The Ups and Downs of Getting to Haiti

We crossed an international border illegally in the bed of a truck with supplies to build twenty latrines in the mountains of Haiti.  We knew our destination, but not the route.  We knew we would get there, but we did not know when.  We knew we would cross the border, but we had no idea where.

We’d spent the day waiting.  The plan was to leave in the morning, but morning came and we were already a day behind, so we waited.  Just when we thought that we were going to be delayed another day, our contact with Children of the Border showed up at our hotel in Pedernales in the Dominican Republic.  She came with a truck full of supplies for the latrines we were going to build in Haiti.  It was 5pm, a couple hours until dusk, and we had no idea how long the journey would be.  Still, we threw our bags into the back and jumped on after them.  We arranged ourselves on the 2x4s and headed for the border.   

Since we were not crossing at an official border crossing—no stamps for our passports—we did not know when the border was crossed.  There were a couple possibly official possibly unofficial stopping points.  Each time there was lots of discussion in rapid Spanish.  Each time one of the men would come to the back of the truck, greeted us, and shake each of our hands.  Turns out that none of these stops was the border.  The border was a dry river bed that we crossed later.  

After about an hour and a half, at dusk, we arrived.  We arrived at a building standing alone in the mountains.  It was a large rectangular concrete building with a huge cement pad in front.  It looked more like a storage facility than a home.  We unpacked all the supplies and discovered that this was just a halfway point.  Another truck was supposed to meet us and take us the rest of the way.  It had already left.  

We waited.  Our first truck left.  There was no telling when the second truck would return.  It could be an hour or five, that night or the next morning.  I leaned on the supplies piled on the concrete and watched the stars.  I saw a dozen shooting stars.  The others tried to befriend a puppy that was wondering around.  Several Haitian men met us there and they taught us some Creole words in exchange for English ones.  They built a fire and threw corn cobs directly into the flames.  When the leaves were burned they pulled them off and threw the naked cobs back in the fire.  When a cob was deemed done someone would hand it to one of us—straight from the fire it was too hot to hold.  We had to juggle them from hand to hand until they were cool enough to eat.  

After dinner we put on extra clothes to lie under the stars and go to sleep.  At 3:15am the second truck arrived.  So we packed the supplies and jumped in.  This time the road was bumpier than before.  This time the turns were sharper.  This time the hills were steeper.  This time there was no room for sitting.  This time we stood hanging on to the metal frame over the bed.  This time we dodged low branches and grabbed low hanging fruit off the vine.  

Around 5am we stopped—seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  I could see no sign of civilization except the unpaved road we were parked on.  But we disembarked.  Finally we were there.  A house emerged from the darkness as we began to unload the supplies.  The strongest among us carried the wood, zinc, and concrete into the house and yard while the rest of us lit their way with our headlamps and flashlights.  

I was ready for my bed.  But instead of my bed I was given bad news.  We were not at our house, we were at the mason’s house.  We still had to walk to our house and we were waiting for dawn to get started.  I don’t know how long we waited—I slept some in my chair at the dining room table—but we didn’t wait for dawn.  We put on our packs and started walking without any idea how far we were going or how long it would take.  Turned out our house was the 45 minutes away on the next mountain over.  We had to descend into a valley and ascend the next mountain.  By the time we got there the sun had risen.  We went to bed about 8am and slept until lunch.  

The day was long, uncomfortable, full of changed plans, and it was wonderful. 


Interfaith Lessons Learned from a Witch Camp

Kukuo, in northern Ghana, is home to a camp for alleged witches.  There women who have been accused of witchcraft come looking for safety.  They come looking because if they stay home they are in danger of beatings, torture, even death.  Often the women who arrive at Kukuo have already suffered at the hands of their neighbors, friends, and family. They come seeking safety and they find it.  

The safety comes from the local belief in the special nature of the land.  Kukuo is built on land connected to small gods that makes Kukuo a peaceful place.  This was explained to us by the chief of the village during our first meeting in Kukuo.  It was elaborated on when we met with the fetish priest who facilitates cleansing rituals for the alleged witches that neutralize their power.  One alleged witches told us she came to Kukuo—as opposed to the another camp for alleged witches—because Kukuo is a peaceful place.  

We were told that Kukuo is 80% Muslim and 20% traditional religion.  But belief in witchcraft crosses the spectrum.  All the women we talked to all believed in the validity of witchcraft even as they professed their innocence of practicing it.  Many of them also easily talked about God—with Islamic language.  

Kukuo's fetish priestKukuo's fetish priest.

