Saturday, November 27, 2010

2 peace journalism seminars left in 2010; Mediocre photos posted

Just finished fine 3-day seminar in Masindi. Very active group. Click here for photos. Also, click here for new scenic photos of Rukungiri in far Western Uganda. Very beautiful.

Thus far, we've traveled 7485 km/4641 miles. We're exhausted.

Trapped in hotel purgatory

From the Parkville Luminary

ANYWHERE IN RURAL UGANDA—As I lather up, I reflexively reach for my razor, and look up to the bathroom mirror to begin shaving. Except, there is no mirror.

Welcome to hotel purgatory, Ugandan style.

Now, before you stop planning that dream safari to Uganda, let me note for the record that there are a number of outstanding, four and five star properties throughout the country—hotels that meet every Western standard. For example, I’ve stayed at the excellent Sheraton in Kampala and the Jacana Lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park, and both offer modern, comfortable accommodations, and in the case of the Jacana, some of the best gourmet food I’ve ever tasted. So, book that vacation today.

However, on the 20 trips we’ve taken around the country to teach peace journalism seminars, we’re not staying in the Jacana or Sheraton. We’re not even staying in the Motel 6 or Super 8. With only a few nice exceptions (Cepha’s Inn/Kabale; Acacia Hotel/Mbarara), if you were to give stars to our hotels, they might earn one star. The reason they earn any stars at all is because at least they are uniformly clean, which is obviously important. We’re staying in these half-star properties because they’re cheap. At a typical seminar, we have 20 participants, plus three staff. Multiply that by five nights lodging, plus all meals, and before long, you have an enormous bill. We can afford $25-30 per room per night that we are paying for these dives; sadly, we can’t afford $120 at the Sheraton or $180 at the Serena (a luxury hotel chain). Not that there’s a Sheraton or Serena in Rukungiri or Masindi.

So, this budget crunch leaves us stuck in hotel purgatory at these mediocre hotels. What makes them mediocre? Take the bathrooms, please. Okay, most do have mirrors, but some don’t, making shaving a dangerous mission that I skip all too often. I’m usually bleeding when I shave with a mirror; without one, I fear the need for a transfusion.

Then there’s the “shower”. The “shower” is seldom mounted—it’s a spray dealie hooked to the faucet, meaning that you have to spray with one hand and soap with the other. Then there’s the water pressure, or lack thereof. In a “good” hotel (for us), there is enough pressure to wet ones’ hair in, say, one minute. However, often there isn’t enough water pressure to douse a match, meaning that showers become long endurance contests, testing ones’ ability to wet-soap-rinse using just a trickle.

Of course, about half the time, this “shower” is being taken with cold water. The same way the Eskimos supposedly have dozens of words for snow, I have developed a sophisticated scale to evaluate the relative coldness of water. The chilly water in Mbale, for example, is “Spring Shower Cold”, while the icy water in Kasese is “Glacier Cold”. The coldness disparity can be scientifically measured based on the physical reaction of various body parts to the chilly water. I’ll spare you the details. I will say this for the cold “showers”—they certainly wake you up.

Moving out of the bathroom, the typical bedroom is rather large, a function I believe of the fact that hoteliers here don’t have to heat or cool them. The average room has one bare, dim light bulb dangling from the ceiling—usually insufficient for reading. In contrast, the lights in the hallway are usually so bright that I suspect that they were pilfered from airport runways. Many hotel rooms have a small glass window atop the door, and this searchlight luminosity glares through this window at night, lighting up the room and rendering sleep difficult. (I snuck out into the hallway once to turn out the light, but some blind sadist turned it right back on.) This doesn’t really matter anyway since the noise makes sleep nearly impossible. In Fort Portal, I stayed in a room that overlooked a music shop across the street. Rap, hip hop, and reggae blasted from this shop 20 hours a day. There was a glass bottle recycler next door to another hotel, and the bottlers started their deafening work at a brisk 5:30 a.m. Also, in rural areas, I’ve discovered that roosters are pretty damn loud, and equally persistent.

