Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Murchison Falls trip intro

Hello, again!

The short answer to "how was your weekend?" is that it was wonderful. Words can't do it justice and I don't think pictures can catch what it was like to be there. I hope this gives you a little sense of what it was like.

Obviously a lot happened. I've tried to whittle it down into reasonable chunks and to put it into chronological order, but there's still both a lot left out and a lot of detail! I hope you don't find it too tedious. Luckily for you, Blogger sets a limit of 5 photos per post, otherwise you'd be seeing a lot more warthogs.

Our Tour: the who and the how

Our group was small—ridiculously so, given the size of the vehicle we took. There were six of us on the tour (one only joined us while we were in Murchison Falls National Park itself) and four staff, all traveling in an overland vehicle that could take up a zip code. Given the state the vehicle was in at the end of our tour, I can’t imagine what it must be like when it’s full of people, but it did seem strange to have this enormous monster for so few of us. Apparently, the pop-top van was in the shop.
At least one person in each party had some reason to be in Uganda; the others were visiting the ones doing work here. One young woman, a recent Columbia grad, was working on an anti-malaria project before beginning a Masters degree in International Relations; another was working on a project for the World Bank. Simon Joseph (“Call me SiJo”), the young man who joined up with our part in Murchison Falls seems vaguely to be wandering around Uganda, getting involved in various things and then wandering off again. And then me, of course. It seems to me that the Uganda tourism industry is fairly dependent upon the Uganda aid industry.

People asked what I was doing, and I explained about Kiva. Then they would ask what I’m doing when I’m not working with Kiva. I’d say I am an Episcopal priest. The reactions were typically varied. One person quickly told me that he was Methodist. Another said, “I never would have guessed that.” They took it well, though.

Our crew were really great and an interesting mix. Courtney, the leader of the tour, sounded like an Aussie but grew up in Zimbabwe and had some interesting stories and insights into that country. Along with Courtney, Julius and Kirunda did yeomen’s duty. Julius helped me set up and break down my tent every day. (He’s not pictured here, unfortunately.)

Finally, there was Beki, the driver. You can imagine my confusion when I heard about “Becky,” and met this big, burly guy. I can’t imagine being a driver in Uganda, except that I imagine it would be exhausting! Even the good roads are loaded with ruts and potholes. As we left Kampala, we saw an 18-wheeler jackknifed next to the road, clearly having tried to avoid some pothole in front of it. Given the size of our vehicle, driving was a challenge (though easier in some ways), but Beki was simply amazing. Not exactly a smooth trip, but a reasonably comfortable one overall.

Day 1: Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary

Late afternoon on Friday, we arrived at the Ziwa Sanctuary, a 70 sq. km. compound where six white rhinos are being reintroduced to the wild in Uganda. Aside from these six, there are only two others at the zoo in Entebbe.

Three of us and a guide rode in the back of a pickup truck through swampy terrain (as the truck fishtailed around I thought, “Who is this person, doing such a crazy thing?) to see the six rhinos being watched by armed guards. At one point our guide pointed out a rhino footprint in the mud. As one of my fellow-travelers said, it was a very Jurassic Park moment, seeing this huge track in the mud.
We drove about 15 minutes to the place where the guards were watching the rhinos. The guards seemed very fond of the rhinos, knowing them each by name and gossiping about them. “Oh, Moji!” they would say as one of the rhinos grazed behind a tree. He was the dominant male, but none of the others liked him, they told us. “Nande!” they’d say of the big female, recently relocated there from DisneyWorld, of all places, as she glared at us and then wandered off. The guards spend a week at a time staying with the rhinos, reporting on their location via GPS and ensuring that poachers don’t get them.


To be honest, watching rhinos is a bit like watching very large cows grazing. Still impressive as all get-out, though.

Day 2: Chimp Trek

We arrived at Murchison Falls National Park around 8 in the morning and at the Budongo Forest a little before 9 for our Chimp Trek. We all had to stuff our pants into our socks, which looked ridiculous, but since the option was having ants crawl up our legs and bite us, we all complied. There were other rules as well: no flash photography, no spitting, no eating or drinking in front of the animals, and no one could go if we had a cold or cough.

Heading out, our ranger told us we might need to walk 5 km to get to where the chimps were, but we lucked out and saw our first chimp about a kilometer into the forest. Not that we would have seen it except that our guide said, “Chimp,” and we all turned around and there it was, crossing a grassy area in front of us. I have numerous pictures of this grassy area just after a chimp has walked through it, so I hope you will take my word for it that there were big black hairy things loping through this sunny grass while I watched; one is just behind and to the right of the big stump in this picture. Really.

The chimpanzees were much, much bigger than I thought they would be. I had “Bedtime for Bonzo” firmly in mind, but these wild ones were, at a guess, close to twice that size. We followed a group of chimps who were headed to a fruit tree and there saw as wide a range of chimp activity as I could imagine. A mother with a baby clinging to her. A female in heat. A male erecting (as our guide pointed out to us). A couple of chimps grooming. And as we watched the chimps grooming, less than a minute, our guide said, “Mating’s done,” which left all of us thinking “That was quick!” Then the chimps climbed to the ground on long vines and wandered off.

Unfortunately, none of the pictures came out very clearly; it was hard to see them even when I was right there and required fairly hard concentration to make out what was happening (with the exception of the erecting, which was pretty obvious). Mostly I just watched as best I could since it seemed a shame to miss what was actually in front of me for the sake of a blurry photo.

