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.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Holidays, A Baptism, Elections and a Visitor

"The Festive Season"

Christmas in the tropics? If not for the Christmas music on the radio and a few decorations in town, I would not have known that it was the season. The decorations are garish and tinseled, from China. There are Christmas trees (artificial), in hotels and in a few homes, and most of them are at least a little pathetic. Not the first time that I’ve observed Western customs adopted in their tackiest form. All of the pop music ever written for the holidays, but not much in the way of carols, was a constant. Even "I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas". That became a joke between me and the folks in my office. Each time it played, I was asked if I was "Dreaming of a Black Christmas."

Although the forces of commerce are trying hard, the idea of gift exchange just hasn’t taken hold. Christmas is about joining the family in the village and enjoying a Christmas feast. That feast, of course, is not much different than everyday fare. You might be more likely to have a chicken in the pot, but that’s about it. It’s also about going to church, and having new clothes to wear to the service. There are rumors that the lack of new Christmas clothes has been cause for divorce.

There are Ugandan Santas, in the familiar red suits and fake white beards. They are not, however, fat. Each Santa I saw was tall and very thin, with pants at least 6 inches too short. The black boots were usually missing from the costume, replaced by athletic shoes and, by one creative gentleman, with black dress shoes adorned in cotton balls.

My own holidays included a Christmas Eve bus ride to Kampala (all 8 hours of it), and celebrating with friends Shelley and Mari at the home of the Peace Corps’ program and training officer, Jan. We had hoped to have more of the "over 50" crowd with us, but were limited by travel restrictions and other complications. To bypass the Kampala taxi and bus parks we all exited our buses outside of the city proper and took private hires to Jan’s home. (More on travel restrictions later). It was a joy to cook in a real kitchen, revel in unlimited hot showers, and use a washing machine. (Persistent hand washing Ugandan-style leaves your clothing stiff and stained. In two days I washed one T-shirt four times before it was back to normal!).

The day after Christmas, Mari, Shelley and I departed for Jinja and a delightful little hotel called 2 Friends. For four days and nights we were "normal" Americans (not PCVs) on vacation – enjoying more hot water, a lovely pool, shopping, good talk, and reading. Not to mention a few decent glasses of wine. I returned to Soroti on New Year’s Eve Day, and must confess that the little house I had begun to find comfortable felt suddenly shabby and primitive. My New Year’s Eve was spent quietly at home. The neighbors were planning to attend a prayer service, and I passed on the invitation to join.

On New Year’s Day I traveled with my friend Charles to his village. His village is not where he lives, but where he was raised and where his family meets to celebrate the holidays. This concept of "my village" is an important one. You may never live there again, but there you will celebrate the "festive season", and it is where you will meet for funerals and be buried yourself when you die.

The New Year’s Day celebration was a gathering of relatives for talk and a meal. It was a bit awkward – there was a definite separation of the sexes, but as Charles’ guest I was served dinner with the men, and

seated with them for conversation later. To interact with the women I had to assert myself, and just go over and sit with them on their mats. Another custom that is awkward for me involves greetings – in more traditional settings like the village, girls and younger women will kneel to greet me. Older women may also do so, but will always kneel to adult men. I also experienced the "in-law taboo" in the village. Our host, Charles’ uncle, did not eat at the table with the rest of the men because his son-in-law was one of the guests. Apparently in-laws do not eat or sit in the same room together, even at family celebrations. (Are you wondering, like me, if this ultimately leads to more harmonious relations? For certain, there are no in-law jokes in this culture).

The evening ended with warm beers, and Ugandan Sherry. Warm soda is the alternative available for the warm beer. Obviously, there is no refrigeration in the village, so you drink it warm or not at all. At the top of my list for "You know you’ve been in Uganda for awhile when…" is "when you drink warm beer". There are photos from this day posted on Facebook.

