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!)