Thursday, February 12, 2009

"You Are Lost!": My 2009 Return to Gulu

by: Kate von Achen

February 3-9

I feel that my last several blogs have started with, “It has been long since I’ve written…” or something to that effect. Perhaps I should just start saying, “Hello! I am still alive and well in Uganda!” or something like that? Hmmmmm. So yes, it has been long and I am still alive and well in Uganda, though I took a five week hiatus in the U.S., Kansas and New York more specifically. Why have I been so quiet you ask? Well, I’ve been busy and then unmotivated, followed by busy and followed again by unmotivated and well you get the point, no? To catch you all up to speed more or less I have been plugging away at Awava and the Awava Foundation, applying for grants, recruiting volunteers, setting up various avenues for sales, designing product, applying for grants, etc., working here and there on my dissertation (but more often laying awake all night thinking about how I need to work on it), drinking (like I said, I was in Kansas and New York for five weeks), readjusting to life in the U.S. just in time to come back to Uganda and have to readjust to life here, helping my friend Sarah who I forced back to Uganda with me adjust to life in Uganda, and now we are here! Today. I can start with this week I think, unfortunately leaving out small, amusing details of the weeks and months before that while sitting and thinking without any way to record them, have forgotten. Sorry.

On Sunday I traveled to Gulu for the first time since October. It had been far too long. My intention was to make it here before going back to the US for the holidays but that didn’t happen. At the last minute, I had to call the tailors and the women making the recycled paper bead necklaces and ask if they could send them on the bus to Kampala. So Sunday was my “homecoming” in a way. Lucy pretended to cane me for “escaping” to the U.S. but stopped when I told her I had brought her some Nutella for our chapatti, Nutella, banana happiness, a concoction I invented shortly after my move to Uganda (this culinary delight is perhaps remembered by those on my Fair Trade trip as chapatti, Blue Band, raw sugar and banana happiness, but now has what I refer to as the capital city upgrade).

But let me rewind…..Sunday, Ryan, Sarah and I reached the bus park in Kampala around 11am to head to Gulu. For Sarah and Ryan this was their first time, and what a first time it was. Those of you who have been reading my blog for some time must remember some of my stories of previous travels to Gulu from being grabbed and yelled at by every other person in the bus park, many pulling you trying to get you to fill a seat on their bus while others try to guess where you are going, always guessing places like Fort Portal, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Mbarara and other touristy places but never Gulu; others mob you trying to “help” you to carry your things only to ask for money once you reach the bus and what you give is never enough…..Well, Sarah and Ryan got to experience this multiplied by 100. When I travel to Gulu I often only carry as many things as I can take myself and I take a boda to the bus park. This time, since I was with extra hands, I took lots and lots and lots of things: wax print fabrics for Lucy and for Awava, foam stuffing for products, elastic, solid liner fabrics, etc. We had tons of bulky, heavy things. I was willing to pay for the carrying of the anvil-laden suitcase, but the rest was up to us!

We reach the bus to Gulu and the muyaye (cheats) tried to charge me 20,000UGX to put my luggage in the boot! I talked them down to 5K which was more than enough and boarded the bus. Sarah and I lucked out because the bus was so full that we got to sit in the conductors’ seats giving us loads of extra leg room. This did, however, leave us vulnerable to more stares. Every time I woke up from a doze one of the conductors was staring at me, sometimes my face, sometimes my chest…..

On the way, the bus stopped several times, as always, to buy street food in various trading centers. I bought Sarah some gonga (grilled banana, not marijuana) to try. Yum!

We reached Gulu around 5pm and were filthy and hungry. We reached Bora Bora, my favorite place to stay in Gulu, and I was informed that Francis, the manager for years, had left! I was sooooo sad. I had tried to call his phone a few times during the bus ride but it was switched off. We washed up a bit and headed to Bomah, one of the local hotel/restaurants with “Western” cuisine. I’ve made quite a few Ugandan friends in Gulu over the last year and a half and hadn’t seen one of my favorites, Jacob, in a few months. Jacob is the manager of Bomah and is constantly smiling and giggling. We received the biggest welcome from him when he saw me walk in! It was truly good to be back.

We were all exhausted from the journey and had full bellies so called it an early night, for we had to be up by 7am the next day to conquer the mountain of work we were to accomplish in such a short period of time.

Monday we hit the ground running. We had a nice planning breakfast at Kope Café and then went to the market to hang out with the tailors, pick up finished product and place the new order! After lunch a laid back lunch of maloquang, simsim paste and cassava, we headed to Unyama IDP camp to conduct livelihoods assessments with the tailors which I am studying for my dissertation and who Lucy also employs. The interviews didn’t take nearly as long to conduct as I expected and were actually pretty fun seeing as we were all laughing at my attempts at Acholi (I am getting much better).