After New Year’s Day, the holiday season was not over. For one thing, the Christmas music seemed to play until February. Then, the office was closed From December 18 until January 11. It’s a good thing I had the trip to Jinja planned, otherwise the boredom would have been unbearable. In its infinite wisdom, the Peace Corps demands that we take PTO if we leave our sites, even if our office is closed. The thought is that we should be integrating with our communities. Of course, all of my community was off to their villages, so Soroti was quite deserted and I was quite alone. The house got very clean, I finally got curtains made, and read a lot of books.

A Baptism

People are having a lot of babies in Uganda. At least 50% of the population is under 15, and the average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime is six or seven. This is actually a big improvement from a few years ago when the average was eleven! One wonders when the education system will collapse under the weight of all of these children, and what their quality of life will be as they compete for opportunity and the basics – food and water. I could go on, and on, about Uganda’s population explosion, but I won’t. My intention was to talk about a baptism.

I attended the ceremony for the child of one of my colleagues – the ceremony for his child and 64 others! It was an assembly line. The parents and Godparents lined the church aisle on both sides, and the priest with assistants made several trips down the aisle on one side and up the other, performing each of the many steps in the rite. The baptism, then the celebration of mass following, lasted for three hours.

The next scheduled event was lunch. But before lunch I traveled around Soroti with Grandmother Betty, collecting various parts of a sound system, some rice, and a few other things. Arriving at the village two hours later (now about 3pm), it was clear that lunch would not be coming soon. One warm soda, some chitchat, and three more hours later we ate "lunch". After the meal came the warm beer, some music, a few speeches (fortunately few, by Ugandan standards), and the ajon.

Ajon is the home brew of the Teso region, made from millet. It is enjoyed in the Ajon circle – a circle of people seated around a shared pot and drinking the ajon through a long (about six feet long) straw. Ajon is not only for special occasions. There are regular ajon circles, run almost like a club (they have a chairman) and meeting daily or weekly. The ajon circle is important to the regional culture. It’s a regular meeting where cultural practice and history, as well as advice, is passed from generation to generation. And, a relaxed environment where community issues might be discussed. Although my experience with circles is limited, I’ve observed that both men and women participate (but more men) and that no one in the circle seems to get drunk.

After a few sips of ajon, it was time to go home. At 11pm. The day began with my 9:30am walk to the church, and my expectation had been that I would be home before dark! Though exhausted, at the end of the day I was elated. My welcome at the event was complete, and as I also do when I visit Charles’ village, I felt embraced by my Ugandan family.

The parents of the baptized child, by the way, are not married. Each of them has another child with a different partner. There is no stigma attached to having children without marriage, which can seem odd in a culture where the Christian religion plays such a prominent role in public and private life. One thought of mine is that the expense of a traditional marriage is high. The traditional marriage involves an Introduction ceremony and payment by the groom of a substantial dowry. Dowry is in the form of cattle, goats, rice and other foodstuffs, household goods, and clothing – and is sometimes referred to as "bride price". The Introduction may or may not be followed (weeks, months or years later) by a church wedding.

For some Ugandans, the importance of the church wedding is beginning to overshadow the traditions of Introduction, and divorces do occur, but in the villages tradition prevails. Bride price is considered by some to be a major social problem. If the bride finds herself in an abusive or otherwise unhappy marriage, she can return to her parents’ home, but the husband will expect repayment of the dowry. The consequence is women trapped in marriages characterized by violence, alcoholism, polygamy, etc. And, by law, children "belong" to the father. If the child is less than seven years old, they stay with the mother, but from seven onward they go to the father’s household.

The good news is that the bride price issue, along with the practice of polygamy, is off and on the subject of public debate. In the past year or two bills to abolish the practices have been introduced, but not passed, in parliament. Gender balance and women’s rights are very much in the government, business, education, and social services agendas.


