In the streets of Buhoma. Photographer: Manas Pant.
NOTES FROM BWINDI IMPENETRABLE NATIONAL FOREST
PART ONE: INTO THE RAINFOREST
He might not mean to, but our driver sends out a Morse code “S-O-S” as he honks: three short jolts, three protracted blasts, and another volley of three quick-fire honks, all meant to disperse the pedestrians who are walking in the middle of the red dirt street. A moment of sunlight breaks the rain long enough for us to glimpse a beautiful and unusually well-built, white-chalked house with a black-tiled roof and a spectacular view of an arrestingly green valley. Next to the beautiful house with the beautiful view, a clay hut outside of which we see two kids aged nine, maybe ten, carrying bricks on their heads. They are not child laborers; they are just helping their family build an expansion to their home. Except for the white-chalked one, houses here are built with unpainted, ochre bricks which are burnt elsewhere in the village. Most houses have the square footage of a standard college dorm, but they show no signs of destitution, just as most lots have a contraption for drying coffee beans somewhere in the backyard.
Uganda’s Central African climate makes the country an able coffee producer, and the mountainous terrain near its border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo grows ample amounts of the highly caffeinated red berry. We have not come for the high-quality coffee, however, but rather for the mountains which tower up on our right. Somewhere in those mountains, where geopolitical boundaries are infinitely more fluid for other animals than they are for humans, some four hundred mountain gorillas live within the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. The park is home to almost half the world’s extant population of mountain gorillas, and because fellow mountain gorilla hotspot Virunga National Park in D.R. Congo struggles with both extensive poaching and embittered political strife, Bwindi welcomes far more visitors than Virunga does. We might be so close to the Congo that the mountains towering up to our right sit well within the Democratic Republic’s borders, but while Bwindi’s proximity to the D.R. Congo will figure in the stories that tourists later tell their awestruck friends, tourists will not cross the border. Instead, they will stay in the luxury lodges just outside the gates into Bwindi. We are driving to one of those lodges, the rustic-yet-indulgent Mahogany Springs Lodge, a small jungle resort made entirely of wood (but not, as one might expect and fear, of mahogany) within walking distance of Buhoma, the last village before the entrance to the national park.
‘Traditional’ medicine man in Buhoma. Photographer: Manas Pant.
Our driver told us it would take ninety minutes to reach Buhoma from Kihihi airstrip, but a ninety-minute drive near the Ugandan-Congolese border seems to go by faster than a similar drive on an Emirati highway, and not just because the Ugandan highlands offer better views. With all its tosses and turns, the road to Buhoma becomes an attraction in itself. Since we share the unpaved, half-lane road with pedestrians, cattle, and the occasional oncoming car, our driver cannot go faster than sixty kilometers per hour if he expects to reach the lodge unscathed, so we resign ourselves to the long duration of this short drive. To busy ourselves, we gaze out the open windows.
Motorcycles are multiple-person vehicles here; they can seat anywhere from two to four persons. If someone sought a correlation between the number of additional passengers on a motorcycle and the speed at which it barrels down the road, he would not find it; drivers seem not to care that their dangerous flirt with speed jeopardizes up to three other lives as well as their own. Then again, they deftly swerve around our convoy of SUVs with an ease that suggests they have done so before, so perhaps they have become experts at racing down a too narrow dirt road with too many people on the bike.
Our cars’ license plates start with UAE, UAE, and UAF. At first I took this pattern to suggest either that the lodge has a set of license plate just for us or, more likely, that many visitors to Mahogany Springs Lodge either come from or transit through the UAE. I later realized that ‘UAE’ is the standard-issue tri-letter identifier for license plates from Kihihi. But even if the three cars’ license plates only match by coincidence, they make quite an awe-inspiring convoy. Throughout the ride, our driver maintains a furious speed. He does not slow down when we pass a man seated in the side of the road; our car covers his leg stumps with a film of red dust as we speed past. However, he does slow down when we drive through an unnamed village, because, as he tells us, “it is bad luck to drive past the Divine Mercy House (his parish church) without slowing down.”
