Smiles, Struggles and Turkmen

One of the more useful purposes of social media is being able to stay in touch with my global network of friends and family while exploring events and issues within my local community. Thanks to a certain social media site, I stumbled across a post from a woman asking for help for Turkmen refugees in Mamak, a suburb in an older part of Ankara. So I filled my boyfriend’s car with clothing, dishes, and other random items to donate and off I went to Mamak on a sunny winter Saturday.

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Depot in Mamak

As I stood in the depot shivering from the February air, I gazed around at the numerous middle-aged men talking with the 2 Turkish ladies that had led me to said depot. There were piles of clothing strewn around the studio apartment-sized concrete walled space along with numerous bags of rice, legumes, sugar, bottles of sunflower cooking oil, and jars of tomato paste. My volunteer work in high school and university consisted of, well nothing I can remember, so I was a bit dumbfounded at what was going on. Obviously my lack of Turkish added to this confusion, but I tried to absorb all the sights, sounds and smells I could ingest.

After a lot of back and forth between the cast of characters I was observing, I went upstairs from the depot, with the locals, to the Cağdaş supermarket to buy baby food and bags of rice, legumes, sugar and jars of tomato paste, which filled the shopping cart to the brim. The massive amount of packaged food in one basket was something I had only seen at wholesale stores. This was when I realized there was an issue here.

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Iraqi Turkmens fled their hometowns in the Tal Afar and Mosul districts in northwestern Iraq when ISIL invaded their cities over a year ago. While I don’t personally categorize people (aside from asshole and non-asshole), national conflict, sectarian violence and cross-border war is a result of pigeonholing people for being who they are; whether they claim certain ethnic or religious associations, or are competing for oil. The divisions created among people because someone’s grandfather may have been born near a river in a perceived holy town and may or may not be of a certain descent is a fucking waste of time. I could get into the clusterfuck of ethnic backgrounds in this region and explain that Turkic people exist from the borders of China and Pakistan to the shores of the Bosphorus and beyond who sometimes prosper and are most often oppressed, is best left to social anthropologists. I will say I have been working with Turkmen from Iraq and leave it at that. Differentiating between Sunni, Shiite or Christian is pointless when people are suffering the same fate of displacement and persecution.

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When I met the group of volunteers from Iraq (refugees themselves) in the basement of a supermarket, I didn’t quite understand the gravity of the situation.  Nearly one year into my attempt to save the world through volunteering with the grassroots organization Birlik, I have a bit more grasp on the situation, but more importantly I have a greater understanding of the impact of war on people, communities and countries. AHH_8157

Over 25,000 people-the numbers change almost daily- of all ages have come to Ankara to live in safety, however they don’t intend to stay. There is a camp in Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, but conditions are terrible according to a family that recently moved to Ankara. Some evacuees in Ankara ran out of money- jobs are near impossible to find in Turkey as the economy is in a rut not to mention the country is trying to accommodate nearly 2 million refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria among some African countries- returned home to Iraq only to discover it was a grave mistake.

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Melek, Muhsin, Sachad and sister

On the first day of my new journey, we (local ladies and Turkmen volunteers) went to visit a family in order to see their living situation.  34 people from 3 families were living in a  2-story flat. There were 2 sofas and numerous foam mattresses lining the walls. As I walked through the home, I saw the rooms were full of sleeping material and nothing more. I was relieved they at least had a soft space to rest their heads, but little else existed there. Compared to the tarp walls of camps millions are living in from Jordan to France, I supposed it was a blessing to live within a concrete structure.AHH_8060

The following months I would visit  different families to take toys, books and sweets to the children. I quickly came to learn this was much like putting a band aid on a scraped knee. It was pointless. After all, people- mostly women and children as men have died or stayed behind-were living in apartments, wore clean decent clothes and served us Iraqi tea with heaps of sugar. Disillusionment kicked in as the haunting images of refugees the media shows us is quite different than what I was witnessing. My perception of a “refugee” changed drastically.

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Muhammed is a 10-year-old boy from Tal Afar who was near a suicide bomber when he was 2. Shrapnel from the bomb punctured his spine leaving him unable to walk. The family’s only request was for diapers. I went with 2 girlfriends to visit Muhammed and his family, which turned out to be a priceless encounter.  Muhammed’s little sisters immediately went to my friends and the smiles were infinite. Though I felt I needed to do more than just visit a family bearing plush toys made in China and cheap chocolate, I realized that creating happiness by showing interest in the peoples’ stories was something better than nothing (from my perspective). When I asked Muhammed questions he answered with a bright smile though he was unable to speak. This was enough to become the driving force behind how I would try to save the world one refugee child at a time.

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Muhammed, Nur, Ayet, Işıl

My close friend who fled Iraq 15 years ago, Mustafa, has been my foundation since the beginning. He is my translator and co-organizer for the events we have with the Turkmen. When he told me stories of trying to escape Iraq it seemed like I was listening to a horror movie script. Human perseverance is something extraordinary. The strongest statement he made regarding his past was that he didn’t have a childhood.

