What Was I Doing?

I went to Uganda ready to change the world. I came back bruised, disillusioned and wondering: What was I doing there?

I am from Israel. It’s a tiny country; ten of us could fit into Uganda’s open arms, with extra room to breathe. Israel is two percent water; Uganda rests on Africa’s largest lake, Lake Victoria. We pray for rain; Uganda has two rainy seasons a year. We are surrounded by enemies and violence, whereas Uganda has been living in peace for years. And still, I left my dusty, arid country and went to a lush green land – in order to help them.

Uganda’s beauty is hard to overlook.  From the enormous lakes to the tall misty mountains and exotic animals, it is rich and diverse. Underneath it all, lies an abundance of natural oils, minerals and gases. But it recieves more international aid than most countries in the world. What is the problem?

The problem is the people. They have been ruled, beaten, betrayed and now they are being given money and again, being told what to do. How could they not end up tired, dependent and lazy? The mzungus are here. The whites will do it. I once walked down the road in my village in Uganda, when a group of schoolchildren all whined at me, “Mzungu! Mzungu, help him!” pointing to a filthy-looking man. What was I supposed to do?

Very early in my trip I decided that giving money to beggars was a bad thing which I wouldn’t do. It would only create dependency. Giving large sums of money in aid was equally harmful, as I knew it would all go directly into corrupt politicians’ pockets. Teaching, perhaps, would be all right.

But a lot has happened since my smiling, idealistic self built a curriculum for the “poor African orphans.” Now, a few miles and days away, I look back at my time volunteering in Uganda with more than a trace of sadness. Because despite the fact that I loved those kids dearly and felt passionate about my work, I think I may have done them more harm than good.

Firstly, I don’t believe I am the right person to serve as a role model for those students. It’s inevitable that any teacher who is remotely capable, will be looked up to and emulated. And so I can say honestly and modestly that I think those students will want tom in some ways, be like me. But they will never be white. They will never be Western. They will never, really, be like me. And why should they want to be?

Why should those students know more about Shakira and Rihanna than they know about their tribal dances and exciting history?Why should they want to wear jeans instead of dresses made of kitenge fabric? Why should they have to listen to me speak about things I think are important, in my accent, on my conditions, when there are plenty of apt Ugandans out there? (They exist. But they are in universities, in hi-tech companies and in other countries, making money. They are not teaching because they don’t feel the need to. The whites are doing just fine.)

Another painful question I ask myself, is: How much can you possibly teach in a few months, that will make the tearful goodbye worthwhile? Did I change their lives? Did I make such a lasting impact that the experience of parting and being left behind will be forgotten?

These are kids who have had to lose many close people in their lives. I think the traumatic experience might stay with them a little longer than those arithmetic problems I gave them. They will remember that I avoided the question of when I’d be coming back, more than they’d remember what I taught them in English class.

So what if I opened a slice of the world for them? All I did was make them aware of how tiny and distant they are from it all.

Which is why I think perhaps whites should pick up their bags and good intentions and leave. Of course, I am scared as you are of what will happen: Buildings will stop being built. Students won’t be taught. Healthcare won’t be given. People will die and things will be a mess.

But time will pass. And then a new generation will rise – a questioning, tuned-in and intelligent portion of society will stand up. They will vote. They will shout. They will make a change. And I know it will be so much deeper, so much more rooted and lasting and real than any change we mzungus might make.

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Miss Israel

No – Not “I‘m Miss Israel.”

I miss Israel.

I don’t usually miss home. It’s not a bad thing, I just tend to enjoy myself wherever I am (I remember getting a lot of flak one time when I said the army food was good and I didn’t miss my mother’s cooking). But this trip has been long and this week has made it longer. I miss home.

I can see you, creeping up to your computer at the edge of your seat, hoping you are first on the list! So I want to make one thing clear:

First and foremost, I miss cottage cheese.

And yeah, I miss my family.

And my friends.

Street stand in Dar es Salaam

I miss the washing machine. And the laundry chute, my G-d. What luxury.

Taking electricity for granted.

Hot showers. Strong currents.

