It is really easy to spend time in Gulu without stepping too much out of the western comfort zone. I live in a compound with a security guard, in a large house with nearly 30 other westerners. We have running water and flushing toilets (only for short calls [#1] though, long calls are done in the latrine). We even have electricity on some days. We have a cook for breakfast and dinner during the week and there is hired staff to do all of our laundry. If I want to surf the internet or grab taste western food, I can hop on a boda boda and within three minutes I will be standing in front of the Coffee Hut restaurant/internet café. Coffee Hut is actually nicknamed the Mzungu Hut due to the constant flow of westerners in and out. In fact, the prices are so high at Coffee Hut that most of the locals cannot afford to eat there on a regular basis. There is even a pizza place called Sankofa directly across the street from our house; although the service takes well over an hour for the food, it is close enough to the pizza back home that it is worth the wait.
I have really tried to push myself to become immersed in the Acholi culture, whatever that means. I have spent many hours at my friend David’s village; I like to go on my own little adventures by walking by myself through town and talk with random strangers…I have had offers to slaughter and prepare a chicken in the Acholi way…I have participated in many football games, and have made plans with many of my other Acholi friends to see their villages. Yet, sometimes I am not sure I am fully aware of the culture of a poverty stricken society. I have money in my pocket, a roof over my head, a mosquito net to hide underneath at night, and food in my belly; the same cannot be said for many of the locals.
One afternoon, when I was walking back home from town with my friend Jane, we began discussing our experiences. During this conversation, she mentioned the idea of being desensitized to the fact that we are actually living in a third world country. I surveyed my environment as Jane was making her point. We were walking away from the center of town, but the outskirts still had plenty of people going about their daily activities. About 20 feet in front of us was a small girl, around the age of four or five. The girl was carrying her baby sibling, who was tied to her back. On her head she effortlessly balanced a two-liter yellow water jug. In her arms she carried a basket full of maize. She stuck out in my mind because in the United States I would never see a four -year-old wandering around the streets alone, especially carrying her younger sibling and doing many of the household chores; tiny children doing these household chores is not necessary in America, but in Gulu it is a must. If she does not complete her task, her family could be without water for the night. She stuck out in my mind because she was the norm, not the exception.
After I studied the girl for a few seconds, I turned to my left and noticed a pile of trash lying next to a building. Piles of trash are common in Gulu; we have a rather large pile in the backyard of our house. I could smell the foul odor and a profane taste developed in my mouth just by the sight of the pile. As I gave it a closer look, I noticed a young boy sitting on top, digging through it for something useful. He had a discouraged look on his face as he sifted through more and more of the garbage. I was heartbroken. Jane was right; we were already desensitized to the fact that this was a third world country. These scenes were everywhere in Gulu and I had not really sat down and processed the poverty since my arrival. A guilty feeling set in and I knew I needed to fix this problem immediately.
The next day, I arrived at school and immediately told my partner teacher, Doris, that I was ready to take her up on the offer of slaughtering and preparing a chicken. I needed to try to immerse myself in the culture as much as possible. We set a date and I told Jessica and Sarah the plan. We went over to Doris’ house after school later that week and began the process of cooking dinner. She walked out holding a large hen, laughing slightly as she saw the terrified look in our faces. Doris showed Sarah the proper way to stand on the chicken: one foot on the wings and the other foot on the legs. After Sarah was in position, Doris handed me a dull knife, showed me how to pull the chicken’s head back to expose the jugular, and then moved out of the way.
I stood over the chicken, grabbed its head and started sawing back and forth on the neck. I would have used the word slicing instead of sawing, but unfortunately the knife was so dull that even though I was pushing with all of my strength it still took over thirty seconds to sever the main artery. Once the blood was flowing, Doris told me to drop the head and move away. As the head hit the ground, blood splattered all over Sarah’s feet and on one of her legs. Jessica watched, chuckling partially in horror and partially in amusement, as Sarah and I could not stop laughing. We were not laughing because it was funny; we were laughing because we were so uncomfortable and shocked that laughter was the only logical way to react.
The chicken finally quit moving as the last seconds of its life dripped away. Once it was dead, Doris picked it up and placed it in a bucket full of warm water. Only a few seconds later, she instructed Jessica and Sarah on how to pluck the feathers away from the body. Due to the warm water, the feathers were easily removed and the chicken was ready for dismantling. Before we began cutting it in pieces however, we sat it on a fire to remove any feather particles that we missed.
Doris and another one of our partner teachers, Okata, taught us how to properly cut the chicken into different pieces. We used almost the entire animal, both its meat and its insides. The gizzard of the chicken is considered the best part and is always offered to the guests of honor. The undeveloped eggs are always cooked for the husband. The only part of the chicken that we did not actually cook was the intestines. After we separated the chicken and put all of the usable parts into a bowl, Doris took us into the kitchen and began pouring a soup over the chicken. The soup was made up of tomatoes, onions and peppers and it would serve as a marinade. She sat the bowl onto a pressure cooker and then taught us how to prepare Irish potatoes and a local vegetable called Dodo, which is similar to spinach.
As the chicken finished cooking, Doris also brought out pasta and pineapple which she had already prepared, and course a basket full of beer. We ate the Acholi meal, much of it prepared by our own hands, and it was delicious. Not only was the food great, but I felt a special appreciation for eating something that I actually killed myself. As we finished eating, we began talking about the Acholi people. Our conversation, like most, was steered in the direction of the war. Everyone has a story about how they were affected by this 20 year conflict, and Doris and Okata are no different. These conversations are a constant reminder of the struggle of everyday life for the people of Northern Uganda.
It was late and a black night had claimed the sky as we left Doris’ house. We were far from home without any transport. As we walked down the road looking for a boda boda, we found the roads empty. Occasionally, a boda would pass, but each one that passed already had a passenger. Finally, after walking for about a half an hour, an empty boda drove by and Doris negotiated with him in Acholi. He agreed to take all three of us back home. For the next twenty minutes I was crammed onto the back of the small motorcycle with the driver, Jessica, and Sarah sitting in front of me. We made it home safely, although I am not sure how I did not fly off due to one of the many bumps we hit along the way.
Although the experience at Doris’ house killing a chicken did not immerse me into complete poverty, it allowed me to further understand the Acholi. It allowed me to step out of my westerner comfort zone and experience a part of life that the locals have to go through on a regular basis. I will never forget the first time I killed and ate an animal, and it will serve as a constant reminder of how lucky we are to have the lives we do in first world countries. I hope that when I am feeling desensitized to the poverty, I can look back on this experience and remember to keep my eyes open.
*Want to see the video of me slaughtering a chicken? Click here.