at least a thousand words

what once was

what once was

train tracks near soroti, uganda through my windshield.



i lingered a little too long in bed this morning trying to finish reading a very interesting  novel and therefore did not have time to drink my coffee at home. this is an important element to the story that follows below. (for this human being to function properly she needs coffee. lots of it.)

being decidedly “old-fashioned” in various ways i have acquired an old-fashioned pen-pal. (she’s not really old-fashioned. or old, for that matter. so the pen-pal is not the object of the adjective of old-fashioned. the having  of an actual pen-pal to whom one writes handwritten letters and sends with a stamp instead of a click, is what is meant by “old-fashioned.”  just to clear that up.)

she is a fellow duke-grad who has recently moved to uganda as a part of her life of ministry.

while uganda is a “small” country, kampala is quite far from kotido, especially considering the road conditions (or lack thereof) and state of public transportation on said roads.

seconds after this conversation was had (via text message/sms, of course) i sat myself down to write my first installment card.

having written a heart-felt and delightful card (hum, maybe) i affixed a stamp that i had previously purchased in kampala and set out to find the post office. (yes, you are correct in wondering, “gee, haven’t you been in kotido for over nine months now? and you don’t know where the post office is?” it is not that i do not know WHERE the post office is, but it is really more of a question of WHEN is the post office open? i have never seen it open and no one really seems to be able to answer that question…)

i inquired after several people around my office and the diocese to ask if anyone else was going to the post office, of if they had the magic knowledge of when it would be open.  no one seemed to be planning to mail anything nor did anyone seem to know when the post office would be open. today, if ever…

i returned the letter to my office desk where i promptly forgot about it until friday around noon. i took the cute little card in hand and set off to the diocese’s development office which is larger and actually staffed. (i’ve been the only church of uganda employee around our offices since last thursday morning…) i was told that it would have to go by airplane (MAF which is the missionary aviation fellowship) to kampala and then be mailed from there.

i saw this slightly as defeat, since i have now affixed a stamp for a journey that will not be paid for by said stamp. drat. this is only compounded by the rigamarole i went through this morning to get said card onto said airplane headed to kampala today.

MAF comes to kotido every monday, wednesday and friday morning around 10:00–so this morning i headed with little card over to the development office to see if i could put it in with the things that they were sending, or if someone from the diocese was going to the airstrip and then i could just send it directly.

if only things were truly that easy.
the first time i ventured to the office, no one was there. so i was walking away when i heard rita talking to someone else. i whipped around and tried to catch her attention, but she was talking lively to someone else. nancy was coming up the path so she and i talked for a few minutes and i made my inquiry to her as well. she didn’t really have much to say on the matter to me, but clipped something off to rita in ngakarimajong that i didn’t really catch much of.

rita then ran over to the accounts office, came running back with some envelopes in hand and zipped past me into the development office. she flung open the cabinet (i should mention that rita is generally very calm and not prone to fling things about) and rummaged around for something.

when she turned around to face nancy and i again she had a cute yellow bag in her hands–she was shoving the envelopes in said cute yellow bag toward me and shouted, “OXFAM!”

i was too busy studying this sweet bag made from a yellow pillowcase with green letters about two inches tall hand-stitched to the outside that say “kotido” to realize that she was a) handing something to me and b) ordering me to take it to oxfam. stat.

after the shock subsided i took the bag and asked hesitantly,
“you… want… me… to…. take this… to… oxfam?”

“yes.” was the stereo reply i received from rita and nancy.


it was at this point i remembered the coffee that was now probably unfortunately far too cool for my taste awaiting me on my desk. i hesitated between turning left for a trip to my office to grab my coffee (it wouldn’t be the first time i walked around kotido drinking my morning coffee out of a real coffee cup) or go straight towards the exit of the compound and towards oxfam.
while i was deciding i heard “OXFAM!” barked at me from the veranda of the development office, so option one it was. straight away. oxfam. here i go. on foot.

it was maybe 9:35 and already getting pretty hot. i was contemplating just going back for my vehicle and taking an adventure (with my coffee,thank you.) to the airstrip personally when an oxfam vehicle turned the corner and was coming towards me.

