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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Feast of Saint Kyambogo

Rarely does an event exceed expectations. Rarely do words justify events that do. So without further ado....some photos. Finally. 

(Photos courtesy of Mercy Tumwebeze) 

Damalie and Maxwel looking dapper
Seera, Racheal, and Ivan before the food is served

Alex had such a big night...spilling wine all over, drinking Nile Special like it was going out of style. Here he's spread eagle on the lawn.

The rains pelted Kampala from one to three but let up just in time for the gala to begin. The caterers (Irene, Esther, et al....thank you, thank you!!!) were fantastic. 

Moses going thru the line
Sister Barbara Jackline (SBJ) after dinner.
Rebecca, isabella, Charlotte, and Bridget (from left to right)

Catering buddies Irene and Esther come through with a feast worthy of a holiday
Ben, Paul, Dillis, Julius and Richard going to town. Notice Ben's facial expression on far left.
On the South Lawn
"And then she put the chicken in my mouth..."

Everybody loves a good hammock (Seera, me, Thomas, Brenda, and Allen)
Receiving my Crown Crested Crane Frame from the Students.  Of course I dropped it twenty minutes later. Luckily nothing broke.
Pross reading the original poem written by Ivan (not pictured)

And the arm wrestling begins!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Thanksgiving before Thanksgiving

"It is that time of year again...a time for forgiveness.. and a big ol' plate of turkey..and sausage! It's also a time to think about the kids..." 
- Will Ferrell as Robert Goulet

I am hosting 82 students and staff at my place tomorrow afternoon. Turkey, chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, matooke, pasho, spaghetti, melons, Sprite, Stoney, and Crest for all (that's Crest the soft drink, not toothpaste).

But today is really Thanksgiving. And I had a little moment this evening. Dan's gone for three days. He summoned my attention after a contentious meeting at my department head's office. I had had a rough morning, but nothing compared to his. His cousin died mysteriously yesterday. Dan was in charge of identifying the body and making arrangements for its return to their clan. The body had to be taken nearly 600 miles north to a village near the Sudanese border. Dan has a long week ahead of him. Missing my party is the least of his concerns.
His daughter, Harriet, 16, has taken over housekeeping duties. And she does it with a smile. After finishing a run, showering, and changing into my smoking jacket for the sunset, she presented me with four husks of corn.
"You cannot eat the hard ones, so I find you soft ones. I come with them. You wait..."
Harriet disappeared behind the hedges through the stalks of corn rising like an inferno. When she returned, I had my very own Thanksgiving meal without even thinking about it.
So now, having spent the last 48 hours worrying about my visa status, final exam, thanksgiving party, and the last push before Christmas, I am cooking a meal of Holland steak, basted in barbecue sauce, two ears of corn, mangoes, and a bottle of South African wine. All the while, the sky turns from fluorescent teal to purplish-orange. November sunsets are a thing of beauty here. It makes me want to go hunt rhino or sharpen a knife or something.

After dusk, throughout all of Kyambogo, boys huddle around lamp posts with empty plastic bags and bottles, hoping to catch the elusive grasshoppers. There were hundreds of them fluttering about the dim glows from street lamps.

I invited Harriet and her best friend over tomorrow for our Turkey dinner as well as a few other teachers and people that have helped me the past three months. Regardless of any differences, food and parties bring people together. And the students are so eager to help. One has donated her speakers and several hours of Ugandan music for the entertainment. Another has promised to bring her digital camera. A third asked if I needed any sweeping or dusting before people arrive. Um, yeah. BIG TIME!

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I wrote this on Tusker lager

The mob scene outsided the Registrar's office increased on Saturday. Those officers on duty gave up by eleven a.m., ceding duties to…..um....

Beleaguered students waited in the midday heat, lips pursed, shoulders lowered. Their posture said it all… thoughts, hopes, prayers…all unanswered. Many of them had all but told me they would not be at the final, not because of malaise or fear or doubt, but rather because of money.  
Depressed as I was, unable to do anything but denounce the system and commiserate alongside, I had made a plan to see something with my Saturday. And noon time was nearing.

The smell of nile perch and sea scum penetrated my snifferers as the boda sped closer and closer toward the phalanx of hustlers on ggaba road. I could smell the lake before I saw it.  Locals in tank tops, gold bracelets and shaved heads stood idly under coffee trees, eyeing the road like hungry wolves. And those were just the women. 

