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Motorbikes, Mbale, and Microfinance March 23 2012

 

I'm sitting on the curb when the shopkeeper at the fabric store shuffles out, dragging a chair behind her. She smiles encouragingly and I dust myself off before accepting the chair. Perry is perusing bolts of fabric in this closet of a fabric shop. It's a sensory overload with bulging rectangles of color shoved into every available space. Incense permeates the air as it burns steadily before a statue of a Hindu god and the sound of scissors slicing cleanly through fabric punctuates every word. It's intoxicating, but I'm not a shopper and before Perry has had the chance to pick out even one style of fabric, I'm already bored. I retire to the plastic chair.

Dust hangs in the air, muting the colors of Mbale. Its sharp colors, loud noises, and pungent smells are faded, like laundry hanging on the line after too many washes. The sun hits the crowded streets, holding them haphazardly in its light. Smudged white buildings are adorned with rough log scaffolding as taxis, overburdened with trunks and rolled up mattresses, rock precariously over the deep ruts in the road. Children are on their way back to school and their pressed uniforms seem out of place as they walk past the street vendors selling stack of pineapples, leather sandals, used clothing, and avocados. Two women load an enormous bundle onto the head of a young man. He steadies the load with his hand and slides forward through the crowd with an ethereal grace.

Ugandans walk past me, occasionally slowing down to gaze curiously at the mzungu occupying the cracked plastic chair in front of the local fabric shop. I gaze back at them unperturbed, strangely appreciative of our mutual curiosity.

Mbale has an inexplicable appeal to it. It's not Buyobo, but the chaos of its streets is something you can slip into. There is a rhythm here, a beat of the drums that locals instinctively move in time with while foreigners rock awkwardly back and forth, feeling the pull of it all, but unable to move as effortlessly in time with its music.

I first notice this while riding on the back of a motorbike, stuttering through the stop and go traffic. Chickens, pedestrians, trucks, motorbikes, buses, taxis, goats, and cows all fight for the right of way on the pockmarked roads. Eric constantly reminds us to watch out for the motorbikes as they leap forward into the narrow pockets of space between the buses and taxis. Frequently spinning out against the flow of traffic, they cause a high number of traffic accidents, and getting on one is tempting fate. It's also exhilarating, liberating, and perhaps the most authentic way to experience the busy streets of Uganda's prominent cities.

Sitting on the back, bouncing awkwardly behind the driver, dust flies into my eyes and mouth as I clench my hands and attempt to reassure myself with the fact that the driver has left at least two inches between my leg and the massive truck he's currently speeding around.

As I wobble precariously, I watch women weave through the traffic balancing enormous bunches of matoke on their heads. It's just one more reminder that I lack the grace and adaptability to slip effortlessly into the streams of people pushing their lives forward amid a slough of improbable odds.

Perry steps back out into the street with an enormous bag of brightly colored fabric, bold prints that defy the drab reality of a life tangled in poverty's grasp. They're the prints the women in Uganda favor and it emboldens my heart to believe in the chance these women have to extricate themselves from that cycle and build a reality more in line with the brilliant and bold patterns they adorn themselves with, a reality underpinned by choice rather than circumstance.

Back in Buyobo, Olive, Jacqueline, and Allan are demonstrating to me that hundreds of women, like them, within their community, are changing the game. With WMI's help, they're sending their children to school, they're expanding their businesses, they're running for office, and they're feeding my cautious flicker of hope diminished by years of watching firsthand how useless and inappropriate many top-down development programs can be for communities ravaged by war and poverty.

Making our way up the path to the comfortable house alongside Buyobo's main road, a little girl sitting in the dirt smiles and waves. As the evening light recedes from the valley, I wonder what her life will be like in ten years. It's hard to promise anything in this world, but as I look over my shoulder at Olive--strong, beautiful, and determined, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if the women in this community have anything to say about it, this little girl will be offered every opportunity. I smile back, offer my thanks to the world that women like Robyn and Olive exist, and let myself into the house.


How I Was Nearly Mauled by an Ant: A True Story February 28 2012

 

In the grand scheme of things and of all the creatures that could have bitten me in Africa, I recognize that an ant is probably not that big of a deal. It could have been a crocodile, a lion, or a malaria-bearing mosquito...just to name a few. However, I'm not going to let a little detail like reality get in the way of my dramatizing an account of my near death experience. Despite what my Mother has to say about the matter, I don't have that many of them so I like to make the most of the ones I do have.

And these African army ants aren't your average ants. They're pretty much the size of my iPhone and also possess huge fangs. You just Googled that, didn't you? Dammit. I hate the Internet. Fine. They're slightly larger than normal ants. Maybe about the size of a dime, but not as fat. Not sure about the fangs. That could be true.

Apparently, these army ants are capable of eating entire chickens or goats. They just swarm the animals, bite them till they bleed to death, and then consume everything but the bones. Freaky, right? I didn't even believe that was possible till one bit me. Eric told us that they're fully capable of killing humans so you see how close I was to death?