Again, our guide and another who joined us knew the animals by name. “I haven’t seen Jingo in a long time!” our guide told us, pointing out a male doing some grooming of another chimp in the tree, which you can vaguely make out in this photo.
When we got back, Courtney asked us if we’d seen any chimps. When we burbled about all we’d seen, Courtney told us we’d been very lucky; we were the first group she’d brought that had seen anything other than a single chimp. We were amazingly lucky.

Day 2: Lunch with warthogs

We stopped at the Red Chilli campground for lunch on Saturday (and also to use actual flush toilets. Our tour was very good that way, with plenty of rugged out-in-the-bush experiences followed by regular stops for some creature comforts, like toilets and running water). As we pulled into the campground, Courtney told us, “There’s a family of warthogs that lives on the grounds. You might see them around.”

I was beside myself. For those of you who don’t know, I have a thing for warthogs. And as we sat down for lunch, Courtney said, “Oh, there are the warthogs.” I turned around, and there they were! Two females and three warthoglets. The warthoglets look like Babe if Babe were cast to play Wolverine in the X-men movies. And they were all incredibly cute. I took a ridiculous number of pictures, as you will see because I will inflict many of them on you.

At one point a baboon wandered through the camp and the warthogs got all bent out of shape and wandered away. But then they came back. I was sitting on a picnic bench looking at one of the females standing right in front of me. She gave an aggrieved snort which startled me, but I got the message and moved back to the covered tables where I belonged.




Day 2: Game drive

After lunch, we took a small ferry across the Albert Nile to the north side where most of the game live (on the south side, most was poached during the 20 years of violence in the north of Uganda). Some hippos were right by the ferry, the first of many, many hippos I saw on the trip.
We got into the observation deck on the front of the vehicle for the game drive, seeing a lot of deer-like animals and water buffalo as well as the occasional distant giraffe. I love how the water buffalo just turn and look at you after you go past, with those marcelled wings of horns.

The sky was getting ominously dark all the while, and you can barely make out the rainbow in this picture of a giraffe.

Then DJ, our guide, said, “Lions.” I couldn’t see a thing. “You can see the black tips of their tails waving.” Nope. “Over there beneath the trees.” Not a thing. Fortunately, Beki drove off the road and we went right around them (though I feel mighty sorry for the lions themselves, dealing with us tourists all the time). What an incredible sight! Two lionesses with cubs eating up a water buffalo. And off under a nearby tree, a male lion who stared right at us with those enormous amber eyes. They were simply mesmerizing. Unbelievable.
And just after we drove around them all, it started to pour. We drove to our campsite as it rained and sat in the vehicle for about a half hour when it stopped. And that was the only rain we had on the trip. The timing simply couldn’t have been better. We set up tents out in the middle of nowhere and didn’t see any other people until the next morning. Fortunately, we didn't see any other large animals either.

Day 3: Morning game drive

Courtney woke us all up while it was still dark so we could get out and see the animals as the day was just starting. We went out for about 90 minutes and came back to have breakfast around the fire.

We hoped to see elephants, but our luck didn’t stretch to elephants on this trip. Given everything else we’d been able to see and do, I can’t say I feel too bad about it. Saw a couple of elephants waaaaaay in the distance and that would have to do.

We went back to the lions who had made good headway (so to speak) on the water buffalo. The tails of lionesses and cubs twitched irritably as we drove over to them again, and the lion stalked off with offended dignity. The lionesses roared at us, and that’s a scary sound, I tell you what. It’s one thing when it’s the MGM lion within the circle on the screen; it’s quite another thing when hunters who have already taken down a water buffalo are 10 feet in front of you.

The story of the morning was giraffes. They were everywhere. And so many of them. I could readily imagine that if you were a guide in the park, after a while you’d wonder why everyone was getting so excited about these animals. It’s like people coming to a park in Oakland and getting excited when they see the squirrels. Still, giraffes are just so cool, you know. They’ve got the cool walk going. I bet they’d look good in a leather jacket.

Day 3-4: Murchison Falls

After another lunch at Red Chilli (no warthogs, but a shower!), we took a boat up the Albert Nile to the base of Murchison Falls (named for the head of the Royal Geographic Society by someone cleverly trying to get in good with the big man, I’m thinking). Along the way we saw hordes of hippos (a group is called a school, we were told), a couple of crocodiles, and some wonderful weaver birds that build nests that look like Christmas ornaments in the trees.

The boat doesn’t get terribly close to the falls and we could only see them from a distance, but our group got off the boat and clambered up on some rocks where we met yet another guide who led us on a steep trail up to the top. I could tell my triathlon training was far behind me as I needed to stop and pant several times on the way up.

But it was so worth it! There’s a second branch to the falls that you can’t see from the boat, formed in 1962, the year of Ugandan independence. At the top, we could get close to the falls. No fences blocked the view. No crowds either. Including the six of our group, there were maybe a dozen people at the top of the falls.

We camped there at a site just past the falls, looking down at the water. With clear skies, the stars came out looking very unfamiliar in the southern setting. I went to bed early, still sweating, it felt, from the climb up the falls. There was an outhouse at the campsite, but I had to go from the tent down a hill and across a track to an outhouse that I had noted earlier contained a lot of spiders. My prayer before bed that night was that God would have mercy on me and keep me from needing to use the bathroom during the night. I am happy to report that God heard my plea.

