Friday, February 4, 2011

Running on Grace

While mashing a hard boiled egg into honey, I watched images of protesters and smoke gathering in corners of Cairo. As I wrapped my modified breakfast burrito’s bronzed filling into a chapati, Al Jazeera commentators speculated the American agenda in Egypt on the Acholi Ber’s 16 inch monitor. In the hotel’s reception area, which also serves as a parlor outfitted in white plastic patio furniture, the young cleaning girls sauntered in t-shirts handed out by the electoral commission to promote itself and highlight the scheduled dates for voting. Big men visiting Gulu on official business periodically revived their instant coffee with the twirl of a spoon along the edge of their mugs. With the expectation of little change on the horizon, the flickering photos of upheaval and tear gas passed through the morning somnolence as more than a dream of exotic politics.
After scraping the brown splintered shells to the periphery of my plate and stacking my coffee cup and its saucer in the middle, I headed outside to meet our replacement driver for the day. Akra and the 4x4 were mired again in a garage for some new necessary repairs, so we were in need of a special hire to take us an hour outside of town to the village home of Peter, one of the complainants that we are following for the film. After quick negotiations, the driver Samuel and I settled on a fair price. His vehicle was a weathered green Toyota sedan that was missing some interior door handles and rattled on startup. But despite its questionable condition, the car was equipped with one piece of essential hardware dangling from its rearview mirror, a rosary. Automobiles in Uganda don’t advance on the highways by petrol alone, rather they seem to perilously proceed by the power of a religious mantra, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Whether empowered by a drooping plastic Jesus nailed to the cross or a scarf of marbled Islamic prayer beads, the nation’s drivers gather comfort and courage to push forward in the face of the ever present ghosts of failed transport attempts that collect rust along the roads. While religious devotion helps to assure the successful exchange of goods and people throughout the country, its sphere of support is not limited to the upholstered world of motorists. In fact, it's hard to tell any story of this place without some thread of spirituality weaved into the backdrop. For this reason, I attended a Catholic mass with Joella last Sunday to look for a choir group that could help with a soundtrack for the film. Entering the church grounds, parishioners amassed at the doorway to the ecclesiastical edifice and formed brightly colored clusters around the dried grass in the dusty compound. After shimming our way through the crowd at the back of the building, my Texas teammate and I found enough space for two on a bench alongside the pews.
Leading the church service was an old Italian priest who bellowed out the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew. In a raspy, heavily accented voice, the clergyman began, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them," and ended,“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God." During my adolescence in suburban Minnesota, I had heard these promises proclaimed from the pulpits of office building-like houses of worship. At the time, they offered a literary challenge to my youthfully interpreted world, where gratification seemed as essential as breathing and a constant war waged with my older brother over which music would be played in the bedroom. Here, however, the words, like the images of Cairo, were more real than surreal for those gathered indoors. As the priest questioned why members of parliament earn ungodly amounts of money while most in the crowd struggle to purchase sugar and salt, the scripture's offer for the kingdom of heaven seemed a comforting proposition. In a place where the capacity for conflict has not completely ceased, making and maintaining peace is as sacred a task for survival as cultivating the land being resettled. Listening to the Sermon on the Mount, I had a hard time determining if the words had the same empowering impact on the parishioners as Samuel's rosary did on his driving. Regardless of the scripture's motivational direction, Acholi land church leaders are not leaving everything to grace with this upcoming election. The government has mobilized extra troops and tear gas to the region, to which the clergymen have voiced their concerns in the media as well as organized rallies calling for nonviolent voting procedures.
While most expect Uganda's election this Friday to pass without mass upheaval like its fellow dictatorships in the Maghreb, faith and prayers are still being employed from all corners of society to navigate through the possible rough road ahead.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Looking for Health in a Health Center

"When I can't treat my patients because the dispensary doesn't have drugs, it's embarrassing. Even when they can't afford it, I tell them to go buy in the shops because I can't tell them do nothing."

