notes from Uganda

Diesel trucks carrying men and goods
rumble down the rutted road that runs north/south
through Gulu and then to Southern Sudan.
Shocks are worn, the road is narrow, the traffic is alarming.
Listing overcrowded busses hurtle at terrifying speed in both directions.
Motor bikes weave, bicycles balance,
children hauling jerry cans of water trail goats on strings.
Pigs wallow in puddles in ditches on the side of the road,
pigs, and Malaria carrying mosquitoes.
Traversing short distances takes all day.
Red dust settles on everything.

Along this road clusters of thatched huts
house extended families. No running water, no electricity.
Along the road hawkers sell coal and cabbages.
Now and again there are Primary Schools, NGO’s, Churches,
cell phone towers and Government boreholes.
Now and again we pass trading centers,
leftover shops from the camps tha
t housed thousands
during the war that just barely ended.
Turn off this road past Atiak to find Earth Birth, a maternity center founded towards the end of the war by Rachel, daughter of a guitar playing Oregon Rabbi, and Olivia, a Jersey girl with bright red hair who practices Native American Shamanism.

Let me tell you,
pregnant women walking as fast as they can looking for help,
die giving birth along this road or if they get there,
they bleed to death or die from infection in ill equipped hospitals.
Babies die faster.
The war is over, but still, girls who were sex slaves of soldiers,
or concubines to Warlords die with the children they bare.
Happily married women too,
delivering five, six kids before age twenty five,
walk this same road, and many of them die too.
I have come here to Northern Uganda to celebrate the work my friends are doing,
and to help prepare food
as they host a weeklong International Midwifery Symposium themed on Birth and War.
The place is a construction site. The new compost toilet replacing the wretched hole in the ground does not yet have its door. The mud hut I sleep in is still wet.
But the clinic’s birthing rooms are in constant use and the kitchen’s up and running.

It is Nighty’s kitchen. She cooks for the staff and day-workers
and the women who labor in the clinic.
Girls from the neighboring orphanage who study English
and Tailoring and Catering in school have come to help us cook.
We are feeding 50 Traditional Birth Attendants (TBA’s) from neighboring villages
and 20 student midwives from around the world.

We wake to cock’s crow starting breakfast at first light.
There is good Ugandan coffee, packets of milk that requires no refrigeration,
black tea and honey.
Nighty teaches me to make the morning chapattis; fried flatbreads.
She shows me how to make the dough by handfuls and texture,
and to roll the dough with an oiled beer bottle.
I worry about serving deep fried food but realize not one person I’ve seen is overweight. Calories here mean something different than at home.
The whisk I brought is great for scrambling eggs,
which cook up white because of the chicken’
s anemic diet.
Chapatti and eggs one day, and Mandazi,
a vanilla scented doughnut served with mango jam the next.

I have brought Nighty three cookbooks:
a children’s book full of illustrations,
and two books about African American cooking.
The recipes use similar ingredients to what’s found here
and are written with simple words.
In between breakfast and lunch we sit together and read.
Nighty is delighted. These books comprise her entire library.
Centuries ago there was the Columbian Exchange
and things have kept shifting ever since:
American corn replaced millet and sorghum
and our peanuts, peppers and tomatoes became staples.
In exchange, we got rice, collards and slaves.

Today I learned to pick white pebbles from broken rice piled on a white cloth sac,
also to winnow old beans from a heap.
The women laugh with good nature because I am so slow.
Chickens underfoot squabble mercilessly, then pick the gleanings.

The girls from St. Monica’s feed smoky fires, tend pots of beans,
recline on papyrus mats talking
and laughing, waiting for maize porridge to boil.
They carry water from the well,
and bend over buckets washing dishes on the ground.
The green scrubby I brought to wash vegetables
turns out perfect to strain passion fruit pulp for lunchtime juice.

Nighty walks up to the kitchen with a flat stone I cannot lift balanced on her head.
Her son Stuart is strapped to her back.
We pound dry roasted groundnuts and sim sim in a heavy mortar with a heavier pestle,
then kneel in the doorway to grind the nuts to paste on the stone.
This is blended with slow cooked greens and eaten with boiled yams.
Along with rice and beans and greens,
I make frittatas and pasta and salads to keep the visitors happy.
There is no oven, only wood fire and a rickety two-burner run off propane tanks.
On Olivia’s daughter Zora’s first birthday I make pudding instead of cake.
We light candles and top the pudding with flowers from the garden.

There is no fridge, no sink, no place for garbage.
We compost, feed chickens and stray dogs and burn the rest.
I bask in privilege not hauling water and work hard to train myself to wash up less.
The visiting midwives eat at plastic tables under colorful umbrellas,
using forks and spoons. They speak of breech babies and placenta praevia,
and if they are lucky and the suns position lets them get online,
check emails from home.
I sit by the serving platters waving away flies and chickens,
and toddlers with dirty hands.
The TBA’s line up for bowls of maize flour porridge and beans cooked by the girls,
which they carry down towards the clinic
where sit on mats and eat with their hands.
Music wafts our way from where they eat.

Today we decide on meat.
Zora’s baby-daddy visiting from Kampala for her birthday
chases down El Jefe, the mean white cock.
In the service of humane slaughter I offer use of my prized Japanese knife.
The knife’s blade is not suited to cut through bone,
but using it rather than the kitchen’s dull knives seems a blessing.
Everyone laughs because I’ve never killed a chicken before
and because I’ll snap pictures but will not cut the chicken’s throat.
Killing the chicken chips the knife.
I decide I’ll leave it for Nighty.

A soak in boiled water makes it easier to pluck the birds.
The washtub stinks of blood. Wet feathers stick to my hands.
We sit on the floor eviscerating birds with a broken knife,
separating ours and theirs; breasts and thighs vs. head, feet, wingtips, and offal.
I flavor our broth with bay leaves and thyme brought from Brooklyn.
and Nighty uses Royco; a bullion she favors to season everything.
The pots simmer for hours. The broths are delicious. The meat is tough.
At dusk scattered chickens cluster near the warmth of the cooking fires
until Dante the new top cock calls them to roost.