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Canan (volunteer Turkish teacher) and ladies

Fast forward a couple months to having lunch with two world-saving superwomen, one of whom works with violence against women here in Ankara. The organization she works for offers free psychological support to anyone, regardless if they have a Turkish ID or not. Great news I thought as the images of all the young women I had met flashed through my mind. So I took this information with pride to Haydar, one of the volunteers for Birlik “Together”, the organization that registers the Turkmen fleeing from Iraq to Turkey. He has become one of my dearest friends and biggest supporters in trying to help Iraqis transition into a new albeit temporary life. When I told him there is a place for women to get psychological support and did he know of any special cases, he laughed.

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Haydar and kids

Haydar said everyone needs help. His daughter watched a man be decapitated in the street. Some children witnessed their brothers, fathers, or uncles being killed. I had no idea where to go from there.

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Sisters

This may seem far fetched, however there are many signs the Turkish government supports ISIL, in the likes of recruitment camps based in southeastern Turkey, evidence of fighters and weapons crossing the border into Syria freely and illegal oil trading between Turkey and ISIL. The Turks’ hatred for the Kurdish people- the only ethnic group fighting against ISIL in Iraq and Syria and winning- is so deep that they will support the crazy ISIL fucks reigning terror and destroying thousands of years of history they consider haram or forbidden in Islam. Yes, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is a recognized terrorist group that has been waging a guerrilla war in Turkey for the past 30 years, but there is a misconception that Kurdish people support them so there is gaping wound between Turks and Kurds (Turks are mutts from the Ottoman Empire and Kurds are somewhat purebred- generally speaking of course), which is now fueling a civil war in southeastern Turkey at the moment. Innocent people are dying in the name of ethnicity and America is supporting both sides. Go figure. Let me not digress…

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Haydar said organize a picnic so I did. Mustafa, an Irish angel Roisin and I worked a few stressful weeks to create a day of release for 100 women and children. We found a beautiful place, Mavi Gol, for people to run amuck and forget about their lives for a day. Boys played soccer until they couldn’t stand. Young women made jewelry until the beads were gone. My darling friends cooked chicken until they reeked of barbecue smoke. The day was finished with bashing a pinata to ensure the kids had bellies full of sweets. This was a superficial activity that may not create world peace, but the laughter that ensued undoubtedly lasted for days and that was the point. The lovely volunteers consisted of people from Ecuador, Japan, Laos, Vietnam, Spain, Libya, Iraq, Ireland, the U.S. and a few of my dearest Turkish friends who all worked their asses off. When I advertise volunteering to help refugees on social media many people show interest, however so few are willing to actually put in the work. Yet another lesson I have learned during this emigration crisis. Support is crucial.

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Ha, Patricia and Umit

In the fall of this year, I organized an English course for 11 youth aged 10-15 with a core team that is still standing. People have come and gone as many foreigners (Westerners) want to say they help refugees, but don’t have the heart or guts to actually do it, so there has been a lot of disappointment and empty promises along the way. Despite this, I charge forward in my plan to save the world!

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First English class

Many kids don’t go to school here in Turkey for reasons varying from lack of Turkish language skills to mixed classrooms (Turkmen kids generally go to gender segregated schools) so we’re doing our part to keep a small, perhaps minute, percentage of a generation from being lost. For me at the moment the problem isn’t providing food to displaced people, but allowing minds and spirits to waste away. The idea of letting so many children live a life of despair is unacceptable.

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I could go on for days about my experience with these souls searching for a life away from conflict, which has ignited emotions from incredibly enlightening to grossly disappointing, but I think you get the picture.

I gratefully ask you to think, just for a minute or 2, about the millions of people struggling for a better life around the world.  If everyone can have a positive thought for a moment, the energy will combine and reach at least one individual that needs hope.

My heartfelt THANKS goes to all those that have supported me and continue to support me. You know who you are.

Peace.

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Picnic at Mavi Göl

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Back to the North….

Last week proved to be another eventful adventure….

Burney MC and Friend

Burney MC and I caught the Post bus to Gulu in northern Uganda to attempt to establish End of the Weak in the north.  After the 6 hour bus ride we arrived safely and covered in a fine layer of red dust. The highlight was having grilled bananas, called gonja, so I was satisfied.

Having been to Gulu before, we walked the familiar streets to find the guest house Happy Nest, where we would rest our bones for the few days we were there.  We met with Juma, a radio presenter and local promoter to discuss running the MC Challenge in Gulu.  As it would be, all he really wanted was money as the amount of NGOs and misappropriated money has spoiled the people in this war fatigued area.  We attended a talent show, which consisted of young men and one woman miming over a well-known artist’s song.  Most of it was Hip Hop from the US such as 50 Cent or local celebrity Bebe Cool.  Although Burney and I laughed about it, it is quite disheartening to see these kids imitating Western music instead of creating their own. However, these talent shows seem to take place in so many cities and towns, that this is the entertainment of the times.

I met a producer named Babu who has become my main guide and go-to guy for information about the Hip Hop scene in the North.  He is a man of few words who barely cracks a smile, but he has been honest and helpful.  His partner and co-producer, Ash Bee, has also proven to be of infinite help and is the comic relief in my endeavors to provide a platform to help strengthen and educate hopeful artists in Acholiland.