During the two months before the winter break, our crew focused on establishing storylines that depicted how the Right to Health is being voiced in northern Uganda. Over the past few weeks, however, we decided to take a step back in the narrative and shift our attention towards conveying the condition of medical services in government health centers. We toured 3 different levels of care units whose coverage ranged from the district to the parish (about 5 villages). During our visits, we didn't stumble across anything surprising on the surface. Graphically, each center conjured the cliche of African medical staff attempting to work wonders in the midst of empty dispensaries and labs without reagents. Had our film team left the microphone off, we could have easily walked away from these clinical excursions simply preserving the prosaic portrait of the paralytic physician in rural Uganda. But the stories that we actually captured on camera were not motionless; rather, the clinical officers were restless, doing whatever they could to spite doing nothing.

Celestino, Gulu district's public health educator and a medical supervisor at a sub-county health center, reported that he sends more than 50% of his patients outside his facility to look for oral antibiotics. He explained that over the past year drug shortages have worsen as a result of the Ministry of Health reverting back to an old strategy of medication and supply distribution, the "push system." In this scheme, drugs are dispersed from the National Medical Store to health centers every other month based on estimates of what types of cases are expected to be seen during a given period. Health centers are not able to request for medications (the "pull system") or use emergency funds to purchase drugs when they run out. Besides drugs commonly being delivered in inadequate numbers, scheduled delivery dates are often skipped. All of this, plus a large lack funding to the health sector mixed with some corruption, creates the situation where Celestino is forced to send patients away from his facility with only a piece of paper in their hands.

In the US, it sounds completely reasonable that a patient go see a doctor, get a prescription, and then run to a pharmacy to buy the medication. Though common practice throughout Uganda as well, the act of asking a patient to purchase drugs at a private dispensary here often carries the weight of demanding an impoverished subsistence farmer to find funds that are likely nowhere to be found. Celestino tells us that he is embarrassed to be unable to fulfill his role in providing the Right to Health, but he does not stay silent about the problems nor neglect to inform his patients where they can find treatment for a price. He continually files reports to his superiors about the inadequate provisions in his health center, and even though it is rare for anything to be done. The clinical officer is also one of the many believers that patients who become aware of their rights will subsequently become empowered to demand for better services. On camera, he cited the multiple local committees that community members could in theory use to voice their complaints, but after the interview, he admitted to being a little uncertain of his suggestions and asked us what we thought patients ought to do to call for change. We replied that we don't know, but that's why we are making this movie, to learn how others are doing it.

Throughout my stay in Uganda, I have been reminded on multiple occasions that I come from a country where health care is not a right and that it's strange for me to have to come all the way to Uganda to find it. Standing on the steps of his health center, Celestino jogged my memory once again. "It is very hard for me to understand, America goes to tell other countries about protecting rights, but you don't even take care of the most fundamental right. People need health care to live, so if you don't provide it for them, then you don't protect the right to life. Your system is very strange to me."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Introducing Film Crew Generation Deux

The film crew has changed a bit since the new year, so I thought it would be helpful to introduce the next generation of our team.

Though John and Meredith had to return home in December, I was able to sign Akra up for another couple of months as car captain extraordinaire. With our 4x4 fully fixed, he has found a new joy in navigating the rural roads of Northern Uganda. He also has begun sharpening his videographic skills serving as a backup cameraman when needed. Despite being far from his native Buganda, Akra has made quite a home for himself with a small group of other central kingdom transplants now living just outside Gulu town. As always, he gets us where we need to be, and offers the deciding vote when consensus can't be found.