As we leave the town, goats, cows, and kids continue to intermingle. The children cross the road when they feel like it, as if they have not learned to fear the lethal force of an SUV’s bumper. Our driver continues at the speed we expect from a car chase or a scene in which the Secret Service just told him that a terrorist faction will blow up our convoy if he slows down.
It does not help alleviate my concern about the driver’s speed that Ugandans drive on the right, especially when a massive Isuzu truck swerves close around us with ten or more waving men from the load. They are wielding machetes, but like the children who have not learned to fear oncoming cars, these men might not realize how the knives in their hands might perpetuate Western stereotypes about Central African men’s penchant for war. Moments later, we pass the only two-story private home between Kihihi and Buhoma and notice that the owner has protected his property with a ten-foot wall with razor-sharp broken glass shards on top. This particularly evil burglar repellent may deter property crime, but it sends an unfortunate signal to tourists. Seeing the lengths to which Ugandans go to protect their belongings, tourists are likely to suspect that crime rates here are much higher than they actually are, and that they need to be on guard at all times. Like our driver’s death-defying speed and the machete-wielding men in the Isuzu truck’, the glass shards on top of the wall seem to suggest that Uganda is inherently dangerous, something visitors need protection against.
Eager to look beyond the easy stereotype of Central Africa as a ‘dangerous’ place, I look out the window and deliberately search for a scene that can complicate my first impression of Uganda. Within a minute, a group of uniformed schoolchildren walking on the left side of the road provide that complication, as they wave and cheer at our convoy. More groups of children are making their way home from school up ahead, and it quickly becomes clear that the children of Buhoma can react to an oncoming convoy of SUVs in one of three ways: Some wave and run towards us as they scream “yes!” or “eyyy!” Others turn to face the cars, staring at us with a look that is neither welcoming nor overtly malicious; still others put out their hands to ask for candy in a manner which simultaneously suggests that they expect you to give them candy and shows how disappointed they will be if you do not. As we came unprepared for the children who want candy, we have to disappoint some of them, but the energy and joy painted on the faces of these uniformed cheerleaders surely must dispel any sense of danger in even the most paranoid and overwhelmed visitors. The schoolchildren’s enthusiasm tells us that, rather than isolate ourselves during our time in Buhoma, we should open up to the people we meet; perhaps we can learn to feel the children’s unbridled enthusiasm if we try?
Just before we turn onto the road to Mahogany Springs Lodge, our driver pulls over the car by what is obviously a tea field. No doubt not meaning to patronize, he says: “This is what we call ‘tea’. Do you know what tea is?” He continues, “Most Ugandans drink tea, but they do not take coffee. There’s a saying that coffee gives you heartburn.” In the spirit of learning from the people around us, our driver’s comment exemplifies the openness it takes to unlock Uganda. His comments strike us as obvious, until we see the profound point hidden within. Ugandans grow coffee, but they do not drink it; they see coffee for what it is: the world’s most ubiquitous drug. Might we all learn something from the Ugandan coffee producers and leave the vexed brew alone in order to live a bit longer?
The stop gives us a chance to savor our packed lunches, which come in sealed envelopes. Its contents, a cheese and tomato sandwich, a vegetable empanada, two hard-boiled eggs, a slice of cake, and a banana, are wrapped in Saran Wrap four times around to prevent contamination. When our drivers bring the envelopes out from the trunk in a big crate, I cannot help but wonder if our lunch traveled with us all the way from Abu Dhabi; the envelopes certainly give our lunch packs the clinical appearance of plane food. This suspicion lasts until I attempt to peel one of the two Saran-wrapped eggs in the envelope and struggle to break the brown shell. In Abu Dhabi, egg shells are paper thin, because industrial farming puts so much pressure on caged chickens to lay eggs that they do not have enough time or calcium to envelop each egg in a robust shell; this West Ugandan egg is so thick-shelled that I have to bash it against my kneecap to break it.