“what luck!” i thought. i waved the yellow bag in the air, thinking surely its the universal symbol for “this is a mail bag, you are going to the airstrip and should therefore take this with you, because you are a kind and wonderful human being.”

instead, the oxfam driver waved at me as if i had greeted him.

i waved/flailed at the driver as he approached (going at a fairly fast speed, i might say) and he took this for another, more energetic greeting and waved back.

i then had a flash of brilliance and made the “come here” gesture with my hand (arm straight out, palm down, make grabbing gesture with arm still straight out). and he stopped. (what luck!)

i walked up to the passenger side door and opened it before he had a chance to roll down the window–we went through the formality of greeting and i then inquired as to if he were indeed going to the airstrip and would he be ever-so-kind as to take this mail bag with him.

he said he wasn’t (crap) but picked up his walkie-talkie (sweet) and asked who was going and then asked if they would pass by the church of uganda compound for a passenger. he didn’t even say “mzungu” (white person) which won him, and thereby oxfam, major points in my book. i thanked him (probably more than i should have) and then walked back to the gate to await the newly redirected second oxfam vehicle.

the vehicle going to the airstrip, driven by a fellow i would shortly learn is called francis, actually beat me to the gate, so i ran the last few meters–becoming every more aware that i still have not had any coffee yet.

francis and i greeted each other and exchanged pleasantries before i asked the favor. he seemed a little disappointed that i wasn’t going to the airstrip, just this little bag of mail–sorry, dude.

with that, he was off to the airstrip with a little bag of mail headed for kampala and i was off to my office to finally have my coffee, which thankfully, wasn’t as cold as i was expecting it to be after all that drama. hurrah.

adventures in food: intsallment one, bus breakfast

its early–maybe 6:30 a.m.

i haven’t had breakfast.

or more importantly, coffee.

nevertheless, i’m wide awake, having just taken a boda all the way across kampala city to get to this bus and find a decent seat. these boda adventures are quite the wake up call…

i buy a soda (caffeinated, mind  you) from one of the young boys who wander the aisles of each bus in the park, clinking the bottle openers against the glass, hoping – i assume- that a pavlovian response from passengers will compel us to purchase 250ml of their wares…putting them that much closer to…what? school fees? new shoes? food for their families?

the soda is quickly finished and the bottle returned to the young man–it is then i begin to contemplate my growing hunger…

i turn down chapati, samosas… no one seems to be selling fruit this morning.

then, she appears. a woman bearing brown paper bags.

she is wearing a blue apron for the outdoor restaurant just outside the bus park– she shuffles up the aisle of the bus in ill-fitting shoes, quietly calling out the contents of her brown paper bags, music to my ears–to my stomach!


a traveler's breakfast

a traveler's breakfast

inside the brown paper bag is a cavera (plastic bag) full of chips (french fries [freedom fries? no.]) little bits of roasted goat and a tiny little cavera full of tomato top up (gelatinous ketchup of east-africa).

a wee cavera of top up

a wee cavera of top up

the salty and greasy goodness was exactly what i needed to sustain me through the long bus ride to mbale and on to soroti. the salty and greasy goodness was also washed down with a second 250 ml of coke-a-cola. (it was cold. i couldn’t resist.)

who needs “fast food” when you can have “chipsy….muchomo…” brought to you in your bus seat by a lovely woman who calls you sister… who indeed.

karamoja math

the last time i did laundry in an act of knowing laziness i left the multicolored clothespins hanging helplessly on the laundry lines.

they have been bunched together

on the three lines by the strong karamoja winds

into an oddly colorful abacus

whose math


as mysterious to me

as the soft language i am trying to learn.

ejok a?


ikitoverang dadaang.

karamoja math

the hostility of the karimajong became hospitality*1: an introduction ceremony

from very early in my time in karamoja i knew that i would be participating in the introduction ceremony for christine and francis.  i was not asked, i was told. i was not given an opportunity to demure or attempt humility at being ‘asked’ but ordered when and where to show up for events leading up to the introduction ceremony. i was happy to comply and be ordered around.