February and early March was election season in Uganda. The first was the Presidential and Parliamentary selection, then for about three weeks following there was a different local or regional election each week. (With each considered a public holiday, my office was closed a lot!) Election season is noisy. Other than the posters glued to every available surface, the most common form of campaigning involves a truck, a PA system, loud music and a cruise around town. There are rallies, and the ruling NRM party in particular is fond of trucking in large groups of cheering supporters in the party’s

yellow t-shirts. Early in the campaign I attended a Museveni rally, and heard His Excellency speak. (My Facebook friends may recognize this as the occasion that I saw a Ugandan in a "Vote for Pedro" t-shirt.) Not an impressive orator. But the man does rap (yup, a 70-something politician in a funny hat putting down some rhymes). It’s rumored that now that the election is over, the President is working on an album.

Museveni has been in power since 1986. Until 2006 Uganda had a single party political system. Today there are several opposition parties, but the NRM still has more power, more money, and more votes than any other. Some say that the money bought many of those votes. Others complain that the electoral process is controlled by an Electoral Commission appointed by the President, hence biased. Charges of intimidation fly about – special police were trained and uniformed for the elections. ( I did see an increased armed forces presence in and around Soroti during that time.) The President was re-elected by a large margin. But, even though the outcome of the election was never really in doubt, the elections, the candidates, and the political parties were the subject of intense debate over the lunch table at work.

There was some concern that the opposition would dispute the Presidential election results and violence would follow. There was also a concern that terrorists would attempt to disrupt the election process. Neither of these things, fortunately, occurred. There were a few small-scale protests and riots, but none of any real consequence. Here in Soroti, the election days were eerily quiet.

For almost the entire month of February, Peace Corps Volunteers were not permitted to travel away from their local residence/work because of concerns of election violence and terrorist activity. That restriction has been lifted, but one big restriction remains. Kampala is off-limits. It has been since just before Christmas. The Kampala restriction is (and been) less about elections and more about crime and terrorism. No Kampala means: a) I can’t replace the camera I broke; b) I can’t get a haircut from someone who knows "muzungu" hair; c) I can’t restock a supply of whole grain pasta; d) there is no chance I can see a movie in a theater; e) I can’t get to the US Embassy to renew my personal passport (I’m traveling now on a Peace Corps passport); and f) I don’t have access to the Peace Corps office book exchange (that one could be the hardest to take, long term). Although I do understand why this precaution is necessary, it is frustrating as hell.

A Visitor

Marty was here! And Soroti will never be the same. For half of his three-week visit Marty explored Soroti. He met more people in ten days than I have in five months. Everywhere I go, there are people who ask after Marty. He has friends in the Mosque, at the "supermarket" (in quotes because it is more like a corner shop than a supermarket), in my office, at the dairy, and random other places about town. I’m sure that if I went to Trends disco, all of the men he danced with would ask for him too. (Remember, people in the disco don’t dance as couples, but usually in same sex groups.)

For the first half of his visit we travelled – to Queen Elizabeth Park, Kibale Forest (for Chimp tracking), and Murchison Falls. It was grand! The trip, as well as Marty’s love affair with Soroti, is well documented in photos posted to Facebook, on his page and copied to my profile too.

Next stop, Amsterdam – in July we think. A good place for us to meet without one of us travelling for 24 hours (or more)! Eli has his tickets to arrive August 27 and stay for two weeks , so I have two summer events to look forward to. Planning for and anticipating these visits makes the 27 month commitment to the Peace Corps less daunting. The eighth month is already half over, and I’ll see Marty in four months and Eli in about five. Before you know it, I’ll be halfway there. Come visit!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Life in Uganda: Food, Transport, Meetings, Entertainment & Used Clothing


Neither variety, nor spice, is life here. In Ugandan homes and at lunches here at the CEREDO office, the menu doesn’t change much. Starch – rice, matoke (mashed green banana), or posho (made with maize flour, the consistency of hard mashed potatoes) – served with a beef stew or beans is the typical main course for lunch and dinner. Locally, atap, millet flour cooked with a little hot water, is more common than matoke. It looks like brown pizza dough, with the same consistency. Chicken, fish, goat and pork are available, but rarely served. A vegetable, always cabbage or greens, accompanies. It will be in sauce, often groundnut (close relative of the peanut), and cooked to within an inch of its life. The greens are generally bitter.

