Mixed Reality

Going to the cinema is one of my favorite activities when wanting to get out of the heat, needing a laugh, or when I’m in Kampala and glad to be out of the village.  For that hour and a half, you are entertained and almost feel normal again— normal as life can be after 14 months overseas anyways.  While sitting in the dark air-conditioned room everything else seems to fade away.   It’s you and the friends you went with, watching the lives of fictional people pass you by on the big screen. 

 Movies aren’t real life so it makes it easy for your mind to check out a little bit.  At an early age, we learn to distance ourselves from the characters on the bright colored screen.  But what happens when we can’t distance ourselves from the truth in them?  Yes, it’s just a movie and no one is actually getting hurt, but what about the reality that some of those atrocities happen to real people?

Movies such as Born Into Brothels, Hotel Rwanda, and War Dance bring on a new perspective after standing in the places they were filmed. 

While with Word Made Flesh, we would make weekly brothel visits to one of the red light areas called Sonagachi where over 10,000 women  and girls are prostitutes—these were the same brothels that the children in Born Into Brothels ran around as kids.  Our leader had met one of the main female characters.  Sad thing about that is even though the young girl had the opportunity to get an education, the girl chose to go back and started working the line because she could make good money.

Although the movie Hotel Rwanda was filmed in South Africa, sipping drinks while at the real site of refuge during the genocide was surreal.  Crazy how somewhere so beautiful and clean has a past with such terror and bloodshed. 

War Dance is fun to watch since for 2 years I’ll be living 30 minutes away from that particular village and we have a few students at PGA who were in the film’s performance group.  Watching the movie and being able to understand parts of the language is sweet.  Knowing that I live in the midst of really messed up people from a 21 year war is a little disturbing though.

These days, movies and reality have lost their boundaries to some degree.  No longer am I able to distance myself from what I see in films.  Quite frustrating actually.  While watching the film Taken, seeing how the American girls travel to Europe and are kidnapped, drugged, and made into high class prostitutes, I think about all the girls that are sold into sex slavery every year in Nepal, India, Thailand, and around the world.  Girls that trust family friends when told of a waitressing job waiting for them across the border to find themselves sold to a pimp in the very park I used to walk by every day. 

I watch the movie Taken and I see the nervously breathing 15 year old Nepali girl standing in a short skirt itching to be pulled down, bright red lipstick and caked on makeup to make her skin appear lighter and sexier— she was only 3 days old working the line and I wanted to take her away from it all.  What if a week ago, someone could have stopped her from getting in that vehicle that brought her to the playground for perverted men?  My heart leapt as we walked by a whole back alley filled with underage girls who had been trafficked into Kolkata.

 After watching the movie Taken, Fathers are now worried and warning their daughters to be safer when traveling.  How about being worried for those thousands of young girls who are being trafficked each year?  They target poverty stricken areas where fathers are powerless in the situation.  What can we do to alleviate poverty in their villages and make them more aware of people who prey on young girls promising them work across the country border?

Another movie I had difficulty with is the recent Robin Hood which I watched on the big screen in Kampala- no big deal you would think.  A couple of hours in air-conditioning sounded nice.  It was a slightly cheesy movie but that’s okay.  You know that village pillaging scene where they gather all the people as if sheep and lock them inside the thatch roof building?  That’s the point where my anxiety went up a little.  Then, the bad guys of course light it on fire- that’s the point where my tear ducts let loose.  The main lady is forcibly locked inside a room where a crude soldier is about to rape her but is able to hurt him and escapes.  She runs to help the people locked inside the burning room and a mother hands her small baby through a hole in the wall to safety.  Those five minutes were cruel to my soul. 

I’ve watched movies with a lot more bloodshed and whatnot but never where tears are just flowing out of my eyeballs.  Crazy. Silent sadness overwhelmed me.   I’ve stood in rooms where people were burnt alive.  I have friends who left their village unknowing that only a few hours later their huts would be torched and their siblings abducted by the LRA.  In the IDP camps, rapes were rampant by UPDF “good guy” soldiers “protecting” the women and children.  Impregnating girls so they will have a growing spawn that will always be a breathing reminder of shame and the man that raped them, having children kill family members  to ostracize them from their communities…  a couple of psychological warfare tactics that have been used here. 

