Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Maybe I'll read Conrad one more time...

Satellite photo of the African continent at night. The Arabian Peninsula is all desert and is still lit up noticeably more.

Makes for good stargazin'

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In case you hadn't heard

Another funny anecdote about me in an awkward situation prefaces my next blog post, which is much more serious.

During the Summer of 2007 I went to Amman, Jordan to take an intensive Arabic course at the University of Jordan. Accompanying me was my good friend and fellow Claremont McKenna College student Alex, who, I hope he does not mind me saying this, is of the Reagan ilk and thoroughly enjoys his conservative placement. He is from Ski-Town Colorado and is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to domestic and international politics--last I heard he was teaching Sex Education at a high school in New Orleans for Teach For America.

My first step upon entering any foreign environment is to find a place to take beer. I usually prefer a cold, cheap quaff of the local variety in a relaxed, erudite setting, though I often happily settle for less than perfect conditions. Thus, Alex and I, soon after arriving in the Jordanian capital, set off to find a suitable watering hole, somewhat of a challenge considering the whole Muslims don’t drink thing. However, rather rapidly we stumbled across flowering oasis in the midst of dry Arabia: an outdoor two story bar with relatively cheap beer sitting above a substantial English language book store. Plants surrounding the terrace provided shade as well as insulation from the noisy Ammani traffic. Because the bar (the name escapes me right now) was so apt, Alex and I used it as a spring board for our assimilation process; frequenting the bar sometimes twice a week. During our visits, we began to notice a heightened level of friendliness about the place: young men struck up conversations easily and were quick to recognize our faces, and even the girls weren’t repulsed by the week old growth sprouting from my face and soiled travel attire. Eventually we disclosed our findings with some local Jordanians, I believe it was our landlord or his early-twenties son, when we received startling information. Our favorite bar was in fact Amman’s most renowned gay and lesbian bar. This news couldn’t have had less of an affect on us. After all, I grew up in Portland, Oregon and Alex, well, Alex really likes cold beer and has a lot of homosexual friends to boot (though I admit I was a little saddened to learn that all of those young women weren’t friendly to us because we are so handsome).

Before coming to Uganda I thought the Middle East was the most intolerant place in the world towards homosexuality. I now must admit Sub-Saharan Africa takes the cake. Offenders in Kenya may receive up to 14 years in prison for engaging in homosexual behavior, but may find no sanctuary in Tanzania, where the act is illegal as well. Burundi has banned homosexuality, and South Africa, in most matters the most Western African country, legal same-sex marriage has not prevented gangs from roaming the country and committing their own policy of “corrective” rape on female homosexuals. Uganda is not far behind them, and is in many ways is more radical; at the moment a piece of legislation called the Bahati Bill (after the MP who drafted it) has been presented to parliament that, if passed, would make Uganda the second country in Africa (after Nigeria) to implement capital punishment for homosexuals who commit serial offenses, or offenders who carry the AIDS virus. Indeed, if the bill passes, Uganda’s estimated 500,000 gay people may be found guilty of committing a homosexual act and given a sentence of life in prison. Even landlords can get jail time (up to seven years), or any other person who “helps, counsels, or encourages another person to engage in a homosexual act.”

The Bill will be discussed in Parliament early 2010.

Understandably, the proposal has elicited considerable international backlash, and Uganda’s outraged gay community has garnered much support in addition to its own voice. Sweden, which contributes $50 million annually in foreign aid to Uganda’s budget, says it would withdraw all foreign aid if the bill passes. Similar outcry has emanated from Washington. John Kerry admits the bill will seriously hurt US-Uganda relations. Russ Feingold, who is currently working on a measure to provide military aid to Museveni’s regime in order to help fight the Lord’s Resistance Army, declared passage would hinder the two countries working-relationship, especially in combating HIV/AIDS. (Uganda currently receives $285 million per year from the US for the AIDS fight.) The European Union has issued its version of a formal protest, known as a demarche, over the proposed legislation. The Bahati Bill, if passed, would essentially shoot Uganda in its own foot--drastically reducing foreign aid and political support from Western governments.

Proponents of the bill blame the West for Uganda’s homosexuality “problem,” arguing the phenomenon is foreign to Africa but that it has crept and encroached into their sphere of living, promoted by sinners and fueled by a strengthening trend of a-religious behavior.

President Yoweri Museveni and his party the National Resistance Movement have been strangely silent over the issue. International Human Rights Day was celebrated earlier this month by Ugandan’s without a single mention of the homosexuality issue in the government-run newspaper The New Vision. Moreover, the Uganda Human Rights Commission ignored the sensitive issue completely, delineating the social ills resulting from discriminatory behavior in a press conference, probably to avoid having to religious card dealt.

I find it ironic that the same countries which bore the missionaries that Christianized Africa hundreds of years ago are now lambasting such anti-homosexuality legislation as intolerant and homophobic. Nevertheless, we are in the 21st century. Sometimes a strong hand, and I think the removal of foreign aid will be very effective, is necessary to bring a country on the brink of barbarianism back to modernity. Nevertheless, I also think other measures should be explored by foreign policymakers, measures that neither encourage or discourage the practice: sensitization workshops, counseling services, Western backed anonymous HIV/AIDS treatment centers, etc.

I will keep you posted on the development of the Bahati Bill.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday wishes from MAPLE Uganda!

Season’s greetings from the equator and the warmest holiday wishes (the bureaucrats behind this operation won‘t let me say “Merry Christmas,” but you know what I mean) from the entire MAPLE Uganda family!!!!

I sincerely hope that this letter finds you all well and winding down your 2009 in great élan! I must admit the MAPLE Uganda team (Caitlin, Rachel, Luke, Nasser, Dennis, Brad, and Joel) is missing the champagne, but, in consolation, has found an excellent alternative in millet beer. Not quite as smooth or carbonated as the stuff you will be enjoying, but it can certainly do the trick if one just remembers to strain out the bigger chunks!

The past several months have been filled with taxing but absorbing NGO work, and I have much to talk about! Nobody has gotten married yet, though I think you’ll recall hearing about how we had to restrain Luke from eloping to Mombasa with that Kenyan, and the only growing this family has done is closer! Luke, or, “Lucky Luke” as we sometimes like to call him after the type of diaper rash, has done quite well. Our field director, when he is not coordinating training sessions, planning tree farms, writing business plans or visiting rural villages, has donned the apron and hairnet and enjoys fine tuning his domestic skills. (Sometimes I think the Kenyan girl was terribly unlucky, as Luke is a wizard in the kitchen, but there are occasions, chilli nights to be specific, when I think that she, and her olfactory gland, escaped in the nick of time!)

Caitlin and Rachel have done equally well, and this family is gosh darn proud of ’em! Aside from their daily MAPLE duties, the girls have found time to start up a women’s empowerment group with local high school girls. For some reason they don’t let this handsome bachelor attend any of the meetings, but I hear they are a blast! These two lovely young ladies are really taking Mbale by storm; indeed, the men of this house have already had to reject several offers from local men asking for their hands in marriage. I guess we are waiting for the right offer (as of now we’re thinking four cows for each girl, or the two-set for the excellent deal of only six cows and a goat). Having these two great leaders on the team makes MAPLE’s goal of educating Uganda’s burgeoning female class fun and promising.

We love you Caitlin and Rachel!!!!!

Let me not forget Dennis and Nasser, our two strapping young Makarere University Business School graduates who have opted to forgo their customary party-collegiate-style-while-living-in-your-parents’-basement year and actually gain some good employment experience. And that is why we couldn’t be happier to have them! Quick to give us great ideas about how to work together as a team and produce results, they have been most helpful in making this one, big, cohesive family! So industrious are they, in fact, that the two have even managed to find a way to get work done while surfing the Facebook website!

Brad, ironically the only male here with a significant other back home, seems to be getting most of the attention from the Ugandan females. (I think that I, too, will try growing a handlebar mustache!) But he has not time for girls anyway. Whether he is directing a city-wide trash cleanup, or just elbows deep in household waste making fuel briquettes, our Brad always comes to the dinner table on time with only a light amount of expletives! We are so very proud of what he has accomplished, now if he’d only share some of those phone numbers with your’s truly!!!!

The MAPLE family here in Uganda is doing quite well, and, pending Luke’s arraignment, will continue to try its best to do so. Furthermore, it is so very thankful for all of the support it has received from friends, family, colleagues and hangers-on over the past year. It therefore offers you again, the heartiest of holiday greetings!

