After a few days of watching Emmy lead his ragged troupe through a series of unruly pops and locks, a real, bonafide breakdancing crew has arrived from Kampala. They roll into the HEALS courtyard one afternoon, a half-dozen b-boys and -girls in bandanas and camouflage shorts and shell-top Adidas, looking like they just stepped off the A train. They scurry around for an hour, stacking speakers and testing mics and running cables across the yard, as if this wasn’t a lazy afternoon in Gulu but Showtime at the Apollo. I suspect it’s just a matter of time before I’m throwing my hands in the air, and maybe even waving them like I just don’t care. Borja circles the scene in a photographic frenzy, zooming in close and snapping away and more or less doing his best to be a complete, Andalucian nuisance.
The excitement that’s been triggered by the day’s program quickly tears through the neighborhood; before long, half of Gulu’s kids seem to have poked their heads through the gate, squealing and chasing each other and practicing their dance moves with earnest fretfulness. It’s a sweet, heartbreaking scene. There are barefoot boys and boys with oversized sandals; boys with great knobby knees and thin bony chests; boys in pants that are too small and shirts that are too big; boys with shirts caked in dirt and devoured by moths; with shirts torn at the shoulder or torn at the stomach; with Batman logos and Miami Dolphins logos and Pokemon logos; with buttons hanging by a thread. There’s a boy running across the yard with a plastic bag on his head, and another with a pair of shoelaces around his neck, and a boy with a dirty t-shirt that says “Venice Beach, California”. There are girls in frumpy gingham skirts, in bright print dresses, in blouses that puff out around the shoulders. There’s a girl with a plastic pearl necklace and another with an appliqué flower falling off her dress. There’s a bald, bright-eyed girl in a frayed blue dress with the word “Petunia” stitched across the front. Their faces are dirty, their foreheads sweaty, their eyes puffy, their noses crusted over with a week’s worth of snot; and they’re flashing dazzling, yellowed, gap-toothed smiles that could even melt the heart of a cynic like me.
Jolly and her sister, Judith, rush around to help with the preparations. A couple of stout, matronly women sit on the steps, holding infants to their chests. Another old bird sits with her mouth twisted into a wary frown, the look on her face suggesting that she doesn’t take shit, won’t take shit, and probably hasn’t entertained shit since Idi Amin left town. When the sound boy comes over to run a few wires behind her head, she fixes him with a look of cold, candid fury. If you were going to innocently ask, at this point, “Where tha party at?” the answer would not, by a longshot, be, “Ova here!”
A massive crowd has gathered by the time the first bass lines thump through the speakers. For these Acholi – famous throughout Uganda for their dancing skills – it doesn’t take much to get worked up by the music. They bounce and sway and clap their hands to the beat, the dancers showing off their footwork to the wide-eyed delight of the kids. The emcee rips a few rhymes in Luganda, peppering his rap with “Uh uh” and “Yeah yeah”. He pulls Denis from the crowd and gets him – laughing, blushing, bobbing off beat – to join in the chorus. Everyone shouts and cheers.
For the next two hours b-boy bedlam ensues. The dancers spin and flip and whirl on their backs. A few guys spray-paint a mural of the word “PEACE” on one of the walls. The emcee pumps a fist, says “Yeah yeah yeah,” and gets the crowd to join in a chant of “Let’s make a change!”
“Use the courage you have to change people’s lives,” he says, drawing loud cheers from the crowd. For a few hours, in that kinetic air, anything seems possible. Then the music dies and the speakers get packed into a pick-up truck, and the dancers go bumping back down the road to Kampala, leaving a few dozen kids to practice their moonwalks as the dusty courtyard grows dark.
Later that night, at Kope Café, I meet an American, Lindsey, who’d I’d seen around town all week. Her story seems to sum up all that’s right and wrong in a place like this. She arrived in Gulu with plans to establish her own NGO – an ambitious health-care initiative that would target the north’s neediest cases. Part of the problem she’s uncovered is that the existing system – with its ill-equipped, underfunded hospitals – is in no position to effectively reach the rural population, most of whom live in remote areas, and are too poor, ill, or both to access what little care that system offers. Instead she envisions a mobile clinic using Gulu as its hub – a roving vehicle with its own dispensary and testing facilities, able to reach the region’s countless desperate nooks.
But her plans have hardly gotten off the ground. From the start she’s been stonewalled by local officials, prodded for hand-outs by hospital staff, and viewed with suspicion by other aid workers in the area. And just getting her mind around the logistics of her plan poses its own set of problems. With so many desperate people spread across the region, how best to decide who needs help the most? What algorithm of misfortune can quantify a man’s suffering? How do you weigh it against another’s? And what excruciating drawing of lines in the sand determines her boundaries – how far her truck is willing to go, just when it has to turn back?
I admit I wouldn’t even know where to begin, and I suspect that’s a big part of the difference between us. Overwhelmed by the scale of suffering on this continent, I’ve lost sight of the ways to make even just a few lives better. It’s not the first time I’ve been filled with self-loathing in Africa, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. And I look with bewildered admiration at people like Lindsey, courageously throwing themselves into the cauldron of lost causes.