The newest member on the crew is Joella, a budding anthropologist who hails from the great state of Texas. Joella first came to Uganda as an undergraduate student at the University of Notre Dame. Since 2009, she has been teaching at a secondary school in Jinja and spending her free time doing ethnographic work in Acholiland. Besides being our audio maestro, she also serves as the team's linguistic and cultural liaison. Her skill set includes a proficiency of the local language that always gets a laugh from the market vendors as well as a mastery of the Ugandan accent and grammar when speaking to locals in English. At first, I was completely weirded out by the sight of a mzungu girl speaking English that sounds like it's been literally converted on some free translation website, as well as emphasizing her words in a pseudo-sing-songy inflection. I didn't fully appreciate the value of this talent until after 3 failed attempts to have a phone conversation with the assistant District Health Officer in Gulu which ended with "I'm not picking your accent. Can you come meet me to talk?" At the referral hospital earlier this week, a nurse stared blankly at me as I asked for directions to the GYN outpatient department, but then asked Joella why she spoke so clearly. For 3 months, Akra had no idea why we used Purell, even though I had plainly stated in my American cadence that the liquid-gel kills germs and he happily rubbed it into his hands before each Ethiopian meal we ate together. Yesterday, capitalizing on Joella's rare gift, he had her explain the power of the little bottles. The Texan is no stranger to Gulu either, and since she arrived, I have found myself in corners of this town that I never knew existed.

The next generation crew is already off to a good start filming in and out of health centers for the past couple of weeks. We got a lot more to explore, but the big picture is already taking shape.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Nothing Comes Easy Part 4

At Jackson's request we left Juba at 6 AM. A little traumatized from our journey into South Sudan, he was anxious to complete the drive home as soon as possible. We boarded our station wagon steed in the dark, and rattled our way along the white highway as the sun molded into a hazy orange band through the dust clouds. Running low on Sudanese pounds, we tried to fill up on just enough fuel to make it across the border, where our Schillings could finance the rest of the way home. At the Sudanese immigration office, however, we got reports that the town on the other side didn't have petrol stations. So we would have to exchange more cash for pounds and find fuel on this end of the frontier.

A friend recently told me, "In Africa, you don't need money, you just need time. Nothing comes easy here." 30 minutes of bargaining with the currency exchange men on the side of the road led to a fair rate. With local money in hand, we drove to the first gas station down from the immigration office. No fuel. The second station. No fuel. Third station. No fuel. Half way back to the hills, we spotted gas tankers near a tin shed off the main thoroughfare in town. No pumps were in sight, just some boda bodas with funnels sticking out of their sides and a man pouring a dark fluid out of a Jerrycan into their bellies. Reading between the lines, we quenched our thirsty Toyota and then made our way into the no man's land between the border checkpoints.

Back on the red road of Uganda, the ride got bumpier. Still several kilometers from the immigration office, Jackson got spooked by a motorcycle driving towards our station wagon and veered off the road. Heading into a ditch, the car fastened to a boulder. The Gods of the dirt highway continued to loathe us. I'm not sure which one of my fellow travelers recently littered or openly cursed the rutted road, but either way, we were paying for some Odyssian offense. And like the Greek sailor, we refused to be subdued for unknown sins. So with the help of a young boy armed with a machete, we dug out the boulder and set out to sea again.

With Gulu only a hundred kilometers away, safety seemed within our reach, that is if our Toyota's right rear tire didn't fall off. At this point, I was sitting in the backseat, and occasionally out of the corner of my eye, I would see Jackson scrunch up his face and give it a shake. I remember thinking it was a peculiar routine, but he probably was just irritated by all the dust coming through the window or maybe he got struck by some stray bug. Only after dodging death by a tree did we discover that our driver was falling asleep. Margriet happened to be filming at the time and caught everything on tape: (

In the end, destiny demanded that one of us finish what we started. Bjorn had spent 4 months as a driver for a dental services van in Berlin, so we elected him captain. I signed up for pothole patrol. While Bjorn navigated the dusty ridges of the decrepit highway, I would shout out "Pothole left." "Pothole right." "Pothole middle." The German's vehicular virtuosity carried us back to the Acholi Ber, and brought our weekend road trip to a close. Safe and sound, with the 4x4 repaired, it's back to work.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nothing Comes Easy Part 3

After a night of rest, we met the new driver, Jackson, at our hotel's front door around 7 AM. During price negotiations, he admitted to us that his previous chauffeuring record included only driving to the Sudanese border and never actually crossing it. Yet, he was still very excited to take the job, noting that the roads were supposed to be much smoother on the other side. Like the Land Rover, the price was too good to refuse. So despite his lack of a stellar resume, we hired the eager driver to bring us to Juba and back, safely.

