Kampala, 1st week in

June 28, 2011

Dear family and friends,

There is a gentle and cool breeze entering my Kampala hotel room at the
moment. Up in the skies, there are these massive marabout storks in search
of food or pests. These birds are massive, I’d say 5 times the size of
your average seagull; they are ugly and uninviting. I pray they don’t
decide to perch themselves on my balcony, as the door is open. Should one
decide to do so, it would be a bad scene, both for me and for them.

I arrived in Kampala last Monday, and have another week until I return to
Nairobi. Kampala has the same traffic chaos and pollution as Nairobi, but
one can at least walk around with more ease. There are police everywhere
in this city armed with large rifles. Whenever I return to the hotel after
work, the car I’m in must be inspected by a team of security guards before
entering the hotel gate. The scene is funny as there doesn’t seem to be
any order to the way the guards will inspect the car. Sometimes they check
the back of the car only, sometimes they look through your bags, sometimes
they check nothing at all. Most of the time, they will look in the glove
compartment. One thing that is constant is the guards always look surprise
to see you there in the first place. One endearing quality of Kampalans is
that when you order something or ask a question, they inevitably answer
“yes, please.” At first, I was confused, but now I get it.

I had the chance to walk around a bit today. There is the Garden City mall
about 20 minutes by foot from my hotel where one can get groceries and
funky Ugandan crafts. Uganda is known for its hand woven baskets and trays
made of raffia, part of the palm leaf, so I bought a few. As I walked
back, the boda boda drivers (men on motorbikes) hollered “muzungu muzungu,
taxi, taxi.” Muzungu is the not so endearing term for white person. I
wouldn’t mind so much but the walk was good for me, and besides it would
have probably taken longer than walking considering the traffic. It’s all
hussle here though and many vie for your money.

The work has been interesting. I’ve interviewed up to 7 refugee families
per day of various sizes (some can be extended families of 20!). These
are refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and the Congo, most
with harrowing stories, some with imaginary ones. It’s an intense and
exhausting process, but the look on their faces when you approve their
application, is well worth the effort.

Tomorrow I hit some of the markets and catch a show of traditional Ugandan
music and dance.

That’s it for now, I hope this messages find you all well and let me know
what’s up with you when you get a chance!

Mweraba!
Good bye in Luganda, Ugandan language

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Nairobi: 1st week behind

June 28, 2011

Dear family and friends,

I write to you all on this fine Sunday afternoon from the home of my hosts
here in Nairobi, Carol and Michael, good and long-time friends from Ottawa
who have been residents here for 6 years now. They have been the most
gracious and hospitable hosts to me my first week here, easing my
integration and accelerating my comfort level in my new and strange
surroundings. Although, I’ve been here before, back in 2008, I was mostly
sheltered in my hotel, and ventured little beyond going to work at the
Canadian High Commission, and going on safari in the Masai Mara. This
time, being with residents, it will be different and I will come to
appreciate this place more as I visit places a little more off the beaten
path. Other than starting my first week with a terrible cold, I’ve
adjusted well to my new reality.

Although the air is polluted due to the diesel fumes, the flora is lush,
the trees green, and the insects abundant! I wake up to the sounds of
calls for prayer from a mosque just stones throw away from the house and
to chirping birds. In fact, the calls for prayer precede my alarm going
off for work at 6AM, so it is an early start for me here. Kennedy, the
High Commission driver, who picks me up every morning and who drops me off
every evening, is here at 6:30AM sharp. It must be this way for security
reasons, and also because Nairobi has no reliable transportation system.
Don’t even think about biking! You take your life in your hands if you do.
The early start is to avoid getting stuck in any traffic, which happens
with as much prediction as in Los Angeles. The roads here are very narrow,
twist and turn, and are in very bad shape (one needs to constantly watch
for walking pedestrians who have no sidewalks and to the endless
potholes). They weren’t build for the number of cars now on the road. So
to get to the High Commission from my house is about 7km but that can take
a half hour in the morning, and almost an hour in the late afternoon.

I’ve learned a great deal from Kennedy about life here in Nairobi during
our daily rides, the fact that many people come here to work from the
villages and endure long separations from their families, that Kenyans are
very religious (already been asked on many occasions what is my
religion!), that Wednesdays are “ladies night” (self-explanatory) and that
Fridays are “members’ night”(friends go out for drink at bars, they don’t
use the word “pub” here I’ve learned). As we drive to the High Commission,
I observe the people go by and wonder where these shadows, beyond reach,
are going.

