Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lango 101 and Why it Matters

...along with the easy happiness I had come to associate with the country, I was aware of a new and perhaps less superficial sensation - that sense of familiarity and alienation that comes to one who knows a place well, but who can never hope to become a part of it.
                                                       -Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow

Every morning on the way to work, we pass a gaggle of construction workers slowly producing a large house from piles of cement, bricks and iron bars. And every morning, I try out one of my new Lango phrases on them. A tia wor a teech, I say today, meaning “I’m going to the office.” I’m going to come visit you this Saturday, one of them tells me. Tell me where you stay. Okay, no problem, I reply, continuing on my way. Plenty of people here say they’re going to visit; I’ve found it best not to protest, just to nod noncommittally. The ones who actually follow through are few, and usually feel awkward when they show up at your door, in your territory.

I must have passed these same laborers during my first couple of weeks here, but I don’t recall them. At the time, I was still assembling my essential Lango vocabulary, and wasn’t bold enough to be greeting too many strangers in a language I didn’t yet have any kind of ear for. And they ignored me, in turn.

Until you learn a language, you will never really understand the people who speak it. This is one of the great challenges of the humanitarian world, where most of the big players are expatriates who have no real personal stake in the places where they work. While I'm hardly among the more influential of these folks, I still find my lack of insider perspective limiting. I'm here to evaluate a project, then to recommend ways to modify the intervention to increase its impact in the future. But, as I am reminded every day, my logic does not always apply here, and what I see as a great solution may well dissolve into vapors when tossed out under the glare of the Ugandan sun. 

Simsim (sesame) drying in the open air.

Here's an example: Most rural families here rely on subsistence agriculture for the bulk of their food supply. The harvest for the second agricultural season traditionally takes place now, in November, and crops are set out in the sun for several weeks. Once dry, they're moved into storage, and provide the family's primary calorie supply for six months or so, until the next harvest.

But: In recent years, the rainy season has been continuing well into November, perhaps because of climate change. The frequent late-season rains prevent thorough drying of crops, which often succumb to rot and must be tossed out. Four months of heavy labor in the fields, gone. And people lamenting their losses, year after year, but continuing to apply the same outmoded harvesting practices.

To my western mind, the answer seems obvious, constructing some kind of shelter, built of local material, that allows for airflow while shielding the harvest from direct rainfall. But so far this idea has been met with rejection. Too much work, say the villagers. We couldn't manage it. I don't know where their skepticism comes from. Are they simply resistant to any kind of change? Would shelters really represent too great an investment in materials and effort? Or are there other technical issues I'm just not seeing?

The point is that seemingly good solutions won't work unless the people they're intended for people are willing to embrace them. To accurately foresee that is no small matter. And while I can never hope to be a part of this place - there's no escaping my western upbringing, or this white skin - I can try to gain insight, by reminding myself of how little I know, by asking lots and lots of questions, and by showing my interest in the Lango, which I partly try to accomplish by making small strides in language learning.

Last week, for the first time in my short humanitarian career, I met a beneficiary who speaks English. I was thrilled; all of the questions that would normally pass through translators could simply be asked, and answers given. She was my age, recently divorced, with four children, two oxen, six goats and one plough that she shares with another beneficiary household. She told me that while the cash she received from our organization has certainly helped, her household is still not back to where it was before the LRA displaced it. Occasional sales of goats keep her children enrolled in school, but it will take some good luck and disciplined management of crop sale money to build the family assets back up. None of this was particularly surprising, but somehow hearing about her situation so directly made the project more real to me, and highlighted its potential value to individual people facing pretty significant challenges.

So when I try out my rudimentary Lango, joking with people about how many husbands I have or asking about what they like to eat, or grow, I'm not just trying to make a spectacle of myself (although that often can't be avoided). I'm trying to forge a connection, to show them I am open to their ideas, in hopes that some of their perspective will find its way into my report, and make the projects designed to help them a bit more effective.

Monday, November 7, 2011

For my Aunt

It’s been a solitary weekend. Although I’ve been introduced to a veritable posse of expats here in Lira, they were all out of town this weekend, headed to Kampala for meetings, Zimbabwe for trainings or Kenya for breaks. There are a couple locals I could call, but frankly, I’m suspicious of their motives; one girl, the friend of a friend’s friend, asked for my number at a dance club at the end of the evening, even though we had not even been introduced, and the other asked if she could call me while tallying up my purchases at the grocery store where she works. Some tell me Ugandan girls are just shy, and won’t start up conversations with white girls they don’t know, and their asking for my number is just an indirect way of proposing friendship. But I don’t feel like putting myself in an unfamiliar situation right now, don’t want to be expected to take a trio of Ugandan fillies out for beers (as inevitably happens) and talk about clothes, and hair, and men.

My heart isn’t here.

My aunt is in the hospital. She’s normally the first one to read my blog entries when I post them, responding each time almost at once, with unflagging praise. Now she’s hooked up to a breathing machine, in an induced coma, fighting an abdominal infection following an extended cancer-removal surgery.

When I last saw her in LA, three months ago, neither of us knew that she was sick. We wandered through the Venice Canals, ogling ducks and display case homes. She insisted on buying me a few tops to augment my utilitarian post-Congo wardrobe. As usual, we nibbled on vegetable slices and fruit and hummus and a little cheese, and sipped wine with her neighbors at a nightly “cocktail hour” in their apartment complex’s courtyard. I kept her company as she fed and cleaned up after the sickly cat of a neighbor who was on an extended trip to Europe. One morning the cat showed signs of kidney failure, and my aunt, the most devoted cat lover I have ever known, tried her best to stay calm as she made arrangements for him to be put down.

In short, her life as I knew it was carrying on as usual.

She was diagnosed in September, shortly before I left for Uganda. Her surgery, in mid-October, went as well as could be hoped for, I was told, although the cancer was more extensive than the doctors had previously thought. I even spoke with her as she lay in the hospital, recovering. She sounded like herself, upbeat, levelheaded and even a bit image-conscious despite the sedatives. “My legs are so bloated,” she told me. “They’ve been pumping all these fluids into me.”

And then my father emailed a few days later. My aunt had returned to the hospital with debilitating pain in her abdomen. Apparently she had acquired an infection during the surgery, and in her already-weakened body it had gone systemic. She was in critical condition, and on life support. My dad was flying out to see her. 

When my 93 year-old grandmother was dying in Massachusetts two years ago, my aunt spent the better part of two months by her side, trying to ease her mother’s considerable physical pain, along with the anxiety and uncharacteristic moodiness brought about by a series of opiate-based painkillers, and her frustration with her sudden helplessness. It seems unbelievable that my aunt now needs someone to offer the same support to her.

And here I am in a rainy town in northern Uganda, carrying on with the day-to-day but acutely aware of the cruelty of distance, with five more weeks to go before my evaluation is complete and I return to the US. According to my father, my aunt’s condition, though still very serious, is slowly improving. He says there’s a good chance she’ll fight off this infection, and although there will be plenty more challenges ahead, we should have a moment to breathe and regroup.

And so, to you, my lovely aunt, I send this message from across the world. I love you. Keep fighting. Come home. Read this.
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