Monday, March 14, 2011

Holidays, A Baptism, Elections and a Visitor

"The Festive Season"

Christmas in the tropics? If not for the Christmas music on the radio and a few decorations in town, I would not have known that it was the season. The decorations are garish and tinseled, from China. There are Christmas trees (artificial), in hotels and in a few homes, and most of them are at least a little pathetic. Not the first time that I’ve observed Western customs adopted in their tackiest form. All of the pop music ever written for the holidays, but not much in the way of carols, was a constant. Even "I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas". That became a joke between me and the folks in my office. Each time it played, I was asked if I was "Dreaming of a Black Christmas."

Although the forces of commerce are trying hard, the idea of gift exchange just hasn’t taken hold. Christmas is about joining the family in the village and enjoying a Christmas feast. That feast, of course, is not much different than everyday fare. You might be more likely to have a chicken in the pot, but that’s about it. It’s also about going to church, and having new clothes to wear to the service. There are rumors that the lack of new Christmas clothes has been cause for divorce.

There are Ugandan Santas, in the familiar red suits and fake white beards. They are not, however, fat. Each Santa I saw was tall and very thin, with pants at least 6 inches too short. The black boots were usually missing from the costume, replaced by athletic shoes and, by one creative gentleman, with black dress shoes adorned in cotton balls.

My own holidays included a Christmas Eve bus ride to Kampala (all 8 hours of it), and celebrating with friends Shelley and Mari at the home of the Peace Corps’ program and training officer, Jan. We had hoped to have more of the "over 50" crowd with us, but were limited by travel restrictions and other complications. To bypass the Kampala taxi and bus parks we all exited our buses outside of the city proper and took private hires to Jan’s home. (More on travel restrictions later). It was a joy to cook in a real kitchen, revel in unlimited hot showers, and use a washing machine. (Persistent hand washing Ugandan-style leaves your clothing stiff and stained. In two days I washed one T-shirt four times before it was back to normal!).

The day after Christmas, Mari, Shelley and I departed for Jinja and a delightful little hotel called 2 Friends. For four days and nights we were "normal" Americans (not PCVs) on vacation – enjoying more hot water, a lovely pool, shopping, good talk, and reading. Not to mention a few decent glasses of wine. I returned to Soroti on New Year’s Eve Day, and must confess that the little house I had begun to find comfortable felt suddenly shabby and primitive. My New Year’s Eve was spent quietly at home. The neighbors were planning to attend a prayer service, and I passed on the invitation to join.

On New Year’s Day I traveled with my friend Charles to his village. His village is not where he lives, but where he was raised and where his family meets to celebrate the holidays. This concept of "my village" is an important one. You may never live there again, but there you will celebrate the "festive season", and it is where you will meet for funerals and be buried yourself when you die.

The New Year’s Day celebration was a gathering of relatives for talk and a meal. It was a bit awkward – there was a definite separation of the sexes, but as Charles’ guest I was served dinner with the men, and

seated with them for conversation later. To interact with the women I had to assert myself, and just go over and sit with them on their mats. Another custom that is awkward for me involves greetings – in more traditional settings like the village, girls and younger women will kneel to greet me. Older women may also do so, but will always kneel to adult men. I also experienced the "in-law taboo" in the village. Our host, Charles’ uncle, did not eat at the table with the rest of the men because his son-in-law was one of the guests. Apparently in-laws do not eat or sit in the same room together, even at family celebrations. (Are you wondering, like me, if this ultimately leads to more harmonious relations? For certain, there are no in-law jokes in this culture).

The evening ended with warm beers, and Ugandan Sherry. Warm soda is the alternative available for the warm beer. Obviously, there is no refrigeration in the village, so you drink it warm or not at all. At the top of my list for "You know you’ve been in Uganda for awhile when…" is "when you drink warm beer". There are photos from this day posted on Facebook.

After New Year’s Day, the holiday season was not over. For one thing, the Christmas music seemed to play until February. Then, the office was closed From December 18 until January 11. It’s a good thing I had the trip to Jinja planned, otherwise the boredom would have been unbearable. In its infinite wisdom, the Peace Corps demands that we take PTO if we leave our sites, even if our office is closed. The thought is that we should be integrating with our communities. Of course, all of my community was off to their villages, so Soroti was quite deserted and I was quite alone. The house got very clean, I finally got curtains made, and read a lot of books.

A Baptism

People are having a lot of babies in Uganda. At least 50% of the population is under 15, and the average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime is six or seven. This is actually a big improvement from a few years ago when the average was eleven! One wonders when the education system will collapse under the weight of all of these children, and what their quality of life will be as they compete for opportunity and the basics – food and water. I could go on, and on, about Uganda’s population explosion, but I won’t. My intention was to talk about a baptism.

I attended the ceremony for the child of one of my colleagues – the ceremony for his child and 64 others! It was an assembly line. The parents and Godparents lined the church aisle on both sides, and the priest with assistants made several trips down the aisle on one side and up the other, performing each of the many steps in the rite. The baptism, then the celebration of mass following, lasted for three hours.

The next scheduled event was lunch. But before lunch I traveled around Soroti with Grandmother Betty, collecting various parts of a sound system, some rice, and a few other things. Arriving at the village two hours later (now about 3pm), it was clear that lunch would not be coming soon. One warm soda, some chitchat, and three more hours later we ate "lunch". After the meal came the warm beer, some music, a few speeches (fortunately few, by Ugandan standards), and the ajon.

