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