Upon reflection, perhaps the contrast between the UAE’s thin-shelled eggs and the near shatter-proof Ugandan ones captures the different spirits of the two countries: whereas life in the UAE can too easily become a prolonged lull of convenience, Uganda overwhelms its visitors and makes something as simple as breaking an egg a protracted task. In Abu Dhabi, one always hears the background murmur of construction work; that industrial soundscape does not exist in Buhoma, where the only sounds heard are the constant chirping of unseen birds in the canopy and the occasional riff of an SUV engine on the dirt road. Life in Buhoma lacks many of the comforts of the UAE, but the thrill of getting by without the comfort of driving on paved roads invigorates us and prepares us for our weekend goal: to reconnect with our genetic cousins dwelling in the Bwindi rainforest just beyond Buhoma’s city limits.
Members of the Batwa community, former inhabitants of Bwindi rainforest. Photographer: Manas Pant.
The original is unfaithful to the translation.
— Jorge Luis Borges
Translation is everywhere at NYUAD. Students and faculty read in translation, translate their own work, and confront the question of what is “lost in translation” every day. Some classes, including Fundamentals of Playwriting (taught by visiting playwright Abhishek Majumdar last semester), integrate translation directly into the writing process — students were encouraged to write their first drafts in any language, and present a final portfolio with the play in the original language and in translation.
The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, Finland. The artist, Eila Hiltunen, attempted to translate the composer’s music into sculpture. (Photograph by Hannah Walhout)
It is common for Writing Fellows to hear from students, “I always write in my first language, then translate later,” or “I am translating in my head every time I write a sentence.” How can this process of translation affect the way we think and write? What can we gain from the act of translation? What can we lose? What amazing things can we create with language on a campus with a hundred different mother tongues?
With this tension in mind, Writing Fellows Claire Pershan and Mohit Mandal have been working for months on a new project they call the Translation Network. The site aims to get the GNU community creating work across languages and grappling with questions of translation and meaning. Electra Street sat down with the team to discuss their work.
Electra Street: Tell us about the project – what are you building here?
Claire Pershan: So, the Translation Network is a digital platform for anyone in the NYU community – anyone with an NYU email address, basically – to post texts that they have written (in any language), and those texts will be available to be translated into any other language. The idea is to create a space to encourage translation, to encourage languages that are not English, to encourage the creation of texts in languages that are not necessarily used in classrooms here. Because, obviously, the student body is so polyglot, and not necessarily encouraged to draw on that amazing resource they have.
Mohit Mandal: I see this website working as a very messy and complicated and dynamic space – because it will kind of mirror how messy and complicated and dynamic translation is. And it will also open up conversations, not only around the production of written work, but also the translation of written work. Because there is a lot that is lost and gained when one crosses from one language to another. As it is right now, in terms of spaces for students and other writers on campus, there isn’t much conversation around translation.
ES: What got you interested in translation? How did this project come to be?
MM: Well, Claire was the one who started this idea. I’ve always been interested in the question of translation and what possibilities there are in the amazing hybrid space between languages, so the two of us started working together in September, and went from there.
CP: I actually thought of this as a ridiculous idea that might happen if I got the job here – this was before I even arrived. I was working at a small Los Angeles publisher called Phoneme Media, and doing some thinking about translation for them. Then, I encountered a project through them called the Enemies Project, which was an event between poets in London and Mexico City. These poets exchanged work, translated each other’s work, and then read simultaneously. So I liked this weird communication across traditional boundaries, and this idea of translator also as creator, and this collaboration and polyphony. And I thought, “Well, NYU has a similar setup between these different campuses, and between different students and faculty who come and go here all the time.” So it seemed like an amazing space to test this project and facilitate more translation.
ES: Why is translation important? NYUAD students certainly read a lot of scholars and writers who have theorized about this (Borges, Derrida, Eco, etc.) – but why is it important on a more tangible level, especially in the NYUAD context?
CP: It’s just everywhere. I think language is an essential technology that we’re using all the time – we haven’t found a better one yet. We have emojis, so we’re working on it. But as long as we’re using language, we’re translating, necessarily.
