Archives for posts with tag: Uganda

A glance over at people around me in any given situation in Uganda prompts a flood of thoughts, memories and reflections. Having lived there before, and having returned there recently, each moment brings with it a connection with the past and the present.

At Entebbe airport, a line of young men in polo shirts and sunglasses were in the queue next to me, preparing to board an Eagle Air flight to Gulu in northern Uganda. What were they going there for? I wondered. When I first started travelling to wartorn Gulu in 2002, there was only a handful of NGOs, and therefore only a few white faces, to be seen there. Over the years, as the international community finally started paying some interest in a rebel war which for two decades had resulted in thousands of deaths and child abductions, UN and NGO offices in northern Uganda multiplied, along with plush hotels to house their staff. Now, with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army having left northern Uganda to cause further damage and deaths in neighbouring Congo and Central African Republic, Gulu has beeen restored to some level of normalcy; indications of it embarking on a new stage of development found in the construction of new roads and a large supermarket.

Outside Gulu

Outside Gulu (Photo credit: The Advocacy Project)

And so I glanced curiously at these guys next to me and wondered what Gulu is like now to be attracting these smiling men, who looked as if they’re about to go on safari rather than on the aid missions that were so common there only a few years ago.So much has changed since those days when I worked in Uganda, both within and around me. New hotels, office blocks and shopping malls have sprung up all over Kampala. Places which ten years ago were disused carparks or empty plots where people threw their litter are now busy shopping centres or classy restaurants. But certain things remain the same. The slow, unhurried pace of the traffic; the roadside clothes markets with wire manequins whose hips have been purposefully widened and stretched out to reflect the African woman’s figure; the gruff vocal chords of the male singers on the radio, performing their version of reggae to pre-recorded and synthesised backing music; the calm, quiet, smiling demeanour that is customary to the country’s inhabitants.

Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria (Photo credit: wheresthebrain)

Sitting in an airport café overlooking Lake Victoria, waiting to board my plane to Kenya, I wondered whether I’d be back to Uganda again.  And I still wonder at how I got into this position in the first place; so unexpected and unplanned after a year of gently putting many of these memories of a previous life behind me in order to open myself up to new beginnings and new opportunities. This time last year, did I ever imagine I would find myself back here again?In a meeting the other day, a fellow NGO worker noted casually how coming back to Uganda – after working in other areas and jobs – can feel like going back in time. To a certain extent I agree, especially when it comes to having to put aside our Western-centric values and assumptions in order to accept the African realities of technology not always working properly, or things not always running on time.

And on a personal level too, it is easy to think that somehow my transition from NGO worker to….something else – has taken a backward step. But then transitions are not necessarily about where we physically situate ourselves, nor are they about pushing ourselves towards the new life we think is good for us. They’re about where we are internally at any given moment. The real transformation comes from not pushing, and not assuming anything; in letting the unpredictable, sometimes suprising, sometimes magical and uncontrollable circumstances that life throws at us not seem like a setback in our journey. I have to remind myself regularly that just because things haven’t quite worked out as I’d expected in the last few months – that rather than navigating my way towards academia and studying a Phd I appear to have made a diversion and travelled to a place I lived in ten years ago – things are exactly as they should be.

It feels right to be in this place right now, and that ultimately is what’s important.

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Hidden or suppressed emotions manifest themselves in mysterious ways. When I got back to my hotel room after a relatively uneventful day in the office – which, rather than feeling grateful for I found dull and anti-climactic after the long and busy days of the last week – I didn’t know whether I wanted to scream with anger or burst into tears.

Was this the Monday blues? General exhaustion after spending last week rushing around, chasing the stories behind the Government’s closure of Uganda’s main independent newspaper and other media houses? Or the angst of not knowing what’s going to happen with this job or my future in general? The reasons behind my bad mood seemed hard to pin-point, but either way I’d had a short fuse throughout the day. Moments of irrational anger and irritation arose over the slow internet connection in the office, or because the people I’d hoped to meet in Kampala weren’t answering my calls or e-mails, or because I couldn’t go swimming in the hotel pool after work. This last inconvenience being due to today being a public holiday in Uganda – except, obviously, for my organisation who carried on its fight for human rights whilst the rest of the population enjoyed some time out. The swimming pool was therefore teeming with Ugandan families practising their splashing skills, which severely diminished my chances of having a relaxing evening swim.

And so it was in this state of inner turmoil that I turned to yoga. An obvious solution for many perhaps; but I’ve been a little out of practice over the last few months, preferring to immerse myself in other forms of powerful energy healing. It was only when I returned to the practice the other day with my friend – in an idyllic setting overlooking the River Nile – that I remembered the value of yoga; the way it both invigorates and relaxes, moves you to break into a sweat but also calms you down to a state of stillness and clarity.

The beautiful River Nile in Uganda

The beautiful River Nile in Uganda

The yoga I did today targeted the liver and gall bladder – organs which, in the Chinese meridian system, are where anger and anxiety are often held. And just allowing myself those 45 minutes to observe and accept whatever physical or emotional pain came and went as I held each posture was truly transformative. By the end of the practice my irritation had lifted and was replaced with a feeling of pure bliss.