Given these travails, I practically kiss the ground when I return from up-country to my lovely, modern apartment in Kampala, where the hot shower is so powerful it could be used to disperse rioters. Problem is, I’m on the road 70-percent of the time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving in Uganda?

Although many Ugandans seem to have heard of Thanksgiving (probably from American movies and TV), not many seem to know what it is really all about. So no, there is no Thanksgiving here. I have seen 2-3 turkeys running around the last five months, but none were on a menu or a platter. Since Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, I am especially homesick this week. We had 30 guests at our home last year, including family and many international students from Park University. It's always fun to experience a "first Thanksgiving" through the eyes of these young people. As for my 2010 Thanksgiving, I will teach most of the day, and return back to Kampala in the evening to "celebrate" with 29 fewer people and 97% less food than last year. On the bright side, that second or third piece of pie wouldn't have been good for me anyway.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

17 down, 3 to go in 2010

It's been a long, frenetic journey teaching peace journalism in Uganda in 2010. Fortunately, we're on the home stretch--only three more seminars to go this year. We just finished in Rukungiri (pictured). For more on our journey, click here to see embarrassing video of yours truly. The video is worthwhile because of the scenery, however.

Belief in witchcraft is a powerful force in Uganda

From the Parkville Luminary

NOTE--This the second of two parts on witchcraft. See part 1 below.

KAMPALA, UGANDA—The belief in witch doctors and evil spirits is a powerful force in many Ugandans’ daily lives. Just ask 2,000 Ugandan middle school students.

”About 2,000 pupils of Nakasongola Junior Academy were yesterday sent home indefinitely after what the school administration described as ‘escalated incidences of evil spirit attacks’…The attacks have since been attributed to witchcraft. The school administration took the decision over the weekend after numerous consultative meetings with directors. At least 26 pupils are reportedly admitted to Nakasongola Health Centre IV with injuries they say were sustained after being physically attacked by evil spirits. When contacted yesterday, Mr. Francis Ssebitosi, the school headmaster, said…,’Our school, like many others in this area, has been affected by evil spirit(s) for very many years but in the last month these attacks have escalated and we felt it would be best to send the children to their parents.’” (Daily Monitor, Oct. 27, 2010).

The reason given for closing this school—evil spirits—is easy to ridicule. I will not pass judgment on the validity of these beliefs, except to wonder if African spiritual concepts are so completely dissimilar to ours (Is there a substantive difference between a Ugandan “evil spirit” and Christianity’s “Satan”?) However, what seems beyond dispute is the corrosive impact that the belief in witchcraft, witch doctors, and evil spirits has on Ugandan (and African) society.

In his new book “The Masque of Africa”, Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul examines spiritual and metaphysical beliefs throughout Africa. One conclusion he reaches is that beliefs in witchcraft and evil spirits sow fear in the population. “In a corner of Uganda, a young woman explains to Naipaul: ‘My grandmother produced twins who died. They had to be buried in a special way, in hollow pots, and a shed had to be built over the grave, to protect and shade them…When she became a Pentecostal, she had to stop that, as it is not allowed. She had to remove the shed, and she was so afraid that the twins would come and kill her and her living children.’” (Slate, Oct. 27, 2010)

In addition to producing fear, Naipaul finds that traditional beliefs “license charlatanry. Soothsayers demand money for their ‘powers,’ like the one who tells Naipaul that there are curses preventing his daughter from getting married and if he wants them lifted he'll have to pay. It licenses bigotry. A community can announce that a malaria outbreak is due to the old women of the village waging witchcraft, and slaughter them. It licenses some deranged delusions.” (Slate, Oct. 27, 2010).

