Footnotes from the British Underground

This blog began as venue for my stories as I traveled in Africa. 18 months later, I return to it as I travel to study as a Marshall Scholar in the United Kingdom. My hope is that this blog can be a conduit for you - my family, friends and secret/strange admirers - to track my movements, see a photo or two and get a glimpse of my days in the UK. Apologies once again to Dostoevsky for the blog's name...

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Location: Bradford, United Kingdom

After graduating from Notre Dame, I'm off to England for graduate study. I'll be studying for a M.A. in International Politics and Security Studies. When not studying, I'm continuing to coordinate Uganda-CAN's efforts to end the 20-year war in northern Uganda!

27.2.05

A Week of Horror, Beauty and Damn Ugly Warthogs

After a week sojourn to Rwanda and western Uganda, I am back in Kampala. The last week has been emotionally and physically intense, but it was a very exciting and thrilling ride. After four weeks in East Africa, I find myself in a sober malaise of horror, joy, happiness and longing. As I told someone before leaving, the one certainly of this trip was that I would be constantly provoked. Well, the experience has certainly not been disappointing in that regard.

Our trip began with a stay in Mbarara, a city in southwest Uganda, where we visited a large Ugandan farm - saw how matookye is grown, milked cows and ate fresh beef on a stick. The beef was godly. We then crossed the border into Rwanda, the so-called "land of milk and honey." The biggest surprise of Rwanda was its immense beauty. We drove through enormous green hills with hillside farming and tea fields. The land was breathtaking. And then Kigali was also strikingly beautiful as a city. It truly is a "city upon a hill" as the main center of the city wraps around a hill. The temperature is much cooler, the roads are more organized and there is much less crime. All of us could not get over how beautiful Rwanda is, especially given its dark history just 10 years ago.

While I was struck by the beauty of Rwanda, I also found it to be quite a haunted land. Passing every person on the street, I could not help but wonder at the deeply disturbing and profound stories that each person much hold inside. We visited the Kigali Memorial Museum, a museum dedicated to educating about the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The images are horrifying - children slaughtered with machetes, dogs eating piles of corpses, a baby breastfeeding her dead mother, endless skulls and bones, a silent international community, churches full of corpses because pastors participated in the genocide and so much more. It was hard to keep looking and reading. The history of the genocide is truly awful. In the early 20th century, the Belgian colonizers accentuated and pushed ethnic divisions by using the minority Tutsis as colonial rulers. Then, over the next 50 years, the Tutsis and Hutus were pitted against each other by the European and Christian colonizer-missionaries. Thus, conflict ensued, leaving hundreds of thousands displaced as refugees over two decades. By 1994, genocide was inevitable as the propaganda machines and political powermongers worked within the constructed ethnic divide to see the deterioration of a society and the attempted demolition of the Tutsi people. The international community, especially the French and US, hindered UN action, so the world watched as over 800,000 were killed in under 90 days, mainly through machetes. If you want to read more about the genocide, I recommend Philip Gourevitch's book: "We regret to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: stories from Rwanda" or see the movie Hotel Rwanda.

It is chilling and overwhelming to accept the monstrous capacity that lies within humans to kill, exploit, rape and murder. Yet, we must be conscious that such a capacity comes alive when put in certain circumstances of politicized ethnic divison, poverty, corruption and lack of rule of law. The genocide in Rwanda is the result of a dark history of mistakes and misperceptions. Now we who live on are charged with remembering and learning from the mistakes. We proclaim 'never again,' even as genocide threatens in Darfur in the Sudan. Yet, our reponse to such horror must be to commit ourselves to learning and ensuring with all our power (especially those of us in priveleged positions) that it never happens again. But that requires us to realize and learn from the processes that gave rise to the genocidal acts - namely colonialism in this case. So when we vow 'never again,' we must commit to fighting the neo-colonial structures of injustice and inequity that continue to polarize and marginalize African and third-world countries, setting the stage for future horrors, unrest and mass killings. We need to stop development aid and projects that only entrench structures of colonialism, especially dependency. I intend to write more in future postings and in a forthcoming column for the Observer.