Burney and I retired to the guest house late that night, discussing the struggles we faced with working in Gulu.

MCs in Gulu

The next morning, we enjoyed our breakfast of buttered bread and coffee, then set off to Babu’s studio for more discussion.  We met Ken, brother to Babu and a jack of many trades. He took us to a T-shirt printing shop where I proceeded to have End of the Weak Uganda shirts printed. Then off we went to meet with local boxing coach and mentor to Stacy, Kidega.  He gave us useful information on how to work in Gulu and with his brother Komacech, helped us gather rappers to introduce the idea of the MC Challenge.  After a brief nap, we returned to Alobo, which is a bar, restaurant and community center.  We met with a few MCs before the electricity went out and more came to speak with us in the darkness of the restaurant. When the power returned, Burney played DJ and the MCs spit their freestyles, most of them in English, which showed us again how imitation of Western artists is their main education.  It was great to meet the guys and see their talents and eagerness for some kind of recognition.

We had more meetings at a discotheque called Herm before going across town with another new friend, Adi from London. Adi is a filmmaker working with Al-Jazeera (largest Arab TV station) on a documentary of people involved in the 20 year conflict with Sudan. He had some interesting stories as the people he had met had experiences common to a war zone.  Talking to people about where they were and what they were doing during the conflict reminded me of my time spent in post-conflict Croatia in Eastern Europe.  There are many people who carry many signs of war, mostly large scars of violence inflicted on them.  After a few more Nile beers, we retired home yet again.

Friday was spent having meetings with radio personality Emma of Choice FM and manager of Herm’s where I intend to have the End of the Weak event.  I battled with them as they wanted too much money, but I think with the proper use of ‘fuck’ in some of the conversation they realized I wasn’t an easy force to battle, like many other dishonest whites in the area. However, they are getting more money than they should as my bargaining skills are developing with every meeting. It was a frustrating day, but we finished it off with spending a comical time with Babu, Ash Bee and friends. After too much booze for Burney, Stacy and I, we slept a few winks before rising for the next day….

Burney headed back to Kampala and Stacy and I headed to Kitgum, farther North.  We arrived in Kitgum, somehow, after the bus broke

Santana and I

down for what seemed like forever.  In a place without AAA, Stacy and I wondered how exactly we would get to our destination if the bus crew had not managed to get it started again.  As soon as we hit Kitgum, we went straight for a lunch of pork at a friends restaurant.  It is nice to be welcomed back with big smiles and warm beer.

It was a big night for Stacy and I, as our friend Hoppy Benny organized a Hip Hop show at Club Galaxy.  Benny’s friend and promoter, Santana, took Stacy on his motorbike and Benny taking me on his motorcycle, we headed to a radio station to promote the night’s event.  The radio show was in the local language Luo, but Stacy and I spoke about our projects in our best English. Although many people in the city of Kampala consider the North to be traditional and uncivilized, the Acholis speak better English than the Bugandas (people in the central where I stay).  After a short but entertaining set on the radio, we went to Santana’s station, which was in a large house and though the equipment is old, it gets the job done. After yet another entertaining 10 minute show, we went back to our local haunt for dinner, of, yes, more pork.

Off to Club Glaxay we went, where we found many young men and women ready for a talent show and Hip Hop event.  We stood outside talking before being escorted in to a large club full of people sitting watching TV. We went back to the VIP room where Stacy and I had a beer and talked about solving world issues while the people watched a soccer game. Once the show started, we went to the main room and sat in the very front row as we were the guests of honor.  Benny and Santana wanted us to speak, but we denied wholeheartedly as being on the microphone is not what we came to do. The  talent show consisted of more miming to Western music and some really great traditional dancers.

I discovered we were true VIPs when I had to pee and had a bodyguard escort me to the back.  He moved people out of the way as if I was Obama and no one could touch me.  I didn’t like the treatment as I don’t want to be singled out, but I imagine I would never have moved forward as many people are interested in talking to a muzungu.

Ice Dream and Chainy Crispy

Benny organized a mini MC Challenge so that someone from Kitgum could go to Gulu to represent a major town in the North.  Organizing this event has proven to be difficult in many ways, and trying to have musicians from many areas represent their local language has been my focus for the past week and will continue for the next weeks.  I was impressed with Benny getting the people together and I am so incredibly thankful to have him on my side.  After the Challenge ended, we were escorted to the back where Stacy and I became surrounded by MCs wanting to talk and see what we thought of their performances.  After many discussions with people we met before mixed with new faces, we were escorted out the back door as though we were JayZ and Beyonce.

After a few hours of sleep, we were up and ready to receive musicians from the previous night to discuss End of the Weak and Hip Hop in general.  Although people were slow to come, their was a great turnout.  Benny is establishing the Northern Uganda Hip Hop Culture to help stimulate and expose the artistic abilities in the North and so we spoke about what Hip Hop means and how it can help guide them.  It  seemed to be a productive meeting, under a tree in what little shade there was, and I hope the meeting will help strengthen the ideas and hopes of these guys.

