Monday, August 23, 2010

What's in a Name?

When I was growing up, I never imagined that names could possibly be ordered in any other way than: first middle last. The first, of course, was your given name, chosen to identify you as an individual, different than the rest of your family members. Your middle name was often a family name, a sort of second-choice first name, or maybe you were one of the unique people with no middle name, for whatever reason (maybe because there’s no good reason for one… That I can think of, other than the fact that I like finding out people’s middle names). Your last name, finally, was your family name—probably your father’s, but in an ever-increasing number of cases, a hyphenated name (or maybe just your mom’s!).

In any case, I would have found it hard to believe, as a kid, that names could be ordered in such drastically different ways across the world. Of course, I was introduced to different naming practices when our Middle School discovered suddenly that it had been mixing up the order of names of one of the only Chinese students in school, and had to make amends. (In that case, the student came from a culture where the last name was the one he was supposed to be called. It would be like if I had moved to China and everyone called me “Daghlian.” Just not right).

Now, after spending some time in Ghana and more recently, trying to navigate the intricacies of Ugandan culture (as if I can make a sweeping statement that there is such a thing. If I were more knowledgeable, I might be able to distinguish between the Baganada culture and Acholi culture… But that might take a bit more research!). Trying to make sense of the difference in name orders has been really interesting in both places.

Here in Uganda, people generally have two names, a first and a last (though some have three). From my understanding, the first name is a Ugandan name and the second name is an Anglicized name, usually having religious roots (I mean, about as religious as the name Elizabeth is. But for a lot of people, it can distinguish between a Christian and a Muslim, for example). So, let’s say one girl’s name is Atukunda Lillian; her brother probably won’t have any names in common. Her brother might be called… Katumba Joseph. Pretty simple, but it also kind of blows my mind that in one family there might be a plethora of different names and no common name. I’ve always viewed it as such a unifying thing (which is a little odd considering that among my five siblings we have three different last names… so why would I think it was so important?).

Anyways, that naming practice is also very different from Ghana’s, which still makes me laugh a little bit. In Ghana, you might meet a person on the street and maybe he’ll introduce himself as Frank. You later ask someone, “do you know a person called Frank who stays around here?” They will say “no… but Kofi says he met a white lady today, maybe you are looking for him.” You think to yourself, no, but he said his name was Frank. So you go to ask someone else: “have you seen Frank?... or perhaps it’s Kofi?” They look at you blankly and then say, “no… but you know, Nii has just passed by here, perhaps it is him.” “Eh!” (as you would say if you were living in Ghana), where is this guy?? So, you ask one more person, certain that this time you’ll find him. “Have you seen Frank… Or Kofi? Maybe Nii?” They look at you and pause… “No, I don’t know anyone by those names… But here is Mr. Mensah.” And Mr. Mensah turns around…. It’s him!

People in Ghana have so many names and nicknames and titles that they use depending on the context. So in this case, it would make perfect sense to meet someone named Nii Kofi Frank Mensah. Nii is a title meaning “king” in Ga, although, considering that it’s a really common nickname, probably not that meaningful. Kofi simply means Friday born (in Twi, which wouldn’t really make sense if you had another name in Ga), and while not everyone includes it as a formal part of their name, they will generally use it in some settings. Frank, of course, is the given Christian name (though Muslims would obviously choose Islamic names) that all students are required to use in school. Finally, Mensah is the family name that will, just as I would expect, signify familial relationships, usually coming from the father’s side (unless you are Asante, which is matrilinear).

So, in short, names are cool, and it would be neat to learn more about different practices from around the world. But here are a few to start!

Monday, August 16, 2010

All I have to do is dreeaam, dream dream dream

(Anyone get my title reference? Again, not one of those songs that translates well to text... Sigh. Everly Brothers "All I have to do is dream." We used to listen to it in my tap class a lot).

