"Check-in at 3 PM. Bring cardboard enough for a tent, a sleeping bag, a 1.5 litre bottle of water with airtight seal, one sealed box of Saltine crackers, and a current photo of yourself in a white T-shirt with a red X on the front."
2 PM, April 28, 2007. Done and done. The cardboard, the crackers, the water, the sleeping bag and the T-Shirt with the X. Everything but the photo, which I figured would happen once I got there.
And there I was. Magnuson Park, 7400 Sand Pointe Way, on the shore of Lake Washington. After locating the designated parking area I hiked down the road, following hand-made signs.
Along the way I was greeted by young event organizers in red T-shirts with big white Xs on the front. They all smiled and waved and thanked me for coming. I thanked them for reactivating an old hippie. I expected there would be many of us here today, camping out in solidarity with the orphans of Northern Uganda, displaced by war and disease.
I was here to experience life in a displacement camp as fully as possible. At the same time I wanted to be aware of all the things I take for granted that they don’t have in Northern Uganda.
The road was surrounded on both sides by forest. Walking along, it occurred to me that those orphans were not free to walk down the road, calling out friendly greetings to anyone they saw. They would be creeping through the woods, trying to stay out of sight of rebel soldiers for fear of being beaten, killed or abducted and turned into killers. They would be hiding in the forest, except they have no forest to hide in.
I arrived early. The registration process was still being worked out. After a moment of confusion, a young woman jumped forward and said, "I would be happy to sign you in." She printed my name on a form. I signed it and added my email address. She put a white plastic bracelet printed with red Xs on my left wrist and then it was time to take my picture. Another young volunteer printed my name on a little white board which I held up, along with my crackers and water, against my white T shirt with the red X. Thus, I joined the Banditos for Peace. Somebody had a sign that said, Every war has an end. Today we were trying to end war in Uganda.
I walked over to the designated area to donate my crackers and water to the "relief workers." They would be distributed back to us later.
I found a grassy spot, put my stuff down and sat, looking across a green lawn sloping to the lake, a condo-strewn shoreline across the water and snow-capped mountains rising behind them.
After a few minutes I unrolled my eleven-dollar camo sleeping bag. I had a couple of cardboard boxes that I’d pulled out of a dumpster behind Cafe Bertolino in Tacoma, but no duct tape. I lay out my sleeping bag with the head inside an open box and stashed my backpack behind my pillow, inside the box.
Pretty rudimentary, but I had to give myself credit for just showing up, considering my sense of isolation and alienation, living in a new town where I didn’t know anybody.
I lay down on top of the sleeping bag with my head inside the box. The side flaps helped stabilize the box. After I adjusted the top flap to keep the sun out of my eyes, an amazing sense of well-being washed over me. I lay there soaking up sunshine and listening to the sound of people setting up all around, laughing, talking and pulling tape off dispensers. And I thought to myself, They don’t have any of this.
A girl on a cell phone walked by and exclaimed, "There you are! Look up! I’m coming to help with the water."
They certainly don’t have that.
"Anyone have sunscreen?" a young man inquired over the loudspeaker. Someone hollered from across the park and the connection was made. "Sharing and caring, people…. Thank you."
Sunscreen. Bullhorns. Sharing and caring. We really don’t know how lucky we are.
A cardboard city had risen up around me. Mostly kids. I wondered, Where are my people? Where is my generation?
A guy my age came walking by fast, talking angrily on a cellphone. He suddenly saw me and said into the phone, "Oh I just found someone my age. One person." He stormed away, leaving me with that disturbing question: Where are my people?
Another guy my age spotted me and stopped by. He confessed that he was living large: He didn’t know about the cardboard and brought a tent. Lives in the Central District. Brings in about sixty bucks a month. Gets his rent in exchange for helping the homeowner. Heads over to help with the water.
By now people my age had begun to single each other out. "I’m so glad to see someone from my generation," exclaimed Katya, a photographer with a crown of dreadlocks. She hadn’t come prepared to sleep over. I had an extra box that I had yet to press into service but I didn’t want to give it up. Note to self: you are a selfish bastard. Self: I gotta do what I gotta do.
Somewhere in this process I began to realize I was going to have to take care of myself.
Sporadic bursts of Yay! and Woooo! from the volunteers at the registration tables. "They’re very excitable," commented an Indian woman, setting up next to me. Her name was Tisara and she too was looking for her people. Giving up on finding them in this crowd, she decided to settle where she was and lay down her cardboard. She announced that she didn’t bring duct tape and some kids building a nearby walled compound offered her theirs.
"Nice head box," a kid commented as he walked by. I laughed and felt my isolation crack ever so slightly.
Eventually I forced myself to get up and walk around. The park was large and so was the crowd. I strolled across several sections of lawn, all festooned with graffiti-covered cardboard structures, as well as a couple of big white tents with fantasy-like white peaks.
They definitely don’t have the party tents in Uganda. Or crowds of teenagers inside them, hand-writing letters to politicians.
