Saturday, January 29, 2011

No place in Uganda, or anywhere

As you may have read, Ugandan gay activist David Kato was killed last week under suspicious circumstances. I know this statement will put me at odds with some of my Ugandan friends, but I'll say it anyway: Homophobia, and indeed hatred in general, has no place in Uganda, or anywhere else for that matter. For a nice tribute to Mr. Kato, see this story from the NY Times.

Ugandan wedding induces possible hearing loss

From the Parkville Luminary

For a complete photo album from the wedding, click here.

GULU, UGANDA—The last time my ears rung like this, I was a teenager sitting in front of the speakers at a Ted Nugent rock concert.

The culprit this time wasn’t amplified heavy metal, but instead ululations belted out by an enthused congregant at a Ugandan wedding we recently attended here in the northern part of the country. For the uninitiated, a ululation is a high-pitched sound (la-la-la) made with the tongue. It’s done to denote joy or sadness. A ululation has a trilling, up-and-down quality, and when done by experts, like the Acholi women of northern Uganda, it is louder than the loudest shout or scream.

The woman sitting next to me at the wedding had a black belt in ululation, expressing herself so loudly that she was probably heard in Sudan, about 50 miles away. Ted Nugent, eat your heart out.

The recipients of the many ululations of joy were the bride and groom Susan and Martin. Susan is the sister of my friend/project assistant Gloria, who requested our presence at the wedding.

The wedding, held in an Anglican church, was very western in most respects. One difference was the length—two hours. The biblically uncomfortable pews (they would’ve been a good test for Job) were really more like benches, and were apparently built to force parishioners to their knees. Also, there were no lights or electricity for most of the service. When the power did come on, I quipped to the ululating lady next to me, “Let there be light”. She was not amused. One other major difference was the ululating, sometimes substituted for “amens” and at other times broadcast seemingly at random.

The best part of the wedding service was the fantastic music. Unlike the crappy music at many American weddings (“The Carpenters”, for example), this music was uplifting and joyful. There were five musicians. One played a big drum while the other four played a magical string instrument called an ennanga. Four of the ennangas were small, held in the lap, while the other was huge, and produced a deep bass sound. The wonderful rhythms produced by the musicians were accompanied by the harmonies of a smiling, enthusiastic, professional choir. I could have listened to them all day. Indeed, the wedding ceremony felt like all day thanks to the uncomfortable seating, the escalating temperatures, and the ululating-induced blood trickling from my ear. (Not really, but I did poke my finger into my ear a couple of time to make sure that nothing was leaking).

The wedding was followed by the reception, which was held at a nearby primary school. Unlike American receptions, the Ugandans front-load their receptions with all the ceremony and tedium—cake cutting, speeches, more bridal processions, etc. This event was planned for the school’s courtyard. However, high winds brought down the reception tents and chairs, so the event was moved into a smaller, sweltering auditorium-like room. The most delightful part of this two-hour sequence was when some of the colorfully dressed ladies decided that they had to dance, so they sauntered down the aisle showing off all of their best moves—the bunny hop, the booty shake, and something resembling a move from an old Fred Astaire movie involving lots of arm-swinging. Of course, all this fun was accompanied by ululations that were heard in Cairo, Egypt.

My wife joined in the frivolity. I’m fearful that her “dancing” may require diplomatic intervention if an international incident is to be avoided. She also attempted to ululate, with emphasis on the word attempted.

Dinner (beef, chicken, rice, potatoes, greens, and some of the best cabbage I’ve ever eaten) followed all the ceremonial festivities, and was served buffet style. As the Ugandans say, the food was very nice.

While the dinner, dancing, and music were enchanting, the best part of the day was meeting all of Gloria’s warm, wonderful family. My wife, son, and I just loved them, and look forward to spending more time with them the next time we’re in Gulu. Maybe by that time, the ringing in my ears will have subsided, and we can engage in a conversation during which I can actually hear what’s being said, or what’s being ululated.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Eye on Iganga

At the end of our recent seminar in Iganga, Uganda, two of my seminar participants and myself visited Eye-FM. (Yes, it's a curious name for a radio station). We participated in a 30-minute live program wherein we discussed peace journalism and played stories crafted by the participants (radio reporters) during my seminar. We've held about 15 such broadcasts thus far throughout Uganda. For a video feature on this Eye-FM visit, click here.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Seminars, meetings show impact, but is it enough?

