June 28, 2007
Coming Home (First Post After Uganda)
I returned from my month in Uganda last week and have been getting multiple messages from concerned friends and readers alike asking me to please, please post and let everyone know that I'm alive and well. That's very sweet. Thank you so much. I am. I am alive and I am well and singing the developed-nation blues again. For those who sent me emails while I was gone, please be patient, I'm trying... trying to get back into the swing of things.
Me, preparing to bath out of a jerry can under East African skies after a 37 hour trip halfway around the world
But it's hard. Hard to come home from a trip like this. My first night back in LA I went to a party to see friends and indulge in some carelessness after a month of traveling through harder parts of the world. At the party, which started in a bar and went back to my friend Luis Reyes' (TokyoPop editor par excellence) apartment, there was everything one needed to eat, drink, be merry and generally live socio-economic, sexually liberated lives.
My first Ugandan sunrise, as seen from inside my cabin, looking out over Lake Victoria
Just five days before I'd been on the back of a motorcycle traveling through up-country Uganda, not far from the Sudan border, en route to an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp (or what one northerner called a "concentration camp"). Crossing an abundant but haunted patch of earth. Mango and jack fruit trees stood loyal as sentries every few kilometers and casaba root was betrayed by its emerald green thin stalks erupting from soft, red soil. And the ghosts? Spectres of a 20 year long war. Unmarked land mines, cholera, AIDS, a massive orphan population (a children to adult ration of about ten to one as far as I could tell), absolute poverty and a continued military presence which is supposedly there to protect the locals from the LRA rebels but whom many of the Acholi (the tribe most interrupted by the conflict) believe is there to keep them from leaving the camps.
Ugandan People's Defense Force soldier (government soldier) in Labuje IDP camp (not my photo... this was taken during operation "Iron Fist", at the height of the conflict. Odds are this Ugandan soldier was shipped straight from Congo War II to North Western Uganda).
Northern Uganda looks nothing like the reports I'd been reading and posting back home. On May 18, 2007 the UN Integrated Regional Information Network reported "IDPs Begin Slow Journey home" after two decades. But this, like so much of the rest of the reportage coming out of this region, is largely bullshit built by a global community too enamored with Ugandan President General Museveni's economic and military stabilization of the developed south to see the truth of the horrible situation in the underdeveloped north. Instead of people returning home to their land for the first time in decades, what I witnessed were people being moved to smaller "satellite" camps for reasons that Lt. Chris Magezi, the Ugandan Peoples Defense Force (or UPDF) Northern Region Spokesman/PRO Gulu, could not tell me during my short interview with him.
President Museveni political poster.
While talking with a United Nations World Food Programme truck driver in a small IDP camp village just south of Gulu-Town, I asked, "What is the purpose of the satellite camps?" He shrugged and said, "Tribal politics is a muddy river here." Referring to the severe social/economic division (which many are saying is being exploited by controlling forces in the government) between the Bugandan tribe who have a majority in the Ugandan Parliament in the south and the tribes of the north, including the Acholi.
United Nations World Food Program storage facility in Gulu Town.
If one is to drop the conspiratorial tone that haunts the language and conversations of virtually everyone I met in the North (but not all) then it's possible to assume that the satellite camps are an attempt to alleviate population concerns in the larger IDP camps while keeping people from striking out into land mine constipated areas in an effort to return to their land. Those farmers who do demand to return home suffer the very real possibility of digging (farming) on top of said mines. I was told by another investigative unit (Canadians, god bless them, they give North America a good name) I met in Acholiland that the UN group called the Mine Action Programme had only 23 de-miners for the whole Northern area (this has not been corroborated, a communication with the UN organization regarding this issue has remained unanswered). There were several meetings of Mine Action Programme bigwigs at Hotel Roma in Gulu. The same hotel I was staying at. Whenever I saw them in the restaurant or waiting area I would try to eavesdrop in on their conversations, which were predominantly in English, but to little avail. At one point I attempted to approach one of their African associates , but once I started asking questions about the organization I was immediately deflected. Understandable, since I didn't approach the organization through any legitimate press channels. I'm also led to believe that they're trying to focus their attention on Western Sudan among other places, so I'm sure resources are spread thin for them.
The UN has a constant presence throughout Uganda. This was taken in the beautiful and stabilized town of Entebbe. Where a large UN base is kept.
Acholiland, particularly in the Gulu/Kitgum area is home to more NGO's than any other place in the world. I was given varying numbers by varying sources, with between 400 and 600 actual registered NGO's being sited. Most of these non-profit organizations have moved in during the last year as the the rumors of war began to die down and the perception of safety (years after actual safety had returned, many say) has finally been spread by President General Museveni. The mass proliferation of NGO's has exploded the Gulu economy, pushing prices higher than they are even in Kampala, the developed capital. The problem is that most people in the area, many, many of them war affected, cannot financially afford the sudden shift in economy. Meaning that an army of do-gooders has moved in and raised the standard of living beyond the reaches of the population they intend on assisting. The seriousness of this issue remains to be seen.