In the movies, they slice away with their swords and we know that person isn’t really bleeding.  Walking down an alley to the market, seeing a guy riding his bike and trying to figure out what is off about him, and then to realize his lips are gone…   a tactic which was used if the LRA thought a person would use those lips to warn others of their coming.  Over this past week, I’ve worked closely with a student on getting others to register as they come in, interviewing and videoing girls for a WarchildUK project, and have watched her lead others in a warm and caring way… and not too long ago, she was a wife/sex slave of Joseph Kony.  We have a decent number of girls that are formerly abducted but her case is an exception and not the rule of girls we work with.  A couple of weeks ago, a young lady with two small children came back from the LRA/Congo bush in hopes to be reunited with her family.  This doesn’t happen all the time but the fact of the matter is that it is still happening and I’m here within it all.  This is not a movie, this is my life.

The mixture of reality doesn’t stop with movies.  I’ve read a number of newspaper articles and books about Northern Uganda and the LRA.  Books such as

Alice Lakwena and The Holy Spirit Movement: War in Northern Uganda,

Trial Justice: the International Criminal Court in Northern Uganda,

First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army…These are a few of the factual books which I’ve found to be a good way to try to grasp the magnitude and complexity of this place.

 A 6 month volunteer told a story about some soldiers tying up a group of captured boys.  One of the boys’ knots weren’t as tight on purpose so that he could run.  He did escape and then was brought back to the group of boys.  The soldiers forced the captured young boys to bite the escapee to death.  The volunteer said how the boys were told if they didn’t come up with blood running out of their mouths that they too would be killed.  Somehow, after reading and learning about Northern Uganda, I knew it wasn’t the LRA and the volunteer admitted this took place in another country.  He was telling the story to shock a research student who is here for 3 weeks.  Yes, I thought the story was gross but what caught me off guard was that it didn’t surprise me.  Atrocities don’t shock me anymore.  Humanity isn’t pretty and is capable of really cruel acts upon others. 

If I had read these stories while in the states, kinda like how most likely you are, I would still have that distance in my mind— those shocking problems are in some far off land affecting unknown people.   Now, I am writing this as our detrimental and real issues are within our community affecting my friends and their families

Life isn’t as simple as it used to be.  Once upon a time, I was bit more innocent and naïve about the world we live in.  People are corrupt and shady.  I analyze everything I hear and see.  Watching movies and hearing stories isn’t as easy and light hearted as I would like it to be. 

When people ask me how I’m doing or say how Africa must be so exciting or how I must be doing so much good here, I shake my head not knowing what exactly to say.  Honestly, it’s really tough being here.  I think about how simple life could be and question why I’m putting myself through the stress of this all.  I am also very fortunate and thankful for being here, learning and sharing with people in this community.  I think about how frustrating it can be to want to do so much yet my hands are bound on a lot of things.  In 17 months, I’ll have the choice to extend another year with Peace Corps, to travel, to go back to the states, to do whatever. 

Part of me would be happy to move to a beautiful community, take a photography class finally, fall in love, find a stress free job and live a merry life.    The other part of me wants to go back to school to become more educated on social justice, development, and giving a voice to marginalized people around the world.  I had 8 friends give birth last year and I was out of the country.  I saw their pregnant bellies during a short trip back and now I see baby photos on Facebook.  Sometimes I wish I had followed that path but I didn’t.  I chose a path that is frustrating and complex yet riveting and life-altering.  I’ve gained a lot of knowledge and experience doing so and am very thankful for it.

Sometimes that knowledge does make my eyeballs flood while at the cinema and I have no control over it.  I used to be able to sit there and distance myself from the scenes played on the big screen, but these days, it’s a bit more difficult.  I was once in the overhang balcony with little concern, then in the seats below with a better view, and now I’m on stage interacting with living individuals.  Eh, no matter what, I’ll thoroughly enjoy sitting in the air-conditioned stadium seats when I’m in Kampala getting a break from village life.  Next time, hopefully a romantic comedy will be playing…

EDIT: I wrote this a couple of weeks ago.  Just watched Invisible Children last Monday and visited their center in Gulu yesterday, a week later.  More on this on a later date…

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