Monday, 25 March 2013

Ugandan Kids Write the Darndest Things

The other day, I gave the 99 kids in my Senior 1 class—which equates more or less to our 7th grade, but features kids anywhere from 11 to 16 years old, with one claiming to be nearly my age—a 20-minute in-class assignment. Prompt: Write about someone you admire.

I will probably give them a similar assignment every single day, because I have never understood so much about everything as I did when I was grading the essays. My students recounted moving stories about pop stars risen from poverty, doctors who had saved them, parents that sacrificed everything, and love doomed to be forever unrequited.

They also penned some completely preposterous and hilariously quotable lines Here, for your enjoyment, are excerpts from the top 22.

All quotes are [sic], and all students' names have been changed.

22) “I also admire Michael Jackson because he is a South African, and South Africans are good at singing.”

Have you considered the possibility that Michael Jackson is an atypical South African?

21) “I admire Kendrick Lamar because some people call him the black Shakspear.”

I sort of want to enclose a Tupac album when I give this guy back his notebook...

20) “She said she comes from America. 'And that is very cool of you,' I said.”

I guess that makes me cool, too!

19) “[the girl I have a crush on is] tall and beautiful, but she has a hairly body like a monkey.”

Come again?

18) I admire Oprah Williams.”


“Oprah Williams.”

Tell me more about this Ms. Williams.

“She is a very famus and inspiring television person...”


“who makes me and other woman very proud and says that no matter who we were born as even as nothing we are something.”

I, uh...yeah, go, Oprah Williams!

17) One Bruno Mars fan explains how he was disappointed when his hero joined a group called only “Uruminant,” a move which has left no traces anywhere on the internet. 

“But I want to leave a message it goes like this. Uruminant have taken over the world but don't let them take over you.”

If they can hide from Google, my friend, they probably have taken over the world...

16) “their is one person that is doing to me something greet in the way I speak and write and that person is none other than Alex Black my English teacher.”

This greet person Alex Black has apparently completely failed to teach you English.

15) “and when he speaks English I can just say wow!”

Yeah, this is about me too.

14) “and he is cool yes!”

...and this one...

13) “a good and best America teacher in Bishop Cipriano Kihangire Secondary School.”

Yet more proof that I am miserable as an English teacher, compounded by: 

12) “he does not have lumourmonger...He does not just laugh like holigans.”

I just don't think that's a word, Darius.

I wrote a note on each of these assignments that they should look up the word “flattery” in their dictionaries. I wanted to do “brown-nosing,” but realized just in time that sending my students to look up a word whose nearest synonym is “ass-kissing,” is probably not the best application of a teacherly code of ethics.

11) A student who periodically claims that his real name is Eminem picked an unsurprising choice for his hero:“he does not rest to take a breath, oh ma God his like wow from the whisky tastes of water. Despite all of this he is cute with his aquamarine hair.”

Emmanuel, they're pretty anti-alcohol in this school, but I suppose one reference is fine, as long as you don't...

He has no interferences with other musicians though he had to finish up some shit with Maria Carrie his exgf. he had to be aggressive on her through abusing her in his songs.” 


10) “She has nice clothes and shoes and she is really cute oh my God that girl is really an angel.”

If your sister is an angel, doesn't that make you an angel as well?

9) “...but I mostly admire her because she is my mum and the most woman and figure in my life that is after God of couse.”

I had never wondered about God's figure before this post. First for everything, I suppose...

8) Speaking of mothers: “she has American height and she is portable.”

I understand every word of this sentence, and I understand nothing.

7) “I admire my country because we don't receive foreign seasons eg winter.”

You, sir, are on top of what deserves admiration.

6) A fan of both Nicki Minaj and, apparently, Spock, chimes in:

“I conclude by saying may she and her songs prosper for long.”

5) “Because she has a good finger. Like she has hips and big bams.”

I think you meant to say “figure” and “bum,” but honestly, I prefer this version.

4) An entry from Mr. Nyeko James:

“I like Nyeko because he is smart.”

Really, man?

“I like Nyeko because he has teeth like for a rat.”

Hold up.

“I like Nyeko because he is humble.”

I think I just got trolled.

3I admire Justin Bieber because he is kind hearted...”

I suppose so...

“...but a devil worshiper.”


“I also admire Nicki Minaj because she is kind hearted...”

Have we been here before?

“...but a devil worshiper.”

I think you need better role models.

2) “I admire mermaids because they have powers of making things become ice or anything.”

Wild Mermaid used Ice Beam! It's super effective!

1) “I admire him because though Obama is not an American he is rulling them.”

The birthers have reached Africa. 

The only voice that truly speaks to young Ugandans.


Friday, 22 March 2013

It's not that they CAN'T read...

Despite what Alex said in his previous post, I have been holding onto to this one ("editing") for a while now, so I might as well throw it out there before I have to go haggle for black slacks to go with my short-sleeve-buttondown-zebra-collar-tipped shirt:

