Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Feasting on Ants and Folktales at the Feet of a Chief

For several days, I thought about what gifts to present during my weekend visit to the chief of the Kabala clan. From experience, I knew the occasion would be highly ceremonial and that a typical guest would bring a couple of live chickens or a young goat. 

I dreaded the thought. As a longtime vegetarian, I wasn’t fond of presenting animals for slaughter and perhaps most honesty, I’d developed a disdain for chickens that made the notion of a several hour motorcycle ride carrying the restless, squaking birds by their feet less than appealing. 

Finally, I settled on a mix of local items and favorite American treats:  Pader honey, sugar, and tea combined with coffee, popcorn, and packs of chewing gum my parents had sent from home.  I boarded the motorbike hopeful that the chief would accept my inanimate offerings.

By late morning, after hours of motorbike travel on the pitted and puddled rainy season roads, I found myself at the base of a mountain surrounded by the lush greenery characteristic of Northern Uganda this time of year. While I was expecting a homestead of several mud-brick and grass circular huts, I found instead a four wall, small home with embellished windows and glass panes.  The chief’s house, I would later learn, was a gift from the government of Uganda, an offering given to every chief of every clan in the country in recognition of their ceremonial and judicial significance. 

Rwot Okot Francis Lafyet became chief in 1968, inheriting the position as the youngest son of his dying father. Long before Europeans came to Uganda, chiefs and kings ruled supreme in matters of material, judicial, and spiritual affairs. When disputes arose between clan members, chiefs were solely responsible for determining the truth and administering justice, often weighing material evidence alongside the readings of oracles. Today, the role of chief remains a mix of judge, spiritual leader, and sage.  

For several hours, I sat upon a grass mat at the feet of Chief Okot listening to a description of his official duties which ranged from officiating over twin ceremonies (slaughtering a white goat and white hen and sprinkling the bodies of newborn twins with the blood as a blessing) to settling cases of murder (bringing together members of each clan and deciding the number of cattle that must be paid to the grieving family). As respected criminal arbiter and bestower of blessings, the chief received certain remunerations for his services.  “That tree there, I can never pick from it myself. Others must bring me the fruit,” he told me, pointing in the distance to a mango tree with loaded branches. “I also must never dirty my hands working in my garden. It is to be the first planted every season and the first harvested, and the whole community contributes.” 

Most fascinating to me was his historical account of the conflicts and wars that plagued his land during his 45 year governorship.  First, there were the Karamojong, the warrior tribe inhabiting Northeast Uganda famous for cattle stealing and raids that often resulted in “bride prizes” and burnt Acholi huts. Chief Okot recounted three major conflicts with the Karamojong that began just after his coronation as chief, including one scuffle that resulted in the loss of his entire cattle herd, the mark of his once extensive wealth. “They left us completely poor,” he told me, “and we never recovered. As you see even now, I am a chief that cannot afford more than rags for my children or to welcome you with due honor.” 

During the most recent protracted conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), chiefs played an important and unique role as peacekeepers. Respected by the Ugandan national military forces, civilians, as well as LRA militants, Chief Okot often found himself leaving the IDP camp to meet rebels “in the bush,” negotiating the return of abductees, relaying important information, and attempting to broker peace. “Many of those coming back from fighting would come to me first. I did cleansing ceremonies and sometimes arranged meetings with their victims’ families. Afterwards, they could be fully welcomed back into the community.”

With the patience one might expect of an elder and story teller, Chief Okot answered my questions one by one, using his son as a translator. After listening intently to stories about his role as chief, I couldn’t help but ask him to indulge me a little further. “Baba (Father), I have read many folktales through the years from throughout Africa, but I have yet to know of those most central to the Acholi tradition.” Chief Akot’s eyes sparkled as a wide, checkerboard smile spread across his face.

“Let me tell you the tale of the hare and the elephant,” he began. “We have so many stories about the hare.” For the next 30 minutes, I listened attentively from the mat at his feet as I heard how the hare tricked the elephant, lion, hyena and leopard in a series of clever maneuvers. 

As the story drew to a close, the chief turned to me and asked if I would permit him to ask his own set of questions. He asked about my home, my family, the logic behind my names, and my experience in Uganda. “How would you compare life at home to life in this place?  Why don’t you make your permanent home here?” I answered carefully but truthfully as I explained the major differences in social services between the two lands and the benefits and shortcomings I perceived in the two very different ways of life.

