Saturday, June 12, 2010

Post # 49: The City by the Bay

Photos from my 24 hour layover in San Francisco

No green machines like this one cruising the financial district of Kampala, Uganda
On the right is a catholic church. On the left is the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Fitting.
Window cleaners looking like they're gonna log a few overtime hours
The farmers are in possession of the San Francisco municipal water supply!
Now this is the San Francisco I was expecting
Hilly city
On Nov. 20, 1969 a group of Native Americans stormed and held the island for nineteen months
The federal government eventually got its land back, but publicity from the event pushed it to meet a number of demands made by the occupiers and Native American lobbyists for years to come. 

Golden Gate Bridge

Three historic, beautiful, shiny cable cars sitting in front of a f---ing parking structure
Fisherman's Wharf
Great looking house on Lombard Street (the world's crookedest street)
This one looks like it is being squished by its neighbors
Great name for a playground
I stumbled across an old-world Yiddish wedding, emceed by this guy

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Post # 48d:The lost, unfinished posts

The poverty is real.

As you probably know, back in 2006 I studied for a semester at the American University in Cairo. One of the perks of attending this particular institution  was its location. I was living and studying within the heart of one of the world’s oldest and largest cities. Eighteen million strong and growing at an astounding rate, Cairenes absorb any job vacancy faster than you can eat a falafel sandwich. Despite the joblessness, immigrants, mostly from Sudan and the Horn countries, continue to move into the city in great numbers. With the morning call from the muezzin’s tower, a dirty, uneducated,  primarily male, and extremely poor mass descends upon  downtown Cairo, where they will stay until sundown. Some hawk cheap plastic toys for kids, others wash the sidewalk in front of stores for a couple Egyptian pounds, some sit on main thoroughfares with their hand out, but mostly stand around doing absolutely nothing except smoking the occasional Cleopatra cigarette that has mysteriously appeared from I have no idea where.

Some of you might have asked  yourself at some time or another when reading my blog, “Just how poor are Africans?”

The answer, very poor.

Top Ten Travel Books

1. Kingdom by the Sea -- Paul Theroux
2. Innocents Abroad -- Mark Twain
3. Catch 22 -- Joseph Heller
4. The Beach -- Alex Garland
5. Motoring With Muhammad -- Eric Hansen
6. Heart of Darkness -- Joseph Conrad
7. In a Sunburned Country -- Bill Bryson
8. Travels Through Egypt -- Gustav Flaubert
9. The Big Red Train Ride -- Eric Newby
10. A Year in Provence -- Peter Mayle
(11. Dark Star Safari -- Paul Theroux)
(12. Neither Here Nor There -- Bill Bryson)

Post # 48c: The lost, unfinished posts

A few years back I coined my sister’s nickname “princess,” to widespread approval. Why did I arrive at that particular term, you ask? Perhaps my decision was based on her ability to turn on the sympathy waterworks whenever a traffic policeman approaches her, or her sensitivity to small, round objects sandwiched underneath numerous mattresses. Whatever the reason, “princess” was justified. However, I am happy to say, my sister is no longer deserving of that title, especially after what I have just put her through while she was out visiting me: African public transportation.

You may recall my post on African buses which I put on The White Nile after a business trip to Lira. I know realize that trip was about average.

The African is not a complainer. He is never defeated. While disease and climate beat back wave after wave of European colonialism, the African man continued to live like he had for the last ten thousand years. If something doesn’t work out as planned, he simply tries again the next day. He has a patience and a tolerance of unforeseen problems that we can’t even begin to come close to out in the West. It is therefore just as impressive as Germany’s railway system that leaves and arrives exactly as scheduled, a public transportation system that still manages to persist despite frequent problems, constant underperformance, and far too many casualties and fatalities.