From the Parkville Luminary

NOTE: For photos from my Peace Journalism seminars, including the seminars/meetings listed below, click here.

GULU, UGANDA—I envy doctors, because they often know right away if they’ve done a good job, since their patient is either better or dead. For those of us in education, there is seldom such finality, such closure.

This is especially true of my work here in Uganda. Among other things, I am teaching seminars for radio journalists and announcers, helping them discover story-telling in a way that helps to minimize conflict and reduces the possibility of violence. This kind of training is especially urgent given that Uganda will hold its presidential and parliamentary elections in February. (Right--PJ follow up meeting, Soroti)

My Ugandan colleague and I have given 17 such seminars for journalists in the last seven months, and aside from scattered anecdotal reports, we were not really sure if we were making an impact. We found out last week.

In Soroti (eastern Uganda) and Gulu (northern), our peace journalism program convened day-long follow up meetings with journalists and announcers who had previously attended our seminars. Each was a regional meeting, drawing participants from multiple locations where seminars had been held.

At each meeting, after reviewing peaceful electoral reporting principles, I led the journalists in a small group exercise where they were called upon to list successes they’ve had since attending our seminar, and challenges they still face in doing the job. I held my breath during this exercise, worried that the challenges would far outnumber the successes. They didn’t.

The first journalists’ group, in Soroti, listed so many successes that I had a hard time fitting them on one page of my giant writing pad. Among other things, the radio professionals said that their newscasts and stories had improved in overall quality and flow; that their reporting was more fair and balanced than before, that they were making a special effort to give all parties a chance to respond to campaign issues; that they have started interviewing more average people and using their concerns to corner leaders; that they more thoroughly research their stories now; and that some have implemented comprehensive policies/guidelines at their radio stations, resulting in more consistency and professionalism.

I was especially glad to hear the seminar participants report that politicians have even changed their behavior, being more careful with what they say (since they’re now being held accountable for their words) while treating the journalists with more respect.

The former attendees of our seminars who gathered in Gulu a few days later made similar comments, citing an enhanced overall professionalism—better balanced stories, improved objectivity and accuracy, and no media-induced violence.

The reports given last week in meetings we organized of peace club members were equally gratifying. Last year, in 14 cities we visited, we gathered together community leaders with the idea that they might choose to form peace clubs and advocate for peace during this election season. In a few places, our suggestion was ignored. In most others, based on our recent meetings, the peace clubs have flourished. In Tororo and Gulu, we met with peace club members who reported a flurry of peace advocacy activities, including broadcasting weekly radio programs to discuss peace; going to campaign rallies, recording politicians, and later playing back those words in an effort to discourage divisive or violent speech; holding candidate forums and debates wherein personal attacks are forbidden; and forming committees to monitor media to ensure that they are not inciting violence. The Tororo Peace Club has even written some pretty peace poetry that is read daily on a local radio station. (Pix above right--Peace Club, Tororo).

Not being completely na├»ve, I know some of these reports from peace club members and journalists represent just typical Ugandan politeness—telling me what I want to hear, rather than reflecting actual reality. Still, I have heard enough positive reports from different sources that I can only reach the conclusion that the seminars for the journalists and peace club mobilizations are having a positive impact here in Uganda. Whether this means a violence-free election is yet to be seen.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Peaceful in Iganga

Landed in Iganga last night for three day Peace Journalism seminar. Good, active group of journalists. Hotel has lovely view of a busy, noisy highway. Good news, though: you can barely hear the trucks churning past because The Loudest Rooster on the African Continent is stationed nearby, crowing 24/7.

In other news, attended wedding in Gulu on Saturday. Fascinating, and long. Wife/son looked very African, and quite presentable. I looked like I always look--disheveled and disoriented. Details and photos will follow, so stay tuned.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Busy, busy week

Five seminars/meetings this week in three different towns. Pooped. In Gulu, in Northern Uganda, now. We're all attending a Ugandan wedding tomorrow. Stay tuned for details.