Best wishes,

Joel and the rest of the MAPLE Uganda family!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Now don’t go quoting me on any of this…

Deforestation is a huge issue in Africa, yet continues to receive less attention than it deserves. Political issues dominate. Corruption, Pan-African unity and regime discord, Muslim extremism, intertribal warfare, electoral fraud, the list goes on. However, the continent is making an effort to supplement its traditional preoccupations, and is now, more and more so every year, fueled by a greener, more climate- conscious zeitgeist. The reasons for this transformation--international pressure, carbon emission reports, or beaded hippies preaching the gospel of Mother Earth from their VW Bus pulpit--are not terribly important; what must be watched closely is how a young, developing continent with prehistoric heuristics copes with being force-fed a completely novel, life-altering policy. And the problem couldn’t be more pertinent. BBC’s Focus on Africa covered Africa’s fuel predicament in a recent issue. “Four million hectares of forest are felled each year in Africa, twice the world average (one hectare of trees can offset 200 tons of atmospheric carbon annually).” (vol.20, no. 4)

But the challenges associated with slowing deforestation are intimidating: Only 7.5 percent of the population in rural sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, efforts by the state to control charcoal smuggling has led to military involvement and bloodshed. Earlier this year in January Chad enacted strict but unpopular legislation to stop completely the charcoal trade that is rapidly erasing its already miniscule forestland and abetting the irreversible phenomenon of desertification. Great for international opinion polls but devastating for the 99 percent of Chadians reliant on charcoal for household fuel, the ban on charcoal has come without a cheap or government-subsidized alternative. In Tanzania, 20,000 bags of charcoal enter the capital Dar es Salaam every day. (Focus on Africa, 20:4)

Uganda is perhaps one of the worst off. Small in size but characteristically congruent with Africa’s burgeoning population, deforestation has already transformed much of the country’s canopied landscape to grass, bush, and farmlan. Indeed, outnumbering the trees along the roadsides are gigantic brick kilns used by villagers to turn hewn timber into charcoal for sale. Recently discovered oil reserves in the central region will likely fail to provide the answer. Even if the natural gas accompanying the reservoir were to be exploited rather than sequestered, flamed, or used to repressurize the drill, only a handful of Ugandans would have the equipment to use it. And, like the rest of Africa, the deforestation problem in Uganda will likely escalate until harsh legislation becomes necessary.

Northern Uganda won't be turned to when timber becomes scarce

Joel and Brad to the rescue.

This past week we went to Kampala for business. Believe it or not the capital city is not just a place where one can eat brie cheese sandwiches at whim and drink cold beer until the wee hours, but also has a number of people passionate about the deforestation issue. Brad and I have opted for the two tack approach: working with academics and politicians to raise awareness, and work on a charcoal alternative. The latter was what brought us to Kampala, to attend a training session on making biomass fuel briquettes. Actually we have been making briquettes since our first week here in Uganda, but, I can now admit only because I have just learned how to really make them, we were having difficulties. The briquettes were beautiful and looked like they would burn nicely. If they didn’t crumble in your hand, there was a decent chance that they would burn too slowly in the stove, or, worse yet, crumble while in the stove and smother the other coals. Starting a mere two and a half hours late, the training session turned out to be incredibly lucrative. Isaac the instructor, though relatively new to the process himself having only started in April, was a wizard at making briquettes. In just one hour we had made dozens of the donut-like briquettes out of charcoal, sawdust, and paper. (Interestingly enough, Brad and I have worked with these materials previously, but only managed to produce some really foul-smelling decomposed goop.) On top of the training we received, Isaac hooked us up with a briquette press each to bring back to Mbale, and promised to bring us a couple of stoves designed specifically for burning the cakes when we return to Kampala next week. We left brimming with confidence.

Isaac searches for a few ripe fuel briquettes to cook with

Brand name marketing and fuel briquette making

Fortunately for Ugandans we will not be satisfied with just making briquettes in our front lawn and entertaining a bunch of our chuckling neighbors, we have visions of grandeur. Excited from our excellent training session, we began to brainstorm ways in which we can reach rural Ugandans. Our organization will soon begin working with village savings and loan groups to increase entrepreneurial abilities. These groups, about thirty people each, provide the perfect class forum for teaching locals how to make briquettes and educate them on deforestation. On top of the education, we can provide them with a briquette press at subsidized cost, which they can pay back at the end of their savings cycle with their group funds. If the group becomes proficient enough, the cakes can be sold in the market and transform briquette making into an income generating activity for the group.

The new face of Uganda's anti-deforestation campaign

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Into the Lion's Den...

Although Uganda is small, the country is called home by a surprising diversity of people. The Buganda from the central part of the state dominate the political sphere and hold fast to a tribal identity that often puts them, in their eyes, above their country mates. In the southwest we have the Buchigu, the equivalent of Ugandan Ticos, an incredibly industrious and boisterous people that inhabit the high altitude tropical region. Where we live, the easy-going Bugizu celebrate with huge circumcision ceremonies every year in which young men, aged 15 to 16, get their foreskin lopped off and run up a hill while being slapped you-know-where by the village women. Across the gender divide, the inhabitants of Kapchorwa district still occasionally practice female circumcision. In the extreme North, the towering Dinka provide one end of the extreme, while the Pygmies of the far West provide the other. Finally, the adventurous may find the reclusive Karamajong in the northeastern part of the country close to the border with Kenya. There are countless other tribes here in Uganda that I haven’t mentioned, but I must stop here because it is this last group, the Karamajong, that I am going to talk about in this posting.

Mbale-Moroto road

A brief overview of the Karamajong. One of the most distinct tribes in Uganda, these nomadic pastoralists share only a few similarities with any other tribe in Uganda, the Teso of the east. Hundreds (but probably thousands) of years ago a great tribe moved down from the Sudan and came to what is now Karamoja. Something made the tribe split, and a faction migrated away from the dry, flatlands of the North to the rain soaked central highlands. That splinter group, the Teso, shook off many of their cultural traditions and assimilated with other tribes within Uganda, and kept faithful only to their linguistic heritage, though just vaguely. (One fun fact: Karamajong means “uncles“ in Ateso language, while Teso means “dead bodies“ in the Karamajong languages.) Though they have remained very much isolated in the harsh lands of the north, the Karamajong have also shed many of their traditions. Formerly a semi-nudist collection of cattle herders, many people of Karamoja have opted for a more agrarian lifestyle and clothing handouts from international aid organizations, although many of the elders still walk around town holding the long switch used to guide cattle to grazing lands. Life has been tough for the Karamajong. It is true many of them may be seen sporting Union High School Football tee-shirts, but inter-tribal fighting is still a very real problem just as it was a thousand years ago. The Turkana from Kenya often cross illegally into Karamoja and raid villages, stealing sacred cattle and food. In a saddening tit for tat, the Karamoja villagers respond by raiding the village that had attacked them; if they do not they will surely starve. Indeed, food has increased in value enormously in recent decades, as climate change has shortened the rainy season and exacerbated the dry season, making food a precious commodity and churning out a rapidly growing number of people dependant on handouts from the World Food Program. Finally, guns smuggled into Uganda via Sudan have found their way to Karamoja, increasing the frequency of road ambushes and making one place, Kotido, a “wild east town where AK-47s are common as walking sticks and blankets.” Just last week, ten people were killed on the road from Mbale to Moroto, the regional capital. As if I hadn’t given my parents enough grey hair already, I decided I just had to go to Karamoja.

Check out the bow and arrow

There are two routes from Mbale to Moroto: the safe road and the dangerous road. The latter is shorter and loads more scenic, while the former is, well, safer. Brad, Luke, our German friend Justus and I of course wanted to take the sketchy road. Cruising into the bus park at 8 in the morning, we found out that someone was looking out for us; the dangerous bus was broken and would not be running that day, so we would be forced to take the long, dusty trip to Soroti and, from there, onward to Moroto. To our surprise, a family of heavily-perspiring Muzungus board the bus and plop down in the seats directly behind us. Gauging by the way they talked it was obvious that they were very religious Australians, therefore we wasted no time in jumping into a very loud and very personal conversation about circumcision. They turned out to be quite friendly (or forgetful) and we later spent some time talking to them and the attractive daughter. In an interesting development, we had just crossed into Karamoja district, still a couple of hours from our destination, when the bus broke down. There I sat in the Ambush Capital of the World, heart racing and with sweat pouring down my face, trying to look cool in front of the cute Australian. A few bottles of water poured on the radiator was all it took, and the bus rumbled off after only a twenty minute delay, long before any bad men could have gotten wind of us and come running. A mere three hours tardy, our bus rolled into Moroto at around five pm. After bidding the Aussies adieu we jumped off the dusty bus and began looking for a safe, reliable place to get a cold beer. Unable to find a cold beer, we ignored the voices telling us to return to Mbale where cold beer is plentiful and settled for cold sodas. Meeting us at the soda parlor was Wilbert, a young Kampalan from the International Rescue Committee who had agreed to show us around that weekend. Wilbert helped us find some accommodation, promised he would show us where to obtain cold beers later, and then led us on a walking tour of Moroto.