The fetish priest equally had no problem with the beliefs of his Islamic neighbors.  They are quite compatible with his.  As he explained his beliefs, there are small gods and oracles.  The small gods are like aspects of Almighty God and the oracles are like messengers of the small gods.  The small gods are connected to the place.  We had learned earlier from the chief that an important power, maybe the most important power, in respect to the alleged witches, is that the small gods will not allow malice in the hearts of anyone who comes to the camp.  The chief told us that if he had had bad thoughts about us as we walked in he would not have survived our meeting.  He would have died—if not physically, spiritually.  And the same was true for us, if we had bad thoughts about anyone in the camp.  This is part of why the women are safe there.  The other residents literally cannot have bad intentions toward the alleged witches.  

The resistants of Kukuo cannot harbor ill will toward the alleged witches once they step foot on the land.  Once the alleged witches undergo a cleansing ritual at the local shrine they become full members of the community.  The ritual begins with slaughtering a chicken—if it dies face up she is innocent, face down she is guilty.  But no one but the priest and the alleged witch—and occasionally her family—know the outcome.  The priest told us he cannot tell.  No one can tell.  If you tell you die.  Just like if you have malicious thoughts.  Every woman, whether she is guilty or innocent, takes a concoction.  If she was a witch the concoction strips her of her powers.  She is “born again.”  But she must confess.  If she is witch and does not admit it the concoction will cause her diarrhea and she will die within three months.  If she was innocent it harmlessly cleanses her. 

The priest told us that only 20% of his community are of his traditional religion.  Yet, everyone believes in the purification ritual.  This is not true, however.  The local mullah was clear—witchcraft beliefs are not compatible with Islam.  The mullah told us that he has nothing to do with the alleged witches before they complete the purification ritual.  Only the chief and the fetish priest do.  The mullah told us he does not believe in it.  Not in the ritual, not in witchcraft, not in power coming from anyone or anything other than God.  Belief in witchcraft is simply not compatible with Islam.  The priest told us that traditional religion and Islam are compatible because Almighty God and Allah are really the same.  Islam and traditional religion just have different ways of relating to God.  The mullah disagreed.  He said that all power comes from God.  Witches can’t use that power.  Witches don’t exist.  A true Muslim does not believe in witchcraft and a true Muslim would not willingly submit to a purification ritual.  

At the beginning of our visit, it seemed we had found a place where two belief systems had actually managed to live together in peace.  But leaving our meeting with the mullah it became clear that it is not so simple.  The mullah’s point of view is strongly opposed to the ease with with others conflate Islamic and and witchcraft beliefs.  The priest happily folds Islamic belief into his world view.  The alleged witches, most of whom are Islamic, still believe in validity of witchcraft.  Despite the mullah’s adamant stance that no good Muslim can.  

Kukuo mosque with a witch's hut in the foreground.Kukuo's mosque with an alleged witch's hut in the foreground.

The mullah is fundamentally at odds with the priest and the chief where beliefs are concerned.  He does not support their cleansing ritual nor any reinforcement of beliefs in witchcraft.  Their beliefs are at odds but as members of the Kukuo community they are not at odds with each other.  Their actions are perfectly in line.  The mullah said much the same thing that the chief had told us.  If your faith is strong then you won’t think bad things about others.  The mullah counsels forgiveness.  He welcomes alleged witches to his congregation.  He helps the women acquire appropriate clothing for prayers and helps facilitate the building of their huts in Kukuo.  He worries about their food and water supply, even as he can do little to relieve these burdens.  He works toward reconciliation between the women and their home communities.  

The mullah actively works to better the lives of these women.  He helps make Kukuo a place safe from violence and fear.  He helps them set up new lives there.  And he tries, if possible, to get them safely home.  So does the chief.  So does the priest.  We were told time and time again that it does not matter if these women ever had the power or not—it does not even matter if one believes witchcraft is real—they are victims of human rights abuses.  The priest and mullah’s beliefs might be at odds, but they can live together in peace because their problems, goals, and actions are not. 

This post was originally published at State of Formation.  



Ghana Through My Lens


dozens of wooden boats in a harborHarbor view from roof of Elmina slave castle near Cape Coast, Ghana.


Man on rocks with mussels in metal bowls. Man resting after diving for mussels near Cape Coast slave castle.



Busy colorful market. Makola Market in Accra, Ghana.



Cannon in foreground and soccer players on beach in background.Men playing soccer on the beach in front of Cape Coast slave castle.



Fetish PriestThe fetish priest from Kukuo camp for accused witches who performs purification rituals on the accused witches.



Skenka Kwame -- an accused witchSkenka Kwame who was accused of witchcraft along with nine other people. One of them was a man. Men who are accused of witchcraft must also be purified but they are allowed to return home to their lives immediately after. Women who return risk their lives.