Our new steed was a dusty, mid-90's Toyota station wagon, which had probably spent its glory days carting around some family in an East Asian metropolis and now living out its retirement years ferrying foreigners around the bush in East Africa. 20 minutes into our ride, its years of wear and tear became painfully evident by the absence of any shock absorption on the right rear tire. The crushing sound of the car body bouncing against the tire at the end of each pothole that we failed to dodge became so alarming to Bjorn and Margriet that they forced Jackson to pull the station wagon to the side of the road. On examination, the gap between the tire and the fender was dramatically reduced, but Jackson reassured us, "Actually, it's normal. No problem. We go." So we went.
Once across the border, the color of the road changes from red to white. Hills border the landscape, which at times looks like a burnt wasteland. The fields flanking the highway are painted black from recent fires, a strange resonance with the early maps of European explorers who kept the interior of the continent dark on paper until they witnessed it with their own eyes. As buses and lorries passed our timid Toyota, Jackson would use his 6th sense developed as a taxi-man to inch our vehicle along the road until the fog of dust settled again. Besides having to adapt to driving in the clouds, Jackson also had to learn how to drive on the opposite side of the road. And he had a few other unexpected discoveries: the Sudanese roads are actually not that much better than Uganda's, foreign drivers pay a hefty price for the privilege of operating in South Sudan, and the drive from Gulu to Juba is about 8 hours long, not 5. As if these epistemological crises weren't enough for him, Sophie kept his speed and fancy maneuvering in constant check from the back seat.

To keep his spirits in balance, however, Jackson had his music, 3 cassette tapes, which he would play individually on-loop for hours at a time. His collection included a nondescript reggae tape, contemporary African pop music, and Dolly Parton.

As we passed further into South Sudan, its recent past became more evident. Skeletons of military vehicles arched out of the ground near the roadside. As "Just because I'm a woman" squeaked through the raspy car speakers, we came across this shell of a tank moored in the ground.
By night, we met our Dutch anthropology student host, Rens, at the cheapest hotel in Juba, which still cost $30 a night and didn't guarantee running water. With little resources of its own, a heavy presence of foreign NGOs and the UN, along with a dramatic influx of the world's press and celebrities like George Clooney and President Carter , it's easy to understand how Juba's prices could be insanely high for the region. The town was crawling with journalists too. In cafes at night, tables would be full of foreigners, notebooks tucked in their shirt pockets, and cameras strapped to their sides. The referendum, however, was going so smoothly that they had hardly anything to write home. Aspiring to move on to Tunisia, a rookie British journalist evoked the motto, "You go where the story is."

With the world's eye on South Sudan, photographs were highly restricted. My fellow travelers and I tried to wear our badge of tourism with pride, but without press credentials, we had to be careful taking pictures. Nothing too sensitive. When we visited the national monument for Dr. John Garang, the soldiers guarding it immediately scoffed at the idea if even asking to take a photo. Sophie tried to inquire if someone could provide information about the life of the revolutionary or the symbolism behind his monument, but she was shot down, "Only someone from the SPLM office can give you information." The man who led the country to freedom has been memorialized in an outdoor coffin of tile, decorated with framed, oversize photos of himself, surrounded by red and yellow plastic flowers, and topped with a blowup beach-ball globe whose brightly colored nations are labeled in Arabic.

Across the street from the gates of the memorial, we explored a collection of shanties intermixed with market stalls selling all varieties of tobacco products and various sizes and shapes of dried fish. Our expedition through the dirt alley ways led us to a lively little green hookah house, where men, young and old, were gathering around water pipes and amusing themselves with Ethiopian music videos and Michael Jackson blaring from the neighboring shack. They welcomed us each to lounge in a plastic chair next to them. After introductions and declarations of nationality, one young Dinka asked me, "Did you vote?" A bit confused, I responded, "Yes, I vote." He grabbed my hands and scanned my finger tips. "No, you didn't." Then he stretched out his right index finger, stained darker at the end. "I voted."

