Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pembleton, fetch my quill. I wish to lend form to my musings.

Here on the equator, the rising and setting of the sun happens at very specific times. There is no deviation from this, as in America with the changing of the seasons, there is simply the inexorable march of the suns rise at 7am and its set at 7pm. This… constancy, is most reassuring; it swells my heart with supine fortitude to see such magnitude of reliability. One must take these small measures of respite, because everything else here, even the fuel deliveries, have as much order and planning as a Red Sox world series victory riot. Go Sox.

There are certain things in Uganda that are quite maddening to a mind that craves order and logic. Like the sense of time here. Actually, I take that back, it is not the “sense” of time (for which more effort will be expended later to describe), it is the telling of time. In Teso, the day begins at 7am, which they call hour 1. The day ends at 7pm, which they also call hour 1. The entire method of telling time has been phase shifted by 6 hours. 7(US)=1(African), 8=2, 9=3, and it continues on a 12 hour cycle. A common way of determining what time it is, is by staring at the sun and guessing, despite the prevalence of cell phones with those fancy time pieces.

But there are other things which I wish to pontificate on. For instance, ‘clubbin’ is a most popular activity here. Every Friday and Saturday night the youth of Soroti (youth in Uganda goes up to 30 years old) flock to the night club “Trendz” for an pleasant evening of beverage consumption and mating dances. The musical selection in an eclectic blend of local, and national singles like “Stamina“, but also such American gems as “do you believe in life after love” by Cher. It is easy to see why the youth jump headlong off the cliffs of love when they catch sight of their female counterparts dolled up after a day in the fields farming cassava, dancing in front of a wall mirror while the disco ball projects shards of light in to their hair extensions and bedazzled jeans with Obama’s face printed on the knee.

Call me old-fashioned (which would be very lovely right now but bartenders only know how to open bottles most places), but I still like the muzungu women, and I have figured out why: they know sarcasm like the back of a starbucks double mocha venti with half-calf no foam, they speak at an audible level, and they have more hairstyles than shaved, or braided extensions.

Another gem of culture has been unearthed here as well: the never ending homebrew called “Ajon”, which is drunk in an “Ajon Circle“. It is fermented from millet in a jerry can for 1 week, mixed with very hot water in a large pot, and consumed by as many people can fit around the pot using elongated bio filtering flow regulators (a big ass straw with a filter on the end to keep the solid parts out). When the pot runs low, more water is added, and when it gets low again more millet is added, and so it goes. Drinking the effluent from this eternal booze spring can last for an hour… or 6, and is typically only consumed on days whose name ends in y. Sitting around one such circle last Sunday, I realized that the American cultural practice of drinking all day long is exactly like the Ugandan one, there are just less xbox achievements and the beer is intentionally warm. Another difference though is that the Ajon is actually very nutritious. Being made from millet, a grain that is good for the body, you can drink your dinner and still maintain a healthy lifestyle. And so the locals have readily accepted my treatise on the value of things, reproduced below:

Ajon has food value, but food doesn’t have Ajon value.

Drinking Ajon is always a very social affair, sitting outside under a large tree for shade in an otherwise empty plain somewhere deep in the village (boondocks for us). It is there that the consequences of a common Ugandan practice become most striking. In the east, the landscape is most similar to the Lion King and stereotypical Serengeti plainscapes; Vast swathes of plains are punctuated by the appearance of a genuinely gargantuan mango tree. These trees are seen by the local people a great resource for one of their most common business practices: burning bricks. What is most visceral to me is the gross inefficiency and lack of foresight in the use of these leviathan pieces of timber for firing bricks for houses. Something approaching “feeling” creeps in to my heart when I look at the stump of a former mango tree 12 feet in diameter and I see the disused pile of bricks it was cut down to fire laying fallow in the field next to the sun cooked stump.

But such moments of humanity and empathy are rare and easily forgotten. This past weekend, after 3 weeks of very nearly reaching a slightly taxing level of work, I took a vacation.

I, along with 6 other eastern volunteers went to the mountain retreat village of Sipi Falls. Located in the Mt. Elgon region near Mbale, Sipi Falls contains Ugandas largest waterfall, and two others, all visible from the slope of the mountain valley where the lodge was built. After staying the night in the lodge, one of the proprietors became our hiking guide to all the falls. The closest waterfall is viewed from the top by decks and terraces built in to the side of the cliff next to the falls. The water disappears in to the forest and mist below and brings unbidden to the mind thoughts of Avatar and its floating islands being in this spot, if any, on Earth.

The next fall was further up, and after hiking behind it, then up the wall beside it, we found the top… where people were doing their laundry in the river and minding their cattle. After taking the requisite meditation pictures of us each overlooking the fall and the view beyond, we moved on.

The “hike” then had us trekking through the fierce wilderness of peoples backyard gardens and up to the shear rim of the valley where the largest of the falls careens off the rim and in to the valley creating a most intense liquid back draft. It was at this point, overlooking the impact site of the tumbling water, that I achieved the lowest temperature and highest elevation I have yet experienced in Uganda.

For this trip, the transportation, the lodging, food, guide, and booze, cost a total equivalent of 25 American dollars.

And finally, a quick note about public transportation. The matatu’s (Chinese mirco buses) serve as taxis that, by law, can carry 14 passengers. This “law” is not only not enforced in my, and many other regions, but is enthusiastically bitch slapped and told to make sammiches. So upon our return from Sipi to Soroti, the only available transport was such a matatu. Thus it was discovered that when taking public transport, a scientific fact emerges. That fact is any latent, or active atheism is vivisected from the body and replaced by a most penitent faith. A faith that, when you are flying in a matatu down what is called a road with 20 other people, 3 infants, and 2 chickens, inspires you with the singular hope that you will make it out alive.

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