Sunday, January 14, 2007

Beautiful Things

by Holly
Last night I had a conversation with someone at a goodbye party for yet another transient ex-pat friend (we’ve been here 14 months, and that’s longer than most people stay so we’ve had several waives of goodbyes already). We passed the small talk about our holidays and then she asked if it was hard to come back to Lira. I had a warm sense of joy because the answer is decidedly no. We spent two weeks in the UK at my parents place together with Travis and Tina and I needed it. Maybe “need” is too strong, but I found deep comfort from much that has disturbed my body soul and mind in the soft couches of my parents cozy living room, the food, the walks through the woods, conversations and prayer with wise parents and caring siblings in front of warm fires and in pubs, baking 6 kinds of Christmas cookies in a beautiful kitchen, going to bed without wrestling a mosquito net, feeling cold for the first time in over a year, even shopping was strangely comforting.

I liked looking at all the beautiful stuff I can live without. I appreciated all the material comforts of “home” and was happy to discover that I don’t need them but they’re there whenever I want to enjoy them. One morning I was drinking some thick Italian espresso out of adorable cups the appropriate size. My own set of equally adorable espresso cups are in a box somewhere in Ben’s parents basement and who knows when I’ll use them again. I thought of my cups and was about to tell my mom that I missed them when I realized that I didn’t--this was in fact the first time that I’d even thought of them since they were packed away. I am grateful for many things when they’re there to enjoy but I’m okay without them. That knowledge is freeing.

It’s good to be back. We were surprised by how easy it felt and how nice it was to come back to our house. It is good to see friends and colleagues again. While we were gone one died and one had a child. It is good to get back to work, to get started on new reconciliation opportunities I’ve been looking forward to. It was good to hang the wind chimes I bought in the UK on my porch, to sit in my living room and listen to them. It sounds like home.

Manufacture the Stars

by Holly
Philip met up with us in London for a New Year’s celebration. The night was, for me, a confluence of Ugandan life and the UK. I loved it and it made me laugh to have them both in the same place. The oddness of both get more pronounced. Classically Ugandan, Philip, we thought, would spend the day with us after we met up at King’s Cross but instead he’d found a fellow Ugandan and had other plans. He’d join us later—which he did along with three unexpected others who of course were related to or knew someone that we knew in Uganda. I love it that in Uganda everyone is welcome and invited everywhere and that plans or food or space are never limiting factors. For westerners we tend to think about the composition of a social gathering and plan it to avoid awkward combinations. That just wouldn’t happen here. We had a great evening with delicious cuisine prepared by my brother who became quite the chef since coming to the UK. We shared highlights of 2006 around the table with Tina, Travis, and friends Stephie and Tom.
Of course Philip came so late that he missed the meal but no one minded or apologized. When we told him to come for dinner he said, “Oh, I’ve learned that when you come to dinner here you’re supposed to bring your own drinks like a bottle of wine.” He told us this as if we would think that it was as socially bizarre as he did. I remember when we first got here and were surprised that no guest ever brought anything to share.

We watched the fireworks and had the count down into the New Year from Big Ben and the London Eye. It was an epoch moment to stand with two of my favorite men—my brother and my husband, to hold my sister’s hand and to share that experience with a friend from Uganda and see it through his eyes. Unlike all the Brits around us Philip couldn’t contain his awe and excitement—he cheered at the top of his lungs after each burst of fireworks. “Man has learned to manufacture the stars! God bless the world!” We all found ourselves cheering along with him and the experience was more full.
Re-entering the western world I was surprised by obvious things. First, there are a whole lot of white people. I haven’t seen so many in one place for a long time. I’ve kind of gotten used to being a minority. In England my skin didn’t feel so novel. On New Year’s Eve for a few minutes with Philip and company I was once again the token white.

In the UK there are very particular ways of doing everything--what utensils or dishes or glasses should be used in what context, and when you should or shouldn’t say certain things. It’s a little bit overwhelming when it seems like everyone already knows all the rules to the game and you’re expected to play without being privy to the instructions.

Another thing I noticed is that there is a lot of trash. Not in the street, like in Uganda—but just in general we make a lot more of it. Probably because we package everything and consume a lot. We westerners really like packages. You should note it next time you buy something—I’m sure it’s in a package—whatever it is. Many of them are so unnecessary but it makes it feel cleaner and somehow more special. With food it cuts down on preparation and clean up time a lot but it also makes the food seem further away and less real. I feel close to my food in Uganda. It’s very real and raw. All of life is real and raw and I like it like that. It makes me feel more real too.

