Uganda Be Kidding Me…
November 18th, 2013 → 4 Comments
I’ve been home in America for three weeks, unscathed after my month in Uganda. Despite popular concern (from people who had never been to Africa before), I did not get killed, raped or kidnapped during my trip. But thanks everyone for your concern that the tragic mall bombing in Kenya that happened the week prior to my arrival had somehow affected me in across the border in a totally different country.
It was a month so overwhelming that I could barely compose my thoughts. Thanks to Facebook, I never felt alone or without my critics. There are more details I can offer of my whole trip, but I need to put my energy towards my big presentation at the Annenberg Community Beach House on Tuesday. It will be the first presentation I make to shape my newest solo show “The Wong Street Journal”.
Here are ELEVEN of the many Things That Happened When I Went to Uganda Last Month.
1. I recorded a rap album and you can buy it.
I went to Uganda thinking I *might* meet local artists for future collaboration. I had no idea that I would write and record a multilingual rap album in three weeks with local rappers in Northern Uganda. I met them by accident when looking for street food one night. They still play my songs on the local radio and in the clubs! Yep, I can die now.
Nerio the producer is a great new friend and I promised him I would try to get him the refurbished equipment necessary to start his own music studio and forward him all proceeds from this album. When you buy the album on bandcamp, you will automatically be able to download liner notes designed by Brooklyn’s Chris Yun that tell the story of how I came to become the “Vanilla Ice of Uganda”.
2. I broke my sobriety.
At my hotel in Gulu the second night, I was eating with two Ugandan men from my hotel. They were telling me how in Uganda, I am considered to be a “Mzungu”– a swahili word used to describe a “white person”. There is no Swahili word apparently for “third generation Chinese American”. The men offered to buy me a beer. I refused explaining that I had been sober for almost two years. Jackson (one of the men) said, “In life, there is a start and end to everything.” Then Jackson flies into a story about this white woman he met who was very ungrateful and disrepectful to him. My white guilt was too much for me to handle, and I threw back a brewsky.
3. I gained weight.
Despite all the images we saw in the 80s of starving babies covered in flies with distended bellies, there was no shortage of food around me in Uganda. I wasn’t sure what to expect because the Travel list that WGEF gave me told me to pack peanut butter and Clif Bars. Would there be a protein shortage? Would I go to sleep hungry?! No, not really. There are many places to eat and food is cooked up all over the street. A meal at a local’s restaurant is as low as $1. This is not to say that the poorest of Uganda are not food insecure– because that’s definitely an issue, especially in the urban slums in Kampala. But my theory that I’d somehow lose weight over there was not at all the case because Ugandan food can actually make you big.
4. I had multiple requests for marriage and matchmaking.
I may no longer be a spring chicken in Hollywood, but in Gulu, Uganda I was the hottest thing on the unpaved block. It was like money was glowing off my skin. I’d get asked if I was single or had single friends very quickly after meeting someone. I guess OkCupid just happens in the streets of Uganda. If any of my American lady friends want a Ugandan husband, I got you.
5. I had two chicken dresses made and a matching purse to exert my first world privilege.
If you know me, you know how much I multitask. So having a whole month to research and work on one focused project felt pretty uncharacteristic of how I operate. Hence, why I found myself running a side project of a rap album and spending spare moments getting chicken dresses made for $6! Fabric was about $6 and the matching purse was $3. It felt admittedly good to be a woman of privilege for the custom made chicken dress alone.
6. I smuggled drugs in my butt across the globe.
As an American in a third world country, it is my duty to smuggle cheap pharmaceuticals for my uninsured friends in America. When my good friend was panicking about how pay for her heart medicine, I offered to check local pharmacies and found her medicine for $6/month in Gulu– less than what it would cost me with an insurance co-pay. I bought her a year’s worth.
Being a lousy drug smuggler, I left evidence of how I bought out a pharmacy all over Facebook. A friend who saw the post forwarded me this alarming USA Today article about how drugs in third world countries are counterfeit and filled with poison. That gave us a good scare. I talked to some friends in Uganda who said, “That’s silly, we’d all be dead if these were fake drugs.” I made it through customs, my friend has been taking the pills, and now she can stay healthy without going bankrupt.