Senetu KojoSenetu Kojo has been at Kukuo for three years without any family help. Despite having her national healthcare card she can't get the care she needs. The local pharmacy does not carry the medicine she needs and she does not have the means to get to the closest town. The paste on her face is an herbal remedy she uses instead.



Senetu Kojo's only possessions.Senetu Kojo's only possessions.



Amientu Iddrissa --an accused witch and her daughter and grandsonHere are three generations. Amientu Iddrissa(left) has been accused of witchcraft and her daughter (right) has come to live with her mother with two of her own children. The daughter's husband left her when Amientu was accused. Amientu worries about how she will get by when her daughter gets remarried and leaves her alone in the camp.


Surprising Smiles with Accused Witches in Ghana

In Ghana, like much of Africa, belief in witchcraft is quite common.  So are witchcraft accusations.  The vast majority of accusations are levied at old women.  Who can no longer produce children.  Often they are widows without a male relative who can or will protect them from the accusation. 

Inside an accused witch's tent Most of an accused witch's possessions inside her hut.

Most of the women we meet were accused by those indebted to them.  In the polygamous society of northern Ghana, women are commonly accused by younger, rival wives.  These accusations can come from anyone and at any time.  The foundation of an accusation is usually unexplained sickness or death.  An appearance in a victim’s dream can be sufficient evidence.  

Ghana’s camps for accused witches, more commonly called witch camps, are a depressing place.  Here women who have been banished from their home communities, and often beaten and tortured on the way out, find a safe place.  They are safe because they are purified in a cleansing ritual performed by a traditional priest at the camp shrine.  If they had powers before, now they are gone.  Here they are safe from violence and further accusation that would likely come from their neighbors or their own family.  But in the camps they struggle to live.  

At the camp we visited, Kukuo, women must walk miles for water each day.  In the wet season the walk is farther and steeper.  At Kukuo, the women cannot afford to rethatch their roofs, which needs to be done at least every three years, so many cannot find a dry place to lay their head.  Until the rain stops, they have to sit up or risk pneumonia.   When they left their homes their possessions were taken or destroyed.  They are forbidden to take anything with them.  So at Kukuo they do not have the capital to start a new business or farm.  Simply acquiring food is a sometimes insurmountable obstacle.  Often a granddaughter lives at the camp with an accused witch helping her to survive.  Without a helper, for these accused witches, some of whom are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, the task of survival becomes exponentially higher.  But, merely being at the camp, for the granddaughter, increases the likelihood of an accusation of her own.  Guilt by association—or inheritance.  Kukuo is a safe place, not a carefree place.  

Which is why the experience of husking corn with these women was so enchanting.  Action Aid Songtoba, which advocates for the rights of the accused witches, had donated three acres of corn to the accused witches.  For some of the women, all their food comes through these kinds of donations.  The corn was delivered and left in a large pile in one of the larger, non-witch huts in the community.  (One of the unique things about Kukuo is that the accused witches are not segregated into their own area.  In Kukuo they live among, and as part of, the larger community.)  To get the dried kernels from the husks the women begin by beating the corn with sticks.  They work rhythmically together singing to keep time.  Our guide and translator told us the songs were thanks to the Kukuo community for not abandoning them and for recognizing their humanity.  

The beating does not rid the husks of all the kernels, so behind the beaters is a second line of women manually removing the holdouts.  Some do it with their hands.  Others rub the cobs together.  A couple had pieces of metal that looked like large cheese graters that did most of the work for them.  I sat with these women to remove my share of kernels.  The old woman on my left was laughing, smiling, and singing.  She gave me some smiles that I returned and she tried to talk to me.  Unfortunately, I don’t speak her language. 

Corn Husker An accused witch clapping to the work music sitting on a bed of kernels.

Fortunately, we got over our language barrier to communicate when Conor took a turn beating the cobs.  She loved it.  She giggled and slapped my knee and shook my shoulder indicating that I should take in this sight.  Her giddiness probably had something to do with the color of his skin, but I think it mostly had to do with his gender, which was conspicuous in the room full of old, accused witches.  When he finished he had half a dozen kernels stuck in his beard.  

When there was a lull in the action—when we were waiting for a fresh supply of cobs—I would run my hands though the kernels looking for buried cobs.  The old lady next to me was doing this too, but she also threw kernels at me.  At first, a few at a time, but she quickly started throwing handfuls.  Laughing I threw some back at her.  During another lull she buried my feet in the kernels.  It was wonderful to interact with an alleged witch in this way.  So many of our other meetings with them were about their tragedy—how they came to be at the camp and their conditions now that they are there.  This meeting was playful and joyful.  This interaction was so at odds with the rest of our visit.  I am so glad I met this woman.  Without this woman our visit to Kukuo would have been full of only tears and frustrations.  But if she can laugh and sing and play inside a camp for alleged witches, I can leave with a little hope.  