There isn’t any dust in the UK, well maybe there is but it’s not red and it is probably from old books or dead skin cells and it isn’t from the earth. Although I enjoyed cooking in an immaculate kitchen with marble countertops and walking all day shopping on London streets without needing to wash my feet I have to say I have a new appreciation for dirt. Sometimes it gets annoying but it makes me feel closer to the earth, to my origin—not separated by layers of pavement and carpet and tile and marble. Life is dirty. Uganda gives me the freedom to acknowledge my dirt, because we’re all human beings walking down the same dusty streets together.


by Holly
When we got to my parents house this is what I saw when I walked in. I cried. I wasn’t sure why. It just looked so soft and beautiful and it felt like it was exactly the shape of the hole in my heart. It was one of those moments where you get a glimpse of the way life or home is supposed to be and most of the time it isn’t where we live. Where we live isn’t even a shadow of what should be. Maybe that’s true everywhere but in northern Uganda it feels particularly true. That’s not to say that everyone here should have a living room like the Randall family cottage but I do think that we all long for something that is there--comfort, beauty, a loving family that actually likes and looks forward to time together and is restored by it, shelter, safety, more than enough to eat, acceptance.
It broke my heart. Partly, because I miss it and partly because it seems impossible for the people of northern Uganda. And then at the same time those moments happen here too. Some are quiet and simple and others are more profound. I had a simple one yesterday when I walked home under a red sun after a meeting with the management team that was energized and full of common purpose. And then Ben and I sat on the front porch and watched the sun sink and talked about the day. I had a moment like that last year when I first saw Acholis dance. While they sweat and kicked up the red dust to the drums I thought, “this is what they were meant to do, this is how it’s supposed to be with the young people dancing and the children trying from the sides and the old people nodding and watching—they weren’t meant for this war, destruction, displacement and poverty.” But that moment happened right in the middle of it. In a way that’s comforting, because it means that whatever those moments are or whatever they reflect—the longing for home—the restoration of things to the way they should be—life at its fullest—they are more powerful and can’t be overcome by the most gruesome war, or by massive displacement or abject poverty. Human beings will still dance.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Hunting Giant Edible Rats

On a routine monitoring visit in Gulu, I set aside an afternoon for rat hunting deep in the bush with Eric (an MCCer in Hoima) and Robert (a trainer in Gulu). While we were supposed to join a friend of Robert’s at midday, we didn’t leave for rat-hunting until about 3 in the afternoon. Once we arrived at his home, an IDP camp where most of his extended family lives, we realized that plans weren’t as set as we had been led to believe. Robert approached one of his friends and the word began to spread, “these two muzungus wanted to go hunting for rats in the bush, let’s get our spears and go”. Within a few minutes we had about 12 people in the back of the truck—each carrying his weapon of choice including spears, axes and machetes. Scared that others would jump into the truck, drove away quickly. In the rear view mirror I saw a dog jump into the pile of people riding in the back.

We drove down a small dirt road until we came to Robert’s land. Here, in the middle of nowhere, all that could be seen was tall grass and the skeleton of houses burnt by war. We and the dogs jumped out with high expectations for spearing a rat for supper. No one explained to Eric and I how to hunt rats, and if we didn’t keep up with the break-neck speed of the others, we would be lost. In places the grass was 12 feet tall, we couldn’t see more that 5 feet in front of us. Eric turned to me and asked “how are we supposed to see anything in this, let alone aim and spear it?”

About an hour into our voyage into the mysterious grass, I paused. The sun was setting and the earth turning red, the air untouched by industry and rich with nature, a gentle evening breeze cooled our hot bodies, and the grass was an ocean’s shore as we waded deeper and deeper. I was so exposed to mother-nature that I didn’t know whether to feel immense fear of absolute comfort. The feeling that dominated all others was the feeling of total freedom.

As the sun set, the morale and energy for stabbing a rat was dissipating. The guy in front of me pierced the ground with his spear and dug up a massive tuber. After extracting it, he turned around and generously handed me a piece (about 2 kg). Everyone besides Eric and I rapidly skinned the cassava as if they do it in their sleep. Underneath the layers of dirt and tough skin a beautiful white is revealed. Raw cassava is like eating a raw potato, only harder and starchier. I was hungry and gladly ate my piece.

While we didn’t kill a rat for supper, Robert’s wife had prepared one back home. We walked away with a pheasant’s egg and a bonding experience.