Storyline: starting the next chapter

MountainGardenI’m staying in a place called the Sunrise Cabin, but there’s no sunrise—only an uneven cover of clouds that’s getting progressively more translucent as dawn breaks somewhere beyond them. I’m not sure this cabin gets much sunlight, anyway, judging by the layer of algae that slicks the wooden deck. The pines around the cabin must do as good of a job blocking the light as this morning’s clouds.

I’m at a writers’ retreat for part of the weekend at a place called The Mountain in the middle of nowhere. This is the first morning I’ve slept in since, well—since I don’t know when. Even on vacation last month in California, when I attended the Storyline conference, I was up before dawn and out the door every day in order to beat San Diego traffic.

Since then, it’s been an unrelenting barrage of deadlines: review these galleys, check those printer proofs, edit these captions, write that appendix, lay out those pages, edit those photos, review those marketing materials, talk with that writer, approve that dustjacket copy. I’ve had three books making their way through various stages of production, all tied into the upcoming anniversary of a Civil War battle. My publisher wants them out in time to take advantage of the extra foot traffic that’ll march through battlefield bookstores. Life since my return from California has been a full-court press to get everything finalized.

It’s been a good problem to have, for sure. I’m fortunate that my writing career flourishes as it does. The crushing pace has kept me focused, and the intensity has provided a self-fueling adrenaline rush. It has also been usefully distracting.

But I recognize it as such, and it has also kept me from following up on the work I began at the Storyline conference. My purpose for attending, as I’d articulated before going to the conference, was to find a little direction in life. I’d felt adrift since wrapping up my Ph.D. last fall and thought a little life planning, cleverly structured in the guise of a writerly conference, would do just the trick.

Chris-DonaldMillerAt the conference, organizer Donald Miller, author of the memoir Blue Like Jazz, contended that goals are not enough to get us through life. “I had a list of things I wanted to accomplish by the time I was thirty-five,” Miller said, rattling off such things as “live in Seattle” and “write a New York Times bestseller.” He achieved his goals and found himself wondering, Now what? “I felt unfulfilled,” he said. “I had done all the things on my list and was, like, ‘What’s the point?’”

Purpose, not just goals, make the difference.

I’ve wondered if my writing, particularly viewed in the context of storytelling, is my purpose. It’s who I am, what I do. But why?

I put that question to my publisher when he and I got together that same week of the conference. Writing had begun to feel a little purposeless to me. I’ve been writing all these books and articles, but to what larger purpose? Was it—I shuttered to think—nothing more than ego gratification? Was it just self-indulgence? Was I kidding myself to think I was actually doing any kind of greater good?

“Why do you do all this?” I asked him. “Why do you publish all these books?”

Funny I should ask, he said. He’d recently finished reorganizing his library at home, and for the first time, he collected into a single place all the books he’s published. His company, Savas Beatie, is the largest commercial publisher of Civil War-related books, with more than 70 titles in print, but they also do history books of other sorts, too, as well as a smattering of sports books. They have nearly 120 in all.

“And I realized,” he told me, “that I have amassed a significant body of work. Long after I’m gone, that will remain. I will leave that behind. And if that work helps people better understand their past, then I will have done something worthwhile.”

That resonated strongly with me. It articulated a why that made sense to me but that I’d perhaps only felt on an intuitive level. Or maybe I’d known it but had convinced myself it was my own poppycock attempt at self-justification—but to hear someone else put the idea into words made it more real. It made it believable.

I thought I’d try this newfound idea on for size once I got back from the conference. Maybe this would crystalize as the sense of purpose I’d been hoping for. As soon as I returned, though, the tidal wave of work crashed down. No time for reflection. No time for meditation. No time for beers and cigars and good shoot-the-shit conversation.

On the plus side, truth be told, I’ve been too busy to notice any lack of purpose. But any time I’ve been able to come up for breath, that restless, vacuous purposelessness yawned beneath me.

On Friday, I gave final approval to what should be the final set of proofs. The quiet settled over me like a still pond. I went up the Mountain for some time with other writers—then felt strangely compelled to not write. I brought Storyline with me, too, but felt compelled to not start. I felt compelled to think about it so that I could get started soon—but not yet.

But soon.

U2’s music and Seussian trees: a visit to Joshua Tree National Park

TreeSunAs beautiful as the landscape is as I near Joshua Tree National Park, the picture somehow doesn’t seem complete. Where are Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr.? Their 1987 album first introduced me to Joshua trees—those desert-stunted twisty trees that look like Dr. Seuss might have drawn them out here in the Mohave. On their album cover, U2 looked so damn cool. I want to hop out of the car and stand in the Seussian landscape and look all badass and gritty and have my photo taken in black and white. I even play the album on my iPod as I drive into the park.

That all changes once I get into the park itself. The squat dusty houses give way to open terrain that awes me. I’m so struck, I pull over only a hundred feet past the gatehouse, get out of the car, and gasp. I literally gasp.

FirstViewThe soil is sun-bleached red and grainy. Rocks dot the land as though shot-putted there by the massive granite formations that dominate the landscape. Some of the formations stand monolithic, singly or in small clusters; others form whole ridgelines that crag off into the distance. In the far, far, far distance, I see snow-capped mountains.

And all around are the Joshua trees. If trees could somehow be reptile, these would be—their trunks studded with scale-like corrugations. The trunks rise and twist, spinning off branches all tufted with spiky Afros. They might even be hundred-fingered jazz hands flashing a “Hey!”

Everything looks interesting, and I start snapping pictures. It doesn’t take long for me to realize, though, that I’m engaged in a losing proposition: if I take pictures of every interesting-looking tree, I’ll be here forever. Or at least all day.

The road winds south into the park, a single ribbon of pavement across something that otherwise looks like a Martian landscape. Smaller roads branch off, but I don’t have the time to explore like I want to. Instead, I content myself with a stop for lunch beside a chunk of granite roughly the size of the Lincoln Memorial, where I eat my salad and study the stone formation—the pasttime of the ancients. I get lost in the granite’s curves and cracks, a small world unto itself.

TreeRockEstablished in 1934 as Joshua Tree National Monument and elevated to National Park status in 1994, the national park covers nearly 800,000 acres. About 1.3 million people visit each year. Visitation peaks in the spring wildflower season and then tapers off as summer heats up. Then picks up again a bit in the fall. The desert, I’ve been told, is either really hot or really cold. Today, it’s about 60 degrees with a breeze. I’m glad I’ve brought a windbreaker, which is just enough to keep me comfortable.

Down the road a piece, I stop at a place called the Hidden Valley. Here, the granite ridges and boulders have enclosed a protected ecosystem. Mere months before the land was preserved by the Park Service, a cattle rustler blasted a pathway into the valley; tourists have dutifully trekked in ever since. Hardly hidden any more. But the nature trail is well marked, and interpretive signs do a good job explaining the unique ecology of the valley, which partially preserves a relic population of pinyon pines and junipers. Once upon a time—about 10,000 years ago or so—the Mohave had been a woodland forest. Now, only small upper-elevation pockets remain, where there is enough moisture to sustain the trees. There are also a lot of yucca plants, although the Joshua trees have mostly stayed outside.


I see several bird species I don’t recognize—which isn’t saying much since I don’t recognize most bird species—and signs talk of jackrabbits and coyotes and lizards. “Be careful where you put your hands when you’re climbing,” one sign cautions. “Snakes like to cool themselves in the shaded cracks of the rocks.”

I find a high perch that erosion has carved into a bowl shape that, coincidentally, just fits my butt. It’s like a little granite recliner that lets me comfortably lean back and look down across the valley. The sun blazes a slow arc across the blue dome of sky. I allow myself to just be.

“Have you found what you’re looking for?” a friend will later ask me on Facebook. “No,” I’ll reply. “Because the streets have no names.” Oh, we’ll think we’re so clever with our U2 references—although, in fairness, it was one of the monumental albums of our teen years. That was our Joshua Tree National Monument.

VistaBy the time I get up to leave, shadows have crept slow paths across the valley’s pebbly floor. The narrow foot trail winds between close boulders before spitting me back out to the parking lot, where I’m treated to a vista of Joshua trees springing from the landscape as far as I can see. In a different time and place, it might have the appearance of an apple orchard gone a little wild. Maybe the trees even look a little automatonic—desert sentries with crazy spiked hair and Madonna-like “Vogue” poses.

Back on the road, I wind through more rock formations, places with names like “Hall of Horrors” and “Skull Rock.” I reach a “Y” whose southward branch would take me some thirty miles to Cottonwood and Palm Springs beyond, but I branch north. The Joshua trees thin out, then vanish almost completely. The desert here looks even more rocky, more Martian, with speckles of some kind of scrub brush. The road takes me out of the park.

SkullRockBeyond, the road descends in a long, straight arrow toward 29 Palms. I thumb the wheel on my iPod to bring up Robert Plant’s song. “I feel the heat of your desert heart,” he sings. All these years, I had no idea the song was referring to a real town.

But it’s U2 that I’ll still take home with me in some weird way, disconnected as the album will now be from my real-life experience with Joshua Tree. Rather than U2, I’m more likely to see the Lorax amidst these trees.  But as the song goes, I have been in God’s country: “Dream beneath the desert sky…. We need new dreams tonight.”

Storyline: The Improbable Philanthropist and other stories

DonAlAl Andrews makes an improbable philanthropist.

“Philanthropists have lots of money,” Andrews says. “I didn’t have any.”

Andrews is the first of half a dozen guest speakers who makes appearances during the Storyline conference. Donald Miller calls Andrews from the audience to join him at the cafe table onstage. The two settle in as though they’re about to share a cup of coffee. (“Cafe,” Miller has joked, is the word for “pub” for people raised Baptist.)

Andrews runs a nonprofit counseling service for recording artists and their families, Porter’s Call, in Nashville, Tennessee.

While he’s found meaning in his work, Andrews explained that he dreamt of something more. “What I really wanted to be was a philanthropist,” he says.

Because he didn’t have lots of money, he decided he’d make some—although, at first, he didn’t have a quick way to do it. “A character who wants something and has to overcome obstacles to get it,” Miller later reminds Storyline attendees.

Taking a slower, more deliberate approach, Andrews chose to write a children’s book, self-publish it, and give 100% of the proceeds to charity. He hired Jonathan Bouw, a professional artist and graphic arts professor at Taylor University, to illustrate it. The result: The Boy, The Kite, & The Wind.