Confessions of a Female Traveler Part II

Our first night in Ghana we stayed at a hostel just across the street from the beach—not too shabby. Naturally, almost immediately after dropping our bags, we were at the beach. We split up and the first thing I did was go and stand in the surf. I have this thing about saying I touched this or that body of water—Pacific from the west, Pacific from the east, Red Sea, Dead Sea, Ganges, Loch Ness, Atlantic from the east, and, now, Atlantic from the west. I only stood there a couple of minutes before a man approached me and started a conversation with me. I don’t remember what we said, but it was pretty banal—and over after just a few back and forths. I didn’t realize it yet, but this fellow was the first of many men who would approach me at the beach that day.

I moved back from the surf and sat down to read. I hadn't finished a page before another man approached me. He sat down next to me. Right next to me. I could feel the heat radiating from his skin. He asked me some questions. Did I live around here? What was I doing in Ghana? How long had I been in Ghana? Was I alone at the beach? This last question was the most frequent question asked of me on that beach. It came to feel threatening. Because of the sheer number of times it was asked. Because of the relative lack of women on the beach. I was one of a handful of women on the beach. I counted six, including me and Michelle, to the dozens and dozens of men I could see. Men playing in the waves and playing in soccer on the beach. It was asked with the friendliest of tones—but still felt threatening. This man asked me to join him and his friends down the beach at a house, party, or bar. It wasn’t exactly clear to me where. Not that that mattered—I wasn’t going. His friends joined him and stood around me. They did not exactly make the invitation more inviting, from my point of view.

They finally left me, but they did not leave me in peace. Soon yet another man sat in front of me. I had my knees bent and my feet flat on the ground making a triangle. This man slid one of his legs right under mine. At first his leg was just there, not actually touching mine. But through the conversation it inched closer and closer eventually resting on my ankle—for a second before I pulled away. The conversation was just like the last. Where are you from? Are you alone? Come with me.

After he left I had some time. I read a little. I watched the waves—much like flames, waves mesmerize me. I said hi a dozen times to a dozen people who greeted me as they walked past. Then two men sprinted toward me from the water. When it became clear that the two men were not going to run past me, but were running right for me, my flight instinct kicked in. I had a vision of these two, rather large, men lifting me up and taking me with them without even missing a stride. I had a vision of them grabbing my arms and pulling me into the water with them. The Kindle in my hand was the least of my concerns in this scenario. I had myself up on hands ready to bolt, but I didn’t. I stayed seated. They didn’t kidnap me. They sat down next to me. On either side. Both within an inch of my skin. From there the conversation mirrored the previous ones. Was I at the beach with my husband or boyfriend? Where is the exact location of your hotel? Do you want to swim with us (and our 15 male friends already in the water)? The two men eventually returned to the water, though the more talkative of the two returned—twice.

I made sure to be home before the sun set.

This was the first day of our time in Ghana and it was particularly bad, but it is not an anomaly. At a tro tro depot we frequent, we (Michelle and I) are grabbed at as we walk through the crowd. It’s worse when I am alone. A man on the street near where we live shouted to me to come home with him to have a good time. When I didn’t answer he added that he’d make me feel good. When we walk down the street we (Michelle and I) are told me are beautiful and have gotten marriage proposals from complete strangers. (Full disclosure: Conor has gotten a marriage proposal from a perfect stranger too—one.) On one tro tro ride the man sitting next to me, after a few cursory questions, asked me to be his “one lover.” He insisted for a minute or two after I said no, but the conversation eventually ended. We were, however, stuck together in the tro tro for about ten minutes our thighs touching and his eyes never left me. Not just watching me out of the corner of his eye either. He had his whole upper body turned toward me to stare.

The second weekend we were here we went to another beach. This one was much more organized—tables and chairs, a cordoned off area to swim, a lifeguard. The four of us swam together and a handful of men still asked to help me swim. From what I can tell, because all but one of the other women in the water were doing this, helping to swim means standing in the water with a man with his arms wrapped around you so that he can sometimes grope you when the wave hits. Don’t get me wrong. If that’s what you want to do, do it. I’m just not interested in doing it myself—with any of the men who didn’t bother to ask me my name first.

I don’t want to give the impression that every Ghanian man is like this. That same day at the beach I had a wonderful conversation with a man. We talked about religion and African history. We talked about the tough balance between making money and getting an education and how reaching that balance differs in Ghana from the US. We talked about the myriad differences between the New Mexican desert and the Ghanian coast. He said he was glad we were friends. And then he left. No marriage proposals. No offers to help me swim. No invasion of my personal space. Yet the whole time I was waiting for it. When he left I was surprised it hadn’t come.