Stacy remained in Kitgum to run a theatre workshop and I jumped on the Gulu Express bus to finish up my duties in Gulu. I had been told about edible rats in the North, and got to experience it first hand on the ride to Gulu.  They only come around in the dry season and so are treated as a delicacy.  At a roadside market, the biggest selling item was this big ass rodent that had been sliced in half and dried for sale.  With many people buying these supposedly delicious creatures, the bus had a scent of dead animal that would fill the bus whenever it stopped and the air became stagnant. I asked Ash Bee about this source of food and he became very excited in describing how they prepare it.  Unfortunately, or fortunately, I wasn’t able to partake in rat soup.

1st meeting of Northern Uganda Hip Hop Culture

I received a copy of the Sunday Vision, an country wide newspaper that had a Q+A with me.  I was pleasantly surprised to see it and was quite happy with the response from people.  If someone calls me a celebrity one more time though, I’m going to have to look into buying a car as celebrities don’t walk. Ha!

After a mellow night with Ash Bee and a brief encounter with Babu, I slept a few hours before catching the 7AM bus back to Kampala.

the road to Sudan

6 hours and a headache later, I arrived in Kampala where my bodaboda friend picked me up and took my dusty body and backpack home.  My bodaboda friend, Mayaja, being much in love with me, brought me a bouquet of roses and lilies and a chocolate bar for Valentine’s Day. It’s nice to know where ever I may go in the world, there’s someone who loves me.

A day of not much rest, and I had to get the End of the Weak auditions organized for yesterday, Tuesday the 16th……..

Having the day start with monsoon rain and then having people show up late to the venue Club Rouge put a damper on my spirits, but the auditions turned out to be a success.  Although there where minor glitches in getting started, the emcees did their best to display their skills to judges Tafash, a female MC from Kenya, and Sylvester, an MC from Uganda. After a few exhausting hours, Burney and I had accomplished what we came to do.

EOW Auditions

We finished up the night with Spoken Truth, a weekly event for poets and musicians to talk about whatever and then back to Makindye for a night of restless sleep.

Now I will eat my first meal of the day (it’s almost 5PM) then meet with a few End of the Weak partners and champions, who (some) will make their debut on Jam Agenda, a local show promoting music.

Another day down and more hurdles to jump but success remains attainable.

A shitty week….

7 Feb 2010

I started off the week by watching Stacy attempt her first community meal at the Bavubuka House.  She had intentions that everyone who wanted to eat would contribute  200 shillings (about 10 US cents).  So off to the market she goes and upon her return, she was smacked with the reality that the people didn’t understand or just didn’t care.  3 individuals made the meal, but other than that, there was no contribution.  It is unfortunate that in a so-called community house there is no real community.  The mindset isn’t there for the locals to help each other out, they prefer handouts. The only person who has not expected a handout from me is Burney, the emcee who is my partner with End of the Weak.  I’m not sure why he is different, but he is. He understands the value of working to achieve something.  The others just want things given to them.  So my frustration with the kids/adults at the Bavubuka House has been elevated this week, but I learned last year to not give too much of my resources.  Unfortunately, Stacy learned the hard way, as did I, that the most locals don’t understand the meaning of ‘contribution’ or ‘community.’

SP at “Miami Beach”

The funniest day of my life also occurred this week when I went with a friend and MC, SP Omungunjule to his home in the ghettos of Makindye and Katwe.  As Burney, SP and I started our journey in Makindye, we encountered 2 military police who were exiting the ghetto and headed back to the barracks across the street.  They were kind and quite funny, as they just wanted to make friends with a muzungu (white person).  After a few minutes of small talk, we continued our journey through trash filled streets and rows of concrete houses.  SP, being a comedian, jumped a rancid ‘creek’ of water and climbed atop a trash pile.  I jokingly asked if the stream of trash and human waste

ghetto girl

was Lake Victoria, SP responds with, “This is Miami Beach.”  As he continues walking through trash piles, he decides to climb into a ‘shed’, which was a few pieces of sheet metal and wooden boards thrown together, and do a freestyle. Not 1 minute into his speech, he slides backwards into the ‘trash’ pile, his face covered in horror for maybe 7 seconds.  When he realizes where he is, he screams, “Fuck off man! This is a toilet!” As he emerges with one side of his body covered in shit, I laugh so hard I cry.  Burney watches in disgust as his

SP in shit

brother attempts to scrape the human waste off of his pants with a piece of metal.  After a few minutes of hysterical laughter (and me making a video of the whole scene) a man passes by and tells us to follow him to a water spout.  SP washes the shit off him as a crowd of women and children stand and watch. I photographed the kids after my friend was clean as could be, then off we went for more ghetto adventures.  We walked through areas where I usually pass on a boda boda, except for an unfamiliar market area with clean streets.  Clean streets are a rare sight here, as trash bins don’t exist.  As it would be, the market area is for the government, and so it made (some) sense that it is the only clean street surrounded by ghetto.  Then the rain came.  The three of us stood under what shelter we could find, and when the drops slowed down enough we continued walking back to the house.  I’ve since watched the video every day, multiple times, and when any of us that have seen it even speak about it, laughter rises to levels that cause pain.
And so the week continued, with meetings to get sponsorship and advertisement for the next End of the Weak MC Challenge.  I organized the auditions for last night, Saturday the 6th of Feb,