“Why do people fly kites?” Andrews asks, breaking into a mirthful chuckle. “It always ends badly. It’s the one thing we do for fun that always ends badly. The kite ends up in the tree or crashing to the ground. Anyone here have a kite in their garage.” No hands go up.

And yet we keep flying kites.


Andrews wrote his book to try and figure out why.

But as Andrews worked on his book, something surprising happened. People heard about his project and wanted to join in. Before he knew it, Andrews had his own publishing company and a nonprofit to go with it, Improbable Philanthropy. A designer cooked up a logo. Donors appeared.

Andrews’ kites took off.

For his first project, Andrews funded the installation of an elevator at Thistle Farms, a nonprofit residential program in Nashville that helps women “who have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction and life on the streets.” They call it the “‘Al’-evator” in honor of the philanthropist who made it possible.

For his next project, Andrew is raising scholarship money for a group of Ugandan kids from the Restore Leadership Academy to go to university.

Miller uses Andrews as an example of the power of personal stories as a way to affect change. Going back to Miller’s definition of a good story: Andrews was a character who wanted something (to be a philanthropist) and had to over come obstacles (having no money, having no publishing experience) to achieve it.

Over the course of the two days, Miller calls up other speakers: entrepreneur Caitlyn Crosby, whose “Giving Keys” project promotes self-esteem and a pay-it-forward mentality; Bob Goff, founder of Restore International, a human rights watch group that finds “audacious ways to restore justice to children and the poorest of the poor”; and Mike Foster, who runs a ministry called People of the Second Chance. “It is time to stand in the sun with the shadow to our backs,” Foster says.

TomTalkingWe also watch an extraordinary film called I Am by Tom Shadyac. Shadyac has directed a slew of comedies—Ace Ventura; The Nutty Professor; Liar, Liar; and Bruce Almighty among them—but I Am traces Shadyac’s personal journey to answer the questions “What is wrong with the world? What can I do about it?” Along with stunning cinematography, the film features interviews with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, scientist David Suzuki, historian Howard Zinn, Rumi translator Coleman Barks, and a dozen other brilliant thinkers. It’s a thought-provoking blend of science, humanities, and spiritualism. After the screening, Shadyac engages in a talkback session with the audience.

Each improbable story illustrates Miller’s main point: our lives are like stories, and in proactively plotting them out—and taking ownership of unexpected plot turns—we can have a meaningful impact on the people around us.

It’s all very inspiring—part of Miller’s plan, no doubt. As I muddle about, wondering about my own purpose in life, it’s good to be reminded of folks who make differences big and small. They key, as Miller suggests and Andrews illustrates, is to have a clear goal. Everything works toward that. “If your life was a movie, what would the final scene look like?” Miller asks. “Now what scenes belong in your movie to help you get there?” Leave out the scenes that don’t help advance the plot toward that conclusion; leave out the scenes that don’t tell that story.

ChrisAlSigningAfter Andrews’ session, I pick up a couple copies of his book—one for me and one for the elementary school in my hometown, where I’ll reading Dr. Seuss books a few days from now for Read Across America Day. Andrews brims with good humor as he signs them for me. With a bigger beard and a few pounds, he could be Santa Claus (the most improbable philanthropist of all).

Why do people fly kites? Because, in so many ways, it’s uplifting.

Storyline: Conference, Day One


“Did you come from a cold, wet place?” Donald Miller asks. A murmur of laughter ripples through the room. “That’s awesome,” he says, laughing. The weather in San Diego is in the mid-sixties today, and everyone I’ve met so far at the Storyline conference has reveled in it. “That part is free,” Miller quips.

Miller has a smile his mouth can barely contain. He strolls back and forth across a half-moon dais, obviously delighted to be here. Behind him, the space has been set to look cozy: a pair of cushy leather chairs fronted by a glass coffee table, a round cafe table flanked by two short metal stools, tall plastic ficus trees in august gray urns, an antique book cabinet with dust-dimmed glass. It could be his own portable neighborhood coffee shop if not for the massive movie screen that hangs behind him.

“The most powerful stories are people,” Miller says. “What will the world miss if you don’t tell your story?” His question hangs in the air like a static charge and appears onscreen in letters as big as Miller’s head.

Miller believes we all have the potential to lead lives that make good stories, and through Storyline, he’s made it his mission to help people realize that potential. “I want you to contemplate the idea that we might be called to something special,” he says.

The problem is that our stories get hijacked, he explains, blaming commercialism and religious legalism as the main culprits. It’s the dream of owning a Volvo for the sake of owning a Volvo, he says. It’s the belief that your trip to Bed, Bath, and Beyond is really important. It’s buying into the myth sold by advertising: We won’t be happy unless we buy more stuff.

Donald Miller chats between sessions with a Storyline attendee.

Donald Miller chats between sessions with a Storyline attendee.

“That’s not the story we should be buying into,” Miller says. It’s not the story we should be writing for ourselves.

“The locus of control is inside of you,” Miller says. “You have the power to affect change.” By approaching life proactively rather than reactively, we have the ability to start writing our own story.

“A good story consists of a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it,” Miller explains. He promises that we’ll talk a lot about conflict, and our need to confront it, and our need to find redemption in it.

The character’s clarity of purpose is key. There needs to be something at stake, too. “Nobody is going to want to want to watch a movie about a guy who wants to buy a Volvo,” Miller says. “That’s not a compelling reason to watch a movie.”

Good stories have meaning, they save lives—meant in a broad sense—and the characters are transformed because of them.

Miller’s approach is heavily influenced by the work of psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Frankl’s contemporary, Sigmund Freud, argued that people are motivated by the quest for pleasure; Frankl, on the other hand, argued that people are motivated by the quest for meaning. When they can’t find meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their graves with the song still in them,” Miller says, quoting Thoreau. Then Miller asks, “Is there a story inside you?”

That’s what we’re here to find out.

Storyline: Prologue

First in a series

I’m forty-thousand feet above the Rocky Mountains. Denver is some ninety miles to my left and a long way down. I’ve lost the sun beyond the curve of the earth, but the light it still throws is as bright orange as the glow from inside a smelting pit. Molten sunshine has been poured along the horizon. Somewhere in the direction of the glow is San Diego, although I won’t arrive until well after dark.

I’m heading to Point Loma Nazarene University, a place I’ve never been, to attend a writing conference of sorts. “Storyline” is life-planning process developed by memoirist Donald Miller built on the premise that our lives are like stories: if we employ the techniques screenwriters and novelists use when they’re planning stories, we can have greater clarity in our own.

Storyline-cover“Storyline will help you live a better story and, as such, experience a meaningful life,” Miller writes. “It’s about creating a great overall human experience.”

In all the writing classes I teach, my basic premise is “Tell good stories.” Whether it’s a news story, a feature, a press release, an ad, a piece of fiction, a play, a memoir, a piece of history—we’re telling stories. Even an essay is the story of an idea.

So, as a writer, Storyline caught my interest as something that might give me a few more tools to put in my pedagogical toolbox. It’s a safe assumption that I’ll learn a new activity or gain a new insight that I can then use in my teaching.

But that’s only part of it.

I could use a little life-planning right now, to be honest. Since successfully defending my Ph.D. back in November, I’ve felt a bit adrift.

I knew part of my deep restlessness came from the post-high crash that always comes after finishing a major project. Part of it was the need to decompress after the intensity of cramming four years of doctoral work into two. Part of it sprang from the realization that I now had a shitload of free time and had no idea what the hell I going to do with it.

The soundtrack playing beneath all that has been some dirgy shoegaze score—the result of a breakup back in September with a girl I thought I was going to marry. Tough to think you have that part of life figured out only to discover, overnight, unkindly, that you don’t. That’s been a hard tune to shake, like an earworm from hell but burrowed in my heart.

In the wake of all that change, I figured I needed to just chill a little and the next phase of life would reveal itself to me. I had the holidays to get through, and my Africa trip, and a new semester to start. I had several books under contract that I needed to wrap up. Certainly there was stuff to do to keep me busy while life reordered itself.

But so far: nada. If anything, I’ve become even more restless.

“If a character doesn’t know what they want,” Miller says, “the story gets muddled. The same is true in life.” That might describe me just about exactly.

Enter: Storyline.

I’d been getting notices about the Storyline conference for weeks because I follow Donald Miller’s blog, but it didn’t seriously catch my eye until late January. The book, however, has been on my radar screen for months. Well, more accurately, it’s been on my coffee table for months.

BlueLikeJazz-coverI first started reading Miller two summers ago. Ironically, it was Claire, the girl who broke my heart, who introduced me to Miller’s work. She bought me a copy of Blue Like Jazz, which I gobbled up in a couple quiet afternoons. As summer wore on, Claire read Miller’s A Thousand Miles in a Million Years to me whenever we drove somewhere in the car; she recorded her own audiobook version of it as a gift at summer’s end. I tried to re-listen to it before coming to the Storyline conference but couldn’t.

This past summer, I picked up a couple of Miller’s other books, including Storyline. Much to my surprise, what arrived was not another clever memoir about the search for meaning but a workbook I didn’t have time to do because of my dissertation.

Now, it seems, the time has come.

But because I never seem content to do anything the easy way, I’m going to do Storyline but also write about the process as I go through it. A kind of meta-writing project—writing about the writing—similar to my National Novel Writing Month project a couple years ago when I wrote a novel and also wrote about writing a novel. I’m going to do Storyline and write about doing Storyline.

I’ve also recruited a couple friends to go through the process with me, too. Feeny, a married woman in her late twenties, lives near Toronto and works as a Starbucks barista. Money is a single guy around thirty who works for a newspaper not too far from me. They’ve agreed to let me pick their brains as we go and pass along their experiences.

“Sit ‘palms up,’” Miller’s book advises. “Accept that which helps you and softly reject what isn’t helpful.”

This is particularly important advice, I think, because Storyline is a faith-based process. “Our story is a subplot on God’s story,” Miller writes. “When we live our lives as though we are the star of the show, nobody likes our story. Nobody learns from it or is inspired by it or thinks it’s beautiful.”