Moroto is an NGO town. Instead of bodas and minibuses, the streets are lined with glistening SUVs, all with some sort of giant logo plastered on the doors and bonnet. In an almost sickening display of wealth they cruise almost pointlessly around town with the air-conditioner a-blowin’ while the people they are there to help hobble barefooted on the sidewalk next to them. There is no industry, no regionally-specific produce, no substantial marketplace--only a handful of restaurants and bars which cater toward the relatively wealthy NGO staffers. The “downtown” area consists of just one quarter mile stretch of divided road, saddled on either side by new NGO offices and decaying Karamajong general stores. Up the road to the east are the two residential areas lying at the foot of the 3000 meter Mt. Moroto: the Karamajong slums and the NGO workers community. Leading us through both areas, Wilbert did not need to point out their differences. Strewn with trash, tin shacks and idlers, the slums were, for me, incredibly saddening and uncomfortable to walk through; I couldn’t help but look down at my feet, despite the shouts of from children, and walk faster. In a stark contrast to the Karamojong living conditions, the fenced-off foreigners dwelt in brand new concrete mansions, with satellite antennas and blue metal roofs. Passing through the slums area, the sun began to drop and dusk was inching closer, and Wilbert quickened his pace to almost a jog. It was not good, he said, to get caught outside after dark. I am usually skeptical of such advice when a foreigner tells me that about a place, but from a Ugandan the information, I admit, was a little unnerving but certainly heeded. Luckily for us, we had no problems, and soon found ourselves at one of the posh NGO hotels with ice cold beers sitting in front of us and watching a football match on television under generator power while the rest of Moroto lay in darkness.

The next day Wilbert took us out to a school his organization was working with, which was rather impressive. Piping led the precious rainfall from rooftop gutters to a giant cistern in the center of the compound, and two new outhouse buildings, one for each sex, stood in the back. Most of the 600 students had free schooling, brand new classrooms, and a football stadium in the planning stages--all of it subsidized by the Northern Ugandan Rehabilitation Program. Administrators were even having trouble finding enough qualified teachers to keep up with demand. Actually, their biggest problem was not lack of funding, but the large three hundred yard gap in the fencing around the compound. Just recently, they informed us, some warriors had come onto their property looking for items to loot, but were confronted by the Ugandan Military. One of the warriors was killed in the ensuing shootout. Nevertheless, this was the other side of the NGO picture, which is the side my organization, MAPLE, is on. I have always been, and always will be, a huge advocate for education, and I truly believe that it can heal very deep wounds. Here was a fully-functioning school in the middle of a war-torn nowhere, providing free education to a large number of very poor children; if there ever was a way to escape the vicious cycle the Karamajong were experiencing, this was it.

Now I am certainly no English major, but...

For one to truly understand the Karamoja he or she must grasp the importance of the role security plays in their lives. Their lives revolve around it, almost to the point of being paranoiac. Enemies abound in Karamoja, though they have traded in their bow and quiver for automatic weapons and tribal dress for army fatigues and Ray Bans, and friends and family are held close while foreigners are kept at a distance. Interestingly, the Karamajong’s Nilotic cousin lived under similar conditions three thousand years ago in the Levant. Chaim Potok writes:

“When your world is a wilderness of sand and stone, a wasteland of scorpions, jackals, serpents, and enemy tribes, you need a close social organization based on ties of blood in order to stay alive and protected.”

Potok’s description of the Jew struggling to find a foothold in a hostile world accurately portrays the Karamajong’s struggle in the harsh brush of Northern Uganda. Neighboring tribes are your enemies, and the land is your enemy. Wild Turkana tribesman cross over illegally from Kenya, raid your village of food and steal your cattle. The dry season, growing in length each year as a result of climate change, makes food so scarce you have no choice but get aid from the humanitarian organizations. Should you choose to react to your situation with violence, the Ugandan military is there to quickly return fire. It is understandable, then, why it was a big deal for Wilbert to bring us to a traditional Karamajong village and ask for their permission to let us inside of their compound. Luckily for us, they said yes, and we stepped inside.

Additional security wall inside of a Karamajong village

Rather, we stooped inside. Surrounding the compound was a six foot high fence made from arm-thick poles stuck deep into the ground with brambles filling in the gaps, and only one entrance: a three foot by two foot hole in the wall. Trouble enough for me, it was pretty entertaining watching our 6’5’’ German friend duck down low enough to pass through the doorway. But we weren’t in yet. There was another defense wall just inside the first, this doorway even smaller, which was nice because it gave me an opportunity to get my camera out and take pictures of everybody crawling through. The residential block, consisting of about ten round straw huts, was found in the center of the multi-walled compound encircling an open gathering area. The villagers were extremely cautious to approach us at first, warmed up slowly when I began showing them that our cameras weren’t dangerous and that they could see pictures of themselves in seconds. It was still quite awkward; they had very few possessions, no chickens or goats running around, no bags of flour or grain, just the occasional blackened pot sitting on a couple of rocks over a charcoal pit. Brad, Luke, and I had visited a number of villages before, but this experience was very different. In the place of our usual enthusiastic and inquisitive reception, the elders almost receded, looking at us with solemn, scarred faces. Wilbert suggested we leave the compound and talk to their leader outside to ease their (and our) nerves. Back out side the compound, everybody relaxed and we finally explained who we were and where we came from, and also got to ask them some questions. We knew life for the Karamajong had been hard, Wilbert and the guide books had prepared us for that, but I don’t think anyone could have fully prepared themselves for what we heard. A drought had reduced the years crop yield, and they were starving. Indeed, many of their young men, instead of off tending to the cattle like they had done in the past, were out in the bush catching rats and rabbits for the village to eat that night. Commerce had grinded for a halt, too. The women had no produce to bring to the market, nor the supplies required to make a batch of their local brew. The drought and famine was encroaching into their heritage as well, without money coming in, men could not afford a dowry and some neighboring villages hadn’t hosted a marriage in years. One ancient women, sitting on the dirt ground, told us through the translator that, “Climate change was killing our culture.” To add insult to injury, our villagers told us that only three days prior they were raided by another tribe, much of their food and cattle stolen. Without embarrassment they told us that, given the terrible position the raid and the drought had left them in, they had no choice but to plan a raid on the same tribe. The raid was to take place in three days.

Justus at the front gate

It was not my agenda here to sensationalize. But the experience we had in that village was emotional and unforgettable, and I hope the reader gets at least some idea of how we felt, despite my brevity in telling the story. Karamoja is a sensational place, we realized, and we rode back to Moroto in silence, trying to digest this fact. For the second time in as many days, I needed a cold beer and a football match, though these served mainly to divert my thoughts.

The sun sets over Karamoja

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

One of my finer moments…

NGO workers acquire business cards like a teenage Joel Hedges acquires zits; their pockets become stuffed with them seemingly overnight. Microfinance institutions, development organizations, HIV/AIDS health centers, womens advocacy groups, all employees, no matter how yeoman, pass out their cards like candy. As a result, my colleagues here at MAPLE and I have amassed a considerable number of business cards during our tenures here in Uganda. Now, being the organizational nut that I am, I felt it prudent to find us a holder for these cards.

I might just be the only NGO worker in the entire world without his personal business card. Thus, when I went door to door at Mbale’s two hundred stationary/secretarial shops looking for a holder, I of course had nothing to show them. Hah! A lack of example is no match for the power of clever observation. Early on in my search I realized that the term “business card holder” was not in the everyday Ugandan’s vocabulary (either that or they couldn‘t understand English when it is mumbled, which is just as likely). I did, however, observe multiple signs declaring “success cards” were now on sale. “Success cards must be what they call business cards here in Uganda,” I thought, then patted myself on the back for keen observation and logical deduction. The workers at the next twenty seven stationary shops all failed to understand business card holder, but their eyes lit up when I mentioned success cards:

"Do you sell business card holders?"
"Umm, sorry sir."
"You know, like a Rolodex?
(Confused blank stare.)
"Success cards, are they there?"
"Ahh, yes we have!"
"Do you have something to put them in, like a book?"
"No, it is not there."