To be honest, I am becoming disillusioned with foreign development projects labeled in language of development as 'help' or even 'aid.' Many of these projects only suppress autonomy and tradition and culture, perpetuating structures of injustice, corruption, dependency and inequity. Foreign development aid should exist and even be higher, but we should be speaking about 'development as redress' for past injustices and exploitation that have created current situations of little hope and much fear. The real development occurs in transparent, democratic, participatory, grassroots, gender-aware projects initiated from within by local people who use local knowledge to attack the problems they identity. The language and assumptions of 'development' are quite flawed. And in the case of Africa, there is a strong case to be made for borders to be redrawn by the people here, throwing off the chains and borders constructed by colonialism and neo-colonialism. More on all this later.

After Rwanda, we returned to Mbarara, to meet with NGOs, including the Ugandan Red Cross Society that is doing great, challenging work in refugee camps for Rwandese and Congolese refugees. We also went to a rural development project that is bringing traditional healing methods and Western practices together to maintain tradition and culture, while acknowledging modern information. Quite impressive. Our group is fascinating, too, because everyone comes at things from different perspectives, area of expertise, etc. It is good to be hear and I am learning so much.

Finally, we visited Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda, home to 1/6 of the species of birds in the world. We went on a boat ride and game drive, where we saw elephants, lions, hippos, antelope, monkeys, tons of birds, warthogs (perhaps the ugliest animals ever) and more. It was really cool, minus my nightmares of warthogs attacking me.

So, I am back here in Uganda, read to return to classes at Makerere. I am in good health and hope to remain so, God willing. 4 weeks down here in East Africa. Cheers across the continents.

19.2.05

Ending Week 3 - Small Victories and Constitutional Crisis

And so week three in Kampala draws to a close for this traveler-dreamer. In the classroom, I have been learning a great deal on the macro-level about Uganda - the education system, its constitution of 1995, the tension of federalism between a national government and more than 50 ethnic kingdoms, the healthcare challenges, development theories (modernization, dependency and now-popular neo-liberalism), the history of colonialism and more. Outside of the classroom, things have been on a much more micro level, and it really is these "small" moments and experiences that I will take away much more than any grand political or economic analysis. This week, there have been small victories - learning to enoy the pit latrine, taking an effective bath using just my hands and a bucket of water, getting better at handwashing my clothes, knowing the insane taxi system, actually looking forward to a dinner of matokye and beating my brothers in endless card games of Go-Fish when the power goes out. That is not to say these days are easy, for they are mentally exhausting, but to say that I am finding my place here in Uganda. At least sorta. I have a tendency to always "think big" (or as Jess tells me - I'm a macro person), so it is good to be present to these "little" moments and activities that are powerful learning experiences in themselves.

While my hands and back would beg to differ, I am really learning a lot from washing my own clothes. I am learning how disconnected I can be at home from basic things in life - food, clothing, shelter, electricity - things that we take for granted all the time. We eat, wash and do so many basic things without realizing the very intense processes and energy that provide these things for us. Here, without the luxuries of packaged foods, washing machines and showers, the Ugandan people have to put much more energy and time into these basic activities. Yet, there is something very humane and rewarding about seeing where things come from and not being "disconnected" from these basic necessities. In many parts of the world, people believe that food should be eaten with hands to savor and enjoy it more. I thought this was foolish when I first heard it, but I am now starting to believe there might be a truth there. Those of us who are from the privileged classes of the "developed" world can learn a lot from being more conscious of the very simple things that make up our lives.