Some Ugandans agree with Naipaul’s conclusions. Ugandan and Park University student Simon Senfuka writes, “I personally don't believe witchcrafts exists…I think that is the primitive backward culture people used to practice and so it’s still practiced in villages where a huge number of people are uneducated. I don't think (witchcraft) should be respected at all because actually there is no right information as to where those things come from, in other words their route of origin. You know always people in my country will always want to find an excuse to their misfortune or to get out of something, but I am 100% against those things and I think the believers should be reeducated.”

Generally, others’ beliefs should be respected. The dilemma occurs when one sees the practices that result from some beliefs. For example, people of good conscience must stand up and speak out against customs like female genital mutilation, even if that makes one disrespectful of the beliefs that underlie this abhorrent tradition. The same applies to rape, child marriage, denying girls an education, slavery, and so on. It’s not up to me or anyone else to sanction cultural beliefs. Believe what you like. Actions, however, are different. We have a responsibility to speak out when those actions injure innocents or cripple societies, and if we step on the toes of some believers in the process, so be it.

So, I’m not passing judgment on whether the belief in witchcraft is valid. But I am saying that the actions taken because of these beliefs are damaging Ugandan society. Is Nakasongola a better community because the school is shut down? Can we justify this rash decision that denies youngsters an education?

I don’t know if evil spirits (or Satan for that matter) exist. But I do know that the parents of those 26 injured students deserve a systematic, scientific, logical investigation into what really happened to their kids at the Nakasongola school.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The candy man can

RUKUNGIRI, UGANDA--Here in remote far western Uganda, they don't see many (any?) muzungus--white people. Thus, my walk around the village yesterday attracted quite a bit of attention. About 10 kids saw me, waved, and followed me around while they practiced the few English phrases that they knew. ("How are you" seems very popular). After a few minutes, one of the kids asked if he could have a treat. Lacking cupcakes or cookies, I said that I had no treats. However, the persistent youngster pointed to my backpack, and sure enough, there were about 15 pieces of hard candy peering through the mesh. The kids were delighted as I passed out the candy--almost as delighted as I was in seeing their excitement. I'll visit the store and stock up on treats before I take my walk today.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bewitched in Uganda?

From the Parkville Luminary

NOTE: This is the first of two columns on witchcraft in Uganda. The second part will appear in this space next Saturday.

KAMPALA, UGANDA—When allegations surfaced that former U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell was a witch, many Americans snickered.

However, when reports of witch doctors and witchcraft occur in Uganda, it’s no laughing matter. Not a week goes by without at least a couple of stories in the media about evil spells and witch doctors. Examples abound.

“Students of St. Mark Naminya High School in Nieru, Mokono district engaged police in running battles and destroyed property worth millions (of Ugandan shillings)… after management kicked out witch doctors hired to perform rituals at the institution. Two witch doctors, called in to cleanse the school of demons which are alleged to have been sexually assaulting students, had been hired by some school administrators following consultations with the sub county leadership.” (Daily Monitor, March 31, 2010)

“…Local leaders in Nabiswera sub county…had hired an exorcist to cleanse a government health unit which had been haunted by mayembe (evil spirits).” (New Vision, Sept. 5, 2007).

It is common in Uganda, and elsewhere in Africa, to blame illness on witches, spells, and evil spirits.

“Rev. Paul Ssemwogerere (Kasana-Luweero’s Catholic Bishop) said because of the ungodly beliefs, many Nakasongola residents attribute all ailments, including malaria, to witchcraft. ‘Even when a person gets malaria, the people will point out that the mosquitoes which inflected him were sent by someone,’ he said.” (New Vision, Oct. 7, 2010).

Physical and mental handicaps are also frequently blamed on witches or evil spirits. “Disability is often associated with witchcraft. In some instances, families break up if a child is either born crippled or deformed.” (New Vision, Oct. 4, 2010).

In fact, almost any misfortune can be blamed on witchcraft and evil spells.

