Endebbe Road, cont.
Full Moon Celebration for the Women's Way 2002 Congress,
Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda
In 2002 I travelled to Uganda to attend the Women's World
Congress in Kampala, part of a delegation of women sponsored
by Feminists for the Gift Economy and Genevieve Vaughan.
Here are three more poems from the series I wrote there,
called Endebbe Road.
Drums and an African string orchestra, dancers
in wigs, grass skirts, cymbal bells on their legs —
a laughing, flirting, hip shaking, body shaking
joyful celebration beneath a full moon in Kampala,
outdoors, in the courtyard of the Great Hall
on the Campus of Makerere University.
I am curious about Ugandan tribes.
Black people in blond wigs – I hold up a bunch
of hair. Grimace. It makes them laugh, shake their heads,
"No!" They shout above the music something I can’t hear
and is possibly the name of the animal, or plant,
the wigs came from. Maybe it’s hemp.
Later we all dance. My white linen clothing is boring
in this crowd decked out in brilliant, intricate fabric art.
A girl plays the mirimba, young men play kalimbas,
a harp that looks like an egyptian boat, drums.
Teenagers dance with cymbals on top of cymbals
from ankle to knee. It’s a foot stomping riot of joyful
human beings leaping through choreographies that are
eternal because they’re simply too good to fade away,
like love, wild and exuberant.
I am curious about the tribes.
We'd been talking about what happened
in Rwanda, about the Rebels in Uganda who
had attacked a village 20 minutes from Kampala
the night before.
These are not dances of war,
they are celebrations of life.
Gabril tells me he knows six Ungadan languages,
Szwahli, English and a small amount of Arabic.
He came from a tribe in the East.
He says in Africa governments give money to
people in the politician’s home regions.
It doesn't make people hate each other.
Rapids at the source of the Nile River in Jinja,
alongside a dam which generates power Ungandans
sell to pay off building debt.
Muhammad grew up in Jinja, at the source of the Nile,
attended an English school across the road
from a Hindu temple.
His father was an engineer for a tobacco company.
He does not know how old his mother is.
Muhammad and Gabril are friends who come from
different tribes. They say there are minor rivalries
between tribes, that the Bugandans think they superior
because the King is a Bugandan.
"Do the other people hate them?" They’re puzzled
by the question. "We share a culture."
"What makes people mad enough to kill each other?"
I am still trying to understand the local wars.
They want power and money. There are no roads in the
North, people are starving and they want schools.
I wonder how people can starve in a rain forest.
They can’t get soap. I think of long bars of soap,
half a yard long, the thick, deep blue soap I saw at the market,
Gabril collects it every time he fills his taxi with gas,
trades with stations that give free soap.
The Uganda Director of UNHCR – pronounced (un kra) says,
"If you go to the camps you will see Sudanese, Rwandans,
Ugandans from different tribes living side by side.
If you go there, you will not be able
to tell which person comes from which group."
Women from the camps nod,
"Yes, yes, this is the truth."
Above the rapids in Jinja the incredibly verdant Ugandan
countryside blossoms, but no food.
The Good Earth
It is possible to drive quickly for nearly an hour through
verdant fields — perfectly groomed, no weeds —
tea, sugar cane, tobacco, coffee, "worm" farms for silk.
Rich red earth gives forth these crops year after year
and the rainforest that creeps back home is held
off with sharp machetes, or plows the way water
is held in abeyance by a dam.
Anything grows here, banana trees pop out of the
earth anyplace a seed drops, waving windmill fringed
green arms, producing the best bananas in the world,
small trees, small delicious fruit,
without which people would starve.
What other food there is for Ugandans in
rural areas comes from the World Food Program.
It is possible to drive quickly for nearly an hour through
verdant fields, sculptured to the slope of Uganda’s bronze
hills, and not realize that all these fields belong to one
family, from India, and not learn that rural people
must often flee to the city, or to refugee camps
because there is no food, because wages on the farms
are not life sustaining, because the government does
not protect rural villages from marauders who often
wear government uniforms, or come to retaliate against
atrocity and war in the Congo, Rwanda, the Sudan,
because crops and their price leave the continent.