Not being bitten alive by mosquitos. And not worrying about malaria. (Or rabies or altitude sickness or AIDS or schistosomiasis or nodding disease or infections or anything, really)

A kitchen that has more food than flies. No ants crawling inside my food.

Real buses. With one person in each seat.

Bus in Lushoto (Tanzania)

Lettuce. (And while we’re at it: cherry tomatoes, tchina (tahini), Mom’s challah, Roni’s pizza, Dad’s ice cream, ice cream, dessert in general, white cheese, feta cheese, ricotta cheese… cottage cheese).

Variety.

People who understand what I am saying.

The beautifully pure feeling of a Friday afternoon in Israel.

Fixed prices.

Clothes that are intended for girls (not North Face hiking pants or dri-fit running shirts).

Mailboxes. Radio stations that don’t only have kitchy love songs.

Free Wi-Fi in cafes.

Cafes.

Independence.

Swimming.

Drinking water from the tap.

Of course, when I do get home, there will be a lot of things to get used to. And I’ll miss this place, too, I know. I’ll look the wrong way when I cross the street. I’ll try to bargain with the bus driver. I’ll stand in the middle of the road and wonder why buses aren’t stopping (what’s a bus stop?). I’ll hail down motorcyclers.

Even the matatus want me to go back to my roots

No one will point at me and say “mzungu!”

Or “mzungu bye!”

Or “bye mzungu.”

Or “mzungu give me money.”

In fact, I’ll probably forget I’m white.

I won’t drink yogurts out of bags. Or amarula at bars. I won’t eat jackfruit. Or pineapple, or g-nuts or purple greens (don’t ask).

I’ll have to pay more than a dollar for a meal. And I’ll expect a two-and-a-half day weekend. And wonder why my bills aren’t in the thousands and tens of thousands.

But I’ll be HOME. 11 days (or fewer?) here I come.

Stabbed

Yes, it was stupid. It was night, I was alone and it was Africa. But you have to understand, walking around Kololo, Kampala’s wealthiest neighborhood, you forget where you are. It’s where the embassies are located and where the whites live, in large houses with pampered gardens. I had a ten minute walk on good roads with fancy parked cars. Yes, I forgot I was in Africa.

The guards at the restaurant had suggested I take a boda, but considering it was going to rain and it was such a short walk, I decided to just go instead of waiting for one to come. People here are so lazy. As I walked, the drizzle became a quicker, thicker rainfall. I thought about my backpack getting wet and the crackers in my bag of groceries. If someone comes by, I decided, I’ll take a ride.

But strangely, in the city where I am constantly shooing off drivers and turning down ride offers – no one came. I considered calling my friend, but figured there wasn’t much she could do. I would find my way to her place, drenched but independent. I remember picturing myself arriving at her doorstep soaked and proud of my sense of direction, because I hadn’t been there many times. My self-assuredness was inherent and thoroughly detached from reality. After years of confidence-boosting and leadership-building activities (such as boxing, which I’d done just before eating dinner, alone) I guess I thought I was invincible.

I hadn’t heard footsteps. I hadn’t seen a shadow. I was in my own world, lost in thought, when my boda helmet was yanked out of my hand and bashed on my head. Someone threw me on the cement. His hands grabbed things from my hands.

A moment later I was on my feet, watching his feet run. And then I shrieked. It was purely instinct; I never shriek. And I didn’t even say anything, it was a primitive, almost internal voice of confusion and horror ripping through my throat.

The street was silent. I shrieked again. No one came.

Do you see me down there? On the quiet black street. Surrounded by large homes and gates, I am small. I am wet. And I am so, so alone.

I stumbled over to the nearest gate. Every one of these homes has a guard, I knew. I banged. Nothing. “Help!” I yelled and banged more. No one.

I ran, head spinning, until I reached an open gate and a large, lit up building. I stormed into what looked like the reception of a fancy hotel. “I need help!” I yelled as the blood in my body seemed to flow around in unexpected directions. Three Ugandan workmen looked at me, dumbfounded. One white woman dressed in a suit and skirt looked at me, concerned. “I need to go to the hospital,” I said, panicked. I assumed she was the manager, not a guest. She told me to calm down, which only agitated me more. “What do you mean?! I’m not okay, I have to get taken care of!”