"Hey Dad!" a girl called out as I wandered through the burgeoning displacement camp along the banks of Lake Washington. Looking around, I noticed there weren’t that many parents. It was mostly kids. Again I wondered where the rest of the boomers were. These kids’ parents had to be a lot younger than me.
After checking out all the encampments and decorations, I wandered back to my headbox. It wasn’t that easy to spot any more. The landscape had changed as whole cardboard communities had sprung up. After spotting a few original landmarks -- a bike, a bit of yellow plastic tape -- I found my humble home and kicked back.
"Where’d you get that T-shirt?" I called out to a lovely young blonde in a black invisible children T-shirt with the Seattle skyline stenciled along the bottom in white. "Hold on," she held up an index finger to me as she followed somebody through the crowd and disappeared. Minutes later she reappeared and told me, "We’re not really supposed to be selling these yet, so keep it on the downlow." I eased back on my sleeping bag. "What size?" she asked. "Medium." Actually, come with me, she said, and led me to a couple of guys standing around a car with the trunk open. Only one medium left. I snagged it for twelve bucks.
Parked up on the road near the T-shirt guys was a TV truck. KIRO Channel 7. I strolled up and stood next to a black man around my age who was obviously with the crew. His name was Ray. I told Ray how inspired I was by the event and all the young people who put it on. But I wondered about Our Generation. "Where is everybody? What happened to us?" He said, "We quit when the cynicism set in. Too many scars."
These kids would be disillusioned soon enough, he predicted, and the place would be trashed in the morning. They’d learn something about that too, he told me. I said I thought he’d be surprised by these kids. "I have a feeling this place will be pristine by the time they leave."
Then I went to my car to grab a smoke, thinking, They can’t go to their car for a smoke. Addiction to nicotine is the least of their worries. As I sat smoking in my van, two busloads of kids pulled up. They all piled out carrying sleeping bags and cardboard. They all wore red T-shirts with black letters: Hear Our Voice.
I walked back towards the rally and passed another TV truck: KOMO Channel 4. A young cameraman was just walking back from filming by the lake. I went over to the truck and told the guys about the busloads of kids. "They should be walking right through here," I said, pointing back up the road where the shot would be.
Red-faced and flushed with excitement the young cameraman said, "Yeah, quite a turnout!" He was as stoked as Ray from KIRO was cynical.
Back at my encampment, the weather had changed. Gotten nippy. Clouded over. The park was filling up all the way down to the shoreline and across the whole park.
I was getting hungry. I didn’t cheat by eating but I did have two cups of coffee before I got there and two cigarettes. Walking back and forth to the parking lot I thought, They can’t walk to the car for a smoke. Or to get more stuff. They can’t leave their stuff to go get more stuff.
Nor do they have several dozen spanking clean Honey Buckets.
One of the tent dwellers put yerba mate into a gourd and poured in hot water from a red plastic thermos. In my displaced state of mind I saw him as a rich man breaking the rules. Weren’t we supposed to be fasting? But by now I had broken my own rules. Not by drinking or eating but by smoking. I made numerous trips to the car for cigarettes. Against my vow for the day: Live like they live. But my nicotine addiction was stronger than my good intentions and I kept sneaking away, each time missing part of the event and taking note of that fact.
I had to look at my priorities and my integrity. I also had to admit that my perception of myself as ’poor’ was completely unfounded. No. I am, in fact, priveleged. I live in a world of abundance, not poverty. I have a car. I have water. I’ve got smokes. And a jacket. And a nifty little flashlight. And a sleeping bag. Hell, I’ve even got my own head box.
A guy nearby says, "There’s a bunch of Crossroads kids over there. A whole bunch of ’em. Looks like all the high schools turned out." I heard a lot of talk about a guy named Tom going around to all the schools talking about the invisible children of Northern Uganda.
These kids were pulling off an amazing media event. 100,000 people were camping out nationwide. They were filming at each location. Following announcements over the loudspeaker, I migrated with my fellow cardboard refugees to a giant movie screen set up behind an outdoor stage. On stage an event organizer introduced a man from Uganda:
Paul de "Qweeya" of Gulu, with the Cornerstone Academy. As he spoke, the whole encampment gathered ’round. This was his first time in America. Amazingly, when he walked into the Seattle airport, he ran into a classmate from Uganda he hadn’t seen in 40 years. Someone he went to school with in 1956 or 1957. He was happy to be in America but really overjoyed to meet someone from home that he could speak to in his own language.
He brought greetings from the children of Northern Uganda. "They appreciate the great resources and great initiative you are taking to help them; to awaken America about a problem that can be solved through the efforts of young people, school children. Thanks to the parents because your children care. When you go home you will find your home. You will find your house intact."
He asked us to imagine having nowhere to go. "To be forced out of your normal surroundings, the place you’re used to stay. Many thousands sleep outside their home." He said his country had endured 21 years of civil war. "It seems the world has forgotten us."