Everything here is completely different from everything back home.  It all makes sense in its own way, of course, but that can’t keep things from being pretty overwhelming sometimes.  You realize pretty quick on arrival that your cultural references are invalid, your sense of humor is off, your speech is a little too fast, and your voice is entirely too loud.  It’s okay; you start to pick things up, if you pay attention.  Interactions get smoother.  Still, you can’t really be the person you were back home, and that takes a lot of energy.  I do love the drain, I think, and I am learning so much from putting in all this effort, but every once in a while I feel the intense need to turn off all my overworked sensors and forget where I am for a long second. 
            Hellooo, Mr. Tolstoy.
            Since I first touched toe to African soil I have tumbled through Infinite Jest, The Four Loves, Winter of Our Discontent, The Road, War and PeaceStriving for the Wind (a famous Kenyan novel), Atonement, and The Great Gatsby.  I don’t think I’ve read so many pages in so short a time since those endless middle-school summers when life revolved entirely around the pool, the blacktop, and the sunny armchairs in the living room—and it feels great.  I won’t lie, it was difficult to pick the habit back up at first, and I honestly don’t know if I could have done it without the help of the late Foster Wallace’s impossibly engaging prose, but as soon as the groove was got-back-in I’ve had to fight to put down books and actually get my rear end in bed at night.  Right now I’m 150 pages from finishing Sometimes a Great Notion, and Ken Kesey is threatening the education of my students at every turn. 
“So, uh, today is silent reading day, kids!  Teacher Samuel has…business…to attend to.”
            As it turns out, my students are safe from this threat, because silent reading would actually be impossible in my English classes; the children don’t own any books.  Most of them don’t even have the one book required for class, a two-dollar abridged copy of Oliver Twist.  Alex and I have been making 100 copies of each chapter at a time, because otherwise there would be 8 or 9 kids sharing a book. Ugh.
            I understand I might look insensitive here, but almost every single one of these kids (and certainly everyone in the Boarding School) could scrape up the money to buy a copy of Oliver Twist, and they also have a library to raid.  The problem isn’t funds (they are all paying to constantly text on their cell phones), it’s a complete lack of desire, and a relative lack of consequences.  Past Senior 2, literature becomes an elective.  All you have to do is learn enough of the character’s names to score above a 40 on your final exam, and you never have to read a novel again.  Oh goodie.  At the same time, few of the teachers read (I haven’t caught one at it yet), and parents don’t really either, laying a foundation of exactly two positive literary role models: Alex and Sam, the Bazungu Brothers!
            To make myself feel better about this trash-seeming-talk, every Ugandan I’ve spoken to agrees that there is a serious problem with the reading culture here, the heart of which is that there isn’t a reading culture here.  Reading isn’t seen as a societal imperative or mark of intelligence as it is in (parts of) the States; our friend Ronald, one of the most intelligent and worldly Ugandans I’ve met, who oversees all of Father John’s projects, called us ladies when he caught us nose-deep in novels before rosary.  Because, you know, books are for girls.
            Which would be great, because then at least books would be for someone.
            I learned after my last bout of righteous indignation that it does not pay to get upset about these cultural differences, so instead I chose to investigate the matter with Alex.  What we have gathered about Ugandan anti-literacy stands as thus:
            First of all, none of the myriad local tribal languages of Uganda had a written system before colonization.  Thus, no history of writing/reading, and when writing/reading is introduced, it is done so by foreign invaders with moustaches, monocles, and safari hats.
Second, most Ugandans, urban and rural, have a distinct lack of decent lighting in their homes.  This means that during the dark hours—about the only time family members young and old aren’t desperately trying to make ends meet—reading is close to impossible; at the very least it is wrecking your oh-so-necessary (because glasses are hella expensive) vision.
Third, community engagement is paramount in Ugandan culture, and reading is a necessarily solitary endeavor.  As mentioned in a previous post, alone time is not a recognized concept in these parts.  Solidarity was vital on the savannah, important in villages, and still highly valued in the city.  Kids who don’t want to spend the appropriate time with others are considered a little off-kilter, and the nerdy kid who goes off to read constantly can become a downright pariah.  Would you read if it meant everyone thought you were broken?  Honestly, I don’t think I would have.
So it turns out that there are really legitimate reasons for the state of Ugandan booklessness.  The problem is, the more and more I read, the more and more I realize how important novels are to me becoming the kind of person I want to be.
Lev Tolstoy wrote over 500 characters into the pages of War and Peace, and many of the characters go through serious change at some point (a million points) in the novel.  As I read the book, without really thinking about it, I was constantly finding those pieces of characters that I wanted to emulate and those that I wanted to avoid, those that I already exhibited and wanted to magnify, and those I exhibit that I would rather went away.  Tolstoy gave me a million facets of personality to play with, and it immediately changed how I’ve interacted with people here.  And that was just one book!
The best part is, a great author won’t just do that with characters, he/she’ll do it with places and truths and dreams and goals.  The more you read the more evidence you have to base your choices around.  I know most of you probably understand this already, but it never really hit me deeply until now just how important this evidence is.
To be fair, it is entirely possible to get all of these things from the people around you.  Parents and leaders can teach you morals and positive traits and the proper ways to live; the problem is, they only have so much experience themselves.  And without different concepts to test against, ideas very quickly become dogmatic and stifling.  If I have the desire and time I can read books from all over the world, from every age, and in this way receive the choices of the whole world.  What if the tenets of a Zen Buddhist best fit my existence?  Or the actions of an Ivanhoe?  How about the deep thoughts of the Brothers K?  These are things you cannot get from a grandma who also did not read.  They are also things that you can’t get from all the politicians on T.V. who hoard power and money and prestige. 
Ugandans are reaching out and connecting with others at an unprecedented rate these days.  Through T.V., radio, and the internet they are starting to absorb the culture and ideas of places around the country and world.  There is incredible potential here.  The problem is, I don’t think there is enough substance in these visual-and-auditory level ideas to allow their responsible, proper, informed use.  To use something responsibly, properly, and informedly you have to think about it.  And to think, truly think, and to have the symbols and ideas and substance with which to think, you need to read.  In any case, reading is pretty darn helpful.
I’m doing my best to help my students enjoy the books and poems we’re reading in class, but I understand from my own time as a snotty kid how difficult that task can be.  I am left hoping hope that the path Uganda’s careening “development” takes will open up a lane for reading culture (hurray for electric lights!), and that the internet and T.V. won’t step in to completely block the path.  Thankfully, as a warrior in this battle, it isn’t too hard to find good resources; I’ll just go read a book about it!

Ceci N'est Pas Une Post

This post serves as notice that further writings on this blog may not be forthcoming for several days, owing to the authors of the suppositious posts have a choir concert on Sunday, for which they have been rehearsing a couple hours every night of the past two weeks.

This concert will include:

1) About 20 African pieces, some of which have only a passing resemblance to what I have been taught for 23 years constitutes acceptable rhythm.

2) Two hired soloists.

3) A 6-movement Mozart mass so that the soloists can have some solos to sing.

4) A uniform consisting of black slacks and a red short-sleeve shirt with black and white zebra trim. Don't worry, I'll take pictures.

5) A conductor, the only non-Muzungu in the choir who can read music, who has a strange relationship with rests that causes him to pretend they don't exist half of the time.

6) An accompanist who can sit down and compose a 150-measure 4-part baroque-style piece (which we will sing at the concert) in a single day.

7) Handel's Messiah, because no one's told them it's a Christmas and not an Easter piece.

8) Songs in about 7 different languages, only one of which is European.

9) Two goofy white dudes pretending to know how Africans clap.

10) The absence of abject failure*

So if any of our faithful readers (hi, Moms!) happen to be at or around Bbiina Parish, Kampala, Uganda at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 24, we'd sure love to see you there!**

* I can make no guarantees about to the presence of this absence.
** I appreciate the gesture, Mom, but no, you don't have to buy a plane ticket just to come see my concert

Monday, 18 March 2013

Concerning the Previous Post

Every word Alex wrote is 100% accurate, and it was perhaps the funniest night of my life.  I repeat, this is in no way fictional.  I love old Italian dudes.


Sunday, 17 March 2013

Te Capi' and Italian Absurdism

The curtain opens on a long rectangular table covered with a floral-print tablecloth and the detritus of a recently consumed meal. Two old men, Marianni and Ettore are seated opposite one another at one end of the table, and two younger men, Alex and Sam the Flamingly Annoying sit next to them, also on opposite sides. 

The two older men are native speakers of the Milanese language, an Italian “dialect” that is actually a distinct language, more similar to French than modern Italian. They normally speak standard Italian, but occasionally slip into Milanese when talking to each other.

The conversation is conducted entirely in Italian, with English where noted. Milanese phrases are in italics.

Alex: Hey Marianni.

Marianni: Yes?

Alex: So I know that “te capì?” means “do you understand” in Milanese, but how do you say “I understand” or “I don't understand”?

Marianni: I don't understand.

Alex: Ok, so when you say te capì...

Marianni: Yes, te capì! Te capì?

Alex: Right, so when you say that...

Ettore: It means “do you understand.”

Alex: Yes, I understand that...

Marianni: Oh, te capì?

Alex: Uh, yes, I understand. But when someone asks you, “te capì?” how do you respond?

Ettore: Well, you either say “I understand,” or...

Marianni: Or if you don't, you say “I don't understand.”

Alex: (pauses to take in a deep breath) But what about in Milanese? What would you say in Milanese?

Marianni: Te capì?

Alex: No, in response. Like answering the question.

Ettore: Eh! (makes a hand gesture that signifies “what is so hard about this?”) The question is te capì? Then the response is “I understand,” or “I don't understand!” Eh! Sorry! (this last is added in heavily accented English, it being one of the few words that both Marianni and Ettore know; it can mean “my condolences,” “apologies,” “you should apologize,” or “why are you being such a humongous moron?” Here the final definition applies.)

