Atiak, NGO Exhaustion, and Bob

Having completed our work in Unyama, we moved onto Atiak for the third day of research. Initial impressions of the site revealed that the facilities were much more spacious than those at Unyama, which was an encouraging start to the day. However, after introductions, we realized that there were far fewer English speakers in this group of co-researchers, so our student/translator teams would have to be more efficient than they were on Monday. The group of women that met us in the stone hall included many survivors of the Atiak Massacre. In the mid-1990s, a unit of LRA fighters, led by a former resident of the area, routed the national defense forces from Atiak and slaughtered hundreds of civilians. Most young boys and girls were spared from the killings, but only so that they could be abducted and put to work for the Lord’s Resistance Army. We are now about 25 years removed from this tragedy, but such horrific experiences tend to lurk right beneath the surface, waiting for the opportunity to reappear. Our survey was bound to bring back painful memories for some. That being said, the massacre pushed the residents of Atiak to international prominence and garnered significant media attention, so many of the women we spoke with reported previous dealings with NGOs and researchers who came to Atiak to speak with the survivors. Of course, no amount of debriefing and deconstruction of such an incident can truly harden someone against the searing flashbacks.

I was still a spotter, so my interaction with the co-researchers during the questionnaire was limited, and most of my information is second-hand. Nevertheless, I had a number of our interviewers tell me in no uncertain terms that the conversations were painful for everyone involved. Given the nature of the study, this was going to be difficult to avoid, and it would be improper to silence the women who wanted to share their stories. We were not there as emotionally-detached data-collectors. We were humans trying to understand the experiences of fellow humans, and the recorders did a terrific job, per usual, finishing at approximately the same time that they did on the first day despite having half as many English-speakers. Had we attempted to survey this group of women on the first day, we would have been in Unyama until midnight.

At 8:40pm, I heard a knock on my door. I had opened our living room up for a kickback session that was to start at 8:45, so I assumed that one of the guests was fashionably early. To my great surprise, I was greeted by none other than Bob Okello (the nicest, most charismatic leader to ever grace the OU campus)! Bob is a student from Lira, Uganda, and he is taking the year off of school to run an educational start-up that recently placed first at Uganda’s National Hack-a-Thon. He graciously went out of his way to visit us in Gulu and attend the opening of a new primary school by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and George and I thoroughly enjoyed introducing him to the rest of the team and catching up over an evening of UNO and charades.

Moving On

I felt a strange sense of melancholy today. I can’t explain exactly how this feeling found its way into my throat, but I do know that we’ll be back in the cramped airplane seats soon, rocketing above the people I will likely never see again, and this realization made me sad. And the place I return to exists in a shrinking window, which will soon collapse and catapult its contents to who knows where. This place is a phase in my life that I have shared with so many incredible, loving, wise people, but it cannot last. It is the past four years, the journey alongside friends and mentors that is ultimately not about the journey, but the destination. And I still have no idea where I will land, but I do know that most of the people I’ve shared a ride with will be stepping out and onwards come May, with or without me. I don’t fear being left behind. I just can’t conjure up a clear image of what comes next for me, irrespective of anyone else’s path. And, for what feels like the first time, I have no desire to put on the glasses, see clearly, and move on. I’m not ready, but it doesn’t matter. Those words have a bitter taste. I have loved every fleeting minute of this trip, and I wish I could hold onto every second forever. And yet, at the same time, I am not sure whether I am more or less enticed by the notion of serving with the Peace Corps. Hopefully these next few days provide clarity.

We put this puzzle together in the late nights and slow days, on the couches and restaurant tables and intramural fields, and it felt like we had all the time in the world to finish it. And it very well might be finished, but I doubt I’ll ever know for sure. Anyways, the pieces are falling away faster than I can replace them, and trust me, I’m trying. The others would help, but they’ve just found a bookcase of new puzzles, and they each chose a new, shrink-wrapped box of their own. Some stood on tip-toes to grab a hundred-thousand count masterpiece from the top shelf, but there were plenty of options at eye-level for those who wanted a head start. All noble pursuits, every single one. I would go nab a new challenge too, but I’m not quite finished here. Five more minutes.


