8 weeks from tonight, right around the very time that's on my clock right now, the boys and I will be getting on a plane to leave Uganda, Brussels bound.
I've booked but not yet purchased those tickets. I have, however, already purchased a flight that leaves 2 weeks from tonight, for an 8 day visit to hunt for a house. It's becoming real, God willing... I've gone pretty far in making plans to leave Uganda twice before, and have twice not ended up going due to changing circumstances in Uganda. The first time I decided to stay was when I met and fell in love with N. The second time was when his mother died and his father was badly injured in a car-crash last year, a few weeks before my intended departure on a 1 year working sabbatical.
Both times before, I was planning to leave Uganda for a year or two and then return to stay for the long haul. This time, I don't plan to come back to live in Uganda for at least the next 13 years, or until my last born son Ben has finished high school. But yes, for the record, I still do hope to come back to Uganda someday. Life on Opok Farm with N. sounds like a perfect way to retire. He and I have some unfulfilled dreams that we'd like to achieve there, which will hopefully be more feasible when the post-war chaos in Northern Uganda dies down. As we now prepare for long periods of separation ahead, the vision of our future together on the farm is what we cling to.
In late 2001, just as my first marriage was falling apart, was when I started learning about Uganda's horrific war in the North. I became involved in some peace-building initiatives - at kind of a higher level than I bargained for, actually. A friend working close to the action for an aid agency invited me to participate in a very innovative kind of group working to mediate peace between the lunatic rebel leader Joseph Kony and the lunatic who runs this country.
The closer I got to the situation, the more I felt like I was standing outside a very hot door, and the devil himself was on the other side. I got really scared of the responsibility that I might say or do something that would set off unpredictable reactions of lunacy that would hurt more people. I recoiled, and backed off from that professional direction completely. Involved in high level negotiations was not where I wanted to be. But it was from then on that I knew I would someday take Life in Africa in some form to Gulu, the capital of Uganda's war-torn North. Where I really wanted to be was working with people at the grassroots, helping children and families heal from the impacts of the war.
Years later, when I was telling a close friend about the wonderful man I'd met while setting up Life in Africa's new WE Center in Gulu (N. was the man who installed our solar powered computers), my friend had an interesting take. He suggested that maybe what had been pulling me to Gulu all those years had nothing to do with my work at all, but with the broken heart my failed marriage had left me with. Perhaps I needed to find something there... or someone.
I know realistically that the odds are stacked against us keeping love alive for 13 years apart, and N is also pretty level headed about the risk we're headed into. We haven't ruled out that he might join us living abroad someday. Basically, we try to accept that when and if we're meant to be together again, we will be. For now we enjoy our time together, and our shared dreams of that distant someday, when all the kids can bring their kids out to the farm to stay with us when we're old. There is no love lost between us over my departure. I guess you could say it's because he loves me that N knows he has to let me go.
That devil behind the Northern Ugandan door eventually did manage to get the best of me. More than once, and in more than one painful way. For all the love I have tried to give to these people who hail from Africa's bleeding and battered heart, I have experienced an equal amount of pain. My best friends in Uganda (including N) are almost all from the northern Acholi tribe, and I have loved them as a people for the strong sense of family and community values that so many I have known from the Acholi tribe seemed to share. Either I was wrong about the Acholi cultural values, or people have changed - probably both.
By the time I agreed to marry N, I had already experienced some pretty awful behavior in working with the Acholi community and wanted to get out of Uganda for a while. But having lived abroad without family nearby for so many years, becoming part of N's family really appealed to me. The closer I got to his family culture, however, the more I've realized how wrong I had been to want to become an Acholi wife.
The male dominated extended family structure is the ultimate authority over an Acholi woman's life. As a woman, as a non-Acholi, and as a new wife, my own voice in family decisions would be basically non-existent (including in decisions that directly affect or compromise any plans or assets that N and I might have together). I would only be able to speak through N, who has to fight tooth and nail to be heard. His father is "the chairman" of the extended family. Like many Northern Ugandan patriarchs I've met, he plays dirty when he thinks things won't go his way, and he does not think I am a suitable wife for his son. Were I to marry N or even stay as his common law wife, my children from my former marriage would be openly resented. My household would be constantly criticized, manipulated and poked at - like it is now - for many years to come. Any plans or assets I might have would always be at risk.
I won't go into details of the hell I've experienced at the hands of N's family. In the beginning, I wanted so much to love them. When I started finding it hard, more than one of his cousin-sisters and aunties told me that I just needed to learn to be like one of them now... submissive, humbly respecting the family's authority over their lives, and suffering quietly. A good Acholi woman is one who suffers "well."
No thank you.
No matter how much I love this man, it just doesn't make sense to me to willingly enter into a future where my rights would be so suppressed by the family culture. If it was just me, perhaps I'd be more willing to take on the cross-cultural adventure. But I have to think of my boys first. As much as they also adore and will miss N terribly, every bone in my body tells me that staying close to N's family would be harder on them over the long run than leaving him now will be. In bittersweet ways my leaving will also make N's life much easier. It's all just so terribly sad.
