Living and Learning in the Heart of Africa

On the top floor of a passing hotel in Mbarara, Uganda, you will find one last set of steps, about five of them in total, leading to a metal door with an unbolted lock. Crawl through this door to the roof – a small, square platform surrounded by tin, with billowing white sheets drying in the sunlight.(1)

Stand there, and your eyes will see for miles: the red-dirt streets of the town, men greeting each other from their doorsteps, women with their babies snuggled into their backs and their fruits balanced on their heads. See the stream of traffic making its way to and from the nearby Rwandan border: white van taxis, “boda boda” motorcycles and big trucks with wood sides and twenty people standing in their beds. See the rolling hills, greener than you have ever seen. Beyond these hills you will find the refugee camps, but for now just look, and watch as the clock hits seven and the sun slides behind the nearest hill, lands unnoticed in the first mist of night.

The sun always sets early on the equator.

I could not deny the poetry of that moment atop the Hotel Classic, halfway into my six-week journey through Uganda and Rwanda. I was there as a student in the School for International Training’s (SIT) summer 2009 program on Peace and Conflict Studies in the Lake Victoria Basin, studying both Northern Uganda’s twenty-year struggle against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the 1994 Rwandan genocide. This was how it came to be that I spent my summer in a group of twenty-some undergraduate students from across the U.S, traveling through the heart of Africa.

In Uganda, I spent most of my time in Gulu, the heart of the Acholi subregion and epicenter of the Northern conflict. On most days, class consisted of two or three lectures from local professors and professionals. On other days, SIT arranged for small group visits to local NGO’s, internal displacement camps, and nearby resettled villages.

My Acholi host, Martin, was the Speaker for the District Council and a member of the opposition party. Martin was eager to discuss his first-hand experiences, such as when he traveled to participate in the Southern Sudan peace talks with the LRA, and he even brought me along to his meetings with various local figures. But Martin was not just a guide; he was my host-father, and his family never failed to remind me that I was their new daughter (the Acholi were extremely welcoming and took the term “host family” very seriously).

KH with her Acholi host family in Gulu, Uganda.DSC03038

So I spent the evenings with my family, learning to cook dinner, wash the laundry, and negotiate the market with my host-mom, Sue (known affectionately as Mama Maureen), and playing with their breathtakingly adorable daughter, Becky, who turned three during my visit and loved nothing more than to dance all day. And finally there was Jillian, Martin’s 15-year-old niece and adopted daughter, who was a student in secondary school and responsible for most of the house work. It was Jillian who gave me my Acholi name, Aber, meaning beautiful.

Crossing the border into Rwanda, the atmosphere almost instantly changed. Flat, sprawling Uganda was replaced by Rwanda’s “land of a thousand hills,” and that was not the only difference. Whereas Uganda’s national government had seemed to give off a sense of distant uncertainty, the strong presence of Rwanda’s government was immediately evident. It was in this context that I spent two weeks in Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, attending lectures on the genocide and post-conflict reconciliation.

Through my Rwandan homestay, I was able to participate in such activities as Umuganda, which requires every Rwandan to gather in their Oumadougou (neighborhood) for community work. I also went on excursions to the genocide memorials and to a “TIG camp” where convicted genocidaire were serving parts of their sentences by building houses for returning refugees.

While I truly wanted to believe that Rwanda was a “new nation,” a flawless example of post-genocide reconciliation, something about the model image was unnerving. There was an eerie similarity between the government line and the text of our lectures, and even my day-to-day conversations while in Rwanda were full of superfluous praises of the Kagame regime.

At Smith, my professors had discussed accounts of censorship and political persecution by the new Rwandan government. Even in neighboring Uganda, I was able to meet with a group of Rwandan refugees fleeing the post-genocide regime. Yet as long as I was within Rwanda’s borders, there was absolutely no critical mention of the subject.

As a consequence, I was forced to learn informally through my encounters, most of all from a young man of my age who had been orphaned in the genocide. Through a combination of his broken English and my broken French, he explained to me how he had gone from witnessing his mother’s death to eventually forgiving her killer. Forgiving does not necessarily equate to healing, however, and even still he struggles to put his life back together and find happiness without his family. Soft-spoken and unsure as the young man was, our conversations were among the most genuine of my entire trip.

I left for Africa as a student ready to learn, ended up finding more questions than answers, and returned to the States hoping to share my experiences. I became frustrated, though, when most people seemed disinterested in my studies. Rather, they wanted to know, “What did you do to help?” as though that had to be my role. Traveling to Africa was automatically equated to volunteering in Africa. That is when I realized that there are three prevailing images of the African traveler – the mission worker, the Safari tourist, and the expatriate – and I fit none of the above.

In the end, I could never limit myself to the stereotypical experiences of a tourist or expat. The most valuable and enjoyable moments of my travels were the ones spent with my host families and the other people that I met.

Africa is not a sight to be witnessed from a bubble but a vibrant culture to be discovered and lived, and it was only through these interactions that that little region in the heart of Africa wiggled its way into my heart.

So if you ever find yourself on that rooftop in Mbarara, take in the view, but don’t forget to climb down to where the people yell out Karibu! (Welcome!), and the red dust settles into your skin, impossible to ever wash out.

(1)  Editors’ note:  This essay is republished from its first appearance on Grécourt Gate in 2009 and expresses the author’s reflections of her stay in Uganda and Rwanda that summer.

Kaitlin Hodge, a 2012 alumna of Smith College, has long been passionate about pursuing a career on the African continent. As one of Smith’s first Global STRIDE Fellows, she spent the summer between her first  and sophomore years studying abroad in Uganda and Rwanda and followed up on this experience by assisting Smith Professor Joanne Corbin with her research on experiences of resettlement in Northern Uganda. During her time at Smith, Kaitlin also co-founded SmithSTAND (a student anti-genocide coalition) and was awarded high honors for her thesis on the politics of classifying mass atrocities. Kaitlin also holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and spent the last year working in Malawi as a Princeton in Africa fellow.

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