I’ve never been particularly patriotic. A desire to counter American exceptionalism and frustration with polarized and rhetorically-driven politics means that – like many Americans – I have a pretty pessimistic view of domestic politics. However, an increased understanding of what it means to live under only a vague semblance of democracy – where political opposition is arrested for corruption and the presidential guard is comprised of only the President’s own tribe members – has led to greater appreciation of our (often stagnant and definitely archaic) democratic system
On September 30th, I saw the new Prime Minister voted into office at the Parliament of Uganda. We had a group tour and meeting with a Member of Parliament and were then given the option to sit in on a Parliament session. Before the session began, my teacher commented on the unusual number of MPs in attendance. Since the Parliament’s agenda isn’t released until just before the session, we had no idea what was being discussed that day. Then the Vice President of Uganda entered. Then Uganda’s recently removed Prime Minister entered along with his replacement.
For context, here’s a quick overview of the Ugandan government. There is President Museveni who enjoys complete control over national decision-making and no term limits. As the Member of Parliament we met stated, “We may look like a democracy, but we’re actually a dictatorship.” In addition to the Vice President, there’s also a Prime Minister appointed by the President who overseas governmental affairs.
While Uganda is technically a multiparty system there is, in reality, only one political party: the National Resistance Movement. This is the political party of the current president who sized power in a military coup in 1986. Theoretically, opposing political parties are supposed to sit across from each other in Parliament. However, the National Resistance Movement has such an overwhelming majority that they overflow to the opposition side. Recently, several MPs in the majority part voted against the President’s wishes and were removed from the party. Four chairs were placed in the center of the parliament floor between opposing sides. These “rebel MPs” sit in these separate chairs in what freakishly appears to be a ‘time out’.
Two weeks ago, the President unceremoniously replaced the Prime Minister, a former ally. While, constitutionally, the Parliament must approve the new Prime Minister, an authoritative president commanding a dominant political party means that voting in a new Prime Minister is nothing more than theater. It was these ceremonial motions - where MPs gave speeches and voted without any actual political impact - that I witnessed from the gallery.
Several weeks ago, the Gulu District Chairman (Uganda’s equivalent of a governor) stated that the only difference between President Museveni and notorious rebel commander Joseph Kony is that one is in the bush and one is in town. Not only do these comments point to Museveni’s unrelenting centralization of state power but also the ability of opposition to openly criticize the government… as long as the opposition remains weak. While Uganda will have presidential elections next year, there seems to be a general consensus that Museveni will remain as head-of-state. The real question is what will happen in 2022 in a nation that has only seen violent political transitions and increase fusion between the ruling party and state structures. We can only hope that Uganda will not follow the path of its neighbors – from electoral violence in Kenya to civil war in South Sudan – as a result of tribalism, poverty, and a history of militarized politics.
Right now, our van is crossing the equator and soon the Rwandan border. We’ve been forewarned that the freedom of speech relatively allowed in Uganda is nonexistent in its close neighbor. Our teacher has openly stated that our lecturers this coming week will all pledge allegiance to the president and praise the government – since anything else has you whisked away. While Uganda has possibly ignited what may actually be a strange new feeling called patriotism, it will be fascinating to consider what there is to appreciate in Uganda when compared to its neighbor to the south.
On September 28th we saw Ndere Dance Troupe preform traditional dances from across the region. Every performer is an orphan, who preforms dances and plays traditional instruments and, in exchange, proceeds go towards their education. Many of the performers joined young and are supported throughout their education; those who had just graduated university were introduced during the show.
Performances included Rwandan dances, Burundi drumming, and singing from the Karamojong region. Appropriately for us, the grand finale feature Acholi music where the men drummed on gourds while the women danced and balanced up to nine clay pots on their heads. It was a fantastic perspective of the cultural diversity across Uganda. Per usual, we were invited to join in at the end of the evening.
Homework, applications, travel and life have prevented me from sharing everything I would like to share. I look forward to posting pictures and stories when I get the chance. For now, I’m cramming Acholi for our final tomorrow, attempting to de-flea my wardrobe, and buying lots of chocolate for our trip to Rwanda on Wednesday.
We are currently halfway through our stay in Kampala, an incredibly hectic city. We have Acholi lessons outside in the hotel garden every morning and lectures at Makerere University in the afternoon. The first picture is the taxi park and gives a great idea of the (lack of) organization of Ugandan transportation. The third picture is a statute of the current Bugandan King overlooking his palace. However, the king never stays in this palace (he has several) since blood was shed when government troops stormed it in 1966, making the palace unclean. Next Wednesday (Oct 1st), we’re adventuring on to Kigali, Rwanda.
There are eight Ba’hai Temples in the world. Two years ago I visited the Ba’hai Temple in New Delhi, India by pure chance. This summer, I visited the Ba’hai Temple of North America in Chicago.. also by chance. However, after learning Africa’s Ba’hai Temple is in Kampala, Uganda I resigned myself to fate. As of yesterday, I am officially 3/8ths of the way towards my goal of visiting all the Ba’hai Temples in the world.
