Saturday, February 24, 2007

Thoughts on Kazinga Channel

This past week we have been running one of our 5 day training courses for newly selected volunteers in a sub-county that sits just on the edge of the western section of the Rift Valley that reaches up between Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire. Like the more photographed eastern section of the Rift Valley in Kenya it contains a number of crater lakes, salt lakes and spectacular views. Here we are situated on the sheer escarpment rising high above the floor of the valley which holds the stunning Queen Elizabeth National Park. The Ruwenzori Mountain range, first called the Mountains of the Moon by Ptolemy leading everyone to wonder from whence he obtained the information, lies further to the west.

It has taken a while, but Uganda seems to be winning back the tourists that were lost during Idi Amin’s time. As Mbarara is so close to the park, it makes a great weekend trip, one that I try to make with each visit. With the popularity of the park increasing , so have the prices and our last minute planning reveals the park lodge is fully booked for the weekend, so we arrange to go on Friday for a one day trip. It is a great bargain. I am picked up from the health center in Rugazi about three quarters of an hour from the park, where I have been staying for the week. After milk tea and a chapati in a nearby stall, I am ready with suntan lotion, water bottle and hat in hand.

We have rented a driver and vehicle for the two days and organized to take both the cruise of the Kazinga Channel in the evening and an early morning game drive. We are just heading down from the tarmac road to Mweya Safari Lodge and before we even arrive at the park gates we spot a meandering herd of elephants crossing the road heading for the water. Mostly we have great views of their backsides among the Euphorbia trees. There are a number of stragglers, young males who hang around the edges of the herd until they are big enough to challenge the leader. At this time in their lives they are not very happy fellows. I am using the video feature on my digitial camera but am capturing little of interest as the elephants seem mainly to be browsing. Then a single medium sized elephant not far from the land cruiser turns around so his tusks can be seen. I am elated to have something more than their rear ends in my sights. He even swings one foot over the other and starts shaking his head, his trunk swaying from side to side. And before we know it he is waving his ears rapidly and heading towards us faster than his lumbering shape would suggest was possible. Elephants of his size can overturn vehicles and do considerable damage when they charge, so our driver jerks into gear and floors it. Our hearts are pounding.

Later when I view my video, I find I have a great minute or two of the start of his charge, ears flapping, head swaying back and forth and trunk swinging wilding, and then I have two minutes of the floor and the inside of the vehicle with excited dialogue. I am not cut out to be a news photographer because when I have the image of my photographic career right in front of me, I forget to keep tapeing. My colleagues say that the very audible pandemonium in the car makes the clip more real. I wish I knew how to insert it onto the blog so you could all see.

This turns out to be the highlight of our game viewing. We see Uganda cob springing about on the savannah, Cape buffalo wallowing at the water edge, wart hogs scurrying around with their tails high in the air, a pair of water buck rushing at each other butting antlers until one backs down, hippos frolicking in the water in the midday heat, Nile crocodiles resting on the water edge and large groups of elephants but the charging bull elephant is what we all talk about.

The river cruise that takes us up the Kizinga Channel is just before sundown. We pass hippos and I capture one yawning and several young ones playing with open mouths as if to bite one another. African fish eagles sit high up in the trees overlooking the water. Huge numbers of pied kingfishers hover above the water dipping sharply down as they dive for fish. Several massive hammerkop nests sit in the forks of tree, one of which still has a nesting hammerkop alight. Even with the naked eye, when the launch draws near the papyrus edges can we see the tiny, iridescent malacite kingfishers flitting about. There is one flat area that hosts pelicans, cormorants, herons, sacred ibis and even a couple of saddle-bill and yellow billed storks

To the edge of this brilliant display of ornithological delight is one of the fishing villages on the Kazinga channel where a young boy and his father check their nets, locally made boats line the shore and at the end of the day groups of young children run down to the water edge to collect their daily water supply in plastic yellow and green jerry cans from the water. Here we are in this world class park, this global repository of our biological diversity, and people still have no safe source of drinking water. What in the world is the matter with us? In the fishing villages served by the referral Health Center to which our volunteers report, there are frequent outbreaks of cholera. I am certain it happens here as well.

Now I know as well as anyone that most of the rural areas in this part of the country have poor access to potable water. That despite three WHO supported worldwide Water Decades we are a long way from providing safe water for the developing world. I do not know if wells have been tried or even if it is possible here. I have heard lots about the problems with biosand filters and other technology. And while the technological problems can be solved, the social problems are more difficult. I know next to nothing about the situation in this village.

It is totally irrational, but floating on a tourist launch past the spectacle of people collecting this polluted water for drinking offends me. I want an immediate tax levied on all of us well-heeled tourists. I really do. And then I realize that irrational as this feeling is that it may in the end get these people a better drinking water supply. If people like us continue to be offended by what we do see, if it continues to bother us and we tell others about it, it will get fixed. And if we can just start with what we can see, our eyes will be opened and we will see more. This is what Marshall McLuhan predicted in the Medium is the Message. With the explosion of communication, especially on the internet, this is what seems to be happening. But as they say in Uganda, mpola mpola, slowly by slowly.


