Monday, March 24, 2008

The Passion of the Crisis

Let me begin by saying that since learning that the so-advertised "non-religious" charity organization I am currently working with is actually extremely Christian (maybe, if I had looked closer, I would have noticed one of their school's names: Camp Joshua Christian School"), I have tried to be as open minded and diplomatic as possible about the beliefs and teachings of educators at the various orphanages and schools run by it. After all, what does religion matter if good values and a good education are at stake? Thus I set the stage for today, whose first scene begins with me learning upon arrival at work that I am to assist with preparing our television and DVD player to watch "The Passion of the Christ."

Now, I remember this film being criticized as somewhat anti-Semitic (it is), and somewhat very violent, but I also remember the film being very interesting with regards to linguistics and period costume, and so ignored that part of me that thought better of playing accomplice.

As the film started all 60-some 2-12 year old pairs of eyes were glued to the monitor. One of the teachers sat besides the machinery to commentate (the kids aren't quite at the point in their classes where lightning-fast English subtitles are suitable). Good, I thought, finally something that they might be able to sit through in its entirety. However, around forty five minutes in things turned south with the lashing scene. Wow, I had completely forgotten how graphic Mel Gibson likes to be. Within five minutes of this gruesome (and ridiculously long) scene one of the eldest girls started bawling. Within two minutes the sobs of nearly half the room were heard rebounding against themselves. What was I thinking? This was clearly not appropriate viewing for young children. I began recalling in my head that the rest of the movie doesn't get much better. As soon as the scene and with it, I assured myself, the first DVD ended, I would have to do something to stop this. But how long would this damned scene last?

Then, a miracle happened. About two-thirds through this excruciating hail of lashings and groans the DVD skipped and paused. The head teacher, with a tint of impatience, called me over to the player as the sobs of the children subsided a little. I took the DVD out of the player and began to pretend to look for scratches. "Yes, I don't think it will be viewable. Sorry" I said, relieved. "What? Ok, then put in the next DVD" the teacher happily demanded. "Um, uh," I stuttered, looking for a good excuse to avoid what would be another hour and a half of hell on earth. Finally, I realized the only way out was to fess up and stand by my "effics," regardless of whether I was thwarting her authority or embarrassing my bosses. "Sorry," I looked up, "I don't think that this is appropriate for the children. I can't put this in." For a little while the teacher tried to coax me into playing it, but when she realized that I wouldn't budge she shrugged her shoulders and left the room. I proceeded to put in a Charlie Chaplin DVD (now there is a genius) as an awkward silence enveloped the room.

Charlie Chaplin may not have caught the attention of the kids as well as Mel Gibson did- although it did a good job holding its ground against modern Hollywood cinematography- but at least the kids won't get reoccurring nightmares and entrenched anti-Semitic opinions from it. At the very least I'll be able to sleep better tonight.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Mural Madness

It took me a little time to notice it, but there seems to be a thriving mural industry in Arusha. Business fronts are covered with pictures illustrating their goods or services. Barbershops and record stores advertise this way most frequently. The quality of painting varies, but I've been astounded at the creativity and artistry of many of these paintings. More often than not the artists replicate pictures from magazines and printed advertisements. Illustrators often sign their work somewhere on the wall and even leave contact information, such as a phone number or email address. I've passed several sign "shops" (really no more than a sign themselves on the side of the street) around town, where I assume these artists may be found.

Generally I find this sort of advertisement pleasing and a welcome change to the drabness of Kampala.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Since its been on my mind I thought I'd catalogue the ongoing repercussions of Friday night, by category:

Emotional/Psychological: Probably the most affected. The first day or two I found distracting myself with anything helped avoid the chilling memory of waking up to my door crashing open. Such distractions included reading my book, doing work for LOHADA, even sleeping (when I could). Now however I find myself tending towards an odd inverse of my initial response where I actually prefer doing nothing to doing anything. At work I'll doodle and daydream. When I get home from work I'll go to lie down in my bed and stare at the wall, my feet, or whatever is in my line of vision. It feels good to drift, to do nothing.

Physical: On Tuesday I put my foot in a hole playing football and messed up my knee, which has nothing directly to do with Friday's incident, but along with it helped contribute to my very dark mood yesterday evening. Luckily I believe that the effects my malaria medication have on mood swings overcame its effects on depression in this case. I feel better already.

Social: It's great to hear from friends and family who have got in touch with me this past week, whether it was concerning the robbery or not. I'm much more wary about locals trying to be friends with me, but that hasn't stopped a few cheery Tanzanians from chumming it up with me already this week. They really are a friendly, easy-going group for the most part.

Philosophical: For about three fleeting minutes every day I become a staunch advocate of the right to bear arms. I inevitably come to my senses however and realize how much worse having a gun involved might have been on Friday. Most everything else has stayed the same.

US Government: Anyone know why the Department of Justice would be interested in Friday night's events? 17 views in one day (according to my hit counter) seems a little much. Can't remember knowing anyone who works there.

Aesthetics: I find padlocks and bars on windows very pleasing to the eye now adays.

Journalistic: Tune in to next week's Loving Hands article, where I will tactfully tightrope walk the line between my outrage at getting robbed while doing charity volunteer work and being obligated to write what is essentially a white-hat paper for LOHADA (and by extension, charity work in Arusha).

