Sunday, May 31, 2009

State House

Bitone graced the states house in Entebbe on sat morning, performing for Uganda's own, president Museveni, and Burundian president Pierre Nkunziza. Nkunziza was visiting the pearl for 3 days, and Bitone helped send him off in style.

The performance was short and sweet (maybe 3 minutes) but Museveni spent a considerable amount of time talking with the kids afterwords, asking them each their name, age, and place of birth.

I was honored to shake his hand (sorry no picture), and he gave me about 8.5 seconds of his time to explain what I was doing in Uganda, and the work of Project Focus. The fact that PF is based in Lyantonde (very very near to where the big guy hails from) didn't hurt, and I was able to get him some PF literature. The security at statehouse was no joke and at first they weren't going to allow me to take any photos or video of the performance, but as soon as I dropped the names of some Lyantonde restaurants and businesses on the soldiers to prove myself, we got on just fine. Nepotism doesn't seem so bad when you're on the right side of it.

The kids were elated, and they are in the process of writing some personal reflections on the day for there own blog (, so keep an eye out. This is definitely the direction Bitone wants to be heading into, and the folks who arranged the show also promised future bookings for state diners and government functions.

A professional photographer from the New Vision newspaper took a few snaps for the whole Bitone crew with the president, and hopefully I'll be getting my hand son those soon.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ankole Spirit World

The mighty spirits of the Ankole people are partial to 3 offerings: milk, millet, and money. That’s what our tour guide told us as we trudged from prayer site to prayer site to pay homage to the ancient Chwezi (demigods) of Bigobyamugenyi in Sembabule, a village about 2 potholed and dusty hours from Lyantonde by motorcycle. Allegedly my knees graced the same grass and dirt alters frequented by president Museveni (which didn’t stop my pasty neck from burning, but did sharpen my secret hopes of one day becoming a bush-war hero).

We hoofed past trails that if taken would trigger your eternal disappearance, deep empty pits where the sounds of ancient drums are said to be ever-pounding, and a grass mansion that a spirit couple telepathically commissioned the care-takers to construct for them and their set of dybbuk-duo twins. Michael and I took the journey with 3 other Ugandan tourists - technicians from Kampala enjoying a day off from erecting a mobile phone tower nearby. Together we would enter each site – first removing our shoes – and kneel down to sprinkle millet seeds and coins over banana leaves and pray to those who protect and bring prosperity to believers.

The air was the freshest I’d smelt since Mt. Elgon, and all the walking and “praying” gave me time to dwell on recent events and positive-but-unexpected changes that have jolted me out of routine that I was unconsciously falling into here in Uganda.

After some discussion its been decided that I will return to the states for the summer to assist in some fund and morale raising, visit mommy-dearest (she’s coming off shoulder surgery – too much rugby), take a sustainable aid course, and eat 1000 burritos. Project Focus has decided to first conquer the internet café and other smaller projects in Lyantonde to garner a network of development partners, donors, and project-implementing experience before tackling the construction of a school. The café will start extra income flowing into the school, allowing us to establish a solid financial system on a smaller scale before the large amounts of money that come with construction will begin changing hands. This is the right move, but will present a healthy challenge in trust-maintenance among the relationships we’ve built in the Prince community over the past few years. The school management committee (who represents the guardian community) is now onboard, so all that is left is convincing the parents that when the rain descends, the floods come, and the wind blows, theirs will be a school that was founded upon a well-planned rock and not upon the rushed and poorly thought-out sand.

Branco – the Bitone founder and director – has been awarded an illustrious Fulbright scholarship to complete his masters degree in music from a university in Connecticut. This is great news for the long-term stability of Bitone because it will secure him a fulltime position at Makerere University (where he is now a part time lecturer) when he returns to Uganda. His shoes will be hard to fill at the center, and the kids (and me) will hate to see him go, but it will also help to spread some of the responsibilities out so Bitone becomes a more manageable and effective organization whose fate is not hinged on one man. Speaking of president Museveni; Bitone also scored themselves a performance arranged by the bigwigs we traveled to Ethiopia with, at which they will be sending good ol’ Yoweri off from the state house (Uganda’s version of the white house) and then Entebbe airport when he goes to who-knows-where to do who-knows-what. These are the high-profile performances Bitone’s talent deserves.