We conducted our first day of group discussion in the People’s Voice for Peace meeting room in Unyama. There was not enough space for all 45 or so women to form circles in the room, so two groups remained inside and one crossed the street to circle up under the porch of a different house. George and I were transcribers for John’s group, so we did our best to follow the conversation and document the translator’s words on our computers. The women were much more open and relaxed than I perceived them to be on the first day, but that likely did not ease the difficulty they experienced sharing their struggles with the discussion group. It was tough to gauge how much these women knew about each other already, for the information they shared was not something one would ordinarily discuss with most people, outside of perhaps family and close friends. Furthermore, the group consensus was that the primary function of their womens’ organizations was to act as a savings and credit group, as opposed to advocacy or counseling, so these women may not have had much experience sharing about their wartime hardships. That being said, the discussion was, in my opinion, very productive, albeit dominated by a few more vocal women.

As I have mentioned, the women of Unyama were adamant that their most urgent need was financial. Consequently, the groups that they have formed as women tend to be focused on addressing this need. The majority of the women in our group were members of credit/savings groups, in which the members pool together their money to be loaned to a single member, which provides said member with an influx of capital to send their children to school, start a business, or seek medical treatment. It was sobering to learn that many of these groups serve as caregivers for sums of money that they consider significant and vital, but that we spend on frivolous consumer goods back in the States. Additionally, many of these groups suffer at the hands of influential men in their communities and local government. Many NGOs distribute aid via the members of Parliament other officials, who often take a cut of the aid off the top – aid that is meant for their poorest constituents. As a matter of fact, we conducted the discussion in a building right next to an MP’s property, where he or she grazes goats that were given by NGOs to the MP to pass out in the community. It is simply a slap in the face.

O Café gets Weird

This evening, we found ourselves where we always seem to end up – O Café. Nothing out of the ordinary, just a way to pass time between a trip to the market and dinner. Sit down, have a drink, all that good stuff. I suffered my most serious order envy yet, as Jessica sat beside me and ordered the most delicious looking chocolate shake I’ve ever seen. It was thick, topped with chocolate syrup, and served in a mason jar, as any self-respecting hipster restaurant would do. And it put my beer to shame. So my new New Year’s Resolution is to make sure I pick up a chocolate shake from O Café before I leave. But despite the obvious tension between our drink choices, things didn’t really get weird until a party of four showed up and sat across from us. It was four men, of which three were African and one was Asian. The Asian man was the oldest at the table, and wore the strangest fashion accessory around his neck: a thick, horseshoe-shaped travel pillow. This of course drew my attention, but it was the mannerisms of the group that really caught my eye. The Asian man told his companions where to sit, and then instructed them to order from the menu. Innocuous enough, perhaps, but these directions came out more like heavy-handed commands. He then proceeded to sit up as straight as a rod for the duration of the meal, which he spent on his phone. The African men sat with a slouch and a grimace, and did not say a word to one another until the Asian man stepped out for a few minutes. When he spoke, he did so in a very demeaning manner, as if he was educating children. We came to the conclusion that we had probably witnessed a superior bringing his subordinates to lunch, but he sure as hell didn’t act like any boss I’d ever want to work for. The power disparity between the individuals in this group was evident from the get-go, but I don’t think that there was anything that we could have done to rectify it. I suppose that some Ugandans have to put up with foreign employers who treat them poorly, which surely has to do with race in some or most instances, but it is a shame that such behavior is tolerated. While we did not witness any verbal berating or blatant abuse, it was evident to me that the man in charge believed that his tablemates where inferior and less intelligent, and this behavior is equally unacceptable.

Also, for the second time, our waiter at O Café had a stunning smile. Just beautiful.

Bag Secured

On this day, George recovered his bag. George’s bag was lost somewhere between Oklahoma City and Entebbe, leaving him with the outfit that he wore on the plane (a blue and white striped shirt and jeans) and a set of pajamas. George spent four arduous days waiting for his luggage to arrive in Gulu, and despite confusion and delays on the part of the airline, I never once heard him badmouth the responsible parties. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, because that’s just who George is. He never needs an excuse to smile, and those around him often join in.