Post # 48b: The lost, unfinished posts

Mbale, 1965. The “Cleanest Town in East Africa” was a model city, and no longer reliant on the ivory trade from Karamoja to rationalize its existence. Immaculate streets laid out in a perfect grid focused everything on the central clock tower: a giant pink structure that resembles a Napoleonic souvenir fallen prey to a deco mind with a sense of humor. The people are cheerful. And they should be. Uganda had just been granted its independence from Britain, and the city was vying with Entebbe to hold the title of the newly formed country’s capital. Thanks to a good road leading to Jinja to the southwest, Mbale was directly connected to Uganda’s booming industry, outpacing other area townships to become the eastern region’s commercial hub.

The buildings are wonderful, a constant reminder of one of my favorite things about Africa, that colonial powers came, built hastily, then vanished. Instead of being undone, their work has just been Africanized. Old colonial fa├žades hanging over every street, no longer imposing Khan and Sons, 1948, but instead Omoding Enterprises. Most of them still bare the year in which they were constructed, usually dates when WWII was just ending and colonialism in Africa, thanks to our good friend Woodrow Wilson and the nearsighted members of Britain’s Labour movement, was on its way out.

When I look past their rusted shutters and through their broken windows, I can sometimes see a fat old white man with a whiskey in hand and a lion’s skin on the wall behind him, gazing out over the African’s first foray into urbanization.

Reality hits hard.

The Mbale of today is a different place, and there is little to brag about. Though there is no chaos in the streets, abundant pot holes ensure every motorist inches along, zig-zagging like a snail avoiding piles of salt. Trash lines the street, and locals shamelessly toss their rubbish in the gutter. One building on Republic Street, the main thoroughfare, was caught in a terrible fire six months ago and has yet to be gutted and cleaned; one can still see the charred debris through the empty windows.

Post # 48a: The lost, unfinished posts

Mbale Hill, Part II

A number of small villages line the only road that spans the top of the mesa. Most of them, consisting of no more than four or five little shops and some scattered homes, were just waking up when we strolled through. The men, already on African time while the women cooked and did their family’s laundry, were perhaps devising possible excuses they would tell their coworkers as reason for his delay that morning; standing around in shady spots talking. Children too young or from families too poor to send them to school were also out, playing together along the roadside, stopping mid-wrestle to stare at the passing white men with sweat pouring off of their faces. Once the shock of seeing us wore off, they would of course yell  “bazungu” and, to our surprise, jambo, a Swahili greeting. Pre-Widowmaker we had  been very enthusiastic with our responses to their calls. Slowly, as this hard stretch of road kept disappearing around bends in front of us, our replies to the children became more and more disappointing. No more waving back or trying to make goofy noises, just a grumbled “jambo” in between the swearing under our breaths. Breakfast had been an afterthought that morning, summiting and post hike beers being the real priorities, but you know that you are really hungry when you dream of eating local Ugandan food.

The Widowmaker persisted. For over an hour and a half we slogged through the equatorial sun at the top of Nkokonjeru with just under a liter of water and a half a PB&J sandwich between the three of us. We passed by a gorgeous waterfall, right by the roadside, but I was too tired to stop and do the whole picture routine. Punishment was lifted briefly, however, when a homeless guy decided to exchange his usual diversion, probably huffing glue and annoying locals, for harassing us for money. So we walked faster, but he kept up right alongside us. When he realized we weren’t in the mood to talk to our grandmothers nonetheless him, he began naming off types of food. At first this only agitated me, but, perhaps seeing the humor in the situation, I began to rattle off food with him. He absolutely loved this. Eventually “maize” was dropped and we all started laughing, our lethargic chuckles with his hoarse bellow, so we decided to name him Mr. Maize. Mr. Maize peeled off when we ran out of types of food to say or he spotted another collection of potential harassees, I can’t really recall which, but we should have thanked him before he parted; his initial panhandling proved to be a plus because it pushed us to walk faster than our tired legs had been willing to take us before we met him, and our destination was near.