Alex: No, but...

Marianni: Te capì?

Alex: No, I don--

Sam the Flamingly Annoying: (to Marianni) Te capì?

Marianni: (makes approving noise) You see?

Sam: (in English) Yeah, it's pretty simple, Alex (shakes hands with Marianni).

Alex: Ok, but what if I'm speaking Milanese with someone, and they ask me if I understand...

Marianni: Te capì?

Alex: Well, no, I don't understand, actually....

Ettore: (leaning in closer, as if this a point that can only be understood at full volume from ten inches distance) They say te capì because they want to know if you understand.

Alex: Good, so we've established that they've said “do you understand?”

Ettore: Right, but if they're speaking Milanese, they'll say “te capì?”

Sam: (with a huge grin plastered across his face, in English) You're pretty thick tonight, aren't you, Alex?

Alex: (glares at Sam but after being incapable of thinking up any sufficiently offensive words turns back to the Italians) Yes, if they're speaking Milanese, they'll say “te capì” and--

Marianni: Eh, te capì? It means “do you understand?”

Alex: (begins absentmindedly but vigorously strangling his fork) No, I don't capi. That's what I want to learn to say. “I don't understand” in Milanese.

Ettore: Eh! Sorry! Someone asks you “te capì”--

Sam: (English, in a helpful tone) Which means “do you understand,” Alex, just in case you hadn't caught that--

Ettore: --and you say “sì” if you understand, and “no” if you don't! Eh! Sorry! (leans back in his chair, clearly proud of a pedagogical task well accomplished)

Marianni: So if I come to visit you in I-take-a-dump (in an unfortunate turn of circumstances, the word “Chicago” is pronounced in Italian exactly like a phrase that means “I poop there,” a reference that serves as the base for a single but oft-repeated fecal joke) I come to visit and I say “te capì?”--

Alex: But what am I understanding?

Ettore: (dolefully shaking his head) You don't understand.

(Alex snaps his fingers and points at Ettore)

Alex: Ok. That right there. How would I agree with you? Agree and say, you know, “I don't understand.”

Marianni: (in a sorrowful tone of voice) Yes, it's true, you don't understand...

Ettore: To agree, you say “.”

Alex: What if I want to say something other than “sì”?

Ettore: Then you say “no.”

Alex: Is there anything, any word or phrase, that means the same thing as “sì” in this case?

Ettore: Of course—you can say “I don't understand.”

Sam: (In English, while shaking his head in a passable imitation of Ettore) That's the one you'll have to use a lot, Alex. Memorize the phrase “I don't understand.”

(Alex looks around for something breakable to punch, but finds that the table has by now been completely cleared. Sam hurriedly scoots his chair back in anticipation that he may be deemed breakable in the near future.)

Marianni: Well then, te capì?

Alex: No. I--

Ettore: No te capì?

Alex: Look. (directs his gaze wildly across the room, as if hoping that a new plan of attack will saunter out perhaps from behind the cupboard.)What if I asked you to translate the phrase “I understand” into Milanese. What would you translate it as?

(Both men look puzzled; they glance at each other, shrug, and shake their heads at Alex.)

Alex: But what...fine. Can you translate “I don't understand?”

Marianni: (in English) Ey, “Ay don tandeirstend.”

Alex: In Milanese.

Ettore: Te capì?

Alex: (stares directly ahead for three full seconds before responding) Yes. I understand.

Ettore: Ah. Good. (in English) No problem. (turns away from Alex.)

Marianni: Eh. Sorry.

Sam: (in English) Believe me, Marianni, he's very sorry.

Marianni: (pushes his chair back) Well, then, I'm going to Chicago.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Ejukashun in the University of Ganda

Hey there, long-neglected family and friends!  My tail is, indeed, between my legs; it seems I have done exactly what I said I wouldn’t and totally slacked off the ol’ writing game once things got busy.  Sowwy.  Though we have been hustling hard on the grind, I should’ve tried harder to keep up with our promise.  This is my first step towards reconciliation.  Take it as you will.

After all of the build-up, I’m sure you’ve been sitting at the edge of your ergonomic office chairs gripping keyboards with white knuckles and wondering what on earth teaching is like in Uganda. 
Too bad. 
This article will discuss the highs and lows of amateur birdwatching in Uganda.
Psych! You got me, it’s about teaching.  Though I have been toying with the idea of writing more about the birds here; there are a whole ton of them…
Anyways, in order for any posts about teacher-student interactions to make any sense there are a few structural basics I have to share.  First of all, Bishop Cipriano has two sections; Day School and Boarding School.  They are in separate facilities on either side of a main thoroughfare, and the walk between takes about 4 minutes.  Students in the Boarding School pay very high school fees, and as such are typically much better-off than their Day School counterparts.  They are also, on the whole, more literate, more insolent, and more apathetic.  The Day School kids come from our local area (which is not one of the nicer neighborhoods in Kampala), and tend towards a more enthusiastic, if slightly less educated and hygienic, mode of existence.  Contact is discouraged between students in the two schools; the only time they really meet is on the one or two School Days and Dances that happen in a year.  If a student leaves the gates of the Boarding School without express permission they’re expelled.  Opportunities for hooliganery are limited.
Most teachers will teach on both Day and Boarding side during a term, but it seems a general practice to trade classes with other teachers until you are primarily on one side or the other.  Instructors that make the quarter-kilometer walk more than twice a week are considered athletes.  This is in part due to the general fitness levels of teachers here; I think there may be blue-collar/white-collar body image issues at play, but I digress.
There is a single four-story building for classes on each campus.  The doors from the classrooms open out onto balconies that line the front of the school.  There isn’t any need for hallways or enclosed spaces because, hey, the equator!  The overall effect of this open-air one-sided building-ness is something like a matching pair of Motel 6es in Oklahoma, except red brick and a lot less depressing.  One of the reasons they’re less depressing is that they both have the words “I Care” printed in size one million type on the uppermost balcony.  It looks like the buildings really love one another.  It also looks like a student could have a really fun time getting expelled with a bucket of white paint.  “ThI Caress.” Just saying.
Anyways, besides the constant temperature, the need for hallspace is limited thanks to the immobility of students while school is in session.  This was one of the ideas that really blew my mind on arrival: kids stay in one room for the entire day, while the teachers move about and come to them.  It is an important tactic in that it minimizes studential hustle, bustle, discipline issues, and space shufflage.; minimizing space sufflage is very important, because there is very little space in which to shuffle.  Seriously, these children are crammed closer together than the Black Keys crowd at Bonnaroo. 
As a teacher, this system would be helpful if it weren’t for the fact that we are afforded about as much shuffling space as the students.  The single staff room on either side is often packed with teachers and exercise books and laptops and purses, because it is the only place you can sit down between classes.  Lesson planning, marking, pedagogical theory discussions, and refueling all occur herein.  Marginally legal transactions also occur herein; one of our fellow English teachers approached Alex the other day, sidling up slowly to ask if Black would perhaps be interested in purchasing a bunch of fine bananas.  A different female teacher, who was sitting two meters away, stared at Alex intensely.  The madame in question had brought the bananas in from her village, and asked Brother Paul to ask Alex if he wanted to buy any because, you know, that’s how the black market should work. (Editor’s note: I did buy the bananas and they were delicious.)
I always stop in the staff room before my lesson to check for good deals and stake out a claim, then take my computer over to whichever class I’m teaching that day.  Every age group is divided into 6 color-coded “streams” (3 per school), each of which gets its own classroom for the year.  My two streams are Senior 1 (general equivalent of 7th grade) White in the Day School and Senior 2 (8th grade) Blue on the Boarding side.  Alex has Senior 1 Pink on the day side and Senior 2 Green on the day side.  We both teach English Language to the Senior 1 classes and Literature to the Senior 2s.
Monday mornings I enter my S1 White class and face down 85 students in a classroom the size of an inner-city backyard.  They average around 12 or 13 years old; some are as old as 16 or 17, as they couldn’t raise school fees when they were younger (or had to repeat a level (or three)).  There are three columns of three desks each stretching from front to back, hugging so close that a student on the inside of a row couldn’t leave their desk without doing at least a couple of backflips.  I plug my computer into the SmartBoard at the front of the class (a kind of touch-screen computerized white board) and about 60% of the time it works; when it doesn’t I shrug and start teaching “American Style” (without a touch-screen computerized white board). 
The first time I entered a class the students went a little crazy—let’s just say they haven’t encountered many white teachers before.  I quieted them down, introduced myself, and then asked everyone to make a name card for the front of their desk.  Mr. Musanje, the department head, told us that we should try to take attendance every day.  Then he laughed.  I have worked hard to get to know names and faces, but it has been exceedingly difficult: first of all I am not great with names, second there are a trillion of them and they sit in different places every day, and third they are all (male and female) required to buzz their hair to a standard length.  Seriously, I dare you to tell these kids apart.  The only ones that stand out are the 16 year olds, because they are 6 inches taller and an octave deeper than they children surrounding them.  B.C.K. Jump Street.
It might be easier to place names with personalities if the students spoke at an audible level, but there exists some unwritten rule wherein a student must answer any question under their breath in a monotone even when they VOLUNTEERED TO ANSWER THE QUESTION.  I have to ask the kids to repeat things at least three times no matter what, and it is often wholly confounded by the fact that a bunch of other students who I didn’t call on will shout out what the kid has been trying to say, all at different times, so that the effect is generally
Teacher Samuel: “Alright, just to figure out what we know before class starts, can anyone tell me what kind of word describes a noun or pronoun?”
Student (raising hand):  “mumbleshgrumble mumble.”
Teacher Samuel: “What was that?”
Student: “mumbleshgrumble mumblemumble.”
Teacher Samuel: “I’m sorry, you’ll have to say that again.”
Student: “mumbleshgrumblemumgrum—“
Teacher Samuel: “Uh, okay, yeah, adjective is the right answer, moving on.”