But the situation with N's family is really just part of the sadness and fear that hang their shadows over my Ugandan world these days.
I have always believed that people are inherently good, but I have painfully learned in the past few years that good people can also go bad. As the war died down and reconstruction aid money has poured in to help cool the situation in the North, icicles of greed, vengeance and meanness have formed around so many Acholi hearts. It's a different kind of war zone now, and how it's impacted on me and Life in Africa is just one of many casualties that we hear stories about these days.
The Acholi people of today fight over the financial aid that's been sent by the world for the reconstruction of Northern Uganda like a starving mob fights over a sack of grain that falls from a food aid truck and splits open. The past few years have been an internationally funded feeding frenzy, where an extraordinary number of people seem to be willing to fight tooth and nail to get as much as they can get for themselves. I am not at all alone in seeing that something in Acholi society has changed of late. It's a common topic of discussion among many of my friends. Certainly the Kony war has had it's toll, but what seems to have really brought out the worst in so many people is the post-war flood of aid dollars.
From the fathers, uncles and husbands who stole their womens' small loans and stuck them with repayments; to the LiA Gulu partner organization who told me I wouldn't be the first mzungu they drove out of town for not giving them more money; to the local staff of international non-profit organizations who told us we could have hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop the farm project for families of children orphaned by the war as long as we gave them their standard 10% cut in cash... memories of my last few years in Uganda have been tainted with the rancid air of festering, bullish greed. The stench of it overwhelms me emotionally, and I find sometimes that I simply cannot breathe.
I could share with you dozens of horror stories, but I don't think my heart can take digging some of the worst ones back up just yet. In fact, part of me thinks I just need to bury them and keep them buried. I really didn't know how to handle alot of what was happening around me when things started to get rough with my work in Gulu, and I don't really think I handled things very well. Again - on both counts - I wasn't the only one. Many of my most wonderful Ugandan colleagues also suffered terribly from intense depression as a result of some of the thug chaos that seemed to be everywhere in Gulu during the early post-war days. Sadly, some also succumbed to the pressure and slipped over to the bad side.
I have cried over watching our farm's forest (that we dreamed of saving as a protected area) illegally chopped down for quick-cash earning charcoal with help from local officials. I have cried over being cheated, lied to and stolen from by individuals I truly loved and trusted. I have cried over our mamas at WE Center Gulu being swindled by the community executive committee (mostly male) whom they elected to manage their group financial affairs. I have cried over N's father taking my car on a 300 mile trip without asking while we were out of the country and totaling it, then bitterly blaming N for his mother's death because he'd not told his dad that my tires were bad.
I have cried and cried and cried at not being able to find enough peace with the ugliness I've experienced lately to want to stay here, with my beloved Acholi soulmate.
I remember the early days of Life in Africa in Gulu (3-4 years ago) as magical, filled with hope and promise, and love. N was a new presence in my life. The Life in Africa staff involved were people I loved and enjoyed working with. Our online community of supporters was very involved, including some of my family in the US who were taking an interest in my work for the first time. We worked together to make a dream come true, and it was so exciting.
The mamas and volunteers in Gulu were wonderful and so willing to work together - untainted by the kind of greed we had some experience with in Life in Africa's Kampala community, because they really had absolutely nothing. The children we worked with had a ton of fun. We created some wonderful memories and healing moments, that I know will stay with those kids for the rest of their lives. While it was alive, WE Center Gulu most definitely achieved it's objective of uplifting the community in creative ways. It was a simply wonderful place to be.
Watching it die - harpooned with the icicles of greed, vengeance and a jealous hunger for brute power that many Acholi now wield in their postwar atrocities against the world and each other - has been like I can only imagine it would be to watch my own child be beaten to death. It has altered me, in ways I've yet to fully come to grips with. I'm still too close to be able to see clearly what I was supposed to learn from all of it. I've not worked actively in a year now, and everything that went so very wrong still actively consumes so much of my thinking. I wonder at times if my heart that has so ardently loved and given to humanity will ever be the same. I just feel so completely drained.
For many years I've joked that I want to be an angel when I grow up. This sadness and fear to pick myself up and start over again are not serving me well as wings. There was a time when being here in Uganda filled me with a sense of purpose that was like nothing I'd experienced before. The life I can choose to accept now by staying offers none of that professionally, and not enough of that personally. So I am leaving Uganda to refind my purpose, and save whatever is left of myself. It is strengthening to know who and where my soulmate is, but I need to go make myself whole again on my own.
It hardly matters that I don't really know yet what awaits me around the next bend. I find myself seeking where and how to do some good in the world, and know that I'll work that part of my nature into whatever it is that my life ends up being built around next - in a time and space where I can hopefully think and love and learn to give of myself again with peace in my heart instead of pain. The dream of coming back someday to retire with N in the wilderness of the farm is safely packed in my emotional suitcase. Handy so I can reach it when needed.
8 weeks, and praying... that I actually make it out of Africa this time.