These kinds of encounters—the invasion of space/marriage proposal kind—are a large part of the experience of being a non-Ghanian woman in Ghana. Unfortunately, because so many of my interactions with men here are of this nature, it makes me distrustful of all interactions with men. So the few interactions that are not of this nature are tainted by those that are.

Gye Nyame Blog Post

Jesus Never Fails Kitchen Business signI have never been so enveloped by religion as I have been in Ghana (and Uganda).  I say this having spent time in Lhasa; Varanasi, India; Jerusalem; and Colorado Springs, Colorado.  (Before you ask, no, I have not been to Vatican City yet.  I can’t go to Mecca.)  The pervasive presence of religion in Ghana really isn’t that surprising.  A recent Gallup poll ranked Ghana as the number one most religious country with 96% self identifying as a religious person.  (Iraq adds up to 88% religious and the US comes in at 60%.)  It’s not surprising, but it is unfamiliar.  Even at divinity school there was not such a deluge of religious language, symbols, and places of worship.  

Redeemer Beauty Saloon signIn Ghana I can hardly walk a block without seeing a church or mosque.  Within a block of the office where I am working there are a dozen businesses with religious names that are unrelated to the service they provide—Jesus is Lord Mechanic, Christ Man Machine Repair, Blessed Salon.  The only business I’ve seen in Ghana where the religious language has anything to do with the business is Let There Be Light Electricity.  

If Not God slogan on car windshieldIn addition to the numerous churches and business signs the vehicles on the road add to the religious cacophony with the religious slogans plastered on the windshields or bumpers.  Many make sense—”Jesus is King,” “Allahu Akbar,” “God is Great,” “Am Blessed,” “Gye Nyame” (“except for God”).  These seem to be simple affirmations of faith.  Some, rather than give a slogan, only reference biblical or quranic verses or passages.  Others are more cryptic—“Enemies are not God,” “1+1=3,” “Manchester United.”  (That last one may be worship of a different kind.)  One windshield asked me, “1+1=4 But Why?”  I don’t know.  Taxi, please tell me why.  I do get one of the math ones—“1+1+1=1.”  That’s definitely the math of the Trinity.  Testimony on car windshieldOne taxi merely states “Is God.”  No punctuation or capitalization.  I am at a loss.  Is God what?  God is?  Is the taxi or taxi driving claiming to be God?  Because I do believe that may be blasphemy.    

Many windshields give me direct commands.  “Be Humble.”  “Repent.”  “Sin No More.”  “Testify.”  “Witness.”  “Stop on Red.”  Wait.  I think that one was on a street sign.  

These kinds of commands are not unheard of in the US.  I lived in Colorado Springs for four years.  I’ve driven across Texas a dozen times.  I’ve seen the billboards that command me to repent and remind me that the Kingdom is at hand.  I’ve been behind vehicles with every rendition of the “Jesus fish” there is.  There were bathtub altars in my neighbor’s yards growing up.  There is no denying that in the US religion is everywhere.  Yet, as a nonreligious person, I can go days, sometimes weeks, without hearing or seeing religious language.  Blessed Food Joint kiosk(But let’s be serious.  I don’t go weeks.  I love talking about religion.)  In Ghana I can’t go outside with out being reminded of God.  I guess that’s the point.  

But as much as we argue about what separation of church and state means, as much as we, mostly nonChristians, complain about being bombarded by religion in the US, as much as we worry about when to say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” or just say “Good morning,” the US is a relatively easy place to be nonChristian and nonreligious.  I’m not saying it’s perfect.  I’m not saying the US is not a place where people are discriminated against, sometimes violently, for their nonChristianity.  I’m not saying we need to stop working toward equality and true interbelief existence.  I’m saying that living in a place where I am continually and constantly reminded on my religious otherness highlights how far the US has come toward that existence.  It’s useful to have a reminder now and again.  

It’s also useful to remember that some of this religious language can be uplifting for even a nonreligious person like me.  My favorite business name is the restaurant where we eat breakfast and dinner every day and lunch most days—Aroma of Christ Restaurant.  How great is that?  Everyone just calls it Aroma.  I get the aroma connection to good food.  But what exactly is the aroma of Christ?  I never learned that at divinity school.  Should that have been covered in New Testament or Christian theology?