When they are not answering questions the students can be loud and boisterous enough.  Indeed, as soon as I have walked somewhere in a class to “hear” an answer, the part of class I cannot see starts up an animated conversation about what I assume must be the finer points of English grammar.  I have managed to curb a lot of this extraneous philosophizing by instituting a “two warnings and I’ll give the entire class an extra assignment” clause; if there’s one thing students fear it’s an extra assignment.  Or any assignment at all, for that matter.
Near the end of the lesson I always make sure to give an assignment.   At the completion of the dreaded exercise students will stack their notebooks in a couple of massive piles that their class monitors will bring to the staff room with me.  The students usually confront this great fear with stoicism, if not skill; most of the answers are completely B.S.ed for lack of consequences.  We can’t mark assignments for credit, because only exams are counted towards the students’ grades.  Thus, marking is pretty much entirely a test of willpower and care on our parts.  A teacher came up to Alex and looked at the spreadsheet he’d created with all of his students’ scores and abilities, exclaiming,
“Wow, the ideal teaching method!”
Alex replied, “Yeah it’s pretty helpful to know how the students are faring, do you guys use it too?”
“HHAAHAHAHAHAAhahahaaaaaha, ha, ha, aaaah.”
Guess not.

Lest you think I’m being too down on the system, let me say that I am having a good time and feel I am doing important work.  Some of the kids are brilliant, some are hilarious personalities, and the other teachers really are a wonderful and caring bunch.  I am just trying to set the scene a bit.  Later posts (coming soon!) will go into more detail about the kids and lessons learned (by both sides).
I hope everyone is doing wonderfully, can’t wait to see you all again.  Drop me a line if you’ve got time,


Tuesday, 19 February 2013

In Which Alex Attempts To Instill In Readers (Hi, Moms!) His Irrational Fear Of Fast-Moving Vehicles

Remember that time you went to Six Flags or Disney World or Cedar Point or wherever when you were a kid, and there was that roller coaster, the one where the track at the top dropped off into a stomach-grabbing nothingness and finally reappeared two hundred feet below, the one with loop-de-loops spiraling around inside other loop-de-loops, the one from which you heard agonized terrified shrieks whenever a car went over the edge? If you were like me, you stayed the ever-loving hell away from that place so evidently peopled by the tortured souls of Children Who Had Been Bad, now forced to ride a deathcart surrounded by the sounds of sheared metal and the smell of raw fear.{1} You probably got hysterical whenever someone even mentioned the possibility of you making the slow ascent up the Staircase into the Boarding Area {2}—which might have been the Executioner's Chamber for all your nerves were concerned.

{1} Cause really, what else could induce people to put themselves in a little box and hurtle over cliff edges at what must be supersonic* velocity?
{2} No one? Just me got hysterical? Well, at least now you have a face to pin to “that kid who was terrified of his own shadow.”

If instead you got seated in the front row, nonchalantly glanced around as the attendant lowered the safety bar and did a couple of brief look overs to make sure you wouldn't die, and then had the time of your life feeling your guts spend two minutes wholly not inside your torso: you likely will not understand the tone of this article. But hey, that's ok, because you can treat it as a rare psycho-pathological portrait of those of us with chronic mild vertiginous tendencies.


Here in Kampala, they don't have roller coasters. This is probably because your average working-class poor resident can get all the thrills he or she needs for a year or so in one 30 minute burst, for about $2. The vector for all this infectious fun is the boda-boda.

Boda-boda can be translated into American English only as “motorcycle”; however, based on behavior in the wild, I'd put them taxonomically in the same order as motorcycles, maybe even the same genus on a good day—but I'd never ever claim that they're the same thing. The word itself originally referred to bicycle taxis that would carry weary bus passengers across the sometimes interminable distance between customs checkpoints at international frontiers, yelling “border-border!” to attract customers. Boda-boda have since hit a rebellious and angsty thrill-seeking adolescence, graduated to motorbikes, and moved in everywhere, being generally loud, obnoxious, polluting, and totally the best.

My first indication that
boda-boda riding might be only slightly less hazardous than crash-testing Ford Pintos for a living came before I even arrived in Uganda. A helpful travel website cheerfully informed me and all other visitors that boda-boda drivers don't all wear helmets, but even if they do they won't have one for you as a passenger, so really you're better off choosing a driver without one since he'll {3} have more incentive to drive carefully.

Any situation where you're supposed to trust the men who for a living dart through third-world traffic without anything between their brains and the pavement besides a thin layer of bone and skin 
is not a good one to be in.{4}

{3} And it is absolutely 100% invariably a he.
{4} But I mean my muzungu hair would totally protect me in a crash, so I'm ok.

As you may have gathered, I do not fit the profile of your average adrenaline-junkie, and was not clamoring to go a-boda-boda-ing from the outset. However, in a city that has the traffic Chicago would have if every driver were your grandmother on methamphetamines, sometimes you have no choice but to cough up a buck or two,{5} hop on the back of something that can split lanes {6} and dart in front of large trucks and buses.