Ajon is the home brew of the Teso region, made from millet. It is enjoyed in the Ajon circle – a circle of people seated around a shared pot and drinking the ajon through a long (about six feet long) straw. Ajon is not only for special occasions. There are regular ajon circles, run almost like a club (they have a chairman) and meeting daily or weekly. The ajon circle is important to the regional culture. It’s a regular meeting where cultural practice and history, as well as advice, is passed from generation to generation. And, a relaxed environment where community issues might be discussed. Although my experience with circles is limited, I’ve observed that both men and women participate (but more men) and that no one in the circle seems to get drunk.

After a few sips of ajon, it was time to go home. At 11pm. The day began with my 9:30am walk to the church, and my expectation had been that I would be home before dark! Though exhausted, at the end of the day I was elated. My welcome at the event was complete, and as I also do when I visit Charles’ village, I felt embraced by my Ugandan family.

The parents of the baptized child, by the way, are not married. Each of them has another child with a different partner. There is no stigma attached to having children without marriage, which can seem odd in a culture where the Christian religion plays such a prominent role in public and private life. One thought of mine is that the expense of a traditional marriage is high. The traditional marriage involves an Introduction ceremony and payment by the groom of a substantial dowry. Dowry is in the form of cattle, goats, rice and other foodstuffs, household goods, and clothing – and is sometimes referred to as "bride price". The Introduction may or may not be followed (weeks, months or years later) by a church wedding.

For some Ugandans, the importance of the church wedding is beginning to overshadow the traditions of Introduction, and divorces do occur, but in the villages tradition prevails. Bride price is considered by some to be a major social problem. If the bride finds herself in an abusive or otherwise unhappy marriage, she can return to her parents’ home, but the husband will expect repayment of the dowry. The consequence is women trapped in marriages characterized by violence, alcoholism, polygamy, etc. And, by law, children "belong" to the father. If the child is less than seven years old, they stay with the mother, but from seven onward they go to the father’s household.

The good news is that the bride price issue, along with the practice of polygamy, is off and on the subject of public debate. In the past year or two bills to abolish the practices have been introduced, but not passed, in parliament. Gender balance and women’s rights are very much in the government, business, education, and social services agendas.


February and early March was election season in Uganda. The first was the Presidential and Parliamentary selection, then for about three weeks following there was a different local or regional election each week. (With each considered a public holiday, my office was closed a lot!) Election season is noisy. Other than the posters glued to every available surface, the most common form of campaigning involves a truck, a PA system, loud music and a cruise around town. There are rallies, and the ruling NRM party in particular is fond of trucking in large groups of cheering supporters in the party’s

yellow t-shirts. Early in the campaign I attended a Museveni rally, and heard His Excellency speak. (My Facebook friends may recognize this as the occasion that I saw a Ugandan in a "Vote for Pedro" t-shirt.) Not an impressive orator. But the man does rap (yup, a 70-something politician in a funny hat putting down some rhymes). It’s rumored that now that the election is over, the President is working on an album.

Museveni has been in power since 1986. Until 2006 Uganda had a single party political system. Today there are several opposition parties, but the NRM still has more power, more money, and more votes than any other. Some say that the money bought many of those votes. Others complain that the electoral process is controlled by an Electoral Commission appointed by the President, hence biased. Charges of intimidation fly about – special police were trained and uniformed for the elections. ( I did see an increased armed forces presence in and around Soroti during that time.) The President was re-elected by a large margin. But, even though the outcome of the election was never really in doubt, the elections, the candidates, and the political parties were the subject of intense debate over the lunch table at work.

There was some concern that the opposition would dispute the Presidential election results and violence would follow. There was also a concern that terrorists would attempt to disrupt the election process. Neither of these things, fortunately, occurred. There were a few small-scale protests and riots, but none of any real consequence. Here in Soroti, the election days were eerily quiet.

For almost the entire month of February, Peace Corps Volunteers were not permitted to travel away from their local residence/work because of concerns of election violence and terrorist activity. That restriction has been lifted, but one big restriction remains. Kampala is off-limits. It has been since just before Christmas. The Kampala restriction is (and been) less about elections and more about crime and terrorism. No Kampala means: a) I can’t replace the camera I broke; b) I can’t get a haircut from someone who knows "muzungu" hair; c) I can’t restock a supply of whole grain pasta; d) there is no chance I can see a movie in a theater; e) I can’t get to the US Embassy to renew my personal passport (I’m traveling now on a Peace Corps passport); and f) I don’t have access to the Peace Corps office book exchange (that one could be the hardest to take, long term). Although I do understand why this precaution is necessary, it is frustrating as hell.

A Visitor

Marty was here! And Soroti will never be the same. For half of his three-week visit Marty explored Soroti. He met more people in ten days than I have in five months. Everywhere I go, there are people who ask after Marty. He has friends in the Mosque, at the "supermarket" (in quotes because it is more like a corner shop than a supermarket), in my office, at the dairy, and random other places about town. I’m sure that if I went to Trends disco, all of the men he danced with would ask for him too. (Remember, people in the disco don’t dance as couples, but usually in same sex groups.)

For the first half of his visit we travelled – to Queen Elizabeth Park, Kibale Forest (for Chimp tracking), and Murchison Falls. It was grand! The trip, as well as Marty’s love affair with Soroti, is well documented in photos posted to Facebook, on his page and copied to my profile too.

Next stop, Amsterdam – in July we think. A good place for us to meet without one of us travelling for 24 hours (or more)! Eli has his tickets to arrive August 27 and stay for two weeks , so I have two summer events to look forward to. Planning for and anticipating these visits makes the 27 month commitment to the Peace Corps less daunting. The eighth month is already half over, and I’ll see Marty in four months and Eli in about five. Before you know it, I’ll be halfway there. Come visit!