7. I got an idea of what it’s like to be that white guy in Miss Saigon.
This is going to be hard for a lot of Americans and even activists of color to believe… but when you get to Uganda, you are white. WHITE. Yes, even if you are Latino. Yes, even if you are Asian. Yes, even if you are Middle Eastern. Yes, even if you are “brown” in America, you are white in Uganda. I didn’t get to talk to enough African Americans in Uganda to understand how they were contextualized in Uganda, but my guess from talking to Calvin, who is half Kenyan half Ugandan and says he is treated as an outsider, is that African Americans would definitely not be able to “pass” as locals. I can’t describe it to a T, but being a foreigner in Uganda means you are easy to spot as “an outsider.” And being an outsider who has come to Uganda (of all the places you could travel to) implies you have money and power.
Because of the history of Westerners coming to Uganda to build businesses or give aid, that sense of privilege was given to me, a playwright and volunteer. No joke, by American standards, I am pretty poor right now. But in Uganda, I felt like the most spoiled richest woman as I had dresses made for $6 and ate $5 dinners without blinking an eye.
And with my new found whiteness came a really uncomfortable power. In some situations I would have several children at once run up to hold my hands like I was magical. I had love letters written to me by village children who I had barely interfaced with but who had followed me and figured out where I worked. Even a small number of my own Ugandan friends would ask me out of nowhere to give them my IPad or money or buy them things. I would often feel guilty around the staff of the organization I worked with because the cost of my hotel at $35/night over 3 weeks could easily cover the operational expenses for our organization for a month. I know, because I was reminded frequently of this. And very quickly, I became accustomed to being referred to as a “white person.”
8. I met some truly amazing women.
I went to Uganda to work with Women’s Global Empowerment Fund and learn about the local economy and microfinance. When I got to Gulu, I learned that WGEF is actually a partner organization to VAC-NET, an organization founded in Gulu by Bukenya Muusa, a Ugandan. WGEF and VAC-NET put on a Women4Peace Award dinner and a Women’s Drama Festival– two events that I would assist with. My first day in the office, Bukenya told me that my task was to read all the nomination forms and pick the winner since I was an “outsider” with no bias. It was very humbling to read about one woman Naima Evelyn who had been abducted by the LRA and returned from the bush ten years and four children later to help other women. I read about other women who had created story circles to support women in the aftermath of war, some working with HIV+ mothers in prison. How do you choose a winner?
9. I went rafting off a waterfall on the Nile.
I couldn’t afford to do gorilla trekking (on the travel list of “things to do before you die”) at $1600, but I did do a few less expensive tourist excursions to the natural beauty of Uganda. Trying to do touring things out of Northern Uganda was a bit of a logistical nightmare as it’s not really set up the way Kampala is for tourists. I was happy to be a big dumb tourist and pay $125 for Grade 5 Rafting on the Nile because it meant no negotiating of transport or housing and my food was provided! My back was pretty sore after, but happy to get these experiences in while my body can still do it.
10. I helped the organization I volunteered with by raising money for a generator.
I didn’t realize how frustrating it would be to work with the available technology in Gulu. Many of the computers in the VAC-NET office were infected with viruses, none of them were networked together, and none of the desktop computers could get online. They were also PCs which are so counter intuitive to how my mac head works. To make things worse, the frequent power outages meant that our work would disappear if we didn’t save and we would be sitting on our hands for days waiting for power to go back up. I asked some friends at home to contribute towards a power generator in our office and they responded in force! There was well over $500 raised for the generator and the extra will go towards the fuel and maintenance. Now the office is able to increase their output in all situations.
11. I have a whole different perspective on charity and aid.
You know how people say to not give money to homeless people because it will just encourage them to keep begging? The relationship of Western NGOs (Non-Governmental Orgs/ Charities) to this part of the world has created a similar precedent that has made people become so accustomed to handouts, that when the NGOs leave, people haven’t been motivated to work, and end up needing aid again. Those kids running up to me like I had some magic to give them? That was all residual effects of Western charity. But what I wish people could see is how much pride and willingness there is to work. I think Americans think that donating old clothes or giving food is the end all of poverty, but really, those are very short term solutions. I think it is about giving people the tools to work to their best potential. Education, teaching small farming skills, and giving microloans to start small business is where it’s at.