Tag Archives: travel

Uganda Epilogue: the Boda-Boda Diaries

An unfortunate incident involving an upset taxi driver, his cheapskate conductor, their violently drunken barker colleague at the boarding stage, and some typically corrupt police prompted me on last year’s research trip to reconsider my primary means of transport in Uganda. Up until then, it had been the matatu, a 14-passenger van that rarely carries fewer than 16 people and more like 24 or 25 up-country. On my first trip and a subsequent journey, the otherwise uncomfortable matatu rides had afforded me opportunities to chat with locals, flip Luganda flash cards, and generally learn something about the everyday lives of Ugandans. During the rest of that last trip and all throughout this one I have relied instead on a more efficient, quicker, and decidedly more fun mode of ambulating through town and country in Uganda: the boda-boda.

Meet Mark Kyaligamba, a.k.a. Marco: safest motorcyclist this side of Sub-Saharan Africa, loyal companion, and all-around boda concierge:

I met Mark last year on the recommendation of a colleague who had hired him on numerous occasions to do everything from running errands to transporting her safely wherever she needed to go, all without the unwanted romantic attentions commonly associated with many boda drivers. This is how Mark gets all of his business: he delivers people and goods safely and quickly to their locations, he charges a reasonable (read: not muzungu) price, and his happy customers recommend him to other clients. It doesn’t seem like this kind of work would be very lucrative, and indeed he’s not living in the State House, but at the end of the day he puts his two children in good schools and provides well for his family.

After six months plus of strict customer loyalty on my end and unfailing punctuality, safety, and general reliability on his, Mark and I have become very close friends. My host mother comes from his clan, making him my kojja (lit.: brother to my mother). As such, he calls me “son,” and he takes very good care of me. He carries an extra helmet all the time. He shows up five minutes early. He knows where to find good food, hard-to-find items, out of the way places, and quite a diverse collection of people. You never know how valuable this is until you need one or more of these things and Mark makes it happen.

Riding on the back of a motorcycle every day for this long makes for a particular kind of experience of Uganda. Matatus are great for talking to people, practicing Luganda, learning the polite manner of so many Kampalans even when we are all forced to sit on top of one another for the sake of functionality, and experiencing life as so many working people do. On a boda, however, the wise traveler gets to know one driver and maybe a few of his colleagues for the safety’s sake, and he sees so many things through the eyes of that small group of people. I have my own agenda in going places here, but going with that other person means learning a lot about the places we go together and the road along the way. For me, that person is nearly always Mark.

Hours away from the city though, things are different. Mark has other clients even when I’m there, and there’s no stealing him for a day to go up-country. By borrowing his bike a time or two for a price, I have found a really fun way to see some beautiful countryside. Similarly, my friend and teacher Ssematimba would commonly borrow a bike near his home and drive the two of us to other villages.

Uncle Ssema introduced me to his home and family over the span of several different trips. Andrew Mwesige, another friend in Busoga, did the same. I met their families and friends in Kyaggwe County and Namutumba District, from Nakifuma in the heart of Buganda to Nawandyo deep in Basiki land, where they taught me so much about drumming and song, ritual practice, and the basic way of being-in-the-world for rural Ugandans.

When I was a child, my father used to put me in front of him on a motorcycle. As I grasped the handlebars inside his own strong grip, he would take me all around Cedar County, Nebraska, where he grew up. There we met family members previously unknown to me, old friends of our family, and comerades in farming and life. On these more recent journeys, the nature of our interactions is so strikingly similar. One does not simply pass by a place without stopping to say hello. When people tell us that they are happy to see us—tusanyuse okubalaba!—we return the joy of that meeting, apologizing if we cannot linger to chat over a warm cup. The Baganda say, “mu nju, temuli kkubo,” meaning that, “in the house, there is no road.” A visitor is a blessing, and a host blesses him in return with warm hospitality. This is a familiar pattern to me; it parallels the grace of the people who live near my own ancestral home.

When companions of convenience or professional necessity care enough to show me the place where they live, to introduce me to family and friends, to open their homes and their minds and teach me about who they are, the journey becomes so much more than the destination. This road has been rich with such experiences. A boda-boda is not merely a faster or more efficient mode of transport, though it certainly can be; it is a means of getting to places where cars cannot go, on paths that always end in compounds filled with the warmth of sincere welcome. These paths are useless if they fail to map the human landscape of a place. Now that these fine friends have led me there on bodas, I truly know where Uganda is.

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On the Laughter of Children and the Value of Play

Recently the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) quarterly newsletter published a short piece that I submitted based on an interesting experience I had during field research earlier this year.  Only SEM members could see that version, so I thought some folks might like to see it here: the text appears below, followed by some follow-up commentary.  I also dig the colorful Nc20909 as it originally appeared.

Introduction

Childhood and children, as topics of ethnographic research and representation, do not appear at all on graduate reading lists today.  This want of attention to our own passage, this willful looking-away from ethnography’s mirror, must say something about us.  Interbelline anthropologists, such as Malinowski, Fortes, Firth, Richards, and Evans-Pritchard, observed children in the contexts of kinship, ritual, education and socialization (Levine 251).  Mead believed in the potential instructiveness of childhood studies, characterizing “world cultural variation in child rearing as a laboratory in which ‘thousand year’ experiments were being conducted by different peoples.”  Ethnographic fieldwork in distant places could be “brought back to the Western world for the resolution of issues like whether ‘permissive’ rearing was advisable for US middle-class children” (ibid. 250).