“A mysterious fire has burned 30 houses in Kapchorwa District. Residents have attributed the fire to spirits which they allege were brought by a witch doctor. However, police have ruled out this possibility.” (Daily Monitor, Oct. 26). The article did not mention which investigative and forensic tools police used to determine that witch doctors and evil spirits were not involved. Can police dogs be trained to sniff out evil?

Belief in witchcraft and evil spirits is commonplace in Uganda, though I was unable to find any reliable statistics on the matter. Not only are these beliefs commonly found among rural, illiterate Ugandans, but they also seem to be embraced by a number of more sophisticated, educated Ugandans as well. My friend, artist and peace activist Fred Mutebi, noted. “You will be amazed that it is the most educated who mainly flock the shrines of witch doctors, purportedly to protect their jobs.” James Onen, a “freethinker” and social commentator in Uganda, agrees. He wrote, “My conversations with many Ugandan scientists and doctors have revealed that a large number of them actually believe that witchcraft ‘works’ (though they insist they would never partake in it). When I asked them, being scientists, about what empirical evidence they had encountered that justified this belief, they all said there was none.” (Daily Monitor, March 3, 2010)

I discussed witchcraft with four educated, worldly Ugandan friends. One said she absolutely believes in spirits and witchcraft. A second friend, while not exactly admitting this belief, did that say that witchcraft may explain unusual occurrences. A third friend noted that she doesn’t believe in witchcraft, but then said that if one thinks that an evil spell will work, if often does. My fourth friend said he believes in spirits, but wondered how they can be managed, and how (or if) they are consistent with Christianity.

So, how does this widespread belief in witchcraft and evil spirits, even among the educated, impact Ugandan society? We’ll examine that question in the second part of our look at witchcraft in Uganda.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mbarara photo album inspires, delights multiple generations
OK, it's probably not that good, but I hope these photos provide a somewhat interesting look at Uganda's second biggest city. (Click here for photo album) Right along the main highway, there are three demolished, wrecked cars splayed along the side of the road. Inexplicable. While I was shooting the wrecks, a man in a suit came up and scolded me that I should not be taking such pictures. I shrugged, and left quickly.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Excellent seminar; scalding hot water in Mbarara

Great five day seminar in Mbarara--definitely an active group of attendees. (Click here for photo album). When it was over, the attendees (radio journalists) didn't want to leave. In fact, the journalists were meeting, forming their own peace journalism club, as we drove off into the sunset. Hotel Acacia was very nice--one of the best we've stayed in. One small problem--two straight mornings, we had only scalding hot water. And to think I'm usually whining about having no hot water. Guess I'll be careful what I wish for...

Hoping not to damage fragile young minds

From the Parkville Luminary

LAKEVIEW MIDDLE SCHOOL, KANSAS CITY—In Ms. Leah Panther’s publications class, seventh graders are taking their first step into the world of journalism.

As part of their journey, the publications students are studying my blogs/columns filed from Uganda. I’m guessing these are a rich resource for Ms. Panther, who can use my columns as examples of things to avoid when writing, or as grist to analyze poor syntax and trite vocabulary.

Ms. Panther even assigned one unfortunate young lady to interview me (via email) and produce an article about my experiences in Uganda. The young writer is shy and humble (rare traits for a journalist), and doesn’t want her real name used. So, I’ll call her Mary. The questions that Mary emailed me were direct and thorough, and thus I was not surprised when I read the professional story she produced for the Lakeview school newspaper, “Lakeview Lately”. Here is that piece:

"Mr. Youngblood replied, ―I am not having a good day…there is no electricity tonight in my apartment so it’s dark…once my computer battery runs out, I’m not sure what I’ll do, sit in the dark, I suppose. Last week I had the opportunity to speak through email with Steve Youngblood, a peace journalist working on assignment in Kampala, Uganda. He works for Park University and is the father to Lakeview student Alex Youngblood. He describes his work as, ―teach[ing] peace and electoral journalism to radio announcers and journalists. He continues that the best part is, ―meeting new people…over two hundred and fifty so far. He advises future journalists that it’s about, ―self discovery…finding out about yourself. Mr. Youngblood continues, ―there is no more interesting and rewarding job than journalism. Yes, the pay is bad, and the job security not much better. But [you’re] in a unique position to make a positive difference for your community. He tells the story of one journalist in Uganda who did a report about six orphans that had nothing. Dozens of people, touched by the story, donated food, clothes, and other items to the kids.

