Tuesday, October 19, 2010

god complex

Religion seems to be at the center of just about everything in Uganda. Meetings, the apparent national pastime, regardless of their purpose or lack of religious affiliation, always begin and end with a prayer,“God’s will” is credited for most things good and all things bad, and anyone can tell you that the only way to make something official, be it a speech, a letter or a business proposal, is to signoff with the national motto, “For God and my country”.

While not as diverse as America, there are a handful of different sects prevalent throughout my community with the largest constituencies being Catholics, Protestants (the term locally applies only to Anglicans), Muslims, and “Born-agains” (I’m not sure to which church these actually belong). Indian and Chinese families, both present in my area, have their Hindu, Buddhist, and Siek beliefs. There is also a small smattering of other Protestant faiths, several Jewish families, and probably the most intriguing, the traditionalists or the “witches”. The only people glaringly absent are non-believers. I have yet to meet a local who subscribes to, or even respects the concept of non-theism.

While the least populous groups tend to keep their faiths to themselves, the larger groups, perhaps emboldened by their numbers, are not content to live and let live. Every day seems an epic struggle to win as many souls as possible, and that struggle begins early. If you are familiar with Islamic tradition, you probably know that the Muslim call to prayer begins at around 5:30 every day and is repeated another 4 times throughout the day. If it’s done at a respectable volume and by someone with a good voice the tradition can actually be quite soothing even to a sleeping outsider, and, in defense of the local Muslim population, they have done just that the few times I have been able to hear them. This is a battle, though, and the reason I have only heard the mosque (which is about ½ km away from my house) a few times is because they are not the only faith who knows how to use a public address system.

About 1 km away from my humble home lie the “Born-agains”. The “Born-agains”, by far the smallest of the big four faiths of Kisoga are also by far the loudest, most in-your-face of them all. They are led by a pastor whom, according to him, grew tired of having another religion inflicted upon him and his people every morning about six months ago, and without any sense of irony he devised a plan to rectify the situation. His idea was to buy a bigger, better PA system than the one being used at the mosque and to give a daily sermon to the town starting at 5:25 AM, just before the Muslim call to prayer. The deafening roar drowns out any competing sounds throughout the town. Margaret, my counterpart who lives at least 3 km away from the source, has even told me that her family is woken by him every day. While his incessant shouting can’t quite match the musical quality of the Islamic call to prayer, he does outdo his rivals by upping the few minutes that they spend by a modest two and a half hours. I was sure things couldn’t get any worse until today when some competing sect of Christianity joined in on the fun and began playing hymnals from their own crackly PA system. I am not sure who is behind this, and I was never exactly thrilled with the situation to begin with, but I am far from pleased about this latest development.

While the worst is always over by 8 AM, the battle does not stop there. Inevitably, at various points throughout the day, I will be asked about my religion. Despite my most cunning of schemes to dodge the topic and steer the conversation in other directions, I am usually thwarted. Regardless of how I’ve answered and how unenthused I appear about the topic, it is then my privilege to listen to a diatribe on the merits of their personal beliefs. One such speech turned into a near brawl in a restaurant where I was eating. While two men were arguing over which religion was better and which I should devote my life to I walked out of the restaurant. I am not sure they even noticed. The tone of these little speeches may range from friendly to angry, but the length of the speech is always the same; however long I allow it to go on before kicking them off my porch or walking away and asking them not to follow me. Interestingly enough, the only people who don’t pry into my personal beliefs are the Catholic priests and nuns whom I work with on almost a daily basis.

If you have been keeping up with this blog, you might remember that I promised to write more about the practice of witchcraft in my community. Before I get started I will issue a disclaimer. The accounts here are all based solely on things I have seen and heard during my time in Kisoga. The facts of what I am telling you are true; however their association with witchcraft is speculation, not just by me, but nearly all townspeople as well. Additionally, I am using the words “witchcraft” and “traditionalism” interchangeably. I guess this may be considered offensive to some, but it is the language the locals use, and being that most of their practices are underground, the acts that do surface tend to be deserving of the title.