You could buy anything on Ggaba road: bed frames and toasters, coffee urns and wooden upholstery lined both sides of the tarmac. Cows and goats found their niches in the cracks and intersections, grazing and scratching the flies circling them. I knew I was going to be burned five minutes after leaving kyambogo. How stupid not to bring a hat on a sunny day in east Africa. 

A boy shadowed me the minute I had de-straddled the boda. I saw sand, the bay, and a stage filled with locals carrying burlap sacks of grains and rice in between their dark legs. A few boats moved back and forth to the rhythm of the water.
“We go…let’s go.” The boy kept repeating.
'No we don't go. We don't frickin' go!
7,000 shillings became 5,000, then 3,000 the closer I got to the pontoons. Six of them were floating amidst the olive green lake muck, awash with oil and fumes and plastic bottles up and down the shore. I avoided eye contact, somehow my sixth sense sensing this kid was a little too green around the gills.
I spotted two calcium-white men climbing into a boat beside the boy. Their skin was silently crying out to turn off the sun. I waved and followed them, shrugging at my predator who had spent so much of his energy trying to hustle me. In the end, his struggle with the English language became his undoing.
“How far across?” I asked.
“Five hours. We go now. Get in. Let us go...”

I could see the opposite shoreline not more than a kilometer in the distance. Minus the crocs, stench, pollution and hippos, I might have even been able to swim it in five hours.
“My book says fifteen minutes.”
“Yes, fifteen minutes. Get in now.”
“A minute ago you said five hours.”
“Five minutes… yes five minutes.”

I waved good-bye to the boy that afternoon and sat on a plank beside calcium-enriched Eric from Wisconsin.
He and Terry were missionaries, teaching computer programming in the Congo. Both had the same receding hairline, graying temples, rosy cheeks and milky white calves. Their toes should have had socks on them. I was in the midst of a sermon before I knew it.

Fifteen minutes later we were on the shores of Murchison Bay, in Bule. Four bodas and three cows greeted us as we disembarked. I originally thought the odor was coming from the cows.  I climbed on the first boda I saw and away we went. 

We rose to a crest in the dirt road and then flew across the path, scattering pebbles and stones in our wake. We passed forests of pines, a sweeping view of the outline of the peninsula and then turned right down a dirt path toward the lagoon resort.
The rest of the scenery? Naked or near-naked toddlers, distended stomachs, mini-afros, white teeth; their pudgy little arms waving the moment I come in sight. Many of them ran after me with empty jerry cans, nothing but a rag around their waste. The heat didn’t dampen their spirit or fatigue their 
The boda’s b.o. was pretty rank. Beyond words, really. Like hot garbage mixed with a middle school locker room after wrestling practice. I leaned back to inhale the harbor breeze as best I could. Give me manure, give me rotten tilapia, anything but the guy in front of me. Luckily the ride lasted no more than ten minutes. Me and b.o.da sloped into the lagoon resort just before my nose fell off.

The resort was on a wonderful plot of land, on the south side of the bay, overlooking a bluish-green cove and grayish sandy beach. The german owner (we’ll call him Klaus) had landscaped the entrance with sprawling lawns, cute baby palms, and a tiled pathway leading to a turquoise pool. No one was swimming or laying out. 
Klaus was lanky. Yes, lanky indeed, stretched out in his work pants and unbuttoned polo, flip flops and shaggy brown hair. His lips were the only part of his face with any life to it. How did a guy like that set up camp here? I wondered.
“We have lunch for thirty.” 
“Thirty thousand?” I asked.
“Dollars. It’s three courses with dessert, ja…”

I could tell he didn’t care less whether I stayed or went. This was Bule. Woolly Bule.  
I swallowed. “Got any sandwiches?’
“Um, ja.” He signaled to the waiter behind him. “I think he can make you beef sandwich, somssing like that. You like the beef?”
“The beef would be great.”
Besides Klaus and his two, loyal german shepherds, the place was a ghost-strasse. The food was excellent though. Klaus came through. Toasted bread with succulent, tangy mustard sauce, sautéed beef, with a small salad of lettuce and baby carrots. Criss-cross fries burnt to a crisp. A cold Nile Special to wash it all down…I spent a good hour reading my book, eschewing the longing looks of dieter and helmet, and watching two fishermen cast their nets of the rickety wooden dock in the distance as a gentle breeze floated the palm leaves all around me.
B.O.da driver was asleep on the lawn when I returned from lunch. The midday had evidently baked him, filleting his torso as insects the size of harmonicas swooped down for a closer look at his pigment.