In the morning, once again we were up before sunrise so we could leave the park before being charged for another day. As I sat eating my breakfast, a hippo climbed out on a rock in the middle of the river, then eased itself in again. Flocks of white egrets flew in formation in front of the green hills across the river. The sun rose right in front of us. And then we packed everything away and left.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Back from safari!

Hello, there! Just a quick note to let you know I had an absolutely fantastic time. I will be writing in greater detail in days to come, but here is a picture from perhaps THE highlight of my trip.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Heading off on safari!

You won't be hearing from me this weekend because I'm leaving tomorrow for a four-day safari up to Murchison Falls National Park. Rhinos and hippos and chimps--oh my! I'll have lots of photos when I return. In the meantime, here's a cheater photo from www.ugandatravelguide.com.

Trashy photos

My fascination with the trash continues unabated. Here are two pictures for your contemplation.

This first is a picture of a flock of marabou cranes gathered around a mysterious pile of trash bags in the middle of an open field just across the street from Garden City Mall, the only mall in Kampala, and an upscale sort of neighborhood generally. Why was this trash dumped here? And why is there no other trash around it? Also, aren't they wonderfully ugly? Kind of like warthogs; that's why I like 'em.

This second picture I took out my kitchen window. I was working at home yesterday afternoon when I heard Alex open the door and talk to a woman. I thought it might be my landlady, but it turned out to be these two women who came out to the back and sorted through the trash. I saw them pull out a glass bottle for one thing; for the rest I'm not sure what they gleaned. But it was an amazing moment in a pecular sort of way.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cleenton or Obama?

A Ugandan man reminded me yesterday morning that tomorrow is the Pennsylvania primaries. I'm glad someone around here is keeping up with international news.

If I get into any extended conversation with a local, inevitably I am asked, "Are you voting for Cleenton or Obama?" Never McCain. There's no particular dislike for Clinton here, as far as I can tell, but there's certainly great enthusiasm for Obama. Though the Provost of the Cathedral worried that he was "too liberal," one man, a total stranger who asked me this question as I sat next to him on a matatu, gave me five when I told him I had voted for Obama.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Fire at Budo Junior, and a pastoral response

I have no idea if the news reached the States about the absolutely horrific fire that happened last Monday at Budo Junior Primary School, a very exclusive boarding school here. Bay Area folks, think Head-Royce-type reputation, only more so. I'm not clear on the details, but no one seems to be. Was there arson? Possibly. Were the doors to the dorm locked so the girls couldn't get out? Probably. Were the security guards watching the football match? Very likely. Where was the matron? No one is sure. Did someone keep those trying to help get the girls out from entering the school grounds? Reportedly. And what happened to all the school fees, since teachers haven't been paid in six months? A very good question.

With all of this, though, the fact remains that 19 girls were burned to death in their dormitory last Monday night, all but one beyond recognition. They had to do DNA testing on the remains before releasing them to the parents. It's beyind horrible. One of the girls died after pulling out several others and going in for more. Another tried to get her twin sister to leave the dorm, but she refused, saying, "Let me sleep." Stories keep emerging along with a lot of opinions, but no real answers.

This morning at church (All Saints, Nakasero), the vicar had 20 roses for the girls who had been killed (was it 20 or just 19? That's another question). She invited anyone with a connection to Budo, or simply if they wished, to come forward and take a rose as she read a poem in memory of the girls who had died; then we all sang a song. It was devastating; certainly I was crying. I can't imagine how one could handle something like this any better.

Below, I am copying the poem the vicar read (and possibly wrote; there was no author), which is quite long, but I think worth sharing with you. Please pray for those who died in the fire at Budo Junior and for their families.

To all Budo Junior Parents who lost their children

I Lost My Child

I lost my child today
People came from far and wide
Horror stricken to weep and cry
As I just sat and stared, dry eyed
They struggled to find words to say
To make the pain go away
I walked away in disbelief
I lost my child today

I lost my child on Monday
People came and went away
Some still call some still stay
I wait to wake up from this dream
This can't be real I want to scream
Yet everything is locked inside
God help me I want to die
I lost my little one on Monday

Six days ago I lost my child
The anger rages like high tide
I sit and struggle all day long
To bear the pain so deep so strong
My friends do not know how to soothe
They say a prayer and share a psalm
But nothing seems to bring me calm
Last week I lost my child

20 daughters lost one by one
The joy, the laughter, the giggles, the fun
All lost in one raging horror
All I hear is blame, blame, blame
The song is the same, as is the fear
Questions, vengeance and pursuit for answers
How on earth can we keep the balance?

Can someone stop, can someone hear
The still small voice rising up through the anguish
Up through the gloom, up through the darkness
Listen, my child I am here
Do not be afraid I am near

We lost our precious child this week
From the heavens I bow down and weep
An act so vile, repugnant to the skies
My heart is wounded for every child

Yet all is not lost
For she is a precious gift to you
Lived not in vain

Even though there is still doubt and pain
Anger, fury, guilt and rage

For the time she was for you to hold
The love you shared more precious than gold
Stronger than death, longer than life
May it live on above the turmoil & strife

Her fatal and unfortunate end
Shall however
Never upstage her beautiful smile, her laughter
Her charm, her dreams, her passion, her life
The magnitude of who she was yet so young
Let her memory still live within me
And I shall cherish it till my time
And I hold no grudge for this treacherous crime

And so for the sake of her who brought great joy
Do not despair overcome by grief
For to die inside is a worse defeat
Peace choked by anger
Joy extinguished by grief
Her gift to us must not be lost
Let this instead, be your prayer
When doubts fill your mind

When fears assail
Father O Father quieten my soul
Be so real, present in my loss
Strengthen my faith, help me bear this cross
And Father please at the end of each day
Help me remember the love not the pain

Another sign I have never seen in the U.S.