Hope this doesn't sound too down.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Forced Aid to the Needy, a.k.a. Armed Robbery in Arusha

What follows is merely a snapshot account of what happened last Friday night. I lack the motivation and skill to paint a more embellished picture:

Who can say for sure how long they were there, or how long they actually took trying to get in. The first thud I remember being cognizant of was an almost imperceptible point on the horizon of my mind’s sleepy eye. The second tapped against my consciousness, but it took the third crack to fully awaken and alert me to trouble. The fourth and final bang, which was accompanied immediately afterwards by a very loud explosion (in retrospect: dynamite… a gun… fireworks?), was the sound of my front door finally succumbing to violent force and crashing open. I am uncertain of the length the time between my awareness of my circumstances and when my robbers finally entered my bedroom, but I can approximate it by counting the number of times I screamed "help" at the top of my lungs (five I recall). These cries were my only pathetic and thoroughly futile attempts to openly obstruct or deter my assailants.

Flashes of that night, momentary images are mostly all I remember. Three men enter and immediately begin scuffling between themselves, I assume, over how to deal with us. Gunpowder in our noses, flashlights in our faces, and beyond them fragmented views of flashing machetes. The men shout at us: "WE WILL KILL YOU! WE WILL KILL YOU! WE WILL KILL YOUR WIFE!" I am frozen terror as I decide whether staying in bed or getting out will improve our situation. "GET OUT! SHOW US YOUR MONEY! THE MONEY!"

The Money! I imagine my voice sounded as eager as eager as theirs as I searched with desperate hands for some hidden treasure to satisfy them. Three pairs of bulging eyes meet mine, a machete separates me from the closest of them. Our combined soundtrack probably sounded Disneyesque with its farcically maniacal exclamations:

Robber 1: "The Money!"
Robber 2: "Yes, the money now!"
Me: [whilst searching] "Yes, yes money money money!"
Robber 1: "You have lots of money, give us your US money!"
Me: "No, we have little money! Here is the money, lots of money, plenty of money!"
Robber 3: "There is more money! Where is the other money!"
Me: "No, no more money! Computer! Here, take the computer!"

Approximately one month before President George W. Bush had left Tanzania bequeathing it $700 million in aid. Pronounced Bush (I'm quoting), "I'll just put it bluntly, America doesn't want to spend money on people who steal the money from the people." Friday night I managed to increase my own donation to a country of destitutes (specifically 4-8 machete-wielding destitutes) by several hundred dollars and a laptop, the latter of which doesn’t really count because it was going to be donated anyway, albeit legitimately and benevolently.

I have never before personally experienced the physical trembling the cartoons always parody, but after their voices quickly receded into the nighttime darkness I could hardly put on my clothes because my hands were shaking so violently. We cautiously made our way from the guesthouse where we stay to our host family's house. I knocked on the Janet and Jo’s bedroom window. "Hey, Jo and Janet, are you there?" I whispered loudly.
"Chris, is that you?"
"Yes, we just got robbed!"
"Yes, us too!"

If I believed in the God worshiped by mainstream religions I would thank Him that all these men wanted was money and that no one was harmed. These facts did not however ease my nerves over the weekend. On Saturday night Sarah and I stayed up all night in the living room watching TV and periodically peering out windows and conjuring up make-believe intruders from the sounds of the night. Sunday night was spent at Backpacker’s Hotel in town.

What now? Well, weld the double-door bolts (check), buy padlocks for all the doors that still remain without them (check), perhaps also remember to use these padlocks in the future (check?). Buy an alarm system for neighbors to fearfully ignore again, or the police to take 30 minutes to get there? Rent a guard to man the ten-foot wall that surrounds us and protect us from half a dozen armed robbers? At what point does the security reach a point where it deters a unit of would-be murderers who will climb walls, smash windows and annihilate doors (that is, seemingly stop at nothing) to get what they want? At what price and with what annoyances to daily life can peace of mind be bought? Where does one start, and where does one stop?


Monday, March 10, 2008

Pole Sana

In Luganda it is common when greeting someone to say "jebaleco," which translates roughly as "good work" or "way to go." It is appropriate to say this even if the recipient is doing nothing in particular, i.e. just sitting or standing around. In response, the recipient should reply "kale," which means thank you (or your welcome, depending on context), thus affirming the other's observation and accrediting one's own (non)accomplishment.

In Swahili, a similar but rather inverted greeting is often spoken between, say, two passers by. In this case the initial phrase is "pole" or "pole sana," which means sorry/very sorry. The response to this is "asante (sana)," or thank you very much. Here the initiator is expressing his/her regret or sorrow at another's burden, which usually is nothing worse than having to walk from one place to another. As in Luganda, the response is an acknowledgement of the task being performed. The intonation may seem quite different, but in fact because both phrases are attributed to such mundane tasks as sitting, standing or walking, they both reflect a sort of extreme attitude to work of any kind. For how different they sound in English, they both seem to speak to a common comradery absent in English greetings.

Permit me one more short observation: the similarity in ambiguity of Luganda's "kale" and Swahili's "pole." The former can mean thank you, your welcome, welcome, ok, yes, fine then. The latter can mean sorry, forgive me, excuse me, slowly ("pole pole"), keep it up. Again, the figurative communal intonation that binds these meanings together is something that transcends their literal English translation.