We continued on to kabanga, a town of modest dwellings made of brick and timber. More of the same really: children shouting, carrying jerry cans of water; mothers sitting in shade staring at a moving vehicle; Young couples walking hand in hand, teeth missing, heading into the forest for village hickies.

Back on campus, I hadn’t missed much. The lines hadn’t progressed in Kyambogo. In fact, they’d doubled in length. The same students were outside waiting. What had they missed? My forehead was now the color of salmon meat.

Sunday morning I stepped out the door to find paul and veronica on my porch. Were they stalking, scouting, squatting, casing?
No, they had just come to find out their marks. On Sunday morning…outside my home. My double cowlick was standing on all fours, begging for an insult.

Monday brought Seth to my doorstep. I was reading when he made a bee-line for my right hand.
‘morning, sir.’
He looked away, awkward and diffident. What did he want?     
‘I will not come to the finals, sir. I cannot pay tuition.’

On Wednesday, I got an unlisted call at dinner time. A female student needed to talk. I sensed a foreboding omen approaching the minute I saw her visage.
‘I’ve got a problem and i….don’t know if I’ll make it to your final, sir. I’ve partially paid for my tuition and they said I shouldn’t sit for yours.’
‘Who’s going to catch you?’ I asked.
‘The bursars…They come and check our examination cards.’
I racked my brain for what a bursar might be. Then I started thinking about a bursa sack, which segued into balsa wood. Then I started musing about an old friend, Robin Wood, which reminded me about Middle School Shop Class and Mr. Altheide’s loveable stutter. That got me back to a thought on trivets, wood in general, Woodrow Wilson, Woody from Cheers, Woody's girlfriend from Cheers, Woody Allen, and then a student I had in my day class named Allen.
‘These things have a way of working themselves out,’ I finally said. ‘Whatever you do, come to the exam.’

The Day before Thanksgiving
Today might have been a low point in my stay. I walked in for a meeting this morning to find out the progress of my work visa.
There had been no progress. Since my trip to the embassy for signatures, the documents had been collecting dust on my department head’s inbox. To assure me of his due-diligence, he walked me the forty yards and two flights of stairs to The Office of Legal Affairs in the Admin building.
‘Two weeks minimum.’ Winfried stated flatly. She was swatting at a fly the size of a titleist when she said it.
‘But my visa runs out Monday. Will you guy reimburse me for the re-entry permit? Will you pay for my transport to Nairobi?’
“I don’t think that is possible.”


So as of ten a.m. this morning, I was looking into Sunday morning bus fares to Nairobi, Kenya.

That’s when I met the world’s worst boda driver in the world. His upper lip scar should have given it away. I had to bring out the map to show him where he was taking me. Always a bit unnerving when you get your words repeated back to you, a nod, and then a jubilant ‘We go!’ Regardless, it didn’t stop me 
from hopping on.

We stopped six times: once for change, once because we ran out of gas, once for boda to shake hands with three of his other boda homeys, and three times for directions.
We also nearly capsized in freshly laid dirt on the right shoulder of the road. Wouldn’t have been such a big deal if people drove on the right side of the road here. He drove down two one-way streets going the wrong way, fish-tailed coming out of a pot hole, and nearly broke my right ankle re-starting the car near the Serena Hotel. When we arrived at the bus station, he ran off with my money, hollering something about directions while I stood baking in the African sun next to his pathetic boda. In the meantime I learned the bus station had moved two years before, making the trip completely useless. When he finally came back I just shook my head at him and crossed the road.

Luckily, the embassy is trying to sort things out on my behalf. I’m due there Friday for a meeting with H.R.

Friday, November 19, 2010


The daily goings on at Kyambogo can best be described as puzzling.

I see large masses of students sitting under a tarp at the campus branch of Stanbic bank, waiting - sometimes all day - for a number. Through rainstorms, and lectures, church services, and demonstrations, they wait. And wait...

This has gone on all semester long. Some days it's packed. Sometimes it's a trickle. But it's been incessant. And puzzling.

Other mobs of students convene in Peace Park, for peaceful sing-songs and acapella choir tunes. Christmas is coming. Hosanna in the highest. Peace Park, with its crowning firs and banana trees, long, knee-high elephant grass and scattered benches, is a recluse from the clamor of classrooms and courtyard mob scenes.