making chapatti in Makindye

at Club Sway, a former hotspot but now dead spot. It began as a positive event, but about halfway through, a manager pulled the DJ out of the booth and cut the microphone.  Apparently, the woman I made the arrangements with either did not relay the event to her manager, or didn’t have the power to give me the space for the time she said.  Or they wanted money or they didn’t like Hip Hop.  Regardless what it was, they kicked us out.  So 30 emcees and about 15 onlookers poured out on the street and watched me curse and talk shit until I calmed down.  The 2 judges that were there, Tafash and Sylvester, said it’s no big deal, welcome to Africa.  And so I  brought my anger down a level and went home to drink.  My friend and housemate who has been in pain for a week, went to the clinic and discovered he has worms. And so we talked about parasites, eating meat, and well, shit.  We compared parasite stories and had some good laughs.
So now I sit here, cold, watching from atop a hill, the rain fall on Kampala, turning the dust to mud and pushing the waste of all kinds through the ditches.  I am still frustrated about last night, as it was a waste of money for many people involved. But, I will book another venue this week and continue on with my plans. As Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
And so I will fight like hell to continue establishing End of the Weak Uganda, a movement of improvement through Hip Hop.

The dry season….

As I sit at Speke Hotel, watching a stork feed her baby in the tree, I am sweating in my mini skirt.  This is what they call the dry season.  Relentless sunshine, a warm breeze and enough dust in the air that I think I am in the Nevada desert during the Burning Man Festival.

Mugagga, Stacy + I

When darkness sets in, the view from the back of a boda boda is one of headlights, bicycles and speed bumps all slightly diffused by the encompassing red Kampala dust.  Sometimes I feel as though I am in a dream state, until the boda swerves to miss a pothole and I am jarred back into the present.
This week was slightly uneventful compared to some although it was productive. I had a meeting with WBS TV and they are willing to put MC Challenge winner CYNO MC and Uncle 33 Bwongo on a show called Jam Agenda this Wednesday.  When I saw CYNO the other day, (as he checks in with my progress) I asked him if he is ready to be on TV.  His response was, “I am an MC. I am forever ready.” And with the crack of his smile and my laughter, we continued on with our duties.
Stacy started a mural project on the property in Makindye (ma-chin-day) that employed the skills of Mugagga and Zubie.  Zubie is a girl that lives next door and sister to the only female MC in the house, Fasie.  Mugagga painted a massive lion

painting by floodlight

head with an outline of Africa, and Zubie painted a beautiful African queen, or as she likes to say, a phenomenal woman.  It was fun to watch the progress through the week and now that it is nearly completed, it is fun to watch the sense of accomplishment of the mural team’s spirit.  It has become a nice and semi-relaxing place to chill at the end of the day to watch the stars and occasional bat fly by.
I met two more very cool and inspiring people in the Hip Hop industry, female MC

The Bavubuka Mural Project

Saints CA and manager to superstar GNL Zamba, Emrun.  They gave great insight in to the various characters in the small scene here and applauded me for the work I am doing with End of the Weak.  Getting more positive people on board will for sure help the project to grow bigger and better.
On friday, a few people from the house went to see Kwesa’s dying father in the hospital. Kwesa is a young MC who is quite stubborn, but is losing his father at a very early age and so I try to nurture as much as possible.  A few weeks into my stay in Kampala, he asked if I would be his mom.  I’m pretty sure its so I’ll give him ice cream and take him to America, but it is endearing to have some one greet me as mommy without my having to go through pain and cleaning up after a shitting,

Kwesa and friends

vomiting baby.  The hospital reminded me of my time spent in a hospital in Croatia, with old equipment, urine soaked blankets and well, sick people.  But I know we made the old man’s day by showing him his son has a good support system.
After a meal of an omelette and salad, it is now time for half price ice cream.  That is the highlight of Sundays here in Kampala city.  Two scoops of delicious ice cream for $1.50.
It has been a lazy Sunday, and I look forward to a busy and productive week ahead…..

And that is what they call the village….

Last Tuesday, Burney MC and I woke up at 6:30 AM, jumped on a boda boda to town, and boarded a bus North to Gulu. Gulu is infamous for being the district where many children were abducted to be child soldiers for the Lord’s Resistance Army and 90% of the people have been displaced.  I urge you to research the war in Sudan, but in short, it’s Christians verses Muslims, the government versus the rebels. Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, is from northern Uganda and so kidnapped his people, the Acholis, to fight for his cause. As I’ve said in an earlier blog, there has been peace there for over a year, and my main informant about the area’s life is Benson Mwaka aka Hoppy