I’m somewhat skeptical of this. I am a deeply spiritual person, but that aspect of my life is deeply personal. (I’ll write more about that later in the series.) To tackle something faith-based in such a public way, and for this particular audience at S&R, has the potential for awkwardness. However, Miller’s work bills itself as “nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality,” and he frequently references non-Christian religious thinkers.

“I doubt all those who go through Storyline believe in God,” Miller admits, “but we encourage you, perhaps in the tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, to simply understand it makes no sense to believe the universe is all about you.”

That’s something I can buy into, and hopefully it’ll be an “in” for most readers, too.

So here I am, over the Rocky Mountains, starting my Storyline journey on literally a wing and a prayer. I have a short layover in Sin City and then it’ll be on to San Diego. Day one of the Storyline conference awaits.

“Palms up.”

Wilderness worth getting lost in—a review of Lance Weller’s “Wilderness”

Wilderness-coverNo Civil War battlefield offers a writer more metaphoric possibility than the Wilderness. Not only was the Wilderness a virtually impenetrable second-growth forest—“the dark, close wood” and “one of the waste places of nature,” as soldiers called it—but the very idea of “wilderness” suggests a place and a time of being directionless and lost. One wanders through the wilderness.

Novelist Lance Weller is the latest to wander into this literary territory. In Wilderness, the tale he tells proves to be a rich, dreamlike journey.

Weller’s novel follows the story of the Dickensian-named Abel Truman, a New Yorker by birth who finds himself fighting for North Carolina in the war because that’s where he happens to be living when hostilities break out. By then, Truman is already a broken man, haunted by a tragedy that has robbed him of his wife and child.

War proves to be the first of several wildernesses Abel wanders through. However, for the first few years, he “had only been scratched and bruised, had never gotten sick, and was thought by many to be a lucky man. Men took bets on how Abel would fare that day.”

At the Wilderness, however, a wounded Yankee, blind and dying, shoots Abel as his dying act, “ruining” Abel’s arm. Abel is nursed back to health by an escaped slave named Hypatia, who in turn dies because of her service.

Abel’s wartime experiences provide only half the book’s narrative, which alternates back and forth between those experiences in 1864 and Abel’s later self-exile in the coastal wilderness of the Pacific Northwest some thirty-five years later. There, broken and alone, Abel finally has the opportunity to find redemption even as he’s haunted and hunted.

“In the fall of that year, an old man walked deeper into the forest and higher into the hills than he had since he was young and his life was still a red thing, filled with violence,” Weller writes. “He walked longer and farther than he had since he was a soldier, campaigning with the Army of Northern Virginia in the Great War of the Rebellion when the world was not yet changed and his body was not yet shattered.”

Wilderness is at times gritty and wild, lush and lovely—always poetic and always thoughtful. Weller inhabits individual moments with fullness and attention, which he captures through his gift for description:

The trees gave way to the back of a steep ridge that fell before him in a confusion of frost-coated stones as though something great and beastly had raked the back half of the hill raw. The day was clear and sunny on this side of the pass, and the old man could see across miles of snowy foothills down into the rolling green of Puget Sound. He saw the blue of the inland waterways, cold with the sun bright upon their faces, and he saw distant smoke rising from stacks at Port Angeles. And he could see far to the east, where night was already darkening the Cascades, folding Mount Rainier in shadow while a round white moon rose behind.

While there’s some description of battle, Wilderness isn’t really a novel about the Civil War despite its centrality in Abel’s life. It’s not his life’s great tragedy, though—a tragedy not even time in the Wilderness could eclipse.

Wilderness is an intense exploration of those things that make us lonely and those things that help us connect, about grief and hope and the scars we carry with us. It’s about the things we remember and the things we run away from in an attempt to forget. Like any wilderness, Weller’s novel is easy to get lost in, but there’s much to discover and much beauty to behold.


Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.

Uganda Journal: heading home

EquatorStanding on the Equator, I’m as centered as I’ve felt during my entire journey. A few feet to my left, in the Northern Hemisphere, there’s a sign that says “Did you know?” with a shallow bowl that drains into a bucket. In the Southern Hemisphere: same thing. Did you know, in the north, water drains into the bucket by spinning clockwise; in the south, it drains by spinning counterclockwise. Me—I’m just spinning.

After nearly two weeks in Uganda, we’re taking our leave. On our way back north to Kampala, we make the obligatory tourist stop at the Equator and its string of shops. On the west side of the road, they’re more refined, more spacious, more expensive; on the east side of the road, the shops look poorer and maybe, to the uninitiated, a little sketchy, but the prices are better. Knowing how to speak Luganda helps improve bargaining power, but since I know only oli otya—which means “hello”—I need Herman to help me strike deals.

For the first time, we’re not the only mazungko around. This is, after all, a tourist spot, and several outfitters have stopped with tour groups ranging in size from one Australian to a dozen Southern Baptists. I assume nothing about their journeys or itineraries, but I hope they get to see as much of daily Uganda as I’ve been able to.

Traffic“I know this is just everyday life to you,” I’d said to Herman yesterday morning as we walked through town, “but it’s so different from my own experience of everyday life.” I had just marveled at a street-cleaning crew shoveling rubbish from the gutters alongside road. They scooped the garbage into a cart pulled by a tractor that looked like an early-30s Dust Bowl refugee. The antiquated technology, the type of manual labor, the sheer amount of rubbish was all SO far removed from anything I see at home–and that was just the latest in a cavalcade of impressions that had jumped out at me since arrival.

“It’s good to see something different,” Herman replied. “Adventure broadens the mind. Expands it.”

Challenges it, too. Coming here with an open mind and healthy sense of wonder has opened some great internal horizons for me–and yet it’s also helped me feel more grounded than I’ve felt in a long while. More centered. I wouldn’t say that I’ve found everyday life here profound, but I do recognize that it has impacted me profoundly, in ways I’m only beginning to intuit.

That night, the students at the Bethlehem School saw us off with a party similar to the opening celebration they threw in our honor: songs, traditional dance, drums. This party had a lot more crying, though. At first, I thought it was stage crying, but the tears flowed freely.

KanzuAs part of the ceremony, the kids presented each of us with gifts. The ladies got baskets and I received a kanzu, a traditional formal ware for Ugandan men. It looks like a cream-colored dress with a stitching of maroon down the breastbone; with the charcoal sports coat that comes with it, the outfit looks sharp. I also get a hat, too small, made of bark cloth, which comes from the bark of a kind of fig tree.

“That’s the first time in the history of the program that they’ve ever given a man in the group a kanzu,” Deb tells me. “You must’ve been a really big hit this week!” Hit or not, I feel deeply honored and am visibly delighted. I wear the outfit out to dinner, and people light up when they see me. “You look smart!” they say, over and over.

The drive from Kyotera to Kampala—with our stop at the Equator—takes us into mid-afternoon. We do a little sight-seeing in the capital, then we meet some friends for a farewell. In the courtyard of the hotel where we meet, a wedding reception is underway. Guests have seated themselves beneath a big tent, kids are getting designs painted on their faces, and music swells from a pair of oversized speakers. From the paving-stone driveway next to the courtyard, I can see out across the manmade lake I admired on my first morning here. Mengo Hill, with the king’s palace atop, rises on the lake’s far side. To my right and a little behind me, the setting sun casts soft light against the peaks of the tall cumulus clouds that hover over the palace and hill.

I’ve spent the past few months thrashing about in the dark, it seems, but suddenly, here, at this moment, I realize that I’m standing in the light of a soft-orange sky. I’m finally standing in the light.

Without even realizing it ahead of time, this is what I had come to Uganda to find.

In the background, Celine Dion sings something about love coming to those who believe it: “And that’s the way it is.” The song fades. The sun dips away. The moment ends. I can leave my ghosts behind me.

Soon, it’s off to the airport in Entebbe. We leave early because of the notoriously bad congestion and the single snarl-prone road. Better to sit at the airport for hours and wait for the plane than to miss it because we cut the drive too close and then got fouled by traffic.

I leave Uganda, then, as when I arrived: a land cast in darkness, peopled with shadows. With hardly any streetlights or exterior lighting on the storefronts, the gloaming feels thick. “Dark Continent” is not a metaphor.

Yet Africa can mean many things to many people, and its “Dark Continent” reputation is very much a part of that in the same way that, say, Abraham Lincoln represents different things to different people. We myth-make all the time, for all sorts of reasons—and when it comes to Africa, that mythmaking has been going on for centuries. “Africa the place,” says author Andrew Rice, “is forever obscured by the shadow of Africa the notion.”

But of course, “Africa” and “Uganda” are not synonymous any more than what I’ve seen of everyday life might stand in as typical of every Ugandan’s everyday life. I’ve been privileged to have been given a sliver of a glimpse, and for now, that’s perfectly enough.

It will take some time for me to unpack what “Africa the place” means to me now that I’ve been here, just as it will take time for me to reconsider what “Africa the notion” now means. I’m glad I was smart enough to come here without letting the later affect my experience of the former.

And I can’t wait to come back.


Uganda Journal: Africa’s darkest heart

TortureChambersFinal words, written in shit: “I never for my husband was killed….”

Scrawled on concrete, marred by blood: “Cry far help me the dead.”

The lost voices of 300,000 dead, forgotten beneath the earth.

These are Idi Amin’s torture chambers—five concrete bunkers burrowed into the mountainside beneath Mengo Palace in Kampala. Amin, the notorious dictator who ruled Uganda from 1971-1979, is thought to have killed as many as 500,000 political dissidents during his time in power. This was his favorite place for killing—these five ten-by-ten rooms. Bloody handprints still hold up the walls and try to hold back the shadows.

The Israeli engineers who built the chambers thought they were building bunkers for ammunition storage. When they finished their work, Amin booted them from the country and turned their well-engineered handiwork toward its more sinister purpose.

Ask most Americans what they know about Uganda and they’re apt to answer, if anything: “Idi Amin.” I was too young to actually remember him, but his name haunts Africa like a uniformed boogeyman, bedecked with a fruit-salad of medals pinned to the left breast of his jacket.

If the Rwandan Genocide Memorial presented me earlier in the this trip with anonymous slaughter on the scale of hundreds of thousands, Amin offers a single, charismatic face for such carnage.

Amin salutes the body of the Bugangan king, which he had returned from exile for burial--a move that made Amin widely popular among many of his countrymen.