And not only that. Giving myself that time out has opened up my creative channels, at a time when I felt I’d been suffering badly from writer’s block. My inability to write, and my anger and short temper, were all interlinked of course. Writing is another healing exercise for me, but one only made possible if I allow myself space to breathe and be still amidst the fast pace of human rights work. Which is why as well as returning to yoga, I have also returned to Julia Cameron’s morning pages; letting all the crabbiness I sometimes wake up with – this morning being a perfect example – spill out onto the page before I get up and get on with my day.

I am grateful to have these tools at my disposal. When times get tough and I start battling with my emotions, I know what I can do in order to calm down, rebalance and reconnect. And in doing so, creativity once again flourishes.

Uganda – the home of waragi, of reckless boda boda drivers, of rolexes and of matoke (definitions to follow). And my home for a number of years.

It was only as I sat in the back of  a cab on the way to my hotel from the airport that I had a chance to reflect on the personal enormity of me returning here; the last week having been another whirlwind of actions and reactions on ongoing forced evictions in Kenya.

English: Boda-boda. Uganda, somewhere on A109 ...

English: Boda-boda. Uganda, somewhere on A109 Road, between Jinja and Malaba Русский: Бода-бода. Уганда, на трассе А109, между Джинджей и Малабой. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we drove along the Entebbe-Kampala Road, all the familiar landmarks of yesteryear were there. The chapati traders preparing the juicy and satisfying rolexes (fried eggs rolled up in chapati), lit only by a candle on the otherwise pitch black roadside; boda boda drivers (motorcyle taxis), carrying up to four passengers, squeezing their way through traffic; the clocktower which now, unlike when I lived here, actually has a working clock, and which is the epicentre of Kampala’s worsening traffic jams.

And with these sights returned my memories of a place I called home ten years ago. Memories of sitting on those perilous boda bodas, ignoring their danger and instead appreciating their efficiency in the Kampala traffic. Of drunken parties with too much waragi, the local gin distilled from bananas, one of Uganda’s most important cash crops. Of day long NGO workshops with long speeches by proud officials and with bored participants, waiting eagerly for their free buffet lunch of assorted meat stews, beans, rice and matoke – mashed green bananas, the national dish. Of listening to live reggae music in the warm outdoors. Of falling in love.

My years in Uganda in many ways shaped my life. There were many experiences that would challenge me – from meeting former child soldiers, both male and female, who had been forcefully recruited by the Lord’s Resistance Army to looking after the psychologically damaged man I had fallen in love with, in a country where mental health problems are associated with juju – witchcraft – and adequate health services are scarce.

, Road side market between Kampala and Entebbe

, Road side market between Kampala and Entebbe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m returning to Uganda a very different person from those days. Older and wiser, sure. And more self-aware – I think. As the days have gotbusier and longer, my time for self-reflection and checking in has diminished. I find myself rushing from one thing to another, panicking, getting irritable….and I know it’s because there has not been time and space to take a deep breath – literally – and listen to my heart. My head has been ruling the show with plans, preparations and mental documentation of sad, sometimes horrific stories. I am confronted with them every day – whether it’s directly from victims or second-hand; like my taxi driver in Nairobi yesterday who told me he’d seen three young men dying that morning, who had just been burned to death by the local community – mob justice for attempted robbery on a house. There is little time to dwell, to get upset or to show pity. If there was, I wouldn’t get much actual work done. And so I rely on those moments when I can write. Or 15 minutes in the morning to meditate. These are the brief moments I have to open my heart, to process and to release what I’ve been holding.

Being in Uganda will bring extra challenges for me. There is a major human rights crisis to work on – the Government’s raid on a leading independent newspaper. One of many signs that the President – now in power for 27 years – plans to step up already draconian measures aimed at suppressing dissent in his country. Our response as a human rights NGO will be proactive and uncompromising in its condemnation. The work will be exhilerating, but I look forward to when my feet touch the ground again and I can fully enjoy being back here. Uganda has always been close to my heart, and my memories of this country are so much more than the personal and external tragedies that lie within my experience of living here. Uganda, it’s good to be back.

It’s been a week for odd and unexpected interactions. I escaped what I feared was a Buddhist cult after feeling uneasy by the rigid prayers and worshiping practices of its followers; nothing like the dharma of the Dalai Lama or Thai and Burmese traditions. I had a psychic screening at Tate Modern’s new, contemporary art and performance space called the Tanks, which was followed by a spontaneous discussion about personal affirmations and poetry with a participant of the performance art piece in the Turbine Hall.

English: Shibboleth, Tate Modern, London

English: Shibboleth, Tate Modern, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I even spoke to some boys at a house party in Brixton – haven’t done that in a while! But the reason it’s been odd is that I’ve found myself opening up in unexpected ways – talking to people I barely know about quite personal matters.