That is to say, the first time Sam and I rode a boda-boda, it was super totally urgent and necessary and not just because we thought it'd be serious fun to try. Really.

{5} Literally.
{6} “Lanes” being a concept with not even like lip-service paid to it here.

Boda-boda are easy enough to find—their drivers hang around in packs of between 2 and 10 on the sides of busy roads, waiting for someone to pass and ask for a ride. Alternately, if you need to go in a hurry, you can just start walking and guaranteed an unoccupied boda will pass you within the minute and say “we go?” to which grammatically ambiguous utterance the proper response is either “yes,” “no,” or “you ran over my foot, you fartmonster, come back here so I can knock you off that miserable excuse for a mode of transportation.”{7} There are always boda-boda around if you want one.

We hired two boda-boda drivers near the top of our hill to go into the city, haggling to a price of about $2 per.{8}
 And then we went. I learned an important thing early on, which is that my vertigo mostly kicks in when I'm in vehicles with little evident protection against falling out that start from a dead stop on rough terrain. Thankfully, in stop-and-go rush hour traffic in a country where saying that a road is paved only kinda means the same thing as it does in the States, and on a 1980s vintage motorcycle, that was not a problem at all.

{7} For those interested in the linguistic peculiarities of the vulgate of English spoken in Uganda (...Buehler? Buehler?), they probably say “we go” instead of something longer because in Luganda, the mother tongue of this region and therefore most of the boda drivers, the difference between the statement “we go/we are going” and the question “shall we go?/let's go?” is one barely-audible vowel, which feature goes a long way to explaining the somewhat convoluted question-structure of many Ugandans when speaking English.**
{8} More or less standard, I've been told, although I'm sure a small non-negotiable “muzungu tax” was included in the total.

A boda ride works like this. You sit down, wedge your feet up against the little
steel struts that pass for passenger footrests. And before you have accomplished this, the boda will have accelerated to a speed just above the level you personally are comfortable with, which speed it will maintain until you reach your destination. On the way, if you aren't terrified, you can have a conversation with the driver. Useful phrases include: “would you please slow down,” “drive more carefully, please,” “try not to hit that taxi, dear sir,” and “I promise I'll pay you extra if I don't die.”{9}

{9} But actually, some of them are fascinating and will have lots of interesting stuff to talk about.

It was sometime before discovering that four-phrase dictionary that I made another finding of life-giving importance: all boda-boda have a little curved metal bar sticking up right behind the seat. It's not high enough to rest your back against, but you can hold it as a safeguard against feeling like you're about to fall off the back (which you aren't).{10}
 And hold it I did, until my knuckles were white. The primary reason for this is that “traffic splitting” is far too euphemistic and neutral to describe what a boda-boda does. I mean, I'm not complaining—it's far less verbose and terrifying than “cuts at 60 kph in front of that taxi that doesn't look pleased one bit and then slides in a gap you didn't think existed between two trucks and oh Jesus that's the sidewalk that he's going up on please don't hit any small children”; I'd just have liked a little more specificity before my first ride.

My boda driver, however, did try his best. That much is clear with potholes, which dot the few paved roads here like polka dots dot a polka-dotted dress.{11}
 He attempted to swerve around them in order to avoid jostling my delicate foreign posterior, and often succeeded. The fact that he only “often” succeeded has convinced me that, in fact, sometimes someone's best just isn't good enough.

{10} I have since figured out how to stay on without holding it.
{11} We're not going to talk about unpaved roads, which are red dirt unencumbered by flatness, consistency, or navigability. 

Nonetheless, I stepped off that ride a converted boda fiend. And learned immediately afterward that the travel website had been right to warn me about boda drivers with helmets, like the man who took me for my second ever ride. I spent the entire ride using one or another of the above 4-sentence phrasebook on communicating with your boda driver. And stepped off and had the shakes for half an hour. Never again.

Never again.

* I had just learned about the speed of sound and airplanes that could exceed it and was quite fascinated by this idea
** An analysis of the more-than-somewhat convoluted sentence-structure of my writing will have to await a more qualified expert.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Sanging, or, How to Be Forrest Gump in a Foreign Land

Contemporary church music in America is in a sorry state. My experiences have largely involved the Catholic variety of such music, but nothing in my fleeting encounters with other traditions has altered this conviction one iota. Given that American music also boasts talents like Soulja Boy and Pitbull,

At least we beat Canada.
perhaps this does not surprise you; however, most of the church music performed in Italy that I saw was even worse.

Every time you butcher a cantata, Palestrina kills a kitten.
I'm not going to go in depth into what exactly makes this music so bad: (a) that isn't the point of this article,{1} (b) what makes something bad is of course somewhat subjective,{2} and (c) I myself have participated in and even led some of the most pungent examples of said music. Suffice it to say for now that I believe it has given up both the search for beauty (exemplified in the West by much of the tradition of classical music, as well as other genres) and the search for a rockin' good time (exemplified in the West by all the stuff you listen to when you're not at church),{3} offering instead either lyrical and musical platitudes that fit some conception of what sacred music is “supposed to sound like,” or bouncy but ultimately uninteresting tunes that fit some conception of what a holy “good time” is supposed to feel like.

Ugandan church music subscribes to neither of these viewpoints.


{1}    Believe it or not, if you stick with it, this article will eventually get to Uganda.

{2}    However, the general badness of something can be recognized by anyone who is not themselves bad, or so states the corollary to the Emperor's New Clothes Theorem.

{3}    Or 100% of the time.

{4}    Sorry.

Mr. Linder and I walked into 8:30 am mass at St. James Parish Biina,{5} and spent the next hour and a half hearing some of the most spirited, enjoyable, beautiful, and just plain good music I've heard most anyplace. It was all led by a 30-some person choir and accompanied by an organ played with a jaunty as opposed to funereal air, several African drums {6} of different sizes, and various smaller pieces of percussion (including the first washboard I have ever actually seen played live); we realized pretty quickly that the people of this parish knew how to make music.

So when the announcements at the end of mass included a solicitation for new choir members, it took Sam and I about one excited look at one another to decide to audition.

{5}    Spellings vary from Biina to Bbina to Bbiina to Bbinaa; this is a result of the fact that Uganda in general and the central (Buganda) area in particular have a much weaker written culture than anywhere in the western world. For example, my (quite educated) teacher of Luganda, the language here in the center, isn't really sure on the spellings of a lot of the words, even simple ones.

{6}    I'm sure there's a technical name for them hiding somewhere in the recesses of the internet or the recesses of the brains of any of you who managed to pay attention in ethnomusicology classes.

Except it turns out audition wasn't the right word—the best church choir I've heard anywhere just gave us a friendly but perfunctory greeting, and ushered us out to a shaded grassy lawn in a nook of the sprawling parish complex to start rehearsing.

My first inkling that perhaps the group we were joining wasn't some utopian mixture of spirit and musical know-how appeared when one of the men who had been directing the choir during mass asked Sam and I if we were tenors or basses. Sam replied bass immediately, and I identified myself as a baritone, which declaration was met with an inquisitive stare until I explained that it was in between a bass and a tenor. And then our choirmaster decided I should be a tenor without hearing my voice, so I am now for the first time on the wrong side of the a-choir's-two-lowest-sections-are-men-and-tenors species of jokes that thankfully do not seem to be popular here.