I will start by explaining that over the years, traditionalist African ideologies have been denounced (at least publicly) by all but the most devoted of followers in favor of what I would call Western religions, most notably Christianity and Islam. Despite this, there remains a small contingency of avid traditionalist, especially in my district of Mukono – considered by many to be the witchcraft capitol of Uganda. It is my theory that because the common, everyday traditionalists have moved on to other faiths, those that remain tend to be the more radical “witch doctors”. They keep their practices under wraps, not because their beliefs are unacceptable to the people of Uganda, but because of the acts that are attributed to at least some of the followers. These acts include such atrocities as child sacrifice, cannibalism, possessions, and placing human heads in building foundations. According to friends and neighbors, each form of murder serves a different function, be it for health, prosperity, or any number of reasons. Upon first hearing these claims, I was typically skeptical. I assumed that the stories were simply that. Just stories. After just a few months here, however, headless and/or filleted bodies have turned up, children have gone missing, and suspects have been lynched by mobs.

One specific incident recently caused quite a stir. A local business owner fled town right before a lynch mob could seek their vengeance. Over the course of the last two years, six headless bodies have found in the woods surrounding my town. The evidence was as follows:

-The business owner had erected six new buildings over the last two years which matched the six headless bodies.
-Two of the bodies found were former employees of the business owner which had gone missing.
-The business owner had been questioned by local authorities when each of his employees went missing (before the bodies had turned up, and had stated that each employee had quit to return to their home village.

Whether the evidence would have held up in a court of law was never in question. Assuming the man, who had been told of his imminent arrest, had not decided to skip town, the mob which trashed his properties would certainly have killed him before any such trial could be held. The riot happened just a few minutes walk from my house, and a few of the shops wrecked were businesses which I had patronized.

Religion. It’s definitely a focal point of life here. Whether you are a witch doctor, a pastor with a vendetta, or a foreign volunteer just trying to get some sleep it seems impossible to avoid. I do want to say, though, that despite the pressure I feel from some people and the violence that admittedly has occurred in my town, I feel safe here. I live near the center of town, and I have worked to cultivate relationships with as many people as I can. Despite their confusion that, after having point blank asked me on numerous occasions, they are still completely clueless about my religion, I feel like they have my back. Some think I look Indian and must be Hindu, some think I look Arab and am probably Muslim, some know I am American and think I have to be Christian, and others hear my name and think I could be Jewish. I might humor their guesses, but I always keep my silence on the issue.

Monday, October 4, 2010

daily grind

I have been in Mukono for about two months now, and it finally feels like I have a home here. I am settling into my community, and work is starting to take shape. I realize that I haven’t talked much about work up to this point, and large part of that has been because I haven’t been anywhere long enough to actually figure things out well enough to write about it, but I think it’s finally time.

The best way to describe my role here would be to say that I am a micro-consultant. Once a week, people come to my counterpart, Margaret, and me with a veritable laundry list of issues. They come as orphans, widows, victims of HIV / AIDS / malaria / malnutrition / domestic violence. Some are physically or developmentally disabled. Some have almost no education. Some are just looking for a handout. So, every Monday we hold a group session where we hear from and speak with anywhere from 10-40 people about their stories. They may come asking for school fees, for food, for land, for just about anything, but in the end it always comes down to one basic thing. Money.

Everything Margaret and I do the rest of the week stems from that. One of the first things we do is to go through and verify each person’s story by going to their home for a sort of surprise inspection. If it weren’t for the fact that I get to walk through some beautiful areas in a tropical climate, this part of the job would be completely without reward. Only two things can happen once we actually arrive at the person’s home. They are either as impoverished and desperate as they said, or they lied and are trying to exploit us. Either way, it is usually a bit of a downer.

Before my arrival, the Catholic Church, backed by 4 Italian nuns and their benefactors from home, used to simply verify the situations of those who came asking for help and then start giving them the money/land/house/food they had asked for. When Italy was hit by the global economic crisis, the nuns remained but the funds dried up. That is why they brought me in. My main task here in Kisoga is to devise and implement programs to economically stimulate the people in need. This is what takes up the bulk of my time, and it is by far the most challenging aspect of my work.