Finally I came to an Indian man’s shop, just as I was about to admit defeat, who pulled out, lo and behold, a small book for holding business cards. That’s it, I said. Give that to me now, sahib, just name your price! He told me that, unfortunately, he could not sell it to me, as it was his only one. He did tell me, to my elation, that his brother was in Kampala that very moment, possibly even already searching for business card holders, and he could have one brought to me here in Mbale as early as the next business day. Success! I told him I would come by on Monday to pick up my order.

Monday rolled around and I went to the Indian man’s shop. At Sam's Stationary, I was informed that the business card holder was not there. I then proceeded to stop in on his shop every single day for the next two weeks just to be told that it had not arrived until we finally exchanged contact information. Another week elapsed until I received a phone call from a man with a heavy Indian accent. Despite the more or less unintelligible conversation that ensued, I gathered that an Indian man was calling me, and, using that keen power of deduction of mine, he must be the only Indian man I have met thus far here in Uganda, which so happened to be the one with my business card holder. Sure enough, Jaime, who was already at the market (and by circumstance in the general vicinity of Indian Business Card-man), was more than happy to pickup the holder for me. Just later that day I held the elusive book in my hand. Astounding success!

While bragging later to my friend Eddie, who is Ugandan, about my exploits, I learned an interesting little factoid.Our conversation went a little something like this:

“Hey Eddie, check this out man. Look what I got today. I finally got my success card holder! Bask in my glory!”
“This? Noo, man, this is not a success card holder.”
“Then what for Pete's sake do you call this?”
“You know, man, I think something like this is called a business card holder.”
“Drat! Then what in the name of all that is holy is a success card holder.”
“Something that holds success cards.”
“Hah! Exactly like this, right?”
“No, I don’t think you are getting what I am saying. This holds business cards, not success cards, man. Success cards are the cards high school graduates receive from friends and family for finishing their exams.”
“Oh, bollocks.”

For future reference, I can now say, with certainty, that there are no success card holders in all of Mbale, Uganda. How many business card holders there actually are, I have no idea.

PS: MTN mobile service provider Joke-O‘-the Day, “I just bought 500 Sadam t-shirts, they’re a bit tight around the neck, but they hang well!”

PPS: K2 part deuce and Krazy Karamoja coming up shortly!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

More Visual Evidence

Our teammate Nasser watching the sunset with Tororo Rock in the background
Sunset in color of the same valley
Scene of Tororo valley and the biggest cement factory in Uganda. I hope you enjoy this picture because I might have had to trespass on the municipal water supply to get it
Tororo Rock, a steep volcanic mound that overlooks the border town of the same name

Augusta’s sister course Tororo, but marked by a different set of challenges: cows wander the course in very messy twenty-somes, greens often don’t have a flagpole and sometimes don’t even have a cup, and head pro can always be found in big rubber galoshes and napping under the shade of a big mango tree
Before and after
Children sprinting after the car on the way back from Sisiyi Falls. After a hundred yards of high-pitched “muzungus!” we had to talk the driver out of slamming on the brakes
I really like pictures of lone figures walking down dirt roads, and it is for people like this gentleman walking towards Sisiyi Falls near Sironko that lead me to always have my finger on the shutter
Baby goat in a tree
MAPLE team touring through the bush near Sironko
Mary, Veronica’s sister, demonstrates why chiropractic clinics are not necessary here in Uganda
A flock of egrets flies low across the bush. The wall of trees in the background is a tree farm owned by the husband of Veronica (chairwoman of the Mbale SACCO we are currently working with). Though this one was primarily Eucalyptus, some tree farms contain pine, cypress, musizi, even smatterings of teak and mahogany

Child walking home from school alone, near Bududa, Eastern Region

Mbale Hill, Part 1 of 2

Apparently the repaired hole above my bed was not actually repaired when I took the caulking gun to it several weeks ago, but in fact was made larger. Which, my dad would point out, is really a good thing because I shouldn’t waste the best part of the afternoon napping. A wet bed also tells me if it rained or not in case I didn’t notice the downpour when it happened. Above all, however, it provides me some decent blog starting material.

One of the greatest things about living in Mbale is the setting. Nearly all of the town’s 80 thousand inhabitants have at least a partial view of the giant mesa sitting just several kilometers to their east. Perpetually crowned with a daunting array of cumulonimbus clouds, the protrusion creates its own microclimate; keeping Mbale town cooled off despite the often overpowering equatorial sun and ensures that the thousands of people in the vicinity relying on agriculture to subsist and earn a living do not go disappointed. Glinting on the western face in the afternoon are several large waterfalls, volume-wise not that impressive but tall enough to give Multnomah Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America, a run for its money. Approaching the mesa, called Nkokonjeru, gently sloping feet give rise to sheer cliff faces that extend some 1,148 vertical meters above the town below before ending at an almost flat summit. Littered throughout the cliffs and covering any plot of land flat enough to allow soil to accumulate are some truly impressive examples of terrace cropping--maize, cassava, beans, and plantain. Though MAPLE has been here in Mbale town for several months now, it was not until today that its field officers rallied themselves to hike up the thing.

Nkokonjeru (a Lugisu name, I believe, that translates to “nightmare maker” in the local language) is actually a spur of the much larger Mount Elgon, which one semi-reliable source once told me was the fourth highest peak in Africa. And there it sat for three months, silently mocking me and my sedentary lifestyle. Brad, Luke and I finally decided one Sunday night that we couldn’t take it anymore; every day the hill sat there un-summited the less masculine we could claim to be, a reoccurring hit that I, for obvious reasons, could not afford to take.

I should have turned my alarm off, rolled over this morning and gone right back to bed. Actually, I should have probably abstained from drinking those most recent three hundred beers. I might have also studied more closely the surprised grins that crept across the faces of the locals to whom we announced our plan. If ignorance is bliss, you could safely say we were all on cloud nine that morning. We set out from the car shortly after eight, (unfortunately for us) before the sun had a chance to make us reconsider, when Nkokonjeru’s shadow extended far from its base and lapped at Mbale’s doorstep. This made the first leg of the ascent quite nice: with lots of breaks, ten minute vista look-arounds, and enthusiastic conversation while we followed the snaking road up the hillside towards the sole cranny in the cliff face. So enveloped in the hike were we that when a truck passed us by going in the same direction we simply motioned it on, even joking to ourselves afterward about jumping in the back already. Hah, we had no need or desire for such luxuries. The waterfalls, emboldened by the rainy season’s daily downpours, glistened at their crests but gradually fell dark as they descended into the hill’s shadow, and sprayed a light mist that obscured their bases further. Women gathered at the waters before the edge with their daily load of laundry paused to stare at the passing white boys while their barefoot children sprinted up and down the road wielding bicycle tires, sticks, bags of salt, and machetes. Upon reaching break in the cliff, the steep switchbacks abruptly transformed into loping undulations that gradually climbed to the mesa’s highest point. This was the second leg, and, because the change in terrain also marks the spot when you come out of the morning shadow and into the sapping heat, was intimidating enough for Luke to nickname it the “Widowmaker.” At the other end of this stretch, though mostly outside of our vision except for just a tiny spire extending above the horizon, was our ultimate destination: a giant cable TV tower where Brad promised we would have unsurpassed views of Eastern Uganda and a chance to watch Portland Trailblazer games at whim. Our pace quickened.

To be continued...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The 9 to 5

There have been rumors circulating that MAPLE is essentially running a “summer camp” here in Uganda. That its field officers, myself included, have been doing more play than work. And, I admit, one look at my blog thus far would seem to reinforce this idea. However, I am now going to dispel these rumors. Actually, we have been doing loads of work, and, more importantly, accomplishing quite a bit. Brad touched on these in his most recent blog posting, but I think those accomplishments deserve attention in The White Nile.