Hoppy Benny and Burney in Kitgum

Benny. His family is in Kitgum, which borders southern Sudan.
The bus was relatively empty, enough that Burney and I were able to lay down and get some rest. Having spent much of my childhood on the road, moving from state to state, my father had my sister and I well trained on finding the source of any slight disturbance or rattle in the vehicle or in the cargo we carried. Unfortunately, this keen sense of listening to a rattle can border on insanity when riding in a 10-15 year old bus with the window next to me unstable enough to believe it will fall out at any moment. I now have tuned my wheres-the-rattle-coming-from sense into this-is-part-of-the-background-noise sense.  As it turns out, life is full of music if you can only listen.  With a slight breeze blowing fine red dust into our faces, we watched small town after small town fly by.  There was a minor disturbance on the bus when an older man couldn’t pay the fair and couldn’t speak about where he was going, so a large, verbal woman who knew the man tried to talk to him.  After a few minutes of trying to converse with the man she says he must have been chloroformed or poisoned somehow and went back to her seat, the conductor going back to the front of the bus and we continued on. At a police check point, we stopped and the two conductors and bus driver came back to inquire into the man’s destination once again. Apparently, there were three women on the bus who knew him as they were all charcoal merchants so they were able to call his wife.  The police escorted the old man off the bus, and the three ladies were told to leave as well.  The conversation was a mix of Luganda and English, but I understood, “All the thieves must leave,” and so the bags of charcoal were unloaded from the bottom of the bus, the three ladies and feeble old man left on the side of the road to find another mode of transport.

on the bus

A highlight of the seven hour bus ride, or any bus ride in UG, is the side markets where we often stop for refreshments. Not leaving the bus, there are men, women and children running to the windows selling water, juice, meat on sticks, cassava, roasted bananas and chipatti (fried bread), this being the ultimate meaning of fast food.  After maybe three minutes of intense selling and buying, the bus rolls off to the next town.  There was a construction zone that consisted of one mile of speed bumps. Yes, one mile. As soon as the back wheels had cleared the first one, the front wheels were going over another one, and so on, and so on…..We laughed as we bounced out of our seats for what seemed like forever, being thankful when we were on level ground again.  We passed Karuma Falls, where the Nile river flows vigorously towards Egypt and baboons sit along the road watching the world go by.

Burney in Gulu

Arriving at the bus park in Gulu, tired and sweaty, we had a box of mango juice each, then boarded the next bus to continue on to Kitgum.  Burney and I were blessed again to have a bit of space in the back of the bus, however we refrained from laying down as the road was not paved and pot holes are the size of craters. Not to mention the driver takes turns at Mario Andretti speed so I felt as though we would tip over at almost any moment.  The scenery changed from cement and plywood buildings to mud huts with thatched roofs, which are Internally Displaced People camps. The IDP’s are the people who fled their villages to escape conflict and abduction.  Arriving in Kitgum two hours later, my friend Benny and his father

Parwech Alango village

were there on their motorcycles to give us a lift ‘home’.  The family stayed in government housing in Kitgum town when they left their village of Lumak in 2002.  It is a cement building with a sitting room, kitchen and two bedrooms.  Stacy (from Washington DC) had been there a few days already and welcomed us with open arms.  She thought she would enjoy working in the field, but after three days of shitting in a hole and washing her face from a bucket, she decided the field may not be for her. Ha. Of the two days I was there I did not bath my entire body, only my arms and legs, and well, if I was there one more day I would have been a redhead from all of the dust in my hair.  I tried to avoid looking in a mirror and when I did, my eyebrows were red like a clown and so I laughed and put the mirror away.  I really admire rural Africans as they always seem clean despite the lack of electricity and running water.

Acholi cousins

Our first night in Kitgum, we went for pork dinner (of course) and I was amazed at how quiet and peaceful the town seemed. Of course I was always looking for a rebel soldier to come from the bush with a large, American machine gun, but alas, they never came.  We retired early, Burney sleeping in two chairs, Benny on a sofa, and Stacy and I on two mattresses laid on the kitchen floor and covered with a mosquito net.  Despite Stacy screaming about a mouse running next to her and the dreams that seemed to take me on a journey, we rested well.
The next morning, Benny took me to meet his sister Sharon and her twins, Obama and Michelle.  While Sharon was very friendly, Obama and Michelle cried at the sight of a white person. Ha. We’ll see how well adjusted they become with time.
After getting pineapple at the town market, Stacy and Burney got on Benny’s motorcycle and I jumped on Geoffrey’s (step brother to Benny, his father having 2 wives), happy that I was on the faster one. However, Benny didn’t have eye protection and so Geoffrey and I remained behind the bike of three.  After 15 km down a dirt road, through fields of cassava and various other flora, including a sunflower patch, we arrived in the village of Parwech Alango in the mother camp of Kitgum Matidi with a not so thin layer of red dust on our white faces (Stacy and I anyway).  We were welcomed into the thatch roofed mud hut where various family members came in and out to greet us. We talked with the leader of an agricultural youth group that was started in 1998.  Once at 30 members, the group remains with 11 girls and 9 boys. This is quite a feat considering their livelihoods had been threatened by rebels and the surrounding war for many years.  They raise crops such as sorghum, cassava, maize, mangos, and various other crops, but the coolest commodity is bees.  They sell the honey, but want more training on what to do with the beeswax, such as making candles. So on my trip to the internet today, I am going to research how to make candles and when I return to the North, I will train to the best of my ability.  We had a tour of the bee boxes and surrounding crops, which has been a slight struggle to keep up since having their bulls stolen by the rebels.  After a brief discussion with the two leaders of the group in their office, under the mango tree, we jumped back on the motorcycles and off we went to see Benny and Geoffrey’s land.  Somewhere down another long, flat