Amin salutes the body of the Bugangan king, which he had returned from exile for burial–a move that made Amin widely popular among many of his countrymen.

Andrew Rice, author of a book about Uganda’s turbulent modern history, The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget, says Amin had an intuitive feel for populist politics. Particularly in his earliest days, that man Amin a powerful cult of personality. “In that first brief flush of power, Idi Amin was more popular than any leader of Uganda before or since,” Rice says.

Amin behaved more erratically as time passed, though—although Rice and others suggest that Amin was crazy like a fox. Even after deposed, he managed to slide his way into comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia, where he lived unmolested until his 2003 death.

As a historian, I’ve been interested on this trip in somehow coming into contact with Amin’s story. I wrestle to understand my curiosity. I grope for insight.

What I find are the torture chambers beneath the palace.

PalaceThe palace itself sits atop the highest of Kampala’s hills and had served as the traditional home of the King of Buganda, whose tribe makes up the largest ethnic group in the country. The building was destroyed in 1966 during civil war—shelled by Amin in his capacity as an army colonel at the time, ironically—and was rebuilt only recently as a tourist attraction.

Five years later, when Amin seized power, he used the site as his base of military operations—and the site of his most notorious tortures.

A grassy ramp leads down into the hillside, where it ends at the lip of a concrete tunnel cut into the earth. Electrified metal doors once hung here on heavy hinges. The tunnel once held three feet of water—also electrified—and five doorways offer access to the cells themselves. The crush of bodies in those cells had been such that people asphyxiated to death. At other times, they were shot or bludgeoned to death with hammers. Some were fed to crocodiles.

A pile of muddy rubble spills into the tunnel, and water still pools on the floor. We have to balance from rock to rock, careful not to slip on their muddy surfaces, as we plunge into the gloom.

NeverOur guide has been unusually chipper up until now, and he helpfully directs people up a ladder into the far cell for a closer look. I’ve not made it that far, though. I’ve been stopped still by the words written in shit, scrawled between two cells. “I never….”

This is everything I’d imagine the set of a horror movie to be: dark, dank, filthy. Our voices echo from wall to concrete wall until they haunt the air like the spirits of the dead, who have no voices of their own—only shit and blood and fear and darkness.

The heart can be dark indeed.


Uganda Journal: making matooke


Because he’s back home from secondary school for the holiday, Simon is in charge of the kitchen at the Bethlehem School this month. Although only seventeen, he’s easily one of the best cooks whose food I’ve ever eaten. “In Uganda, it’s considered a disgrace for a man to cook unless he trains to be a chef,” he tells me.

“In America,” I tell him, “if you like to cook, it’s a good way to find a girlfriend.”

“I love to cook,” Simon admits.

Simon’s kitchen is a mud brick hut with a metal rook and two small cookfires crackling away on the dirt floor in one corner. In the opposite corner, two tables give him room to lay out his diced peppers, sliced tomatoes, a bowl of beans soaking in water, and several banana leaves each larger than a sheet of newspaper.

Outside there’s a room-sized pavilion where he can build larger fires for larger cooking projects. Several other secondary school kids home for the break are out there now, roasting ears of maize to snack on, but when the kitchen is going full-swing during the school year, it feeds six-hundred kids a day: porridge for breakfast and pasho and beans or pasho and matooke for dinner.

It’s the matooke that’s brought me to Simon’s kitchen today. Matooke, also spelled “matoke,” is basically a thick mush made of plantain bananas, and it’s the staple food of Uganda. Although high in calorie content, matooke is a great source of potassium, and I’m told it’s fairly nutritious. Most importantly in a country where life can be little above subsistence, matooke is extremely filling. I’ve asked Simon to teach me to make it.

SimonPeelsWe sit outside the kitchen on a bench with a box of the green bananas on the ground in front of us. Forget the easy-peel Cavendish—the supermarket banana most Americans and Europeans are familiar with—these plantains mean business. The peels don’t just slip off. Simon cuts off the top end with a knife and then runs the knife back toward him to cut the peel away. With several quick knife strokes, he strips away the peel, the slices of skin falling back into the box. He drops the peeled fruit into a pot and then grabs another unpeeled plantain. The process takes on the rhythm of a private peeling potatoes, although Simon does it with good humor.

“It gets sticky,” he says. Banana sap is notoriously thick and gooey. He shows me the build-up on his fingers as he goes. He’ll need kerosene to clean it off his hands and knife when he’s finished.

It takes about ten minutes to peel the fifteen bananas. As the peels pile up, Simon lifts the box and shakes it like a sand sifter, and the few unpeeled fruit rise to the top.

He rinses the banana, and then fills the pan with enough water to cover them, then wraps a banana leaf over the top of the pan and sets it on one of the cookfires to simmer for half an hour. While they cook, he works on a sauce for the beans he’s making, mixing diced peppers, onions, and tomatoes. “I add salt to break up the tomatoes,” he tells me, as though divulging his secret recipe.

MashingThe plantains absorb the water as they cook, and when we pull them off the fire, they’ve turned yellow and mushy. One of Simon’s assistants, Nmutale, wets his hands to cool them, then begins to knead the banana leaves that cover the cooked plantains, mashing them to pulp. “He’s kneeling as he prepares the food,” Simon points out. “In Ugandan culture, we believe it’s important to respect the food, so that’s why we kneel.”

Every few seconds, Nmutale dips his hands again to cool them, then continues kneading. When he finishes, he scoops the mash from the saucepan into a banana-leaf-lined basket. He then folds the leaves in on themselves, wrapping the mash into a volleyball-sized globe. Who knew it took so banana leaves—let alone bananas—to make this stuff; there’ll be no way I can make it at home.

As Nmutale mashed, Simon has taken some of the thick central veins from other leaves and coiled them, then set them in the saucepan. He’s also added some water to the bottom, and then lines it all with more banana leaves. The coils keeps the leaf ball out of the water and will allow the pot to act like a steamer once Simon sets it back on the fire.

CabbageWhile all that’s been going on, Simon has had me washing slices of cassava root and pumpkin. Nmutale sets the wrapped mash in the pot, and I place the washed vegetables around it. Simon folds up the leaves into a tidy package looks almost like a cabbage. It will slow-steam like that to stay warm until ready to serve.

By the time we all sit down for lunch, another hour has passed. The matooke arrives still wrapped in the banana leaves. People lift a flap of leaf like a game of peek-a-boo and scoop off big gobs. It’s yellow by now, and tiny, tiny black dots—banana seeds—are visible throughout. People eat it plain, although I’m still experimenting with a way to make it taste palatable. Heaps of salt might help, but that’s no good (and not really available), so I’ve tried mixing it with ground nuts (which look like hideous purple baby puke but taste sweet), beans, goat soup, and beef soup. So far, nothing’s helping. “It’s an acquired taste,” Deb admits.

I’ve been trying for ten days and haven’t acquired a taste for it yet. I’ll keep trying.


Uganda Journal: a walk to the well

The well at Nakagongo sits in a low valley, with a web of trails that lead down to it from the surrounding hillsides. It’s not an especially grueling walk and not especially steep, but it’s a five-minute hike downhill from the road. On days like today, when it rained for a couple hours in the morning, the dirt path gets muddy. We also have to step over a pretty angry stream of ants.


About three hundred adults and eight hundred children are serviced by the well, which is nothing more than a clean natural spring surrounded by a cement basin. The basin seems to be draining well today–the water at the bottom is only ankle deep, although Deb has seen it back up almost to the output pipe. The ground around is a mucky mess.


Families have to walk from as far as forty-five minutes a day to collect water in five-gallon plastic containers. Once someone arrives, he or she might have to wait as long as half an hour before they have the chance to fill up. The villagers may then balance the jugs on their heads so they can carry jugs in each hand, too. Enterprising boys have set up a business where they’ll load their bikes with water and take them to the houses of people who can afford to pay for delivery.

At home, villagers use the water for cooking, cleaning, and bathing.


During the dry season, when the well dries up, villagers have to walk to another water source that’s an additional hour away.

To say I am thankful for indoor plumbing seems like a trite understatement. Seeing the well might be the most profound reminder of just how different life is for much of the world than it is for us in America and in other developed nations. This is everyday life for these villagers, and yet it is so far removed from my own life that it might well as be a different century or a different planet as a different continent and country.

Certainly America has its share of drought–I think of the summer of 2011 when much of the cornbelt baked–but water generally flows pretty freely…at least freely enough that most of us still take it for granted, although climatologists could offer some disheartening insight into that, I’m sure. I can walk into three rooms in my home that have running water, and that’s not counting the baseboard heat I have. Some of these people have to walk for forty-five minutes.

Think about that when you turn on the tap.

Uganda Journal: the double tragedies of Kasensero

Memorial01The Rwanda Genocide Memorial in Kasensero sits high atop a limestone bluff that overlooks Lake Victoria, which shimmers gray-blue against the horizon a half-dozen kilometers away. In 1994, the bodies of more than 10,000 genocide victims washed up on Victoria’s shores after floating nearly a hundred kilometers downriver from the killing grounds in Rwanda.

The village of Kasensero itself remains hidden from view, as though villagers intentionally buried the bodies just beyond the crest of the hill, where it begins its downward slope, out of horror or fear or maybe even willful forgetting. Or, as one person has suggested to me, as a way to cut down on the smell.

FishingBoatsKasensaro is no stranger to tragedy, though. It was here where the AIDS virus first appeared in 1982. “Fishermen come in with their catch and get paid. They have a lot of money, and they want to show off for the women,” explains Herman, who has brought us to the village’s fishing center along lakeshore. All that hooking up and sleeping around—and then going home to their wives—meant residents of Kasensaro had an infection rate of ninety percent by the time health officials had any real grip on the situation.

“At first, people thought they were being bewitched, so they went to the witch doctors instead of the real doctors,” Herman says. “Ninety percent. Whole families, wiped out.”

And from there, the disease spread.

Today, seventy percent of the residents of Kasensaro are infected with HIV—compared to a national average of around six-point-five percent—although a look around the lakeshore would suggest nothing’s amiss aside from the weather. Most of the fishermen have grounded their boats for the day because of the severe chop on the water from the wind that has blown in a dark gray cloudbank.