My official charge here in Uganda as a MAPLE field Officer is to find a village SACCO (Savings and Credit Co-operative) to work with. Right now our organization is working closely with a local women’s group, the Mbale United Women’s Association (MUWA), here within the city. Our young organization’s experience thus far has been quite positive working with an urban lending and savings group, despite training session attendance that mysteriously fluctuates with the rain and sun, but longevity and performance’s sake we feel it would be helpful to be able to work will all kinds of groups, rural or urban or somewhere in between. So, instead of kayaking and campfire songs, Brad and I have been travelling all over the eastern part of Uganda, enduring vomit filled bus trips and three hour taxi rides with strangers sitting on our laps, punishing equatorial heat, bed bugs, and traveler’s diarrhea, in search of the perfect village SACCO to work with. It has been absolutely fantastic. Every group we have met with in rural Uganda, and there have been dozens thus far, has welcomed us warmly, often with song and dance. And they are all different. In Lira, we went to refugee camps, remnants from the turmoil in the north that have yet to be dealt with properly by the government, and visited groups there. A gentleman from one of the groups we met who happened to run an orphanage for children whose parents were killed in the insurgency in the north, misunderstanding the nature of our organization, asked Brad, Jordan and me if we could help pay for his kids’ school fees. One of the hardest things I have ever done in my life was to look this man in the eyes and tell him that, though we would do our best with the resources we have, we cannot help him financially. In Bukedea, visiting with an organization that deals strictly with village women, we met a group of women that had a 25 percent HIV positive rate among its members. For the most part, however, the mood has been encouraging rather than sad. The women, usually waiting for us under the shade of a large banyon tree when we arrive, immediately begin to clap and a sing and dance and make a shrill, pulsating whistle that I believe only African women can make. As we approach, they physically get on their knees in front of us and fight to one another to shake our hands. Then, after introductions, we get to ask them how their group is doing--are they saving money and or borrowing, what kind of businesses they run, what have been their biggest challenges, and other questions we have planned or think of there on the spot. Though most of the groups are too incompatible for our organization to help, be they not literate enough, too far away from our office in Mbale, or too large and fragmented, we can always offer word of encouragement and share our enthusiasm for the steps they have shown in the right direction. I usually part with a declaration that I will come back if, and only if, they teach me how to make the whistling noise. It is the only joke of mine that I have had much success with here in Uganda. In fact I could write a whole blog post just about my poor joke attempts that have left me in some very awkward situations, but that is neither here or there.

Downtime is a fact of life here in Africa. Whether it be during a rolling blackout or when you are competing with the African Minute, there are periods of your day when it is almost impossible to get done what you had planned. That is why the MAPLE team has adopted a number of side projects, which have also been successful.

Fuel Briquettes: Deforestation is a huge issue in Africa, but it often, understandably, gets thrown on the back burner to things like rebel fighting and corruption. It seems like the issue only comes to the forefront, like it is in Congo, when the smuggling of wood and charcoal overlaps with rebel infighting and death. Uganda’s once arboreal horizon is now mostly tree-less thanks to deforestation, and the efforts of tree farming, a relatively new phenomenon, simply cannot keep pace with the hewing. The only places in Uganda untouched by widespread deforestation are the national parks and protected areas, a relatively small drop in the proverbial bucket of total land area. To combat this and other effects of burning charcoal (charcoal burning produces a lot of carbon emissions per BTU), Brad and I have imported a fuel briquette press and are working on training locals how to make a charcoal substitute out of household waste products. The machine we use is called the Peterson Press III and uses a two ton hydraulic press to compress waste materials like coffee and corn husks, grass clippings, sawdust from a mill, and even charcoal dust swept from the floor of a vendor’s stall, into small, donut-sized cakes that can be burned in any stove. Admittedly, our first attempts were pretty bad, requiring just about a liter of kerosene to light just one. However, we have made some big improvements. We found a local kid named Chris, who, now finishing up his final year of high school, is enthusiastic about the project and even motivates us to work on making fuel briquettes when we wereat the time leaning towards drinking Club beers instead. Because the materials used to make the briquettes can be acquired for little or no charge, really driven individuals like Chris, if they work hard and long enough at it, can turn a profit selling the cakes to people who have traditionally burned charcoal or wood. Right now I am in close contact with a professor of Environment at Makarere University in Kampala, and we are working together to raise awareness about the availability of charcoal substitutes and, hopefully, lobby local governments to pay more attention to deforestation and charcoal smuggling. Though we are swimming up stream--charcoal is dirt cheap, widely available, and people are already very dependant on it--we are trying hard and get to work on briquette making every day. Eventually we would like to hand over the press to Chris and teach him to train others in the art of cake making, and focus our time on raising awareness.

Trash Cleanup: Brad and I have been working with the local government here in Mbale to implement a community wide trash cleanup. We held one last month just in our own neighborhood, Indian Quarters, and it was a huge success, drawing close to two hundred participants, though most of them were high school students more intent on being seen and looking cool than picking up litter on the streets. Despite the paramount popularity scene among Ugandan adolescents, we managed to clean about a two mile stretch in a two hour period. We are now working with the local government to make this event a monthly one, recurring on the last Saturday of every month. Brad, already a big shot here in Mbale with his knowledge of motorcycles, went on the radio last night for over an hour to plug the next cleanup, which has been set for November 28. Mbale, where we live, was once known as the “cleanest city in East Africa,” and one of our tactics for rallying public support for this project is to foment community pride and a desire to restore the people’s hometown to the status it once held. Though we are swimming upstream on this one two (the streets are absolutely filthy), Brad and I now have a lot of support from the other MAPLE field officers, and things are getting easier. Similarly, we found “the guy to work with” within the local government who actually keeps his promises and shows up to meetings almost on time.

I owe you some pictures to liven this post up a bit, coming soon!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Some Work Related Photos and Random Blog Post

Brad finally found a friend that is willing to change a little bit for him.
Meeting the kids at an elementary school in Aromo, a village north of Lira.
Jordan and Akullu Betty posing at a bakery in Lira.

While We Are On The Subject Of Transportation

Public transportation in developing countries was designed for bald people, because they have no hair to rip out during bouts of frustration. Cairene streets are stuffed with some 300,000 Peugot 504s, all of them manned by chain-smoking, toothless Egyptians. The taxis in Amman require notary proof that you have put your house up for a second mortgage even before you get in. And if I recall correctly, government policy in Costa Rica dictated all taxis had to play 50 Cent “In Da Club” loudly on a set of broken speakers. I have one fond memory of taking an overcrowded minibus from Cairo to Alexandria with a bunch of Egyptians who had all agreed that if nobody wore deodorant, then nobody would be guilty of committing a social faux pas.

Here in Uganda, people get around on two wheels instead of four. Bicycles that have never seen “better days” and have a cushion fixed above the back wheel are called boda-bodas, and they are everywhere. Their motorized cousin, almost always a Chinese “Boxer” with a top speed of 40 km/h, is side-splittingly (yet ‘re logically) called the moda-boda.

I am afraid I cannot talk much about bicycle bodas. I have taken them on a number of occasions, but I feel so terrible making the driver lug my 190 pound butt up and down the hills of Mbale I try to take the alternative. My colleague Caitlin had an interesting experience her first time taking a boda-boda. Ill-prepared for the jerky ride (women have to sit side-saddle, due to dresses, a precarious position that does not come naturally to Westerners), Caitlin was caught off balance and her foot swung into the back spokes. Unaware of Caitlin’s bleeding ankle, we continued on to our destination, the center of town. When we arrived at our destination, the dude tries to get more money out of Caitlin, even though she had already overpaid by 200 shillings, more than enough than it would take to merely pop the spokes back into place. So, we began to argue about it. And, of course being in Africa, twenty seven passers-by immediately swooped in to see what the argument was about and to throw in their two cents each. Finally one guy turns to us and says, “Wait a minute, let me get this straight, you overpaid by that much and they’re still asking form more? Just walk away.” We took his advice and walked off to a mixture of angry shouts and laughing.

Moda-Bodas, when stationed under the shade of a tree, provide an excellent perch from which to croon sweet nothings at passing white girls. They are absolutely everywhere in the streets, except of course when you are in a hurry to get home and it is beginning to rain, in which case they have all hidden themselves under a far away tree to laugh inconspicuously at the sopping muzungu. My mother might not enjoy hearing about this, especially when she finds out that I take them nearly every day, given that she still calls motorcycles “donor cycles.” I really do enjoy traveling this way, in the end, unless of course you happen to have one of the abnormally large African insects fly into your eye. My roommates don’t enjoy bodas nearly as much, because, being shorter than 6’1, their noses are located directly downwind of the boda driver’s armpits.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ugandan Joke of the Day

A real zinger:

"Money can't buy happiness but it keeps the kids in touch!"

Not for the Weak Constitution

I will try my best to describe the African bus experience, but I am afraid I can only fall short; African buses, you see, involve so many sights, sounds, and, most importantly, smells, that putting them into words in the form of a story is like “painting a desert sunset in black and white.” I have taken buses before in developing countries, but Africa, well, Africa takes the cake.