The Ba’hai religion began in Iran and spread across the globe. Basically, they believe in the oneness of God, oneness of humanity, and oneness of religion. While I’m not Ba’hai, I can appreciate many of their core values, such as peaceful coexistence, equality, and universal education. However, some others, such as a universal language, seem like a bit of a stretch.
The remaining temples can be sound in Frankfurt, Australia, Samoa, Chile, Panama. So if anyone feels like an international adventure, you’re cordially invited.
1. On our way to Kitgum in the “Munu Machine” 2. I consider this my senior portrait 3. Research 4. The compound in the morning 5. Learning to cook matoke 6. The chief telling us about cultural artifacts 7. My rural homestay family. The first wife has a green necklace, and second wife is holding a baby. 8. Duku trees are planted to commemorate were homes once stood. 9. Covering my host siblings in stickers. 10. My host siblings in full force.
This past week I battled spiders and befriended goats in a rural village in northern Uganda. Living in the chief’s compound in Ganglela village, Kitgum District was like walking into Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. A classmate and I stayed in a thatched roof hut with a dirt floor and one light blub. Goats, pigs, chickens and children ran free around the compound, which was comprised of several huts, a pit latrine, and acres of fields. Also the chief’s two wives.
We had an extremely wonderful experience. Both the younger children and older sons found us absolutely fascinating. The first wife was kind and welcoming despite not speaking English. The second wife was also friendly; although her baby would cry anytime we came near. Yes, the wives did get along. No, they did not share a hut. The chief’s three oldest sons Ernest, Ivan, and Kennedy were our primary hosts. Unfortunately, it was usually only the boys and men who spoke English because of unequal access to education. We had great conversations with the guys. We realized how hard it is to describe things from pizza to planetariums. We also broke it to them that Tupac, the rapper, is dead. The younger children weren’t sure what to do with us at first. However, we won them over with jump ropes and tickle tag.
The chief went out of his way to explain Acholi culture and tradition. We were given an intensive introduction to Acholi agriculture, traditional justice, and just about everything else. If you ever need to know how to coronate an Acholi chief, I’ve got your back. (HINT: it requires a leopard finger and royal drum.) One of the chief’s main roles is mediating conflict, most commonly land conflict. When I expressed an interest in traditional justice and mediation he made sure to provide us any information we could possibly need.
It really struck me is how verdant Uganda is. Everything grows here. The kids would run into the bush and come out with passion fruit, guava, and bananas for us. Like most Ugandans, our village family was subsistence farmers. They grow cassava, sogham, potatoes, beans, and a million other things.
One of the most amazing aspects of our visit was experiencing the communal village culture. While walking to the well with jerry cans, we stopped to greet people at each compound. We were given fruit and groundnuts at every hut. Everyone greeted us warmly as guests of the chief. On our last night, the Ganglela Women’s Dance Group preformed traditional dances for us. We joined them for their last dance, which they found hysterical. After, they asked us to show them a traditional American dance. Not wanting to let them down, we did the cotton-eyed joe.
The first night I went out to take my bucket shower in the bush I couldn’t stop smiling. The stars were so clear they actually twinkled. Heat lightening and fireflies added to the effect. It was one of those exhilarating moments that reminds me why I’m here. I’ll be in Gulu for four nights, and then it’s on to Kampala and Rwanda! Adventure awaits!
When I decided to study abroad in Uganda I prepared myself for the antithesis of my semester in The Netherlands. Uganda is an overwhelmingly Christian society where gender norms and cultural practices are deeply embedded. The internationally infamous “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” that continues to be widely supported here is a clear example of the social restrictions that continue to reign.
In addition, Gulu is recovering from a horrific 20-year-long war. Last weekend, I went to my host sister’s church and was overwhelmed by the passion of everyone in the packed room. In that moment, I realized everyone over the age of seven experienced the war’s brutality. In these circumstances, is it any surprise that both young and old almost desperately seek solace in religion and tradition?
Northern Uganda is wracked by poverty, unemployment, and a failing education system. Once, this region had the greatest schools in the country. After the Lord’s Resistance Army’s insurgency, everyone who can afford to sends their children to boarding school in the capital. Despite everything, dance music fills the streets and refuses to be confined by the weekend. Just as Ugandans faithfully attend church on Sunday they flock to the bars on Friday.
Remember Kony2012 and Invisible Children? The commuter children featured in the viral video fleeing abduction are now my age. It’s these commuter children and former LRA abductees who fill the streets with music. Like religion and tradition, music has also been chosen as a therapy of choice.
This past Thursday, I went to BJ’s, the go-to bar for Gulu’s humanitarian aid workers, with my host sister and classmates. Here, I can only imagine the story of everyone I meet. Besides former abductees who work for various NGOs there’s also a good handful of Americans. I met three guys who work for the U.S. military, filming LRA defections. They’re part of the 100 Special Operations personnel sent by President Obama to assist in the hunt for Joseph Kony. While their sense of American exceptionalism and inability to dance didn’t endear them to me, at least nobody here is boring, that’s for sure.
Digesting the reality of a post-war society continues to be a sobering experience. Religious and social restrictions continue to curb my usual freedom (to wear what I want and go where I want, when I want). In a world where everything that could be different is, I’m grateful one thing - celebration and communication through music and dance - remains the same.