ANYWAYS. I only mention dreams because I saw "Inception," and loovveed it! (It's about dreams, that's where the title comes in. And I have had interesting dreams ever since the movie!... total coincidence). It was complicated enough to be cool, but simple enough to never cause confusion. Or it was just well explained maybe. A lot of movies that try to be all clever with manipulating reality always have to stop the plot and start literally explaining what's going on, which sounds stupid and shows that the writers were kind of confused about it all too. But I never got that feeling with "Inception." It seemed like a well thought out and clear concept, although the ending wasn't my favorite (I won't spoil it, don't worry). It wasn't awful, but... not brilliant either. Ok, well this isn't a movie reviewing blog, so I'll leave it at that. It's just kind of neat to see how quickly movies (blockbuster movies, to clarify) go global these days. It used to take months for movies to get from New York to Vermont back in the day, and now they make it to East Africa in a matter of days! (Am I allowed to publicly use the phrase "back in the day" at my age? Well, I guess considering that I use that phrase to describe any period of time ranging from paleolithic times to just a few years ago, it's probably allowed. I'll let you judge the exact period of time I'm referring to given the context).

Now let's continue with the theme of technology (it's a theme--advancements in the film industry are reliant on technology! So there). Technology also happens to be the theme of the next term at Educate!, but that's not where I was really going with this, just a side note. My dad sent me an interesting article the other day about the unintended (and unexpected) consequences of sending computers to Africa (in this case, Ghana). To summarize (although you should look at the link, lots of great pictures!), a lot of people and companies donate old, used computers to places like Ghana thinking that "ok, a crappy old computer will be better than no computer," and then it ends up in a computer graveyard where people basically mine this old technology for gold (for circuits and contacts), copper wiring and other various parts--probably not what the donors imagined at all!

This was particularly interesting to me because I've (for some unknown reason) been put in charge of all the computers at my office! It's fun to complain about because I really know no more about computers than your average joe (and definitely not much at all about PCs. wooo macintosh!), but it's also sort of a fun challenge. During middle school and high school, I was interested in about every activity one could ever be interested in (usually lasting for a period of about two weeks. I played the flute when I was 11 for a week. Learned how to play one note). Anyways, so thanks to my computer nerd brother and dad, one of those phases was computers! I spent two weeks teaching myself to type on a DVORAK keyboard and learned probably two programing codes for blogging, and then I think I moved onto to figure skating or something much more fun like that (figure skating didn't last long either, not that fun it turns out). So, the point is, there is a tiny little itty bitty part of me that's interested in computers, so it's sort of exciting... in a challenging, frustrating kind of way.

So to make a long story even longer, I thought this article was interesting because while we do have some great used computers at our office, and we were just generously given two new computers (yay!), we definitely have some crappy, useless, space-taking computers that people still try to use from time to time, hoping they might work (I do have plans to try to fix them). So I applaud those computers miners in Ghana for not wasting their time trying to use broken, shoddy electronics. I'm not referring to our computers really, but to people donating computers (not that any potential computer donors are reading this blog), if it's not useful to you, it's probably not all that useful to people in "developing" countries either! (If it's just annoying to use, but it works, then ok, but if it's totally worthless, then it will be worthless to everyone... unless you're a computer genius, which you probably aren't if you've never owned one before and haven't had much experience using one... or if you're relying on the skills of an "I only use computers for internet and writing" kind of person... like me). Ok, I'll get off my little computer donations soapbox now...

