Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Homes Away from Home

Out of curiosity, I sat down to make a list of all the host families I've had outside of the U.S. over the past 13 or so years. That is, families who have hosted me for at least one night, often longer, and most often without any form of compensation. I was surprised and delighted to see that the grand total was (at least) 20 families. They are people who have hosted me in Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Botswana, South Africa, Uganda, Norway, England, Guatemala, and Mexico.

A flurry of faces crossed my mind during this exercise in memory recall. It's difficult to imagine my life without having had these experiences. The people I've met while traveling have had a profoundly enriching affect on me. Some have offered a startling new perspective on the world. Others have offered a kinship so familiar, as if a longtime companion. Yet others have simply made me feel safe. There are times when it actually seems to break my heart to say goodbye. Sure, I often stay in touch, and sometimes even meet again, but mostly I just relive those dear moments with a warmth in my heart.

I marvel at life when I think of how close I've been to missing the chance to know these families and have these meaningful encounters. An arrival one day later, a bounceback email, an airplane seat change, a dismissed greeting from a stranger, an alternative flight in inclement weather: any of these would have changed the course of things. What a lovely thing that none of us knows the rhyme or reason behind much of anything.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Month (in Uganda and Ethiopia) at a Glance

I've written a few posts about my experiences in East Africa, but some may wonder what I actually did for a month, so I've compiled this list of sites visited.
  • Makerere University Business School (MUBS) (Kampala, Uganda)
  • Quality Chemicals Limited (QCL), a leading pharmaceutical company in Africa that produces ARVs and anti-malarials (Kampala, Uganda)
  • Good Shepard Home Missionaries for the Poor, an orphanage (Kampala, Uganda)
  • Gulu Referral Hospital (Gulu, Uganda)
  • Nakasero Primary School (Kampala, Uganda)
  • World Vision's Children of War Rehabilitation Center (Gulu, Uganda)
  • Pabbo IDP camp, which was home to nearly 70,000 Internally Displaced Persons during the recent civil war (the current population is less than half that) (near Gulu, Uganda)
  • Primary and secondary schools (Gulu, Uganda)
  • Vocational School (Gulu, Uganda)
  • Gulu University (Gulu, Uganda)
  • Baker's Fort, a former slave market (near Gulu, Uganda)
  • School for the Mentally Handicapped (Kampala, Uganda)
  • Mildmay HIV/AIDS Counseling and Treatment Centre (Kampala, Uganda)
  • Farm -- poultry, pigs, coffee and cows (near Kampala, Uganda)
  • National Museum of Uganda (Kampala, Uganda)
  • Beauty Tips School of Beauty graduation ceremony (Kampala, Uganda)
  • Kyagalanyi Coffee Ltd (Kampala, Uganda) 
  • Armenian Club (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)
  • Wise-Up, which is a generic condom promotion program targeting sex workers, their clients and gatekeepers, and other most at-risk populations(Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)
  • St. George Beer Brewery (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)
  • Ethnographic Museum of Ethiopia (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)
  • Ethiopian Night at Abyssynia restaurant (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia -- see post-aerobic dancing photo below)
  • Church of Uganda (Anglican) service, including 40 baptisms (Kampala, Uganda)
  • Church of Uganda (Anglican) choir rehearsal (Gulu, Uganda)
  • 10+ Rotary Club meetings around Uganda and a Rotary conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Music Diplomacy

Without a doubt, the most useful cross-cultural skills that I have were taught to me by my dad. A dove call with my hands and another sound made with a blade of grass between my thumbs. Since I learned them initially as a child, I've had ample opportunities to use them as an ice breaker of sorts. Men and children are especially interested in learning these skills, while for some reason women are more reluctant to give them a try. I've developed an impressive range on the dove call, I don't mind saying, so my repertoire includes actual songs. Crossing linguistic barriers, they offer an easy and fun way to engage with nearly anyone in the world. Dad will be surprised to learn how such a small lesson became a big asset.