Through our anthropologist host, we were introduced to many different circles within Juba's social scene. During the long years of civil war, large numbers of South Sudanese children were shipped abroad to be raised in safe and stable environments. Many of them went to the United States, Europe, Australia, and Cuba. While Rens was occupied with his research during the day, his friend Garung, a 6 foot-7 inches tall Dinka with a very thick Australian accent, guided us throughout the city. The first stop on his tour was a traditional Sudanese restaurant. It's probably no surprise that the cuisine is like a hybrid of Egyptian and Ethiopian, wonderfully flavored pastes and sauces that are gathered up in a spongy bread. The menu is a collection of bowls with trinkets and labels. After a dish is chosen, its charm is attached to a block of wood with a nail sticking out of it, and then sent off to the chef.

On the last day of the referendum, we celebrated "Freedom Fever" at the De'Havana Lounge in the center of town. A number of the South Sudanese expatriates returning from abroad have formed a community echoing the Western art, culture, and intellectualism they left behind. After the last votes for the budding nation's independence were cast, we sat in the crowded Cuban-themed bar watching a documentary film about "Transformative Autonomy." Afterward, we danced. The man rocking his head back and forth next to me was a friend of Rens who I had met earlier that day. He had just returned from 9 years of studying in Havana, and now working for an American consulting firm in his native land.
Dangling from his neck was a dog tag with an engraved image. I caught site of the miniature military portrait, and inquired who it was. "It's my father." "Where is he now?" "He died for this." We clinked our bottles, nodded our heads, and moved into the merry making crowd.

The day after the referendum, the SPLM held a celebration event in the capital's culture center. On the back wall of the main stage was written "Festival for the Dawn of Freedom" in red and blue tape. Local music and dance groups praised the peaceful process of separation through rhythmic tones and movements of their heritage. Members from the audience were encouraged to come on stage and put money in the pockets of the performers. A number of the interactive performances inspired the crowd to carryout mass hand waving or a horizontal pulling apart of the arms, symbolic gestures of separation.

The referendum is over, and though the votes haven't been officially tallied yet, independence day is expected to be held in July. Echoing the years of war, the world was back again to observe the South Sudanese. This time, however, the photos could only show the people celebrating their peace.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Nothing Comes Easy Part 2

With our 4x4 on its way to a garage, we hired a taxi in the small town of Karuma, which lies on the Victoria Nile and well known for its gaping falls which shares the same name. As we crossed the river in the dark, we could hear the rush of the water over the rocks and make out a few bent side posts along the bridge where fortunate vehicles were saved from a fatal plunge. During the daytime, white and black colobus monkeys and baboons flank the overpass in search for a snack thrown from bus windows. As we reached the other side, I scanned the trees for any pair of small eyes reflecting our headlights. Exhausted from sitting along the road in the equatorial sun all afternoon, my European counterparts and I kept conversation to a minimum in the car.

Considering the many broken down highways in Uganda, the one from Kampala to Gulu is in very good shape, meaning that it's for the most part paved and has fewer potholes per kilometer than the average. That being said, it still suffers one of the most dangerous characteristics with which all Ugandan thoroughfares are afflicted, the hourglass affect. Though technically cars are supposed to drive on the left side of the road here, in practice, drivers navigate their vehicles wherever the road poses the least damage to them. Thus, when both sides of a street have eroded away, all cars gravitate towards the middle, like sand in an hourglass. If cars traveling in the opposite direction don't time this maneuver to the center just right, it can be a disaster.

About an hour into our drive, the only noise in our taxi was the debate between two local politicians on the radio over the rattle of a loose muffler. Ahead of our car, I saw two pair of headlights coming towards us. I looked down at the road and saw it become an hourglass. I anticipated only another close call, like they always have been. So I turned to look out my front passenger window. A few seconds later, I heard the swish of a lorry passing by, then a brightness began filling our taxi, which forced me to shift my gaze back to the middle of the road. Within a second, the light transformed into a loud scratching noise, mixed with shouting from the back seat, as our car was thrust to the side of the road.