Returning to the macro level, there is a raging debate here (called the kisanja debate) over a governmental White Paper that seeks to make certain constitutional changes, including allowing for presidents to serve more than two terms. President Youweri Museveni, president for 19 years now (two official terms after the 1995 constitution) is pushing for the "third term" change to happen. Yet, many are avidly against this because they believe such a change will hinder democracy and rule of law in a polity that is already deteriorating due to corruption and lack of transparency. Since the 1995 constitution, Uganda has yet to have a "transitional" moment with a peaceful change of power. Parliament is currently debating this White Paper, yet there are many pressures from the Executive Office for it to pass. As part of my research, I will be exploring this issue, so I will write about it more in depth soon. However, I wanted to note it here because it is the dominant issue in Ugandan news. It is also connected to the Northern conflict because Museveni seems to suggest that he is the only president that can bring peace to the north (that is certainly debatable given his failure over 19 years). Yet, others see his presidency as contributing to an ethnic divide that fuels the conflict. So, there is a long history and many intricacies here, but it seems to me that a Museveni third term would be a major defeat for constitutionalism, democracy and political development in Uganda. So, more to come on it.

Well, our group heads for Kigali, Rwanda tomorrow. I am sure I will have lots of reflections when I return from a week in Rwanda and western Uganda. Weraba!

"Break Your Heart of Darkness" - Student Newspaper column

The following is a column that I just wrote for The Observer, the student newspaper at Notre Dame. It will be published next Wednesday. It was quite a hassle to get this one written and sent off through email. The first time I wrote it, it was lost as the power went out for half of Kampala. That was okay because I got to talk with an exiled Congolese journalist while we waited for power to return. So it goes in Uganda. Well, the title is "Break Your Heart of Darkness"...

“The horror, the horror.” These famous final words from Joseph Conrad’s disturbing novella Heart of Darkness are some of the most misunderstood and misquoted in history. In light of multiple appalling human tragedies in contemporary African history – genocide in Rwanda, civil war in Congo and apartheid in South Africa to name a few – we have come to see “the horror” as synonymous with African barbarity. Yet, this mistake is not only a gross misreading of Conrad, but symptomatic of a naïve, racist world vision.

Conrad’s novella is the story of a savvy businessman who, upon entering colonial Africa, turns into a cannibalistic, violent dictator who adorns his home with severed black heads. It is a horrific tale based on the savage colonialism that Conrad himself witnessed in the Congo region. On one level, it shows the monstrous capacity that lies within all of us, placed in certain circumstances, to enslave, exploit and kill. On another level, it is a narrative of the brutal structures of colonialism that continue to haunt the African continent.

I now find myself upon that very continent, braving stifling heat and less-than-reliable Internet cafes to write this column. I am in Kampala, Uganda, studying development studies and the Lugandan language at Makerere University. I am studying here through the School for International Training, an academic institution that believes in global exchange to build cross-cultural competencies.

When most of us think about Africa, we are restricted to the headlines and short stories that occasionally grace the mainstream Western media. As a result, we know Africa as a place of wars, genocides, AIDS, diseases, corruption and perhaps exotic wildlife. Even such stories, however, take a backseat to more important news like the Michael Jackson trial.

There are two great dangers with limiting our knowledge of Africa to 30-second clips on CNN or 500-word New York Times articles. The first is that we miss the humanity that lives, loves, dreams, fears and works on this continent – a people of complex religions, cultures, traditions, social norms, economic and political systems. The second is that we lump the whole continent – a massive land of more than fifty nations, hundreds of ethnicities and thousands of languages – together as one unit.

In just three weeks, I have found the people of Kampala to be a people of friendliness, vitality, innovation and education. In terms of education, it has been amazing to hear how much Ugandans know about world affairs, especially those of the United States. One man explained the American electoral college system to me better than any Notre Dame political science professor. It is eye opening to realize how much the rest of the world knows about and is impacted by the slightest decisions in Washington.

Uganda itself is a fascinating East African country, called “the pearl of Africa” by the late Winston Churchill. It is made up of more than 50 ethnic tribes, consolidated violently by their British colonizers at the end of the 19th Century. The country has three main religious groups – Catholics, Muslims and Protestants. Uganda received independence in 1962, followed by two tragic decades of civil strife and authoritarian dictatorships. In the last two decades, there has been peace and economic growth in the south, while an ugly, deadly civil conflict has raged in the northern regions. Dealing with that conflict, massive poverty and constitutional issues, the people of Uganda face an uncertain future.