My first week at the High Commission has been rewarding, but what a
gruelling schedule! I had very little breathing space and little time for
lunch. One must manage and learn the ropes quickly. Luckily I’ve had some
refugee families not show up for their interviews, which allowed me to
finalize some earlier interviews and get prepared for the next ones. Also
an asset was access to colleagues who could provide some context as to
some of the trends in our refugee program here in the Horn of Africa. All
in all first week of interviews went well, and now feel more confident to
do the others.

Over the course of my first weekend in Nairobi, I’ve managed to cover some
interesting terrain. We attended a fantastic art exhibit yesterday of
local artists that was a fundraiser for “Art Without Borders,” an NGO that
promotes the arts for the disabled and children living with HIV. I bought
a beautiful tableau for about 18,000 shillings (about $250) and some
paintings for the kids painted by kids here in Nairobi afflicted by
poverty or illness. Onwards from the exhibit, we hiked in the Arboretum,
not far from the house, but lovely wilderness right in the centre of the
city. It is good to exercise, and I am grateful. Today, I placed an order
with a local Ethiopian carpet maker, from whom I purchased two small
carpets in 2008. This time the order was more ambitious as it’s for my
living room. I look forward to seeing the final product and ultimately
seeing it on my living room floor. Abraham, the carpet maker, was a
genuinely positive individual (helps sales I suppose) and often when I
would ask him if we could move carpets around his shop so I could compare
them and get a better sense, he would always respond: “why not?” I’ve
decided to adopt that mantra as my own from now on.

Nairobi is a place of contrast. The rich live well, and the poor live
poorly. The well off Kenyans or working expats live on compounds, securing
their possessions from the masses. I am getting used to living behind a
locked gate, barbed wire, and guard, but it’s an uneasy existence.

Tomorrow, I leave for Kampala, Uganda, where I will stay for two weeks.
More interviews. I promise to write from there, please write to me if you
have time.

Hope this message finds you all well and in good health.

Kwa heri! (good-bye in Swahili)

Carole

Congo

April 25, 2010

DRC. Democratic Republic of Congo. Let’s look at the three words separately. Democratic. This means government rule by the people, either directly or indirectly via elected representation. Republic. This refers to a type of government where people choose its leaders and have influence over their government. Congo. Congo refers to many things: a river, a bassin, a chimpanzee who can paint, and a geographic area in Africa split in two, one called the Republic of Congo, the other with an additional qualifier, the
Democratic Republic of Congo.

One wonders really what is the difference between the two. They were formerly one entity and now politics and war have made them estranged siblings. One further wonders what makes DRC a democratic republic. Democracy for whom? And a republic for what? These are empty terms for the hundreds of thousands of people who live a life of misery, fear and displacement at the hands of both the Congolese army and elusive armed militants. There is no government by the people in this country.The unrelenting bloody and gruesome war in DRC competes for airtime with the likes of Afghanistan and Iraq. All three are messes  where innocent civilians die at the hands of agents with vested interests. In DRC, the innocent often do not know who is killing them, everyone is an enemy of somebody because of a Tutsi family member, or because the shade of one’s skin is fairer than one’s neighbour. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have life-long consequences with families forever separated, where children are raped and kept as child soldiers for armed groups. Women are kept as sex slaves and borne children from their rapists. Rape is used on such a massive scale that you would be hard-pressed to find a family unaffected by it.

These scenarios were often invoked in the testimonies of the 100 Congolese families I interviewed back in the Spring of 2008. I was interviewing them for resettlement to Canada and I was in Uganda, a neighbouring country of the DRC where thousands of Congolese refugees flee for safety and sanctuary . These crimes were so common place, the victims explained it with glazed looks on their faces, trying to piece the correct words together to describe their unimaginable horrors. Many of the refugees were religious devotees. And I too would be should I have undergone a fraction of their atrocities. In my name, Sauve, they saw a sign, a sign from above that I had been sent by the Lord. I found this amusing, knowing full well that I was only coming in at the very end of a complicated immigration process, and that my contribution was random. It could have been any other immigration officer interviewing them.  I left Uganda so much a fuller human being.