KageraRiverA couple miles outside of town, past the fish factory, past the thatch-roof huts occupied by descendants of Rwandan refugees, the road terminates at the Kagera River. The current runs swift and mocha-colored, and clots of water hyacinths flow past. “This is the river that carried the bodies,” Herman tells us—just before he gets harangued by a police officer who’s lazing about on a motorbike. Ostensibly, the policeman is there to prevent smuggling, but just a few yards away, smugglers are happily packing a boat full of ice to take goods across the river to Tanzania.

That’s when I realize, Hey, I’m looking at Tanzania. It’s less than a hundred feet away and looks just like this side of the river, but it’s a different country, so I still think it’s cool.

Police in Uganda get paid poorly and infrequently, so it’s little wonder they look to make a few extra bucks on the side. What’s a little corruption. After twenty minutes, thirteen-thousand shillings—about five bucks—buys this officer’s silence, and he goes back to watching the smugglers who’ve also bought him off.

In the meantime, I’ve been talking with Elijah, the student from the Bethlehem School I’d worked with earlier in the week in Nakagomo. He’s on the trip because he comes from this area. His mother was Rwandan and had fled here to escape the genocide. Shortly thereafter, Elijah was born. Although his mother later died of AIDS, Elijah’s grandfather told him the history of his family and of the genocide.

The Hutu majority, in political power at the time, conducted an orchestrated campaign to slaughter members of the Tutsi minority. Animosity between the tribes, simmering for ages, erupted into Civil War in 1990, although it settled into a stalemate after three years. However, the assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana of April 9, 1996, sparked renewed violence. In the course of 100 days, some 800,000 Tutsis were murdered, although some estimates place the number as high as a million—twenty percent of Rwanda’s population. Moderate Hutus who called for peace were also killed.

In the fifteen years since, the Rwandan government has aggressively worked to commemorate the genocide. Eight majors memorials, and more than 200 sites, exist in Rwanda, and three memorials exists in Uganda. Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World chronicles her work helping to build one such memorial in Rwanda. The memorials exist, says author Andrew Rice, “because remembrance serves the political interests of Rwanda’s present rulers, who came to power by defeating the genocide’s perpetrators in a civil war.” Rice’s book, The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget, recounts Uganda’s own history of internal violence under Idi Amin.

MassGraves&MarkerWhen Herman takes us up to the cemetery on the hilltop outside of town, we have to haggle with the caretaker for admittance. Ten thousand shillings buys our way in. “Come in,” the caretaker says. “You are very welcome. Be at home.”

In the cemetery, 2,827 victims of the genocide are buried in eight mass graves. One trench, perhaps sixty feet long, runs parallel to the front wall; three similar trenches run perpendicular to the first. Two other mass graves are located in the front corner of the cemetery, and two more are located in the opposite back corner. On an upper plateau beyond the caretaker’s house, there are yet two more. Workers used a backhoe to dig the pits, which are now entombed under concrete slabs inset with flagstone and adorned wide, light-orange stripes and diamonds. At the center of each, flower arrangements struggle to grow, but I’m not convinced the caretaker has been taking much care of the place.

ElijahMemorialSmall rocks are scattered over the tops of the slabs, too, and at first I wonder if the rocks have some symbolic significance. Then I see a trio of young children outside the caretaker’s house: one of them throws rocks at a chicken in a tree while another throws rocks down the hill.

While the memorial needs care, it’s still a contemplative space, and it’s easy to envision its potential for beauty. I see Elijah, who leans alone against the monument that sits in the front of the cemetery. “How does it feel to be here where your people are buried?” I ask.

I see him grope for words, but all he can do is shake his head. “It is something I cannot describe,” he says. As someone who spends a lot of time on Civil War battlefields and who has lived in a National Cemetery, I know what it’s like to be among the dead of your people and how powerful the experience can be.

I leave Elijah to his contemplations and follow the flagstone steps to the upper plateau. In the distance, Lake Victoria looks calm. The sun has come out.


Uganda Journal: the safari (part two of two)


photo by Justine Tutuska

The second of two parts

The first thing we see on our boatride along the shores of Lake Mburo is a pair of African fish eagles, which look like streamlined bald eagles but with the white extending from the head and neck down to the chest. Our park ranger, Moses, tries to fill us in on the hunting techniques and mate-for-life habits of the eagles, but we ignore him completely as soon as the first hippos begin to bob their heads out of the water. I happen to spot the first one and point, and everyone leans over to see. Shudders snap. I can practical hear Moses think, Well, so much for me….

The hippos tend to surface, exhale a spray of air very much like a whale, blink once or twice as they inhale, and then slide quietly back under water. “They look so hungry, hungry…” I say to no one in particular.


We find hippos in a dozen clusters along the lakeshore, where they live in shallow areas and eat vegetation. If you combined a submarine with a tank and gave it a gaping maw, it would look like a hippo.

We also find a tiny Nile crocodile sunning itself on a tree branch, although he quickly plunks himself into the water when Moses slows the boat. We find another, about three feet long, sunning itself along a muddy bank near a shallow inlet. They grow as long as four meters, Moses tells us—that’s more than twelve feet of crocodile. That’d be a big damn reptile with a lot of teeth.

A little while later, we spook a couple sizeable crocs resting in a stand of papyrus when we round a bend. I can’t get an accurate sense of their length, though, because they both slide into the water, and stare at us with their cold reptile eyes, and disappear with hardly a wake.


photo by Justine Tutuska

A family of baboons comes to the water’s edge as we’re nearly back to the dock. Perhaps twenty of them march by, including a mother with a tiny infant on her back. The troops dominant male finally pushes his way out of the brush closest to the river and scoops his charges up the bank and away like a cop telling onlookers, “Nothing to see here folks. Move along. Nothing to see.” Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing the scowl on the male’s face, but he sure doesn’t look happy to have us bothering his family, even if we are only taking pictures.

Zebra02We have the chance for some souvenir shopping, and Herman shows off the park’s bungalows, which would make for first-class camping. We also see plenty of other animals: waterbuck; topi, a type of antelope with front legs longer than its back legs, built for sustained speed; mongoose; and more bird varieties than I could ever wrap my head around. The place is a birder’s paradise.

We also see a pair of water buffalo, reportedly the most dangerous large animal in Africa because of their truck-like size and notoriously peevish temperaments. Each beast has a set of horns that begin from a central plate, or “boss,” on their forehead, and then like a full head of hair parted straight down the middle, the horns branch out like the curved ends of menacing handlebar moustaches.

Herman tells us the fall census tracked fifteen leopards and a bunch of hyenas in the park, too, as well as a single male lion. “And people camp here in tents?” I ask him.

Once upon a time, elephants used to roam the area, as did rhinos, although Uganda now only has seven and they’re all in captivity. The park does have plans to introduce giraffes later this month as a way to manage the brush.

The national government spends a lot of money on the national parks, Herman tells me later. The biggest problem is a lack of manpower, which would help address the other major problem, which has been poaching. The introduction of sport hunting in Lake Mburo National Park—the only park where it’s allowed—has helped alleviate the problem by providing much-needed income to local communities. A water buffalo might bring in as much as $1,000 U.S.; fifteen percent goes to the park, fifteen percent goes to the sportsmen’s association, which regulates the hunting; and seventy percent goes to the local landowner.

Similarly, when an animal from the park causes property damage for a local landowner, the national government reimburses the community with money that can be used for public works projects like new wells and community centers.

While no leopards show their spots, a monkey gives us a parting shot that could not be more perfect: it sits on the park sign and looks cutes as though posed there for promotional purposes. But Herman has shown me more than beautiful animals—through his own passion today and his work setting up Green Pearl, he has given me a glimpse of Uganda’s ecological future.


photo by Justine Tutuska

Uganda Journal: the safari (part one of two)

ImpalaThe colonial King of Ankole, Omugabe, loved his impala. The capital of Uganda, Kampala, had been named for the graceful antelopes—but the growing population in the city began to squeeze the impala out of their habitat, and they were being hunted relentlessly. The king knew he had to protect the impala he so dearly loved. So, he gathered them together and moved them to the west, to an area now known as the Lake Mburo National Park, and there they still dwell today—the only place in Uganda where people can see them.

That’s the folk story as Herman tells it, anyway. The impala at Lake Mburo are plentiful, grazing in small herds of a dozen or so. They all have black stripes on the back creases of their hind legs and tail that spells out “M,” and the males have lyre-shaped horns that twist like thin tornados as they grow. They have eyes easy to get lost in; as near to the impalas as Herman is able to get us, we have the opportunity for a long, close look.

Herman has brought us to the park for a daylong safari to show off not only some of the most splendid animals on the continent but also to show off his skills as a guide. He’s starting up a new eco-tourism company, Green Pearl Tours—Uganda is the Pearl of Africa, and “green” denotes the eco-angle—and one of the reasons I’m in Uganda is to work with my colleague, Pauline, to provide business planning and marketing help to Herman for his start-up.

“We need to conserve the environment for future generations,” Herman says. “The country is very green. It shows there is life.”

That’s certainly true here at Lake Mburo. Life abounds. Outside the park, so much of the countryside is used for farming and cattle herding; those agricultural uses take up former animal habitat, and those cattle compete directly with zebras for grazing range. Here, the zebras roam as freely as the impala. “It’s the only place in Uganda you can see these animals, impala and zebra,” Herman says. It’s one of the things he likes most about the park—that and its good climate and its relative proximity to Kampala, some three and half hours away.

For those reasons, Herman chose to do his internship here while studying in a travel and tourism program while at university. The park, established in 1983, is one of ten in the country, most of which are clustered in the western part of Uganda.

Monkey02When we show up, the workers at the Sanga Gatehouse welcome Herman like an old friend. A maintenance crew, installing solar panels to provide power for the facility, has taken their lunch break and are feeding scraps of sandwiches to the vervet monkeys in the trees that line the path to the outhouse. The monkeys, gray-furred and black-faced, typically travel in family groups of twenty or so.

We have an appointment for a boat ride on the lake, but as we head in that direction, Herman patiently stops now and then so we can gawk at warthogs and bushbuck and crested cranes. You’d think a vanload of mazungku had never seen animals before.

“Let me tell you the story of the lake,” Herman tells us at one point. Two brothers, Kigarama and Mburo, once lived in the valley. Kigarama dreamed that the valley would flood and so urged his brother to move with him into the hills. Mburo ignored him. When the flood came, Mburo drowned. And so the lake is named for him and the hills are named for Kigarama.