Meanwhile, outside my office, masses of young men and women queue outside a long shoddy desk next to the urinals, waiting patiently to prove tuition payments have been made. This is in order to receive their student registration cards. The cards contain their glossy head shots and Kyambogo's ink seal on a index-sized card. It allows them to enter yet another line, also massively impressive, just to the right of the previous one. This is for a final exam card, the crown jewel of cards this time of year. This card gets them into their finals, tantamount to an VIP pass into the hallowed night club of continuing higher education.

This process also brings some of them to tears. They have studied, read, taken notes, and crammed for the past twelve weeks. It's soon time for them to prove their learned minds are ready for the next step. But only if....

Money talks here. And like everywhere else, if you haven't paid, you will not play. You will not live to learn another day. With tuition fees rising as much as 25 % this fall, some families are hit hard with the burden of a cost one month before Christmas. This child might be number six of eight or simply waiting at the wrong time. Maybe dad hasn't worked in two years or mom lost her job. Maybe mom never had a job and the burden of two kids in college is too much this fall. These are individual stories. They cannot be encapsulated in one blog.

But the questions I ask are 'why is this all taking place a week before finals?' Why is everything so last-minute here? Who is running this type of operation for 8.000 students? Has it worked in the past?'

I held office hours for students yesterday in room 010 in the Faculty of Arts building. It's on the first floor. The courtyard outside my window is Ground Zero for the registration chaos. Heaps of co eds stand, slouch, hang, and nudge towards the front of each line. The voices, piano and orderly at first, crescendo at particular bad news. Or a delay in the line's movement. I spot Phiona and Brenda outside in the middle of one of the mobs.
"What is going on?" I ask. There seemed to be no order. No solidarity. No movement. And worst of all, no direction.
"We are waiting to get our registration cards."
I could sense their fatigue and frustration. Thursday was another warm day. They had been standing in the same spot for almost four hours.

Thirty feet down the hill, a massive group waited outside Stanbic bank, hoping to make it into the bank before six o'clock. The way the sun was positioned, fading behind storm clouds and Ntinda Hill, it didn't look like they'd make it.

Some students find out bad news just days before the first exam is to begin: a family member cannot deliver them the requisite tuition. 200 dollars short might as well be a million. Short is short. They have no recourse but to wait, or pray, or cry.

Throughout campus, the same scene plays out in front of my bewildered eyes. While I stroll the grassy footpaths to my secure office, collecting fresh air in my lungs, and perspective on the week, confusion and frustration take over student life. These same students who have been in my classroom, shared their thoughts on paper and in lecture halls, et frantically. These same students whose semesters hang in the balance, while I meander two hundred yards away, are circling me like victims in a bad dream. I hear their voices in my head: 'Help us! Do something! Fix all this!'

I don't like it.

I try to understand. I listen to their stories. I hear the worries in their voices despite their smiles and laughter. I focus on what I can control. What I came here to do.

Meanwhile, they make the best of the situation. Most of them stay positive. They commiserate together, in packs, waiting it out with friends and classmates. But the situation has got to wear thin.

I live around them but, in reality, I don't live anywhere near them. I am on an island of security and promise, in a three-room compound with a yard, a garden and a security guard. Their turmoil is harbored in self-contained square rooms the size of a Shawshank cell; their world is a competitive, unfair conglomerate of despair mixed with hope and prayers.  Many of them live in one room tenements; four walls covered in clothing and chipped paint.The self-contained cement floors are hidden by rugs and two beds and - if they are lucky - a desk with a computer. Outside, there is a courtyard latrine and a bucket for showering, cooking, and cleaning. They have dishes and pots, a boiler, clothes, purses, neckties and luggage. Somewhere down the hallways someone has a TV. They all congregrate to watch soaps at night. Maybe the Venezuelan one with that steamy bo-hunk, Juan. Perhaps the Mexican one with the crazy, witchlike females with heavy make-up. Everyone's hanging up laundry in between rooms. Somewhere, someone is cooking rice or pasta. Their evenings center around meals. Noise permeates these nooks, acrid smoke fills your lungs passing by these areas at night, wondering who really lives in these places. My students live in these places.