the first six months of this mzungu’s life in karamoja was peppered with preparations for the introduction–committee meetings after church nearly every sunday, learning how to bead with the other ‘maids’, getting to know the bride better, asking questions about the nature of an introduction ceremony and the culture surrounding it.*2

the bride (christine) is a karimajong from kotido, and the groom (francis) is ateso, from soroti. she is anglican and he is a part of the pentecostal assemblies of god church. not only were christine and francis stepping towards their own new life together, but they were pulling their tribes, their churches–their people–into a new relationship that is a far cry from the previous relationship the karimajong and ateso shared.*3

meetings were held after church nearly every sunday for these six months. it was a beautiful and inspirational thing to watch the church community come together as the family to plan and fund this introduction and wedding. all the maamas were christine’s maama. all the fathers were christine’s father. all the sisters her sisters… i was quickly enveloped in this family and given responsibilities, was expected to give my opinion and to contribute to the cause in some way.*4 with being a great eye into the family of this church and community it was also a quick entry for me into the family–into the community. here was a wiling able-bodied and eager warm-body, that is rarely ignored. i collected  phone numbers and names, learned where people live…who their families were…and became a part of the inner workings of the community.

most of the meetings were too long, boring and hot. many times i found myself contemplating my growling tummy and my growing caffeine headache… but there moments during these meetings, especially when christine was around for them, that reflected what i think the community of christ should look like: working together for a common cause; with love, respect and commitment to maintaining unity (even if that meant compromising).

most of our conversations involved funding–where was the money going to come from to keep francis’ family when they were in kotido–where was the funding going to come from to pay for petrol for the vehicles–where can we find money to pay for the gifts for the introduction? we were given a budget very early on, in maybe the second meeting of the committee, of everything that the bride and groom suspected would be needed (or wanted) for the wedding and introduction. this budget included things like the bride’s dress down to the how much it would cost for the bride’s nails to be done to the marriage certificate to two large celebration poppers for the reception…

members of the committee were invited to choose something to ‘sponsor’ from the list. my housemate and i chose the wedding certificate and the poppers–something serious and something fun–and were prepared to happily donate for those things when the plan suddenly changed. (this is to be expected, just so you know.) the need shifted from these specific things to needing money for fuel for the vehicles bringing the grooms family and friends from soroti to karamoja for the introduction. after a short discussion kelly and i upped our contribution a bit and donated to the cause.

thanks to the generosity of the committee (who are the middle or upper class of kotido), the congregation (ranging from those who speak no english and had no money to donate to those who are more well off than all members of the committee put together) and the community (everyone knows and loves christine) the family of francis was transported to kotido, slept in the church of uganda’s guest house and was fed well by maama bishop (rose).

the night before the introduction there was a gathering for the two families, i think it involved a goat roast, at the guest house. kelly was feeling ill, so neither of us ended up going. (we also had no idea what time it was to start, if we were expected to be there, if we were to bring anything… no one we asked was really able to answer any of these questions for us–so we opted to stay home and speculate on the following days activities.)

in typical ugandan (east-african? african?) fashion we were not told the correct time to arrive for the events of the actual day of the introduction. we were told something like 7:00 a.m. and being westerners showed up pretty close to 7:00 a.m…. we wandered to the center armed with cameras and shod with our ugandan sandals (probably actually from kenya) as we were instructed to do. upon our arrival we were quickly handed arm-full upon arm-full of beads.

nancy sorts out beads for kelly and i


sorts out beads for kelly and i

beads for the waist, beads for the neck, beads for the arms, beads for the head, beads for the ears…it was a slightly overwhelming experience for around 7:30 a.m.!

our friend rhoda walked us to the home of christine’s mother, where the introduction would be held. we arrived to find the bride-to-be in curlers sitting outside enjoying the sun and the company of her sisters. much to her chagrin, i took her ‘before’ picture as she lounged on a bench.