Currently, my organization is running three programs to boost individuals’ incomes. The first is my counterpart Margaret’s project which targets mainly healthy young men and women. It is a community garden in which we have bought a large tract of land and divided it up to allow people to stake their own plot, come and work the land themselves, and keep all of the food/profits that they earn. Margaret, another coworker, and I even go help them work the land once a week. I once had a laugh with my friend from back home because her mom was under the impression that I was hacking away at the bush with a machete all day. Well, that’s pretty much exactly what you will find me doing every Tuesday now. Despite having had a lot of interest in this project initially, turnout has been beyond poor. Of the 30+ people that have shown interest, only 3 people have shown up to work, and of those, only one does so on a regular basis. It’s really disheartening to see, but at the same time it’s fairly understandable. Where is the motivation to work on a farm for years to pay for your house when my organization just built your neighbor one two years ago for free. People either don’t understand or don’t believe us when we tell them that that money is no longer there. The following is a conversation I had with a local woman just yesterday on my way to work:

Her: You have not yet come to build me my house. I asked a month ago, and still you have not come.
Me: I’m very sorry, but, as we told you, we don’t have money to build houses. You have to come to one of our programs and earn the money.
Her: But my husband died last year of AIDS.
Me: That’s terrible. I’m so sorry, but the money just is not there to build any more houses.
Her: - And I have nine children, and the three oldest removed me from the house because I have AIDS.
Me: I’m sorry. There isn’t any money right now, but -
Her: - And now I have to care for the other six children and I have no food and no money and no house.
Me: I’m very sorry, but we don’t have any money, but if you follow me to my crafts group and you work hard you will definitely be able to make enough money for your family.
Her: Why don’t you give me money? Some of my children are even having AIDS. Isn’t my story sad?
Me: It’s very sad. We still don’t have any money though.
Her: I will go to where I stay now and wait for you to come build my house.

The second project I am involved in is Sister Judith’s, my supervisor. Backed by one of the few remaining Italian benefactors we have left, we are starting up a vocational school to train young people in sewing and tailoring. My role here relates pretty exclusively to the budget. I was told outright that I was chosen for this role not only because of my financial experience in my past life, but because of the experience I had at my first site and my unwillingness to bend on certain issues. This has made me a bit of a lightning rod, as some of the outside experts that we have brought in have already let me know exactly how they feel about me and my tight control over the project’s budget. This doesn’t sound like much fun, but I know I have the support of Margaret and Sister Judith and I am glad that I can contribute something.

The final project is a crafts group made up of some of the women of Kisoga. Within my organization, we say that it is “my project” but the truth is I only asked the women what they wanted/liked to do, set up a few ground rules with them, and they have been running with it ever since. It is more theirs than mine. The basic idea behind this group is that these are women who have specific ideas on how to sustain themselves; they just need a little help to get there. The solution is to create handcrafts to sell where I have found a small market for them in America. The crafts are a means, not an end. These women know they cannot hope to continue to export handmade crafts for the rest of their lives, so we have planned out with each woman a way to take the money they earn and turn it into something that is sustainable for them in the long run. So far we are only working on paper bead necklaces, and the women are still learning, but we hope to soon have enough ready to ship to America where my Mom and Aunt Elle have very generously agreed to sell the necklaces in their salon and send every cent of profit back to the women here. The group is footing the cost of all of the materials and shipping themselves. Each necklace takes an incredible amount of time and attention to detail. I feel like these are very important things. They are working so hard and investing a lot of their time and what little money they have into their own futures. They are not looking for handouts; they are just hoping to catch a break. When they have earned enough money, the idea is that they will “graduate” from the group, take the money they have earned, and begin to work on the plan we have set up together. If you can read between the lines, it is probably fairly obvious that this is the project that I am the most excited about, and I feel like we have a real shot at being successful for these women.

So that’s basically what I do these days. I’m fairly busy right now, but I know that as my projects mature my part in them diminishes so I’m always looking for new ideas. Until then though, I’ll continue to hammer out the numerous kinks and try to keep the updates coming on the successes and failures of my current projects.

rafting and more

Click the link above to see my album of our rafting trip on the Nile plus a handful of other photos. The wet conditions and constant fear for our lives hindered all of our abilities to take our own photos so we paid one of the company's employees to take them. I can't take credit for any of the rafting shots, but the rest are mine.