We also get "breakfast" at the office. Tea and bread with Blue Band (the local margarine) or maize on the cob or bananas or samosas. The samosa is one of India’s contributions to Ugandan cuisine – deep fried phyllo-like pastry filled with either peas or beef. Another breakfast delicacy is a donut- like clump of sweet fried bread. Not a whole grain in sight! My own breakfast at home is American all the way: peanut butter sandwiches, eggs, or French toast.

Street food is good. There is the rolex - fried egg, cabbage and tomato rolled in a chapatti. For the uninitiated, a chapatti is a round fried bread, somewhere between a tortilla and pita. Rolex will never mean wristwatch to me again! My other favorite is fish and chips. Soroti is near Lake Kyoga, so there is fresh fish every day. The street vendors fry the fish whole and serve it with chips (French fries). Excellent, and cheap. The fish and chips are the equivalent of less than $2 US. A rolex, about 50 cents. I’m wondering where my cholesterol will be after two years of all of this wonderful fried stuff.

The food that I cook at home is better. I have olive oil. Tomatoes, onions and garlic are plentiful. With those ingredients, I can cook anything! For main courses I stick to beans, lentils, rice, pasta and eggs. Just found some soya mince, but my first attempt at soya burgers was a failure. I’ll try again. Indian spices are readily available, and so is chili sauce. A nice change from the generally spice-less fare elsewhere. In addition to tomatoes and onions, there are green peppers, cabbage, carrots, green beans, and cauliflower (but it’s expensive). Recently I found a non-bitter green that tastes almost like spinach. I’m very lucky to have this variety. Soroti is a good-sized town. My friends out in the villages are less fortunate – tomatoes, onions and cabbage are about it.

Forget about lettuce. It’s available in some cooler areas of the country, but definitely not here. I also don’t cook meat or chicken at home. I’d have to kill and clean the chicken, and the birds are so skinny and tough it’s not worth the effort. (Even if they were tasty I don’t think I’d care to decapitate a bird). The meat hangs in the open air market, and I lose my appetite for it quickly. Fish is a possibility, it comes to the market fresh every afternoon. I just don’t cook it because it is so good and so inexpensive prepared on the street.

Another advantage to town life is restaurants. Don’t get too excited. Not much variety there either. But, I can get a grilled cheese sandwich, hamburger, or a reasonable imitation of a pizza if I have to have it. The restaurants have cheese, obviously, which I cannot buy. (I would treasure cans of parmesan cheese if you sent them!) The local "pork joints" serve up delicious chunks of pork, with potatoes, tomatoes and cabbage on the side. And the Friday night muchomo platter (grilled beef, chicken, pork, and goat) at the Soroti Hotel is a winner.

Of course, you can’t consider food without wine. There’s not much of it. A few drinkable and affordable (on a Peace Corps volunteer living allowance) bottles from South Africa and Italy. I found one great buy – a Montepulciano. Unfortunately I’ve already consumed every bottle in town. No fear, it’s not that I’m drinking so much, it’s just that there were only a few bottles on the shelves.

Obviously, I’m well-fed. A little lettuce-deprived, cheese hungry, and missing whole grains, but well fed. And thankful for it. As dry season progresses, through February and into March, the villagers dependent on their subsistence farming will have real limits to their diets. Never, ever, ever take the abundance we experience in the West for granted. Not the abundance, nor the transportation systems that bring you food from around the globe. Speaking of transportation…

There are good roads and bad roads. Some are paved. You drive on the left (if you can… pothole avoidance requires movement all over the road). The road system is limited, so for example, to get from Soroti to Kampala I need to travel east 100 km to Mbale, then 230 km west to Kampala. Sometimes I am the passenger in a private vehicle or a private hire taxi, more often in a minibus taxi or bus.