Satisfied by my answers, he told me it was time for us to take our lunch. With the guidance of one of his eighteen children, I was taken into the home, separated from the elders who would eat outside together.
We feasted on greens cooked with peanut butter, beans, and mashed white ants, a delicacy of which I could only bare the smallest taste. At the end of our meal, I returned to the mat outside, kneeled before the chief and presented him with my gifts.  After he had accepted each one, he responded delightedly, “today, I am a rich man!”

Chief Okot blessed my journey and I bid his family farewell. 

As I looked behind me from the seat of my motorbike, I thought of the life this man had traveled, from newly ordained chief, powerful and rich to where I met him today, sitting on the porch of his government-constructed home with few possessions, listening to stories of his leadership and sharing tales of my own. Though he had no phone or computer, the chief insisted I leave him with my contact details in the United States, hoping that we would someday share again.

A meal of mashed ants, beans, and greens with peanut butter.

 Sitting with Chief Okot and one of his children.

Stranded, Running Barefoot in the Rain

Rainy season in Northern Uganda means the near cessation of reasonable transit options. Roads often become so poor that buses cannot pass, tires sink in quicksand, and only the most daring or determined attempt to journey long distances by bicycle or motorbike.

On the morning of my expected arrival to the home of Chief Okot, I searched long and hard for a driver willing to brave the roads in a hired vehicle. With no takers, I weighed my remaining options: cancel my visit and thus, resolve to never meet the chief, or brave the several hour journey from the back of a boda boda—a cross between a Harley and a bicycle, less sturdy than a motorcycle, but with an engine and long saddle making it decidedly more than a bike.

I climbed aboard behind two riding mates and braced myself for the helmetless ride along the soggy and pitted road. At times, the bike slipped and slid along, as the driver walked his legs on the ground to steady us and regain balance. At others, the road became entirely impassable, forcing my friend and me to wade through the muddy waters while the boda driver found an alternative path through the grasses.

After more than two hours, we arrived at our destination.

By late afternoon, thunderclaps could be heard in the distance as dark clouds engulfed the nearby mountain.  I hurriedly said my goodbyes to the chief as his family ushered me off before the storm. Francis, my driver, knew as well as I did that if we were to have any chance for safe arrival back to Pader, we would have to beat the approaching storm.

He sped off down the dirt road at reckless speed, sending us flying over bumps and swerving to avoid pot holes. After only thirty minutes, we came to an abrupt stop.

“What is it?” I asked, looking behind at the now black clouds quickly racing towards us. His gaze directed mine toward the tire below me, now flat with no hope of carrying us the rest of the way to Pader. Our options were few: stay together, stranded on this deserted road, or proceed by foot as he attempted to bring the motorbike back to the village we came from for repairs.

I nearly leaped with each long stride as I tried to gain distance walking down the road away from the storm. My friend and I lasted about 10 minutes before being struck by heavy wind against our backs so strong it propelled us running forward. The wind was soon accompanied by rain, hitting us hard enough to sting.

I laughed as I registered the entirety of our circumstances, taking off my sandals as I ran, soaked, feeling the squishy earth beneath my feet. Of course I should find myself stranded on a deserted road in the middle of a torrential storm running barefoot on the same day as listening to folk stories at the feet of a tribal chief!

My friend worried. “Daniela, I am so, so sorry I have placed us in this terrible situation. Let us look for shelter and if need be, we can stay until a bus passes at three in the morning.”

I suggested a large tree, but my friend thought that would make us even greater victims of the harsh wind, rain, and striking lightening surrounding us.

Finding no suitable covering, we continued running along the long road to Pader.

Eventually, we saw a homestead in the distance, likely the only structure we’d see for miles. My friend and I hashed out a plan: she would approach a hut first while I hid at a distance and would give me a signal if the inhabitants seemed safe and welcoming.

She bent low and entered the hut. A few seconds later, her hand gestured out, telling me to enter.

Karibu! [Welcome!]” A woman within greeted me. Inside the hut, it was nearly too dark to see, but the aroma of homemade alcohol and wooden embers sent a sudden feeling of warmth through my body.  The woman sat upon a mat on the dirt floor, removing pebbles from a basket filled with large white ants which she would eventually fry. On a mud oven, she boiled a container of waragi, a local alcohol made from sorghum.

My African dress, now soaking wet, weighed heavily upon my body. The woman’s husband offered me their only stool as his wife poured me a steaming cup of her brew.