While it is important to not brood simply on the problems facing African communities, it is equally important to not ignore them. The challenge however is to place these problems in their appropriate context, especially given influential historical processes. In the case of Africa, the vicious legacy of colonialism continues to destroy communities. Corrupt, inept governments of nepotism and authoritarianism arose from the colonial experience. The imposition of arbitrary borders has perpetuated civil conflicts, many of which have and will approach genocide. The “dependency” dynamic of colonialism continues to affect people, embedding systems of poverty, inequality and xenophobia.

Today, forces of neo-colonialism compound the horrific legacy of colonialism. Such forces include unfair trade agreements from the West that create greater inequality between nations. Further, the Bretton Woods institutions – IMF, World Bank and WTO – promote liberalizing “structural adjustment” programs that foster inequity, disable state social welfare mechanisms and push many countries deep into the abyss of debt. In many cases, humanitarian and other organizations, consciously or not, are promoting structures of “dependency” that entrench colonial attitudes and norms.

Certainly much more could be written about the challenges and opportunities facing modern Africa, not to mention those facing each country and community. In forthcoming columns this semester, I intend to explore some of these challenges and opportunities, especially in the case of Uganda.

The challenge for all of us is to overcome our preconceived and ignorant generalizations about people from different lands and backgrounds. Throughout much of the world, the United States is increasingly becoming alienated from the rest of the world community, which perceives post-9-11 U.S. foreign policy as an imposing hegemonic force. So much good would come from a commitment to listening to and learning from the rest of the world. In doing so, we would not only heal countless global wounds, but break our hearts of darkness that continue to assent to a world of division, injustice and mass suffering.

14.2.05

Happy Valentine's Day - Don't Forget Northern Uganda

Today, we had a lecture on the civil conflict in Northern Uganda, in the Gulu, Paeler, Lango and Kitgumu regions. As I mentioned in my last post, the civil strife is horrific - leaving thousands killed and hundreds of thousands in IDP camps that are stricken with violence, disease and poverty. Perhaps one of the most atrocious situations in all of the world. The conflict is only compounded by mass numbers of child abductions (kids are forced to watch their families die or kill their families and then are forced into the rebel groups), rapes and slaughter. Yet, this conflict has received meager coverage in mainstream Western media.

The civil conflict has been raging since 1986 when current President Museveni and the National Resistance Movement gained power, pushing the Acholi (northern ethnic group) soldiers back to the northern border between Uganda and Sudan. Since then, a north-south conflict ensued as Museveni walked out of peace talks and his army attacked the northern villages. The remnants of the northern soldiers formed the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group at the helm of the violence. This was all intensified by Cold War tensions (enter foreign military donors for both sides) and subsequent Western-Islamic tensions in recent years. The funding of the LRA by the Sudanese government in Khartoum has only added immense fuel to the conflict, providing weapons that the LRA might make the north "ungovernable," challenging Museveni's power. Museveni, aided by a number of sources, has let politics get in the way of real peace. He has continually backed out of agreements, thus leading to the deterioration of any trust. After 18 years, the conflict continues on with a gross human cost.

This an oversimplified understanding of the conflict, but it is critical to contextualize such gross occurences. There is a tendency to see Africa as the "heart of darkness" (a gross misreading and misquoting of Conrad by the way), but the reality is that events are a result of complex politico-socio-economic forces (i.e. colonialism and neo-colonialism). Such context also gives us a framework to look and work for peace prospects.

As for peace prospects, there are some. The north-south peace in Sudan is a hopeful sign, and the LRA seems anxious for peace talks. Yet, Museveni's constitutional coup d'etat (to be described in a forthcoming post) is not helping build trust. Let's hope peace might come soon, though. I am thinking about doing my research project on the nexus of constitutionalism and peace in Northern Uganda.

In other news, nothing major to report on. I learned how to cut and eat sugar cane and jackfruit yesterday. I also saw Ndere Troupe, a traditional music and dance performance - quite awesome.

So, Happy Valentine's Day. Let's celebrate love, but not forget those in the northern IDP camps who have not had a peaceful night in 18 years. Perspective is a curse, but also a liberation.