The rehearsal that followed was tedious. We spent two hours slogging through a Mozart piece (Missa Brevis in C major) replete with quick runs, accidentals, difficult-to-parse jumps, accidentals made so by accident, dissonance, and a large amount of what some people of my acquaintance know as “crunchy chords.”

You're, uh, doing it wrong.
After that and one subsequent weekday practice, also consisting entirely of squelching through the puddles from Wolfgang's quill, I had a sort of sinking feeling about the whole choir thing caused by the fact that no one knew how to sight-read at all except the admittedly well-trained director; by the fact that the bass section (with the exception of Sam) could produce low notes about as well as a piccolo; by the fact that the tenor section (without the exception of yrs truly) had no way to produce notes as high as we were being asked to sing without shouting;{7} by the fact that the altos showed all the vocal confidence and aplomb of a toddler taking its first steps; and by the fact that several sopranos were apparently unfamiliar with the idea of singing the same note as the rest of their section.

{7}    I'd like to point out, however, that unlike some of my compatriots, I believe I was shouting on-key.

I walked into mass the following Sunday apprehensively, having almost forgotten why I have always loved singing and why I joined the choir. We sat in the pews reserved for the choir, directly to the right of the circular church's altar, which church already contained 800 people inside and many more crowding at the three perpetually open doors.{8} Sam claims that, the open-air nature of the space notwithstanding, it generally approaches Venus-level temperature and humidity where we sit. I am not inclined to argue.

{8}    A comparison between church attendance here and in America—this is one of 6 Sunday masses at Bbiina parish, all similarly full—will have to wait for another post.

And then the singing started, and all thoughts of possible heat stroke faded from my sweat-soaked head.

We hadn't been mistaken about the quality of music last week: the choir we had sung with the last two rehearsals had been haphazardly raking bear claws across a sleek chalkboard, compared to the way they sang now. We didn't know any of the songs—they sing standards that they all know the arrangements to at mass and then rehearse things, like the Mozart, for special occasions like weddings and stand-alone concerts—but it didn't matter. You listen to the person standing next to you and sing what they sing. Or sing some other harmony. Every song was composed of exceptionally simple chord progressions. The arrangements were 4-part but never anything migraine-inducing. But there was always a good and simple melody; there was always some rhythm that made you feel something more than a medical-grade case of existential apathy.

Those things are all good, and all often lacking in the contemporary Western church music of my experience. I'd propose, though, that the real reason singing in a church choir here didn't feel like a slow march to the casket has to do with self-consciousness. Most of us in the west spend a positively staggering amount of time and mental energy worrying about what others will think about us. We worry that our actions will not be understood as they are intended. We especially worry that we will be embarrassed, shown to be insensitive, clueless, or, worst of all, ridiculous. And so we control and censor ourselves, not even so much in words as in the way we carry ourselves and the range of actions we permit ourselves. It's not even a conscious thought process, usually—just a faint sense of terror at really allowing oneself to act exactly how one feels. Of course, this doesn't apply to all situations, but the relief we experience when allowed to exist for a time without that fear of embarrassment—with close friends, or, ironically, when we're intoxicated—illustrates how powerful the feeling is the rest of the time.{9}

{9}  The relief is so palpable that when we have the choice we nearly always choose to escape our fear: in your free time, you probably want to be alone, with close friends or family (if your family is indeed an embarrassment-free zone for you), or drinking (or perhaps two of the three).

And while it's clear that Ugandans are not exempt from the general tendency to care what people think of them and act to minimize embarrassment, none of that shows up while singing in church. Masses or services or whatever make us beholden to decorum, compel us to not embarrass ourselves and do something that will prevent us from showing a fingernail around any of those present lest we die of shame. That is both fine and true of mass in Uganda—all the ritual and formality of the universal Catholic mass is performed. But when it comes time for us to do something like singing, which is not an explicitly defined part of that ritual, but more a collective expression of the musician and everyone else present, we falter and can't shed that attention to propriety and not making an ass of ourselves that for us goes part and parcel with being in church.{10}

That's why Americans trying to groove and/or look joyful while singing upbeat songs in a house of worship too often look uptight, stiff and formal, with what is clearly an artificial smile stamped across their face—because that's the problem, they're self-consciously trying to act like they're happy, not actually forming their actions and expressions more-or-less organically from a real sense of joy.{11} Our choir here, on the other hand, just lets go of their fear of embarrassment and goes.

But you know what's really wonderful? After a couple Sundays of somewhat nervously clapping along {12} and trying to sing pretty, even I managed to get rid of that nervousness, and now the choir has a pair of Forrest Gumps singing along with them.

{10}  Which is why for most religious musicians I know, technical perfection takes precedence over emotive power: it's the only way to make music better while maintaining the type of conduct we associate with church.

{11}    If you think I am being too harsh to the sacred music of America/Italy/wherever, please know that I am not trying to offend you or anyone else. I make no claims to have the authority to define the purpose of church music, or even to determine how well it accomplishes that purpose. I'm merely saying that the subjective experience of listening to and performing church music here is qualitatively different, and is for me a whole lot more enjoyable and beautiful.

{12}  The choir, like most African musicians, claps on beats one and three, not the two and four we associate with “soulful” music. This is particularly amusing to me because on one piece of music I own—an a cappella arrangement of “Bring It On Home”--the arranger (who, if you're reading this, Billy, sorry) wrote a note that's been imprinted in my mind saying “[finger] snaps happen on two and four. There will be no wacky white-boy snapping on one,” which led to me being the wacky white boy my first Sunday clapping on two and four...

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Gettin' Ready to Teach...