I try to put myself in their shoes, make life easier for them, and listen to their stories. They are going to be all right. The students of mine are bright and positive and motivated. They thirst for knowledge. They actually come to my office hours. They actually ask for grammar books, rules for punctuation, and for any novel they can get their hands on. Information is gold here. And gold is a rarity in these parts.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A week in November

Hospital anyone?
I hadn’t been feeling all that great this week and needed to see a doctor. Why not add a gash the size of a milk dud while I’m at it?

But this is east Africa and I’m supposed to be fending off wildebeests and adders with fangs the size of John Elway’s front teeth. If I had to go the hospital, I wanted it to be for a crocodile fight or a suicide dragon fly attack, not a coffee mug exploding into the fleshy part of my left palm as I washed dishes. But there it was.

Dan and I walked across campus as dusk fell on Kampala. He insisted on coming. My left hand was wrapped in an orange towel, gushing with fresh blood, soaked in cold tap water and wound tightly against a cauterized bandage that needed replacement.

The Medical Center on campus reminded me of a World War I Army hospital. A nurse with stringy black hair and a marigold house dress walked down a dark corridor with a faint light at the far end of it. She had Gary Shandling’s lips and the gait of John Goodman. There was no doctor. 

“You need one stitch but I can’t do it here. You can go to Banda for it.”
“Banda?” I asked with the fear of God. Going to Banda for anything medical was like going to Pyongyang for a Peace Conference. Dan just shook his head.
Twenty minutes later, I waited for my boda by the back gate as Dan burned brush and mango leaves next to a rotting tree. The sun had just set but already my night was over. 

I spent the next two hours at a British Medical Clinic. Two Serbian men sat to my right, one of them shaking with symptoms of malaria, the other smiling furtively in my direction. 'Be still…’ I thought. 'Be very still.'

An Italian doctor with speckled gray hair talked plainly in her office as I showed her the damage. Minus the peroxide burn, things went smoothly. But smoothly is a relative term. Compared to the convulsing Ugandan women in Bed 4 and Aussie Guy walking in and out of the room with an IV, white slippers and a nightgown, yes. It went smoothly.

By the way, I still teach 

The week of class went well. Owen Henry, a thoughtful, conservative man in his mid forties, opened up to the class about squandering his village’s wealth in his first three weeks in the capital city. He was the first in his village to make it to college and they had a collection for him before he left. Apparently, he went hog wild on candy and electronics. Before he knew what hit him. POOF! If you know Owen Henry - a man old enough to be his classmates' father - you would have died. A gentler man you could not meet.  

Rachel and Ismail continue to write nearly flawless essays. How many smiley faces can one teacher put in the margins. 

Saida, a Muslim girl with gap front teeth and a weave, showed up for the first time on Wednesday. Do I admit her? Should I kick her out? Is there even a precedent for that here? I rang my boss but got no reply.
Two days later, I saw Sister Frances ended the mystery.
“Dr. Okaka is in Thigh-land, Mattayo.”
“Thailand?” I repeated.
“Yes. Thailand. That is how I should pronounce it. How are youuuuuuuu? Are you okayyyyyyyyy?

Sometimes I feel like I'm eleven years old when I talk to Sister Frances. 

(Psssssssssssssst: I'm not)

I had students “teach” their classmates Thursday to review key terms and the vocab they have been studying. Really got to see some talent in front of the class. Many of them are going to be great teachers. Some already have that presence. That it factor. That magical aura. Others shyly approached the board, fumbled the chalk and needed reassuring glances to continue. I would really like to do more of that next semester. Turning these students into teachers is a lot more exciting than lecturing them on the precepts of a five paragraph essay.


Drebin walks in and finds Jane in his kitchen. She's boiling a steak.

Jane: How hot and wet do you like it?
Drebin:  Very hot....and awfully wet.

It has been very hot and awfully wet here too. Thundering as we speak. 
The rainy season is mercifully winding down though, or so the calendar states. The spiders and geckos are out in full force, especially in my kitchen. The very same kitchen is bloodied and battered with cracks and holes and cobwebs and other living things that come out at night. Barking frogs live in the rain puddles next to my porch. Crickets and grasshoppers lie furtively in the elephant grass and maize stalks.

My inner Forrest Gump
I went for a run yesterday morning to get my mind off things. It was overcast. The first real overcast morning without rain in the time I have been here. By the time I had reached the apex of my climb, the city was awash in sunlight. With the slums of Banda and Kireka in the distance, beams of sunlight bounced of the corrugated iron roofs and dust clouds and shards of red granules flew into my eyes as dark Mercedes and taxis sped by.