This is just steps away from my apartment in Bukoto and gets updated each weekend, or whenever the football games are on. You can see at the bottom that they charge 500 shillings (that's what that /= means) to see the match.



Personally, I have decided on Chelsea as my team of choice. Manchester United and Arsenal seem to be the two huge powerhouse teams, but Chelsea is in the top 4 and likely to be in the finals. Might as well jump on the bandwagon with a team that's likely to do well--unlike FULHAM, the next-to-last in the league and therefore likely to be OUT of the Premier League at the end of the season. (I kind of like this system; the bottom three teams get dumped to a lower level, while the top three at the next level down can come up to Premier League.) FULHAM! It's like rooting for the Giants, for Pete's sake.

A sign I have never seen in the U.S.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Nakawa Market

Coming back from visiting borrowers in Bugolobi yesterday, the loan officer, whose name is Teopista, and I needed to change matatus in Nakawa. Teopista is a very serious woman, a single mother, who often seems almost severe in her mien. But when she asked if I wanted to see the market I thought I detected a glint in her eye. I accepted gladly and she led me into the melee that is Nakawa Market.

Wow, is what I have to say. Pictures really don’t capture it. I walked in through this part that looks like a junky flea market with lots of clothes, backpacks, toiletries, durable goods.

Teopista then took me to the vegetable market in the back, and that’s the part that blew my mind. Just the smell of it—a really wonderful wholesome smell of foodstuffs. Pyramids of tomatoes. Piles of greens. Bags of rice and beans. Mounds of fruits that I couldn’t even identify. I was so glad to have Teopista with me to tell me what some of them were. Popo, which looks like a cross between a football and a watermelon with an orange meat inside and a hollow center. Tamarind. Passion fruit—of several varieties. Citrus fruits that looked like large limes on the outside and oranges on the inside. I bought some tomatoes from a vendor who had allowed me to take her picture, as you see here. You can also see how they pile the tomatoes into little tomato cairns, which sold for 300/= per cairn.



Some vendors seem offended by the idea of being photographed. They're business people and not a tourist attraction after all, and so I was a bit skittish about asking or taking pictures without also offering some remuneration, but I did also take this picture of bags of spices, unidentified. I have no idea what the brown grounds are.


I bought some cauliflower, the first I’d seen in Kampala, from another man. Teopista had no idea what cauliflower was, so I was at least able to tell her something!

Lots of people calling out to me, “Mazungu!” but in that setting I didn’t feel bad about ignoring the calls. I would have liked to buy some rice there, maybe some peas, but Teopista was moving along and I didn’t feel right about being leisurely about all this.

We went through the open air fish market where a man was hacking away at a huge fish, a tuna, I’m guessing. There were lots of very tiny silver fish that I asked Teopista about; called matote, or something like that, piled high in bins and dried, scooped out with tin cups. Long eely fish that were placed on the block in a serpentine manner.

And then back through the hard goods again. Teopista said that on Saturdays, you can’t even move it’s so crowded at Nakawa Market. I can believe it. It was crowded enough today. I'm mighty grateful to Teopista for taking me. For one, I don't think I would have dared try it on my own. For another, all I would have seen were the cheap plastic items facing the street. I doubt I would have made it as far as the spectacle of the food market. I wondered at the time why Teopista was taking the trouble to show me this, but then, if the roles were reversed, I would do the same thing, showing something authentic to my home and yet spectacular. I feel very fortunate to be here in a role that gives me guides who aren't interested in me as a tourist but as a visitor or a guest.

From the recipe page of the Friday newspaper

I want you to know that the only reason I’m not making this is because it is Expressly Forbidden in Scripture (Lev. 17:10ff).

Blood in onions and tomatoes

Blood is rich in iron and protein. It is normally collected when an animal is slaughtered.

Ingredients

1 litre of blood
2 tomatoes
1 onion
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cooking oil
100-150 ml water

Preparation
Collect the blood and leave it to settle for at least 30 minutes.
Drain out the liquid plasma after the blood has solidified.
Put the blood in a saucepan.
Skin and cut tomatoes.
Chop the onions.
Heat the oil and fry the onions till tender and golden brown.
Add the tomatoes.
Add salt and curry powder.
Add blood.
Using a whisk or mingling stick, stir and beat to break the lump and avoid burning.
Add water and cook for 10 to 15 minutes.
Serve hot with any bread.