Silly Obruni

Ghana is blue.  I don’t mean it is sad, I mean it is tinted blue.  So many light bulbs here are blue.  I’m not talking in bars and clubs other places that are trying to achieve a certain atmosphere.  I’m talking small shops that sell laundry powder and tomato paste.  Blue light bulb seen through a doorway. I’m talking the bedroom at the guesthouse where we are staying.  If we hadn’t exchanged the white light bulb from the bathroom, I think I might have gone mad from a week living bathed in blue light.  

When we arrived at this service location in Ghana, the Alliance for African Women Initiative (AFAWI), the co-ordinator, Philip, gave us an extensive cultural orientation.  His most pressing advice was to greet everyone.  Even strangers on the street.  Especially old people.  He said that if we don’t greet the shop owner next door when we pass on the way to the office and then need to do business with them, they might not acknowledge us.  So for a few days we greeted literally everyone we passed.  That got old fast and we’ve become more strategic.  But Philip was right.  The older people clearly appreciate and like it when we greet them.  This is part of the culture of respect in Ghana.  Philip explained that most Ghanians are a proud people who would rather take a dirty job than do something disrespectful like steal.  Therefore they expect and deserve respect.  I agree.  Though Philip did warn us emphatically to be weary of pickpockets.  There are always people willing to steal.  

Ghana is loud.  At Aroma, where we eat dinner every night, our conversation is accompanied by music blaring from the front of the restaurant and telenovelas dubbed into English blaring from the back.  While we tried to hold a Teen Club meeting—our service project here, working with a local junior high school after school program—I could barely hear the students talk because of the roar of the students playing outside.  I could be wrong, but none of the Ghanians present seemed affected by this noise pollution.  At Aroma one of the servers likes to dance to the music while watching the television.      

People really do carry things on their heads here.  That image of Africa turns out to be true.  In Uganda I saw people carrying bags five and six times the size of their heads on their heads.  I saw women hauling full jerricans of water.  With water splashing back and forth inside I don’t know how they kept balanced.  In Ghana what is being carried on people’s heads constitutes an even greater level of impressiveness.  Many people carry whole trays of food that they are selling.  I’ve seen buckets of water and soda bottles.  One man was carrying a table with the four legs hanging around his head like tassels.  That’s right a man.  That image of Africa—of women carrying heavy loads on their heads— turns out not to be the whole truth.  Women and men alike engage the practice.  Impressively I’ve seen a man carrying a sewing machine on his head and a woman carrying five trays of eggs stacked on top of each other.  What’s most impressive about the eggs is her confidence to carry them.  We went to the beach one day and there were some acrobats performing for money—beach performers if you will.  One of their stunts was for one to stand on the other’s head.  A woman in the market carrying eggs in a see-through, square container on her head. It was impressive, but I wonder if it was less impressive for the Ghanians in the crowd for whom carrying things on one’s head is just a part of everyday life.  

Just like in Uganda children are excited by our white skin.  They yell the Ghanian equivalent of muzungu, obruni, and wave when we pass.  Philip told us the adults really want to be our friends.  They will want to be very hospitable to us.  But, he warned, for their sake rather than ours, if they say, “you are invited”—in other words ask you to eat with them—they don’t mean it.  They are  being hospitable, but if we sat down with them it would likely be a hardship for them.  If they insist on you joining them they genuinely want you to eat with them.  The pervasive desire to be hospitable to whites is a legacy of colonialism.  Because, he said, colonialism was not viewed as oppression.  It was viewed “as an opportunity to see another color.”  

To conclude our orientation Philip warned us not to use the word “silly” explaining that it is a great insult here.  I don’t want to insult anyone and silly is an not exceptionally common word in my lexicon.  But ever since he told me I can’t say silly, every circumstance I encounter cries out, “this is silly.”  I find some of my greatest joys in silly things.  And I find blue light bulbs, carrying very breakable eggs on one's head, and telenovelas constantly broadcasting in Ghana excessively silly—in the American English sense.  I do believe my silly tongue will get me in trouble here.  



Barbed Wire Fences

Almost every window in Uganda is protected by bars. Pretty, decorative bars, but bars nonetheless. The doors too are barred. While I am used to only screen doors protecting my regular doors in the States—if anything at all—most regular doors here are protected by bars. Alternatively, the regular door itself is made from heavy duty metal.