Bishop Cipriano Kihangire S.S.S. (Senior Secondary School) is currently ranked 43rd among all secondary schools in Uganda, according to national newspapers.  These publications included over 1000 schools, public and private, in their list; they left out quite a few more.  43rd out of 1000.  95th percentile.  Not too shabby.  Not too shabby especially when you consider that the school was built fairly recently by a foreign religious leader with no formal educational training, constructed by said Father predominantly out of will-power and European donor generosity.
            I felt pretty intimidated going into the first big all-teacher meeting.
Now, it is openly admitted by adults here that the educational system will not be run to the standards of a place like the U.S., and no one seems to expect it to come close.  Whether this is pure pragmatism or something more detrimental I don’t know; I’m hoping right now it’s at least predominantly the first. 
Regardless, the massive volumes of students (4000 kids at B.C.K., which has significantly less classroom space than my elementary school) and relatively new development of curricula means that teaching must necessarily be a large-scale trial-and-error type activity, an activity being undertaken by teachers who were trained in a system with even more recently developed curricula and even larger class sizes.  I won’t be expected to deftly lead a small class towards theoretical understandings and perfect standardized test scores; rather, I will be expected to throw the fundamentals of practical reading and writing at whomever in the horde has enough discipline to pick them up. 
Still, I felt pretty intimidated going into the first big all-teacher meeting. 
I mean, every single one of my fellow teachers studied education in university for three years, studies based on the instruction of Ugandan youth in Ugandan systems.  I studied Geography in university, which taught me that Uganda was a country in central-eastern Africa, bordering Kenya, Sudan  (don’t think it was South yet), the Democratic Republic of the Congo, maybe, some other little ones, and a big lake named after some wrinkly dead English lady.  Many of these teachers have led 130-kid classrooms successfully at less well-endowed schools previously.  I've lead well-off white kids on canoe trips previously.  How could I possibly have the guts and knowledge to get these kids where they want to be?  And from everything I’d heard these kids are hungry—this is their one real chance to avoid the surrounding poverty.  A whole lot of life is at stake, and I’ll be the one balancing everyone on the point.
So, I was worried before the first big staff meeting.
Only, thing is, no one hear seemed particularly worried for me before the first big all-staff meeting…
The English division head, Mr. Musanje, gave Alex and me a basic rundown of the situation a week before the first meeting, and it went something like “There are lots of kids, sometimes they are stubborn, keep good discipline… yep, here are the books!  I’ll find you some syllabi eventually.” 
Alex and I could barely think of a question we had so many questions.
Uh, how much do these kids know?  How does grading work?  Do assignments count towards final grade?  What are punishable offenses?  What do you mean by “Discipline” (turns out offenses include going to the bathroom and writing notes; punishments include forcing students to kneel on bricks for as long as you deem necessary and forcing students to kneel on bricks in front of the entire school at assembly for as long as you deem necessary)  When are there tests?  Who writes tests?  What parts of the books are we teaching?  How long are classes?  How many classes will we get?
Slowly but surely throughout week, we received approximately zero precise answers to those questions.  We had an English department meeting wherein we learned that we would be reading Oliver Twist for possibly the entire term with our literature classes, and that we would have two or maybe four or five classes starting the next Monday.  We learned that marking is obnoxious and needs to happen on time, but not what to mark or how or for that matter why, because marking seemed to be too dreadful to discuss at length.  We learned that I shouldn’t have suggested Harry Potter as a book to get kids excited about reading because it could lead them into witchcraft, which besides B.C.K. being a Catholic school witchcraft is still a pretty prevalent idea in Uganda.  Just a week earlier our friend Samuel had ftold us a long story about the DjuDju practitioner he saw in his village as a boy, who made a tiny spirit creature appear out of the air, fed the creature goats’ blood, and then made the creature explode because it had been plaguing a neighboring family.  Real bright, Linder.  Real bright.
The most important things we learned were a few names and faces, and the date of the big all-staff meeting.  Which I was still nervous for.
The day before the meeting we received an email from Mr. Musanje, telling us that the official start time was 10:00 a.m. but that 10:30 would probably be a better bet.  Wait wait wait, we should turn up half an hour late to the only staff meeting before school?  Okay…
We showed up in the courtyard of the dayschool around 10:15, in case things actually got moving early.  There were 6 people there.  We were informed that maybe the administration was still meeting currently to prepare for the meeting that should have started a quarter-hour ago, and that they might be done within the hour.  We had a long talk with Father Kizito, the chaplain here; he went to seminary in Los Angeles and had a very intelligent and grounded view of the world, which he helped deliver unto the children through his morality classes.  He smiled a lot, and wore small, round-framed glasses that were somewhere between normal corrective lenses and shades.  He didn’t seem too warm in his enormous black priest’s robes.  I was impressed.
11:00 came and went, then 11:30, and finally at about noon we were called into the meeting by an administration that explained the importance of the meeting they had just had to plan this meeting.  The headmaster of the school, Mr. Okelo, is a solidly set older man with the most beautiful, deep voice I have ever heard.  He spoke very slowly, and made jokes every two or three sentence; by the time it was 12:30 we had successfully found someone to say the opening prayer.  We made a quick (18-minute) grammar check of the last meeting’s minutes, then introduced the new Class Teachers (kind of like Snape for Slytherin, or that little Herbology guy for Hufflepuff), to much applause and laughter and what miiiight have been derision.  This process lasted another half-hour or so.  Then we discussed a few important topics (the exact dates of midterm tests and making sure to mark on time) and then we broke for tea and then we discussed another couple important points (would the all-school celebration be this term or next, and would everyone please show up to the retreat next Saturday), and then we were done.  It was nearly 3 hours of lullaby voice and public debate, and I learned approximately three concrete things.  Of course, I learned many fascinating abstract things like how meetings work here, what kind of humor is valued most, how people acted in public settings—it just wasn’t quite what I expected as a new teacher.  I still had absolutely no clue what any of this was going to be like at all.  Thankfully, it turned out my first lesson wouldn’t be for over a week due to a public holiday the next Wednesday, so I still had all SORTS of time to wonder exactly what on earth I was supposed to be doing here…

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Arterial Walls 4: the final, I swear.