It all started when, after a week of being in Buyobo, Perry and I decide to take a trip to Sipi Falls for a day hike. Eric comes with us, ostensibly to visit Sipi Falls, but really he's there to ensure that Perry and I survive the expedition. I stupidly wear flip flops because I'm from California and that's as close to real footwear as we get. Occasionally our guide turns back to us and points menacingly at the ground. Eric explains to us that this gesture means beware of ants. The first few times I hop nimbly over the line of streaming insects. The last time I'm not so lucky and despite an elegant leap over the savage beasts, one clings to my sandal and sinks his fangs or whatever into my toe.

I never imagined that something so small could cause so much pain. Within seconds one little black ant is causing a searing pain that pierces my entire foot, rushes up my leg, and sends adrenaline shooting through my limbs. My heart is beating rapidly as blood begins to trickle steadily from my toe. I hit at the ant furiously, but the thing is latched on firmly. I grab its body and pull its biter thingeys (technical term) from out of my flesh.

Eric and the guide are up ahead, looking back at me with mild concern. Fortunately, this mzungu was able to wrestle the vicious beast to the ground with very little blood loss. Frankly, the only reason I'm still alive is because I'm so hardcore. Anyone else would definitely have cried a lot more. I'm always impressed by my ability to rise to the occasion and handle these chaotic near-death experiences with so much poise and strength. Most people just fall apart. Not me. I kill the ant, pour some water over my toe, and despite injuries sustained during the attack, I soldier on for the rest of the hike.

I only complain for 3/4 of the rest of the way as I limp stoically back to the car. When I get back to Buyobo, I prepare to wash and dress my wounds, but first I want to show them off to everyone. Unfortunately, there isn't even a mark. That's probably just because I heal so quickly. I'm like some kind of mutant. It's possible that I have titanium bones. That at least would explain why I always set off the metal detectors in airports. They're always telling me it's because of my belt, but they're probably just trying to be polite by not calling attention to my mutant status. TSA, always so considerate.

At any rate, I'm currently in the process of pitching my story to all major media outlets. So far nobody is that interested in buying the rights, but I hear this kind of rejection happens frequently to those with my superior caliber of intellect and strength. That's cool. I wrestled an ant to the ground. I don't need anyone else to tell me how badass I am. I already know.


Next Stop, Uganda Please January 13 2012

 

Next week, Perry and I will board a plane where we'll probably arm wrestle for the window seat before buckling in for a flight that will take us to Entebbe, Uganda.

Uganda. I keep rolling it around on my tongue, trying to imagine what it will feel like to be there.

I've read so much about it that I can close my eyes and feel the colors of it. The red Earth, the fluorescent green, the heat hovering gently over the treetops, the deep blue of the sky, the rising mountains. It's all just a picture painted in my head spun from the words of too many books. When I was younger, I'd perch myself on a rooftop, a fence, or a tree branch. With a book in hand and anything I could scavenge from the kitchen, I'd read so much that I'd convince myself I'd been to thousands of places around the world throughout varying points in human history. That's how I feel about Uganda. I'm craving to know the country beyond the superficial painting I've created in my head.

I'm eager for the noise and smell of the country and the palpable manifestation of its soul hitting you from every angle as you sit, sticky and sweaty, crammed in the back of a bus while the country rushes in at an overwhelming pace. It's a sensory overload that leaves you reeling before you clamber out of the vehicle and into a small village where the reeling stops and the country settles into you. You grasp the hands of those around you as introductions are made. Palm against palm is a far more intimate gesture than we give it credit for. Eyes are laughing, gazes dancing back and forth, and your soul will rush forward in a moment of pure joy. It's good to be alive. It's good to be in this place, with these people. It's good to hear their stories, to collect them, and secret them away for another time.

A collector of stories. That is essentially what I am. I carry the gazes of people within my heart and when it becomes too much, they spill from me and onto paper. I tell their stories. I close my eyes and nestle myself within the sound of their voice, the lilt of their accent, the low of their sorrows, and the high of their joys. I read them from cover to cover and then I translate it.

Uganda. I am aching to have its stories poured into me. I am excited to go somewhere new, to travel, to explore the meandering roads cut through a nature so wild, it roars forward and will not be subdued. But mostly I am excited to meet people. To sit, rocking back on my heels, my mouth half open in a moment of self-forgetfulness, listening to the tangle of life experiences pour from the mouths of those around me.

And Perry? Well, in the unlikely event that I am able to peel his camera out of his hand for two seconds, he just wants to tumble over the treetops of the Impenetrable Forest in a bush plane manned by a ruffian pilot with a heavy Russian accent, a penchant for Vodka, and a disdain for safety. I used to think that it was me who instigates these ridiculous situations while traveling. Now I realize that it's not me. It's these lunatics I keep traveling with and my inability to say "You know, actually, that doesn't sound like a good idea." So if anything insane happens on this trip, blame Perry. I just wanted to sit and talk to people.