Sunday, December 28, 2008

Village Christmas

Being apart from friends and family around the holidays can be emotionally arduous but I claim an evolved freeloader instinct. No matter what the distance from home or how little I have to offer potential hosts, I always end up around those transformative families whose love and openhandedness towards wanders calls to me. Christmas in Lyantonde was nothing unfamiliar. Jackie and Olivia – sisters among the brightest and most outspoken students a Prince Primary School – invited Jonathon St. Clause and me to their home for Christmas lunch in the village of Kalegero. The experience was pure. We carried gifts of huge jackfruits by motorcycle to Prince to meet Jackie and followed her the rest of the way on foot. We arrived and greeted the younger Olivia, Jajja (grandma), grandpa, little brother Henry, and uncle Mark. They welcomed us with fresh mangos and watermelon and we chatted about their land, Mark’s med-school studies, American life, Prince Primary, and how we love food. Jonathon and I tried to pepper the conversation with our limited Luganda but most of the day we communicated with Jajja via Mark’s translation. The family packed us full of every vegetarian dish in the Ugandan cookbook, introduced us to their alpha-piggybank (his promiscuity puts the girls through school), and gave us a tour of their gardens. The girls shared with me Akon lyrics, their top-secret solutions for high-level government corruption, some family history and career aspirations: Jackie – lawyer, Olivia - doctor.

Jajja is a tough woman. I met her a few days back when she agreed to sit down with me and discuss some of her opinions for the school’s improvements. I had gotten the impression that she was the mother of the girls because they call her maama, but deeper into our conversation she allowed some details of their situation. Their family history is complex but sadly typical. I am gathering it now for an audio piece on Prince Primary that will feature the girls’ story – so watch for it. For now lets just say… the fact that the girls still possess that kind of drive to educate themselves and give back speaks directly to Jajja’s influence in their lives. Watching them in action together at their home made it clear. The peeling and matted turquoise walls of their living room - lit by the pre-rain afternoon sky - suggested an almost meditative mood in which the girls and jajja floated around effortlessly anticipating each other’s needs.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have these kinds of experiences on a daily basis, and I’m truly grateful. My affinity for Lyantonde, and Ugandan in general seems to be at a perpetual apex, and it’s difficult to even consider the spectrum of things I am learning about. The work has been slow but encouraging, and I want thank the folks in Project Focus for being my surrogate family and reminding me to step back every so often to take it all in.
Remember to be happy.

(pics will not load on thecomputer I type from but they are coming)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Bitone in Ethiopia!

Addis Ababa has been amazing! I learned before we left Uganda that the festival organizers should have “been sent the broom” as Branco from Bitone so brilliantly put it, but the kids didn’t let that stop them from destroying the competition. They had 5 performances during 6 days of music, theater, and storytelling from Ugandan, Tanzania, Kenya, Sweden, the U.S. and the many provinces of Ethiopia. For months leading up to the journey Bitone worked to combine selected instrumental pieces, dances, and narration to create a 45 minute production/story about a wealthy princess’s search for a husband based on his artistic talents, knowledge of culture, and sense of self; not his family’s financial/social status.

They warmed up with 2 shows at Hager Fikir Theatre. The sound and lighting operators made me want to swallow broken glass and gasoline (they had been swallowin something else) but the kids hung with it and rocked the packed houses. Then came the real fire (the kids constantly refer to a good performance as “bringing fire”) - the headmaster of Addis’s most prestigious primary/secondary school – St Joseph’s- caught wind of Bitone’s show and invited them to perform for his entire student body. It was the biggest audience they had ever played for but they handled it with the swagger of veteran artists. Playing for their peers was obviously more comfortable for them and the Ethiopian students received them with deafening standing ovations. It chokes me up to write about it. The show was perfect and I had thought it would have been the best I would see from them for a while, but that same night they had another last-minute invitation. They were asked to perform at the ritzy Addis Hilton for a fashion show put on by the American Chamber of Commerce in Ethiopia. Outside of hanging with Ethiopian models this idea rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning and I ended up getting into it with the coordinator because he had us arrive 5 hours before our performance and then refused to feed the children from the posh buffet all the snazzy Americans were wasting. But back to the Ethiopian models… are you f#*king kidding me? The average Ethiopian woman already makes me want to cry tears of gratitude for the genius design-sense of the creator. The Bitone girls shared a dressing room with the models and I found as many “administrative” reasons as possible to urgently enter and speak to them. Roscoe – the 16 year-old man of the Bitone home – whispered to me, “Grant, I think God made a mistake. He put all the beautiful women here and made Uganda too far away.”