DRC. The war ranges on there. More victims continue to flee daily. I focus there when I am reminded daily of the news that I should care more for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Prorogued rally

January 24, 2010

Attended the rally against prorogued parliament today on the hill. It ended up being a partisan fest for the anti-conservative electorate. NDPers were there. Liberals. Greens. Unions. Lots of unions. There were also perennial protesters, those who protest for any reason. I even saw someone holding a banner opposing NBC’s move to block Conan O’Brien’s late show. The banner read: I love coco. I suppose we are all partisan to a particular ideology, but I thought I was attending a rally to speak out against Prime Minister Harper unilaterally suspending parliament. Instead, we had speeches about disability rights, climate change, and the Afghan detainee issue- of course all these issues are important and the fact that parliament is suspended, elected MPs can’t speak to these in the House. I left just as Jack Layton was about to speak, the first of the opposition leaders to speak, so hopefully the opposition leaders drove the point home that this prorogation makes a mockery of democracy and increases people’s disdain for the electoral process. Too bad the organizers didn’t invite non-partisan groups like Democracy Watch or Fair Vote Canada to speak about the importance of the democratic process, accountability and transparency.  This would have helped to keep the main point in focus. Instead the protest was a rallying cry against everything, and the main point got lost.

London

December 4, 2009

It’s been several weeks now that I have returned from that compelling and riveting English capital. What remains muted on the subject of the fair city? Not much this amateur can write about that will shed new light, but I often some modest thoughts.

These are based on my week of freedom earlier in November. By freedom, I mean no kids, no work, no obligations, outside those dictated by my internal compass. It was pure joy. There were many moments were I was close to tears, so moved by the shere beauty of the architecture and landscape around me. Be it a Victorian facade, a quaint courtyard, a two-century old pub or a vista on the Heath.

There was one brief moment of frustration. When an invader leaned under the cafetaria table where I was eating at the British Museum, and quietly and unsuspectedly disappeared with my wallet. All money and cards were gone. Luckily I had friends close by to lend me a hand (thank you Gail and Carol). I spent less as result, but managed to bring back the requested goods for my kids and nephews (soccer jerseys and paddington bears). I did manage to see a play- Othello- a soap opera of vaste proportions, and a musical-Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a fabulous and shiny production, somewhat of a soap opera too, but this one with frocks and feathers!

I spent my only weekend in Manchester visitng my very good friend, Carol, who is doing her PhD there in international development. The city is industrial and has less cache than London (at least at first glance), but has amazing curry on the curry mile strip. Also I witnessed a brawl at one of the local pubs following a ManU loss, which added to the authenticity of my trip. What’s England without grown men fighting over a lost football match? Manchester, like London, were built during medieval times, so streets go in all directions. It amazes me that so many lived, breathed and died before on those very streets. You can’t walk 5 feet in London without there being a story behind that very space.You can feel the energy and the spirits.

Happy to be home though with my loved ones. But have to admit I’m already thinking of my next trip!

Candy and viruses

November 1, 2009

It is telling of a society that simultaneously promotes panic with mild strained viruses and indulgence of the high caloric kind found on this day, Halloween. Telling because the two are somewhat connected, albeit indirectly. I wonder why parents don’t panic with the junk that’s going into their children’s stomachs on such a night.While the costumes are amusing, it really is all about the junk food. I don’t even want to think of the volume of candy wrappers going into landfill after the frenzy week of gorging and pigging out. I am no stranger to this evening of knocking on neighbours doors with my kids. I did so again this evening. It was fun, especially connecting with neighbours and strengthening that community bond. My daughter was very sensible. After her small lantern bag was full, she said enough maman, now I want to go eat some! We gorge ourselves until we are sick. Junk food consumption in the long-term, Halloween, and beyond, will get us more sick than any influenza virus coming at us, and in fact, make our immune system weaker in combatting it. Where is the mass panic against the junk food nation? Against a nation that privileges automobile infrastructure over other healthier and less deadly modes? Your child is much more likely to die in a automobile accident or from complications of a bad diet, than from the H1N1, a mild strained virus for the most part. Where is the panic for these issues?