It is possible to see rolling fields of perfect crops,
verdant in equatorial light and not ask why,
in this rich farmland, people have nothing to eat
except bananas, which are too small to export.
It is hard to understand how anyone, seeing this,
could allow it to continue but I know it is possible
to look at agribusiness, the extension of colonialism,
in Africa and see nothing wrong
because the world has done it for centuries —
Why don’t people grow their own vegetables, grain, corn,
nuts, crops on small plots of land around the villages?
Even in refugee camps each family is given a small plot
It is possible to ask these questions which seem intelligent
enough except the answer makes them dumb as a red brick
shaped out of clay.
You cannot dig in the earth when soldiers come.
Sarah at the closing celebration.
Sarah stays after my presentation
about small press publishing to tell me
she has a son whose name is Brite.
He is the child of a sister who contracted AIDS,
and died. They have not tested Brite
because they don’t want to know.
She says the child is happy and smart.
She tells me he is healthy.
Sarah is taking care of eight children, is a widow,
who has started a small business in her home.
In the evenings, she and the children purify
and bottle water which they sell to pay school fees.
There is a debate in Uganda about whether women
should work for change in the context
of governmental structures, or outside the status quo.
Sarah is a widow trying to raise eight children.
There are 200,000 refugees living in camps in Uganda,
and 600,000 internally displaced persons —
80% of these are women and children,
who fare better when the men are gone and worse,
much worse, when soldiers come.
Sarah is taking care of her family.
Women’s rights are a major tenant of the President’s agenda —
the same president whose wars in the Congo and Sudan
erupt into violent attacks — rapes, maiming, and kidnapping
of women and children in the camps,
whose wars result in the use of women and children
as currency, the president whose legislature is composed 50%
The panel discussion was about women and entrepreneurship.
I read a poem, by the first poet, Enheduenna,
who was thrown into a leper camp for resisting war in 3200 BC,
in the fertile crescent, which is now Iraq.
I say I am an artist: My work is healing, social change —
my business is a cultural phenomenon, not a business at all.
The moderator decides I work outside the system.
Sarah tells me she liked the poem.
I try to imagine how busy she must be, eight children,
some with AIDS. My knowing jumps in geometric progression
as I multiply the gigantic challenge of Sarah’s time on earth,
by 25% of six million people here who have aids, who die,
leaving children to be raised by their siblings.
How do they manage — the work? The grief.
A man reported that contrary to what one might suspect
the start up costs for small businesses in Kampala,
75 percent of them, ranged from five to five hundred US dollars.
Sarah and her children purify water at night, bottle it to sell.
The next evening I meet Sarah again.
Her sister , Jessica, is the cultural events coordinator
for the conference, a tall, strikingly beautiful woman
educated in the United States,
who teaches in the Music and Drama department,
and is MC for the poetry reading.
I meet a third sister as well,
and find myself standing with a family of women
who are competent and beautiful.
Jessica says women who are able receive an education
must mentor other women.
Sarah gives me a present the last day of the conference —
a plaque made of sand and shells, oval, that rich Uganda red earth
color and cream sand.
At twilight, as the dancers and musicians
are packing up, she brings it to me, saying
"This is made of natural material by our children for you."
I think women like light glow in all directions
simultaneously, do what we can do, here and now,
© Susan Bright, 2002.
Susan Bright is the author of nineteen books of poetry. She is the editor of Plain View Press which since 1975 has published one-hundred-and-fifty books. Her work as a poet, publisher, activist and educator has taken her all over the United States and abroad. Her most recent book, The Layers of Our Seeing, is a collection of poetry, photographs and essays about peace done in collaboration with photographer Alan Pogue and Middle Eastern journalist, Muna Hamzeh.
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