Let me preface my story by recounting another enjoyable bus trip, this one in hyper-Saharan Egypt. Our group was returning to Cairo back from relaxing in the sun of Sharm el Sheikh. I would also like to mention that it is nearly impossible for me to fall asleep in public transportation. Airplanes provide the best chance to get some rest, mostly because you can always order more booze. Buses, however, especially the ones in Muslim Egypt, usually do not offer such a service. This particular carrier was called Nile Delta and it is famous within inner circle Egypt for being the most ill-conducive to Western tastes and comforts. It may not surprise you to learn that, despite full knowledge of this little tidbit, I was a strong advocate for taking this particular bus line only because our group could save a combined two dollars on fare. Our side won support and so I found myself sitting at the back of my bus and next to my good friend Jeremy, who suffers from a similar inability to sleep. This particular bus was a red-eye, which, upon reflection, makes quite a bit of sense, because I don’t think that it would be able to pass a police checkpoint in daylight. Fortunately the speaker directly above us was broken and it synced nicely with all of the other broken speakers on the bus. Entertainment was provided, free of cost, and Jeremy and I settled down and tuned in to the featured film: Dennis Rodman’s Oscar-worthy crowning off-court achievement, Double Team, costarring Jean Claude Van Damme. As soon as the horror show ended I began what is the hilarious display that is Joel Hedges falling asleep. For anyone who has ever witnessed this, you will know what I am talking about. First, the eyes close and the mouth opens, as if they are connected by some cruel biological beam. Thus, I am unable to see the faces of the other people staring at the glistening pool of drool forming in the corners of my mouth. Then, still awake mind you, my head begins to search for the nearest comfortable hold, which often involves contortions that invoke jealousy even among the best Chinese gymnasts. After resting semi-comfortably for 9.7 seconds my body spasms into another semi-uncomfortable position (possibly knocking into the person next to me or the cup of tomato juice in front of me), only to repeat the process once over again. I was fortunate in that I did not have to provide the entertainment for the remaining eight hours of the seven hour bus ride. Our driver, obviously a pious man, had come into possession of a tape of Quranic chanting. No music, just chanting, which he played on loop until we arrived in the Cairo bus park. Even despite the broken speakers, I now consider myself in league with the best Muslim muezzins.

This brings me to African bus story number two. This route was from Mbale in the eastern part of Uganda, to Lira, in the north, a 200 kilometer journey that should have taken a little under four hours. Hah! Welcome to Africa! I consulted with our field director before leaving on appropriate bus preparations, and asked him how long the trip would take. “The first time I made the trip it took me 8 hours, the second time it took 6 hours, and the third time, a scant 4 hours.” I was optimistic, picturing myself in Lira 4 hours later, early afternoon, perhaps relaxing by a swimming pool to escape the oppressive North Ugandan heat.

We opted for the Gateway bus service. Africans generally fall on the leaner side of the size spectrum, and I believe their seats are designed the way they are because of this. Two seats lie on one side of the bus, and three ultra narrow ones lie on the other. Being three white dudes traveling together, Brad, Jordan and I decided we would cram into a row on the three-seat side. Now, our shoulders, especially the Atlas-ian ones belonging to yours truly, are a bit bigger, and we must have looked like a big white tree, with Brad’s torso sprouting out into the aisle and Jordan’s sprouting out of the window. The first leg of the trip, from Mbale to the midpoint city of Soroti (100km away) took about 2 hours, but was tolerable aside from the lack of space. The stopover in Soroti, however, was where things began to fall apart. Our bus driver, apparently a regular Ugandan don juan, thought he would break up the drive by visiting his girlfriend. For two hours we sat on the steaming bus in a dustbowl in the middle of nowhere among an astonishing collection of bodily odors. Finally the driver makes it back to the bus, and we depart once again for the second leg: the rough 100km stretch of road from Soroti to Lira. Ugandan buses have a unique characteristic not found on buses in other parts of the world. Their back suspension system actually magnifies road inconsistencies, instead of dampening them. And African roads are anything but flat. Hot, sweaty, and with a head bouncing around like a jack-in-the-box I spent the next two hours trying hard not to think about swimming pools. The bus trip became even more fun during the home stretch, when something happened that has never happened to me before. Jordan and I were sitting in a row in the back of the bus, discussing the different kinds of neck surgery one can undergo, when I heard the splash of water coming from the row of seats behind us. It couldn’t be. Then came another loud splash, this one accompanied by a soft gagging sound. There is no way. Then the sound came a third time, and I looked over to my right to Jordan, about to ask him if my theory about the source of the splashing noise was correct. I didn’t need to; Jordan was on the verge of tears from holding in his laughter. Sure enough, the girl behind us was throwing up on floor right behind us. Jordan, once sufficient composure was regained, was finally able to say, “I can see why you wore long pants, Joel, I have vomit sprinkles all over the back of my legs.” Luckily for my stomach and Jordan’s legs we were already nearing our destination, because the girls purges set off a chain reaction. The woman in front of us, displaying the manners of a true public transport traveler, leaned over and began vomiting out of her window. So, for the remaining two or three kilometers, Jordan was getting vomit splash from two directions, in the face and in the back of the legs. Long pants would not have helped him with the former.

We took a taxi home.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Racial Observations and the Real Meaning Behind The White Nile

One of the reasons I am writing this entry is to explain the name of my blog, The White Nile. The title, I must admit, was borrowed from book of the same name written by English historian Alan Moorehead, a fascinating read if you should ever get the chance. Divided into three sections, the book traces the history of the West in East Africa, from exploration and the efforts if the Royal Geographical Society to locate the headwaters of the Nile, to the militarization and governance at the hands of the British , and finally to the Evangelization of its inhabitants by adventurous missionaries. Thus, the headwaters of the Nile beginning at Lake Victoria began, with each additional white footstep into East Africa, to interestingly (and sadly) take on a new meaning to the name that was given them, the White Nile. The White Nile was in fact becoming whiter, so to speak. I chose to call my blog this not only because within the region I am living springs the White Nile, but, whether I like it or not, I am continuing a trend that began with Richard Speke and John Burton and the first exploration into East Africa in the mid-nineteenth century.

Paul Theroux, probably the greatest travel writer since Mark Twain, is an outspoken critic of the West’s involvement in Africa. Not unfounded (Theroux spent a number of years teaching at Makarere University in Kampala during the 1960s while it was still the “Oxford of the East“), his argument is shared with a number of people, including many Africans, that Africa should be left to the Africans. Western involvement, in the form of NGOs and non-profits, is doing more harm than good, and essentially constitutes what might have been Moorehead’s fourth wave of white intervention in East Africa had he not finished his work in the 1960s. Nevertheless, here I am, teaching Ugandans basic business skills as a member of the MAPLE Microdevelopment organization. Based on my own experience so far and the warm welcome our teaching efforts have received, I am inclined to disagree with Mr. Theroux. In the end, however, I do acknowledge that a fair amount of the aid work designed to lift Africa out of “darkness” falls short of its goal, more specifically creating a dependence rather than personal foundation. This is understandably a sensitive subject among NGO and non-profit circles, and it will be interesting to find out what I think after my tenure here in Africa has ended. I will keep you posted.

The lighter side

Brad, our Ugandan friend Eddie, and I were watching a Premier League game the other day at a neighborhood establishment, the Loving Tone Hotel, when it suddenly struck me: Here we are, two white men, sitting amid a sea of black football fans watching white guys play a sport on TV, the exact reverse of what goes on back in the United States. I can picture two Ugandans coming to the United States and going to a Boston Celtics game and sitting among an arena of white people all the while cheering on a quintet of all black men. Very interesting indeed.

While patronizing one of our favorite Sino-Indian-Ugandan restaurants, Ribat, last week our group had an interesting experience. Service was slow, and we were well into our second hour of waiting for our food when conversation slowed and minds began to wander. Luckily for us, a football match was playing on the TV and would provide an excellent distraction. The game, tied 2-2 heading into the last ten minutes, was becoming increasingly intense, and Jordan was about to fall off of his seat and into his cocktail when in strolled a group of Indians, a large minority group here in Uganda. Luke, our resident pro having spent the greater part of a year here in Uganda already, groaned “Watch this, they will probably go turn on cricket.” Sure enough, one man went immediately over to the TV, scanned a few channels, and eventually found a replay of the Most-Boring-Sport-On-Earth. We were too shocked and amused with Luke’s prescience to get angry. It may have turned out for the better anyway. The cooks in the kitchen, having their football game turned off, could now focus on preparing our food, which came out shortly after the cricket game came on.

