Thursday, July 2, 2009

Landmines and Skipping and Smiles, Oh My!

I am absolutely in rural Africa now. The day has flipped back and forth between laughing and smiling so hard that my face aches and moments of heavy reality. I’m with Phil and his main man on the ground, Dusman. I could not be safer if I were with a detachment of military guards, these guys know their stuff.
Back to the beginning though. The drive up to Gulu was supposed to take us as much as 7 hours. Well, back before they paved the road and filled in the pot holes of death, I can see how 7 hours would have been good time. Our trip was much faster. Since last year the roads have been paved. And I mean paved. They are even, they are smooth and there are even sections as you leave Kampala and head north that have the swanky new stone drainage system installed so that when it pours rain the road isn’t flooded or washed away. This means that a 7 hour trip really only took 3.5 or 4 hours total, even with stops for lunch and such. Sweet!
I don’t know what I was really expecting out of the scenery on the way up, but it was beautifully lush and green the whole way. Lots of jungle. Plenty of trees. Plenty of people too, apparently boda-bodas do highway travel. So now you’ve got the congestion of a normal road in Kampala on a highway doing anywhere from 60-100km/h. It’s absolutely wild. Drivers regularly honk or flick their lights to communicate. For example, the roads are still very narrow, so if you drift to the right a bit to check if the oncoming lane is clear to pass, you’d get hit. Instead the driver in front uses his signal lights to tell you when it’s not safe to pass (right indicator) or safe to pass (left indicator). This only works if the vehicle ahead of you has lights though. To compensate, sometimes hands will be used, or horns, or the driver will yell the signals to whomever is riding in the back of his truck and they’ll pass it on with their hands. It’s really fairly flexible. You can honk to say ‘thanks’, ‘get the #%@* out of my way’ or ‘heads up, there’s a car behind you and you’re in the road’. The latter can be used to warn other cars, boda-bodas, bicycles, groups of school kids walking home along the highway, and the odd ox-cart/dog combination.
When we were just about halfway to Gulu we passed what looked kind of like a paved rest stop, like we have on the TransCan with bathrooms, etc. These are far from common in Uganda because of the manpower it takes to grade and pave a large area. Phil then explained that this was the original transition area from only somewhat risky rural country to a war zone. Cars would line up in the rest area and wait their turn for a military escort up to Gulu. As in the military would put trucks with armed men at the front, another few in the middle, and again at the back, and they would drive a minimum of 90km/h down a narrow, hella-sketchy pot-hole path and hope that they made it to Gulu without being ambushed by rebels. Holy death.
The military is treated very seriously here because they don’t care to be questioned. I’m not to be taking pictures of anything or anybody that has camouflage, an AK-47 (these are only issued to the police and the military) or a military-specific green and white license plate. You don’t ask them for directions if you’re lost, you don’t joke with them, and if you make eye contact they all watch you until you’re past or out of site. It’s unnerving. For a while many of the soldiers hired by the government were from the areas of Africa that speak Swahili natively, so if someone was giving you trouble or picking a fight you’d turn to your buddy and start going off in Swahili. I’m told this was enough to stop most people in their tracks, and very quickly clear a room.
Anyway, a little bit past the transition area we came up to a section of the river that narrowed into a waterfall and some stunning rapids with huge white froth everywhere. I went to pull out my camera and Dusman gave me one of those ‘nono’ looks. I’ve found that listening to Dusman and Phil is best done without question, immediately. Turns out that the hill on the other side of the road was well outfitted with camouflaged soldiers, and that the area had a great tactical advantage for fighting the LRA. This means that no pictures are allowed to be taken. If one of the soldiers sees you with a camera and radios ahead you get stopped at the bridge over the river and receive a talking to from the commander. Not something any of us wanted a part of.
Past there you’re also in landmine country. There is a white building in town surrounded by the standard barbwire and electric wire fencing full of a team that is dedicated solely to pulling out all the landmines left behind by the LRA. Case in point, last year when Phil and Dusman came to survey the site for this year’s project they could not leave the area directly surrounding the school because the field in front (which is huge, like think football sized) was all mined. This year, we’re building on the other side of that field. Which was also mined.
Both have been cleared of course, but it’s totally surreal to see these swarms of kids, literally hundreds, in their uniforms laughing, playing soccer, skipping games and such in an area that you know was a battlefield.
