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