WarthogNear the boat dock, a half a dozen warthogs graze on bended knees. “When they eat, it looks like they are crying,” Herman tells us. “There’s a hormone at works that causes their eyes water.” The warthogs have become so acclimated to humans that they pay us no heed. As we wait for the boat, the largest boar grazes within six feet of me before deciding to act spooked. He “whufs” and takes an angry jump in my direction as a warning. “Woa, big fella!” I tell him as I back off, looking at tusks that could easily disembowel me. “You’re the one who came into my space.” I don’t mind being the one who retreats, though.

Herman has cooked lunch for us: homemade samosa, which are like perogies filled with vegetables, and chipati, a kind of fried flatbread. He’s also made fresh passionfruit juice from a special recipe. When we’re done, he sends us out on the boat.

To be continued….


Uganda Journal: the sunrise

KyoteraSunriseI know it seems counter-intuitive to put a disco on the first floor of a hotel, but someone in Kyotera apparently thought it was an excellent idea. I have a corner room, and one of my windows opens on the same side of the hotel as the disco, three floors and a thousand thumping beats below me. There’s little sleep tonight—at least not until the music quiets down sometime after two a.m.

Which is just enough time to let me get three hours of sleep before morning prayers blare through town on some tinty loudspeaker. First it’s an entire Christian service, complete with 50s-style church music and a long, long sermon from someone preaching in Luganda. Then dawn breaks, and the mosque next to the hotel starts blaring prayers of its own, heedless of the Christian service already being broadcast. Between the discotheque and the dueling religions, I pray for a sudden noise ordinance, but there’s none in coming, so I pray for more sleep, but there’s none of that, either.

The relative brevity of the Muslim call to prayer gives me a new appreciation for it, though. The Christian service, meanwhile, goes on and on. It’ll be nearly an hour and a half before someone’s satisfied that enough souls have been saved to turn off the loudspeaker.

I pull back the curtain and look eastward, where the overcast obscures the sunrise. Orange light lances through a break in the clouds, and yellow light splashes across the underbelly of others. Below, a gauze of fog sits among some of the buildings a few blocks away, although the air immediately around the hotel looks clear.

Stork02In the lot outside, a stork sits atop a utility pole. I never realized just how ugly they are—although that just might be my mood after a sleepless night and have nothing to do with the bird at all. But a second look confirms my initial assessment: still ugly. The thing is four feet tall and, rather than bring a baby to an expectant mother, it looks ready to carry one away. They’re black-feathered, with tufts of orange feathers between their shoulder blades, but their necks and heads are turkey-bald and wrinkly. Gobble, gobble, I think—except they’re carrion eaters, so I don’t want to know what they gobble. Not around here, I don’t.

Kyotera has come to life sometime between the first prayer and now. Trucks begin the noise as they rumble up and down the hill outside the hotel. I hear a few voices. Someone eventually starts up a stereo, but the electronica it plays is relatively quiet. Otherwise, I’d fear a disco flashback. There is always music coming from somewhere—or, more often, somewheres—in any settlement in Uganda. It’s a sign of vibrant life.

I know my grumpiness will evaporate as soon as I re-immerse myself in Uganda’s rhythms. Tucked in my hotel room, trying to sleep, I’m trying to cocoon myself in my own rhythm—but Uganda doesn’t sleep just because I want sleep, and unlike at home, there is no place for retreat. This is full Uganda immersion.

Concepts of time here are vastly different than the Western perspective. Deb and the Freds all talk of “African time” in the way I’ve heard people talk of “Native American time”: to say “9:00 o’clock” might mean anywhere between 8:01 and 9:59, with things usually leaning more toward the latter than the former. This is especially jarring to me because of my to-the-second sense of time regimented by my former days working in radio.


photo by Justine Tutuska

I’ve been stripped of myself in other subtle ways, too. For instance, most Ugandans have had trouble with my name. The single-syllable “Chris” becomes “Ka-wreese” in most instances or sometimes just “Kweese.” Some of the students at the school call me “Professor” and members of the women’s group call me “Uncle.” When I’m walking in the market or riding in the van, the children along the roadside cry out “Mazungku!” It means “White person!” I wave, and they all break into smiles. I’ve been taught not to wave with my fingers, only a flat palm, because waving with the fingers means “Come here.” “You don’t want a pack of small children suddenly swarming you if you’re not expecting it,” a colleague joked.

Adults stare at the mazungku unabashedly with eyes like icicles—it’s not impolite here—but a wave and a smile usually brings quick, full smiles to their faces. The warmth here, I’ve discovered, has nothing to do with the equatorial climate and everything to do with generous spirits.

I watch the morning brighten, and I think about the changes Uganda is affecting in me. I can’t articulate them yet, but I can feel the poles shifting somehow. I have more time here to let the change sink in and affect me more deeply. There’ll be time enough at home to let the full effects percolate to the surface. Time now to meet the new Ugandan morning.

Uganda Journal: the market

One of the best ways to see how the locals live, I’ve found, is to visit the market. Alas, on such a trip, words fail me—mostly because I don’t always know what I’m looking at and a language barrier prevents a lot of question-asking. So I’ll let some pictures do the talking this time:

One of the thoroughfares around the market

One of the thoroughfares around the market in Kyotera

Plenty of fresh veggies

Plenty of fresh veggies

Drying peanuts in the sun

Drying peanuts in the sun

Dried mudfish, each about the size of a silver dollar

Dried mudfish, each about the size of a silver dollar

Raw fish is available, too! These are Nile perch.

Raw fish is available, too! These are Nile perch.

Bunches of bananas

Bunches of bananas



Venders get one or two tables, depending on how many wares they have to sell

Venders get one or two tables, depending on how many wares they have to sell

Shopping for the ingredients for breakfast

Shopping for the ingredients for breakfast

Uganda Journal: the women of Nakagongo


Women from Nakagongo look over satellite maps that have tracked their movements.

She’s not Big Brother, but Deb Naybor has nonetheless been watching them: twenty-seven women from the village of Nakagongo, Uganda, who have carried with them GPS units that track their movements and Deb, back near Buffalo, New York, has followed them via satellite. Now she’s showing up in Nakagongo to find out just where these women have been going.

The women, widows who range in age from twenty to seventy-two, are part of a women’s group Deb has been working with as part of her dissertation research. The GPS units have mapped out the daily movement of the women over time. Deb has printed out satellite maps that show the movements of each woman; our job in Nakagongo today will be to sit with each woman, point to places on their maps, and ask, “When you go to this place here, what are you doing?”

By looking at the results, Deb will not only get insight into the daily lives of the individual women but also insight into what life is typically like for women in rural African communities.

If Bethlehem is so small that it doesn’t show up on the maps, Nakagongo, just a few dirt-road kilometers away, is so small that it hardly shows up as anything more than a few isolated houses tucked away in a banana forest. The village consists of two loose clusters of homes along two roads; each house sits in a rectangular clearing a little larger than a tennis court, although a few are almost as big as a Little League infield.

As we get closer to the village, the dirt road narrows until the word “road” becomes a really generous description. It’s no more than a bicycle path, really, yet Herman guides our van with unerring confidence.


Wearing their best brightly colored clothes and traditional dresses called gomasi, the women sing and dance to greet us.

The leader of the group is a gentle-eyed woman named Susan who looks to be in her late thirties. When we arrive at her house, the women from the group greet us with songs, and we’re ushered inside for a special meal that includes rice, ground nuts, chicken, beef, and goat. There’s a soup, too, and matooke, a kind of mash made from bananas that Ugandans have with nearly every meal.

Deb explains that Susan would be considered middle class, so her house has several rooms, each about the size of something that might pass for a walk-in closet, and a concrete floor. The house has a corrugated metal roof.

Susan kneels in front of the group in a traditional sign of respect and hands “Mamma Deborah” a report of the group’s activities.

Susan’s husband died of AIDS a few years ago and she herself has been sick twice this past year—most likely from AIDS, although we don’t know for sure. Her hospitalizations made childcare difficult: Susan has three kids of her own and three orphans she’s adopted. Her illness also made it hard for her to tend to her pigs, goats, and chickens—some of which she raises on behalf of the women’s group—and so they lost a few.

The introductions take the afternoon, and so we return on a second day to begin the actual work. Boys from the school come with us to serve as translators; even though English is the official language of Uganda, most people speak the native Luganda in their homes and use English as a second language.


Elijah translates for one of the women as she identifies places on the satellite maps

We break up into teams, and a student named Elijah works with me. Elijah is in secondary school and aspires to be a lawyer someday. He takes to the work earnestly, and over the course of the afternoon, we speak with a half a dozen women. Here on the map, says one, I go to collect firewood. Here I go to garden. Here is a trading center. Here I go to church. Here I go to the clinic. Here I take my child to the clinic. Here I go to the hospital.

Clinic trips are a dishearteningly common occurrence, it turns out. It holds true not only for the women I speak with but for nearly all the women in the group.

The one woman who owns a sewing machine does not travel much; the other women come to her. One woman collects bananas for making beer. Another goes to drink beer. Among their most frequent trips are trips to various wells, where they not only get water but catch up with other community members on the village’s goings-on. It’s the Uganda version of the office water cooler. Beyond that, few have time for dropping by at the neighbors’ to chit-chat unless they’re working on a project together of some kind.


Susan leads the women in one of the greeting songs

Deb has much data to analyze, and some of the sites on the maps will need clarification, so we’ll go out with the women later in the week and actually walk to those places so we can see what’s there. “They’re consistent on where the gardens are and where Susan’s house is,” Deb tells me, “but, for instance, they’ve identified churches all over the place. That can’t be right unless they’re just getting together in small groups here and there.” We’ll also visit some of their homes.

Another of our group members, a licensed massage therapist who heads up Damon College’s public health program, will teach infant massage to some of the mothers later in the week. She’ll also teach the women how to make their own sanitary napkins. Deb will teach other members of the group how to make solar-powered cellphone chargers. I’ll probably blow up some balloons to entertain the dozen or so kids who are around.

The children look so joyful and so beautiful, but Deb tells me of the dark stories they carry beneath their smiles. One girl, for instance, was gang raped when she was nine before one of the women adopted her. Several have had fathers die of AIDS and suffer from infection themselves. And yet choosing which color balloon they want proves a source of high delight.

