Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bugandan wedding

Attended a Bugandan wedding yesterday near Kampala. Fascinating. Will be writing more later about this. For now, enjoy the photos taken by my student.

Lucky Me

I have an Acholi name now. Acholi is the language of Northern Uganda, and the good folks at my last seminar said that since I'd already been to Gulu several times, I deserved to be given an Acholi name. So, one woman said that she felt lucky to have been in the peace journalism seminar and to have learned so much. So, she decided that I was to be given the name Komagum, which means lucky. The other seminar participants agreed. I do indeed feel Komagum.

True Grit

From the Parkville Luminary

GULU, UGANDA--As I poured a half-dozen dried ants into my hand, I almost lost my nerve. In fact, had my two Park University students not been with me, I probably would’ve backed out. However, to maintain an illusion of toughness and machismo in front of my students, I closed my eyes, and swept my hand up towards my open mouth.

I have no one to blame but myself for having to eat dried ants.

My descent into insect consumption began when my students, Andria (Andi) and Keith, and I took a stroll around the center of Gulu. It’s remarkable how the place has grown and recovered since a nasty civil war ended about three years ago. I noticed increased commerce and activity here since my last visit to Gulu one year ago.

During the 20-year war, Gulu, located in north-central Uganda, was the epicenter of the fighting which pitted Ugandan government forces against the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal band of fighters with no apparent agenda save for killing people and kidnapping children. Our guide, Caesar, told us that the center of Gulu was nearly deserted during the war, with just a few food stalls open and only a handful of shoppers brave enough to buy food for their families. I heard the same story from another Ugandan friend last year. He told me that sitting in an outdoor bar in Gulu and nursing a beer would’ve been suicidal just a few years ago.

Near the market, Caesar pointed out a church where people took refuge during the war. He told us the story of a priest who, to this day, hates the light. Why? If the rebels saw a light on in your house during the war, they often broke in, taking everything in the process, including children. Male children were “drafted” into their army, while females were taken for indecent purposes. The lucky ones escaped with their lives. So, this priest now sits in the dark every night, paying homage to his inner demons and to those who were lost during the war.

Today, absent of any physical scars here in bustling central Gulu, it’s hard to believe that any of this actually happened. In fact, Gulu has all the appearances of a town that’s healthy and growing.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the enormous outdoor covered market that snakes through back alleys and courtyards in the center of town. Our stroll through the market was fascinating and revealing. There were women drying, smoking, and cutting fish everywhere, and the whole place had the rancid odor of nearly-expired seafood. Dozens of stalls featured appetizing looking fresh vegetables, as well as some dubious looking (and smelling) meat. Vendors also hawked millions of shoes and shirts, all of which were second hand. The aisles were packed with shoppers who looked more happy than harried.

As we enjoyed our stroll, one item caught my eye. Initially, I thought it was chopped up red chilies. (Ugandans like to add chili paste to their food.) However, Caesar spoke up, and said they were dried flying ants. The wings are removed, and the ants placed on a mat to dry in the sun. Andi asked how the ants were killed. It’s a good question, but one which I didn’t want to ponder. Once I discovered the items for sale were ants, I foolishly blurted out that I would buy and consume some if my students agreed to share in the feast. Keith assented, Andi hesitated, and I bought a big bag of insects for about 40 cents.

We wisely waited until our return to the hotel to share the bounty. I went first, just in case. The initial sensation in my mouth was crunchiness. Then, the vile taste hit me. There is no way to adequately describe this except to say that it was a rotten, spoiled taste mixed with the taste of mud and sand. In fact, the texture was as gritty as it was crunchy. Not only was it awful, but it lingered like the bad taste in your mouth when you’re hung over. The dried ants were the worst thing I’ve ever put into my mouth. Bravely, Keith tried some ants, too, even after being warned. His animated reaction was the same as mine. Andi, being smarter than Keith and I, declined to imbibe.

As I reflect on this experience, and pick ant legs from between my teeth even after brushing, I feel a bit guilty for nearly poisoning Keith and generally setting a bad example. After all, as Andi and Keith have learned, you don’t have to munch insects to ingest a healthy helping of the fascinating culture here in Uganda.


  1. Steve - Did you ask anyone Ugandan how to eat them? I know that the grasshoppers are fried with honey before eating -- it's quite possible that you were supposed to do something similar to the white ants.

  2. Actually, I did, and was told to eat them straight, like popcorn (only with legs). I STILL have a bad taste in my mouth!