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Uganda-April 2007


April 3, 2007: “A Lone Jew in Kampala” or “Has It Really Been Over Three Hundred Days?”

Until recently, I had only a small sense of time passing outside of my experience.  I knew my friends and family were going through their own lives, of course, with finals, vacations, job offers, and the rest, but it did not seem real to me. Perhaps it is the physical distance; perhaps my own immediate experiences are blinding my ability to understand their lives.  I don’t know.  But last night started Passover, a Jewish holiday celebrating the Exodus from Egypt.  This is one of the central holidays in Judaism, mainly because the Exodus was so important, physically for freedom, philosophically for millennia of liberation theology.

It also happens to be a holiday I enjoy for its richly layered traditions.  A dinner that is also a service.  Traditional prayers said for thousands of years alongside new liberation readings, feminist poetry, and bad jokes (the jokes may be a Leiderman-family tradition only…). It is a celebration of our own freedom, a mourning for the Egyptians who died, and a call to liberate others around the world.  Delicious foods despite a highly restricted diet (no bread, flour, corn, beans, or any of their byproducts). Most of all, eight days of communal celebrations.  I always celebrated with my family, whether in California, New York, Pennsylvania, or Ohio; I also led services among close friends in college to encourage the communal celebrations, among Jews and non-Jews alike.

So what happens when you are a lone Jew in Kampala, a place where chapatti is the closest approximation of matzah and “Passover” is recognized only for being Jesus’ Last Supper?  Aside from the loneliness and vague attempts at not eating bread, rice, or posho – it was an utterly futile exercise – I found myself keenly aware of the passage of time and feeling like I missed out on so much this year.  Passover services and matzah.  Thanksgiving, the Super Bowl, and Groundhog’s Day.  Baseball playoffs and the World Series… and now Spring Training and Opening Day.  My parents’ birthdays; family vacations in December; my friends’ marriage and, soon, baby.  Cyclical and life-time events: it feels as though I have truly missed these, cut myself out from them, neglected a full year of “entanglement with life.”

I now realize that everyone else kept moving while I have been away.  The Super Bowl did take place. My friend did become pregnant. My parents got older, my friends took new jobs in new cities, my brother will graduate from law school.  All while I have been away.  I find it difficult not to see myself as being AWOL, as skipping out on their lives and on what could have been my own.

It is lonely to watch Passover, one of the most meaningful markers in my life, pass as though it didn’t exist. I know the meaning is in my mindset and not in my food; in my heart and not what words pass through my lips.  But it doesn’t make it any easier to ignore what I am missing.

April 5 – 6, 2007: Gorillas.

With the backing of generous birthday gifts from my grandmother and parents, I embarked to the outer reaches of Uganda, a sort of exclamation point of my time in Uganda: gorilla tracking.

Even the name is somewhat mysterious. Is it tracking or trekking? Unclear.  Are you hiking aimlessly, hacking through bushes with a machete or going to some specific tree group? Unclear.  Is it possible to enter and emerge from Bwindi, also known as the Impenetrable Forest? Unclear here, too, although my guide assures me it is safe. Even if it is not, I’m in.

I and my driver/guide, David, set out early in the morning. Our ride was typically Ugandan: an old beat up van, semi-dented and coughing black clouds. As I walked to meet David, one of my roommates looked at me with deep concern and humor: “What are you getting yourself into?”

My response, then and now: “I have no idea. Isn’t that great?”

With my single small backpack – how much do I actually need for three days? – the extra space was completely unnecessary.  We ran out of oil and gas before leaving Kampala, and with the gas shortage in the country, I could have panicked. In other times, I probably would have. But instead I laughed. This is Uganda.

The long drive led us west and south passing papyrus swamps and matooke (non-sweet banana) farms.  This is truly in the south of Uganda, the jungle and swamplands.  Up north in Gulu, the land is in transition between the blazing deserts of the Sudan and these jungles.  Who knows what treasures are there, what lives exist, what strong women and drunk men, what games the barefoot children play out there.

As we pulled up to the Equator, I made David stop. Borders are borders, but this is different.  I had never been this far south and it seemed nearly mystical.  Slightly less so when I was overcharged to watch the water swirl clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counter-clockwise ten feet away, but I repeated my mantra justifying unnecessary expenses – “I’m on vacation.”