What if God was one of us? - First Mass E-Update from Kampala

Bannyabo ne Baseebo (ladies and gentlemen) ne Friends ne Poet-Warriors ne Philosopher-Kings ne Radical-Socialites ne Family,

Cheers from Kampala, Uganda - rightly named the "pearl of Africa" by the late less-than-humanitarian PM Winston Churchill. Or as we say here in Kampala: oli otya? I wonder how all of you are, whether this email finds you in the shadow of the all-powerful Vatican, the darkness of Northern Indiana, the delta of the Nile, the grassy knolls of Massachusetts or wherever you are.

There is a major emphasis on greeting in Ugandan culture (people in some parts of the country spend over 10 minutes with formal greetings when they see each other), so I'd feel wrong to not greet you all to kick-off this e-update. Obulamu? Mugambaki? Mawulire ki? Ki Kati? How's life? What do you say? Any news? What's up? Though I have only limited email access, I would love to hear what what you're up to in these early days of 2005.

So, I have now been in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, for almost two weeks. It is difficult to describe this city, but certain images, smells and sights stand out. The streets are packed with taxis (large white-blue vans that drive with madness and pack 14-16 people into cars meant for 11 or 12), boda-bodas (little motorcycles), loads of dust, street preachers waving their hands and bibles, with enormous colorful birds hovering overhead. The streets are lined with mosques, churches, seemingly out-of-place investment banks, crowded markets, fruit and newspaper sellers and slum areas. All of this placed in the context of massive heat, friendly people, loud African hip-hop music and those damn big birds. I cannot get over the size of the birds here.

I am in Kampala studying with the School for International Training, a study abroad program operating in "developing" countries to build cross-cultural competencies and a greater consciousness of global citizenship. My group (16 students from the U.S., Albania and India), is studying Luganda (the local language in Buganda - the southern Kingdom of Uganda; there are over 50 ethnic tribes in Uganda) and development studies at Makerere University, the so-called Harvard of Uganda (there are only 14 universities in the country). During our first week of orientation, we visited the source of the Nile River, which was awe-inspiring. Now, we study at the university for half of the semester, make group excursions to Rwanda, western Uganda and eastern Uganda, and finally spend the last 6 weeks doing an independent study project that we design and produce. At the moment, I am thinking about doing something that looks at issues of governance, corruption, constitutionalism and minority political representation on both national and local levels.

Our education also includes living for the first half of the program with a local Ugandan family. Luckily, I am living with the same family that my friend Michael stayed with when he was here a year ago. I live in a district of Kampala called Kansanga. My Uganda taata is a local councillor, is finishing his masters in international affairs and is going to run for Parliament next year. My Ugandan maama works for a local bank. I have five brothers (Grace, Nico, Steven, Thomas and Joseph), and one sister (Emma). They're great, and we have a lot of fun sitting around talking, eating pineapple (to die for), watching random movies (yes, Coyote Ugly last night) when the power doesn't go out (it's out every-other night) and working on my Luganda. I have especially gotten close to Nico, who is studying law at Makerere University. My family, like many Ugandans, are very interested in politics, so we have great discussions at night. Living in a Ugandan home has been both the best and most challenging part thusfar - learning to eat matokye (the staple food) every night, literally living right next to hundreds of chickens, going the bathroom in a pit latrine and more.

The story of Uganda is a very complex and interesting one, both tragic and triumphant. In the late 1800s, Uganda was colonized by the British, who like all of the European powers who "scrambled" for Africa's resources during the 19th Century, carved out the borders for modern countries in Uganda with little respect for ethnic divisions. In 1962, Uganda won its independence, but fell into a brutal cycle of corrupt oligarchical regimes that stunted economic and political development. The first major leader was Milton Obote, followed by a military coup d'etat by the famous Idi Amin, who terrorized the population for most of the 1970s under a military junta (not unlike what is happening right now in Burma), leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Following Amin's removal from power, Obote returned and brought a new wave of violence, but was overthrown by the NRM in 1986, led by current President Youweri Museveni. Museveni brought about the 1995 constitution and has brought stability/growth/peace to most of Uganda with his No-Party Movement (one-party state), but now he is trying to change the constitution to allow himself to serve a third term as president (the constitution only allows for two terms). The result is a major debate in Parliament right now over this and other constitutional issues. Added to this oversimplified look at the political history, there has been an awful civil war raging in Northern Uganda for over 17 years, with the Lord's Resistance Army rebels abducting children, raping women and terrorizing villages (there are more than 1.5 million Ugandans in internally-displaced peoples camps as a result). The UN considers it one of the worst humanitarian situations in the world.