on the road to the village

dirt road, we made our way through burning fields of bush.  Because of the dry season, the people burn the dead shrubbery to rejuvenate the soil and allow grazing for the cattle.  After a few kilometers of scorched earth, we came across a fire near the road. Stacy started screaming about the unpredictability of forest fires and Burney being a city boy and unsure of village danger, we stopped moving forward so Geoffrey could extinguish the flames with a few large, green leaves.  We jumped back on the bikes and headed onto the family land in the village of Lumak.  The Mwaka family left the land in 2002 and so the brick huts have been reduced to rubble.  Four of Benny’s brothers were abducted by rebels and two have returned. We met Peter, who was abducted while tending the ‘garden’ (fields).  He was marched into Sudan where he remained for roughly nine months.  Him and four other boys escaped one day, saying they were going to the fields and just started running.  He was open about speaking about his experience and it was acknowledged that former abductees have been accepted back into the community peacefully.

somewhere in Kitgum Matidi

On our return back to the family for dinner, the fire had nearly covered the road.  Benny in front, stopped and turned to Geoffrey asking if we could proceed, Geoffrey said no, but Burney just said go fast.   And so we flew through the fire, feeling the heat on our flesh and me being only slightly concerned about my hair igniting in flames.
After a dinner of posho (corn), sweet potatoes, greens, cabbage, peas, beans, and various other things, the mother and many other siblings, including two mentally disabled brothers, aunts and cousins, gathered around the hut as we asked questions and they asked questions, having Benny translate it all. I could tell he was exhausted by the time the conversation was done, but it also gave him an air of confidence and dignity to have brought these worlds together.  Benny’s mother gave the three of us names, Stacy is Abey, meaning beautiful. Burney is Otim, meaning a son born in a foreign village, and I am Amiro, meaning I want, or to meet, or to love…..I’m not real clear about it as every time I asked someone I got a different response. Ha.
We headed back to the town of Kitgum as there was a karaoke night that Burney and Hoppy were going to host at Club Shower.  As we flew down the long dirt road, the landscape was alive with burning fields.  Acholiland has been dubbed ‘the land of fire’ and for good reason.  Tired and dirty, we had a few beers and watched a UK soccer match, which was too much competition for karaoke.  We were thankful to be home and Burney began snoring shortly after arrival to confirm that joy.
The next morning we went to Holly Max studios, where Burney recorded a verse in Luganda, Benny a verse in Luo, and Stacy sang the chorus in well, English.  I got to speak with the emcees and producers involved with the studio and found that they just want to put Northern Hip Hop on the map.  After a few hours at the studio, we headed into town for one last pork meal then onto to the Gulu Express bus, which was packed like a New York subway car at rush hour and was by no means an express.  Two bumpy, dusty, and sweaty hours later, we arrived at the Gulu bus park once again.  Stacy’s friend Jimmy, who works with Concordia Universtiy in Canada, took us ‘home’, which is a nice house on a big property and surrounded by mud huts.  After a well deserved shower, we ate yet another feast.
The next day, we met with Remnant Voice, a Gulu based Hip Hop organization. After many questions about Northern Hip Hop, we walked into town to meet with Kidega, a professional boxer and coach.  Again, more research about sports and life in Gulu, then off to Mega FM radio station to meet with an organizer to help me get End of the Weak started in the North. There was a slight detour for some Nile Specials (beer) and then a productive meeting with Jummiah the promoter. He wanted to run the MC Challenge this weekend, but I’m too busy getting the next Challenge running in Kampala.  But, EOW Gulu will soon arrive.
We chilled at Jimmy’s house, watching movies on a flat screen TV and sipping yet more Nile. It was a good last night in the north of Uganda.

The Kitgum Crew

Up early to catch the Post bus back to Kampala, we thought we would have space to sleep, but the bus was so full even the aisles were taken by children sitting on luggage. The young man and two child siblings next to me had a chicken they were bringing to the city as a gift.  She stayed relatively quiet, only squawking when dropped or disturbed by the mile of speed bumps.  I had a difficult time staying awake, only keeping my eyes open long enough to buy food at the road side markets.
We arrived safely back to the land of thieves, aka Kampala. Ah, city life.
I could keep writing for days, but long story short, I find village life to be a struggle as much if not more than city life, but much more peaceful.  Guess it comes from my father never wanting to live in a neighborhood, and so growing up in the country has spoiled me.  The Acholi people are tall, dark and resilient as hell, much like the Zulus in South Africa, but when smiled at by a muzungu, they giggle and walk away shyly.
I look forward to returning to the North again very soon…..

Casinos and Ghettos

 

Uganda 2010 Round 2 18 Jan 2010

The highlight of this week was being on national television speaking about End of the Weak. I didn’t see it, but I know it is a great way to start the New Year.