CEREDO has a vehicle, an extended cab pickup. Even though it’s not unusual to carry 5 or 6 passengers in the seats for 4, travelling in the truck is a treat. Usually a private hire is also relative luxury. (But, consider that I have been in a 5 passenger hatchback Toyota that carried 8 adults, 3 children, luggage, two large sacks of rice, a few chickens, and a bicycle).

Minibus taxis, also called matatus, travel within most larger town/cities and between towns and cities. They are limited by law to 15 passengers, but are more likely to carry 20 to 24. The matatus have names, in large and bright letters on the top of the front window. My favorite, seen in Kampala, is "Puff Daddy". Beware the back seat of a matatu if you have even the faintest hint of claustrophobia. The seats are hard, and once the taxi is in its usual state of overcrowdedness, it’s really difficult to change your position. One long matatu ride equals one stiff and aching body!

The bus is marginally better. A bit more comfortable and it doesn’t stop as much. I have developed a strategy for better bus comfort – sit in the seats of two, not three, across. Take the window – if the person who sits next to you smells you can keep your nose in the fresh air. Limit your luggage – one piece under your legs and the other on your lap (eliminates the worry that your luggage will be stolen from the overhead racks). Take advantage of every "short call", even if it’s in a sugar cane field. Avoid the skewers of mystery meat offered (through the bus windows) by vendors, but eat and drink something along the way (despite your fear of "holding it" for 3 or 4 hours) so you don’t get dehydrated and dizzy. And just accept the fact that there may be chickens under the seat beside you, sacks of rice or huge bags of charcoal in the aisle, and that you have to witnesses hoards of live chickens and some poor goats with legs tied together stuffed into the bins under the bus.

Travel requires patience. The taxi or the bus doesn’t really have a schedule, they’ll just leave when they are full (or over full, as the case may be). You may have to sit and wait for awhile. Travel also requires the ability to deal with the unexpected. Case in point, my trip to Lira to meet my friend Mari and go on to Gulu. From Soriti, I boarded the matatu bound for Lira. We proceeded to drive around Soroti for another 45 minutes looking for passengers. On the way to Lira there was a flat tire. Once in Lira, Mari and I took a private hire that promised to get us to Gulu for the same fare as the bus. Along the way we picked up more passengers (for a total of 7 in 4 seats), and, of course chickens. About halfway to Gulu, in Kamdini Corners, the taxi decided that they would go no further. Fortunately, they did find us alternate transport – in the backseat of the Landrover driven by a nice couple from Entebbe, on their way to Gulu for a wedding. On the return trip, we were once again booted in Kamdini corners – this time from a matatu to a private hire taxi – the one mentioned above with 8 adults, 3 children, etc. Patience, flexibility, adaptability… you all know that I have not always been a patient person. I’m learning.

Locally, people depend upon bicycle taxis and motorcycle taxis, both referred to as bodas. The bicycle has a padded platform over the back wheel. It will take you a moderate distance for the equivalent of about 25 cents US. Motorcycles are more expensive, about 50 cents for the same trip. Women in skirts usually ride side saddle on both – it looks difficult. Peace Corps policy says no motorcycles (in urban areas they are quite dangerous) and asks that we wear our bicycle helmets on the bikes. So, as the good rule-follower that I am I have no personal experience to relate...
I do, however have a lot of personal experience to relate about meetings.

When you arrive at someone’s office, your first duty is signing the Visitor’s Book. Even for a brief courtesy call, even if the person is not there, you MUST sign the Visitor’s Book. It is a very important book. I just haven’t figured out why.

A scheduled meeting may turn out to be cancelled when you arrive at the meeting place (but you still have to sign the Visitors Book). Common reasons: "he went to a burial", "he has a touch of malaria", "there is a sick family member". No one calls to let you know that your meeting is cancelled. You just show up and find out.

Meetings also start chronically late. If scheduled for 10am, a quorum might arrive by noon. Then you have to have lunch at 1 or 2, so a three or four hour meeting takes all day. Granted, transportation from outlying districts can be unpredictable, so some late coming is expected, but this is a chronic (and for me annoying) occurrence.