“Mr. Youngblood will be a guest columnist in this year’s volume of “Lakeview Lately”. Through his articles, the students of Lakeview will have the chance to hear about everything from the day to day life of a journalist, to stories about attacking rhinos. Stay tuned for more stories from our new roving reporter, Mr. Youngblood.”

Excellent work, though there is one little correction: the rhino didn’t actually attack, it just acted like it was going to attack. Of course, just the threat of being stomped into sawdust by a rhino was enough to age me several decades. But that’s another story. (Click here for rhino photo album)

Although I could never match Mary’s eloquence, Ms. Panther asked me to write my own short piece as well for “Lakeview Lately.” My first reaction to this offer was to ask how much they pay. When I discovered that “Lakeview Lately” pays approximately the same as the Luminary, I jumped at the chance. (In fact, now that I write columns for two newspapers, I probably need to hire an agent). My second reaction was to lament the fact that I didn’t have my own newspaper column when I was in middle school, since that might have impressed Carrie Young or one of the other 3,000 girls I had a crush on. The awful truth is, it would’ve done any good anyway since I was (am?) Mr. Geeky McNerd.

Here is my Lakeview newspaper column. Remember, this is aimed at seventh and eighth graders.

“You know how your parents are always telling you how lucky you are, and how you roll your eyes and put your hands in your pockets when you hear these lectures? I’m sorry to report that your parents are right.

I’ve spent the last five months in Uganda. I’ve talked to six orphans who survived on their own in a tiny shack for 13 months without any reliable source of food or medical care. A 14-year old girl was the kids’ “mother”, and took care of the others. Eighth graders—can you imagine being responsible for five little kids?

“Youngsters lucky enough to go to school here (many can’t afford school fees or uniforms) usually attend schools without anything modern—no electricity or running water, no computers or Internet. They’re lucky if they have a chalkboard, let alone a qualified teacher. Kids here are sick more often—malaria is a common childhood illness, and diarrhea from dirty drinking water is widespread. Of course, you may have to walk miles for medical care, and even then, there may not be a doctor, or the medicine you need to get better.

“So, the next time you hear that annoying lecture from your parents, don’t roll your eyes. Instead, think of the children in Uganda.”

I know this is awfully preachy, and parental, but I can’t help myself since my 13-year old son Alex is a student in Ms. Panther’s class. Alex, incidentally, will be the Lakeview newspaper’s first foreign correspondent next spring when he joins me in Uganda. He’ll have his work cut out for him because of Mary, whose excellent reporting has set the bar impossibly high for Alex and Lakeview’s other budding correspondents.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Monitoring the mid-terms, Ugandan style

MBARARA, UGANDA--Got up at 7 this morning to watch live election coverage on CNN (I was very lucky--the hotels we stay in very seldom have CNN). Kampala is 7 hrs ahead of the east coast, so I was watching Wolf, Anderson and the "world's most unwieldy political team" live at midnight EST. A few hours later, we discussed the mid-term results in my peace journalism seminar. I pontificated about the cyclical nature of U.S. politics, and I gave the seminar attendees, all radio journalists, my very biased opinion that Obama and the Democrats were unjustly blamed for the economic mess that they inherited from George W. Bush.

Only a handful of the attendees seemed to be informed about the mid-terms. Why? Because President Obama was not on the ballot. Ugandans love Mr. Obama, whom they see as one of their own. (Obama's father is from the Luo tribe, whose members can be found in both Uganda and Kenya). However, it's a given that in 2012, these journalists--and all of Uganda--will be closely following Mr. Obama's race for re-election.