The contributor of this edition of nC2 puts children at the center of the ethnographic record, as felicitous music teachers and as agents in his own enculturation process.  His is a willing looting-to that invites reflection on our filed practices.  Is the way we deal with children in the field a meme of “table etiquette,” whereby they “don’t speak unless spoken to”?  Taken at face value, without a reader’s compensation, their invisibility in published studies presents much of the world as eerily barren of children.  -Jesse Samba Wheeler, Co-editor, Nc2

Reference cited

Levine, Robert A.  2007.  “Ethnographic Studies of childhood: A Historical Overview.”  American Anthropologist

109(2):  247-260.

On the Laughter of Children and the Value of Play

by Peter Hoesing, Munamaizi Village, Namutumba District, Eastern Uganda, January 20, 2009

It is possible, if not inevitable, to be so focused on a particular person or event of interest in our fieldwork that we overlook other potentially instructive opportunities.  Children can all too easily be relegated to ethnographic peripheries.  I offer this reflection[1] as an urge (as much to myself as to others) to embrace the playfulness of fieldwork by approaching children as partners and peers in enculturation.

Much of the day has been spent watching the clan elders build small mud brick huts for ancestral spirits.  I haven’t heard much music.  Mwesige knows how interested I am in ritual drumming and song.  He asks me late in the day if I would like to play drums with him.  We play for about an hour, and people respond favorably.  Children watch closely.  They never play until their teenage years, but I can tell that they soak up a lot by watching and listening long before that.  They know the rhythmic idioms well.  When I play something that’s out of character with nswezi idioms, they respond with laughter.  As long as I stay within idiomatic boundaries, they watch me like they watch other drummers: with wide-eyed fascination.

Drumming lessons in Eastern Uganda provide me with learning experiences in the ethnomusicologist’s ideal classroom: the same place where my field consultants and teachers learn.  As people gather to watch possession ceremonies, drummers offer children their first opportunities to get close to the action.  Adults are so spatially focused on gathering around the spirit mediums to sing, shake rattles and promote possession that young people cannot see what happens inside that circle.  Newer to these performances than many of the children, I join them and use drumming to gain access to musical dramaturgy.  The laughter of children as they observe my lessons acts like an idiomatic boundary between what I can and cannot do in terms of rhythmic variations.

There’s one particular rhythm that I’ve been trying to get right for several days now.  Even when I play all of the variations progressively, this one rhythm continues to give me trouble. “You’ll get it,” says Mwesige as he keeps playing.  After several unsuccessful attempts, he walks away for a bit.  The kids laugh.  With each unsuccessful try, they laugh again, especially after I realize this and playfully digress into something completely out of character with the music.  One of the children picks up his sticks and plays his rhythm on the smallest drum (is this kid mocking me?)  His enormous grin reminds me not to take myself so seriously.  I play along with him for a bit.  Something seems to click, but I can’t put my finger on exactly what.  I take a look at my transcription before asking Mwesige to come back one more time.  I’ve corrected something and found a rhythmic hook to hang my hat on in terms of left hand playing.  I’ve been focusing too much on the right hand and not really thinking about this in the left-handed way that Mwesige works with in all of his playing.  When he comes back, I get it right immediately and then stay on it for a bit just to solidify it.  The kids love it, but they don’t laugh—they clap.  So do the ladies.  Those who have rattles shake them vigorously and many women ululate.  I decide to relish my success and quit for the day while I’m ahead.

By paying attention to this mode of reaction among the children, I continue to develop my ability to play idiomatic variations for nswezi possession rituals.  When my teacher leaves me to figure something out on my own, the laughter of children guides my trials and errors until I can get it right.  Their playfulness encourages exploration.  When I forget myself in this kind of play, my hands find new idiomatic possibilities even in places where my conscious mind least expects them.

Ethnomusicologists have spilled a lot of ink about the nature of enculturation, but what can the people in the midst of that complex process teach us practically?  This village classroom reveals many more teachers than the individual who actually demonstrates on the instruments.  The model of neophytes learning from and being initiated by adepts certainly works, and it operates here as well, but it does account for opportunities in which a novice can learn from other novices.  During a day of building and other important non-musical work, musical play offers a welcome diversion for all.  Learning opportunities abound in this ritually sanctioned space for play, but only if I am willing to learn from other learners as I participate in their process of enculturation.


[1]The sections in italics are excerpts from my fieldnotes.

Follow-up

Although Jesse’s introduction provides apt context for this piece, I think there are some notable exceptions to what he’s saying about the absence of children in published studies.  First, what about Ryan Thomas Skinner’s children’s book?  It’s not ethnography, but Skinner is an ethnomusicologist and this book project makes a sophisticated ethnographic commentary on children and enculturation.  What about Kyra Gaunt’s award-winning book?  Moreover, ongoing research on youth cultures might be considered ethnography specifically about children.  The point of this piece, however, is that children ought not be artificially separated from social spaces where we do ethnography.  Their presence and their actions, as the above narrative suggests, are not merely instructive; for the non-native language speaker, they can often be the most accessible point of entry.

I recognize the negative ways this might be read:

Option 1: non-native ethnographer can’t get competence and resorts to hanging out with children and playing off their laughter for lack of something better to do.

Option 2: non-native ethnographer, even if the linguistic competence is there, runs the risk of non-verbal (but nevertheless clear) responses, potentially misunderstanding cues and jumping to hasty conclusions.

These readings miss the whole point of what it means to learn something from a fellow participant in any process.  If the laughter of children and the value of play do not do enough to keep the interest of fun haters shrewd observers, let me appeal to a humanistic cost/benefit analysis: we were playing at the time anyway, learning the parts, and the presence of children and other laughing observers brought immeasurable joy to that self-conscious experience.  I suspect it was that willingness to forget myself for a moment that enabled me to turn my rhythmic thinking around and, in the end, “get it.”

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