Attitudes about time are just different. To this American (and, I assume, most others), a late arrival shows a lack of respect for the time and schedules of other people. Both getting used to time-related behavior and making culturally-sensitive efforts to change it are a big challenge at work. I’m still working on strategies to do it. In the meantime, I rely on practicing the virtue of patience and keeping something to read on my person at all times.

Reading, by the way, is my most important form of entertainment.

God bless my Nook. I read a lot, even when I’m busy at least a book a week. Without the miracle of my electronic book reader I would be suffering. There is no bookstore in Soroti. Even if there were, books in Uganda are quite expensive. There is a book exchange at the Peace Corps headquarters and there are bookstores in Kampala, but that’s six hours away, and travel to Kampala is currently restricted because of concerns over crime, possible election violence , and terrorism threats. I came to Uganda in August with 87 titles, and have read 14 of them, plus a half dozen or so books that I’ve borrowed from other volunteers. Don’t be surprised if I am begging for books in a few months.

I have a media player on my computer and an external DVD drive, so I’ve been able to enjoy movies copied from other volunteers and some DVDs that are circulating. Watching a movie is a nice slice of "normal". There is no movie theater in Soroti, and Kampala is the only place that I’ve seen one. Enough people have televisions and DVD players that there is a brisk market in obviously bootleg DVDs. They sell for $1 or $2 US. Action films are popular, most from America but also some from China.

Television is in some homes (there’s one in my neighborhood), but not in mine. If I need a TV fix I can go to any number of bars or restaurants to watch. Most Ugandans get their TV in public places. Football (soccer) is popular, but so are Ugandan, Nigerian, and Kenyan soap operas; Hidden Passions (the Mexican soap dubbed in English) and a number of shows from the US. They show past seasons of American Idol, Grey’s Anatomy, Everybody Hates Chris, and Desperate Housewives ( that’s just the Wednesday night line up on NTV!).

I’ve passed a few evenings just chatting with the neighbors, especially Father Ajaret. Father is recovering (quite well I should add) from a stroke. Who would have thought that one of my best Ugandan friends would be a Catholic priest?

Music is a mixed bag. From the radio and in bars or clubs you might hear African, Jamaican, or American popular music. Everyone knows JayZ, L’il Wayne, Rhianna (I know I didn’t spell that right, but you know who I mean), Eminem, Shakira, etc. But they also know, and love, Celine Dionne and Kenny Rogers. Go figure.

T-shirts with musicians are "in", which brings me to another topic…

I saw a 10 year-old in an Eminem t-shirt at the Kumi bus stop. As you Facebook users know from my posts, I’ve also seen "Vote for Pedro" (at a Museveni presidential election rally – at the same rally there was a woman in a pick satin slip dress), "Keep Austin Weird", "Ian’s Bar Mitzvah", and "Genius by Birth, Slacker by Choice". Now, have you figured out where those clothes you donate to charity end up? Most of them are sold in bulk to brokers who bring them here, and offer them for sale. The used clothing market is booming. Shoes too. I fully expect to see at least one article of clothing and one pair of shoes that I donated in the States on a person or in the market before I leave Africa. (Those who know me well understand that a lot of shoes have passed through my closet, so the probability of seeing a pair is higher than you would think).
More to Come

My plan for future posts includes the topics of the donor culture, Ugandan English, housekeeping, gender roles, farming, and shopping. Of course, you will also endure a narrative on the safari Marty and I start on January 23. I’m off to a Peace Corps training session January 13 through 21, and Marty arrives on the 22nd.  As you can image, I have been counting the days until his arrival
for a long time. For the first 10 days of his visit we’re heading to Queen Elizabeth Park, Kibale Forest (for Chimp tracking), and Murchison Falls. Look to Facebook for the typical safari photos –
elephants, hippos, antelope and if we’re lucky, giraffes and lions. Until then. (Did you notice that I wrote more about Food than any other topic? You can see my priorities!)