And so we moved on, each second we travelled as far south as I had ever been in my life. There’s some adventure in that feeling, like my world of possibilities has expanded exponentially with every next breath.  My internal soundtrack channels “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” echoing the utterly raw and pure, intensifying beauty, the primal perfection and splendor.  Replace the lyrics, sing, no, exalt Whitman to the world:

You air that serves me with breath to speak!
You objects that call from diffusion my meanings and give them shape!
You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers!
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides!
I believe you are latent with unseen existences, you are so dear to me.

We hurled along, passing towns whose names I chewed, tasting the sounds they formed in my mouth: Masaka, Mbarara, onward to Bwindi.  In small towns, bands of children ran alongside us once they saw me: “Mzungu, mzungu, how are you!”; “Mzungu, mzungu! Give me money!”; “Mzungu, mzungu! Give me pen!”

I turned my perplexity to David: “Pen?” I enquired.  He explained that most mzungus who show in this southwestern corner of the country come to provide scarce schooling supplies, pens and paper. The children stood on cliffs overlooking the peaks in Rwanda and the Congo, seemingly unaware of the millennia-old volcanic drama unfolding continuously behind them.

We finally bumped our way into town but did not know where the specific hotel was. After an event at the border of the Congo which saw me nearly be arrested, we arrived at the hotel exhausted, both from being tired and from the old van.  Needless to say, with wake-ups at five a.m. today and tomorrow, there were no problems passing out.


Waking the next morning proved easy with the birds chattering with great expectations for the sun’s looming, daily showcase and my own adrenaline for today’s hike, excitement which built steadily throughout the last forty-eight hours.  Gorillas. I’m going to see animals today that are hardly seen by anyone. I will be hiking through a place called the “Impenetrable Forest.”  Wonder. Excitement. My inner explorer awakened from his restive dormancy.

And so we set off, myself, a guide, and three German tourists who spoke little English.  I found it amazing they could get around with little English; they found it amazing that I planned to hike in jeans and tennis shoes that had long surrendered their tread.  We bounced up a road barely large enough for our four-wheeler, spewing dust into the slowly brightening sky. The hillside and valley below moved from gray to lavender. Scattered residents of some hidden shack peered at us from the roadside, bundled against the mountain’s cold.

Suddenly the pre-dawn rays broke over the mountainside, thrusting the land into glorious shining greens broken only by winding chestnut roads and shining azure lakes, the nuanced shades of the land as manifold as the recently concealed stars.  This resplendent isolation, mere kilometers from Rwanda and the Congo, the land Churchill termed the “Pearl of Africa.”

We had prepared to hike all day to see the gorillas. Up to nine hours, they said. Through water and mud, hacking with the machete the whole way. Porters were offered for our packs, though pride prevented us from hiring someone.  We descended through vast vistas into the quite aptly titled Impenetrable Forest.

Only one hour had passed when we heard the command: “Put down your packs, get your cameras ready. They’re here.”  So much for nine hours.

Adrenaline now at a pitch, my excitement nearly overshadowing the deep forest hacked by machete in front of us. I quietly remember my answer to my friend’s query, thirty long hours ago: “I have no idea what I’m getting myself into. Isn’t that great?”

I don’t think there is a way to describe gorillas in the wild with the colors they deserve.  The crude power in their shoulders.  The sheen of the hair, glowing in the dappled forest light.  The beads blazing under the furrowed brow. The crunch of leaves and sticks and branches in their hands and between their incisors.

I had two cats once. I enjoy animals but have no great affinity for them; I would never self-identify as an animal lover. I am serious sceptical of those who claim special relationships with their dogs. Practical, realistic – no problem.

But today, I am in complete awe.  Pure power, purely human.  My sense of ultimate, divine wisdom, boundless beauty.

A few hours and hundreds of inadequate pictures later, we are spat out of the jungle, back to the realm of trucks and shillings and poverty and politics.  Amazing juxtaposition, two realities coexisting, mere kilometers apart. Both beautiful, starkly contrasted, strikingly similar… I don’t understand, and certainly can’t think back to the beauties of New York or Cinque Terre.