***
More seriously, though, what does this recipe say about people’s lives here? The main ingredient is “rich in iron and protein,” as the article says, and probably less expensive than meat. It’s something to get you through the day with a reasonable amount of nourishment, I imagine.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Football

I've decided I need a football team--Premier League, I mean, a.k.a. soccer. Every day as I walk to work I pass a chalkboard posting who's playing at what time (often odd times as we are at GMT+3). The football matches are on televisions wherever you go, and radios blare games with Luganda commentary (very odd when the only words that make sense are "Chelsea" and "Arsenal"). So I've decided to do some research and pick a team to follow. If you have recommendations, I would be glad to hear them. Otherwise, I will keep you posted.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Take 2

Yesterday was one of those days that by 2:00 I decided was never actually going to happen and I might as well give up and go home. I got to the office where there was no power. When the power came back, there was no internet connection. I was supposed to meet the loan officer at 10:00 to go visit borrowers and she arrived at noon. She didn't want to head out to our far distant destination without confirming that the center administrator had called them to let them know we were coming (since she has to pay her own transportation costs, this makes a lot of sense; no point in going for no reason). The center administrator hadn't arrived, the loan officer's phone needed charging (she had no power at home) and I was out of minutes so we couldn't call. When the center administrator arrived, we learned he hadn't called the borrowers' office. The loan officer and I rescheduled our visit for Friday and I called it a day.

One of the things Uganda is teaching me is how many things are simply out of my hands. A while back, Peter and I were going to visit the director of another MFI (microfinance institution) and got stuck in a jam (as they call it here). We were at a dead stop sitting in this matatu with our meeting starting in 10 minutes and I found myself thinking, "Oh well." Nothing I could do about it anyway. And we got there late where the man we were meeting was just finishing up with someone else and it was fine. But even if it wasn't, making the traffic go faster, turning on the power, connecting to the internet, arranging the loan officer's arrival, and so much else is out of my control. Nothing to do but do what I can and observe what's around me.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ndere Center


If you are ever in Kampala, I highly recommend that you attend a performance at the Ndere Center in Ntinda (www.ndere.com). A member of Life in Africa told me I should go, and I went, thinking it would be a little local thing. No, indeed. It was a drop-dead professional performance, something I could readily imagine at Zellerbach, held in this beautiful outdoor ampitheater with hills in the background (and as night fell, lightning flashing behind the hills).

Not only was it a beautiful setting, they served terrific food as well. Long tables were set up all around the ampitheater and discreet waiters came by to take our orders for drink and food, or you could go to the buffet if you wanted. I ordered fish and chips, not expecting that the fish would be served head, tail, scales and all. Delicious, and obviously fresh.

The Ndere Troupe performed for over three hours, featuring dances from all over Uganda, with different costumes for each. The picture below shows a dance in which the women started each with a single jar on her head. Then two jars. Then three. Then four...I really wish I could have a better picture to show you, but I think you get the idea.


They even had all of us mazungos dance. The troupe director invited people from each nationality down on the ampitheater floor. We shook hands with each other, and then we danced in a circle--well, jiggled, mostly. One of the troupe members pulled me to the middle of the circle on the ampitheater floor. All I can say is that I tried to pretend like there was no one watching, as the saying goes. It didn't work very well.

I wish to point out that the people from the UK steadfastly refused to come down for this part of the evening. Part of imperial privilege, perhaps? Or are they just smarter than the Aussies and the Americans?

Food prices

There's been a lot of talk in the news about the sharp rise in food prices which hit home last week when I went to buy my two fresh eggs for Sunday lunch. The woman at the stall right by my house from whom I buy produce all the time told me it was now 400 shillings instead of 300. I doubt that was because she suddenly thought she could ask me more. I asked if food prices were going up for her. She said, "All of them are going up." This could be bad.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Victory City Church

I did something yesterday that I haven't done in years and years: I brought a Bible to church.

Each Sunday I keep forgetting to do this and then feel, I don't know if the word is "stupid" so much as spiritually suspect when I have come to church and noticed that I was the only one without a book in my hands. It's not that I've seen everyone turning to the Bible passages referenced and so there's a way I think it's more of a proof of one's faith than an actual practical necessity. Still, I haven't seen any books in pews so a prayer book and Bible have their practical uses.

There weren't any pews at the Victory City Church, just stackable plastic chairs set in rows throughout the large hangar-like building. I asked Jesca, the head of Life in Africa's children's program who had brought me, if the church used to be a warehouse; no, it had been built for the church when the previous building became too small.

I'm not sure exactly what flavor of Christian I experienced; mostly it seemed LOUD! There was an hour of praise music, with two electric guitars, bass, drums, and a choir dressed in white shirts and trousers or skirts with some mighty impressive choreography. We Episcopalians may claim to have pew aerobics, but they are NOTHING compared to the leaping and shimmying I saw going on here.

The preacher, too, was LOUD. EVERYTHING NEEDED TO BE SHOUTED! He was also, remarkably, from San Diego, and how he got to Ntinda, I just don't know. He preached the first of a series called "Don't Count Me Out," about Bible characters who stage a comeback. His focus yesterday was Samson, a character I haven't heard preached about since I joined the Episcopal church. The preacher did his best to make Samson noble if misguided, but I think the truth is more that he was as dumb as a rock. And if I were preaching about Samson, I would say so. You know I would.

After an hour of praise music and an hour long sermon, I came home to have a very quiet afternoon. Though I found that holding my hands out as I would if I were saying the Eucharistic Prayer allowed me to feel prayerful rather than foolish in this more physically demonstrative service, I don't think I have the stamina to be part of Victory City Church. It's back to the Church of Uganda for me next week.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Learning to cook

I feel very proud of the cooking I have been doing here in my little kitchen in Kampala. I’ve always liked cooking, but I have also had tremendous resources to carry out food preparation: cookbooks, for one thing; ovens, microwaves, food processors, and any amount of kitchen equipment for another; a car to cart things from the grocery store for third; a huge refrigerator and freezer, with reliable electricity, for a fourth.