Heartbreak and beauty continue to walk hand in hand.


Uganda Journal: The Bethlehem School

WelcomeOur van stops a few yards outside the gate, and our driver, Herman, tells us it’s okay to get out. In front of us, a hundred schoolchildren have gathered to greet us. They sing and jump and clap in rhythm. At the lead are two teenage girls with shaved heads and with lions’ manes tied to their waists. A twelve-year-old boy soon joins them. With their arms extended, they begin to shake their hips and bounce, and they back toward the gate. Our leader, Deb, says, “We are entering the school as honored guests.”

The Bethlehem Parents School and Orphanage sits just off the dirt road that runs east from Kyotera. During our time in Uganda, as we work on projects with several groups, this school will serve as our base of operations. Our heart will beat from here.

We walk through the gate, and the children begin to cheer and hug us. They range in age from seven to seventeen. The oldest boy, wearing a Guns-N-Roses t-shirt, rounds everyone together into a clockwise-moving circle, and the dancing continues. I clap and bob. “Jump!” a fifth-grade girl tells me. “Jump!” After the dance, she tells me her name is Cici.

Dancers01My colleagues and I follow the group into one of the school’s classrooms, a building made of mud bricks and covered with concrete. Inside, a space has been cleared at the front of the room, with a sound system set up along one wall and a row of drummers seated along another. A chalkboard on the far wall invites us, in colored chalk, to “feel at home our first beloved visitors.”

We’re seated at a table facing the performance area, and benches full of children sit behind us in neat if squirmy rows. A group of the middle-school-aged children sing a welcome song to us, and then the secondary-school students treat us to a series of traditional dances. The girls wear pink skirts and lion manes; the boys wear lime-green capris with rows of rattles tied to their right shins. Sashes of red, yellow, and black—the colors of Uganda—cross the boys chests.

DrummersTheir athleticism amazes me. This is youth and vigor and testosterone on full display, set to the fast-paced rhythm of the drums. A boy dances over the a girl and coaxes her to a space between their parallel lines, and he gets down on the floor and begins kicking his feet out in front of him while the girl decides if he’s acceptable or not. If so, she will turn her back to him and tickle the top of his head with her lion mane; if not, she dances behind him until he gives up and gets up, and they return to their respective lines.

We’re treated to a pair of lip-synching performances and a pair of speeches, and after much clapping and dancing, we break for dinner.

As guests, we eat with the school’s director, Fred Sserwangu—“Mr. Fred,” as everyone calls him—beneath a thatch-roofed cabana. Herman joins us, as does the school’s assistant director, “Young Fred” Mugisha (no relation to Mr. Fred), a man filled with more laughter than perhaps anyone I’ve ever met.

Deb and the Freds are old friends. Deb’s organization, With Both Hands, does community-level economic development projects in a dozen Third World countries. One of those projects has been the Bethlehem Parents School, which she’s been working with for six years. Everyone here calls her “Mama Deborah” because of the many forms of aid she’s funneled to the school—everything from new toothbrushes to an irrigation system for the school’s extensive garden. She’s helped build some of the school’s buildings and has provided the school with significant financial support.

Mr. Fred started the school on nothing more than a great idea and an entrepreneurial spirit. Today, nearly six hundred students attend the school—most from local communities, although some from far away board at the school. Many of the students are orphans, and for them, the school has become their permanent home. “A lot of them were street kids from Kampala that Young Fred rescued,” Deb explains. A number of the kids are HIV-positive.

BoysDormDespite the celebration, things today are actually quieter than usual. Most of the students have gone home for the two-month holiday that began in mid-December, so only about a hundred kids are around at the moment. Most of them are secondary school students who go away to boarding school during the school year but who have come here—home—for the break.

The kids cram into a pair of too-small dormitories, where bunk beds are stacked like a Boy Scout sleepaway camp. The girls have a little more room than the boys, but not much. In fact, dormitory space is one of the school’s keenest needs. Each dorm is little bigger than a typical American classroom, housing dozens of kids each. Rack ‘em and stack ‘em.

The classrooms are little more than unfinished dirt-floor cubicles with no overhead light and no glass in the windows or doors in the doorways. “Malaria kills” and “Malaria makes me miss my exams and classes” is stenciled on the outside walls.

ClassroomLast year, a new well finally eased conditions a bit. Students had been limited to a few cups of water per day because of insufficient well capacity—and before that, they had to lug water from a hole more than a mile away, then filter it and boil it—but the new well enables each student to have five gallons a day, although the pump generally flows pretty freely.

We tour the school’s banana groves and sweet potato fields and rows of maize, we make a stop at the chicken coop, and we meet some of the free-range rabbits. The Freds continue to move toward a sustainable agricultural operation that will meet the school’s needs, and they’ve made considerable progress, but food remains a significant issue.

NoRoseWithoutThornsYet the kids seem joyful, and everyone seems to bear the deprivations with resignation and hope—at least when they talk with us. The school’s motto, painted on a concrete block in the central courtyard, even suggests that struggle is a necessary part of life: “No rose without thorns.” The lesson itself is beautiful and difficult, and it sums up my impression of Uganda perfectly thus far.

But the kids remind me through their smiles and hugs and songs and dances that despite the thorns, the roses are plentiful—and all around me.

Uganda Journal: the road


Heading into the city of Masaka on the road from Kampala to Kyotera

The road to Bethlehem runs through jungles and slums and Seussian forests, past packed-mud houses and tethered goats, from Uganda’s capital of Kampala through hilly countryside, 90 miles southwest, to Kyotera. There, at an intersection crowded with vendors tending small cookfires and grills, where the roadsides are choked with motorcycles, a dirt road spits away from the city toward the little valley-bottom village that shares a name with Christ’s birthplace.

During this ninety-mile trek, I fall in love with Uganda. During this ninety-mile trek, Uganda breaks my heart.

If the hotel balcony gave me a first idyllic view of Uganda, the road out of town carries me out of dreamland and through poverty of such staggering magnitude that my throat constricts. Someone from the back of the van asks what I think and I shake my head. I can’t articulate a response. I can’t articulate anything.

Bunker-like buildings line both sides of the road, separated from the pavement not by curbs and sidewalks but by red clay packed hard by a hundred thousand feet. The buildings themselves are made mostly of mud bricks with concrete facades. Some have dirty whitewash and peeling campaign posters. Each has a door or curtain that opens into a single room brimming with clothing or videos or hardware or any of a thousand other things needed for daily living. Rusted metal roofs top most of them. Garbage, like thickly scattered confetti, has been trampled into the ground everywhere in lieu of grass or flowers. I cannot even begin to believe the rubbish.

In front of the buildings, closer to curbside—were there any curb—vendors have stacked piles of pineapples, cages filled with chickens, stacks of building supplies, and odd collections of wrought-iron doors and fences. A few vendors have also placed martially perfect rows of sofas and cushy chairs outside their stores; the furniture seems impervious to the ever-present red clay dust and the ashfall from the occasional smoldering pile of trash.

Gas stations with names like PetroFeast and Bonjour squat on corners. I watch the price creep from 3500 shillings per metric liter up to 3750 to 3800, depending on where we are in the city. That’s about seven U.S. dollars per gallon. When we finally gas up, we also need water and the station has none, so we stop at a store a few miles down the road. Bottles cost about 700 shillings each—about thirty cents.

BikeWithBasketMotorbikes swarm along the roadside thick as ants marching to a spilled popsicle, many of them with extra gas cans strapped on. Most motorcycles have at least two people, but I see as many as four. “The record I’ve seen is six,” a friend says from the back of the van.

Bikes zip along, too, but not so many in the city as I’ll see later down the road. They, too, are laden with anything I might imagine: eight-foot sections of corrugated metal, bales of palm fronds, bunches of bananas as big as barrels. Everyone—cars, motorcycles, bikes, pedestrians—travels in the same direction, unlike in the U.S., where bikes and pedestrians go against the flow of traffic. Traffic moves on the left side of the road, too—the “wrong” side to me, as an American, and every time it looks like we’re about to run into someone, I subconsciously want to move further to the right, which would surely bring me to calamity were I the one driving.

Fortunately, the man behind the wheel is Herman Kitamirike, a thirty-year-old Ugandan who somehow serves as an insurance company’s poster child for safe driving while still exercising a crash-test-dummy fearlessness. There’s imperturbable Zen to Herman.

He begins to extract us from the city’s gravitational pull, but it’s been like pulling ourselves out of a tarpit. Kampala clings to us, stretches with us as we take the road southwest toward Masaka. The roadside clutter continues to press in, interrupted first here and there and then at greater intervals by stretches of green. The poverty never lets go.

At times, the road becomes little more than a ribbon of unmarked pavement that barely allows two cars to pass each other. Stretches of road seem only one step away from again devolving into dirt, with crumbling edges that look like earthquake victims and potholes that would challenge any moon rover. The van seems to have no shocks, for even as delicate as Herman is with his driving, the potholes rattle our bones like sheetmetal when we hit them.

A few miles later, the road opens up wide and smooth and fast, painted with lines down the middle and along the berms and with shiny aluminum guardrails along both sides. The national government is responsible for this road, Herman explains, but local governments are responsible for executing maintenance projects. At times, we pass through idle construction zones where the traffic kicks up the ubiquitous red dust. At one point, we pass through a construction zone where they’ve been laying crushed limestone, and white dust gets kicked up instead. The trees and bushes lining the roadsides look like they’ve suffered a heavy frost.

As we get further from the city, the nature of the roadside shops changes. I still see the same sorts of stores I saw in the capital, but I also see more individual wares: trees with tube-shaped luffa sponges hanging on the branches…baskets woven like urns and like discs…drums. People have stacked tomatoes and sweet potatoes in small pyramids in front of their homes. I see awkward piles of jack fruit, each the size of a warty watermelon but lumpy in its unevenness. Jack fruit are sticky enough that some people have to use kerosene to clean up afterwards.

People have also tied goats to stakes along the road. Cows, too, with their massive horns poking skyward like Viking helmets. The livestock, I assume, belong to families and are not for sale.

UgandaTelecomAny time we come to a settlement or shopping area of any size, I see cellphone receivers attached to tall poles that rise like giraffes from the rooftops. Whole buildings have been painted as advertisements, not just in the old Mail Pouch Tobacco tradition but in the watermelon red of Airtel and the turqoise of Uganda Telecom: “Where it’s all about U.” We pass by whole clusters of such buildings, like company towns of old, although many such buildings stand alone.

