Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Now, what will they say?

Reason to be hopeful: Finally a decision on "sedition" that makes some sense, and at a good time with elections coming up.

Reason to wring your hands: The issue of "sectarianism." What exactly is it? And why does it seem to be used arbitrarily to reign in multi-party politics? Apparently, the judges don't share my skepticism.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How to get girls at Makerere (warning: this blog includes adult subject matter)

The dinner conversation in a house where people work on issues like rape, commercial sex work and child-trafficking can sometimes be heavy. We used to have a rule based on the occupations of those around the table at the time: no rape, torture or hostage crises after 9pm. We've since moved but still have similarly macabre vocations and now we have a clever 2-year-old at the dining room table with us, so we tend to reserve the rated R topics for after bedtime.

So the last couple of weeks a topic has come up later in the evening that we've had limited information about and then in a moment of genius (read: libation induced inhibition) we decide to randomly poll our friends. This is where "D" dialing meets research. (D stands for dinner dialing, obviously--why? what were you thinking?)

Research topic #1
At a little dinner party, someone was commenting on how depressed I must get hearing so many tragic stories of sexual violence. I brought up something that gives me hope--how much things have changed between what some of my Ugandan male friends grew up with and the way they treat women now. On particularly bad days I try to have lunch with friends that remind me that there are good Acholi men. I told the table about a conversation I'd had with one of them who recounted how his uncles began their marriages, basically, by getting together with their brothers and abducting the girl they fancied when she was on her way to the market or to the well. I asked what he thinks contributed to him having such a drastically different approach to wooing women. "Education," he said. But as we got into it, we realized he meant social education, not actually what he learned in a classroom. "That's not how you get girls at Makerere University," he said. At this point in the conversation, someone, I can't remember who, asked, "how do you get girls at Makerere?" and thus started the poll. Our Ugandan friends all answered with perhaps a brief laugh, and then a tone that was extremely matter-of-fact-- like they had a list of answers that were read- to-hand.

What we discovered:

"There are 2 ways to get girls at Makerere:"
1) Help her with her homework, papers or exams. (if you do poorly, that's too bad for her, but "you will have already gotten what you wanted")
2) Buy her a pizza. ("You'll need a little bit of money. Taker her out for a meal and buy her something she might not normally get for herself like a drink and a pizza. Then she's all yours.")

Then we thought, how different is this from "our" context? (the table included Americans, and an Irishman) So we called our brothers.

What we discovered:
1) Get her drunk. (put more or less delicately depending on the brother)
2) Buy her a nice meal.
3) Impress her with your dance moves. (this may work better if you're a professional dancer)

Actually, wooing University girls doesn't seem all that different, the world over. Impress her. Buy her a meal. Alcohol helps. (I know, sweeping generalizations, but don't forget it's based off of hard evidence and research) We did comment that none of the women at the table were "gotten" in quite this manner, but that might be beside the point. And the point is: pizza is a better way to get a girl than abduction. It's a sign of social progress.

Research topic #2
Ben recently did a consulting gig where he was developing a curriculum that will be used with commercial sex workers. Sometimes it was a challenge to marry the realities of life in Uganda and the philosophies of some of his Dutch advisory group (the Netherlands is known for a very particular view on commercial sex work--think Amsterdam). One example that we discussed over dinner: they (the dutch people) thought the section on sexual and reproductive health needed to include a demonstration of how to put a condom on a man with one's mouth. Hmm. OK, that could be true. Maybe, if that skill leads to more regular use of protection it could be justified. But is that true? Research with commercial sex workers suggests that sexual intercourse is most common, and they rarely perform other sexual acts. So, how relevant is this in this context? Was there any evidence to suggest that a client that is refusing to wear protection would acquiesce if offered an alternative way of putting it on? Thus started the poll.

What we discovered:

1) Yes, Ugandan women do sometimes put condoms on their partners with their mouths.
2) No, if a man is decided he doesn't want to wear one, an offer to spice up how it gets on wouldn't change his mind.

This over speaker phone at the Chinese food restaurant in Gulu. (We don't know how universal this is, because we already used up too much phone credit on international calls in the last poll.) It was actually kind of a depressing topic, but the absurdity of our inquiry brought some light-heartedness to it. Sometimes you have to allow yourself to be entertained by what is actually evidence of our broken state as humanity. Sometimes you just have to laugh, or else you might cry.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Adoption, Nido, Justice & Wooing Women: what I’m not writing about