The next night she invites me to a performance at the Luo Talent Centre, a community theater that works with youth outreach programs in Gulu. They perform in a small auditorium full of wobbly wooden benches and dusty floors. The works of local artists hang on the walls, with optimistic price tags clipped to the frames; the back of the room is lined with shelves cluttered with beaded jewelry sold by local Acholi women. Outside are a few plastic tables and lawn chairs inside a wooden fence; they’re set under beach umbrellas about a dozen steps from a junkyard. When I arrive there are kids playing outside, scampering around piles of rusted metal sheets and ducking into the husks of broken-down pick-up trucks. A group of young Acholi men are banging and strumming away on handmade instruments – makeshift percussions and string sections pieced together from scraps unearthed around the yard.
Inside the play is about to begin. I sit in the back row, behind a bench full of curious kids with wide, inquisitive eyes. The curtains are drawn in the front of the room; the emcee fidgets with the microphone and soundboard while people shuffle to their seats. On either side of the stage are two massive oil portraits: one of President Museveni, the other of Queen Elizabeth, looking royally pleased to be front and center at the LTC. Finally the emcee clears his throat and announces the start of the program. There’s a baroque series of introductions, in which he proceeds to welcome the various NGOs and distinguished guests in the audience. The VIP list includes a certain startled travel writer, who’s done almost exactly nothing for the Gulu community, and whose sole contribution to the night’s proceedings has been to show up and be white. Undeterred, I stand to a smattering of applause, waving cheerily to the kids and clasping my hands with gratitude.
“Really, you don’t have to,” I say. “Really. You don’t.”
Before the start of the show the emcee reads through the program, giving a scene by scene breakdown of the play we’re about to watch. It seems like an odd touch, until the players take the stage and proceed to spend the next forty minutes speaking in Luo. Suddenly I’m grateful for the emcee’s introduction, as well as for the attentions of Daniel – an Acholi boy I met at HEALS, who sits beside me for the entire performance, narrating the events on stage.
It’s a strange morality tale, part AIDS awareness campaign and part Nigerian heist flick. What it boils down to is your classic story of boy meets girl, boy gets rebuffed by girl, boy and friends go on a rampage of armed robbery through the countryside, boy and friends clumsily stick up a businessman allegorically fattened by ill-gotten profits, boy gets arrested on robbery charges, boy and girl get together and then have a falling out, but not before both test positive for HIV, and everybody wails and mourns in the end. The grim narrative is somewhat lightened by the presence of The Drunk, an archetypal figure who wobbles and wisecracks and, much like the Shakespearean fool, manages to illuminate the follies and foibles of man on his never-ending quest to make sense of the world and get laid. Most of The Drunk’s lines are delivered in barbed asides, but despite the side-splitting laughter they provoke in the audience, they’re the only lines that Daniel manages to lose in translation every single time.
It’s an illuminating performance, all the same. On a continent where high rates of illiteracy are the norm, health professionals have long relied on traditional story-telling techniques to preach the gospel of prevention. It’s a simple tactic of enlightening through entertainment that’s been in place since the days of Seneca, at least. Most of the audience, though, seems to have come out just for the show, laughing along at the characters’ increasingly desperate plight, and making a case of HIV look about as serious as a case of the hiccups.
Afterward a group of Acholi dancers and musicians take the stage, whipping the crowd into a frenzy with their carnal beats and wiggling backsides. It seems like a fitting coda to the show, since nothing quite says “AIDS awareness” like a group of lithe, nubile girls rhythmically gyrating their hips. Once they’ve writhed off-stage, the emcee opens up the floor to questions and comments; but what might usher in an informal Q&A back home is, in Uganda, an invitation to more or less conduct a three-day symposium on HIV prevention. One by one a series of grave, bespectacled men rise in their seats, make their solemn way to the stage, unfold a small folio’s worth of notes, and begin long, impassioned pleas that are largely lost on the young crowd. It’s only now that I can fully appreciate my strategic back-row seat, and it’s with a minor fuss of apologies that I slink to the door, hoping that the departure of the last mzungu won’t deflate the mood.
The next day I pay my final visit to HEALS, looking to find some happy resolution to my stay in Gulu. I’ve brought some notebooks and pens I picked up in town, and the kids clamber around as I hand them out, chirping their thanks and scurrying off to write their names inside the covers. I find Borja pacing in the yard, blowing plumes of smoke into the air and looking like his time here has taken a heavy toll. He slouches into a chair and shakes his head bitterly, no doubt wondering why he ever left Jerez. Earlier in the week a water shortage had left the HEALS’ taps dry, making it impossible for the class to develop their film; later power cuts kept them from printing. For a few dark days it looked like Borja had come face-to-face with all his failed hopes, and that this odd African odyssey might just end in disappointment.
But each morning fourteen kids still show up in his classroom, waiting for the lesson to begin. Each day they spill into the yard, metering the light against their hands and adjusting the shutter speed and trying to build on the modest gains of the day before. There’s something pure in their perseverance, a need to persist in a world indifferent to the hopes and struggles of another hard-luck bunch of Africans. Nothing that happens here will ever matter to anyone outside these walls; but on this afternoon in Gulu, full of faith in themselves, these kids have something to believe in. And either that matters, or nothing does.