And if I were too tired to cook, there were any number of restaurants, take out places or, best of all, home delivery.

So it has been a revelation to me how much I could do with very little, using whatever is at hand and making it up. And then eating it anyway if it turns out to be terrible.

I’m feeling my way and adding gradually to my repertoire as well as to my kitchen. My kitchen came supplied with four sets of silverware and dishes, four mugs, four glasses, three serving bowls with glass lids, a dull knife, a carafe, three pots, one skillet, and two (small) strainers. As you learned earlier, I did buy a toaster which has been a wonderful thing. I bought a cereal bowl, a decent knife, two dishcloths (that double as potholders) and a potato peeler (most of the people here peel with knives, but I simply don’t have the facility, as I found trying to peel a couple of carrots and ending up with nubbins).

I also bought curry powder. This was huge. At home I have a vast array of spices that I keep around just in case I ever need, you know, marjoram. Because you never know. Here I started with salt and pepper and then branched out radically by adding the curry powder.

Curry powder is wonderful! I can pick up whatever vegetables happen to be at the vegetable stall on the way home, chop them up, sauté some onions in butter or oil, add the vegetables and any meat I may happen to have, add curry powder and some water, and simmer them until they are soft and cooked through, and serve it with rice. Voila! Healthy meal!

My other staples include spaghetti with a fresh tomato and onion sauce or sauce from a jar (often adding eggplant or another vegetable), or a pan-grilled meat with potatoes and some kind of vegetable. I also make a kind of sweet and sour pork dish using fresh pineapple, green pepper and onions. Tonight I am going to try dal, a kind of curried lentils, using a recipe I pulled from the internet.

Mostly it’s the making do part that has been important to me. If all I have is green beans and potatoes, then by gum, I’m having green beans and potatoes for dinner. I’m beginning to get a glimmer of the concept of “that’s all there is.”

I confess, I really miss cheese, though.

The help

The only previous experience I have had with hired help is the gardener my roommate employed to work in the yard back when I lived on Eastshore Drive in Alameda, in 2003. She found him, hired him, told him what to do, and paid him. I just paid half the bill. So I was completely unprepared for how to deal with Alex, the doorman, cleaner, and general factotum who comes with the apartment here. I found myself more than once wishing I had been brought up where one observes one’s parents behavior and maybe even gets a lecture or two on “The Proper Way to Handle the Servants.”

As it is, this is another circumstance in which I’m sure my Western awkwardness sticks out like a sore thumb and I only hope Alex makes allowances for me, reminding himself that I’m an ignorant mazungu.

I don’t really have anyone to ask about this. Lord knows the rest of the people I’m working with don’t live in the splendor that my residence provides. The only people I know who do have these kinds of accommodations are people like me: Kiva volunteers, new to the country and its ways.

Every day, Alex mops the floors of my apartment using a towel soaked in soapy water, bending at the waist to wipe off the floors (usually when I am reading Morning Prayer, which adds to the cognitive dissonance of the circumstances). He makes my bed (I used to do that, but he would just re-do it better, so now I leave it rumpled), changing the sheets twice a week—ironing them before he puts them on the bed. He washes off the counters and stovetop and takes out the trash. He tidies my bedside table and toiletries and lines up my shoes. And he used to wash the dishes except that I found myself re-washing them, since he washed them in cold water.

He is here seven days a week because someone has to be here to unlock the heavy metal door in the even heavier metal gate. He lets me in when I come home, saying, “Hello, madame, well come back, how are you?” and carries my groceries or parcels if I have any.

And he cleans my shoes. This one blew my mind. For my heavier shoes that I tend to wear when it’s muddy, he unlaces them, cleans the sides, and picks all the mud and dirt out of the treads. For my other dressier work shoes, he cleans the dust off the uppers and the dirt off the soles. They look almost as good as when I arrived.

And when I didn’t get around to ironing my clothing one night, he did that, too, the next morning.

All of this was quite marvelous, and then there was a new wrinkle. A couple of weeks ago as I was getting ready to leave with my driver (another phenomenon I don’t know how to interpret), Alex leaned in the window of the car and said, “Oh, Mami! I am so thirsty! Give me some money so I can get something to drink!” I gave him 500/=. The driver asked if he had done some extra task for me; that was right after he had done my ironing. James seemed to think that was reasonable, but I am at a point where I am completely unsure of my interpretation of these cultural interactions.

A few days later, Alex again said, “Oh, Mami! I am a very poor man! I need money for lunch today!” That time I gave him 1500/=, which is still less than $1, mind you, but enough for some food.

I must admit, I felt uncomfortable having Alex ask me for money. It seemed a little degrading for everyone concerned. I have no doubt he earns very little and goodness knows Alex makes my life much easier. But when he asks for money, I have no idea what is appropriate. Today I decided to offer extra payment in advance of him asking me for it. Before he left, I gave him 5000/= (about $3). He accepted it, it seemed to me, with an air of being slightly overwhelmed—but again, I am more aware than ever that what I see may not actually be what’s going on. “Oh, Mami! Thank you!” he said, tucking the bill into his pocket. I told him the place looked wonderful, which it did, and that I was very grateful for his work, which I am.