After two weeks here, the dominant general lesson I have learned is how those of us privileged in the "developed" world tend to generalize and know very little about the "developing" world, especially Africa, a continent of tens of countries and thousands of ethnicities that we lump together as one unit. We know these places as scary centers for disease, AIDS and wars, which makes sense if we simply follow the headlines in major media sources. The reality, though, is that there are a people here with complex history, political systems, religions, culture, music (wicked good) and social networks. The challenge, I think, is to overcome these seeming barriers to humanize people and peoples beyond our headlines and fears. That is what SIT is all about - being part of an conscious movement to develop a language of cross-cultural competency that allows us to awaken to the political, social and human connections that exist all over the world. This awareness helps us to understand the way in which actions and policies in one country deeply affect others. Needless to say, it is great to be here and learning from this program.

Once again, I have fallen short of being concise, but there is so much to write about after just two weeks. To avoid flooding your mailboxes with long emails, I am probably only going to send out monthly email updates, but I am also trying (less-than-successfully so far) to keep up a weblog at www.peterquaranto.blogspot.com . When I get the chance, I will post some photos online too.

Every day here brings new surprises. Just yesterday when I got in a taxi to go home for the night, the song 'What if God was one of us?' from the early 90s was playing on the radio. All I could do was laugh and smile.

Hope your smiling wherever this email finds you. Siiba bulungi!

6.2.05

Muli mutya? - First days in Kampala

How to capture the many images, sounds, smells and scenes of my first week in Kampala, Uganda? There are far too many limits to the capacity of language to describe human experience. Yet, certain words and phrases stand out: big birds, dirt roads, stifling heat, smiles, colorful clothing, traffic, investment banking buildings, slums, black faces, green, spiders, waterfalls, hills, boda-bodas, taxis, markets, music, dancing, mosques, churches, cathedrals and so much more. These first days in Kampala have been overwhelming, and yet so full. The people here are beautiful and amazingly friendly. There is a tendency in the West to see Africans as simpletons, but I have found the complete opposite: a rich, complex, thoughtful culture. Yet, so much remains a mystery to me. I anxiously await the unfolding mystery that is Uganda - discoveries that lie ahead in my journey over the coming months.

I am here studying with the School for International Training, a study abroad program for university students that believes in creating cross-cultural competencies and global citizenship. Thus, we are immersed in a developing country to experience the culture, the people, the politics and the economics. This particular program in Uganda focuses on development studies: political, economic and social development with a particular focus on participatory, grassroots approaches. We will be taking classes on the language, development theory and practice at Makerere University here in Kampala, followed by a practicum of six weeks where we will intern with an organization and write a research report on some element of development theory/practice. It is an intense program, but quite thoughtful.

Our first days have been packed with classes on the language, the city, social etiquette and the culture. Yesterday, we traveled to Jinja, an industrial city to the north of Kampala, that is home to the source of the Nile. It was a moving and awe-inspiring experience to sit at the source of the Nile, a river that runs through the heart of Uganda, Sudan and Egypt, flowing into the Mediterranean Sea. I am left struck by the awesomeness of our world, of nature and of humanity. When you think about it, it is so beautifully complex and diverse. Of course, such wonder is tempered by a sense of horror at how we abuse, kill, exploit and rape one another amidst such awesomeness.

And that is what I hope to explore in the coming days and months - the tension between the awesomeness and the horror. I will write more in the days ahead as I walk many more miles here in East Africa. Cheers to all of you around the world.