April 7, 2007: Goodbye to Uganda

With tears behind my eyes, I prepared to leave Uganda.  All the places whose names I chew, tasting their textures and the movements of my mouth: Gulu and Kitgum, Kisementi and Mbarara.  I have the sense that this is a place where I could be successful, where I could dedicate my life and make real change in, and for, the world.  My work was successful in that it met my goals, but I always could do more.  Certainly this place needs it.

Uganda started as myth to me, an imagined, vast land with heroes, villains, and victims caught between; a background and climax and, I had hoped, denouement.  A serial told in brief international dispatches: “20 killed by LRA in raid”; “LRA forced out of Kitgum, UPDF says.”  No named author, but seemingly driven by the actions of protagonists, just as any good novel remains true to the whimsies of its mutable characters.

What I learned is that poverty and beauty exist, together.  That we all have the extraordinary capacity for horror and resiliency and love.

I learned that the depths of conflict are as unfathomable as the heavens above. We study billions of stars based on the effects they have on each other; we study black holes by how other bodies act around them.  We can only know the impenetrable mind by its effects, and how it is affected by other bodies around her.

Knowledge of this conflict comes in pieces, through the eyes of a mother, nursing, telling her story in filthy, ripped clothes.  It comes through seeing the IDP camps and through seeing returnees pass from the Amnesty Commission, mattresses perched steadily on their heads.

There are too many issues to address. Simply too many; I was overwhelmed, paralyzed.  That’s what comes with such knowledge I think.  The rabbit hole appears endless, enormously complex; my hope and wonder suddenly confronted by seemingly ugly realities and incomprehensible obstructions.

In this situation, a broad sum of my interests is three-fold: seek information as broadly and deeply as possible; address the conflict in ways that are both effective and efficient; and ensure my personal health, physically, emotionally, and mentally.

If I want to work in similar situations for the rest of my life – and I believe I do – I must coach myself into a changed mindset.  One part of it is restricting my focus, finding a set of issues I can fathom, and fathom addressing.  It might be viewed as a pessimistic mindset though I’d argue strongly it is quite optimistic: I can understand something of this situation, I can address it.  That is where I found power for me: understanding the whole field and actively choosing an area of focus – in my case, empowering a framework for intercommunal reconciliation.

In Uganda, I found myself, what I want to do, and how I want to do it.  I hope to return, to help in some capacity, though that could be doubtful.  I know I will forever be connected here, from the plates of tasteless posho to the dust of the IDP camps, from the pain of fixing flat tires to the eye-popping odors emanating from boda boda drivers.

April 8, 2007: Cairo with Victoria Babin

My co-Fellow Victoria Babin and I met in Cairo, the city serving as a modern-day crossroads for my travels north and east to Jordan, and her travels south into Kenya.  I felt torn, yammering elatedly of the world I had just left, and trying to withhold so as to let her see for herself.  I did notice my excitement was empathetic, excitement for her upcoming journey, as opposed to excitement for mine.  I’m just tired, haven’t allowed the upcoming transition to seep in yet. 

We made sure to have an East-Africa-handover ceremony of sorts: my final pill coupled with her first…

New adventures, new faces.  A refreshing breather to see her and share stories in a shared vocabulary.  And then, on to the next big thing.

April 9, 2007: Excitement

Victoria left today; difficult to see her leave after such a short tease of being around her. It was brilliant to reach for the same vocabularies, to not have to explain what interests and alternatives are, to push each other to grow and take risks.  I really admire her ability to balance so many tensions, excitements, apprehensions and relationships in her life, all while still being available to others.

I watched Tori pull away in her taxi with mixed feelings, seeing her wave tentatively out the window as she embarked on the great unknown once again… I was thrilled for her and eager to see her reaction to, and effect on, East Africa.  And then my personal excitement hit me as well, looking forward to my own next step as well. Jordan was equally unknown, similarly vast with possibilities.  After the poverty and Uganda, it seems easy to slip into that pessimistic realism. How can people be happy in those situations? And yet they are. And I must retain my optimistic excitement; good exists in the world, and better can be done.

Walt Whitman wrote:

I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.