Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mzungu Purgatories

I remember a friend, commenting on one of the middle seasons of Lost, remarking that it was so far removed from the basic elemental survival of the first season that he had forgotten how he had gotten to this point – that he never would have believed it could wind up in the space in which it now resided. I feel the same way about Mukono, Uganda. The logistics of my journey from Addis Ababa to Mukono were sensible, but not from an emotional or spiritual perspective. I don’t know this place and I don’t know how I got here.

Mukono is electrifying and frightful. It is a place where the men I can trust are the ones who greet me with truculence, where the sociable ones are best avoided. Where I am not supposed to walk the streets past eight at night, but the greatest danger I face is riding moto-motos in the sunshine. Where the clubs blare deafening, ghastly beats over the city till four in the morning on weeknights, where Christian pastors tell me the Koran was written by Satan.

I have been flirting with Christianity ever since I got to Africa, but I am stalled in Purgatory. There is so much about this religion that makes sense to me, but there seem to be irreconcilable differences between the God I believe in and the one the Christians do. How can their way be the only path to Heaven? How can it be that people were wrong for thousands and thousands of years, thinking they were right all that time, and now suddenly they’ve figured it out? How can Man be so specifically right about any thing? How can it be that animals evolved for billions of years, and now suddenly Man superseded them? How can someone born in Saudi Arabia be wrong about God, simply because she was born in Saudi Arabia? How can any people that believes the others are wrong – the majority of people on this Earth – be right?

There is little about Mukono that I understand. But of course there was little about Addis Ababa I understood the first few weeks I was there. It was foolish to think I might be able to do any good in Uganda in ten days time, not alone, not without a curriculum. From the perspective of the pleasure-seeker and the altruist, my time would have been better spent at some bed and breakfast on the Nile.

My timing was not well calculated either. I am learning another new culture, almost as different from Addis Ababa as Addis was from Boulder. But I don’t have the verve to learn a new culture now, not after learning Addis for three months, not in this brief window before returning home. I am just waiting in Purgatory between Ethiopia and America.

Mukono is a strange place, perhaps the strangest I have ever been. But Mukono is not a strange place in Africa. My understanding is that Mukono, Uganda is to Africa as Toledo, Ohio is to North America. Mzungus do not usually travel to regular places like Mukono, they go to anomalies like Jinja or Zanzibar. Or large cities like Addis where they can more closely replicate the lives they know.

Yet I am grateful for this unadulterated taste of conventional African life. I wake up every morning and feel a little more Ugandan. I feel the same timid but inexorable churning in the back of my skull, the re-firing of recycled synapses coming to resurrection. In this way it is as if I was back in Addis for those first ten days – recalibrating to a new world as well as a new panorama of its approaching shores. And in just a few days I will be recalibrating again, inspired to make that familiar place as fresh, dynamic, and invigorating as Africa has been for me.


Anonymous Alyssa said...

I love your writing: what you find beautiful and what you wrestle with. I'm glad you posted something again.

I also hope that as you go back to America to stir things up, seeking new life and inspiration, that it will find you.

But if, after a season in the land of plenty, you find yourself discontent. . . other vast, panoramic shores hold possibility.

5:23 AM  
Blogger Michal Greenberg said...

Sounds to me like some of your issues with "christianity" are more specifically issues with catholicism and/or other denominations. I think you should be more conscious of the source of your information, and not just the information itself.

12:30 PM  
Blogger TheGraveWolf said...

Organized religion is the nut low.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Bag said...


9:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom you are a really gifted writer. Thank you for sharing this!
Quite honestly, I wrestle with a lot of the same questions you have mentioned here. And guess what I've found? Its completely healthy and normal! Never trust the easy answers someone might give you (ha!), and also never listen to those who may tell you to stop questioning. Things are way more complicated than a few paragraphs or minutes of an argument.
I usually reference authors when I think they do a better job of exlaining things than I ever could, so I think i'll do that.
Pam showed me a guy named Leonard Sweet who argued that Christians ought to think of God as active in everyone's life, instead of suddenly revealing God's self in a one-time conversion experience. I've read a couple of stories from him of how God is a little more active than our American/western/evangelical orthodoxy makes God out to be.
Brian McLaren and NT Wright are also two others who have written extensively on things like this.
If I'm qualified to give "advice" I'd simply say this: Christianity is a helluva journey. It'll feel like a sine wave at times, going up and down on repeat. One of the comforting things is that the only judgment that Jesus ever offered about the post-mortem life of others was to people who thought they had it all figured out. Grace was and is more prevalent than anything else.

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