The last leg of my run, through the shortcut dirt path between campus and Ntinda Road, always brings out the kids. Boys with empty jerry cans run with me until their little legs can’t keep up. They yell, they shout, they smile, the wave sticks trying to get my attention.
“Mzungu, BYE!”
I run past a hut and a garden. Two women stop their hoeing to gaze up at me. I can tell they don’t see too much of the city.

I smile. They smile. I run past them, waving as I turn the corner. 

Then I count to myself: Three…two….one..... 


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Lazy Sunday

The power went out at six this morning.

I went to GAME to buy new earphones (my ipod factory ones fell apart this week on a run). The exchange at the store is indicative of customer service here in Uganda.

(I enter the store, go to the technology section, find three earphones for sale. One for four dollars, the other two for nearly forty. I scan and find a man in uniform)

ME: Are these the only earphones you guys sell?
SALESMAN: Yes, please.
ME: Are these the only earphones you guys sell?
(I show him the four dollar ones)
ME: Are these good?
SALESMAN: Yes, very good.
ME: You've tried them?
ME: So how do you know?
SALESMAN: You can buy them over there. Thank you.
ME: Can I open them first? I want to listen to them before I buy them.
(he looks around and then back at me sheepishly)
SALESMAN:...Sorry, you cannot.

Regrettably, I go up to the counter and pay for them. I give the cashier a 20,000 shilling note. The change due is 12,500.

CASHIER: You don't have anything smaller?
ME: No, sorry.
CASHIER (to two customers behind me): Do you have change?
(One of them hands her two tens. The transaction is complete)

Except it isn't. I open the box there and then, taking out the wires and testing the earphones with my ipod. The earphones are the fleshy, rubbery kind that go around the earlobe with a round speaker that fits inside the lobe. Except they don't. They don't fit my ears (normal ears by all accounts) and don't adjust. I show the cashier and her undersecretary. They watch me as I demonstrate the problem. Two or three times I attempt to fit them into my ears to no avail.

ME: They don't fit.
CASHIER: There is no sound?
ME: There is sound but they don't go in my ear. You try.

The cashier tries and they fit her ears. She hands them back to me and smiles, as if to say my ears are the problem.

ME: Can I get my money back?
CASHIER: Take the box and go to customer service.

After filling out a form, signing my name and handing the box to the clerk with receipt, I am given a voucher, to be taken to another cashier for retrieval of my 8,500 shillings. I hand the voucher to the cashier after waiting in line for a British couple to buy three hideous looking candles and a dust mop. The woman looks like a cross between Jim Broadbent and Barney Rubble.

CASHIER: Do you have two thousand shillings?
ME: (searching my wallet) Yeah, just a sec.
CASHIER (handing me back a 10,000 note): Thanks for shopping at Game!!!

(a typical conversation with people passing by my house)

I am outside hanging up laundry on the clothes line. A woman I've never seen before in my life walks by the compound slowly. She gives me the requisite triple take (it's a man, it's a white man, who is this white man?) before she pauses and turns toward me.

WOMAN: You do your own laundry?
ME: Yeah.
WOMAN: I am surprised.
ME: (chuckling) Why?
WOMAN: I thought you would be lazy.
ME: (puzzled and slightly annoyed) Why?
WOMAN: I just thought...

She starts to walk away but stops again.

WOMAN: You don't go to church?
ME: Not usually.
WOMAN: Why not?
ME: It's two hours long and I like sleeping in on Sundays.
WOMAN: That's strange. Bye.
ME: Nice talking to you.

She shakes her head as she leaves.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

There is Nothing like a Good Circumcision

There is a moment in "Can't buy me Love" when Ronald Miller, played by Patrick Dempsey, tries to woo Cindy Mancini by learning the dance moves to a local TV program he thinks is bitchin'. Little does he know that the program he is watching isn't American Bandstand, but rather a local Tucson African dance symposium filmed in a nearby convention center. Probably. The lighting was dark. It felt like PBS.
What ensued was one of the great prom memories at Tucson High School, and for that matter the entire generation of moviegoers.

Fast forward to 2010's Cultural Week at Kyambogo University: This is March Madness, College Bowl Games, and Tribal Warfare mixed into one peaceful, delicious delivery of Ugandan culture. The dance moves are better than advertised and the costumes are simply stunning. Dempsey doesn't have a thing on these artists. And he knows it.