kelly and christine

kelly and christine

kelly and i were ushered into a small house where we handed our beads over to some maamas who were gracious enough to help us figure out what in the world to do with all these beads…where do they go? how do we put them on? more like a sideways do we untangle them? they expertly untangled and rearranged our borrowed waist beads and then wrapped them around our waiting waists–i felt a bit like a bobbin being wound for the sewing machine.

once we were beaded properly, from head to toe, we were given our new traditional skirts that had been made for the occasion as well as a new tank top to complete the outfit. we were dressed and ready to go by 10:00 as the other ladies trickled in–their sandals and shoes creating a mountain of footwear outside the door. this scene outside a home has become a sign of hospitality and friendship in the short time that i have been in uganda.

everyone was ready by around 11:00 including christine who was looking beautiful in her first outfit of the day. christinewe were had milk-tea and mandazi around the time the ladies were through dressing and sat around chatting about the day and other such things you chat about with new friends.

once we were dressed in our introduction outfits we were not allowed to leave the room for fear of being seen by the grooms family or, heaven forbid, the groom himself! those who needed to venture out for whatever reason had to wrap a kikoi all around them so that the outfit did not show at all. one of christine’s sisters, florence, periodically would go out to see what was keeping the ceremony from going on… we had been waiting about five hours in this small room packed with women and a few visiting children and people were getting hot and antsy…

apparently, the negotiations between the would-be bride and groom’s family was taking much much longer than expected. even though things were arranged before hand, the conversation stretched far beyond the planned start time of the introduction as well right through the lunch hour–which was supposed to be the end of the ceremony (serving everyone lunch and bidding farewell).

someone made a call to the “outside” world and requested some chapati to be delivered to the ‘starving’ maids in the house. some gracious friend of a friend went to town and bought out some chapati dealer so that we had something to eat–some crates of soda were also delivered–we were sustained.

suddenly things were on the move–the parents had come to a consensus and had moved out of their small discussion room, just next to our house, and were paying to get their shoes back (if shoes were left outside the house they were taken by the bride’s family/clan and they are not returned without a small fee–very puckish!). this thrust our little feminine-fleet to assemble ourselves into our four groups and get ready for the ceremony to get started!


all of us in the “skirts” group jumped to our feet and arranged ourselves in our very well rehearsed lines–we were tossed our shoes from the pile that had been moved from outside into our house (we didn’t want to pay!) and we stood in our two lines. waiting.

talk about hurry up and wait. we stood in our two lines for about twenty minutes before we were allowed to move outside into the deliciously warm sunshine–where we stood still long enough for me to no longer thing the sunshine was delicious but rather hot that day… finally finally finally the music came on and we in the first group were dancing our way out to be inspected by the groom’s family.

we came around the corner of the house and were funneled by the large crowds that did not fit under the two tents between the families tents. there was a large mat set out in front of the bride’s tent (facing the groom’s family tent) that we all kneeled on (in perfect unison, thank you) after we’d danced ourselves into position.

the m.c. then invited the groom and his family to see if the bride was among this group of women–“is she here?” “is that her?” “is it one of those buzungu (white people)?” the family approached each of us as we allowed them to inspect us. (there were maybe 10-15 of us in this group.)

inspection shot

inspection shot

my jawbone was scrutinized (i was told it was nice), my eyes gazed into (i was told they are pretty) and my hair inspected (it was found to be surprisingly soft). one member of francis’ family even poked my right arm. i would like to think he was surprised at the firmness of said arm and biceps…   maybe not. but maybe.

after several looks over and perhaps one too many jokes about the “white jie” the groom announced that his bride was not in this group.being chased awaywe were then nicely chased away by the family–nice enough meaning that we were able to dance away, not run like some of the latter groups.

my vantage point for the remaining groups was mostly nonexistent. if by mostly i mean completely. i was able to see the remaining two groups that did not contain the bride dance out and be consumed by the crowds that would part for the groups to pass and then fill back in like a flowing stream only to part again to let them come back through when chased away. the chasing away of each group intensified with every group.

we were teased away–being told we were too young yet, and maybe in a few years we would find our groom–the second group teased a little but almost being accused of trying to fool the bride, and the third group (the last one before the bride) was sent back through the crowd at a lope–deceivers!