We headed back into town where Sarah and I met with Richard, the man who organized the paper bead women’s group, Konye Keni which in Acholi means “you help yourself through yourself”. We were going to be doing baseline interviews with this group the next day and wanted to go over the interview guides with Richard so we could plan the best method for translation, etc.

Following our meeting, Sarah and I returned to Bora Bora, showered and went for a beer with Ryan at Havana Pub to celebrate Sarah’s Half Birthday (she’s such a Leo). While their beers were ice cold, mine was hot and considering that I really don’t like beer much in the first place, I drank about 4 sips and then just sat there. All I really wanted to do was organize stuff for the next day and pass out!
My days in Gulu are typically exhausting because 1) it’s quite hot there especially during the dry season which is now; and 2) I spend my days running around doing a billion things trying to maximize on the short time periods while I’m there. So yes, computer work and bed were calling me!

Tuesday Ryan was traveling back to Kampala so we loaded him down with product to mule back the night before. Sarah and I slept in until 8am (yay!) and had rolex and coffee and an orange for breakfast at Bora Boar. For Christmas my sister’s family gave me quite possibly the coolest and most useful thing in the world, a travel French press! It’s kind of amazing. It looks like a travel mug but one of the tops has a coffee press built in! I am a bit coffee obsessed as any of you who know me personally know, and outside of Kampala you only get instant coffee which I think is an abomination of the coffee bean. In fact, I’m partly convinced that it doesn’t contain a single trace of anything remotely resembling any part of a coffee tree. But I digress…so I got this fabulous gift that I had yet to use, I took my own ground coffee so all I had to ask for was hot water! Brilliant! Megan, you guys saved my life.

After breakfast, I showed Sarah how to deposit money for the tailors, we went and visited the tailors and then headed out to Bobi IDP camp to conduct the rest of my livelihood assessments with the tailors there! This process also went by quickly and before I knew it we were in the back of a very full farm truck on our way back to Gulu town. Sun burnt, filthy and exhausted, Sarah and I returned to Bora Bora just in time for our 2 o’clock meeting with the ladies of Konye Keni!

Despite the language barrier, we had tons of fun with these ladies who also enjoyed laughing at me and my Acholi speaking. We took photos, they tried to teach Sarah how to roll the paper beads (she and I are at similar skill levels) and we learned about the Women’s lives. We also bought all of the necklaces they had and the following day met with Florence, the unofficial leader of the group, to place a new order and go over design.

While I had been sad that Francis, the old Bora Bora manager was gone, the new management was Ethiopian and it turns out no offers Ethiopian food! Ethiopian is one of my favorites so we asked the woman if we could have whatever they had for dinner. We were served one of my favorite dishes, Kir Kwot with injira! It was delicious and only 5K! Excellent.

Wednesday, our last full day in Gulu, was much more laid back. Sarah and I slept in again, had our meeting with Florence, stopped by and greeted the tailors and then headed to Bomah to do lots of computer work. We went back to the market around 4pm for what I like to call, “chapatti, Nutella, banana happiness”, a delicious concoction which I invented when I first moved here which is a chapatti with a layer of Nutella on top, a banana in the middle and then rolled like a burrito. BEST THING EVER! And the tailors, Lucy in particular, are obsessed with it!

Sarah and I headed back to Bora Bora and sundown excited about our Ethiopian dinner that was just a few hours ahead. I showered and put lotion on my sun burn and then lay on the bed thinking, decompressing and looking forward to the food we were soon to be served.

Just like the night before, our meal was delicious. I cannot recall the name of the dish but had had it many times before and it was another one of my favorites! This time it was only 3K! Seriously, you cannot beat that.

Sarah and I decided to go have one beer (this time mine was cold and thus more drinkable) at Havana Pub and then pack up and rest early for we were leaving for the bus at 6am! We sat at Havana Pub reflecting on the past few days, Sarah’s opinions of Gulu and the Women, etc. All in all things were good! We accomplished a lot and made space for a lot more future growth. Fantastic!

We arrived at the Post Bus at 6:30am. The bus was to depart at 7am which means we left at 7:45, but not before the nun at the front prayed that should we crash that our bus would be covered by the blood of Jesus Christ. Sarah looked at me wide-eyed and said, “is this really happening” and I replied “yes, this is normal”. The bus departed and we were headed for Kampala.

I was passed out in true Kate form (i.e. mouth half open and slamming my head against the window with every bump) for the majority of the ride home. I would periodically wake up when the bus stopped to see if there were any samosas or chapatti available.

We made it safe and sound to Kampala, me with only a minor concussion. We exited the bus, grabbed our bags from the boot and walked tiredly and grungily down Kampala road in an effort to find lunch.


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