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!