finally it was time for christine’s group to go out. she was hidden within a group of women who were all already married–the formed a circle around here, hiding her from view. we could hear the m.c. narrating francis thinking he saw her, “is that her?” “no.” “maybe?” as soon as he found her, the shouting and celebrations began–all of us girls who had been out before now rushed out to celebrate that francis had found christine among all of the karimajong women. there was ululating and dancing and shouting and singing!

after the celebrations died down a bit (helped along by the m.c. encouraging people to please sit back down) the giving of gifts began. francis’ family and friends offered many things to christine and her family–mostly food stuffs from goats to apples to cans of coke.  the stream of gifts lasted for quite some time–and the goats brayed loudly through the entire process–either they knew their fates of a delicious feast a few days later or were just shy and did not like being in front of all of those people…

after the gift giving there were speeches, as is typical in uganda. they were also long, as is also typical in uganda. i was super pleased that we were able to miss out on this excitement (or lack thereof) because we were eating our 5:30 p.m. lunch so that we could serve a 7:00p.m. lunch to those gathered.

all of us who were participating in the introduction were also those to serve the food–we hauled tables from behind the tents into the center area, carried vats of posho, beans, meat, chapati and rice from the kitchen area to the tables where we set up shop and prepared to dole out our assigned food.

i served chapati–a greasy flat-bread that i don’t actually like very much. it was a easy thing to serve–and felt a bit like communion. not a lot, but a bit. there was random 1990’s worship music blaring during the serving, eating and cleaning up. kind of an odd combination to my american/western mind, but it is what it is, right?

after the serving and cleaning up, while people were still eating, the m.c. thanked everyone who participated in the introduction. kelly and i were the only ones who were made to come out in front of everyone. how embarrassing. we were introduced by our ngikarimajong names and called the “white jie”. he also told the ateso who were afoot that negotiations for our introduction and weddings were possible–and 500 cows for each of us was the beginning number. (thats a lot. and mostly impossible. thank god.) everyone (except maybe us) thought that was hysterical. i had a small chat with him later, saying that i hoped he was kidding (i cannot and do not speak for kelly…) and that some people did not think he was. which i found less amusing than he thought i should. thus is life. unfortunately.

more soda than i have had in one day since perhaps my days at slumber parties and girl-scout events was practically forced down my throat that evening–as it is rude to leave things behind. all food must be eaten and all drink consumed. so, get to it. i thought i was drowning. the food disappeared without me having to eat another piece of meat or force down another chapati. soda i can handle. sleep? who needs it…

the night ended with a lovely walk under the stars with caroline, a neighbor, as we escorted one another home.
    the breeze was cool and the stars brilliant. the walk a lovely slow, no worries pace and the conversation warm.

once home made sure to make photo-documentation of my beaded self before unwrapping all the beads from my body and washing off a long, dusty hot day of turning hostility to hospitality. a good day in karamoja. a good day, indeed.



*1  this phrase was used by a member of the introduction organizing committee during our evaluation meeting a few days after the introduction. for more information about the historical hostilities between the karimajon and ateso is found below.
*2 there were also a lot of questions about hot the introduction ceremony was going to be ‘modernized’ and ‘christianized’ for this particular ceremony–not only the ones i asked, but the ones the community asked and then answered from within.
*3 while the ateso and karimajong tribes are related (the k’jong are refered to as the ‘grandfathers’ and the ateso as the ‘nephews’–these tribes as well as the masai, turkana and pokot of kenya all came from ethopia. the k’jong stopped first, here in the karamoja because they were tired of walking thereby dubbing them the grandfathers. the ateso, pokot and turkana went a bit further and are the nephews. the masai went the farthest and are considered the sons of the grandfathers.) they have a rough history of fighting over land and cattle. the ateso war was some time ago but lingering hostilities remain mostly in snide remarks and distrust.
*4 mostly monetarily, but that stereotype was quick to break as the group realized i was more likely and able to give my time and my physical resources than money…