African Valentine

Those who tune into the BBC World Services, will be aware that Valentines Day took a mega blow in Africa this year. Even Focus on Africa, the wonderful program of evening highlights, covers the African reaction to Valentines Day this year. Agitated Anglican priests said it promoted HIV/AIDs, lay people accused the celebration of demoralizing youth, articulate Nigerian Muslim clerics worried that there will be a glut of unwed pregnancies, sensitive commentators railed about promiscuity and debate raged on how such imported customs as Valentines Day are ruining local customs.

Valentine’s Day! I can hardly believe my ears.

“What does Valentine’s Day mean to you?” I inquire of the research assistants on our way to the field.

“We didn’t know about it until we got to university,” says one, “then it usually meant a fellow wanted sex.”

“No chocolates, no colourful cards from secret admirers, no gifts, no candlelight dinners?” I ask.

“No,” they chorus back.

I tell them how we upended cardboard boxes, covered them with white paper, red hearts and angels in grade school and deposited cards in the slot in the center with sappy messages such as 2Ys U R, 2 Ys U B, I C U R 2 Ys 4 Me (Too wise you are, too wise you be, I see you are too wise for me) on them. I have to demonstrate this message in writing for them.

“It’s like SMS messaging,” they say.

In Grade 3, my mother, who baked us a big batch of heart-shaped cookies covered with pink icing for Valentines Day, gave me and my two sibs a batch of her tasty creations to take to school for our Valentine party. I was so proud to be able to offer these delicious treats to my classmates that the following year I again offered her services to make the Valentine box and provide the cookies.

“Doesn’t anyone else’s mother celebrate Valentines? ”, my mom pondered aloud and I had to confess that they hadn’t asked her to do it but that I had actually volunteered her services.

The first testing done of HIV/AIDS posters in rural Uganda revealed that the fat, red valentine-shaped heart used as a symbol for love was interpreted as a tomato by many. We thought at the time that indeed, love was like a luscious tomato, but the symbol was put on the shelf. Just maybe, I think, in retrospect , we contributed to the creation of this African association of sex with valentines.

Then on Valentines Day evening, I am listening to my favourite “Late Night Date” with DJ Ronnie on Capital FM which comes out from Kampala by relay to Mbarara. DJ Ronnie has extended an offer to his listeners to send valentines to friends, relatives and lovers over the air. He is inundated with harangues about the decadence, evils and perils of valentines by listeners who regularly call in for counseling, to discuss issues of the heart and send otherwise loving messages to each other.

DJ Ronnie hosts a remarkable show. Not only does he provide sensitive and caring listening to people with real problems but his advice is practical and supportive. When for the most difficult cases, he accesses professional counselors to assist him, his own advice and manner are much superior to that of the so-called professionals he finds.

Among university faculty, admitting that you listen to DJ Ronnie is a bit like being caught reading People magazine or maybe even True Confessions at home. When I have extolled what I see as his virtues, I am met initially by disbelief followed by muted agreement, often shared appreciation and always followed by complicit laughter. I find DJ Ronnie a stellar example of how we can all assist people in trouble just by active listening and making sensible, non-judgmental responses to people in need.

So for Valentines Day, DJ Ronnie once again rises to the challenge. After listening to all the comments for and against, he composes a response. It is short, simple and delightful. He points out that Valentines Day is first and foremost a celebration of love. Love for our parents, our friends, our neighbours, each other. Love for partners and family. Surely he admonishes his listeners, Africans can celebrate love, certainly this is appropriate. And surely Africans want to take part in this world wide celebration of love. He challenges us as his listeners and as members of the global community to use Valentines Day as an opportunity to celebrate love for each other.

Hearing DJ Ronnie's seasoned defence of Valentines Day is my second valentine of the day. The first was an internet valentine from my sister which I was only able to partially open because the band width or line speed is so low. I have been threatening to call DJ Ronnie. My colleagues say I will need to have a fat problem to share with him as he doesn't deal with small stuff. I think instead I will send this belated thank you.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Celestial Celebrations

Church services on the campus in Mbarara are held in several sites. Behind the flat where I am staying, evangelical services continue through most of the day in the Development Sciences building. I have been attending the Catholic services in the Pharmacology theatre at the edge of the football field. The Pharmacology theatre is a tradition medical theatre with a tier of benches rising up from the pit at the front. Fluorescent lamps dangle from the ceiling but the windows high on the side walls provide enough of the wonderful African sun that lights aren’t needed. Long wooden counters stretch in front of each row of benches. Thirty of so mimeographed copies of hymns are scattered throughout the theatre..

