Monday, August 23, 2010

Back from Jinja

Just finished week long seminar in Jinja, about 2 hrs east of Kampala. This is source of the Nile, and it's a beautiful area. I went whitewater rafting, and did not die, although my mortality was in question at one point. (Don't tell my mom and wife). More details about this later. The photo on the right was taken by Keith Taylor, one of my students, during his visit to Jinja about a month ago.

Ugandan newspapers amuse, bemuse, confuse

From the Parkville Luminary

KAMPALA, UGANDA--With headlines like “Gulu Widows Get Goats”, it’s impossible to resist Uganda’s daily newspapers.

In fact, the dailies here are almost enough to make me forget my first newspaper love, the Kansas City Star. Yes, the Star takes lots of heat, but I’ve always maintained that it’s a good paper given our market size. With four people left in the Star’s newsroom (only a slight exaggeration), it’s amazing that they are able to publish such a quality product.

In Uganda, there are three major English language daily newspapers, all published out of the capital, Kampala. All three newspapers offer up a daily dose of the interesting and bizarre. The New Vision is owned by the government, and features only thinly-disguised pro-government propaganda. Red Pepper is a tabloid, running cheesecake photos and rumors about who’s sleeping with whom, except they prefer the term “bonking” to the more polite “sleeping with”. For example, one hard-hitting piece details the arrest of a nursing student on allegations of sleeping with a married man, which must be illegal here. The piece said the motive for the “steamy romps” was that the cheater’s wife declined to let her husband “bonk” her (insert euphemism for a mysterious female anatomical part).

More reliable but still fascinating news can be found in Uganda’s best newspaper, the Daily Monitor, which offers a comprehensive, balanced look at the day’s news. In the aforementioned “Gulu Widows Get Goats” in a recent Daily Monitor, apparently the goats are meant to help war widows (there was a 20-year civil war here) become self-sustainable. In another story out of Gulu, where I recently taught, local leaders are worried that the “escalation” in the number of witch doctors could have “disastrous” effects if not monitored closely. “Immediate action should be taken to rid the healers from the district before they turn dangerous,” noted one worried official. I’m thinking we could welcome these witch doctors to Parkville, where they could be deployed to rid the downtown region of some of its less desirable elements.

In a story reminiscent of California cults and their loony followers, police here arrested a “prophet” and her followers who were found praying under “a make shift structure”. The “prophet” claims mystical healing powers. Alarmingly, she was arrested and charged with “conducting an illegal religious assembly”. Give me our first amendment, and its tolerance for religious hucksters and imposters, any time rather than governments deciding what is and isn’t a legal religious assembly.

Some of the articles are sad, pathetic, or just awful. For example, “Maid Remanded over Neglect”, the maid is accused of feeding a three year old child with dog droppings and other harmful substances. In “Man Electrocuted”, a man met his maker while trying to steal electricity. “In the process of cutting off the (electrical) cable with pliers (!), he was electrocuted,” the story says. In an even sadder electrocution story, a student in Hoima, where I am going in September, was electrocuted on the school’s grounds, leaving the school “in shock”. (Their words, not mine. I wonder if the tasteless pun is intended?) The worst part—the utility pole fell in the school compound seven days before the student was electrocuted. One area leader said, “Several residents called (officials) warning that this could be a disaster but there was no response until now when our child has been killed.”

And finally, in the “make me ashamed to be a male” category, we present a tale from the Daily Monitor. The first features a misogynist local official from Busheyni. In a statement that would have every women’s group in the U.S. burning him in effigy, the official said, “Schools should produce ladies who can go home and help in the chores. It is embarrassing to find a secondary school student who does not know how to peel.”

I know that these sorts of pathetic and weird things happen in America, too. (Battle over a hog dog vendor, anyone?) However, the highly unusual just seems to occur more frequently here, and often generates more disturbing consequences. I’m attempting to take all this bizarre, depressing news with a big grain of salt as I try to keep an open mind about Uganda and its people, whom I genuinely like. Of course, I haven’t met any witch doctors yet.

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