The return of the bag was a splendid way to cap off the day, but it wasn’t the only highlight. After lunch, we took some time to unpack our experiences in Uganda thus far. I shared a sentiment that had been simmering in my mind from the moment we arrived. I believe that humans have a great deal in common, and I resent the individuals that attempt to gain power by using our differences to divide us (I’m looking at you, Trump). However, I have struggled with overcoming the feeling of being an outsider here. I am the minority in Uganda, and the color of my skin makes that apparent for all to see. This might be the first time that I have even scratched the surface of how people of color in the United States feel in some parts of the country. And by no means do I think that experiencing Uganda as a white person is anything like the experience of a colored person in America, because I am not persecuted for my differences here. I might turn a few heads, but I have not felt any of the malice or prejudice that is directed at minorities in the USA. Nevertheless, I could probably let this obvious difference be the story of my time in Uganda, or allow it to deter me from engaging with the residents of Gulu, but I am not going to let that happen.

We also made a group outing to purchase fabric for tailored clothing, which will be made by Florence over the next few days. Most stores were closed for the New Year, so we squeezed into a hole-in-the-wall shop that was covered in an overwhelming variety of cloth. The floor and walls were plastered with fabric of every color and pattern, and choosing just one or two was no small task. I left the store with enough for three clothing items, although I’m still not sure what I’ll have made. It was disappointing to learn that none of the fabric was actually made in Uganda, but I suppose it’s good that our money was still supporting a Ugandan shopkeeper. I only hope that globalization has not entirely wiped out the Ugandan textile industry.

Six of us went for drinks at Café O after dinner. It was a pleasant little jaunt, but we clearly arrived far too early in the night. We were one of two occupied tables at the restaurant, and people started arriving as soon as we left. Judging by the music that is piped into our rooms all night but really kicks it up a notch after midnight, you probably need to stay up past your bedtime to truly experience the parties during this time of year.

Ushering in the New Year in Uganda

Hello reader! Welcome to the first entry in my account of a short experience in Uganda. I am writing on my laptop while perched on the striped couch in my residence, which I share with George, the only other male student in our group. We are eleven students and three faculty strong, and we are representing the University of Oklahoma and a diverse collection of disciplines and experiences. Most of us are visiting Uganda for the first time; we come as students of the country’s history and culture, and as participants in a research project that will be discussed in later journal entries. We have traveled to Gulu, which is a city of around 100,000 in northern Uganda, a few hundred kilometers from the border with South Sudan. We left the States on Friday, December 28th, and spent two full days in transit. I joined the team in Atlanta, and flew from there to Entebbe after making stops in Amsterdam and Kigali. The journey was not complete, however, as we still had a seven hour drive to Gulu. After a long, taxing weekend, we arrived at St. Monica’s Vocational School for Girls on the evening of Sunday, December 30th.

Incidentally, our first full day at St. Monica’s was also the last day of 2018. I have never experienced New Year’s Eve abroad, so I did not know what to expect. The day began slowly, with a hearty breakfast and a free morning, which we were encouraged to use to visit town. All eleven students trekked to the market together, and collectively navigated the streets of Gulu as a caravan of wide-eyed outsiders absorbing wave after wave of sights, sounds, and interactions. Crossing the street with such a large pack is a delicate art, akin to playing multiple games of Frogger simultaneously. Thankfully, none of us strayed too close to a one of the countless motorcycle taxis that whip through the avenues at full tilt. After a quick stop at the supermarket, we found our way to the Gulu Main Market, which moved to its present brick and mortar location in 2015. The exterior of the building is large but unassuming, and belays the sheer scale of the operations that take place inside, namely three stories of booths operated by hundreds of vendors selling all manner of wares. You can do your grocery shopping, have a dress tailored, and pick up toys, jewelry, and artwork all in one trip. Neither words nor pictures can do it justice, but I will use both in this attempt to convey the enormity of the Gulu Main Market. I didn’t buy anything during this visit, but I anticipate being sent back on assignment from our professors at some point, and although I didn’t leave much room in my bags for souvenirs, I will definitely be purchasing some coffee to bring home.