In Busota there is barbed wire everywhere. Barbed wire tops the walls that surround the more expensive homes. Fences are made from barbed wire strung between wooden posts. At Mustard Seed Secondary School there is barbed wire strung between some bushes to stop you from walking between them. Between most of the bushes the barbed wire is not visible, but even where it is visible I have almost walked into it several times. Next to the school canteen there is a triangle made from barbed wire. Until this weekend, I could not figure out why this exists. The wires hang too high for a corral—besides I never saw an animal inside. There is only grass inside the triangle that is the exact same as the grass outside it. The area is too small to be useful for any kind of game or activity I can think of. Triangle barbed wire clotheslineOn Saturday, when we arrived at school to plant trees around campus with some of the students, several of the boarding students were doing their laundry. They were hanging it on the barbed wire triangle. So that's what it's for. It seems like such a bad idea. One strong gust of wind and your shirt is torn. I watched someone tear a sock open just hanging it. For me, barbed wire would be my emergency clothes line—not the material I put up specifically for drying my clothes. I guess you don't need clothing pins though. That's one advantage.

With barbed wire everywhere and most of the windows protected with bars and those who can afford to erecting walls around their property, Busota can feel rather threatening. It's not as if anything has happened. It's not like I've even felt in real danger here. Quite the opposite. The people here are more than friendly.  We cannot arrive at a new location without chairs being gathered for us—even if we are only staying five minutes. Clothing hanging on barbed wire. Teachers go out of their way to greet us each morning. We are invited to our neighbor's homes for meals.  The owner of our guest house took a few hours out of his Sunday to give us a tour of the area. It was not the case in Kasese, but in Busota we rarely feel we are being given a “muzungu price” in the market.  Busota is welcoming.   

But the near-constant presence of barbed wire and barred windows makes me feel like I should be on edge. Is Busota dangerous? There is a reason why people here feel the need to use them right? I guess it shouldn't be that jarring—knowing Uganda's history. It wasn't too long ago that Idi Amin's government reigned in terror—when anyone at anytime could be pulled from their home never to return. It wasn't too long ago that in the wake of Amin's reign that Muslims could be massacred by their neighbors in fits of misguided vengeance. With this terror in living memory it's no wonder that Ugandans want to surround themselves with barbed wire and live within homemade cages—not to lock themselves in but to keep the bad guys out.   

Unmarried State of Life

Whenever I took out my camera around the kids at Kasese Humanist Primary School I was mobbed.  “Madame!  Madame!  Madame!  Take one of me!  Take one of me!”  Usually it is the kids who want their picture taken and to see themselves on the digital screen.  But it did not surprise me when a teacher asked me take his photo while I was taking pictures of the kids playing soccer in PE.  “Take my picture,” he said, “you can give it to your brother.”  I explained that I do not have brother, but that I could take his photo anyway.  He declined.  I was confused—I remain confused—by this interaction.  

My own hypothesis at the time was that he wanted to marry me.  From my other discussions about Ugandan marriage it has become clear, to me, that the decision to marry is ultimately an agreement between the man and the woman's family.  Nothing can move forward without this permission.  So, I assumed, the teacher needed me to give his photo to my brother for approval.  Plus, the teacher asked three times in the conversation if I would be willing to move to Uganda permanently.  Between the odd photo request and the probes to see if I would move here, I concluded that he wanted marriage.  Why else would he want my brother to have his photo?  I do not like this hypothesis, however.  I feel conceited for even thinking it.  

In conversation with the other Pathfinders I have a new hypothesis:  the teacher assumed that Conor is my brother and was working an angle.  It was part of his scheme to get Conor to sponsor his football team in Kasese.  For much of the rest of the conversation the teacher was trying to elicit me to help persuade Conor.  Conor, for some reason, more than the rest of us is constantly being asked for money because he is muzungu.  But that story is for him to tell.

Football was not the only thing the teacher and I talked about, however.  The teacher asked me if I had a husband, a fiance, or a child—in that order.  Each negative answer elicited from him what I call the Ugandan squeak—a short, high-pitched noise to indicate disbelief.  My unmarried, childless state shocked him.  Why was I not working harder to alleviate this situation?  Instead of messing around with this Pathfinders Project experiment? 

Since leaving Kasese I have stumbled upon more information about this attitude about marriage in Uganda.  While at Mustard Seed Secondary School, I am reading a textbook (yes for fun) from the library that is intended for A-level Religious Education.  It is about Christian approaches to ethical and social issues.  This is a book written specifically to be taught to Ugandan students.  Reading it illuminates where some of these attitudes are coming from.

Not surprisingly there is an assumption of marriage in the book—marriage with children.  Fifteen characteristics of a happy marriage are listed.  The first one is—“one that is blessed with children as they are regarded as important elements of the family.”  Isn't that what the teacher was implying? 