CYNO MC

The other highlight was doing a photo shoot with CYNO, the MC Challenge winner. He took me through the ghetto of Katwe, otherwise known as “the city of technology” or “the dustbin of Japan” as Burney MC calls it despite the punches he receives from CYNO when he says it. Ha. The streets are lined with refrigerators, boom boxes, spare computer parts and many, many engines and various car parts. I’ve been told the ghettos are not a place to go even in the day time, but despite a few hostile stares, no one caused any problems. It helped that I had 3 people with me, one of them looking like a soldier. As we walked through narrow alley ways past homes made of mud and scrap metal, the smell of rotten food and toilets permeated through some areas. My heart rushed as we walked through a ‘machine shop’ where many men covered in dust and oil banged away on engines, car parts and various other metal appliances. Just as the men were soaked in oil, the earth we walked on was shiny and black from being used as a workbench. Though they said to turn the cameras off, my friend and partner in crime, Mugagga, kept the camera rolling as a proper filmmaker in training would. As we approached CYNO’s regular spot, Burney, Mugagga and I photographed and filmed the surroundings while CYNO went home to get more clothes. We were not allowed to go with him as his parents don’t support his musical endeavors, which is common throughout the city. According to Burney, Hip Hop has somewhat of a negative connotation as it

End of the Weak in Katwe

is the commercial mainstream bullshit that has made its way here. But at least I got to walk the path he takes to the Bavubuka House every day. As we were leaving, there was a (crazy) man running through the street swinging his arm at boda boda drivers as though he had a panga (machete) and was chopping off heads. Though he knocked a man and passenger off of a motorcycle, they laughed as well as the 3 of us standing on the sidewalk watching it happen. It is the first time I’ve seen clear effects of war on a person here and I imagined what his life as a soldier or child of the bush must have been. One detail I remember hearing about the war in Sudan is how the rebels invade a village, rape, beat and dismember people, then throw the body parts in the streams or water sources so that even that basic amenity is destroyed.

Burney MC and CYNO in Katwe

On a perhaps lighter note, I went with friends to a casino, which is occupied by foreigners and prostitutes. Crack cocaine has made its way to Uganda, and the effects of the drug are clear on some of the working ladies. Though I’ve never been to Las Vegas, I have seen enough movies to know Casino Simba is just like it’s American counterparts, smokey, drug laden and full of security.
I have a meeting with Uganda Telecom about sponsorship for the next End of the Weak Challenge so I must go print my proposal and put my convincing smile on.

UG 2010 Round 1

Uganda 2010 Round 1                            7 January 2010

Seven days into the new year and life continues to be a challenge but I also continue to flourish. I am sitting at Mask Studios in Kabalagala where CYNO MC, the End of the Weak MC Challenge winner is recording his 2 tracks.  He was at my door early this morning and ready to go.  He is a kid from the ghetto of Katwe and a true diamond in the rough.  He is eager, motivated and extremely focused on becoming the best MC in Uganda.  When I told him that EOW from NYC to Berlin knows about him, his slight smile brightens his face to the extent that I know I am accomplishing my purpose to empower the Hip Hop industry in East Africa.
The last few days have been interesting but enlightening to say the least……
On sunday the 3rd, my girls Roshan, Stacy and I went to Cassia Lodge, a peaceful retreat on a hill that overlooks Kampala.  We lounged by the pool, ate, drank and attempted to solve world issues.   The combination of laughter, a beautiful environment and a moment of peace was essential for our beings before we resumed our lives in the streets of KLA City.  I forget the chaos and constant noise (not to mention pollution) that surrounds me daily, until I remove myself from it and breathe deeply.  It seems I will always work at a New York pace, but it is nice to be showered with sunshine and to only spend $1 on a beer. As it turns out I’m a millionaire in here.  Ahhh, Africa.
I forget what Monday entailed so I will move on to Tuesday…..
One of my bodyguards is a champion boxer and a police officer.   I went to the gym where he trains, however there was a demonstration being organized to protest the closing of a pirate radio station in the Buganda kingdom….. The kingdoms of Uganda are somewhat complex and I live in the Buganda kingdom. If you watch the news then you saw the riots that occurred a few months ago that centered around the King of Buganda attempting to travel to a village where the government didn’t want him to go. (President Museveni runs the country but the people listen to their King).  The riots lasted a few days and the rubber bullets of the military were replaced with real ammunition so many people died. The radio station was closed during that time and has not reopened…..  As a result, the demonstration that was supposed to happen this week never occurred due to the deployment of police and military to the hot spots in the city.  Instead of photographing boxing training, I went with my friend to investigate the possible riots (as any proper journalist would do).  I had lunch and spent the remainder of the day with the police officers who patiently waited for a call to duty.  I learned many things about the government and local and international crime. The terrorists they fight here are mostly Somali pirates and the occasional Arab.  I have been lucky to meet people of many walks of life in my quest to investigate life in Uganda.
Yesterday I rested as long as possible until the Bavubuka Fenomenal Women’s Project had our weekly meeting. The homework for the week was to write a poem about Women.  I didn’t do my homework so had to freestyle and actually succeed for my first time as a poet.  After the meeting I had a quick dinner of fried chicken and fries with a local Dancehall/Reggae artist KS Alpha.  I made my way to Mask Studios to listen to tracks for recording today.
As I sit here talking about Hip Hop and R and B with 2 locals, I am again inspired to continue my work solidifying the musical talent in the country.  My health is good….a few weeks ago I stepped on a power cord and got a brief jolt of electricity so I’m convinced whatever parasites I had have been annihilated.  Cheers to another successful day in Africa.