Keep calm and carry on

October 4, 2009

There’s this cyclist I often see on my way to work in the morning. He sports a typical bike courier wardrobe: jeans, leather jacket, cycling shoes, no helmet. The bag straddled on his back reads: “Keep calm and carry on.” A mantra if ever there was one. Could be used to describe the courage and poise of a Ghandi, Mandela or King. I have since learned that the expression was coined by the British government and used in promotional materials, never used, at the beginning of World War Two. That too seems to be a fitting context. I am thinking of adopting it at moments of great stress: when my inner road rage takes hold of me, when grappling with incompetence in the workplace, when I let my child set off my short fuse. Keep calm and carry on. Richard is the calm one in the relationship. Would remain calm in the most distressing of situations. Not me. I am easily set off, like a lid on a kettle that’s boiling water. I blame my family, on my mother’s side. We’re all the same, an impatient and explosive bunch. Luckily we have other redeeming qualities. It’s not all bad. Keep calm and carry on.

Spiders

September 23, 2009

It has been the summer of spiders. Spiders in every room of my house. Spiders in the tub. Spiders in my windows. Spiders on my windows at work, and I work on the 22nd floor of a downtown office building. Just an hour ago, there was a spider (quite beautiful from where I was sitting) outside my window, just daggling from who knows where, then all of a sudden, the spider decides to crawl upwards to someone elses window. Very curious how he got there in the first place, but that is  nature. It exists in the unlikely of places. I don’t know about you, but I have much difficulty with squashing a spider. It has to do with the number of legs they have and the fact that someone, somewhere, told me  they were intelligent insects. I have no difficulty ruining cobwebs though, and the fact that they build these things with their spit is kinda gross.

Disecting laundry

September 19, 2009

As I put laundry to air just now on my fabulous clothesline, I was reflecting on the different meanings of my domain title: airing the laundry. It can mean so many things. Literally, it means airing physical laundry (aka putting clothes on hanger to dry). But it can also presuppose airing your laundy to family or friends. More than a conversation, airing laundry usually assumes a degree griping and moaning about supposed wrongdoing or disgruntlements. I am always very intrigued by the human capacity to gossip and rumour about other people. This is airing other people’s laundry. We take joy in this because other people’s laundry is usually more interesting than our own. In reality, we know very little about the laundry of others, but pretending too, often makes us feel superior. It is difficult not to air laundry and to pass judgement, but I am making a bet with myself that for an entire week I will put a stop to it! Stay tuned for my findings!

The love of bicycle propulsion

September 14, 2009

I love the bicycle. Its simplicity and compact form are to be admired and appreciated in this age of “bigger means better.” I have been riding bikes as my main mode of transport since my teenage years. Right now, I am riding a clunker if ever there was one. A haro purchased in 1994 with money saved from my student union wages.  It still gets me from A to B, but just. It’s time for a new one, one with fresh colours, less rust and functional crank. I had a wonderfully custom-made hybrid built in 2001, which recently got stolen from our garage. I had used this one for long distance trips, whether on flat surfaces or hilly climbs. I love climbing hills. The exhilaration is thrilling and then you are rewarded with cruising downhill at what seems like the speed of light. Soon I will be the proud owner of an extracycle, and will be able to transport my kids as easily as truck moving furniture.

There has been lots of media attention lately on the co-existence of pedal and motor power in our cities. This follows an incident involving a former Ontario Attorney General and a courier cyclist, which resulted in the death of the latter. If anything positive comes out of an incident involving, what appears to be, a tragic confrontation between two hot-heads, is a heightened awareness of cyclists rightful place on the road. There needs to be mutual respect between these two groups and an understanding that both have responsibilities on the pavement. The motorist must provide sufficient space to the cyclist, and slow down when overtaking. The cyclist must halt at red lights and refrain from riding on the sidewalk (which at times I too am tempted to do depending on the road travelled on).Cycling is not mere child’s play. It is a serious mode of transportation that contributes to a healthier population, cleaner air, and a time for daydreaming (not too much though, one must keep eyes firmly on the road). I love the bicycle. Québecois artist, Daniel Bélanger, le dit bien dans sa chanson : “Intouchable et immortel »

Mais quand je roule à vélo

La tête dans les étoiles et dans le vide

Le vent est doux, j’hallucine…

Je roule à vélo

La nuit est claire,

Le chemin désert

je suis invincible,

Intouchable et immortel…