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 cafĂ© 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.