Most illuminating for my discussion with the teacher is the section about the “unmarried state of life,” which is included to continue the argument for the necessity of marriage.  The teacher shared his assumption that my parents must be upset with me since I have not yet managed to marry or have children.  He asked me why I have not yet married or at least found a fiance, but my answer that I had other priorities was not acceptable.  He repeated the question again in different ways as the conversation progressed.  Maybe he was looking for one of the answers from the book.  Some of the listed causes for the unmarried state of life are totally reasonable to me—because of religious vocation, failure to find a suitable partner, finishing school, or past bad relationships.  Others I understand, even if do not find them acceptable—failure to raise money for a bride price, fear of responsibilities, fear of sexually transmitted diseases, having had children out of wedlock, or having engaged in pre-marital sex.  

But some of the causes defy logic:  

“There are some people who wish to live a single life so that they can commit immoral behaviors such as prostitutes, murderer's [sic], thieves etc.”

“The family background in terms of habits, behaviors and practices for example being a witch, a night dancer, practicing cannibalism etc … may deter one from getting a marriage partner.”

This completely explains the teachers reaction to learning of my unmarried state of life.  I inadvertently revealed my uncontrollable bloodlust and tendency to eat my victims.  No wonder he is concerned.  

What is interesting is that the book calls on traditional African culture to support its position.  Up to this point in the textbook all support has been contemporary norms or biblical passages.  The book explains that in traditional Africa bachelors and spinsters were not considered serious people.  They were selfish and greedy—they were a great burden to their relatives.  More importantly, they were considered young “despite their real age.  Marriage was a necessary step to move from child hood [sic] to adult hood [sic].”  Because they were not mature, no matter what their age, spinsters and bachelors “were not allowed to participate in leadership and society management.”  On this point the textbook explains that this is still the case in most societies in western Uganda.  It even points out that in America an unmarried person can run for president but in traditional Africa the “unmarried were never allowed to talk in public” let alone run for office.  I've heard of a Ugandan ambassador to the US who was unmarried.  This same man later tried to run for president as a 64-year-old bachelor, but didn't make a good showing.  The person who told me about this explained that they knew he could not make a good president because a man who shied from the responsibilities of marriage would not be prepared for the responsibilities of state.  How could the nation trust his competence to rule if he was unmarried?  Anyway, I'd like to see an unmarried American run for president.  While technically possible, I don't see it happening anytime soon.  

But I've gone off track.  Back to traditional Africa.  The book explains that unmarried (is that like the undead?) were given no respect in life and no respect in death:

“The unmarried people were humiliated during burial […] among the Banyankole they would be buried far a way [sic] from home more especially in the swamp so that the wild animals could eat their dead bodies.  Among the Batooro they would pass the dead body through the back door or cut a hole through the wall.  Besides they would bury the dead body with the banana stem so that the spirit of the dead would not come back to disturb the married ones.  In some societies the dead body would be caned before burial […].  All this humiliation was aimed at discouraging the practice of celibacy.”  

Why should bachelors and spinsters get respect, anyway?  When they were unquestionably immoral?  The book says so:

“The celibates were considered to be wrong elements in society.  They were always the first suspects for any immoral act in society.  For example cases of theft, sex misuse etc. were always suspected on the unmarried.”

Even an afterlife was closed to them.

“Life after death was expected only through the birth of children, the bachelors and spinsters were not expected to resurrect.  Their death would mean total death and no resurrection at all.”

The teacher alluded to something similar when we were talking.  If a woman dies childless, he informed me, no one knows where she goes—meaning heaven or hell.

I have no idea how accurate this portrayal of traditional African marriage is.  I would imagine there was a large variety of practices and beliefs even in just the area that in now Uganda.  But if this is what is being taught, the teacher's, and other's, concern for my unmarried state of life makes sense.  How can I be happy?  I am clearly immoral.  I am immature.  I will have no afterlife.  

The unmarried state of life section hits home.  This is my state, which I am often reminded of and pitied for.  The teacher never asked my age, but explained that in Uganda once women reach 27 they begin to worry that they will never be married or have children.  Just today a Mustard Seed another teacher confirmed this age.  He told me of a woman he knew who at the shocking old age of 27 is just now getting married.  He explained that she has been in school and was therefore improving herself, so the delay was justified.  It was still very old though. 

But, when I say I am often reminded of and pitied for my unmarried state I don't mean just in Uganda.  Though not as directly as in Uganda, my marital status comes up in the States all the time.  Though there is not an assumption that I am married, the increasingly common questions as I near 30 imply a similar underlying concern for my state of unmarriage.  “Do I hear wedding bells?”  “When are you taking the plunge?”  “Any progress on the dating front?”  I am able to write off the perpetual Ugandan concern for my unmarried, childless state as just another cultural difference.  The pity coming from within my own culture is quite different.  


Coming soon—a post solely about the Christian Ethics book and its discussions about sex, homosexuality, white people, and Christians in politics—to name a few.