“You’re going to be okay, just calm down.”

“How do you know?! Take me to the hospital!” She knows nothing. They know nothing. I’m the only one who seems to know anything and I’ve just been attacked and can hardly stand. These moments are crucial, I thought.

They walked me over to the bathroom and I realized that they were all looking at me strangely. “What?” I asked. “Am I bleeding?”

“Well,” said the woman. “You have a… hole in your head.”

I felt the spot she was pointing to, and the top third of my finger slid down into a crevice. I looked at my finger. It was bright red. The blood in my head rushed around even more quickly. I have to sit. Here’s a chair. Am I going to die? Is my brain going to be messed up? Is it messed up already? I tried to diagnose myself. I assessed that aside from losing some blood and feeling faint, I was relatively with it. But I couldn’t be sure.

“Look,” I said as evenly as I could. “I’ve been attacked and I need to go to the hospital. Can you please get me to the hospital. NOW?”

The woman turned to the workers. “Is someone coming?”  They answered that a cab was on its way. I was sick of African time. The woman tried, meanwhile, to understand who the hell I was. “Do you have anyone we could call?”

We got in the cab and picked Vivian up. The way she later decscribed it to me was opening the door with a cheerful “Hello! How are ya,” and then seeing a strange woman instead of me, who said, “Your friend was stabbed. She’s outside in a cab.”

The woman dropped herself off and Vivian and I drove to The Surgery.

The Surgery is, supposedly, the best medical clinic in Kampala. It’s where all the mzungus go. But I wanted the best care I could get and found it hard to believe Kampala was the place I’d get it.

I lay wet and shivering while the doctor asked me questions and hooked me up to different machines. He informed me that the sharp object had penetrated my skin and reached the bone, but didn’t do it damage. He sewed four stitches. When my pulse had gone down to a nearly-human rate, I remembered my blog, and thought if I’d get through this alive and well, it would make a terrific post.

No, I don’t know why I’m smiling either…

How did I still have my camera, you may wonder. Well the funny thing about this wole incident is that in his frenzy, all the asshole took from me was my old, deteriorating phone and a bag of groceries. (The bag of groceries had some yogurts I was very excited to eat, but you know. Even when I know how to put things into perspective every once in a while – even when it comes to dairy products).

So he left me with my ipod, my new camera (the old one had already been stolen) and my money (the little I had left). He didn’t steal my credit card because I no longer had one.

I can’t believe someone stabbed me for yogurt and a crappy old phone. At least I got some sense of vengeance, picturing him coming home to enjoy his loot and seeing yogurt.

I demanded an X-ray. The nurses called the X-ray man. He would drive over, but I had at least half an hour to wait. Vivian filled out my form: Phone number? Stolen. Address? Namulanda. Next to the chapati stand?

X-ray man said the results looked fine but asked me to come and look at them. I didn’t like that. What the hell was it supposed to look like? I nodded, admiring my beautiful skull and walked back to the doctor’s office. I had some information, I was no longer shivering and I was calm. Time to call Mom.

By now it was past midnight; she picked up groggily.

“Hi Mom,” I responded.

“Danya?” she asked, worried.

“Yeah hey.”

“Danya?” this time it was my concerned brother.

“Hey Matan, what’s up?”

“What happened?”

But before I could reply, my other brother picked up the phone.

“What’s wrong?”

“Well hello Brady Bunch,” I chuckled. I finally managed to get out a condensed, censored version of what had happened, all the while dealing with interjections from three worried people. Luckily my Dad wasn’t home that night. My mom gave me a list of things to do:

1. Don’t let Vivian leave you

2. Don’t leave the hospital until you see a neurologist (was that two things or one?)

3. Call the American embassy, see if they have a neurologist or if they can help you (Israel doesn’t have a good relationship with Uganda)

Okay. Okay okay okay okay. I hung up and turned to Vivian “Wow, I really freaked her out.”

