Saturday, July 5, 2008

Nile Special

Gulu, Uganda. The other day. 3:30 in the morning:

"Peace Return Northern Uganda," a song by the famous Acholi musician Lucky Bosmic Otim, fires out of the P.A. at Havana Pub. Some expatriate friends, Hannah and I are all dancing in the far corner of the dimly lit, modestly-sized, ever-bumping club. I am dancing with myself, convulsing along with the irresistible hooks of Bosmic's entreaty.

I interviewed Bosmic last week, as we sat in front of the church where he sang as a boy, looking out onto the field of his alma mater, Gulu High School, as his two-year-old Jeremiah sat in his lap. He is lean and intense, and his facial features are smooth. He was wearing a grey camo jacket and green, designer camo pants. He did not talk about music or dancing. He started singing the songs he sings, he told me, because he got sick of songs about love. He talked to me about the war. After twenty-two years of war, he said, "We have no legs."

Some reggae comes on and I am disappointed that Bosmic has left Havana. But I've been drinking Nile Special tonight and I want to dance. I groove to the swaying beat. Sam, a computer-science student at Gulu University, a gaunt man with pronounced jowls and a big smile, leans into me. We enjoy dancing, we agree. He asks me where I've been in Uganda so far. "I've been in Kampala. Jinja. Gulu," I say.

In Gulu, many times people have told me grim and deeply personal things without provocation, without my asking, without any reason at all, it seems. Sam's eyes bulge and his expression turns grave. He tells me that Northern Uganda is not the only place that has been affected by the war. He is from Eastern Uganda, east of Jinja, the source of the Nile. Over the blaring of Gulu's ubiquitous dance music, he says that LRA rebels killed both of his parents.

I want to talk to him more, but not here. We grab two plastic chairs from the outside patio area and sit down. Niles are gone, so I buy us both Bell beers. We yell into each other's faces over the music. Madonna is playing when he says that he once prayed to God. "God," he said, "please, save my soul."

He was living in a hut by himself when the rebels came to his village at four o'clock in the morning. They killed his parents in the hut ahead of him. They passed his. Then they burst into the hut of his uncles and cousins. They killed his uncles, he yells at me, and abducted his cousins.

Sam's brother sold cows so that he could attend university. Now, Sam is thankful. Sam puts his trust in God.

I am swaying. I am about to burst. I am drunk and I am in a state of overwhelmed horror. It dawns on me that this moment is special. Something has crystallized. A gravity has hit me. The NGO people have jobs, and the work their jobs. The journalists collect facts, anecdotes and quotes, and write articles. The people who have been hit by this war have lost everything - everything. So many of them still get by, and do what they need to do, regardless. And in the off hours, just like the NGO people and the journalists, they smile, drink and dance.

That's why Sam came to Havana, after all: To wash his body and brain with beer. To let all of his scars seep from him in the ritual of dancing. To forget that his memory contains the sight of killing, a life of struggle, and every other thing that people like me would never understand.

For the moment, I don't desire a place where people get drunk and have insignificant conversations about movies, but I still need to escape. I go to the bathroom. I return to the dance hall and talk with Hannah and Gary, a new friend and a former Marine. Gary tells me that he traveled through "ambush alley" in An Nasiriyah during the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. It's a historic battle. He says that he'll be happy to talk about it if I get him extremely drunk some time. I give him a hug.

The newspaper once reported that 95% of the people in Gulu drink alcohol. That's probably not true - the women, after all, take care of everything in Northern Uganda, which I will be sure to discuss in depth later - but Gulu is indeed full of bars and clubs. And at night on a Friday, it's not odd to see two men dancing to a radio in the street.

In Gulu, even dancing and drinking is a war story. The fun is too much to bear.

Correction: This entry originally titled Bosmic's song "Peace Return." The title, as it is printed on the cassette I bought in the market, is actually "Peace Return Northern Uganda."