Take today for instance. I visited a Qi Wellness Centre, where I was given a traditional Korean acupressure and sound massage. According to the Qi Master who saw me, I’m holding a lot of anger. Chinese medicine – and its adaptations in Korea, Japan and elsewhere – is all about finding the underlying causes of a particular ailment; trying to understand on a deeper level what is happening to a person when they suffer a physical complaint. In my case, as the Qi Master performed the massage I could feel tensions and knots most acutely in the area of my liver and intestine; which according to the Chinese meridian system, has a direct connection to my right knee – where of course I’ve had an injury for several years. Knots in the area of our bowels are associated with holding onto and repressing anger. The Qi Master asked if I felt I held anger over anything. Funny that, as only last night I was watching a programme about Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been responsible for thousands of deaths and child abductions in northern Uganda and neighbouring countries. This was a conflict I worked on for several years, whilst living in Uganda and Kenya, so perhaps no surprise that I would react in some way. But the emotion that arose whilst watching this programme was hard to describe; I felt myself tensing up, and although part of me wanted to cry another part of me wanted to throw something at the television – particularly when the face of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni appeared, as he is as much to blame as anyone else for the grinding poverty and injustice faced by the population of northern Uganda.

I told the Qi Master that perhaps I hold anger related to the work I’ve been doing the last few years. Although this surprises me, because actually I’m not an angry person. My reaction last night to the programme about Joseph Kony was in some ways more extreme than any I had when I actually worked in Uganda. The same applies to when I read about another Palestinian demonstrator being shot at during a protest against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. I want to shout, scream or cry in a way which didn’t really seem to affect me during the year that I lived in the West Bank and had all of that happening on my doorstep. So yes, maybe I have repressed anger, I found myself admitting to the Qi Master.

She then went on to discuss how tensions in our stomach or bowels may be inherited, or may be a symptom of a previous trauma, or a current emotional problem. I had an eating disorder when I was fifteen, I found myself suddenly blurting out. That was a bad period for me; if I wasn’t holding a lot of anger then I was certainly holding a lot of grief and insecurity – over my appearance (a bit plump with braces) and over the fact that I was being bullied at school and had no friends. I’m glad, and extremely grateful, to say now I’m over all of that. Or apparently not, if the pain in my intestine and bowels, and by association my knee, is anything to go by! I wait to see what comes up in my next session.

On a lighter note, I have to talk about my Tate Modern experience. This is worth a mention, as usually on a visit to Tate Modern gallery one expects to see a beautiful painting, or an impressive and abstract installation. Bar a few predictably provocative pieces in the Damien Hirst exhibition (nevertheless impressive), what my day in Tate Modern was all about was communicating with strangers. The newly opened Tanks in the basement of the gallery had a room with a series of desks and chairs, separated by dividers. At each of these sat a psychic healer; if I wanted to, I could be given a ‘screening’, I was told by the bright and chirpy female usher, as if this was completely normal in an art gallery. I thought, why not? I’m a girl in transition, this time is all about new discoveries. I then found myself being interviewed by a redheaded, bohemian looking woman who, after asking me the basic question of what job I do (which, actually, isn’t the easiest question for me to answer right now), launched into a far deeper inquiry with ‘what are your thoughts on honesty?’ and ‘do you consider yourself an honest person?’ This was followed up by questions such as ‘do you consider yourself a spiritual or religious person?’ and ‘what are your thoughts on power…How would you like to exercise power’ I have no idea what all of this was about – there was no big insight or nugget of wisdom at the end of it. I was simply told that the exercise was part of a bigger creative project aimed at fusing art with spirituality and politics, and that I may be contacted again by e-mail.

Not long after that, I found myself in the Turbine Hall – the sprawling space at the entrance of the Tate Modern which is used for free installations and creative art displays. Here too, unexpectedly, I ended up talking to someone I barely knew about quite personal issues. There I was, sitting on the floor checking my phone, when I man in his sixties (who up until that point had been running up and down the hall with a bunch of other performance artists) sat down next to me and asked, out of the blue, whether I keep any special words close to me, in my pocket or my bag, to give me strength or encouragement. I found myself opening up again, quite spontaneously, telling him about the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and some of her exercises which encourage these kinds of creative affirmations. If I’d been approached by this man in the street, or on the bus, I probably would have shied away like anyone else, or worse still thought he was completely bonkers. But because he was in the Tate Modern, in a place of ideas and creativity, I talked to him like it was quite normal to be approached in such a way. It turned out he had decided to try contemporary dance a few years ago – ‘because you can be terrible at it but still do it’ – he told me. And now here was, taking part in a piece of participatory peformance in the Tate Modern.

All this suggested to me that, unlike the stiff, wary personas that us Brits tend to emulate on the bus or train, or even at a public gathering among strangers, we actually do like to communicate with each other. If we are in a safe space, where we don’t feel threatened and where we can just let go and join in, we actually open up and want to share our experiences. Says the girl who’s writing a blog….but all these incidence have shown to me how if we surrender, if we give a bit of ourselves, then we may be surprised by what occurs, and by what we get back in return.

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