Once Bitone hit the stage they killed it. The set-up was perfect for their production. The sound was pristine and the girls used the runway as their dance floor. Even though it was a corporate function the energy of the place was electric. The crowd lost their minds and when all was said and done the children were served a 3 course meal in a private room… and two models slipped me their phone numbers. Ha! Of course they were then asked to close the entire festival at Hager Fickir on the last night, and fresh off my victory over the Hilton coordinator I demanded to do the sound myself. It was much improved and Bitone brought the house down to end an amazing week of artistic exchange from all over the globe.

The kid’s reactions to culture shock were deep. For the first time they were approached by beggars even though they exist everywhere in their home country. They got a better understanding of being stereotyped – just because they are foreigners and standing in front of a relatively nice hotel they are assumed to have money, and got constantly hassled. I have been struggling to expand their minds as far as food goes because they are used to eating the same 3 things everyday for their entire lives, and Uganda is damn hot; the cooler weather in Addis has been frustrating for the group of kids, many of whom have never owned a coat. Italian influence here is very evident here and Ethiopia’s history of fighting off Italian colonization crept into most conversations between the kids and locals. It gave them (and me) some serious homework to do.

They had to get out of their shells socially as well; they were the only youth in the festival and were forced to mingle with hoards of grown-up artists from all over the world who were dying to praise them. For this I feel they were better prepared than most Ugandan children would have been. At Bitone the children are encouraged to express themselves emphatically, even to adults, which is definitely not the cultural norm in Uganda. From my experience if 2 or more adults are in a room talking the children are sent out. Again I take my hat off to Branco and Hassan for creating such a loving and nurturing environment for these beautiful and talented children to grow into beautiful and talented adults. I have felt so much closer to the kids since returning to Uganda this time around but during this trip I have definitely become part of their family. Special thanks to all who have bought a Bitone cd, responded to my emergency email, listened to me mindlessly blab about how much I love them, or helped out in any other way. You should be as proud as I am.

As usual I think it’s only fair to share all aspects of an experience, pretty or not. Addis Ababa reminds me of Los Angeles from some reason. The tall buildings mixed with scattered palm trees, the expansive and broken-up layout, cool nights and grey mornings, and similar little pockets of grime. You can be in a totally “safe” looking area and turn down a tiny side street and be in the shit. One night after a performance I was walking the kids back from a late dinner, when we got back to the hotel I realized I forgot the receipt. I have reoccurring nightmares where Harish softly whispers the word “accountability” over and over like Chinese water torture in my ear so I went back to get it. On the way back to the hotel I was coming down one of these side streets and I heard and saw something strange. As I got closer it got clearer, a man was trying to rape a women up against a wall. Confused, I looked around and there was some fucking coward taxi driver sitting in his car and watching it right next to me. I looked at him and put my hands up in a way to ask what the hell is happening and he says “don’t worry they are friends”. I walked closer to the two and could clearly see the woman crying and faintly fighting back in way like she has been fighting this battle her whole life and was too tired to fight again. When the man (he looked maybe 17) realized I was coming he frantically started back peddling and repeating “sorry my friend, no problem” and then ran. The women ran in the other direction. I had such a rush of anger that I went to the taxi driver and tried gave him a piece of my mind but it was pointless due to a combination of language barrier and the fact that he obviously doesn’t give a shit anyway or he wouldn’t have been casually watching a woman get raped in the first place. That was night number 2 and since I have been going grey trying keep every Bitone girl within my sights at all times. They are all so beautiful and now I want to fight every time a man looks at them. My daughters are going to hate me.