Park Univ student, community band together to help Ugandan kids

From the Parkville Luminary

NOTE--To see complete photo album of the event below, click here.

KAMPALA, UGANDA—Here on a dusty, run down soccer field in the middle of town, when you say the name Park University, everyone lights up. That’s because Park University, and one Park student in particular, are unlikely heroes in this place that is literally and figuratively a world away from Parkville, Missouri.

We gathered on this dirt field on Jan. 8 for a ceremony handing over donations made by the Park University community to the Uganda Youth Soccer Academy (UYSA). The donations—soccer balls, gloves, water bottles, jerseys, and shoes—were collected by Park athletes and other students and staff and shipped to Uganda.

The equipment will be used by the 400 or so kids who are part of the Uganda Youth Soccer Academy. Its goal is to offer opportunities to the disadvantaged youth of Uganda through soccer and education. Founder Ivan Kakembo said that the UYSA offers weekly soccer practices for the kids, featuring professional coaches, while at the same time seeking scholarship funding to help the youngsters attend school. Kakembo said most of his soccer kids are orphans, and that many were born HIV positive. His kids are among 12-million Ugandan AIDS orphans, and some of the 150,000 people here under 14 who are HIV infected (unaids.org; 2009 statistics). Thus, the UYSA’s efforts are also increasingly concentrating on HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. (Photo-Happy girl, donated shoes).

At the donation ceremony, about 100 kids of all ages crowded around as Kakembo said some inspirational words and thanked Park University for its generosity. Then, the equipment was passed around to the gleeful kids. They seemed especially taken with the fluorescent yellow water bottles, although the soccer balls were also a big hit. Boxed up, it looked like a lot of equipment. Once distributed, it was easy to see that the need is much greater.

Park’s donation to the UYSA is their second. The soccer team donated uniforms in 2008. Both donations were organized by Ugandan Park student athlete Simon Senfuka, an energetic and humble young man focused on giving back to those in his country who are less fortunate. During the brief ceremony, Senfuka stayed mostly in the background, saying just a few words, content to let his good works speak for themselves.

As the ceremony unfolded, on the sidelines, I noticed 30-40 other envious youngsters gazing wistfully at the soccer field. Kakembo said these are just a few of the hundreds of kids from a nearby slum who are interested in playing but unable to participate because the UYSA has limited resources.

After the ceremony, the kids had a great time trying out their new toys. Senfuka was in the middle of the action, showing off some moves during a scrimmage. Though unspoken, it was obvious to see the respect that the kids had for Senfuka both as a soccer player and as a man. Certainly, these youngsters could have no better role model.

Because so many of these young soccer players are touched by HIV/AIDS, Senfuka and Kakembo decided they needed to do something to help. They are organizing the first annual Kampala AIDS Walk fundraiser on April 30. The Kampala AIDS Walk will be held in conjunction with the Kansas City AIDS Walk on the same day. (For more information, go to: www.aidswalkkansascity.org ) The Park University international student services office, among others, is helping to tie the two events together.

The overall goal of the Kampala AIDS Walk is to raise funds to reduce the spread of AIDS among marginalized youth in Kampala. Specifically, the organizers plan to distribute HIV/AIDS information and condoms to 5,000 youth. In addition, proceeds from the event will pay to counsel and test 500 young people for HIV.

This is the first AIDS Walk in Uganda, but Senfuka and Kakembo are determined to pull it off. Given their passion and dedication, I have no doubt that the event will meet all of its goals. I also have no doubt that planning and financial support from the Park University students, faculty, staff, and alumni will also play a pivotal role in the event’s success. I’m proud of Simon Senfuka, and all those at Park University who are helping to support this most worthy cause.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Off to Tororo, Soroti, Gulu

My Peace and Electoral Journalism project resumes this week with three stops. We'll be meeting with journalists and community peace activists. With the election approaching in six weeks, every minute is crucial now as we seek to prevent violence, or at least minimize it if it does occur.

Also, visited Betty/six orphans (see Dec. 19 blog) last week in Fort Portal. Wonderful seeing the kids, spreading a little holiday cheer. Click here for photo album. Was especially pleased to get this youngster (pictured) off to a good start in life.

