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.