Like birds chirping, all passengers began uttering "Everyone okay, everyone okay?" We stepped out of the car. Margriet's door was bent inwards, the rear wheel was completely destroyed, and Sophie got a sore shoulder, but otherwise no harm done. The van that hit us continued without stopping. Hit and runs are common practice here, especially since so few cars have insurance. Our driver inspected his taxi briefly before flagging down another vehicle to chase down the van responsible for all this. Catching the other driver was his only chance of getting any compensation.

With the driver gone, we 4 mzungus stood in the ditch next to our busted taxi as silhouettes of villagers started collecting on all sides. The van hadn't completely knocked the car off the road, so with the help of 10 local men, we lift the car off the tarmac and onto the dirt rubble. We rang Akra to send us another taxi from Karuma, but a half hour later we got a phone call that the car he had hired was also involved in some incident. At this point a little Toyota 4x4 stopped to check on us. Inside the vehicle was a woman from Germany traveling with her Ugandan husband and a friend. They picked up Sophie and Margriet and brought them to Gulu, while Bjorn and I stayed behind waiting for the second car that Akra had requested for us.

Our party reduced two, the village boys felt a little more comfortable approaching us to play the name game. "What's your name?" "Mike." "Bjorn." "I'm Moses." A handshake and laughter all around. "Mine is Joseph." Again a handshake, and an uproar of giggling from the circle of silhouettes. The older boys would push the younger ones forward, encouraging them to be bold and make a mzungu friend. The little ones would stretch their hand outs, say their names, and then retreat behind their larger colleagues. After 30 minutes of introducing ourselves and reintroducing ourselves, our ride came.

20 kilometers later, we arrived in Gulu and were warmly welcomed by my old friends at the Acholi Ber. A trip that should have taken 4 hours, took 15. Mark, the hotel manager, arranged a new driver to pick us up in the morning. Next stop, Juba...

Nothing Comes Easy Part 1

A loud pop came from below the vehicle. I was immediately shook from being entranced by the flashes of green leaves flickering outside my front seat window. My eyes shifted from the trees to my gyrating knees up my convulsing arm to Akra’s open-mouthed, what-just-happened, keep-it-together face. From the back seat of our newly rented 4x4, the phrase “pull the car over now” was on loop in a forceful female Dutch accent. Smoke started creeping out of the hood and crawling up the driver side window. Akra, his hands rattling in rhythm with the steering wheel, navigated the Land Rover to a halt at the bottom of a hill.

After two weeks of interviews in the capital and jumping through the last vestige of hoops for the Makerere School of Public Health’s IRB committee, I helped organize a weekend pilgrimage to South Sudan to witness the end of the semi-autonomous state’s historic referendum. For the past two months, Mr. and Mrs. M’s children have been on holiday from school making their home a little too crowded for me to have the luxury of my own work space. For this reason, I’ve been opting to stay at a Dutch-run guesthouse on the Catholic hill of Kampala known as Rubaga. The converted mansion serves as a boarding house for volunteers and researchers from around the world, thus appropriately titled International Contact Uganda, or affectionately called the ICU. A nice twist on a dreaded place to wind up in the hospital. Travelers passing through the inn bring with them stories from all over East Africa, and earlier last week we began getting reports from Juba. One visitor, a young Dutch anthropologist who had just returned from the South Sudanese capital, proclaimed, “You can feel the excitement of history in the streets of that city, like the Berlin wall coming down.”

With accounts like his bouncing around the walls of the ICU, a number of us began plotting a brief break from our work to become voyeurs of history being made. My co-conspirators included Bjorn, a German psychology student investigating how being orphaned by AIDS impacts personality development, Sophie, a Dutch international relations student looking into the utility of solar powered water purifiers, and Margriet, the guest house’s manager who last year gave up a directorship at the Ritz in Barcelona to find new challenges for herself in small corners of the world. Sophie and Margriet had a friend working in Juba, a Dutch anthropology grad student, who was glad to host us. After we made arrangements through him, all we needed was a way to get there. That was my job.