Not the ration I had envisioned: three hours hiking up and twenty minutes of relaxing at the summit. Yes, the views were spectacular. Foreboding cumulus clouds dominated the skies to the north but halted right above us to be replaced by some more gentle stratus clouds. Below us lay Mbale and environs; the town proper was quite small, but civilization spread out like spilt water on a tile floor, very low and decreasing in density with each passing kilometer, until Mbale was reduced to long tentacles of houses and shops lining the major highways leading to other parts of Uganda. Metal roofs,  usually unattractive from ground level, caught the midday sun and shone like jewels from a sea of green foliage. Behind us lay the Kenyan border and barely visible Tororo Rock, swathed in haze. A breeze moved past us, cooing us off despite the heat and carrying away the annoying buzz produced by the radio tower. Alas, it is the bane of the young adult male’s existence that yearnings of the stomach should take precedence over pleasant views, so, after snapping a few final photos, we headed back in the direction of civilization and nourishment.

During our descent we passed through a small town that had been rather sleepy during our first trip through, but now was alive with commerce and freshly released from school children. Ignoring their parents’ demands to get started on their homework, the kids began following us. Soon we had a gaggle of screaming and laughing African children following us down the mountain side, absorbing more excited kids with every house we walked by.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Post # 47: Fuganda

“The situation is under alarm and there is no cause for control” -- Idi Amin

So I’ve entered the reflection phase of my sojourn to East Africa. For many of you, those not so keen on sentimentality, this means you get to tune out the rest of this blog. But for the remaining three readers, I’ll be filling you in on my trip here, and how it has changed the way I think about the world.

First things first. The Uganda that I have spent the past nine months experiencing is dying. Fomenting as I write are a number of alterations to the Ugandan political and cultural landscape that will leave the country a vastly different place than it is today.

1. The discovery of oil in the Lake Albert region has the potential to destabilize a country already battling the age old African foe to political regime: tribalism. But tribalism in Uganda is still a very real issue. Just last September, riots broke out around Kampala when disagreement between the Kabaka, the king of Buganda, and President Yoweri Museveni jumped from words to action.  Although the riots were relatively short lived, dozens of people were killed in the reminder that the allegiance of many Africans still lies with their traditional rulers and not with the Ugandan government. Already we have seen an unfair focus of development aid and infrastructure spending funneled into Southwest Uganda, the region Museveni hails from and Jinja’s replacement as the industrial center of the country. As soon as the petrodollars start flowing into the country, the likelihood that the money is unfairly allocated across its tribal landscape is high. In addition, the environmental degradation (Do you really trust planners to heed strict environmental regulations when there is double-digit growth to be had?) of one of Uganda’s most beautiful areas may anger local communities and farmers. Oil legislation and an influx of petrodollars have the potential to disrupt Uganda’s relative stability enjoyed since Joseph Kony and his LRA were kicked out of the country several years ago, and create new avenues for corrupt purse bearers to extort money out of the arrangement. Extraction won’t reach full capacity (a predicted 200,000 barrels/day) until 2014 or 2015, but hopefully Uganda can figure it out and avoid the curse that has plagued countries like Nigeria and Iraq.

2. President Museveni’s hold on power seems to be slipping., suggesting next year’s April elections may produce some interesting results. This past February’s bi-election in Mbale saw both a shooting, an attempt at ballot-box rigging, and an unseating of the NRM candidate, a party that has traditionally enjoyed a very strong following in Mbale.

3. In two years rafting the White Nile will be a different experience with the completion of the Bujugali Falls Damn. A treaty signed in 1929 gives Egypt final say in the exploitation of the Nile River Basin’s waters. To this day, Egypt retains the power to veto any dam or barrage on Nile waters planned by its upstream riparian neighbors. But its historical control is waning, and upstream neighbors are moving to set up a Nile River Basin Commission to monitor the sharing of the waters. The countries that have already signed the new treaty, Uganda included, all have considerable plans to develop the Nile river, either for irrigation or power generation, and Egypt is furious. Cairo has already started beating the drums of war, claiming it would sever ties with any upstream neighbor that hindered its unilateral consumption of the river, but Uganda is responding. When pressed for the reason the government ordered six new Sukhoi SU-30MK2 fighter jets from Russia, a military spokesman told reporters that the jets had been ordered for the “defense of the River Nile.” But that’s not even the worst part of it all: Bujugali Falls, which sits 16km downstream from Jinja, will erase some of the best white water rafting rapids along the Nile River.