Then I heard a distant voice say, “I’m not freaked out, I just want you to make sure…” and off she went again.

I listened again, made sure to hang up properly this time, and turned to the doctor. “I need to see a neurologist,” I informed him. He looked at me with a smile.

“No one will answer you at this time.” I wanted to smack him. I argued and he eventually called two doctors. Neither picked up.

Then I tried getting the number of the embassy. They didn’t have it.

“Do you have a phone book?” No.

“Is there a number I can call for information?” No.

“No? In all of Uganda there is no number to call for information?!” They all looked at me blankly. I hate this country.

The next day I apologized to the doctor for having been so rude, and he confessed, quite frankly, that he’d wanted to slap me. I laughed, not saying he was lucky I hadn’t smacked him first.

So we called sisters and boyfriends in Honduras and in Switzerland. We got my roommate’s number by calling a guy who had hit on both her and on Vivian. After many wrong numbers and unanswered calls we reached the American Embassy hotline. “If this is an American citizen in an emergency, please dial one.” We waited, were transfered and then waited more.

The man asked bureaucratic questions, then useless, curious questions and informed methat no neurologist would see me at this time. But could I file a report tomorrow?

Maybe Uganda is not the only country I hate.

I called the woman in charge of volunteers twice. No answer. A while later, she called back, hysterical: “I heard what has happened… I can’t come! It’s late! I am a woman! I am alone!”

What? “Don’t come, can you just help me-”

“I can’t! I can’t, it’s dangerous!”

“(name of woman here) – I’m not asking you to come! Do you know any doctors in Kampala?!”

“Yes, of course,” she answered, insulted.

“Okay, I want to see a neurologist. Could you call your friends and see if anyone knows a neurologist?”

“But it’s so late! I can’t, they won’t…”

“(Name of woman)!! Just CALL them.”

“Okay.” Beep.

The Surgery had nothing else to offer. I got the name of another hospital that might have a neurologist, and we went back into Sylvester’s taxi.

Have I introduced you to Sylvester? Numerous heads had floated over me while I got my stitches put in. One man was looking at me very intently. I looked back at him. “Um.. I don’t mean to be rude,” I had said eventually. “But who are you?” It was Sylvester. Sylvester cared about me more than anyone that night, and definitely more than I’d expected of a cab driver.

He got us past potholes, poor signage and locked gates into Case Hospital. Again – bureaucracy, money, time. I was tired. I didn’t see anything resembling a neurologist. And it was near two.

I felt a lump in my throat and could’ve stopped it, but decided it was time for a new strategy. Men try harder when girls cry. “I can’t call a neurologist, you don’t need one, no one will answer….” But my tears must have made an impact and he called one. No answer.

He called Sylvester in. They had a fairly long discussion about the whereabouts of IHK and of International Hospital Kampala, and about the concept of abbrevitations. (It’s the same place?)

At IHK we were led through a dark hallway to what looked like a reception table, and sat down to wait between two sleeping men. A black cat walked by. Who cares, I thought. If there had been internal bleeding, it was probably too late to do anything anyways.

Finally a woman walked by and asked what we were waiting for. The reception was downstairs.

“Have you ever been here before,” asked the woman behind the desk, handing me a form. I was sick of this.

“Listen,” I said. “I was stabbed in the head hours ago, I’ve already seen two doctors and I just want to see a neurologist. Is that possible?”

No. I had to see a general doctor. Luckily the general doctor was nearby and he came to the desk. And luckily he was one of the best doctors I’ve seen in a while. He gave me a quick biology lesson, a list of possible head injuries, and explanations as to why I didn’t have any of them. He also gave me the number of a good neurologist I could call the next morning. And the next morning wasn’t looking too far anymore.

I was exhausted, my head hurt and I was sick of this country. At four in the morning, I was ready to go to sleep.

I’m feeling better. I tore a muscle in my neck, and I’ve been lying around for a few days, quite shook up. But I have wonderful friends who are taking good care of me. And buying me yogurts.

And I know that somebody, somewhere, is working very hard to make sure I stay alive. Thanks again, G-d.