Another asset is that of song. A couple of weeks ago, when driving from Gulu to Kampala, Uganda, we had a flat tire in a small village. Three of my compatriots headed directly to what turned out to be a lively church service under a tree. After a few minutes, I tried to engage some shy village children with my aforementioned bird call skills. They giggled as I showed them the calls from several meters away, unsuccessfully attempting to replicate the calls themselves. They were clearly interested in this "muzungu" (Kiswahili for white person), but afraid to get too close. After awhile, I grabbed my guitar from the van and went back into the field of grass to sit down and play. Now doubly intrigued, a bunch of children immediately gathered around to look and listen, bringing with them a cloud of small flies. Two adult men, too, found places to sit at the front and asked about the music I played and sang. Some 40 minutes passed and I was sad to learn that the spare tire had been repaired and put in place, so we were ready to go. The children who had been so shy just 40 minutes prior to that warmly waved as I returned to the van and we continued down the road. A serendipitous connection indeed.

In northern Uganda, home to countless orphans of war and HIV/AIDS, I was invited to sing a song at a local Rotary meeting. The song choice was easy. "Orphan Girl," often performed by Gillian Welch, is one of my favorites and the first I learned to play on a guitar. A normally chatty bunch of Ugandans fell silent while I sang. The song held deep meaning for me before this trip, but it became more significant for me among these people who have themselves been orphaned and for the others who have provided for the many who have been orphaned. The song reflects their sorrows, and their hope.

Polygamy in Uganda

Ugandans, especially the women, have thought a lot more about polygamy than I have. That wasn't clear to me until I had a frank conversation with one particular man in Kampala a couple of weeks ago. (If you're wondering, Uganda is a largely Christian country and this man claimed the Christian faith.) Just minutes into the conversation, I learned that he has two wives and 11 children (with three different mothers). At age 42, he has one son in his third year of law school. I don't know how the conversation turned so quickly and squarely to the topic, but I was eager to hear a man's thoughts on the matter.

Each of his wives and their respective children live in a separate home, so where he sleeps each night... well, he says, that just depends. I explain that this would be (or is) a prohibitively expensive way to live in the US and he nods in agreement, stating that it isn't easy in Uganda either. I inquire about his wives' education levels and he tells me that they both hold bachelor's degrees and full-time professional jobs. He paid seven cows and one bull for his first wife, but the second family didn't ask for as much. In other terms, I figure that the cost of his first wife was roughly the equivalent of a respectable down payment on a house in a medium-sized US city.

I asked if he has "side dishes" (one campaign's term for girlfriends outside of marriage) and his response was, "It can happen." If you ask him, he's quite an astute polygamist. Other men approach him for advice on how to tell their first wives about their newly produced children and other wives, and how to integrate the children from different mothers. Indeed, what an awkward dinner topic. They ask him because he somehow manages to pile most of his eight daughters and three sons into a van for outings. Fortunately, he intends to share his findings by writing a book.

When I asked what he might do if one of his wives had an affair, "Run away like mad," he said emphatically. I pointed out that we would call that a double standard and asked if he realized how insane that is. "I realize that... it is not just," he finally responded after I pressed for an answer. For emphasis, he added that he'd feel the same way if one of his girlfriends had an affair. What a tremendous sense of ownership that someone can feel about three or more women concurrently.

So, maybe you're wondering what kind of a sex god this guy is? Well, I can assure you that he wouldn't catch my eye a second time (and probably not a first time either). He seems capable enough in business, though, which provides the kind of financial security that many vulnerable women might seek. Better to be the second or third wife and have something than risk having nothing at all. He maintained that a very high percentage of Ugandan men live something like this, but the majority are not open about it. Even if they are open and a woman feels that polygamy is not for her, few will find support from their mothers, mothers-in-law or grandmothers who were one of five or six wives and will quickly point out their good fortune of being one of just two or three wives.

This was not an isolated conversation about polygamy. In fact, I can't tell you how often it came up in conversation. It's not my place to judge how others manage their personal relationships, but it is clear that Ugandan women are not altogether pleased that this is their reality. The bottom line is that more wives and children (and side dishes) results in fewer resources for everyone. Fewer resources means less education. And less education means continuing cycles of poverty. And then there is the issue of HIV/AIDS. The first concern of a Ugandan woman who suspects or knows that her husband has another sexual partner is whether or not he has brought home disease to her and their future children. So, Ugandan women hope that their husbands are faithful, while remaining realistic about the possibility, knowing that they would not be alone.