The lawn of the hostel looked sharp and brittle when I woke up, and it felt like I counted every individual shard of grass while waiting for Free Morning Coffee.  Alex was still in the room “trying” to get out of bed; every once in a while I would go poke him in the ear to make sure he didn’t fall back asleep.  Lady Slumber must have been more enticing than my summons; I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone invent so many new ways of saying “Please leave my presence, you scoundrel.”
            After what seemed like a full term of Reagan’s presidency, some workers finally brought out big vats of hot water, stacks of cups, and a wicker basket of beverage supplies, which mostly consisted of Instant Coffee tins and sugar.  I’d never had Instant before, and was excited for a new experience, so I mixed up a fat cup of grounds and raised the mug to my eager lips.  One large gulp later I was back at the table, drowning the foul concoction in sugar and feeling for the first time a great gratitude towards even Camp’s translucent java.  I thought I could maybe force myself to enjoy the process, going so far as to take my time sipping through the jittery alchemical funk.  I think it was better by the end of the cup.  Or my taste buds just melted off…
            Alex and I started back towards the main bridge over the Nile, the one we’d driven across on our way into town, backpacks now filled with water, snacks, sunscreen, and my trusty 175-gram flying disc.  Just before the highway shot out into thin air we saw a little gazebo on the bank to our right, sitting next to a road that led onto a jut of land between two channels of the river; that road crossed the other side of the highway to enter, on our left, the peninsula that was, unfortunately, guarded by three heavily armed men.
            Choosing the path less ammo-d we hiked up to the gazebo for breakfast, spreading bread with peanut butter and honey above the warped little bench seats.  Flower bushes surrounded the wooden structure, a swirling carousel of pastels.  The P.B. and H. were all-natural and made in Uganda (standard here, country full of hippies apparently), and they tasted rich and earthy where we sat in the middle of the floral panorama; the bouquet in the air made us feel like we could taste the very blooms the bees had visited before delivering us their profit, and we savored every bite until the bread was gone and the road begged us on.
The ground as we walked formed a kind of flat-topped ridge, a long, thin peninsula with steep sides and a leveled head.  The morning sky looked distant but deep above us like an endless blue dome hung somewhere far out in space, held steady by the molten brass tack of the sun. 
As we topped a little rise we came upon a golden-grained meadow, spattered with moss-cracked concrete patches, themselves covered in Honda-sized chunks of rubble.  Set a little further back to the right were two cylindrical storage tanks, bombed out and big enough to hold a high school dance inside.  With deference to the armed men nearby we didn’t enter the structures, but we certainly did stick our heads through the portholes in the sides to harmonize into their echoing and surprisingly dry innards.  We might have sang The Star Spangled Banner, but don’t tell anyone I told you that; to be honest the amber-waves-of-grain/old-farm-elevator feel of the ridge top was utterly transporting.  I felt like I was in Iowa—even more so when we cut a little path through the two-meter grass, enveloped suddenly in dry summer cricket noises and the smell of toasted plants—for the first time in a month I felt the edgeless ease of total familiarity.
Comfortable as it was, part of me didn’t want to leave the prairie, but great lessons are rarely learned in comfort (Bilbo certainly didn’t want to leave Bag End)—so we hitched up our trousers and kept hiking.  Only, we couldn’t keep hiking long, because suddenly we hit the rather uncomfortable barbed-wire fencing and hired guns that demarcated more forbidden territory, in this instance the dam maintenance equipment at the tip of the jut.  Fortifications stretched from bank to bank, glittering and impassable. 
We turned back through the grain, headed down the road past the gazebo, and crossed the bridge over the Nile to see if we’d have any better luck on the other shore.
Across the river a road led off upstream, away from the city and Lake Victoria.  It cut first through the closest thing to a “village” that Alex and I had seen yet, a tight yet crazy-angled growth of concrete and timber and mud and thatch, with footpaths snaking off in every direction and firepits sprouting throughout.  The rush of the dam just downstream filled the whole settlement with surreal white noise, as though everyone here lived under a giant Bose headphone.  The roar grew as we turned down a dirt road running between the edge of a field and the tall fencing of the dam’s power transformers, and we could barely hear a thing as we approached the River’s edge.
A mist hung in the air over the water at the town’s bottom, a complement to the noise of the dam, slurring the atmosphere around us.  A tangle of rapids rushed down out of the concrete outlets, eddying into little susurring pools along the banks.  Five or six young people were washing their bodies and clothes in one of these still spots.  Their naked torsos were tinted windows in the bright surface of the water.  They smiled up at as and waved, teeth flashing the same color as the freshly washed t-shirts drying on shore.  We waved back; they laughed.
We kept moving along a foot-trod path on the banks, back up towards the town.  Weaving between homes, and wondering exactly what the penalty was for trespassing (and for that matter, what exactly constituted trespassing), we tried our best to keep in the middle of the path; sometimes this was about a foot from houses on either side.  People were sitting out front of their homes cooking or listening to radio pluralize.  Most gave us unreadable looks, neither smiles nor frowns; maybe curious, maybe accusatory.  Some children waved, but not with the laughing joy of Kampala.  We walked quickly.
Just as stress started to manifest acute we found the main road leading further upstream, and followed it, breathing slowly again, until we found another boulevard forking off towards the River.  Tire tracks were sunk deep in the new street’s gravel bed, and no houses rambled along its edge.  A forest sprang up thick and fast around as we picked our way downhill, draining the light and deadening the river’s rush.  “no Trespassing no Photo” signs materialized to the right and left of the road.  We fervently hoped they referred to the forest and not the road itself.  A man appeared at the far edge of our vision then disappeared abruptly; we couldn’t see if there was a path he’d turned off on.
To our right now, within the forest, patches of more solid green started to flash, then sometimes a garden’s otherworldly color.  Something was back there, behind the wall of trunks, some place with lawns and fountains and stands of flowers—some other world down here, in the woods below a village and past a dam, an unknown and unmarked garden, the sanctuary of some local nymph or deity (or rich person).  Sunlight now only occasionally fluttered down onto our section of road, but the frames of glade hiding behind trees to our right were illuminated in a waterfall of rich light. 
Leaves shook and twisted; once every strange while a bird would whistle some not-quite-major-key arpeggio, and then fall silent again.
Our path curved toward the right, and suddenly we caught glimpse of a faint brush of water at the end of the tunnel .  The garden still lay next to us, mostly hidden; on our other side the brush was impenetrable.  In front of us, standing width-wise across the path, blocking the entire path and bits of forest on either side, stood a full-grown bull.
His face was wrinkled and slightly lowered, cocked lazily in our direction as he watched us with both eyes.  One huge horn looped slowly upward to a point somewhere between the sky and our foreheads, the other spiraled until it reached nearly directly into the bulls’ left ear, a few years away from seriously affecting his cognitive function.  He stood there, tail brushing lazily back and forth, canvas flank pulled tight across our path to the Nile.
Now, most people know that cows are typically docile and loveable animals, much like big milkable puppies, but Alex and I found it hard to remember things most people know while facing the huge and thoroughly deranged-looking horns of the beast.  We stood there, timid, until I decided to try moving slowly around his back side; just as I pulled level he shook his massive skull and I jumped back like bee-stung kid.  Alex made fun of me nervously.  The bull just stared at us, skin over his rear leg occasionally twitching, a titanic doe-eyed guardian set across the path by whatever creature haunted the garden through the trees.  Would he charge?  Would he kick?  Was the demented horn some sign of violent mental instability?  I looked at Alex, shrugged entirely chalantly, and moved slowly along the path, pushing aside brush behind him.  His head twitched; I shuddered, but kept moving.  Right leg, left leg, just past the swishing tail and—free! 
We laughed a laugh of self-aware faux-bravado, and looked back at the guardian.  He didn’t seem to care one way or another, but he did keep watching us.
My fear was resolving into the pleasant adrenaline rush of dangers overcome, each step bringing my attention out of my safety and into the brightening trees around us.  I was looking up around the arch of limbs above us when suddenly I spotted a little simian shape leaping against the sky.  We stopped, then sprinted quietly toward the landing point—right above our heads appeared the little opaque mask of a vervet monkey
Its eyes were shiny little slicks in the oily darkness of its face, surface-deep but expressive.  It climbed toward us along a branch, watching intently; if we moved at all it would dart quickly back, but couldn’t seem to help moving closer in our stillness.  It looked hungry, and stuck around as though waiting for some handout—it was caught somewhere on the triangular axis between curiosity, fear, and desire.
We stood there with the monkey for a long time, until it was clear that he would not be moving soon; the Nile begged us away to finally sit on a grassy bank sloping down into her gilded waters.
The knoll was in the shade of a tree, and as we sat a few locals came down to sit as well, enjoying a siesta or eating a little.  Downstream a few hundred meters was a line of rocks and rapids; the trees of the garden to our right blocked the view upstream.  Birds were everywhere, birds in a variety and concentration I have never seen before: snake-necked cormorants paddling on the surface, diving below for two or three minutes to fish, exploding all at once above the surface with the joy of a successful hunt; pelicans, gulls, and ducks perching on the rocks, lazy in the sun;  kingfishers hovering 4 meters above the water, facing the wind with only their wings in motion; suddenly a little loop, then a theme park drop, falling a hundred times their body’s length into the water.  They would rise mostly empty-mouthed, but when their furious assault found its target a fish half the bird’s length would surface, stunned, speared neatly on a surgical beak.
We sat and watched for an hour, maybe two; finally we felt we should abandon the (our) personal National Geographic Special to hike just a little further downstream before we had to leave to make dinner.
The road led us away from the river and up onto the surrounding hills.  We passed by huge, beautiful homes; we passed by very few actual people.  Just as we crested one rise for a view of the water we saw smoke pouring from somewhere on the oppostie bank.  A fire was raging—even as we watched a whole tree erupted in dirty orange flames, blasting a dark halo out into the sky.  The fire grew while we stood there, moving up and over the hillside from a little valley on the cliffs opposite. 
The afternoon was moving on, and more people began walking here and there along the road; no one seemed to pay much attention to the inferno on the opposite bank.  Indeed, they mostly just looked at us, looking.  We stood there for a long moment, rooted in awe, watching a wild heat have its way with the hillside. It wasn’t until we were on the taxi heading home that I realized the strangest part to everyone around was not a forest fire burning down acres of hillside; it was us.