My friend Nighty used to make this alcohol and once refused me a sip, claiming it makes muzungus sick. I now held the warm drink cupped between my hands and sipped from it as I watched my sandals float outside the hut’s entrance and ducks swim by. 

My saviors seemed delighted by their surprise visit and entertained me with Acholi music played on a battery operated radio. I began to plan my next move.

I called my landlord in Pader—no answer.  I called again, still nothing. On my third try, I heard a voice. “Daniela, what is it? Where are you?” She asked. I explained my situation and asked if she could find someone in town willing to pick me up.  In about a half hour, my phone rang. A Land Cruiser was on its way, and in a few more hours, I would be home.

With the end now in sight, I reveled in my good fortune. I swayed to the music with my new friends as we listened to the rain falling outside.  The man and woman urged me not to drink too much from the cup they had given me. Drinking a whole cup of waragi would make me drunk, or at least, so I gathered from the charades of the couple within the hut.

When the ants came off of the fire, crisp and golden, I cringed. “Ants, twice in one day?” I thought to myself. For weeks I had avoided the flying white ants offered to me by people in Pader, and here I was, taking one gingerly from the smiling woman in front of me, making it dance in my hand instead of my mouth.

They don’t taste like chicken, nor do they taste anything like the firey, acidic Argentinian ants I sampled in the raw as a child.  I do know that locals warn against eating too many, as they are famous for causing bad diarrhea. I exercised restraint as the rest crunched on them by the handful.

After a couple of hours, my phone rang again as the driver of the Land Cruiser approached.  I found my sandals and waded barefoot through the waters to the side of the road.

Unlike the motorbike, the Land Cruiser barreled down the road at high speed, crashing through the puddles and sending water splashing as high as the roof. I held onto the side bar of the passenger’s seat as we shifted steeply left and right.

In no time, I was in my room again, sipping hot tea in my warm, dry clothes.  In only a couple of weeks, I would be far from dirt roads and rainstorms, mud huts and white ants, reunited with my parents in the Tuscan countryside. 

“Do you think you made a difference?”

Since October, one aspect of my life has remained consistent: every Sunday afternoon, I could count on a call with my parents.  They would worry immensely when I wouldn’t make our scheduled chat, but more often than not, they would listen to stories of my work and life in the village and offer encouragement when I needed it.

On one of my last days in Pader, my father acknowledged the elephant in the room (as he often has). “So, do you think you made a difference?” he asked.

I paused, quickly recounting my first and last days in Pader. Over the last few days, I had said goodbye to each of the groups of young people I worked with as a Peace Club patron. At Friends of Orphans, I hosted a celebration of the student leaders’ accomplishments after escorting them to meet NGO staff and local leaders with whom they could partner after my departure. At the Pader Girls School, news of my coming absence was met with tears. Several girls refused to pose for a photograph, crying until I reassured them that their Peace Club would continue and that I would not forget them. After convincing the girls to do one last “Let there be peace!” cheer, the mood lightened, and I managed to say my goodbyes. The girls escorted me home, singing the words of Matisyahu’s “One Day” the whole way.

My last official day at CCF coincided with the organization’s anniversary celebration, recognizing ten years of service to war-affected women and children. I had worked hard in the preceding weeks to help organize everything from the exhibition tents to the final program of speakers and presenters. After the exhausting five day event, I was met in the kitchen of my home by the organization’s Executive Director who expressed genuine gratitude for all of my efforts.

So, did I make a difference?

In future resumes, my experience in Pader may be summarized by a list of achievements: the creation of a Kids for Peace curriculum for war-affected populations; training over 400 Peace Club members in Pader and Agago Districts; directly leading four peace clubs whose members organized service days, human rights trainings, peer counseling sessions, and shared their Peace Pledge with international ambassadors, local leaders, and members of the Ugandan Parliament; developing the capacity of two local NGOs through technology training, monitoring and evaluation, and documentation; teaching English and computer skills to formerly abducted children; etcetera, etcetera...

From the reactions of my students, I do hope it is not too far of a stretch to imagine that for some, I had the kind of impact upon their life that the best teachers of my youth had upon my own. It may not be an earth shattering revolution, but from small but meaningful interactions, the course of one’s life can change.

Led by Northern Uganda’s youth, I hope a culture of kindness, peace, and environmental awareness continues to develop. The youth have learned new skills, exercised leadership, and seen that “it feels good to do good.”

I am leaving Pader satisfied with what I have accomplished in my short time here. I won’t miss all of the challenges of daily life I faced, but I will miss working with others every day to do “all the good we can, by all the means we can.”