Sunday, 21 April 2013

From inside the Bubble

Before coming to Gulu, I had already begun to form a few impressions.  Colleagues and friends and pre-field reading had informed me that this was definitely not an untouched corner of the world.  Local researchers seemed wary about my intentions.  Others asked if maybe I didn't want to go to another region where there weren't already so many projects.  Sometimes the inundation of westerners was offered as a comfort to me, "See you won't be alone up there. There are lots of mzungu even more than in Kampala."  Before I came to Gulu, it was clear that it was a town with a reputation. 
There are many 'bubble towns' in this world.  Places where you feel like you've entered a Disney production.  Where happiness is enforced.  Some towns in Sweden feel this way.  Herds of healthy wealthy people on bicycles is just weird.  Or the Midwestern homogeneity of Madison, Wisconsin.  The nuvo-hippie utopia that has inspired films.  Gulu town, Uganda is another type of manufactured experience.  The post-LRA peace in Museveni’s Uganda, where he promotes quiet streets and getting on with life in an orderly fashion, has brought an onslaught of NGOs and researchers to the most conflict-affected region in the northeast of the country.  And now, is seems as though the economy is completely driven by the do-gooder spirit.  

Arriving in town, the street is lined not with small businesses but with the headquarters of not-for-profit after not-for-profit. Even though I was prepared for this, I wasn't prepared for the mall of charitable foundations and UN/EU/USAID partnerships... anchored on every corner by banks.  With the influx of international aid, the wider district of around 150,000 people surrounding the small town, now has ten major financial institutions.  And unlike other cities of similar or even larger size in Uganda, many businesses accept VISA. 

What are these for-profit businesses?  Cafe's with wifi, hotels with conference space for the NGO's staff, and stalls of second-hand goods that look like a camping or sports store in the US full of backpacks and luggage (I think I saw mine) and hiking shoes and hats.  Cruising around are big new trucks labeled with charity logos about saving children, planning for the community, and bringing peace.  Many people are wearing shirts or carrying umbrellas that display a wealth of humanitarian organizations' logos and creeds, perhaps connected to their jobs or perhaps a second-hand selection making there appear to be a kind of de facto Gulu style, the ‘Aid-worker Aesthetic.’  An industry of peace and reconstruction. 

Part of this industry is research.  There are hordes of researchers who come to do deep and probing interviews about gender and violence, about how it felt to be a victim of Kony’s army, or unearth the inner life of the internally displaced. The same respondent may be interviewed again and again by several different research projects.  Answers become rehearsed.  Bubble town answers.  Disney produced answers.  Well, if Disney did war atrocity films, but you get the idea.  

How does a town like this dissolve the bubble?  As the NGOs and researchers get pulled toward a new crisis, what will take their place?  Beneath the veneer of reconstruction, Gulu has the appeal of a sleepy small town with small farms, friendly neighbors, a peaceful main street you can walk down with big shady trees… several schools and a growing university.  Museveni just released another ambitious plan to move Uganda toward 2040.  What do people in Gulu plan for their town and their future?

Yes, as a researcher I am one of the descending horde.  But I won’t ask a single question about how anyone feels or how the conflict affected them.   I am interested in the debris of crisis management, ICT, and its limited adaptation to indigenous use.  I’m considering how information and communication technology could better capture Acholi concepts so software designers here could develop tools for the next generation.  I don’t mind what people talk about with me, so long as it’s in Acholi. 

One of the best books*  I read before beginning to learn Acholi and coming to Uganda was about the history of the Luo, Acholi and related tribes.  Long ago, when these groups made their way down the Nile valley, they were challenged by rivalries and territory skirmishes.  They won victories because of their ability to keep secrets,  their quiet, their patience.  These qualities are still evident.  I can only imagine what it’s like for them to be confronted by strangers and asked to share, to confess, to spill out their inner private lives.  Perhaps building a bubble suits everyone.   Assigned roles.  Prescribed emotions.  And the truth can stay neatly out of sight.

I will spend two months here, and I look forward to being mistaken, being surprised, and simply taking in what I can in this short period of time.

* Ogutu, G.E.M., 2001. K E R In the 21st Century Luo Social System. Kisumu: Sundowner Institute Press.

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