Despite a long and usurious legacy of colonialism, I don’t think today’s Ugandans harbor any animosity towards white people. On the contrary, I think good will towards Westerners is very common and is especially evident when you look at the best way of gauging public opinion, the children. Children everywhere are often vocal and blatant projections of their more reserved parents and their opinions; in order to get an idea of what someone thinks about a particularly sensitive subject, just ask his or her child. The muzungu (“white man“ in Swahili) may get a fair amount of stares on the street, just in case they decide to do something goofy or culturally abnormal, but he gets nothing but cheers and greetings from the youngest children. Sometimes kids will see you wave back at them and run up and hold your hand, perhaps even walk with you all the way to your destination.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Couple of Random Conversations and Accoutrement

One of the perks of subscribing to a particular Ugandan cell phone service is the MTN Joke of the Day. Yesterdays zinger, which cost me about ten cents, was, and I quote:

“The Russians are very jealous of the American’s stealth bombers, so they’ve decided to build their own.”

While Brad and I are eating lunch the other day at a little hole-in-the-wall joint near our house. A younger guy, taller than Brad or me, sits down next to us at our picnic table and orders the same thing we are having: rice, beans, irish (potatoes), and chapati. Brad and I, that is to say, enjoyed our meal together. Conversation took a respite while we focused on the task before us, pausing only occasionally to sip from our Coca Cola. Unbeknownst to us, the man on my immediate left exercised his ability to turn into a human vacuum cleaner and inhaled his equally-portioned plate in record time. Now, I am no speed demon at the dining table, nor have I been traditionally (unless my parents suddenly brought up the topic of schoolwork or girlfriends), but this guy sitting next to me had finished his plate of food just as I had reached the halfway point. I raised my jaw from its wadir to ask him to explain his superhuman ability, per usual my eloquence elicits profound conversation.

“Dude, you eat really fast.”
He looked at me with the faintest trace of a grin. “That is what I do.”
Silence. Not the response Brad or I was expecting. Nevertheless, the conversation was the perfect segue to my next statement:
“You’re tall, dude. How tall are you?”
He gets up, leaves his money on the table, and makes toward the door. Before he exits, he turns to me and offers the obvious reply, “Taller than you.” Then he heads out, leaving me slack-jawed and Brad on the verge of rupturing some vital organ from laughing so hard.

The next incident involved Brad and I in a shopping venture over by the Mbale market. Brad had his eyes set on a snazzy pair of $12 alligator skin dress shoes and decided to see if they carried his size, so we plopped down on a bench next to a weathered Ugandan shoe shiner. Usually in this situation we decide to initiate some conversation, exchange the curious stare for a bit of cultural insight, so Brad began with an inquiry into the weather, of which all Ugandans are experts.

Brad: “Do you think it will it rain today?”
Shoe shiner: “Yes. But it will rain later, at seven o‘clock…or four.”

Brad decided Uganda was not ready for a white man with alligator shoes and we opted to move on, lest we get caught in the 4 pm rainstorm.

Actually, I have found the Ugandan sense of humor to be one of the best I have encountered. It is perhaps a product of his or her perpetually-optimistic attitude that the average Ugandan feels the need to joke and laugh, and it is contagious. Yes, life is hard, but from every tier of society, be it Muslim or Evangelical, wealthy or poor, crippled or athletic, humor is important and remains a fixture in any daily interaction. I’m not joking!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

African Time

First off, I would like to apologize for my obvious propensity to ramble. Concision, I must admit, is not the mark of a History and Political Science major, just ask my poor thesis advisor who had to crawl through my 96-page senior yawn-inducer. A leisurely attitude towards time, perhaps resulting from our country’s Quaker beginnings or something like that (this is what I guess, but I‘m no historian), is often at odds with the fast paced and punctual lifestyle of the typical American. We enjoy fast food and fast cars, trains that leave when they are supposed to, meetings that start and end on time, and our children have made the founders of CliffsNotes very happy, wealthy men.

The Churchillian orators of the world need look no further for solace, Africa is the place for you. Time moves differently here, much more slowly and without the strict management as it does in the West. Ask any twenty something their age and he or she might surprise you by thinking about it for a moment. People are not late for an appointment, they are, vaguely, “delayed.” Try to fit in a quick bite to eat at a restaurant before the rain sets in and you’ll find yourself eating at a snails pace in order to coordinate your last bite with the last raindrop. Those of you who know me know also that I am no stranger to leisure, nevertheless, adjusting even to African time has been both interesting and challenging.

Last week we were warned that our MAPLE representative from the northern Ugandan city of Lira and a university student from Kampala would be stopping off in Mbale for the night in order to break up their long trip from the capital to Lira. Our executive director and arranger-extraordinaire told us they would be arriving here in town between 10 and 11 in the morning, but that they would call to alert us with an ETA. Upon hearing nothing at 10:30, we phoned Akullu Betty, who told us that they would be getting into the bus station around 11:30. Aha, we thought, we have a time of arrival , we can now safely make plans. Maybe a little stroll around the city (we had a few minor errands to run), perhaps a little lunch (we knew of a perfect café to wet our appetites), tons of time to do things before the afternoon thundershowers set in. The midday sun had already turned my scalp the color of Ugandan tomato by the time we had walked to the bus station from the house, precisely on time (11:30) and in good form: slacks, dress shoes and a tucked-in polo shirt. How smart and professional I looked. Upon getting to the bus station we phoned Betty, to be told that our timing was impeccable, that she, Betty from Lira, was in fact just outside of Mbale and would be there in a matter of minutes. To wait the short time until their arrival, Jaime, Brad and I plopped down on a curb and began to…sweat. After twenty or so minutes and still no sign of Akullu Betty and her compatriot, we decided to call and see if there had been an unforeseen snag, we conjectured a tsunami had swept across Kenya and washed out the only road into town, and that they had to fix it before Bill Gates arrived this afternoon. Call number three was placed shortly after noon:

“Hello, Betty? This is Jaime and the boys, we were just wondering how close you were.”
“Ah, we are just getting to Soroti.” (Dejected look from Jaime--Soroti is about an hour and a half from Mbale by bus).
“Okay. You’ll call us when you get here?”

Betty from Lira did eventually arrive in Mbale, though it was nearing 2 o’clock when she did. Two hours had elapsed since we first arrived at the bus station. My head was spinning from a constant diet of diesel exhaust and I would have probably sworn off beer for the remainder of my life just for a tube of sunscreen. Our afternoon plans put on hold, we found ourselves again guilty of trying to apply an American regimen in Africa.

Incident number two is less windy, but I think funny as well. After visiting some of the women vendors in Buguere market, Brad and I began heading back to the house. I was hungry. My inability to differentiate between a soup spoon and a ladle extends to breakfast, which I had skipped because the only thing I can really make is cold cereal. Lunch was still a couple of hours away, and I was starving. Lo and behold, there on the side of the road were some chapatti makers. Chappati is a Ugandan tortilla made from wheat and eggs and derives its flavor from a generous coating of cooking oil, it is delicious. Ignoring my hearts screaming protests, I pulled up to the first vendor and bought a couple of the round treats. As we were walking away and unable to restrain myself, I unpeeled their wrapping of soggy old newspaper and began to do what I now know is on par with emitting flatulence in the King of Buganda’s presence: eating while walking. Completely involved in tearing up the warm gooey bread I did not notice that everyone and their mother was staring at me with their jaws dropped in utter disbelief. Luckily for me, a few boda drivers decided they could not let me continue embarrassing myself and sprinted over on their bicycles to educate me on the nuances of Ugandan cultural norms:

“Hey Muzungu! What are you doing? Is it supper time? Dinner time?”
Not knowing what they were talking about, I did what I often do in such a situation: grinned like an idiot and shrugged my shoulders with a mouthful of food.
“Tea time? It is always tea time, eh Muzungu?”
Then they erupted in a spat of laughter that could be heard well over the din of the marketplace.

When I later told my Ugandan friend Eddie about what had happened, he laughed just as hard. Ugandans, he informed me, never ate and walked at the same time. One should always take their time, sit down and eat, and relax. Killing two birds with one stone to save time is almost unheard of here, yet we in the states make a point to do it. Time just moves differently here. For some odd reason, I don’t think too many people here are overstressed.