Some quick snippets from the past seven days:

  • Twenty four tribes singing the Kyambogo University anthem in consecutive order while locals slashed the grass adjacent to the main stage. Why they picked the exact same time to compete for attention highlights the disorganized nature of what goes on here from day to day. Pick any other spot on campus and the choirs are heard loud and clear. But since four men in bandanas and dark sunglasses had hand mowers the size of chainsaws, unless you were within twenty feet of the stage, you heard nothing.

  • The three judges for each competition were seated on red plastic chairs in a pool of mud. They didn't move or suggest another spot to adjudicate from. They just sat there. For hours. Judging in the mud.

  • Tribal Dancing. The outfits were tremendous. The dancing was tremendous. The pageantry, the atmosphere, the beer tents, the vendors selling sausages, liver, and beef on sticks...check, check, check. Two of my students danced for the Ateso tribe from Eastern Uganda. Great outfits, white face and chest paint, fake beards, wonderful symmetry. I enjoyed their dances for a good hour as they practiced and played their version of the guitar, by plucking two metal instruments on a wooden block with their thumbs.

  • Miss and Mister Culture 2010, proudly presented by Good African Coffee...The coffee that will keep you up while you wait for Miss and Mister Culture to finally begin. 

The proceedings only started three and half hours late. Not bad. Plenty enough time for me to be called mzungu eleven hundred times, develop lower back pain, resort to sausage for dinner yet again, guzzle three local stouts from a pony keg, and nearly sprain my ankle falling over discarded maize. I was so tired before the girls came out in their evening gowns that I nearly missed them entirely. When they began the talent show and a rotund co-ed began lip-syncing to a provacative 90s boy band tune, I had seen enough.


But tonight they saved the best for last: ON THE MAIN STAGE...A LIVE CIRCUMCISION!!!


I was in my office with Mariah, explaining the many ways to hook a reader in the introductory paragraph of an argumentative essay, when Olivia walked in. I assumed she wanted advice on her upcoming essay. It was an hour before class and my office hours were officially over.

Olivia: Sir, the circumcision.

I nearly swallow my own tongue.

Olivia: We take you? It goes on now.

Me (grabbing my things in a rush): I guess I probably should.

4:40 p.m.

In a field of mud and wet grass, three tents surround the main stage. Students and locals flood the grounds, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the "candidate". A good thousand people are on hand. There is nothing like a good circumcision.

We meet up with students Maxwell, Anita, and Damalie, and walk as close as we can to the center of the muddy ring. A man on the microphone was speaking Gisu, the local language of the Bagisu people of eastern Uganda. Circumcision is their bread and butter. Some tribes can dance. Some can sing. The Bagisu can cut.

Me: Does he bleed?

(Laughter from everyone within twenty yards)

Olivia: You ask obvious questions, sir.

Me: I don't know how to tell you this but this is my first circumcision.

Meanwhile, tribal men in shorts, holding sticks and branches of a local tree, painted red and white from head to toe, taunt the audience. One of the bigger ones gulps from a chalice, spews the backwash into the masses and stomps mud into the crowd.

There is nothing like a good circumcision.

We keep waiting for the candidate. I'm checking my watch. Seventeen minutes till class. Then fifteen. A large mob of tribesmen storm into the crowd, holding their sticks, chanting, scaring the crowd, then come rushing down the wet hill pretending to have the candidate in their midst. Our hopes go up, then are dashed. Each one of the tribesmen seem to be on HGH. Or meth.

Then, finally, from behind a classroom, in the middle of a swarm of male bravado, The Candidate arrives.

(There is nothing like a good circumcision)

"We now..cut...life!" the MC yells.

Olivia (turning towards me in amusement): It's translated from our language, but it sounds funny I think.

Me: Pretty much.

The Candidate is not a boy. He's a man. A shirtless, shoeless, ripped young man, wearing a simple cloth to cover his jubblies. He holds a staff in both hands and runs to the center of the pit. His tribesmen whoop and holler. People cheer. Mud splashes. Men, women and children lean in to get a closer look. I stand on my tiptoes, very amused, hanging back about thirty feet from a man's foreskin. There is nothing like a good circumcision.

The circle around the candidate shrinks until you can only see his face, painted white with red lips. He looks up to the sky, determined, firmly plants his bare feet into the mud, raises his staff with both arms above his head and....


Then we went to class.