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The View from Uganda

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  • Kristen Cheney
    4 December 2000 Reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated. Despite the ebola outbreak, I am still in Uganda and chugging along on my research, free of
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 4, 2000
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      4 December 2000

      Reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated. Despite the ebola outbreak, I
      am still in Uganda and chugging along on my research, free of internal
      The ebola outbreak and a few other factors have disrupted my research a
      bit, though. I was planning to go to Gulu this month, but the increased and
      closer-to-town rebel attacks and ebola put a quick end to that. It was just
      as well, then, that I got a chance to take a hiatus from fieldwork and
      regroup. I was invited to give a paper at Johns Hopkins University School
      for Advanced International Studies in Washington DC. They apparently have a
      wealthy sugar daddy foundation who provided full funding for travel, so I
      packed up at came back to the States for about a month.
      The conference on Negotiating Identity took place on November 4 and went
      really well. I gave a decent presentation on children in primary school
      music festivals using performance as a space to negotiate national identity
      (complete with video) and got great feedback. Now I have to revise the paper
      for publication in an academic journal.
      While in DC, I got to catch up with a few Peace Corps friends, Christine
      and Lauren, and took a hike around all the monuments and memorials, as well
      as visiting the National Geographic Society�s display of women
      photographers� work.
      I was in California when I wasn�t in DC, taking care of business and trying
      to catch up with busy friends. I had a lot of errands to take care of, but
      not being enrolled in classes gave me a lot more time to enjoy the
      California coast, which I�ve really come to appreciate. From San Francisco
      (for the American Anthropological Association�s Annual Meeting) to Big Sur
      (where Will took me to a seaside restaurant with a fabulous view for my
      birthday), I was convinced that it�s one of the most beautiful places in the
      world. I got to play a lot, between frequent evenings at the Boardwalk, the
      drive-in, and celebrating Halloween (possibly Santa Cruz�s biggest holiday).
      I think the highlight was finally going kayaking in Elkhorn Slough, an ocean
      inlet on Monterey Bay where lots of seals, birds, and sea otters come to
      play. We saw about 15 otters playing in the calm waters, so as Will says, I
      got my �otter fix.�
      I also had a great streak of luck and income: while in DC I received word
      that I had gotten the last of the fieldwork grants I applied for, from the
      Wenner Gren Foundation. Since fieldwork is rather expensive, that really
      took a load off. Then I and other students at UC Santa Cruz who applied for
      the Fulbright Grant and had their applications lost by FedEx reached a
      settlement through the UC lawyers. FedEx offered us several thousand dollars
      each if we signed a notarized release promising not to sue them. And I even
      won a gift certificate for a local bookstore, so I stocked up on academic
      books and some novels to read while I�m here.
      After filling my suitcase with books, groceries, and clothing for Ugandan
      friends, it was time to say goodbye to everyone all over again and come back
      here. I returned on Thanksgiving Day after a 40-hour trip in which I stopped
      in Amsterdam and checked out some of the great museums. On arrival, I slept
      the whole day and then the whole night. My roommate Hamiddah and I had not
      even caught up with each other when she received a call that her mother had
      passed away the following evening. I was up until 4am trying to comfort her
      and helping her make arrangements. Then I attended the burial on Saturday.
      Her mother wanted to be buried in Mukono, where her parents were laid to
      rest, so they respected her wishes. Some friends drove me to the funeral,
      where perhaps a hundred or more people sat on mats in the yard of a small
      home. All the women wore bright basuti dresses and talked quietly amongst
      each other. As the family is Muslim, the women could not go near the grave
      until the body had been buried. So men stood in the banana grove and recited
      prayers as they dug the grave and interred the body. I found Hamiddah
      sitting amid other female friends and relatives, so I sat next to her and
      tried to comfort her. Once they said the last prayer and the men began to
      leave the banana grove, Hamiddah began to weep inconsolably. I felt so badly
      for her but didn�t know quite what to do besides keep my hand on her
      shoulder and let her cry.
      Soon afterward, we drove to the family home in Gayaza. It rained as we
      drove the dirt road, which turned slick and muddy. The rain made it really
      cold at night, and it had knocked out the power. So we all milled around the
      house talking quietly and drinking tea to stay warm. People were preparing
      food, and I met a few more members of the family. I left after a few hours,
      but many relatives stayed for the whole night to comfort Hamiddah and her
      brothers. Her brother Wasswa called several times from Chicago to give
      instructions, feeling guilty that he as the oldest son was not able to be
      there to perform his duties. His mother kept lamenting, �I�m going to die
      before I see my son,� so he was planning to come this month, which proved
      just a bit too late.
      Hamiddah stayed at the family home until yesterday. Even eight days after
      the funeral, acquaintances were still coming to the house to offer
      condolences, and since Ramadhan started this week, people stayed to break
      their fast together in the evening. I am really glad to have Hamiddah back
      here, though, as it�s been really lonely here. With my recent trip and then
      the funeral, I�ve been in a real funk and having trouble concentrating on
      how to change my research plans now that I cannot go to Gulu. I am
      interested in children and their roles in national unity efforts, so I want
      to work with some local schools. But the schools are about to break for
      their long holidays and won�t return until February. So I am just trying to
      survey a few area schools now and see about setting up work with them during
      the next term. In the meantime, I hope to continue with learning Luganda, to
      interview parents and teachers about changing notions of childhood and
      nationhood, and study some of the national curriculums for social studies
      and other subjects relevant to nationalism and citizenship.
      My own Christmas plans are up in the air right now. Hamiddah�s brother and
      her two kids are coming from abroad to visit, so I imagine I�ll be spending
      it doing a few things with them. Forty days after a Muslim dies, the family
      returns to the cemetery to pray for them and lay the tombstone, so they will
      be here for that. We were all invited to Dar Es Salaam and Mombasa by
      friends, but I�m not sure whether we�ll still do that now. I will just wait
      and see.
      People are avidly following the US election debacle here. They get a bit of
      satisfaction out of seeing the US having election troubles. After hearing
      the US harping on other countries to have democratic elections, it is
      healthy for the US to admit that the system is fallible and imperfect, and
      open to the same criticisms as developing countries. I must say, also, that
      I have not talked to one non-national who wants to see Bush as the US
      president, and some of them (Africans and Europeans) are far more educated
      about the issues than many Americans. They see the position of the US
      president as a world leader position, and so take a great interest. This is
      also in the context of Uganda gearing up for elections early next year� Hope
      that doesn�t throw me for another loop in my field work!
      Since I was just in the States, I�m pretty well stocked up on things I like
      to have that I can�t get here. But since people have asked, I guess I can
      always put a shout out for taped episodes of ER, Frasier, and Will &Grace.
      I�m getting tired of the Diff�rent Strokes reruns here. I also always
      welcome good new music (I have a CD and a cassette player here), good books,
      pasta sauce mixes, anything chewy or gummy, and of course, lots of mail!
      Having messages in the Inbox is the best remedy for anything that ails me �
      and ironically makes me much more productive � so please keep in touch.

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