But why does the African maintain such an attitude towards time? There are competing theories, I’m sure. To find out, I asked my African friend Eddie Kasaumbeim, who told me straight up “Time is not Important..” Africans, he said, just don’t put it high on their list of priorities. There are no punishments for showing up late (or not at all), even for school. Similarly, time is not a major constraint that goes into production; take your time, get the job done, of course, but take your time. Eddie’s explanation brings to mind an idea propounded by LA Times Africa correspondent David Lamb. His book, The Africans, is somewhat dated and I read it some time ago, but if my memory serves me correctly Lamb conjectures Africans are leisurely towards time because they have been conditioned that way over thousands of years. Draughts and other major phenomena, events that are found more infrequently in the Western world, can unhinge even the best laid plans. Disease, too, is another culprit, and something Africa has no shortage of. So that’s my spiel, don’t quote me on any of it, of course, but I do hope you enjoyed reading it. It was a long posting, and I truly hope I didn’t make you late for something.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Pictures, oh my

Brad filling in during a lesson with the local SACCO (Savings and Credit CO-OP). Wind blown hair girl is Jaime, our wonderful Eugenite housemate.

Relaxing by the pool on my birthday. The two people in the foreground are Simon, a British friend with a smile that apparently doesn't break cameras and Melissa, the daughter of Simon's fiancee. Also, Rachel, Jaime, and the sun-deficient Brad.

Brad lapping, Jaime slapping and Rachel napping.

Luke: Our field director and 2008 UO grad. Mothers, guard your noisy children.

Eddie, our Ugandan friend, and Brad enjoying the hammock I brought as much as they can before 72 ogling Ugandan children come to watch and, every once and a while just at the moment when you have closed your eyes to take a much needed nap, sneak up and push you so hard our support pole comes into play.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The House

In Fall 2006 I studied abroad in Cairo, Egypt for about 6 months with my good buddy from school Mike Diaz. Either a desire to make things difficult for ourselves or the more conventional poor planning (or a combination thereof) placed me and mike in one of the biggest cities in the world without a clue of where we were going to live. We knew we wanted an apartment, but that was as much as we knew. Luckily for us, we were in contact with a girl from Nevada named Brenna who, as an incoming freshman at the American University, was also searching for a flat to rent. She just so happened to know an Egyptian guy about our age whom she had talked into taking her around to look at apartments, and the two of them agreed to let us tag along. Now, before I continue, I should mention that the study abroad department from our college practically demanded that we try an assimilate with the locals, eat what they eat, talk like they talk, and dress like they dress. This last idea posed a problem for us. Mike and I arrived in Cairo in the middle of an August heat wave wearing local attire: pants and a long sleeve shirt. On the day we set out to scope out flats, temperatures soared to well over 100 degrees, with humidity to boot. Sweating profusely before I even had my shoes tied, I thought about maybe just slipping on some shorts, just for the day, but then I remembered non-assimilation was in fact not an option. Suffer, because they suffer. Swearing under my breath, I stepped out into the noon heat. Within half a block’s walk I was planning to burn my shirt and pants and after a full block I had made a mental note to transfer to a school in Reykjavik. For the next month and a half, the pants and long sleeve shirts stayed in my closet. Screw assimilation, toujours comfort. Fortunately, with the thought of another day of apartment hunting on foot looming ahead of us, we all settled on an apartment rather quickly. One with ac, of course.

The situation when I arrived here in Uganda was quite different. MAPLE already had a house for us new arrivals; I merely had to unpack my gear straight into my room. The house is in many ways much better than I had expected. There is a full kitchen equipped with everything from brand new gas oven/range set shipped direct from Kampala to the older-but-still-functional cockroach population. We have a nice living room with two big chairs and a sofa that is in a constant state of occupation due to the fact that it is the only place where one can access the internet; queues occasionally wrap around the corner. Also in the living room is a dinner table that sees a surprisingly high amount of use, though I am afraid I cannot take much credit for this; my ability to cook only mushroom lasagna, French onion soup , and quesadillas has designated me a resident eater, but I remember to dish out some compliments about the food, which always warrants them. The lone bathroom was a wonderful surprise. An anomaly among the developing world, In Uganda one is actually permitted to flush used paper products, instead of having to throw them in a non-airtight waste bin. (Nor , even, does the person have to cross their fingers every time they flush something they shouldn‘t have in have or suffer rejection, as one person I know did on a daily basis while studying Arabic in Jordan.) The shower works just fine, and the lack of a hot water heater ensures that no one in the house has to wander into a steamy bathroom or try to shave while looking into a foggy mirror. The bedrooms are nice, with big windows to let in the healthy equatorial sun and large, flowing mosquito nets to provide each person with a sense of isolation, even though they are sleeping just across the room from someone else. Brad and I, either because we are so manly and tough or because we smell bad, were given the converted garage to sleep in. It is actually not as bad as you might think. Troglodyte Brad is able to sleep in all hours of the day should he feel compelled because there are no windows. I like it very much because the sounds from the rest of the house are muffled. There are some downsides, however. The metallic garage door and tin roof above us act as perfect conduits for that punishing “equatorial sun,” there are a few strategically placed holes in the ceiling located above our beds that could use some caulking, and cockroaches seem fond of creeping around our room at night until they find a strange place to die. The termite colony that slowly crept up a wall in our room has been knocked down by our housecleaner Eve.

The house is already starting to feel like home. Sure it is a little rough around the edges, but I lived out of a car for almost 5 months. Moreover, it is not so much the quality of the craftsmanship or the number of subwoofers that make a house great to live in, but a number of fun and interesting people to live there with. I know it sounds corny, but its all about the people. My housemates truly are amazing people and the young Ugandans who drop by from time to time provide a local spice to the medley. I shall have no problem living here for five months.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


“Do you guys want to slaughter a chicken tonight?”
“Sure, I guess. Do we need anything?
“Maybe some vegetables.”

Yes we did slaughter a chicken the other night (my second night here), and yes we did eat it, and yes I did take pictures. Luckily, Patrick, my housemate, is a resident pro at chicken preparation, decapitating, boiling, plucking, bone cracking and gutting with the manual dexterity of a concert pianist and the stomach of a menagerie janitor. Pictures will do this evening more justice than words.

My uncle who works in the wine industry has told me on multiple occasions that old white men are the worst people in the world to take food and drink advice from. Old white men, you see, have a palate that deteriorates faster than any other grouping of human in terms of ability to taste the subtleties and delicacies of what is ingested. I have always believed that, rather than claiming myself exempt from this interesting trend, I was born with an ancient man’s mouth in that all food to me remains void of the interesting nuances food critics and resterateurs like to stretch their vocabulary about. Zucchini is the lone exception, which has so many different tiers and dimensions of badness and boringness I could write a book.

Thus, while I try my hand at explaining Ugandan cuisine, take it with the knowledge that I am as inept at describing food as I am at resolving integrals. But, I am going to give it a throw.

Ugandan food is notoriously bland. So bland, in fact, that I rest easy at night knowing my premature case of White-Man’s-Palate has not prevented me from enjoying anything terribly spectacular. Rice, beans, smashed up plantains and the occasional large grain of sand make up the average Ugandan meal. Starches are called “food” and a bowl of liquid protein on the side is called “sauce,” and little variation in these combinations suggests not so much lack of imagination in the kitchen as a desire by Ugandans to stick with what they know and like. Every meal is “comfortable.” Spicy things might be the Ugandan’s worst nightmare. Fortunately for me a shortage of pizzazz means a lack of agitators, quite unlike Mexican food which requires me to find restaurants strategically located near by a water closet.

Uganda’s Indian population, however, has created a wonderful alternative. Illegally-soft cheese dumplings drenched in a spinach bath, an array of spicy lentil dishes from Chicken Afghani to the sponge like -yet-delicious Mutter Paneer and always reliable Tikka Masala. Moist, flaky garlic naan and butter naan may be employed by the eater for purposes of soaking, pinching, and shoveling, but not with the left hand, of course, which is the traditional wiping hand. Vegetarian Manchurian, be it “dry” or “wet,” is most likely tofu coated with a tender layer of more spices than I knew existed and swimming in or sitting alongside a heavy brown sauce The Stoney Tangarizi ginger beer washes down things nicely and wipes clean the slate for another, but entirely exciting, bite. Absolutely delicious.

Alas, prices reflect this contrast. Local food, palatable but not anything novel, does come with a very write-homeable price, usually about a dollar a meal (though my lunch yesterday, of chippiati and meat sauce, was only about 25 cents). Indian food is considerably more expensive, about five bucks.

A smile is creeping across my face. I do not think I shall starve, here in Uganda.