The realism of the ‘battlefield’ bit got me today too. There are these grooves in the ground that are fairly grown over, no more than 2ft in width, that run in a line between the side road and where the new teacher’s quarters are going to go. These are trenches. No, seriously. Rebels would lay in these with a bunch of grass and a bush or something overtop of them and shoot people. Once I knew what they were I could see them all over the place. Whenever two of the lines meet there’s a mound of dirt in front for someone to set up a tripod. From there if you turn 180 ยบ you see the walls of a little building with three rooms. It’s decrepit, even by African standards. That is because it’s been bombed out.
This is all across from a primary school! 10 minutes outside of downtown Gulu!
The kids are all so happy though. After I’d taken a bunch of photos of the area where we’ll be building I went back across the side road to take some shots of the kids playing. Most of the boys were in the bigger section of the field playing a game of soccer. The ones playing ignored me, which made it really, really easy to get some excellent pictures of the game. The littler kids who were watching were fascinated by the camera and the muzungu operating it.
I have to be careful when I want to take pictures of the kids because I am such a novelty to them. If I show up (even without a camera) they tend to drop whatever they’re doing and come see me. Not necessarily talk to me, being new I think I might kind of scare most of the littler ones, but all the same whatever they were just doing is suddenly way less interesting. The trick seems to be to kind of lurk around the sidelines and not make eye contact until the shock wears off. This only really works with the older kids; I don’t think there is a trick for the little guys.
Anyway, from there I crossed the field to where most of the girls were. They had the right idea, they’d set themselves up under some great big trees in the shade. From there they divided by age group into all sorts of games involving jumping and long loops of what was once string, or hemp. Some were skipping, one group had double-dutch going, but the most popular game involved two girls standing across from each other with the string looped over their heads and around their waists so it was taught between them. Then another girl would do a little hop-dance over the two strings. At first the strings were low, ankle height, then knee height, then waist, then a little higher. It was incredible to see how high they could go without touching the string. Every once in a while someone would land on the string and it would snap. Standard procedure is to knot it back together and carry on. The string they have is very loved, very frayed, and has many knots.
After watching this with great fascination for a while one of the girls asked if I would like to play. Yeah! Absolutely!
I did not stop to consider the level of difficulty involved in the game, this made it much more entertaining when I realized what I’d gotten myself into. They were assembled in a circle around us almost before I had time to set down the camera and my glasses. The girl who had asked me to play was named Clancy, and I learned through imitation. She would do a short routine once or twice, just a few moves, and then I would try. She would do another one with the rope higher, I would attempt it and land on the string. Our audience was wonderfully dynamic, Clancy was of course very good so they would clap and cheer when she’d finished. When it was my turn they were very quiet, crowding in closer. I could usually get the first few jumps right, after that I tended to lose it and got creative. They thought it was hilarious! Clancy had it down to an art, she didn’t look awkward at all, easy as pie. This makes it look deceptively easy. I don’t have any pictures of my attempts, but my arms were definitely flapping and more often than not my feet ended up in front of me instead of behind me where they belonged.
It was so much fun. I definitely need to practice and then try again.
When I was pulled out to go back and film Phil and the others some more I realized that my face actually hurt from laughing and smiling. These kids are amazing. I can’t describe how excited I am to be a part of the team that’s going to give them access to a library. Their own library, with Uganda up-to-date textbooks (this is a big thing in the north), light bulbs, and computers equipped with internet.
Many of them are still living in the refugee camp huts on school property. No running water, no electricity, grass roofs, one room clay and mud huts. School assembly is under a big tree outside because there are too many kids to fit in any of their buildings; one of the classrooms is just a grass roof with benches. Admittedly, it is also the most fun to sit in because that’s what you think of when you think of ‘Disney’ Africa.
Tomorrow if the groundbreaking ceremony, and then the real work starts. Time to jump in, both feet first, no looking back now!

No comments:

Post a Comment