A little over a week ago I hosted two volunteers (Brian and Alexis) who are touring around East Africa doing third-party analysis of projects that have received funding through an organization called Global Giving. Most of the money Project Focus raised for the materials used in the Ugandan art programs was collected through Global Giving’s online donation services, so the two came to check out the impact of those programs and see what we are up to now. I took them to Prince so they could interview some students and staff about the “Story Ki?” project, and hear about our plans for the future.

I left the room to allow the students to answer freely, and the feedback was better then I would have guessed. Being here and focusing solely on logistical-type aspects for the past 8 months has dulled my right-brain wherewithal, and that day reminded me of the fact that this all begin with children whose lives and creative capacities were forever opened up by art, and that this is something we really need to continue. You can read their full review of our visit to Prince at... I also took them to my favorite Lyantonde prayer site “the rock”. We disregarding the threats I received last time I was there by a rifle-wielding vigilante security guard posing as a police officer. He said that I would be arrested if he ever saw me there again. The sunset photos we got would have been worth a night or two in the Lyantonde clink.
After Michael and I left the spirit grounds we made a stop at a compound that would rival the Bush family ranch. This was home to a young women who has been coined “the holy one”. In her, the spirits from the other sites often take refuge to escape the trials and tribulations of the celestial space. Photos were not allowed there, but the holy one has built herself a nice little empire from a herbal medical product line, and happened to be out of town overseeing her new church in Kampala. Apparently on certain holidays you can find her parking lot full of the Benzes and Range Rovers of Kampala’s finest coming to seek blessings. I searched the labels of as many of her oils and solutions as I could to find a cure for the hatred of onions, issues with fundraising, or lack of college degree, but to no avail.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

It's only been 7 months and I'm out of titles

April has been the fastest month of my life. All month I was doing one of two things; either recording interviews for an audio documentary on access to safe water, or planning the Prince Primary fundraising bonanza with the rest of the committee. Both required me to constantly be out in what snazzy NGO folks call “the field”, which really means you are visiting peoples homes – usually rural and poor. The term irks me because they are just that - peoples homes. Anyway, I was fully immersed and my eyes and relationships were opened up further. I’ll wait until I get a chance to edit the audio to touch on that, so we’ll just chat about the Prince event.

The fundraiser was Friday, April 24th, purposely coinciding with the regular end of the term celebrations. We held a community auction in hopes of making some of the money back that the school lost due to the UNEB business. Trying to cut planning costs at every possible turn, we pounded the red-dirt roads and went home-to-home invited folks and asking for donations of food, woven goodies, art, goats, etc to be auctioned off.
Then we hit the district offices to invite as many hotshot politicians as possible to buy up all the auction items. The community gave an incredible effort, filling up a classroom with bunches of bananas, watermelons, sugarcane, and a few plump goats. The planning committee made up of guardians, teachers, Meddy from ICOD, and a white guy also put there hearts and backs into the days leading up.
African time was in full effect. The guest of honor was the district chairman, and he was five hours late. Culturally nothing can really begin with out him so that means we all waited (not that he was the only one late.) Once we got rolling the festivities went really well save a few bumps in the road. We ate, listens to politicians, watched the Prince kids shake out some traditional dances, tried to outbid each other (maybe about 8-10% of the guests have money for this kind of thing), and planted some tress.
A little money was raised, some big promises were made to myself and the headmaster regarding political help for the project, we danced and laughed, and it didn’t rain. I personally made some bad judgment calls in terms of penny-pinching and perpetuating the lop-sided dynamic between the people with and the people without. I re-realized that cost-cutting usually only affects those who already don’t have – and can be disempowering and disrespectful to the people who really deserve it.
This thing is tricky; there are by-products of culture that no one would argue need changing (poverty, corruption, etc), but most people - even the oppressed - scoff at the idea of challenging those traits inside of the culture (gender imbalance, subserviency, false sense of superiority, etc).