Monday, May 31, 2010

Post # 47: Fuganda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 21, 2010

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

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

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

Post #45: Rafting the White Nile

I discovered that I only need five more posts to reach the fifty entries mark, so I am numbering the rest. These are photos from a recent trip of rafting, a trip in which we brought our two Ugandan friends,  Eddie and JB, neither of whom know how to swim. Sure, they look cheerful in the beginning...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Snack Pack! You're the coolest!

It happens to everyone. Any prolonged period of time in a foreign environment is bound to kindle a strong desire for foods available only in the civilized, Western world. Bill Bryson, though only a week into his excursion to hike the Appalachian Trail, begins thinking longingly of any food that has never seen the inside of a bag, while his partner, a rotund man named Stephen Katz, opines strongly for anything of the Little Debbie family.  African food, though filling, has done an excellent job of helping me to realize all of the excellent food I normally consume in large quantities back home. I wish I could say that the change in cuisine has helped me lose weight, but still evident by my belt shopping are the lingering effects of the “freshman fifteen,” or, in my case, the “first semester 25.” But I have found it quite possible to eat in equal proportions while still fueling the desire for Western food. I think the people that live with me have stopped using the word “cheese” in casual conversation, fearing the effect it will have on me: first comes the ethereal despondence, then the eyes start to glisten before I finally shake it off, realize where I am, and begin  rattling off abstract statements like “I remember eating cheese” or “There are some great cheeses at this one place, I went there one time.”

The absence of good food, unfortunately, has this sort of affect over me that doesn’t fade but only strengthens with time. For example, the sentence “Golly, Brad, I sure wish that this pizza had real tomato sauce on it instead of this radioactive ketchup!” becomes “Why can’t these darn Ugandans make a proper pizza!” My venting target has always been the British, who colonized the world with their vast empire, and brought parliamentary government and terrible food to new subjects around the world. Ketchup is put on everything, including rice, people think herbs and spices are for people who don’t like bland food, fish generally comes either dried or fried, meet is cooked and cooked until a chainsaw and filed incisors are needed to consume it, and the bread resembles a rugby ball in several different ways. I thank my lucky stars that mayonnaise is expensive and hard to get, but I also become jealous of all those NGO workers who chose countries formerly colonized by the French. Rwandans, I have heard, enjoy a variety of excellent cheeses.

Oddly enough, foods that I don’t normally crave back in the United States have dominated my my dreams and wishes. Sushi, I always felt, was just a failsafe way to impress a date with your worldliness and refined palate. Yet, the more I eat steamed plantains and boiled vegetables covered with fake beef seasoning, the more I crave the Japanese delicacy, perhaps because it is so completely different from African food. Vietnamese soup, also, keeps me awake at night tossing and turning.

Unsurprisingly,  it is the food from south of the order that I crave the most. Mexican food will be consumed in large quantities with my return to the United States. Slow roasted pork carnitas, fresh salsa, spicy barbecued beef, piping hot corn tortillas, all washed down with an ice cold glass of cinnamon accented horchata. I plan to drench my  food with hot sauces of every variety, for Ugandans fear hot and spicy things. I may even try to find a Mexican girlfriend with a Mexican mother who loves to cook. If you have anyone in mind, I’d love an introduction, you’ll find me at the taco cart on Division Street.

That is how I feel about food right now. And for your own sake, don’t ask me about African beer…

Monday, May 10, 2010

Black & White Photos

Photos taken during a recent auditing trip I made to our Lira program. Enjoy!

The group members trickling in before the start of their weekly training session

Winnie, our translator, studies the curriculum 

Kelly and a young baby killing time before the session

A young boy sneaks a look at the mzungus over a wall

Betty teaching the group

My favorite photo. I'll let the readers caption this one. 

Old woman learning new tricks

Building under construction, taken from my hotel room

Shot of the street leading away from the hotel

This isn't actually Lira, but an old picture from Tororo I had on my computer. Tororo Rock

Also not from Lira. Busiyiyi Falls

On the bus ride home from Lira

The same landscape but in color

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Rift Valley Railway (Part 2)

Before we boarded the train Ellen insisted we purchase a bottle of wine at a supermarket, though her cogency was unnecessary: this sort of thing I very rarely object to. So, giddy with anticipation, we tuk-tuked to the Mombasa train station and prepared to board the train. I enjoyed even the wait immensely. Rusting old train cars sat sporadically throughout a network of weedy tracks, ignored by everyone and everything  save my camera lens. To the west, tracks pointed toward a setting equatorial sun. An old notice board, paint peeling and dirty, with departure times and passenger listings suggested a long lost popularity with rail travel or even  an African administrator’s tendency to abandon organizational pedantry. We had some time to kill before the train left, so Ellen and I sat down on a bench outside and drank some water. A Kenyan man playing a guitar and singing soon made his way over to where we were sitting, and I offered him 100 shillings, which turned out to be one of the better decisions I had made in some time. Strumming on a guitar that outstripped the decrepit train cars littering the yard in age and wear, he belted out one of the greatest songs about Kilimanjaro I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. A few additional coins from our pockets and he brought out the big gun, a croony love song about two lovers who underappreciated each other. With his last note we boarded the train, and settled into our miniscule birth. I was hoping for mahogany paneling and a cabinet full of aged scotch, maybe even a chandelier, but was slightly disappointed. Our cabin was not the colonial relic I was hoping for, instead, that sickly orange paint only popular during the 1970s coated the walls and a miniscule sink area and cabinet offered, no, not liquor, but a drinking tap that didn’t work. Never mind, dinner was next on the docket; a promised three course meal with silver cutlery and china.

Dinner was quite an adventure. The train’s jostling seemed ill-suited for stemmed wineglasses, but we managed to finish off the whole bottle with only a little spillage. The cuisine was not spectacular, but the fact that we got three courses of mediocre food was enough to make me happy. Due to limited space in the restaurant car, we were obliged to sit with our fellow passengers. An elderly woman with a large splint on her forearm was directed to sit with me and Ellen at our table, but took one look at us and deemed us too young to engage in the type of sophisticated conversation she preferred. She eventually acquiesced, and joined us. We promptly offered her a glass of wine, which she refused, for she was on medication for her arm. Apparently an under-serviced matatu tire had spun lose from its axle and became airborne, hitting her in the wrist while she was in the village doing her PeaceCorps work. I can picture the scene in my head quite easily, actually, now that I have logged so many hours in public transportation in Africa. It is a rather funny image, I admit: the skinny, leathered American woman screaming in pain while the matatu driver and conductor simultaneously console her, apologize and repair the damage, and then offer her a free ride to the hospital in the newly fixed vehicle.

After dinner and the bottle of wine we retreated to our cabin, where a hand had made up our beds for us. They looked pretty inviting at first. Upon going horizontal, however, the train’s jostling became even more pronounced, and I suddenly understood why the upper bunk had a removable safety strap. Despite the rough ride, I managed to eke out a decent night’s sleep. Ellen, however, was not so lucky, and I awoke to a disheveled, bloodshot face gazing out the window. One of the great things about my friend is that she doesn’t require 8 solid hours to maintain her upbeat attitude. (Back in college I used to give my roommate Jim a lot of guff for sleeping in long hours on the weekends and requesting only afternoon classes, until I discovered that an unrested Jim is scarily silent and resembles a youthful mad scientist who has exchanged his bloody frock for sweat pants. Sleep away, Jim, please sleep away.)

Breakfast was also rather sad, as far as the palate is concerned. Toasted Wonderbread with strawberry jelly and long-life margarine, two eggs in the limbo stage between over-easy and scrambled, and, the centerpiece,  a lone two-inch piece of defrosted sausage. The views over breakfast, on the other hand, were excellent. Unlike in Uganda where every square meter of land along a road or pathway is lived on or cultivated, Kenya still contains sizeable stretches of unprotected, wild territory. Form the train’s streaked windows we saw ostriches, zebras, waterbuck, and about 700 varieties of antelope. While breakfasting we were fortunate enough to experience another colonial fixture that has persisted to the twenty-first century: the ancient white European with an extremely young and beautiful African wife. Recall Theroux’s comment about train passengers. The couple that joined us is everywhere in East Africa, from the beaches of Mombasa to the trendy cafes of Kampala, it even shows up faithfully at the swimming pool in Mbale every Sunday with its two children. The wife is always dressed to the nines -- after all, if you have managed to land a mzungu husband and become intimate with the Pound Sterling, you must alert everybody’s attention to your good fortune. The husband is always looking rather pale and wrinkled, which he likes to advertise by wearing very short shorts and rafting sandals, and carries with him a very amiable character and lots of high-powered sunscreen. The children, though not accompanying their parents on this particular train ride because they are attending a fancy boarding school, are both the wife’s from a previous engagement.

Almost exactly as scheduled, the train pulled into Nairobi Central Station around 8 am. The giant, aging  steel wheels came to slow but quiet halt. Tall skyscrapers, claimed by the Kenyatta International Conference Center, Barclays Bank, the Hilton, DFCU, even the elevated gables of the State House rose upward from just beyond the station fences only a five minute walk away-- the train had brought us to the center of East Africa’s most important city. It seemed odd that such a lumbering, relic of colonialism still maintained such excellent real estate. Surely, in any other city, a fledgling railway, struggling even to repair the ceramic ceiling fans in its restaurant car, would have no place in such an environment. Yet, surprisingly,  it appears as though Nairobi Central Station and the Rift Valley Railway are there to stay; a testament to British Imperialism, yes, but, I think at a more deeper level, a statement to remind people that travel for thirteen hours doesn’t have to be a terrible inconvenience, it can be an experience. Just sit back, drink a glass of wine or two, and enjoy.