So who knows. I may be doing things completely wrong. I may be offering too much or too little. I may be offering money at the wrong time, or perhaps I shouldn’t offer it at all. I really couldn’t say. I’ll see in the coming days what the reaction is—if I can tell—and make adjustments accordingly.

Basics: English


English is the official language here in Uganda, as I think I’ve mentioned before. The strange thing about it, I realized, is that everyone learns the official language at school; to the best of my knowledge no one speaks it at home.

This means, of course, that English is a second language for absolutely everybody. The fluency seems to depend upon the amount of schooling a person has received, though I’m sure ability and other exposure play into it. Those from rural areas in general seem to have less English than those native to Kampala.

Although there certainly is an imperialist history to the use of English, I can also see how it would be a more neutral choice than any native language here. So far, I have encountered at least three ethnic groups with three different languages: the Buganda (for whom Uganda is named) who speak Luganda; the Acholi, from northern Uganda and southern Sudan, who speak Acholi, a Luo dialect; and folks from the West Nile region who speak an entirely different dialect of Luo. To make any one of those (or others I don’t know about) the official language might set that group up as superior. And then I suspect there would be real trouble.

I’ve been fascinated by the amount of interpretation required here. At the Bible study on Monday night, Joseline interpreted between English and Luganda—and not just for my benefit. At the meeting with the Life in Africa members, Grace needed to interpret into Acholi, not just for me, but for Peter who is from the West Nile and whose native language is not understood by the Acholi.

It is simply a peculiar thing to realize that everyone here speaks a foreign language because in some ways that is the best way to get along.

Promoting intercultural understanding

I was reading an inter-office email about how the lending program affected members’ lives and came across the acronym SOL repeated over and over. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was. Finally I broke down and asked Peter who explained it stood for “standard of living.” Ah, of course.

There was a taxi driver strike yesterday for matatus, bodabodas, and special hires to protest the crackdown on unlicensed drivers and mechanically impaired vehicles. This sounds like a grand idea to me, but the drivers claim that this is merely a pretext for extorting money from the drivers, which is possible. At any rate, all day yesterday we heard and saw vehicles going by with people hanging out the windows, yelling and waving—drivers and conductors showing their displeasure. Jesca and Peter both went home early since they needed to walk to get there. I was very glad I live nearby. As I explained to Ezra before I went home, if I had wanted to take a taxi I would have been SOL.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Headline news: Comprehensive Peace Agreement?

"Kony, Kony, Kony," I heard Ezra saying yesterday. I glanced over his shoulder and saw he was reading an article saying that Joseph Kony, head of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), once again has postponed signing a comprehensive peace agreement.

As I think I have mentioned before in this blog, there's been war in northern Uganda for over 20 years, and it has affected many of the people I'm working with. Many of them are from northern Uganda and are here because they were driven out by the conflict there. Some have lost family members. Some moved so their children wouldn't be abducted and forced to join Kony's army. All have been affected one way or another.

It is still hoped that Kony will sign today, and we shall see.

I know there's coverage in the NY Times, but here's a link to the latest from The Monitor, one of Uganda's two dailies, which is a bit more comprehensive:

http://allafrica.com/stories/200804101221.html

Keep Uganda in your thoughts and prayers today.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Basics: Trash

I have been very curious how they handle the trash here in Kampala. I have one trash can in my apartment, in the kitchen, about the size of an upended mailbox. Alex empties it every day, but what happens after that?

There's a lot of trash in the small field I walk through every day on my way to work, much of it organic in nature--banana peels and the like. Occasionally, someone burns it, as they were doing today. Not an open flame when I walked by; more of a smoldering smoky mass.

Similarly in the back area next door, which belongs to the restaurant downstairs, a pile of trash is occasionally burned. Also there is a marabou stork, carrion eater that it is, that picks through it.

But on Tuesday morning, I finally found out the first part of my question of where the trash goes after it leaves me. An open-bed truck was driving up the dirt road that runs in front of my house. Three men on the truck were piling up black plastic trash bags, about the size of a kitchen trash bag, that had been placed outside each residence. Near as I could tell, there was one bag per residence. Certainly a lot less than I see at home, which makes sense, since there's not a lot of prepackaged food around here.

What happens to the after the truck takes it away, I really couldn't tell you. I'm mighty curious, though.

A superficial understanding

On Monday night, I went over to Joselyn's for dinner. What I didn't know was that there was going to be a Bible study and prayer group. It was a very subdued group, with the exception of their time of praise singing, and I felt considerably out of place. I was aware of the fact that I was breaking rules I didn't know about and couldn't do anything to prevent it. For instance, each time someone would begin to speak, the dialogue with the group was prefaced by the speaker saying, "Praise God," and everyone responding "Amen." Understandably, this did not come naturally to me. But beyond this rather obvious example, I sensed that I was stumbling around in areas I did not understand.

This was only reinforced as I came home via matatu from Wandegeya. Every time I have taken the route from Bukoto to Wandegeya, it has cost 500/=. When I arrived at my stop, I handed the conductor a 500/= coin. "It's 800," he told me. I got a bit shirty about it, saying that every time I had gone that way before it was 500, etc., etc. Eventually, I did get out and give him another 100. He slammed the door and went on.

I called Joselyn to report I was home safely and complained about the matatu conductor trying to rip me off. "Eight hundred is right," she told me, with great cheerfulness and not a spot of blame. "They charge more at night." Making me feel like a big jerk for getting all bent out of shape over 22 cents. On the other hand, how was I to know?

