I was Mistaken
A quick correction: Uganda is hot! Hahaha, our first few days in Kampala were indeed cool, but once we got to Adjumani, things heated up QUICKLY. I was withering under the equatorial sun. It is so intense on your skin. It also doesn’t help that the cultural norm here is to wear pants everywhere. I blame the British for that one. We have since moved into the Moyo district in Western Uganda, which is up in some stunted mountains. Thus, temperatures have cooled off again :).
What Have We Been Up To? Some Things You May Not Believe
I promised myself that I would make this post more cheery than the last few, which have been somewhat grim. The last few days have been so full that I can’t quite separate all of the events in my head. Here is my best recollection:
After I wrote the post about stars, we went to a refugee settlement for Catholic Mass. Alas, we were so late that we missed Mass. Despite our tardiness, everyone (a few hundred people) was glad to see us. They didn’t hesitate to sit us at the very front of the shelter-church, and make us individually introduce ourselves. If there’s one thing that Africa will weed out of you, it is the fear of public speaking. John asked them if they could play some music for us, for the purpose of getting audio for the film. So, the kid’s choir, the adult choir, and the band gave performances. The band was alive, and prompted the whole congregation to get up and do a highly energetic bout of dancing. I kid you not, there was a 70ish-year-old woman in front of me dancing and shaking a maraca (but the African version) with more vigor than a bartender shaking up James Bond’s martini. I hope some of that footage gets into our film; it was something else. The kids’ performance was heartbreaking. One of their songs sang something like, “Jesus come save me”. That was enough to make me homesick, in a worldly sense as well as a heavenly one. After the hubbub in the shelter-church concluded, some of us set out into the settlement itself to shoot B-roll (shots of the “houses”, of people buying fish in the market, etc.). Of course, describing the settlement would take too much space. I urge you to watch the film when it comes out in order to see our footage of the place.
Monday was a tough day. The day started with us driving to a town along the Uganda-South Sudan border. Our purpose: film the screening process that refugees have to go through once they arrive in Uganda. A family of about 10 walked up to the gate; this was to be our family. They dropped their dusty suitcases, and yielded to the armed guards searching through their stuff. All of their things lay strewn on the ground; I could have fit the entirety of it in one side of my closet back home. As they walked to the health check station, I tried to film this small girl lugging a basket behind her. She caught onto my scheme pretty quickly, and started to move away. I followed. As she glanced over her shoulder, I caught a look of fear on her small face as she struggled to manage her basket while she stumbled away. Still, I followed, until she eventually hid behind her mother’s legs.
I’m struck. What did I just do? This girl, who couldn’t have been over 5, had just run away from a war zone. No shoes. No food. No careless, day-dreamy demeanor that comes with the privilege of not having to worry about death at 5 years old.
And I chased her bare feet across a courtyard of sharp, hot stone, just to get a shot. What the hell…
Things got even better as we moved into the health check room. Women were breast feeding, babies were throwing up food rations (a sign of malnutrition), and health confidentiality documents were being signed; our cameras saw it all. There was a blind man sitting on a bench along the wall, and when I went to film him, his son kept telling me, “He’s blind, he’s blind” in his native language. I didn’t know why he kept telling me this. I walked away. While moving to the next station, our family got to cut in front of everyone else; our film crew had to keep a tight schedule after all, as we had an appointment later that day. We couldn’t afford the time it would have taken our family to wait in line. At station number 3, they got fingerprinted, received soap, received nutritional biscuits (“A Gift from the American People”, was printed on the front. I was actually proud of this) and were on their way. We interviewed them briefly in the courtyard. Mostly, the father looked distant as he answered John’s questions.
“Why did you leave?”
“There was no food, and no money”.
“What do you hope for?”
“To go back home”.
As we were leaving, you could see the booths where incoming refugees could exchange their currency. While my group had been following the family through the checkpoints, John’s group had gone to film near here. Apparently, the moneychangers took a large fee for their invaluable service, effectively draining the pockets of anyone who wandered into their snare. What? What the hell!
Our purpose complete at the border, we then traveled to another settlement, where we visited a school which had been started by a group of South Sudanese Refugee teachers. It looked to be in decent shape infrastructure-wise. However, their student:teacher ratio was about 150:1. Those classrooms, which weren’t more than a chalkboard at the front of a 40 by 30 ft space, felt akin to a subway car in New York City. The school’s library was nothing more than a book case in the corner of the administrative room. I think I owned more Dr. Seuss books as a kid than they had books to teach their 1000 students. I picked up on some frustration among the students and teachers.
On Tuesday, we went to a UN compound to interview officials that worked in refugee education. They were wonderful. They spoke very clearly about the issues-at-hand, which helped me process some of the things that we had been experiencing. It was also nice to see people with such sharp intellect, and such varied nationality, working to address the needs of refugees in Uganda. One was from Uganda, another from Kenya, and another was from Malawi. The woman from Kenya was so smart in fact, when she read our Creighton-lawyer-crafted media release form, she found a few flaws, and insisted that she sign the UN’s version of a media release. That was funny.
After our interviews were over, we said goodbye to Adjumani and drove North for a couple of hours to the city of Moyo. This trip included crossing the Nile on a ferry. Surprisingly, this experience was pretty nonchalant. No-one jumped overboard, and no crocodiles tried to capsize the boat. Indeed, all we saw was water and Hyacinth floating along with the current. The district of Moyo is, in my opinion, much more beautiful than any other part of Uganda that we have seen so far. Like I said, it’s most prominent feature is the little mountains that stand over the Nile. They aren’t huge, perhaps 2000 ft from base to top (?). But they are covered in foliage, and spotted with quaint little boulders. Driving through them, I was starkly reminded of home (Colorado).
RoMoyo, RoMoyo, Where for Art Thou My RoMoyo?
This brings us to this morning. The plan: visit the settlement of Palorinya, home of 150,000 refugees, to get additional B-roll of a refugee settlement. On the bus, John outlined our need for footage that showed the tough situations that weren’t readily visible in the settlement: food insecurity, violence, etc. Before we got to the settlement, we had to stop by another UN compound in order to get final permission to enter the settlement. While there, they informed us that today was the monthly food-distribution day. And thus, we found ourselves amongst the chaos of hundreds of people rushing to get their monthly rations. People would stand in long lines, eventually grab a 50 kg bag of maize (“A gift from the American People”), balance it on their head, and bring it to the sidelines. There, they would split it up, giving some to family members, or selling some in order to buy soap. All of this was done under the direct supervision of the relentless sun. During an interview here, part of our team discovered that some of the food rations were rotten. The unfortunate family that got a bag like this would have to somehow compensate for the lack of food, until the next round of rations came in a month. Talk about food insecurity.
We then returned to our hotel, where I watched Bollywood soap operas for about three hours. They were terrible. I loved it.
The Luck of the Draw
Throughout all of this, I can’t deny how lucky I am to be here. We had to get special government permission to go anywhere near the refugees – at the border, in the settlements. I just saw South Sudan (from a safe distance, Mom and Dad) a few days ago. I saw people walking into Uganda from a place that is in the throes of civil war. I walked the physical steps that a refugee does when they get screened by the UN. This is the work of Nicholas Kristof, a labor that I’ll likely never have the pleasure of doing again. This experience is so unique. I must not forget.
What do you think? Was this post more cheery??
Thank you to everyone who donated to my Uganda Fund, to Grandma, to Mom and Dad. You’ve sent me to another world.