When full the theatre holds about 250. On Sundays, it is jam-packed with more than 400. I am late and although others behind me manage to squeeze in, I can see no opening, so I follow the stream heading for the blue plastic chairs left in a pile outside the cafeteria next door. I place my chair right against the back wall, where I am the only white or muzungu in the congregation. When we rise to sing, a line of spotless white handkies become visible on the concrete riser in front of me where mostly men are sitting. Ah, I think, this is why they always have a handkerchief with them.

I love the singing. So it seems do they. One Sunday the priest was delayed. The congregation were still belting out the hymns non-stop when I left an hour later with still no sign of the priest. There are usually 3 or more drums down front, several large stout engoma and one tall drum covered with monitor lizard skin. There is also an electric synthesizer but the drums carry the day. That and the choir. The choir leader, with a wonderfully nuanced tenor voice, makes up for the scarcity of mimeographed hymns books, by singing out the chorus line by line in advance for us.

Since I began singing barbershop, I have been endeavouring to pick out the harmonies in songs. I can’t quit figure out what the choir director is doing. His overarching tenor seems almost to be in a different key, tune and cadence with the melody being robustly sustained by the rest of the choir. Whatever he is doing, it ensures the actual words seem to float eerily out over the whole room. I fathom that this is the complexity others have noticed in the call and response technique.

Today the university congregation is welcoming a new chaplain, a personable East German who jokingly hopes that we don’t come to associate his name, Rudi, with the English “rude”. He appears to appreciate that the service has included more than 15 songs. He can’t even elevate the host but the choir breaks into glorious song.

One Sunday, the youth group came to the front to sing a hymn complete with arm, hand and body movements from the Ankole culture that activated the whole room. Soon everyone was joining in, mirroring the children’s movements with evangelical zeal and energy. I had heard about evangelical Catholic churches before I came to Uganda but it seemed a contradiction in terms, but here it is fittingly appropriate.

I meet a couple of the students at the service, who are now in their final year. It is good to see them and find out what they are doing. They did their community field placements last year with our project. University is a temporary community for many but in medicine it creates life long connections which stretch across countries and times.

Photo: Dev ScBldg, MUST


Sunday, February 18, 2007

In Between Time

After a busy but brief six weeks at home, I am off again for ten weeks to Uganda and Pakistan. I have had a chance to reconnect with a group of friends, relatives and community here on the Pacific West Coast where I am still a bit of a newcomer. My batteries have been recharged and I feel reinvigorated. I am struck by how well I am supported in my work by my friends and community. The two groups are only somewhat connected at present. Few of my friends of longer duration are part of my local community, a situation I share with many in today’s world, but the two spheres are beginning to intersect more. Both groups are important to me.

A coterie of local friends water my plants, check my mail box, look after my basement suite, keep my car battery charged, arrange for my house to be rented, drop me and my baggage off at the ferry, donate materials for the projects, collect baseball hats, search for puppets and offer encouragement for my work. Most importantly, they manage to slot me seamlessly into activities when I am back. Books we will discuss at book clubs are shared, church members inquire about my travels, invitations are extended, a small group of us attend the West Coast aboriginal version of the Magic Flute opera and friends visit from Belize and Vancouver. It is a busy time with Xmas to be celebrated in the Okanagan, games of Scrabble, cribbage and Boggle played, visits made to friend’s art displays and annual Tarot readings for the New Year arranged.

Although I have had to withdraw from several of my ongoing activities, such as Toastmasters and Sweet Adelines, because I have been away so much this past year, I am welcomed to drop by and encouraged to participate. All of this social networking feeds and sustain my soul. I have missed some people and some opportunities but overall the peripatetic life style is working out wonderfully. I even experienced a brief exposure to the storms that have swept erratically down the west coast this year with such ferocity, shifting global warming front and center even into political consciousness. The latter I am glad to witness.

My visits home have an underlying pattern, a weave of simultaneously activities to be undertaken. First my social networks are revitalized. Almost as soon as I come back I am acutely awaream stuck by an overwhelming need to simplify, to lighten up and unclutter my life. The contrast between how most of the world lives and my luxury in Canada unsettles me. As a friend puts it, we need to live more simply, simply that others may live. I make a start by sorting through boxes of clothes and clobber this time, finding things I had forgotten I had and moving them on. As the piles build, so does my enthusiasm for this activity.

Maintenance is also needed on the house - roof replacement arranged, an outdoor bench stripped and fixtures replaced. A young millwright from the local pulp and paper mill is settled in as the new occupant of the basement suite. Finally preparation for upcoming Pakistan and Uganda visits involves preparing training sessions for the STD workshop for physicians, collection of support material for several development activities, communication with possible partners, coordination of visas, air tickets and visits for myself and others. I am running behind on the STD training. Although most of the material needed has been collected, I have only completed two of the needed 10 sessions in writing and then it is time to return.

Photos: View from porch, chalk sign says Never Forget Me, Papyrus hat, Side of truck


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