Friday, June 27, 2008

When I imagined Africa

When I imagined Africa, I conjured up National Geographic-type safari pictures in my mind. Gulu has been different- roads, dust, shacks, bright colors, bore holes and people everywhere. However, Sunday, I was in those pictures. We walked through tall grass where I imagined lions could be lurking (they weren’t). Our excursion was about an hour from Gulu to an old slave fort where, like everything else in this place, horror exists side by side with incredible beauty. A rocky outcrop of a mountain was a half-hour’s walk away, so six of us fought our way through a semi-path of tall grasses in order to reach the base of a granite mound. Kids were playing on the top, and yelled down to us the best way to climb up. The elevation rise was quick, and I was out-of-breath, but the view that overlooked miles and miles of fertile green land in every direction was spectacular. The children laughed at us as we spoke and sang and played with them, (We tried to jump in unison in the attached picture); some of our group wanted to keep climbing up, but the rest of us waited in the grasses at the top with the incredible view at our feet. We returned to the fort in the late afternoon with sounds of birds and bugs in the grass, we ate a picnic, then had a tour of the fort. There are still axe marks in the rocks where people were beheaded; and we were shown the rock ledge where those who were deemed not worthy of being slaves (too infirm or weak) were shot by firing squad, then conveniently thrown off the ledge. It was chilling to stand in the very same spot where such atrocities happened. In 1872, Samuel Baker, (the same man for whom my school is named) a British explorer, learned of the fort, recruited 400 British soldiers, and ended the trade there by overrunning the Arabian traders. Ugandans actually memorialize the spot as much for the rescue as for the atrocities. When we questioned whether it was appropriate to have a picnic on the grounds of such a horrible place, Aleki said “ I don’t understand this obsession of the Americans with slavery. There were slaves, but there was an end to the slavery.) His statement seems indicative of the message we hear over and over- the answer is not to avenge the deaths of the people who have died, or even, to “demand justice” as most of us in the Western world would beg for. Instead, it is the desire to forgive, to move on, to reconcile, and live in peace.

Everyday in the staff room at school, when anyone enters, he or she greets every single person in the room. I am used to the usual greetings, but there was a new one (for me) yesterday. Translated it means, “Thank-you for waking up.” This is said with a broad smile, and it is sincere. Again, the capacity to be gracious, kind, warm, and friendly in the midst of this desperate pain and this horrific suffering never ceases to overwhelm me. Yesterday, when I was in the back of my classroom, I noticed at least five horrible scars on the backs of the heads of my students. Yet they smile shyly with warm appreciation …poverty, death, survival walk right alongside joy, singing, hope and kindness.