Thursday, October 29, 2009


My new colleague, A, in the Grants Department, has been the most welcoming to me. It helps, I guess, that we share an office. He is Congolese, and fluent in English, although I attempt French with him and he speaks French slowly, patiently back to me. (My French isn’t a complete disaster, but it’s not great, either.) He likes photography and just got a camera, so we have taken breaks from work to photograph birds, clouds, and mountains from the balcony off our office. He’s been very helpful in explaining some of the quirks of this city to me. (He says that there are walls everywhere, partially because the volcano erupting made rock free, plentiful & accessible to everyone! People build walls because they can.)

A asked me this morning if I am “a believer”, to which I said an emphatic “no”. I’m not religious & I don’t believe in God, as it were. I feel a bit mystified by people who think that the Bible, the Quran, the Talmud, the Whatever, are factual. But. I did sometimes go to Mass when I lived in Kitgum – I lived across a dirt road from a Catholic Church. Not because I believe anything, but because I liked feeling a part of the wider Kitgum community, even a little bit.

I was raised Catholic, and Catholic services are pretty much the same worldwide. Latin doesn’t change. What are the implications of this dissemination of belief? Probably mainly tragic. (You’d have to ask my brilliant academic friend Gwen about that.) But selfishly for me – honestly – it’s kind of nice. In the middle of Lithuania, in the middle of northern Uganda, I can go take part in a ritual just like the rituals of my childhood, and be in my home culture, for a bit.

In Kitgum, before Mass, folks would gather in the church courtyard. I’d mingle, exchanging pleasantries and small talk with the grocers, the tailors, the women I knew from the vegetable market. I’d make new acquaintances. The children I knew from the streets around my office would hang off my arms. One Sunday, Gloria, a toddler, hid behind my skirts shyly when a local woman she didn’t know approached her, and my heart burst with love for her – and with gratitude for her sweet acceptance of me, not as a foreigner, but as a neighbor, an adult she trusted.

I told a lot of this to A, and he invited me to come to his church on Sunday. I reiterated that I really don’t believe in religion, and he said that he didn’t care; it didn’t matter. He then warned me that the service goes on for three hours and is in Kiswahili, of which I speak maybe three words. I responded that probably, then, I would only go once and never go back; he laughed.

I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to go. I won’t have had my initial security briefing until late this afternoon. And if I’m not allowed to go, then that’s fine. I’ll never ignore security mandates; that wouldn’t be fair to my colleagues or my supervisors. But it’s a bit of a relief to imagine seeing more of the city that the big house, the huge office, and the ridiculous Western grocery store.

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