4. Southern Sudan is voting for secession next year, and, should the referendum succeed,  may become the world’s newest country. Already, East Africa is preparing for this. The Kenyan government is building a massive port, one that will rival Mombasa, in Lamu, a coastal city in its north that is probably Juba’s closest access to the ocean. Independence means autonomy over Sudan’s oil wealth, which, means exports in the future will soon have to cross borders and pass through the northern neighbor.  Talks of building a pipeline from Lamu to the taps in South Sudan have begun in an effort to reduce Juba’s dependence on a hostile Khartoum. Assuming all goes as planned and South Sudan gets its pipeline, economic growth will come to the country and, with it, increasing regional economic integration. Uganda’s northern territory, which has traditionally lagged behind the rest of the country in terms of economic growth and infrastructure development,  will be the most effected by this. The “backward,” poverty and famine stricken towns and cities I visited in the north this past year may be transformed, and with the transformation, experience commercial and cultural assimilation and its resulting loss of heritage.

5. The anti-homosexuality bill proposed by MP David Bahati has caused a number of foreign donors to threaten to cut off all aid to Uganda. With oil production still several years away, a donor-reliant Uganda will have to find a way to fill the gap in missing aid, probably by borrowing from domestic or international banks, which would raise interest rates and reduce consumption by consumers and businesses.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Post # 46: What I hope to leave in my wake...

The rural farming community where I work, because of its location outside of a conflict zone or a famine or drought prone area,  never sees white people. Thus, when I roll into town for the third time that week it is cause for enjoyment. Most adults look up and stare fixedly, while the more uncultivated individuals crack jokes  about the way I ride on the back of a motorcycle or talk to my African friend. The children, unrestrained by their gawking seniors, drop everything they are doing immediately upon seeing me. Bags of beans fall to the ground, their contents scattering, younger brothers get momentary relief as their older siblings stop beating them in the head with an empty water bottle, plastic bags are pulled off of heads to improve vision and vocal projection, foot long sticks of raw sugar cane are ripped from the mouth. Their goal is a shared one, really: to say or do something to get the mzungu’s attention so that they can laugh and cry and cry at the response and tell their own children thirty years later awhile seated around a campfire about this one hilarious mzungu they saw when they were younger. The problem arises when you are not on a boda, but walking through the different houses where the young kids spend their days. Since no adult will make an effort to restrain them, the kids simply fall in line behind me. From over my shoulder I hear “Mzungu, how are you?” to which I respond “I am fine, how are you?” to which they respond “I’m fine, how are you?” to which I respond “I am feeling very bloodthirsty, how are you?” to which they respond “I am fine, how are you?”

Sometimes the children failure to dissipate after the fourteenth greeting, as happened in this one instant when Eddie and I were leaving a training session at a local church. The kids streamed out behind us, shouting greetings, unshaken by our growing strides. Eddie made and effort to clear them away by scolding them with a stern voice, but they were not rebuffed. I thought the barbwire fence surrounding the compound  and the women cooking matooke might slow them down as well, but again, I was foolish. We were getting closer to our destination, now, and the pressure to shake these kids was mounting: if these children found out where we planned to eat lunch we may not receive the moment of solitude we needed to talk football. The kids were closing the gap, and their shrieking and jabbering was right behind me now. Then it struck me. Brad, while he was here, was on a brief quest to find the most offensive or inappropriate phrase in Lugizu, the local language. He shared his findings with me one dark and stormy night. I worked my memory  hard for the wording and pronunciation, then, satisfied, turned to face the growing gaggle of children, cleared my throat, and proclaimed “Ngana kookooba mooka!” The kids immediately scattered, screaming, in every direction, clambering over rocks and boulders, sliding down cliffs, jumping behind houses, climbing the nearest tree. I turned to Eddie, who was bent over laughing. “Ngana kookooba mooka,” you see, means “I am about to pass gas.”