MM: I think translation is one of those things which is so embedded in our day-to-day lives. Just for our student body, who is constantly translating between languages – and a large part of our student body is bilingual, if not trilingual, which is just crazy to think about. We have so many of these languages roaming around in our heads, so we wanted to have them come together and see what would come out of these interactions.
CP: And I think translation is necessarily political, and necessarily represents (and perhaps reinforces) systems of power and knowledge. So in that sense – I mean, in the United States, there’s that famous percentage: only 3% of all texts published in the U.S. are in translation. Meaning the U.S. is just reading anglophone stuff again and again. I see translation into other languages, from other languages, as working to equalize that and share voices.
MM: We wanted to start within the NYU network, because the notion is that the Translation Network is founded on community. It might even be counterproductive if it’s open to everyone, because that reduces a kind of intimacy that exists in the NYUAD community and the larger GNU.
CP: The student body obviously speaks so many languages other than English. Students are also learning so many other languages, and have the desire to know so many – and to know each other. So I think of the Translation Network as a space where they can do that, in a small way. It would be problematic to extend it outside the GNU, because we shouldn’t be putting translators out of work. It would be dangerous for translation to just turn into a wiki. And the Translation Network is about community, about practice, about small pieces of text. It’s not supposed to be producing the next novels.
ES: How should people use the Translation Network?
CP: The ideal use of it is just for people to put drops in this bucket, and to experiment. I think of this as kind of a heuristic for translation, and as a way for anyone to see themselves as translators – since they’re probably already doing this all the time, without thinking about it in that way. So this is something someone could do in that half-hour break they have after lunch. They read a post, and are inspired by it, and want to translate it into another language. We would also love to see the Translation Network integrated into classroom spaces, since it could be a great tool. But that’s mostly just to get the ball rolling. I want it just to be an open, fun thing. I see it as also a portal for communication, where some student here is maybe practicing Italian – and they can go and read some student’s post from Florence, and translate it into English, or vice versa. This idea of crossing those paths through dialogue with other current students.
MM: Just to add on to the idea of the Translation Network as a tool for community – I see a lot of potential for people learning different languages, especially for, for example, security guards on campus who are taking “English in the Workplace” classes. A lot of the security guards actually write poetry themselves, in Urdu, or in Hindi, or their own native languages – and it would be lovely for these poems to be translated into English, and then translated into other languages as well. And for them to work with their own translations, as they’re learning different languages.
CP: And also, this is not supposed to alienate monolingualism at all. I’m basically monolingual myself. It’s about showing the nuances within language – I would love to be seeing English to English translations, or Arabic to Arabic. It’s about just thinking about words, and there are so many languages that exist within our delineations of “one language.” So I would love to see students really pushing at the border – I would love to see a submission in half Spanish, half English. Any quote-unquote “weird” stuff.
ES: Awesome! So what should people do if they want to submit or get involved?
CP: We’re looking for anything, any text – the Translation Network is really open with the idea of text, because we don’t want it to be just something literary. It’s not necessarily a projection of literature at all. Haikus are something that would be a nice length, because it’s approachable. But if someone wants to give an excerpt of something longer – a journal entry, anything. Anything goes. It’s really easy to go through our website, and people should submit whatever they want, about anything they want. I would also really love to see more translations of stuff that’s there, to be interacting more in the space.
MM: People should definitely feel free to submit work that they’ve already produced. We would love to see snippets of things people have written for class, or journal entries, or personal projects. And eventually, our website will have a neat visualization which shows the relationships between different posts – how one post was changed into another, and what that was changed into. Which I think will make the spiderweb, messy nature of what we do more visual.
The Translation Network is actively looking for contributors, translators, and curators. To submit or translate, simply visit the “Contribute” section of the site. Original submissions will be reviewed for suitability, and translations will be briefly checked for relevance, but no edits will be made.
A team of curators is responsible for reviewing all contributions submitted to the network before posting them to the site. If you are interested in joining Claire and Mohit and participating more closely with the project as a curator, email email@example.com.