Laundry Like a Local

Laundry is probably the task I look forward to least in my new Namulanda lifestyle (even though cleaning the toilets is a close runner up). Resourseful my ass – when I grow up I want to be rich and pay someone to wash my shirts and scrub my socks. It was okay the first time, connecting to the desperate housewife within, feeling like those local women I see outside their homes. They all seem so subdued and pleased to be making the world a cleaner place.

I’m not them.

I hate how you can scrub something for twenty minutes, but it’ll look just the same as it did before.

I hate the way the water is always brown and screaming “look what a dirty person you are!”

I hate how no matter how many clothes you wash, when you go back to your room, you will find at least one pair of dirty socks you forgot.

I hate how it’s impossible to wring out towels. And how emabrrassing it is that you actually feel like you’re getting a workout when you do it.

I hate how hard it is to hang up a wet sheet without becoming one yourself.

I hate how you know that you’re going to be in the same position one week from now. And the week after that.

But.

I love how I never lose socks anymore! Not single socks, not whole pairs, no laundry machine is eating them maliciously, no more fear…

Little House in the Village

Time to put up my hiking boots and unpack my real and semi-neurotic self. The natural, day-to-day one, because it’s back to reality now, now I’m really living, not just going from one place to another in a whirlwind of excitement and soaking up sights tastes smells….

Two days ago, I arrived in Namulanda, a little village just off the main road connecting Kampala and Entebbe. It’s one of those fleeting images you capture on your way to somewhere real – the woman lying down beside her banana stand, the empty shack that resembles a barber shop, the men walking with baskets of peanuts on their heads. Except it’s not fleeting. This is my new home and where I’ll be for the next three months.

I have yet to adjust to the new pace. On the flight here from Dar es Salaam I was still in fast-forward mode, in travel-head: planning and cramming and making connections.

On the plane I spoke to a man who has a gold mine in Sierra Leone, another man with a diamond mine in Angola, a guy from the ministry of finance and then his boss – the minister of finance. Who is a woman!

My head was brimming with ideas about how I could utilize all these connections (forgetting for a moment that I’m an ignorant 21 year old pisher) and how I could make my stay in Uganda unforgettable and life-changing.

I read in my guidebook about Kampala’s must-sees, about the crazy dictators of the past and of the ridiculous homosexuality laws of the present, about the language (how the hell am I supposed to learn a new language now? Why can’t they speak Swahili?) and made mental post-it notes of about three thousand things I have to do while I’m here.

Big pack on my back, I walked into the house of the volunteers. My house. The others were just lounging around, but I was bursting! I wanted to see the village, meet the people, organize my room, get my bearings and make a plan. And eat, of course.

But then I realized that if I wanted my smelly travel clothes to be clean, I would have to sit outside with three buckets of water and soap and wash them. And if I wanted to eat I would have to go the stand and with my nonexistent money buy some bananas and beans. And if I wanted to eat the beans, I’d have to sort them and rinse them and soak them for six hours and cook them… and then of course burn them, because I wasn’t made for this stuff! I know, I like to think I am simple and down to earth, but deep down I am a spoiled brat who grew up in a nice suburb with other people doing things for her! Where are they now? I tried to figure out who I could pay to do things for me but then realized I didn’t have money. And the other girls looked at me like I’d fallen from the sky. “Why should someone else clean up our mess?”

It’s up to me now – I have to go into the immensely overcrowded Kampala to take out money, to buy a loaf of brown bread and other amenities that can’t be found in a village off the highway, go to the police-station in order to get rid of the strange looking man who’d been following me around, to tour the city and see where the Western hospital is, to sit in traffic for over an hour and say no countless times to all the people stuffing merchandise in my face (because I am white, so obviously, my sitting in the bus near the open window means I want to buy a fly swatter, a cut up jackfruit, a SIM card, a coca-cola and a towel.)

I am still “mzungu”, even though it’s a new language. And I am still getting ripped off, even though it’s a new currency. And I am still eating three bananas a day, even though it’s a new country.

Some things are the same but so many are different. A chapter ends and another begins – let’s see how many sewers I fall in this time…