Abysmal vehicle provides unlikely opportunity

From the Parkville Luminary

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, UGANDA—As the smoke from my car’s engine began to envelop me, for a moment I couldn’t even see the dashboard, let alone the opportunity that this latest vehicular calamity would offer my wife to give a little bit of herself to some needy kids.

My wife Barbara and son Alex and I were on our way to Fort Portal in Western Uganda when the smoke began to waft over us. Our driver Tabu screeched the car to a halt along the side of the road, and I screamed at my family to quickly abandon ship. Tabu sprung out of the car, and miraculously extinguished the flames that were dancing on several engine wires.

I was red with rage. This car, a “Mitsubishi Lemon”, has broken down 73,908 times since I bought it in June, leaving me stranded all over the country. In no particular order, this Lemon’s maladies have included flat and leaky tires, a bad starter, hose issues, a leaky gas tank, a broken oil pump which led to a nearly melted engine, gear box maladies, and now a fizzled electrical system. (Not being a complete idiot, I did have a “mechanic” examine the car before I bought it. This “mechanic” might have been in cahoots with the seller. Or, perhaps he was just comically, criminally incompetent.)

As we lay wounded about 45 minutes from our destination, I pounded the car seat with my fist and shouted a variety of unimaginative obscenities. Barbara and Alex wisely maneuvered out of my path and strolled over to the side of the road, where they began chatting with several dozen people who ambled by while we were stranded. Barbara good-naturedly complimented the ladies on their beautiful, colorful dresses and on their adorable children while Alex smiled and nodded, content to let mom do the talking this time.

About the time the mechanic arrived to take a look at my Lemon, Barbara asked me if it would be okay if she gave chocolates to four skinny kids who were by the roadside staring at our pathetic, broken down spectacle. I told her sure, knowing that Barbara would get a bigger kick out of the transaction than the kids. The hungry-looking youngsters smiled weakly as Barbara carefully handed each a square, dark chocolate. She chatted with the kids, clad in threadbare t-shirts, trying to ascertain their life stories and spread a little sunshine. A few minutes later, Barbara said she would sleep well knowing that she made the kids’ day by giving them some chocolates. If anyone else had uttered these sappy words, I might have rolled my eyes and made that scoffing noise. However, coming from Barbara, I know these were sincere thoughts.

On our way back to Kampala, after a second electrical breakdown and another obscene tirade, we managed to get the car back to Fort Portal, where we were able to hire a mechanic who had actually worked on a car before. While the mechanic did his magic, a skinny young boy, maybe 8 or 9, walked into the office where we were waiting, and requested a pen and paper to write out a message. His name was Turee. Barefoot, dirty, and mute due to a physical defect, Turee scribbled out a request for food. It was easy to see that he needed it. Barbara gave him all the food we had--a candy bar and a half-consumed soda. Turee scarfed them in a minute or so. Had we been thinking, we would have marched him to the nearest grocery store and bought him a sack full of food.

As Turee finished his snack, Barbara attempted to communicate with him. This was difficult because he’s mute and because he didn’t know English. Still, Barbara got her message across with smiles and with pantomime—pointing to her heart then pointing to his. The tears streaming across Barbara’s face as Turee left were both predictable and understandable.

I was proud of Barbara and her compassion for Turee and the roadway kids, and I won’t forget the lesson she taught me about seizing every opportunity, even if those opportunities initially seem like disasters. As long as we have a chance to share the many gifts we’ve been given (chocolate or otherwise), it doesn’t matter if we’re stuck with a Lemon. Today, Barbara reminded me how to make lemonade.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Lazy photog posts "best of 2010" pictures

Rather than toil taking actual new pictures, I have instead selected and posted my Favorite Ugandan Photos of 2010. Of course, the problem is that I took these, so don't expect much.

Hey Hey it's the Monkees

Spent Monday at the Jacana Lodge in Queen Elizabeth Park hanging out with my wife, son, and about 15 colobus monkeys. The monkeys put on quite a show swinging around, eating, play-fighting, and so on for most of the day. My highlight was a 15-minute close encounter with a female and her newborn offspring. They seemed oblivious to our presence. (Photo by someone with a better camera than mine: from African safari pictures.com)