Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Uganda's Justin Bieber

Alex Ssekweyama lives in the western Ugandan village of Kakumiro. His family's status in the community comes from his mother's success - people walk far distances to visit her drug shop where she doesn't only dispense life-saving medications, she also confirms diagnoses, makes referrals to hospitals and always shares a kind word and gentle touch. The family home is the only gated one on the street, and the property is packed with prized mango, banana and orange trees.

Life here serves as the inspiration for Alex's singing and songwriting. When he heard we were coming to visit, he put on his best suit - a dark, over-sized jacket with pants that nearly matched.

He was beaming when he greeted us.

My name is Rioman. Well, that's what I call myself when I sing, he grinned. And I want to be Justin Bieber.

He could hardly contain himself while his three sisters introduced themselves to us. When the youngest girl--a dimpled 7-year-old--was finished speaking, Rioman stepped forward to perform.

As we were leaving, he handed us a couple light blue air mail envelopes with this message inside:

Dear my friend, I am so grateful and happy that you have visited our home... Although I am still an upcoming artist to start my music and acting talent in 2013, I see it as my task to make your friends, relatives and parents my friends as well. As you go back to your respective homelands, tell them that Rioman Ssekweyama Alex loves them so much...

So there it is, my friends. A young man from Uganda who has talent, a dream, and the charisma to be discovered.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

What a Bat Reveals

As our car zig-zagged to avoid pothole after pothole on a poorly paved road in Eastern Uganda, we caught glimpses of life: a motorcycle passed carrying two men and a cow (the dead animal was on the very back and the passenger held its legs around his waist); locals dined at a restaurant called God is Good Pork Joint; and two men ambled down the road holding an enormous bat—an outstretched wing in each man’s hand gave the mammal a 4-foot wingspan.

We were in a hurry, but never has there been a better reason for a U-turn. We approached the men to get a close-up look and find out what they planned to do with it. “We’re going to eat it,” they laughed.

It’s true. Ugandans do eat bats. But Lilian, the health worker traveling with us, wasn’t convinced that’s what these men had in mind.

There is a common practice here in which bats are burned and the ashes mixed with lotions and vaseline to perform “genital stretching.” And it’s exactly that. Caustic herbs and lotions are used while the labia is pulled and pulled in an attempt to stretch it to the length a middle finger.

In Lugandan the ritual ceremony involving labia elongation is known as okukialira ensiko which literally means “visiting the forest,” and it’s believed – among men and women – to be a form of genital enhancement that’s necessary for marriage. It’s agonizingly painful and can cause permanent disfigurement. While it’s being done (up to 45 minutes a day for weeks at a time), the area becomes painful and swollen, making it difficult to walk and urinate. Some women who are not stretching “properly” are forced to wear a belt with weights attached to their genitals so that there is a constant tugging.

The goal, Lilian tells us, is to make sex better for men. That’s why she addresses the topic early on in any relationship. “This isn’t something just for people in the village. My male and female friends from university think it’s the right thing to do.”

She remembers the first time she heard about it. “I was fifteen, and my friend told me she was planning to do it. She said if I didn’t, then I couldn’t be a woman.”

Worried, she asked her aunt (Lilian is an AIDS orphan) who told her that the choice was hers. Grateful then, and even more grateful eight years later, Lilan decided against it. And now she’s become an outspoken advocate against “pulling.” Her friends were stunned when she wrote an op-ed against the practice, and even more surprised, she says, that she actually practices what she preaches.

“It’s hard because people in my tribe and in my clan want it to be secret. They don’t want it to get all the attention that ‘cutting’ gets.”

Unlike other forms of female genital mutilation in which the genitals are cut off, “pulling” is a practice that doesn’t carry the same international condemnation. But it’s something that plagues women their entire lives – starting as teens and often continuing through menopause.

Until it ceases to be the norm, Lilian refuses to be silenced, even if speaking out comes with a price.

“There are a lot of men who would refuse to marry me for this reason, but I don’t want to marry them. What if we had a daughter one day?”