For most of its 55 years of existence, the Republic of Sudan has been in civil war. Like most modern conflicts in Africa, it’s no surprise that the seeds for Sudan’s strife were planted deep by its colonialist past. Originally, the British had governed the Arabic North and Christian-predominate South separately. But after World War II, a more unified administrative unit was formed, which centralized power in Khartoum and made Arabic the official language for the English speaking South. At the time of independence, Southern Sudanese leaders were not invited to take part in political negotiations, which in essence replaced the British priorities for the land with those of the North. Subsequently, violence became the voice for Southern autonomy, lead by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) since 1983 and resulting in the world’s longest running civil war with 2.5 million deaths from famine, disease, and causalities.

In 2005, a peace agreement was signed which required a referendum to be held amongst the Southern Sudanese people to determine whether the region should remain united with the North or be an independent nation. It was the final moments of this decisive democratic process that we wanted to witness and to celebrate.

Two days before our departure, I got a great deal on renting a Land Rover for the month through a relative of a friend. Akra and I went to inspect the 4x4 at a compound outside the city. The owner was a chain smoking 60 year old man, whose age was only evident by his dark grey hair, which he kept hidden under a plain black baseball cap. He dressed in a baggy white shirt and pants and had a long gold chain necklace dangling over his chest. His 20 dogs, which all appeared to be some variant of a German shepherd, barked and growled from their chains as we approached the vehicle. It looked to be a model from the last decade, had a little difficulty starting, and rattled a bit more than our Carolla when we took it for a test drive. But with a price one-fourth the going rate, we couldn’t turn it down. In hindsight, I should have been a little more suspicious after its owner felt the need to tell me between each cigarette he smoked, “I would never sell a bum car to a friend of my sister, you can trust me.”

With our semi-dated 4x4 in hand, we were set. The plan was easy. My co-conspirators and I would drive with Akra to Juba. Estimate times for the 400 mile drive were between 10 and 12 hours. After a couple days Akra and I would return to Gulu while the others would bus back from there to Kampala.

3 hours into our trip, we were stranded on the roadside.

After the Land Rover rolled to a stop, we quickly scurried out of it. With smoke still streaming out the right side of the hood, denial kicked in, and we tried to convince ourselves that car was just overheated. Akra popped the hood. We immediately heard the sound of fluid dripping onto a hot pipe and sizzling into smoke. Then through the bowels of the engine, we saw the problem. Parallel with the front axle, there was a bent shaft attached to a round circular disk with two rings, one was broken in half. Bjorn hypothesized that something must haven fallen off from the car back where we heard the loud bang. He set off to find it, while I tried to flag down a car to hitch a ride to the nearest mechanic shop.

The German psychology student walked a quarter mile down the road before he saw a mob of villagers coming towards him. Front and center in the crowd was a man carrying a metal tube the length of a forearm and the shape of a mace. Bjorn immediately turned around and increased his pace back to the car. I was explaining our plight to a good Samaritan who heeded my roadside thumb waving when I noticed the crowd gathering around my fellow foreigners. A middle-aged villager cradling the rusted bludgeon in the folds of his tattered blue button-up shirt claimed that the fractured auto part had struck his neighbor in the head. He demanded that we give him money as compensation for the injury. I refused to pay on the grounds that no injured man could be produced. The good Samaritan, however, took on the role of peace mediator and talked me into giving the man a few thousand schillings (about a dollar) for carrying the metal object back to us. The crowd dispersed and Akra and I caught a ride to the nearest town 5 miles down the road to find a mechanic.

30 minutes later, we returned to the car along with a repairman who brought all his tools in a plastic bucket. He identified the broken part as the damper, which is needed for stabilizing 4 wheel drive vehicles. After only a few seconds under the car, he said, "This is going to be a big job." He wasn't kidding. 6 hours later he had taken off both front wheels, and was still unable to dislodge the other bent half of the damper left attached to the vehicle. Frustrated and still uncertain of where he would even find the spare part, the mechanic gave up his quest for a roadside repair. He estimated that it would take several days for the car to be operational again. After relaying the mechanic's diagnosis and prognosis to the vehicle's owner, Akra elected to stay behind with the Land Rover, while the rest of us would catch a taxi to Gulu, spend the night there and then find another ride to Juba in the morning.