The afternoon saw us preparing for the New Year’s Eve celebration. The Sisters enlisted us to help cook a variety of dishes, so we split into small groups assigned to cake, bread, chapatti, and goat. I’m not a vegetarian (yet), but I believe that it is important that those of us who eat meat understand where our food comes from. If we cannot stomach the slaughtering of an animal for our consumption, then we probably shouldn’t be blindly eating meat. In any case, we should not condone the torturous lives and suffering of animals that are mass-produced for the American diet, but that is a different topic for a different journal. I am thankful that I did not swing the cleaver, and frankly I’m not sure that I would have been able to. However, I witnessed the killing, skinning, and butchering of the goat, and sampled it later in the evening. It was too tough and muscular for my tastes, but I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the dishes at the last dinner of 2018. Dining with the Sisters was a joyous experience, and I was pleasantly surprised to see them enjoying the fireworks as Gulu ushered in the New Year. For all I know, the Sisters celebrated late into the night, which honestly would not surprise me. A Happy New Year indeed.

College Football Has No Borders

OU is into football. Whether it be a home game in the beloved Gaylord family memorial stadium or a bowl game in Florida, students are into football. 8:00am on a Tuesday morning in Hanoi Vietnam it should be no surprise that OU’s MBA students found a way to watch more college football. Taking full advantage of the airport’s free WiFi, about 20 students gathered around the biggest laptop we could find to watch the 2019 National Championship game. I’ve never felt more at home while abroad soaking in the game day atmosphere with my classmates and a professor or two as well! I guess it is safe to say that wherever there is college football there is a little piece of home.


Karaoke Obsession

Upon arriving in an Asian country it doesn’t take too long to realize that the people here love their karaoke! Upon entering one of many karaoke establishments it doesn’t take too long to realize that these people here are really really good at singing too! In America, or at least in Norman Oklahoma, karaoke is something that one does to be funny and goofy where not much skill is required. The singing is often subpar and the crowd gets excited simply because you are passionate and put energy into the music. The people in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand also have fun but in a more serious way. The talent level is through the roof and it seems like everyone is capable of producing real high quality stuff! The obsession for karaoke could be seen on the streets as performer after performer would simply line up, grab a mic, pick a song, and serenade the passerby’s. Perhaps the wildest and most unique scene I saw was a karaoke booth in the food court of a shopping mall. It looked just like a photo booth but was for singing karaoke instead! The price was a very reasonable 5,000 VND (a little over $0.25 a song). It looked like a really fun time and was extremely reasonable! In my few karaoke experiences I have had some of the funnest times of my life! I would definitely frequent an Asian style karaoke establishment if it made its way to Norman!


My Odd Toilet Fascination

There are some basic principles that are necessary for human life. We have to eat, sleep, and use the restroom! One would think this third point would be a pretty straightforward thing, essentially executed the same all across the globe. However, I have learned the way people use the restroom varies widely based on regional laws, customs, and socio-economic conditions. I have previously praised the classic butt sprayer used where toilet paper is too expensive to purchase repeatedly . The butt sprayer resembles a kitchen sink sprayer that could be used on dishes but instead is assembled to the side of the toilet. While visiting Brazil on a previous trip I was surprised to learn that they actually did use toilet paper however the TP couldn’t be flushed down the toilet so it was necessary for all restrooms to have mini trash cans next to each toilet to place the used commodity. On my most recent trip to Hanoi Vietnam I was awe struck to find the most luxurious and expensive toilet I’ve ever seen. The toilet had an automated butt sprayer that extended from underneath the seat. Furthermore, it had a dryer that could be turned on after the spraying was complete. The entire contraption had a self cleaning capability and the seat had a built in seat warmer. All the features could be controlled be an easy access panel right next to the toilet! Optimal preferences could be pin pointed to achieve the best on toilet experience!!


Vietnam’s Got Talent

The streets of Hanoi would rival the street performers of Battery Park in NYC or really any other place for that matter. With the streets of downtown Hanoi closed to cars, motorcycles, and trucks, there was more than enough room for street performers to show off their skills along the lakeside. Every 40 feet a new circle of people could be seen gathered around a performer willing to showcase their skills for a few minutes at a time. These people had some serious skill. Not only would there be a vocal duet with a pretty cute couple, but all of their friends also joined in as background dancers performing a choreographed dance. The attention to detail couldn’t be more obvious! These guys were taking this seriously. The talents didn’t end there. In addition to singing and dancing were hoola hoopers, magicians, jump ropers, and even popsicle stick tower builders (who built a tower taller than himself as 200 on lookers gathered around). It took nearly 2 hours to make the half mile walk along the lake! There were simply way too many reasons to want to stop sooner!