The point is, I'm gaining a fascinating new perspective on technology in Uganda! And it's not only through my limited work with computers, but also through talking with people here who are: designing and marketing solar panels; building energy efficient stoves (this is one of the Educate! scholars!); exploring new ways to make coal ("biochar".. charcoal made out of corn); making plans to buy solar run buses; laying the groundwork for establishing fiber-optic internet, which will probably eventually be the fastest in the world; and many other cool things! It's neat that because sub-Saharan Africa missed out on some of the earlier stages of all this technology, they're now skipping ahead and in line to be on the forefront of green energy and cell phone/internet technology. Now, if only they could say the same about waste management and sewage systems... Alas.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Digging and Dancing

Sunday was a fantastically busy day! Some of the mentors organized our first community outreach through an Educate! affiliated group called the Change Makers Association (CMA). They identified a community near Kampala and decided with the village leaders to do a sanitation sensitization and cleaning project. So, as per our instructions, we all arrived pretty much on time Sunday morning at the little market. Members of the community who had been mobilized by community leaders were already hard at work digging out the "trenches."

Trenches are just open gutters that run alongside the roads, and in this case, through the market. I had thought trenches weren't as bad here as they were in Ghana (and really they aren't, they're much more discrete--often covered with grates, and they don't smell as bad, probably due to the drier climate), but these were sufficiently gross. So we all grabbed our hoes and shovels and sticks and started emptying out trash and detritus to be taken away by trucks. (I didn't actually do that much, but there is photographic evidence of me with a hoe. The whole trash picking up aspect kind of reminded me of the boathouse, in a "how did I end up in a trash picking job again?" kind of way. It's like painting jobs, they just follow me wherever I go! But it also gave me fond memories of the BH, of course).

Anyways, it was a fun project overall and nice to spend some time in another part of Kampala with industrious people interested in making positive changes in their communities! Also, as another side note (perhaps I'll just rename this blog "sidenotes" because that's about all it is), I was beyond impressed by some of the community members who are normally farmers but volunteered their services for this project. This one guy in particular just made the hoeing look effortless! He stood with a foot on either side of the trench, swung the hoe way above his head, arms fully extended, let gravity pull it straight down in front where it grabbed up a huge chunk of dirt, and then tossed it to the side as he swung it around above his head again. It was like watching a clock hand go round... Effortless. Then I tried... I bent my knees, braced myself for some serious labor, lifted the hoe to about knee level, dropped it into the ground barely making a dent, tugged at it a few times, got a speck or two of dirt and flung it to another section that I was supposed to be digging... I think I needed a little more practice.

After the hard manual labor, I trekked off to the National Theatre to watch one of the high schools that we work with put on an incredible performance. It was a play with a ridiculously dramatic plot (twin brothers separated at birth who later become best friends and their mother is warned that if they find out they're related they'll both die, and in the end they do in a crazy gun fight show down). However, it wasn't just a play. Between every single scene, there was a completely unrelated, unexplained and irrelevant dance or chorus performance. The dance performances were incredible, especially the hip hop and African ones (although there were some hilarious little kid ballet ones in the beginning). The chorus performances were great too, because it generally involved bringing the entire school onto the stage (maybe... 70 kids?) to sing together, however miraculously, they were pretty good! They also had a live band, also made up of high school students. The play was fantastic on its own too, not only because it was ridiculous, but because so many of the scenes were really unimportant to the movement of the plot and I think that's hilarious. It was like unintentional metatheatre (if that's possible, I think it has to be intentional). I loved it!

Anyways, it was splendid Sunday (although a little long), and a great way to start off the week (or end the weekend, whichever). Also, I had another experience that I meant to share on an earlier post but forgot until now. So let me take you back in time to about a week ago:

I was walking into work this morning and as I approached the building I heard this hilarious music coming from across the little street. I glanced in (because the door was wide open) and there were probably three guys having a 9 in the morning jam session. They were right on beat, I’ll give them that, and they had a clear melody, but their choice of instruments was a little peculiar. They had a deafeningly loud drum banging out a steady BAM pause BAM pause BAM. They had some kind of string instrument—maybe just an acoustic guitar, ok that’s normal, that’s acceptable. But the most prominent and interesting choice of instruments had to be the recorder, whistling out a borderline jolly tune. I say borderline, because perhaps if it had been a little more up-tempo it would have made some kind of musical sense, but instead it was exactly on the beat of the deep, thundering drum and the contrast between the two was just too funny. It was a great way to start the day.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Week in Review

