tucked into neatly bounded fields and vegetable gardens. Just before town, the bus engine dies and Mansur must nurse it along to make it to the top of the grade, adding water with curry powder to try to staunch the bleeding radiator. By the time we coast into the boat launch, the moon has yet to rise and it is darkest night. We skim across the jet black surface, smooth as marble, skirting the shore until, rounding the point, Entusi welcomes us with open arms.
We were not allowed to take our cameras into Jinja Main Prison, so I did my best to inscribe the scene on my mind eye. Six or seven hundred prisoners were gathered before us dressed in the bright convict uniforms of yellow and the orange. We filed across the front as the prisoners sang and clapped to a Christian song in Luganda. Three drummers set the beat and a handful of leaders led the Hallelujahs, We were guests of an organization called Life After Prison, a Ugandan Christian ministry that visits the prison every Friday, bringing basic supplies like soap and toothbrushes to the prisoners and joining them in prayer. One of the organization leaders had served three years in the prison himself and urged us to share a message of hope with the prisoners, We sat In along row in front of the mass of men and listened to introduction by the warden and the prisoners assisting with the program.
With the help of a Luganda translator, each of the students made an impromptu self introduction, giving their own particular message of hope~~sometimes invoking God by name and sometimes not. I looked across the yard at the sea of faces and the bright eyes set in shades of black skin against the field of yellow and orange. I looked beyond the first ring of men gathered closest to the stage to the second tier who responded more moderately to the religious exhortations, And I picked out a scattering of Moslems in prayer hats, searching their faces for expression. I will remember a few faces in particular~~a well built man in his twenties with a high forehead and rounded black pate, His had Buddha eyes from stupas in the high Himalayas. A young man halfway in back met my gaze and I wondered what he thought of me, what he thought of himself.
The Christian message was heartfelt and uncompromising and the prisoners joined in at every turn. When it was my turn to speak, I offered a greeting in Luganda and talked about why I had travelled so far with my students, and how we hoped to learn from standpoints weldistant from our own.
The preachers entertained and inspired, sometimes gathering us uncomfortably along as though we were members of the flock. I might question their evangelical motivations, but I give them full credit for being there and for coming back every Friday. Few others commit to being there with steady messages of hope. I will not forget how the inmates reached out one by one to take my hand in a warm Ugandan handshake as I made my way to the front gate, In the brief moment that I waited for the gate to open, I felt in my throat a rising cry for freedom.
As we drove out of Barlonyo refugee camp I peered between the brick structures along the road, trying to glimpse the red house where community leader, Moses, said he hid with twenty one others when the LRA swarmed the camp, slaughtering hundreds. He and the others waited until the rebels whistled the all clear, then ran off one by one into the shelter of the bush under smoke cover from burning huts and the burning flesh of family and neighbors. Ten years later, a monument remains to the people who died and more than seven hundred live at Barlonyo. Nearly this number died or were never found for after the massacre.
On the road back to Lira, children waved from every yard. Grown ups too were gathered on the shady side of their houses, circled up in red and white plastic chairs, not just four or five people, but a dozen or
more. And circles of men waved to us from their shared pots of local porridge as they sipped the concoction through long shoots of bamboo. These scenes of country life in Uganda call out of a level of community and relationship that Americans can only imagine.
Yet, just hours before we visited the baby home run by sisters of the congregation of Mary. Each child we met had its own story of being completely alone. From mothers dying in in childbirth to infants abandoned in the bush or on the nun’s doorstep, the little one’s had not a strand weaving them into the dense human web we witnessed on the road..To some degree, this also applies to the people of Barlonyo and other refugee camps, permanently severed from their relations, their ancestors and their home villages. They are ever rebuilding, but when will they truly become part of the fabric?
Emanuel explained God’s way of farming with a clarity of understanding and levity of spirit that was contagious. He showed us with the three legged stool as a metaphor and with the living proof of his demonstration plots. He moved easily from agronomy to practical application to biblical principle with equal passion. The sweet smell of crops and springy loam of the soil buoyed us along in shimmering green of evening sun. It was a comforting refuge from the acrid air of the city and it was encouraging to see how an orphan like Emmanuel could find meaning working the earth and feeding the poor.