Road side shopping
Also, there seem to be three types of non-profits operating in the area. Ones who do good and necessary work, ones who come with well-meaning hearts but implement programs that do nothing to heal the cultural damage done to the Acholi way of life and in many cases perpetuate the welfare state mentality, and the ones called the "Invisible NGO's" by a journalist I met who is working for two months in the area. The invisible NGO's are organizations collecting grants and various government and private funds, yet have no locatable offices or evidence of applied services. These are the non-profit pirates, stealing money and goods the world has deemed belongs to the needy. The implications of too many NGO's in one area are staggering and a whole paper could be written on the philosophical problems of good intentions and the global response to crises.
In fact, it's my opinion that one of the obstructions to a lasting peace in the area is too many god damned professional do-gooders and not enough locally minded non-prof visionaries.
A convoy of trucks with Aid heading out of Gulu-town and into the Bush.
While In Uganda I interviewed or spent time with Acholi religious leaders, various reporters and a documentary crew, a UPDF soldier who had been engaged in the north and is now stationed in Iraq (Uganda has 5,000 soldiers in Iraq currently), two Lord's Resistance Army soldiers, several collage students in the south, Micro-financing bankers, NGO organizers and employees, Acholi political leaders from opposing parities, traditional Acholi musicians as well as young and hip musicians in the south, two nature conservationists, many Acholi teachers and community leaders, children in a school for war affected kids and various Ugandans from all walks of life, classes, tribes and geographic areas ranging from the South West Bugandan regions to the North Western Acholiland.
Taxi Park in Kampala. Grand Central Station for the Ugandan capital.
Back in the States, at the party, I found it hard to talk about anything other than my experiences and observations over the last month... probably to the point of annoyance. I couldn't just be. Even the clean, gleaming, fully operational toilet in the host's bathroom became, to me, a sharp and sudden symbol for America's social isolation from the global culture.
Uganda defeats Nigeria 2 - 1 in Futball. Pushing the country up to #3 in the African Cup ranking. That night the streets of the capital exploded in celebration.
Because I couldn't shut up about my trip, I started making several of the slightly-intoxicated, well-fed, college educated revelers feel a little guilty about their life in general and the party in particular, which was never my intention. I tried to tell them that it was good. Good to be one of the one in sixty-eight high rollers who won the birth lottery and popped out in a place where the odds of seeing three meals a day was as high as a kite. As long as we didn't loose sight of what was real and common and fall into the trap of imagining our lives as normal in relation to the rest of the world, then it was okay to indulge. I mean if we didn't indulge, then who would? The war-torn? The marginalized? The victims of global racism? Hardly. It was up to us. The North American Anglo, quite possibly the most privileged ethno-class in the history of the species, to indulge for all those that God, obviously a white male, had forgotten... or more rightly, taken a heaping shit on.
The streets of Gulu under a full moon. These very streets were filled with the famous Night Commuters just six months prior. Tens of thousands of homeless children migrated daily - up to 12 kilometers - here and to other town centers to sleep safe from rebel abduction, or more likely, in the last few years, government persecution.
Only later did I realize that my incessant talking about the trip at the party was some kind of defense mechanism. A way to keep from fully entering the stream of my first first-world event in over a month. I guess maybe I was afraid of losing some sense of truth that I'd only recently regained. Something about the vast and wide world outside of the borders of myself.
Acholi child at Kunyama IDP camp.
It took longer to get back to my life than I expected. To care about comic books and Internet posting and my Myspace page and foreign movies and cartoons on Adult Swim and You Tube videos. It's even been hard to just pick up a phone and tell the people who I love that I'm safe and sound.
Working hard on the streets of Gulu.
But today, today I started to feel like I was back for the first time. Started to feel American again. So I went into the expansive world of the Internet looking for a meaningless pop-culture fix.
And this is what I found in my Gmail inbox, sent to me from a closed peer network that I grab much of my postings from...
I'd like to contrast the behavior of the 15 year-old infant American in this video with just a handful more of the over 1,400 photographs I took during my trip.
Acholi children at the Koch Goma IDP camp. Those who are not orphaned are left alone in the camps for long stretches of time while their parents strike out looking for work. They will not get a Lexus when they turn 15. Many will not get to turn 15.
Acholi Boy with a bike. During the hight of the conflict there were several cases of the Lord's Resistance Army cutting off the feet of children for riding bycicles.
WFP food drop off at Kunyama IDP camp.
Boy with box awaiting food rations during WFP drop off at Kunyama IDP camp.
Children carrying Jerry Cans of fresh water through the streets of Gulu.
The Laroo school for War Affected Children
Empty desks at Koch Goma school. An institution that has been trying to get up and running since 1994. There are still no students attending Koch Goma free School due to lack of funding, despite the massive, impoverished child population in the surrounding area.
Koch Goma free clinic.
So there you go... just a sampling of the trip.
Anyway, I'm home... so expect further postings on this subject, including excerpts from my travel journals and, eventually, a document entitled "5 OBSTRUCTIONS TO PEACE IN NORTHERN UGANDA". Also expect me to start caring about dumb ass shit again so I can get back to providing quality entertainment in both the comics and Internet medium.
No really... peace.