I showed up today. I did the morning routine. Got a day in front of me with no scheduled distractions, and protecting against the impromptu interruptions. I made a pot of tea. Cleaned off my computer desktop. Minimized all windows of email news sources and decorating ideas for a nursery. I put my phone on silent. I opened up the document called “Justice on the Periphery.” And now I’m staring at it. I start stringing words together hoping that my mind will take a cue from the movement of my fingers on the keyboard and realize it’s time to think insightful articulate orderly thoughts, but it’s not working yet--clearly, since I’m writing this blog instead of an article that MUST be drafted by the end of the month! (my own deadline, not my supervisor’s. Does anyone else have difficulty taking their own deadlines seriously?) If I were at LSE I’d probably grab a couple of fellow PhDers and head across the street for an espresso, a breath of fresh air and share a few ideas—hoping that one would trigger thought flow that lends itself better to prolificness (is that a word?) but I’m in Gulu. Yesterday, I had this fleeting moment of Londonsickness. Since I only lived there one year I’m not sure I’m entitled to call it homesickness, but it was a nostalgic twinge of longing for an upcoming autumn, academic colleagues, a beloved housemate, my parents and sister a train ride away, warm drinks and chilly weather—I even imagined riding on public transportation with no little affection. I comforted myself by appreciating my ability to walk or bodaboda most places I need to go within minutes and how relaxed my spine is when my shoulders are never forced to migrate north to my ears for the winter. I have different sources of inspiration here. I live with some great minds, have friends and colleagues that are willing to let me spew half-baked ideas off of them and of course, I can spend time with the women that are the subjects of my inquiries. Truly, the ability to sit and talk about observations with them is an excellent privilege and, I hope, enlightening to all of us involved in the conversation. This is the part where I should write some sort of resolution, how I overcame my mental hurdles. But I’m at a loss for words, so instead, I promise to keep showing up, to get back to writing after I post this and I invite your suggestions.

I know, I’ve blogged twice about difficulty writing, and I promise I’ll move on to more interesting topics—as soon as I can get myself writing instead of writing about writing (which I realize is kind of taboo, but I figure it’s not all bad since the creative process is something that most of us struggle with to some extent in our life’s work—so hopefully you can resonate and maybe even help me). I do have a few blogs brewing, like “how to get girls at Makerere University” (don’t worry, it won’t be based on my own experience or Ben’s) and how Nido (powdered milk) could spell the tragic downfall of our commune, or my rookie thoughts on mommy blogging (did you notice that I now follow a blog called “rage against the minivan” hah. the transformation is occurring…) and sensitive ethical questions about adoption. In other news: there was an election in Rwanda yesterday, there have been several notable developments in international law, Kenya voted on a new constitution, and Uganda is taking a public holiday tomorrow in honour of a former president who died last week. I won’t be taking a holiday. I will write. I will.

(an update: I wrote this earlier today, and did actually get some decent writing done between then and now, but when I was really getting into the groove I had an interruption. A good friend was in a car accident. Kind of puts life in perspective. I didn't have details for the first hour or so and that was a prayer-filled very long hour. But a visit to the hospital and assurance that a lot of sleep-inducing silly-making pain killers for the next few days and then the patience to let a few broken ribs heal is what the doctor's ordered was a big relief. He's going to be Ok.)

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

How I really spend my life

I have some internal angst about the title of our blog. It feels misleading. I've been staring at a computer screen all day today. It occurred to me, when i looked at the top of this page, that if the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives then maybe I spend my life staring at a machine. I'd like to say, that most of the time with this Apple in my lap I'm writing what will be a brilliant article or chapter in my thesis that will also somehow fantastically transform lives of women who've suffered sexual violence, but actually--if I'm really honest, maybe, I spend my life procrastinating. That's an awful thought. Mostly because I'm afraid of how true it might be. I cleverly justify it as waiting for the next moment of inspiration while checking email, FB, followed blogs, news and journal sites for the umpteenth time. (Of course, these days I have a happy reason to put off serious writing that feels equally if not more important, but I'll save that for another blog). I had a really good week recently. Early morning yoga, a couple of good cups of coffee, and a solid block of no internet--just writing until lunch. After lunch either some editing or out in my second research site interviewing women and getting more inspired, having examples and quotes that I'd weave into the next day's session. I'd come home just in time for dinner with the commune-ers. And I thought, this is so much better than wasting time and feeling guilty for not accomplishing enough, and then I got distracted again. It's not that days like that are unusual, they're just not consistent. Seems everyday has that potential, but I've got a limited, though hopefully expanding capacity for it.

I'm such an amateur and I want to get better. I need to get better. and I think I could really like this, this process of transforming thought onto the page, and then conversely, what is on the page begins to mold my nebulous ideas into more focused observations.

It brings up good things for me. I mean, it brings up some pretty silly things that I wish I could rip out of the notepad of my soul, crumple up and throw away. But it's healthy to work through it--the indiscipline, the fear of failure, the desire to prove something--I'm not even sure to who. maybe myself, maybe you, potential readers. Sometimes I have these exquisite moments, even hours and once in awhile, days when I don't live there. I find myself writing from this place that is centered, where what is expressed somehow deletes my smallness, my ego, from the equation and it is about the idea that is part of something much greater and much more important. It's a tiny contribution to that greatness but the awareness of just how small my part is, is somehow freeing. Inspiring. It doesn't feel very academic. and then I wonder whether it'll work. Are there enough citations? have I engaged 'the literature' as if that's some stack of books and articles that is finite and knowable? Is my writing style too colloquial? or have I over-compensated for my casual voice by throwing in a bunch of barely understandable jargon-filled run-on sentences? or the most terrifying question: is what I have to say worthwhile? the questions kind of kill the creative, centered inspired moments. What I produce during those moments is so much more honoring to the experiences of women who are the subject of my research, and I enjoy writing so much more.

Sometimes though, I don't want to write. And I weary of my own walls. And I want to run outside and spend more of my life like this: