Tuesday, September 4, 2012


The day begins badly.  I miss the bus by five minutes.  What is unclear is whether this was the 6:00 am bus leaving 45 minutes late, or the 7:30 bus leaving 45 minutes early.  That’s the way with public transportation in Uganda.  Schedules only approximate reality.  After being told that the next bus would leave at 8:30 (meaning that it would actually leave between 9:30 and 11:00), I decide to take a minibus taxi, or matatu.

Arriving at the taxi stop I feel relieved to see a taxi almost full, signifying that it might leave within the half-hour.  Ah, but bad news awaits me.  The usual 10,000 shilling ($4) fare to Mbale is increased to 15,000.  Two reasons: 1) it is beginning of term reporting day for students all over Uganda, so the demand for transport to one’s boarding school is high.  The bus and taxi companies take advantage of this; 2) heavy rains have flooded the Mbale Road, so a detour will be required.  What does detour mean?  It means an additional hour over dirt roads.

The matatu is crowded.  I sit in a jump seat at the end of a row of seats intended for three people, now accommodating four (and most of their luggage).  One hipbone is jammed into the metal door to my left, the other into the hip of the young man to my right.  Behind me is another passenger’s knee and an unpadded metal bar in the seat back.  Like every other matatu, this one seems to have no shock absorbers.  The detour is full of potholes, and every bump exacerbates the pain on my hips and back. Plus, my window won’t open.  At least it is morning, so the body odor quotient is low. 

Along the way there is a minor accident in the road ahead.  Ugandans seem to enjoy nothing more than a good traffic accident.  Involved or not, we must stop.  Everyone must get out of the taxi, add to the crowd milling around, and join in the argument between the two drivers.  Bright side – it presents the opportunity for a “short call” in the bush.  On the down side, it represents another 20 minute delay.

From then on, it’s smoother sailing.  I arrive in Mbale and almost immediately locate a taxi that can drop me in Jinja. This taxi has tires with tread.  They offer me the “queen seat” (as my friend Joanna calls the front passenger seat, where our organizations usually seat the muzungu when we go out to do field work).  This seat has an advantage.  It is actually the size of about 1 ¾ seats, and you never have to share it with more than one other person.  Fortunately, my seatmate is a very thin gentleman. 
From Kangulamira, it’s just a quick jaunt to the boat landing.  At last, I embark over the Nile to Wildwaters Lodge.  The magic begins when you step into the small boat and the boatmen begin rowing upstream.  It’s a quick trip to the island, but you are already a world apart from the stresses of Ugandan travel and the cares you leave behind.
In my case, I’m leaving behind what has been unexpected anxiety over my permanent return to the States (in only two weeks).  I am longing for home, and have been for two years, but I am also anxious.  Anxious about leaving my Ugandan home.  Anxious about the decisions ahead.  What might the next adventure be?  I know that I need to give making these decisions some time.  Time to revel in hot water on demand, reliable power, easy transportation, variety in my diet – all of the simple things that no longer seem so simple.  I also know that I have Marty to make these decisions with.  And Eli and the rest of my family to count on for support.  Still, I have no doubt that there will be readjustment.

Wildwaters Lodge surpasses your imagination.  An island surrounded by white water and Kalagala Falls.  Only 10 canvas-walled cottages.  The Nile rushing by within yards of your front deck, where you can soak in the claw-footed tub. The omnipresent sound of the water, accompanied during the day by birds and at night by singing insects and frogs.  Great food.  Decent wine. Spa services. (Photos on FB soon!) This is worth the splurge, and a great place to relax and reflect on my two years in Uganda.

Somehow Uganda has changed me.  What those changes are is hard to describe.  I may not know what is lasting until I have been back in the States for some time.  Less attachment to “stuff”, more patience, a better appreciation for our life in America, a new view of the world, a different pace to life – what will last and what will disappear after a few weeks of astonishing comfort?  Choices and abundance may be overwhelming.  Waste will disgust me.  Have I forgotten how to shop?  Have I indeed become a very bad consumer and lost my addiction to Nordstroms? 

There are some new things I can do, but I don’t think that they will count for much.  I can travel for a week with only a large daypack.  I know how to bucket bathe, soak my vegetables, and treat my drinking water.  I can negotiate public transportation in at least three languages and bargain in the marketplace.  I won’t panic if a see an elephant in the road.  I can ride a bicycle in a skirt, nonchalantly sweep a bat out the door, and eat beans everyday for lunch. 
There are also some old things that I fear I won’t be able to do!  For 26 months I have not been behind the wheel.  Further, I am now used to traffic that drives on the left.  My instincts have changed, and they are all wrong.  More than once my friends and loved ones will be pulling be out of oncoming traffic because I will be looking for it in the other direction.  It took me a few months to get accustomed to Ugandan traffic.  I hope that it is not months before I can deal with it in America.

It’s time to invent a new life.  In the months between leaving my job and traveling to Uganda I was busy selling a home, moving, and preparing for life as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  For two years my life has been in Uganda – with daily routines, concerns, and responsibilities very different than those I had before or will have upon my return.  Now it’s time for some decisions.  Work or retirement?   If I work, part-time or full-time?  Doing what? Settle in a new community or travel?  Choice is a wonderful thing and I am lucky to have it.  I don’t have to do anything.  That is indeed a luxury, but a daunting one.

One thing is certain, I will choose those adventures with Marty.  The hardest thing about these two years has been doing it alone.  Has it been worth it?  Probably.  Did I make a difference?  Maybe.  I did teach 2,500 girls about their sexual health.  I gave about 100 educators some new ideas about leadership, team building, and planning.  Tried to teach the project officers at my organization how to develop and manage a project plan and budget.  

I also value what I hope will be life-long friendships, with Ugandans and with other volunteers both American and European.  I am so happy that I had the chance to travel with Marty, and with Eli.  I’ll never forget climbing into the cab of a Kenyan semi with Carol and Susan.  Nor will I soon forget the majesty of elephants and giraffes so close that I could almost touch them, herds of kob in the morning mist on the savannah, sunset on the Indian Ocean, the white sands of Zanzibar, the peace of the village at Kapir, and the smaller delights of everyday in Soroti.  I am indeed a lucky one.  Lucky to have experienced all of this, and to have slept by the wild waters.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A New Post, At Last...

A long time…

It’s been a long time between blog entries.  A long, hard time.  My great-nephew Rich died in Afghanistan at the end of May, and my family’s world is horribly altered.  There are many days when I question why I am here.  Maybe my family needs me more than Uganda does.  It was difficult to leave them after my two weeks  in the States.  Why did I come back?  Really because when I questioned returning to Africa my sister grabbed me by the shoulders and said “Go back.  Do good work.  Our family commits and we follow through.”

So here I am, committed and following through.  There are some bright spots, like completing secondary school management workshops for 30 schools.  This was a collaboration with a Dutch school principal. The topics: leadership, team effectiveness, creating a management plan, financial management and income-generating activities.  We plan to reach as many as 80 additional schools over the coming year.  

I’m also delivering workshops on sexual/reproductive health and menstruation management at primary and secondary schools.  Menstruation is a big issue for girls in rural Uganda – they get very little information about what’s happening to their bodies and disposable pads are far too expensive for them to use.  It’s a cause of absenteeism and contributes to a high drop-out rate.  So, we are teaching them how to make re-usable pads, and providing kits with the necessary materials.  The  best part is that I am working with a wonderful Ugandan woman, Betty, on this project.  She is passionate, articulate, and motivated – so I know that this work will continue long after I’ve returned to the USA.

Neither of these things is exactly what I expected to be doing.  As an economic development volunteer I didn’t foresee being placed in an organization focused on education quality improvement.  It took awhile to define projects that I felt made a contribution and used  my skills, but I am happy with these and feel like I may be doing some good.  The help I provide in proposal and report writing, project planning, and budgeting is also, I hope, helping to build some capacity at CEREDO. 

I’ve learned a lot.  Had good and bad experiences.  Seen positive and negative effects of donor aid.  Met inspiring  people.  Have loved and hated Uganda and Ugandans.  And I’m really glad that I am doing this despite enthusiasm that waxes and wanes - with homesickness, but also with frustration about “the way things are”.  There is no money at my organization.  The previous funding year ended June 30, but the major donor organization is changing and new funding won’t be released until November.  Not only that, it will be significantly less.  I think the knowledge that this was coming has been there for some time, but the planning for it has been haphazard.  The staff has not been paid for three months.  The second truck has broken down.  Lunch is no longer served in the office.  Internet is no longer available. In the meantime, the staff continues coming the office and working as hard as ever.  My admiration for their commitment is strong, and it keeps me going.

Many days the enormity of the problems facing the education system is overwhelming, and my own small efforts feel inconsequential.  Too many children, schools in poor condition, no books, no laboratory equipment, no lunch, teacher and student absenteeism, rote instruction, corruption, ineffective government… I have to keep reminding myself that making a difference in the life of just one child is reason enough to go on tilting at the windmills.

South Africa

A trip to South Africa, and the regional Peace Corps Medical Office in Pretoria, was dictated by discovery of a tiny basal cell skin cancer on my forehead.  It was first removed in Kampala, but the lab work showed specimen margins not as “clean” as desired.  Any volunteer that has a problem  that cannot be handled in the host country gets “med-evac’d” to regional.  The work on my forehead was deemed suitable for a plastic surgeon, and there are few of those in Uganda (maybe even only one!).

The trip was 9 days.  Another world. White sheets, my own bathroom with hot shower, tasty breakfasts, an oven and complete kitchen, washing machine and dryer, pedicure, hair cut and color, real ice cream (every day), real supermarkets, highways, sushi, Thai restaurants, wine, lettuce, and other treats.  Also very strange - as if it was two countries, one first world, one third world.  The first world has everything, but the everything exists behind walls, electric fences, razor wire, and security guards.  I felt the ghosts of apartheid.

I also felt lion cubs!  With the other “walking wounded” (all PCVs staying at The Rose Guesthouse while recuperating from broken bones, infections, and surgeries) I travelled to a lion sanctuary about 1 ½ hours from Pretoria.  White (not albino) lions have all but disappeared in the wild.  The sanctuary has a program to breed them.  Feeding and playing with the three week-old cubs was amazing.  They are curious, playful, and sweet.  By nine weeks they are already too old to play with humans, as by then they have very sharp claws and are quite strong.  Still impossibly cute, but beginning to be dangerous.

The revision was successful,  the skin cancer is gone, and I was promptly sent back to Uganda.  Not all of the other PCVs were as lucky.  Jon, from Kenya, is recovering from a shoulder broken in a boat taxi collision, but cannot return to his site in Kenya because of the recent activity by Somali pirates.  All American government employees, including Peace Corps volunteers, have been evacuated from northeastern Kenya.  Jon is on his way back to New York.  Justine, from Malawi, is back in the states now for skin grafts and additional surgery for the multiple fractures in her foot.  Seth and Rebekah, however, have returned to Ethiopia and Madagascar, respectively.  The real highlight of South Africa was getting to know these PCVs from other countries, and to talk together about the challenges we face and the joys and frustrations of Peace Corps Service.

My own return to Uganda was a bit more difficult than expected.

It all began with a craving for good bread

Let’s start by describing Ugandan bread. Typical Ugandan bread is not delicious.  Think stale Wonder Bread.  For brown bread, think stale Wonder Bread with food coloring.  In Kampala there is one bakery called Brood (Dutch for bread) that makes excellent multigrain bread and croissants, baguettes and other goodies.  At least one trip to Brood is on the agenda for every trip to the capital.

Following my return from South Africa and before leaving Kampala  on the 7am bus for Soroti, my plan was to stop at Brood for bread.  I went there, but they had not opened at their advertised 6am. (And why did this surprise me?  This is Uganda, after all.  Time is an entirely different construct.)  I waited for a few minutes, but there was no sign of an imminent opening.   There was however, a lurking boda (motorcycle) driver who rode up on the sidewalk, flew by, and snatched my purse.

Now, I’m sure that boda-boda man was seeing dollar signs in his daydreams as he speed away.  I would have loved to be there and see his face when he realized that the small purse contained only a comb, pen, tissues, travel medication box, a copy of my medical report from South Africa, Peace Corps ID and a cheap phone.  Only the phone created a problem, but one that was resolved quickly.  Lesson number one:  the streets of Kampala are not safe, even at daybreak on a Sunday.  Lesson number two: a decoy bag works!

The thief didn’t get much, and this could have happened in any city in the world,  but the incident  just added to the shock of “re-entry”.  And I didn’t get my bread.   I was a very grouchy person on Sunday, October 2!


As always, the return to Uganda requires adjustment.  Adjusting from the beautiful room at The Rose to the shabby single at Kampala’s New City Annex.  Adjusting from food variety to restricted choices.  Adjusting from super highways to Ugandan public transport.  

After the purse snatching  and nine hours of bus travel, I arrived in Soroti in bad humor.  Then – slowly, slowly – I begin moving back into the flow of Soroti.  Familiar people.  Neighbors.  Friends.  My little house.  My turf.  The mood lifted.

However, there were still  more adjustments.  I now own a bicycle.  And I have learned how to negotiate  roads full of potholes,  puddles, and bumps.  (All while wearing a skirt, by the way.  That, my friends, qualifies as a skill.) During the two weeks I was away Soroti experienced heavy rains.  With every storm, the pattern of potholes, puddles, and bumps changes.  Over a couple of weeks the changes are substantial.  The result is a need to re-learn the bicycle routes to the office and to town.  It’s always important to know where you need to position yourself on the road for the driest and smoothest ride. You must learn “the line”.

Then there was the adjustment to on again/off again electrical power.  The power outages the first week back were:
                8pm Sunday to 5am Monday
                5pm to 6pm Monday
                7pm Tuesday to 4am Wednesday
                12:30am to 10am Thursday
                6:15pm to Midnight Thursday
                7pm Saturday to sometime Sunday morning.

Some outages are breakdowns or repairs.  But the regular (sort of), every other day evening outages are part of a rolling blackout.  The power companies say that the government owes them a lot of money.  The government says that the privatization of the electric utility has not resulted in promised cost reductions, has refused to pay the bills, and has an investigation underway. ( Launching an investigation, by the way, appears to be a common method of issue avoidance by this government. ) Meanwhile, the citizens of Uganda are dealing with rolling blackouts that the companies claim are required because they cannot afford to generate enough electricity when the government isn’t paying their bills .  And the citizens are not mad as hell.  I’m waiting for them to say that they are “mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore”.  But they don’t.

Independence Day

October 9 celebrated Uganda’s independence from Great Britain.  That occurred in 1962.  In the years since, Uganda has suffered civil war and Idi Amin.  Museveni and the NRE assumed power in 1985, and they have been in power since.  This government made some big accomplishments in the past, like immunization programs and universal education.  Today it feels as though progress has slowed.  Perhaps those in power now see retaining power, not development, as the primary goal.  And the people are not “rising up” because they prize the stability (i.e. absence of civil war) that years of NRM rule have provided.  Peace at any cost. 

The cost seems high, though.  A strain of passivity and resignation runs through the society.  Daily life for most is a struggle, perhaps they just have no time to be angry.  There is also fear, both of instability and of retribution.  Some of the passivity is also fueled by the donor culture.  The huge amounts of foreign aid, by both government and private sources (especially churches), accomplish some good,  but have also fostered in some the expectation that “someone will give it to me”.  Hardly a day passes that I don’t get a request for a handout, from children’s requests that I give them money or buy them a soda, to requests by mere acquaintances that I pay school fees for themselves or their children.  

Paraphrasing my friend Chelsea, Uganda will not be truly independent until they escape the donor trap, get rid of the “kleptocrats”, and empower themselves to change.  Meanwhile, hats off to the many Ugandans who struggle every day to feed and educate their children, and to those who choose “development” as  their passion and not just a paycheck.

Closing with an Inspiration

Because some of this post has a negative tone, I’ll close with a story that inspires hope.

I was invited to join a colleague at the graduation party for a young woman from a village in Serere.  It was a long drive to the truly remote settlement.  On the way, we picked up the guest of honor.  She was a recent nursing school graduate, and the first woman from her village to go beyond secondary school.  About a kilometer from our destination we were greeted by a crowd of women;  singing, dancing, waving flags, and throwing flowers in greeting.  The parade accompanied us all the way to the village!

The entire village was assembled for the event.  It was clear that her family was very proud of her accomplishment, and the community was proud too.  This may not seem remarkable to you, but when you understand that many villagers put a low value on educating their daughters, then you find it so.  There was a mass, with lovely traditional music and singing, and the obligatory speeches.  The father of the graduate, a most dignified and humble man, told his audience to educate their girl children.  The priest in his sermon did the same.  I was watching the girls and young women in the congregation.  They were beaming.  And their parents were nodding their heads.

This is the way real change will happen.  One child, one family, one village at a time. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Don't Hang Your Knickers on the Line

Don’t Hang Your Knickers on the Line, and other Housekeeping Tales


I’m rescued from the drudgery of hand washing most of my clothes because I hire help.  But the help doesn’t touch my underpants.  There is a strong prohibition in Ugandan culture against having another person wash your panties.   Those underpants also cannot be hung to dry outside where (gasp!) someone might see them.  Bras on the line are OK, but NEVER those panties.

So, somewhere in your home there must be a panty drying station.  Special racks, circular with clothespins attached, are popular.  Women hang them in the bathing room.  That is, if the bathing room is inside the house.  My special place is a clothesline in the spare bedroom.  The curtain for the bedroom window stays closed, of course, so that none of my neighbors risks the visual assault of Body by Victoria.

Why is this?  For the same reason that massive cleavage is acceptable, but your skirt must cover your knees. Different cultures, different attitudes about body parts.

Bat Encounters of the Third Kind

Returning home after dinner one evening, I heard noises coming from the rear of the house, and then detected an unidentified flying object crashing about in the bathroom.  Promptly stepping outside and closing the door to the house, I ran to the neighbors.  “Help, there’s something flying around in my house”.  Brave Aloysius confronted the creature and bludgeoned it with my broom.  That was bat number one.

Another evening, another dinner out.  Returning this time with three houseguests.  Open the door, turn on the light, and there in the hall leading from the sitting room to the kitchen sits a creature.  Not flying, but crawling slowly toward us.  Is it a toad?  No.  Bat number two.  Brave Bryan pushed it across the floor with the broom, and out the door.

Bat number three.  This time I’m alone, reading by headlamp in my bed.  There’s a rustling noise in the corner.  I ignore it.  It starts again.  Climbing out of my mosquito net and turning on the bedroom light, I anxiously scan the room.  And there it is, creeping along the floor.  No house guest to rescue me, and it’s too late to run next door.  Linda has to take care of this one herself.  OK – to the kitchen to grab a bucket and the broom.  The bucket for trapping the little bugger and the broom for self defense.  I return to the bedroom.  The bat has disappeared.  I look high and low, everywhere, at least four times.  Still no bat.  Gotta get back to sleep, I have an early morning bus to catch.   I leave the light on, get back in bed, and tuck the mosquito net in extra tight.  No bats in my bed, sister.  Spent the rest of the night sleeping, fitfully.  In the morning, the search for the critter resumes.  It doesn’t take long. There he sits in the middle of the kitchen.  Ever so quietly I fetch the bucket, tip toe into the kitchen, and bam! Down goes the bucket.  I have just trapped my first bat.  Look at me folks!  I just trapped a bat.  Then, slowly, slowly, the bucket is pushed toward the door, the door is opened, and with a good push the bucket shovels the little sucker into the backyard.  Brave me!


So, where exactly do you throw a dead bat?  Or trash?  Or garbage?  Or paper, plastic and glass? There is no trash collection in Uganda.  No garbage disposal.  No recycling bin.    When I stayed with a family during training, their trash went to a pile in the backyard that was forever burning.  Here in Eastern Uganda, you dig a pit in the yard.  Everything goes into the pit, it is burned to reduce its volume from time to time, and the pit is covered with dirt when it gets full.  Then you dig a new pit. 

One reason that that the yard doesn’t become a giant landfill is because people don’t generate trash the way we do in the USA.  Most food comes from the market, with no packaging.  Not much else is consumed.  There are no paper towels.  No Kleenex.  “Modern” life is catching up though – for example, storm drains in Kampala are often clogged with thousands of plastic water bottles.  The streets of most towns are littered with discarded bottles, wrappers, plastic bags and other assorted trash.  (Somehow, Soroti is not.) 

In my home, the garbage disposal is a bucket.  If I were ambitious, I would be composting, but I’m not.  The bucket is all about a) bug control and b) a place to scrape plates so that the sink doesn’t clog.  I miss paper towels, but have found 101 uses for toilet paper.  Rolls of toilet paper are my paper towels (to help scrape those plates), Kleenex, and, well, toilet paper.  Other trash goes in a plastic bag left over from my weekly marketing.  Recyclables are another story.  I am conditioned so that I can’t just throw them in the pit.  Plastic bottles are easy (and I don’t buy many) – a Peace Corps friend is attempting to construct a building from them.  Beer bottles go back to the store for return of the deposit.  Wine bottles and miscellaneous cans, however, are accumulating in the box that my refrigerator came in.  I wonder just what I think I’m going to do with them.  I’ll probably leave them behind, and the next resident of my house will surmise that the crazy muzungu had a drinking problem.


Slashing.  It’s not a genre of horror film.  It’s how Ugandans cut the grass.  Slashing is performed by hand, with a machete-like blade.  Swinging back and forth, it produces a distinctive sound – a sound that sometimes wakes me in the morning.  (Slashing is hard work, best done in the early morning or in the evening.)   Nice accompaniment to the roosters.  Swish, swish, cock-a-doodle-, wish, doo…

A few enterprising Ugandans have made a business of slashing compounds - usually at businesses, government offices or NGOs - with an updated technology.  The weed whacker.  Yes, the entire yard is mowed with a weed whacker.  One of the most annoying sounds in the universe.  Consider that the day they whack the CEREDO compound we get to hear it… all… day… long.

Other Yardwork

My house is a cement rectangle, surrounded by a concrete “veranda” three feet wide and about 6 inches off the ground.  Beyond the veranda there is bare dirt, 10 feet deep, all round.  The dirt is compacted and hard, except after a good rain.  Weeds and grass like to take hold, but the dirt MUST be kept clear of vegetation.  Every Ugandan home, mud hut or concrete, has this dirt “border”.  People not only weed it, they also sweep it.  You can imagine my surprise the first time I saw someone sweeping the dirt.  It may be dirt, but it’s clean dirt!  I think there is a practical purpose to it – bare dirt is not hospitable to snakes, toads, rats and other critters.  I’ll sweep anything if it means none of those guys in my house.  Bats, geckos, spiders, and the occasional cockroach are more than enough excitement.