I begin to realize the movement of traffic has its own feel to it, quite different than traffic in the U.S. While everyone moves forward, there’s also a smooth side-to-side flow, too, as drivers weave around potholes and slip past each other. The road is hilly and curvy, but no one’s going too fast because of random speed bumps that rise out of the pavement to gut any fast-moving cars, so passing seems relatively easy. Motor vehicles have the right of way, then motorbikes, then bicycles, then pedestrians—who all seem to just barely slide around each other as part of the side-to-side flow. During the sliding, Herman never blinks.

As the road passes through low-lying areas where the land is wet, we pass through vast stands of papyrus. With their wispy dandelion heads, they look like truffula trees from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. We also cross the meandering Katonga River, the country’s second-longest, as it makes it way toward Lake Victoria to the east.

We also pass the Equator—my first time in the Southern Hemisphere. For a brief second, I imagine an upside-down world, where we’re all suddenly in danger of falling off the earth into space.

Traffic police in crisp white uniforms and dark berets sit along the roadside for intermittent traffic checks. I don’t ever see them pull anyone over. Sometimes they’re accompanied by soldiers in white-and-blue camouflage. I frequently see rifle-toting soldiers, singly and in pairs, walking through towns. It unnerves me even though Uganda’s legacy of violence dates back to Idi Amin’s reign in the seventies; things have generally been quiet since then. Truth be told, this is one of the safest places in Africa to visit, and National Geographic just named the country one of the Top 20 tourist destinations for 2013.

We reach our own destination, the Serona Hotel in Kyotera, after about three and a half hours. “That’s the fastest I’ve ever made that trip!” says Deb, the woman who’d organized the trip. The road, it seems, is much improved since even her previous trip last spring.

All I want to do is curl up in my hotel room and decompress. The road has shown me much—perhaps too much. Squalor and beauty, side by side, have inundated me an fascinated me, and I feel a profound need to take a time out.

But we still have four miles or so to go—down the dirt road that branches out from the clogged intersection and strikes out into the jungle, the dirt road that leads to Bethlehem.

Uganda Journal: the arrival

HotelBalconyI wake up to the indistinct sounds of people chattering and a continent’s worth of bird chirping, or so it seems. I hear someone’s rooster crow every once in a while off in the distance, but it’s 9 a.m., so he’s probably been at work for a while now and I’ve been ignoring him all this time. After flying halfway around the world on about three and a half hours of airplane sleep, once I got to my hotel room in Kampala, I slept the sleep of the dead.

The trip to Uganda has gone smoothly. I ushered in the New Year somewhere over 30-degree longitude, although the captain made no announcement when the time came, so I don’t know exactly when in the flight that happened. No ball from Times Square. No noisemakers or pots and pans. No champagne. Just a distracting episode of Smash on the in-flight movie screen.

BelgianBeerDuring the layover in Brussels, I drank a beer just so I can say I’ve had a Belgian beer in Belgium. It was 8 a.m. local time on New Years Day, and except for a long line of people waiting to board a plane to JFK, the airport was cavernously empty.

We fell in with a Uganda dissident, Yoga, who was returning to his home country for the first time in years. He’s been living in exile in the United States with his wife, who’s since become an American citizen. Yoga has the kindly demeanor you hope Morgan Freeman has: that wise, friendly uncle who exudes calm.

During the years of Idi Amin’s reign in the 1970s, Yoga went into exile to escape political prosecution. Following the dictator’s fall, he returned, but by the mid-80s went into exile again because of a falling out with the new government of Yoweri Musevini. Yoga, it seems, had once been part of that circle of politicians, although he doesn’t get into specifics and I don’t ask. I’m content to let him talk.

Yoga’s return to Uganda will last for four months, and it comes just as the president and the parliament are about to square off over a corruption case involving the possible murder of an opposition member of parliament and subsequent cover-up by the executive branch—like Watergate but with a dead body. I don’t know much about current Ugandan politics, so it’s something I’ll have to look into later.  When I have the chance to ask one of our hosts about the controversy, he smiles it off. “It’s not a big deal,” he tells me.

Yoga promises me to send me some links to several newspaper editorials he’s written for The Monitor, the largest of Ugandans non-government-run newspapers. During the months ahead, he expects to make the rounds of Uganda’s talk radio programs. I hope he keeps in touch.

The flight from Brussels to Uganda takes us over the cloud-shrouded Alps, which I don’t get to see. Hopefully on the way back. The weather clears somewhere over the Mediterranean, but by then, I’ve tried to steal my few hours of sleep, which keeps getting interrupted by flight attendants offering drinks and, later, ice cream bars.

By the time I wake up for good, we’re over the Sahara: sand as far as I can see, which is pretty far, considering our altitude. “Sea of sand” seems so cliché, but as someone who’s spent a lot of time in my life staring at the ocean, there’s no more fitting metaphor. The wind-shaped contours look, from this height, like storm-tossed waves of orange, amber, umber, and burnt sienna—even bleached tangerine. I wonder, for a second, what it would be like to crash land down there—how small and lost we would be. It makes me feel lonely.

SaharaSunsetThe Nile River snakes into view, wide and verdant in the midst of the barren landscape. The desert has magnitude but the river has a power of its own, majesty against majesty. When the sun finally sets over the desert, the horizon turns into a blood-read seam between sand and sky. The curve of the earth throws the desert into shadow. The sun, incandescent, becomes the Sahara’s last shade of orange as it sinks away.

After a brief stop in Kigali, Rwanda, we hopscotch up to Entebbe, Uganda, and from there drive to Kampala. The single stretch of road has no streetlights but is crowded with cars and motorbikes and pedestrians, all navigating the dark by headlights or nothing. I get glimpses of the streetside shops crowding in: concrete bunkers, corrugated metal, heaps of stuff I can’t identify, an occasional cookfire, shanties, packed earth. People everywhere.

When I awake, I am eager to see Uganda in the light. The dark impressions clutter the edges of my consciousness—not to mention decades of anticipation.

I tease myself, throwing open only the drapes but leaving closed the white gauzy privacy curtains. I see lots of green out the window. I let that tantalize me while I get cleaned up and ready. Then I come back, ready finally to see the full view. I push past the curtains and out onto the small balcony.

HotelBalcony02The vacant lot next to the hotel bursts with broad-leafed banana trees, although directly in front of me I see a three-and-a-half-story avocado tree stretching up to reach my balcony . There are plenty of smaller trees and bushes I of course don’t recognize, but the lot looks like a miniature jungle. On the far side, atop a the roof of another hotel, a stork stands vigil—three feet tall, perhaps, black-feathered except for a bald neck and head. It manages to look sinister and gawky at the same time.

To my left, a manmade lake teems with hundreds of other birds, most of which congregate on an island near the shore. There are Nile perch and mudfish in the lake, I’m later told. A few people walk along a wide dirt footpath along the lake’s near edge. On the far side, I see squat buildings that stretch off toward the hillsides beyond, where they all jockey for space among the trees. Everything’s off-white or the color of terra cotta or jungle green.

I stay on the balcony for a long time, letting Uganda show itself to me as it will. There will be more to see, and it will look vastly different than this little idyllic glimpse, but for the moment, after a day of travel and a lifetime of waiting, this is everything I need.

Uganda Journal: Into my Heart of Darkness

In the morning, I leave for Africa.

Specifically, I’m heading to Uganda for twelve days, for reasons that still remain vague to me beyond “I’m going to write about being in Africa.” That’s all the reason I really need, though: Africa has been a bucket-lister for me for as long as I can remember.

I’ve written about my fascination with the Dark Continent before (here, here, and here, for instance): Heart of Darkness, Stanley and Livingstone, the mokele-mbembe, the great white sharks off Cape Town, the lions of Tsavo, the gorillas in the mist, Tarzan of the Apes, Solomon Kane, the Zulu wars of the 19th century and the Congo wars of the 20th, Roland the Thompson Gunner, the last King of Scotland, the Rwandan genocide. (Sara Maurer’s recent series here at S&R has been wonderful, too.)

The stories, oh, the stories.

The trip is a present to myself for completing my doctorate. I thought, at first, that I’d go back to China. Then I considered Oxford. Then I heard that my boss, the dean of the School of Journalism, was going to Uganda. She’s been deeply involved for years with a project there sponsored by our student chapter of SIFE (Students In Free Enterprise), and she was planning a January trip related to that. I asked to tag along. “Sure,” she said.

Two other women whom I don’t know are also going on the trip. One of them is collecting data for her own Ph.D. project. Another has a grant to teach women how to make their own feminine napkins. I’ll be learning about the SIFE project, and I’ll also be doing some consulting for a fellow who’s planning to set up an eco-tourism company.

While I’ve wanted to go to Uganda for as long as we’ve had a SIFE program there, I never thought I’d actually get the chance to go. “Someday,” I mused. The trip took on renewed interest for me last year, though, because of the woman I was dating. She’d gone on a mission trip to Uganda with her church back in college, and the experience affected her deeply. I thought that by going to Uganda myself, I’d be able to better understand the profound impact of that experience. I wanted to get me some of that. I thought I’d be able to take her with me, too, but alas, back in September, life took us in different directions. And so I go to Uganda to better understand a woman I am no longer with—and as a way, too, to forget her.

Life has been exceptionally good to me over the past four months, I can’t deny, but the central narrative thread—the organizing principle—has had the unreal feel of a bad dream. I keep hoping I’ll wake up and it’ll all be over and I can start things afresh.

And suddenly here I stand, on the cusp of 2013, with that chance before me.

Africa is my chance to wake up.

Ironic, since Africa is a dream of its own with tributaries, like the Congo River, that wind from well back in my childhood. Yes, the Nile might be longer, but the Congo has always been, for me, more mysterious.

“You will either love Africa or you will hate it,” a friend told me, “but Africa does not allow indifference.”

I’ll see for myself soon enough. My goal is to soak up as much of Uganda as I can and then write about it. I’ll post as often as I can, although I’m told my internet access will be sporadic. One does not need wireless, apparently, to travel into the heart of darkness—or to escape the darkness that has troubled one’s heart.

Adventure awaits!