He talked about places in the world where natural disasters like earthquakes and floods force people to flee their homes by the thousands. "But for us, it’s war. Human greed. People want more than their share." Because of these things, whole tribes had been forced from their homes to live in displacement camps.
When people are violently forced out of their homes, he said, the first thing they lose is their dignity; their sense of being human.
Next comes the destruction of the family bond. Parents are incapable of looking after their children. Everyone is running in opposite directions. Social amenities, like schools, are abandoned.
They lose the joy and beauty of being a child. A generation has been wasted because they can’t go to school, can’t play or even eat their own food because the parents can’t provide. Schools are closed, destroyed. Teachers have left for other parts of Uganda. The children are living on hand-outs. They are abducted and turned into killers or sex slaves. So they hide by day. At night they sleep on scraps of cardboard in secret basements at the train station or the hospital or anyplace they can find where they can make it through the night.
Children growing up without parents have lost respect for themselves, for their parents and for authority. When he grew up, he lived by the credo, "I am because we are." That’s gone, he told us. Now it’s survival of the fittest. Kids don’t identify with parents. Moral standards have all gone. Because of lawlessness in Northern Uganda there is an increase in child abuse and child labor. A child becomes head of the family because the parents have been killed.
What can be done? Why did I come?
1. So I can share the pain in my heart. You love freedom, you love democracy, you love people.... It’s not enough for just you to be free. America is strong enough to speak with force. If your leaders spoke up at breakfast, by supper the war would be over. Tell your leaders to speak to our leaders. You have the power to speak to your leaders.
2. So I can tell young people that with the support you are giving to invisible children we are able to build schools and bring teachers. You have made that contribution.
3. To tell you that after the war we are going to need moral rehab, reconstruction. This is an appeal to young people: Come and help us. We need your help.
When his talk was over, we stood there, four thousand of us, watching movie clips about life in the Ugandan displacement camps and then about what to expect later that night.
Women between 18 and 20 would get water, one bottle at a time, to give to the men. The young men would get crackers to give to the women. A woman alone must ask a man to get her crackers.
After the show we all headed over to the tables where we would experience the distribution of food and water by relief workers. I had one thought in my head: A woman without people has to ask a man for crackers. They didn’t say what she had to do for water.
Signs saying Women–Water and Men–Crackers were posted above the tables. The men were flying back and forth between the tables and the women, each trip carrying one cellophane-wrapped stack of crackers. They were so intent on providing for their women that the idea of stopping one of them to ask for crackers became increasingly uncomfortable for me. I worked my way from the outside edges of the crowd toward the tables, where I thought perhaps the food aid workers would take pity on an old woman with no people. They were too busy handing crackers to the men to even notice me.
I went and hung around a group of young women near the cracker table. Several young men were delivering packets of crackers to them. My survival instincts over-rode my sense of alienation and fear of banishment from the tribe and I put my hand out. A young man hesitated, obviously wanting to deliver his crackers to one of the young women. But there I was: The Old One. An Elder seeking crackers. He came down on the side of duty before glory and gave me the packet, then turned and ran back for another. By the time he got back, another man had provided for the young woman, so he cast about for someone else to give his crackers to. I wondered if in a real displacement camp culture I had ruined his life by preventing him from fetching food for his chosen one.
Then I started inhaling my crackers.
"I don’t need water. I have water in the car," I told myself. "I don’t have to learn the answer to the question of water."
About to start hiccupping from wolfing down dry crackers, I walked over to the outskirts of the women’s line. "Our line is taking longer," everyone kvetched as the crowd of waiting women grew longer and wider. "Why is the women’s line always longer?"
Given the impending hiccups, I was determined to get into the line. By now it had gotten shorter but I couldn’t see the end, assuming it was going around and around as each woman came back for another bottle, and another, until she’d provided drinking, cooking, washing and bathing water for her family. I assumed it would never end.
Some women carried their bottles on their heads. In Uganda they carry 20-gallon tanks on their heads for miles and only the first to arrive at dawn get clean water.
Instead of finding the end of the line, or asking someone what the story was, I retreated into isolation even as I merged in from the side.
"Are you merging into the line from the side?" a smiling young woman pointedly asked me. "At my age I expect to be turned away at the table. It’s a social experiment," was my lame reply. But by the time I reached the table, I just grabbed myself one of the bottles and hotfooted it out of there.
This water, in its sealed plastic bottle, was the sweetest, cleanest water on earth. I sipped it and considered my recent behavior. It was enough to make me ponder my isolation but not actually break out of it. I imagined that was a luxury I wouldn’t be able to afford in the real world of displacement camps.
As night settled on the camp I snuggled into my sleeping bag and fell into a dream state. I woke up to a voice over the loudspeaker saying, If you take your cardboard with you, you save invisible children money for dumpsters.
By 9:30 the trash was almost all collected.
I felt as if I had been reborn in so many ways. Not just me. My country, as well. If the young people I had witnessed in the past 24 hours were any indication.