By this point, it was getting dark, and traveling after sundown is something always to be avoided in Uganda. We were only 70 kilometers from Gulu, but it would still be hours before we arrived there...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Following Up a Few Posts from 2010

I'm back in Kampala after two wonderful weeks in Zanzibar. I have plenty of stories from my time in Stone Town and Jambiani beach on the Indian Ocean, but I'll save those for when I return to the States. The holidays were spent with a group of Australian medical students working in the island's major referral hospital. Despite coming from opposite ends of the world, our mutual professional aspirations and clinical culture made Christmas conversation as natural as at home. In Uganda, I'm beginning to reassemble a tiny crew for filming, and have a few interviews in the capital over the next week, after which I should be back Gulu for the following month. As the new year begins, I thought it would be nice to follow up on a few of the stories left incomplete at the end of 2010.

The Eritreans:

Over the past few months, Sehin has slowly been making her way through Central America. A couple of weeks ago, she finally arrived at a camp run by the Mexican immigration department in Chiapas. Her sister Yordanos has periodically been receiving phone calls from her in which Sehin often describes an uncertainty regarding her placement and timing for departure from the camp. After each call, Yordanos would relay to me the number from which her sister phoned with the hope that I might be able to get more information about her sister's whereabouts via a skype call. Until the other day, I was always unsuccessful at reaching Sehin. According to Yordanos, phones are not permitted in her sister's camp, and thus, Sehin has constantly had to rely on the goodwill of a stranger who either legally or illegally has come into possession of one. Two nights ago, I finally spoke to Sehin for a total of five minutes. She hopes to reach Texas by Friday, where after a 6 month journey around the world, she will be greeted by the American immigration authorities and her legal asylum odyssey will begin. Friends and family are on standby to help out when she arrives.

The CT Scan:
P. has is doing well. He has been home for a few months with no noticeable signs that we was ever struck by a car. Having come into the hospital with a Glasgow Coma Scale of 7, his is definitely a success story. He plans to return to work as a teacher this semester.

"Good News, It's Plague"
Well, the mysterious disease has finally been diagnosed, and it's not plague, it's Yellow Fever. To date, 48 people have died from the virus and over 190 have been hospitalized. The Ugandan government would like to carryout a mass vaccination program of the districts affected, covering about 2.5 million people. There is a global shortage of the vaccine, and Cameroon is also dealing with a Yellow Fever outbreak, so the program hasn't started yet. The Ministry of Health estimates that it will take weeks and a lot of money before it can start protecting the people of Northern Uganda against the disease. Some good news, all foreigners are required to get the Yellow Fever vaccine before they can come to East Africa. Though no one has actually ever asked to see the little yellow slip of paper buried somewhere in my backpack, I'm sure glad that I followed those CDC guidelines back in 2007 before my first trip to Uganda.

Raising the Question:
A couple of months ago I purchased a copy of the local Rolling Stone newspaper (no affiliation to the US rock magazine) from a street vendor near Mulago hospital. I felt a bit slimy buying the trashy gazette, plastered with images of Ugandan men in semi-lewd poses, who are being outed as "homosexuals." The paper has the journalistic talent and credibility on par with the National Enquirer, and is full of venomous and hateful remarks regarding gay individuals living in Uganda. It claims that gays were behind the terrorist attacks in Kampala last July, and that are planning on overthrowing. The rhetoric of the paper is eerily reminiscent of propaganda literature from Nazi Germany. I bought a copy of it at the request of a friend back home who wanted a piece of hard evidence demonstrating the plight of gay individuals in Uganda. Though the journal was able to publish several additions of its hate filled messages with photos putting gay men at risk of attack from their neighbors, a Uganda high court just ruled that it is illegal for Rolling Stone to publish the identities of these individuals: Though the proposed law making acts of homosexuality punishable by death is still on hold in Parliament, this court ruling is like an outstretched hand in a crowd of fists.