Queen Elizabeth National Park... Last weekend, I galavanted off to Queen Elizabeth National Park with a few of my E! friends and a lot of people I didn't actually know. Because we were a fairly large group, it ended up that some of us got to ride in a car (including me) and the rest were in a small bus (which the car was following). The total distance from Kampala to Queen Elizabeth was probably... similar to the distance between Burlington, VT and NYC, or maybe not even that far. However, thanks to roads, which were alternately littered with potholes and then covered with speedbumps (literally every 20 kilometres when the roads were well paved), it took us about 10 hours to get there! The car could have gone faster had it not been following the bus (and it absolutely did on the way back when it only took us 5 hours), but alas, we were traveling as a group. Anyways, it was an interesting collection of people: 3 American E! staff (one of whom holds French and British citizenship too), 2 Scottish girls, 5 British volunteers, 2 British Oxford students, 1 Belgian University student, 1 Belgian diplomat, and 1 Ugandan fellow who arranged the whole trip. Anyways, to make a long story short, I saw lots of elephants, hippos, water buffalo, warthogs, and pretty landscapes!

Surprises and Celebrations... This past week, back in Kampala, I enjoyed good food, visited with students, tried to focus on my various projects and met a few interesting people. I had a great time on Tuesday visiting the orphanage that E! works with. I went with one of the mentors and three people from the US Embassy who are considering giving us a grant, and because the orphanage knew all these people were coming, they arranged this huge performance! I think I've explained it on here before, but the idea behind this orphanage is to empower former street kids and orphans through music and performance. Unfortunately, I had no idea this was happening and didn't have a camera.. Oh well. It was very entertaining, but I was also moderately terrified when these 7 and 8 year old boys started making these human towers on the concrete stage. One boy would brace himself as about four other boys would stand on his shoulders and make crazy pyramids and towers. It was even more frightening when the 14 and 15 year old boys started doing the same thing, because of course the towers were twice as tall! Thankfully, no injuries or mistakes resulted. It was just like Circus Smirkus! Later in the week, I visited with students at another school who were celebrating their graduation from the E! program. They had even gone so far as to raise money for graduation gowns!

Good Food and New Friends... When I wasn't working on projects at the office (I've somehow been put in charge of fixing computer problems.. gulp), I was out getting drinks and good food and meeting new people! I went out to our local bar on Tuesday, which is actually called Local Bar, I think, and had a relaxing evening talking about work and other things. We went back there the next night with a friend of a friend who is in town, but generally works in Kenya selling solar panels. That was pretty interesting. The best part of the night by far, however, was getting pork and plantains from a little stand across the street (it took about 2 hours to prepare, but it was worth the wait). It reminded me of Ghana a bit and the days of eating with your hands and wondering if your body would hate you the next day for your choice of food (it worked out fine though!). The following night, we met up with another interesting guy who sells solar panels in Kampala, and the food at the restaurant was deeeelicious (I got fish, which came with veggies, salad, soup, grilled pineapple, garlic bread and mashed potatoes.... plus a dessert, all for $7!).

Making the Most of it All... Anyways, now it is the weekend and I'm doing probably the exact same thing I would be doing if I was back in my parents' house at home... Wasting time on my computer. And I have to say, the only thing worse than wasting a lot of time watching youtube videos, is trying to waste time watching youtube videos when they take about 30 minutes to load... So beyond this one music video I'm desperately trying to watch (no, not Beyonce), I will probably give up. I've already spent too much time trying to download pictures of Chelsea Clinton's wedding dress (just lovely!). So maybe it's time to go be productive! (No guarantees though... Then again, I could just continue being lazy and make up great stories about all the things I've accomplished and just tell you all that I forgot my camera! You'd never know.... ha. ha. ha!) Ok, the end!