I think the first flush of discovery is waning and I'm now at a point where I have to work harder for every bit I'm going to learn. And there's a lot to learn.

Basics: on cell phones

As I'm sure many of you already know, cell phones (mobiles) are everywhere here in Africa. On the Kiva Fellows blog, one of the Fellows in Tanzania pointed out that "cell phone service is better than in the U.S., but you can't get running water," which is about right.

In a place where electricity is sketchy or unavailable and people are very itinerant, cell phones are fantastic. And in a place where mail service is pretty much non-existent, it's all on a pay-as-you-go system. On every street practically every shop allows you to buy airtime minutes: 2,000/= for a small slip of paper with a scratch-off part that reveals a code you can enter to add more minutes. Receiving calls is free, though, so even if you are out of minutes, you can still get calls.

People don't answer phones here; they pick them. "He's not picking," is a refrain I have heard often, and may suggest that the receiver doesn't want to talk to you (as when you are trying to visit a borrower who is late paying back a loan).

I bought a cell phone soon after my arrival here, and it has been an amazing tool. Even relative strangers give out cell phone numbers freely, and entering that information into my contact directory has been the best way to keep track of who is who.

Important technical information!

I have now been here for four weeks and so I thought it was about time to talk to my folks. After some glitches, we did finally speak live and in person. Mom said that she had an important technical question to ask that someone had asked her. Namely: do I have a shower?

The answer is, yes I do and you can see it here. It's not walled or curtained off from the rest of the bathroom in any way. The switch you see on the wall on the right of the photo is the switch I turn on to heat the water for the shower (there's no other hot water in the apartment), so I even get hot showers! Quite a deal!

Water is still somewhat limited, so I turn the water off at the shower head to lather. Still, it's an incredible luxury and I know it. As is this whole apartment as I grow to realize that most families (of 6 or 8 or 10) live in a place about the size of my bedroom.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Donut update and African sounds

I brought something resembling donuts to the staff meeting today. The meeting started at noon yet again, but I was ready for it this time. I had brought a bag of something Peter told me were "half-cakes," a deep fried batter about the size of large donut holes, and laid them in the middle of the table. As each staff member entered the room where we held the meeting, they gave a little "Oh!"--not an American sounding "oh" at all. I can't describe it better except to say that it was a particularly African "oh."

Another African speech sound that I love is the "mmm" sound that seems to mean something like "I see," or one of those sounds of encouragement that people throw into conversation. I heard that a number of times during staff meeting as well. I find it very satisfying and utterly impossible to replicate.

Monday, April 7, 2008

More matatu mysteries revealed!

You remember when I went to the old taxi park and I was faced with the sea of matatus and I had no idea how people knew where which matatu was going? Well, I went again today (with Peter, who keeps introducing me to the mysteries of the matatu) and I saw...signs! Little red signs posted everywhere saying the neighborhood where the matatu is going. How did I not see them before?

What I'm actually doing, part 2

As I mentioned, I have been thinking what to share with you about my visits to Kiva clients. I decided to post a selection of some of the journal entries I have written for Kiva, with the understanding that since it is already published and publicly available on the web, it is not breaking any confidences. As you will see, there are some success stories and some sad ones, but either way, I feel exceedingly blessed to get to hear these stories first hand from the people who live them.

Journal: Jackie

God Cares Retail Store is open for business in a new location since Jackie first started it last summer. Originally, she opened her shop to sell small things like beans, sugar, soap and other small items in the Banda neighborhood near where she lives in her aunt’s house (along with so many other siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces she can’t count—probably between 20 and 30 people). However, she found that people in that neighborhood who lived in walled-off houses didn’t shop at the neighborhood stores, but instead went to supermarkets. Things were going very slowly and she had few customers. Things bought remained in stock for a long time, and it was very frustrating.

Two weeks ago, Jackie moved the store to the Acholi Quarters where many of the people find it much easier to go to a local store than to try to travel all the way to the supermarket. Now she is beginning to see some real profits.

The store is open seven days a week from 8 in the morning until 9 at night. Jackie works the store by herself except when she is sick or especially busy when her cousin Susan Apiyo fills in for her. [The picture shows Susan on the left and Jackie on the right.]

With the money from the store, Jackie supports her seven brothers and sisters, paying their school fees. She herself would like to go back to school to finish her secondary studies, which is her primary hope for the future.

Jackie thanks all of the lenders for the loan that has made her store possible and profitable!

Journal: Harriet

When Harriet received her loan, she used it to fund two businesses: stone quarrying and buying and selling tomatoes.

Harriet has had trouble in the past few months and is still working to pay off the last 25,000 shillings (about $15) of her loan to Life in Africa. She had a baby in November and needed an operation. In addition, her husband wanted her to give him the money and when she refused, he left the family seven months ago and gives them no support. Harriet and her three children needed to move into a new place with two rooms that costs 40,000 shillings a month.

After the operation, Harriet was not able to work in the quarry or take care of her business as she wanted. The business was OK, but she had to hire someone else to take care of it for her who did not bring Harriet the money as he was supposed to. There is not enough money to send her older children to school; they just stay at home.

She is feeling better now and would like to pay off the last of her loan so she can borrow more money. With a new loan, she wants to start selling charcoal and open up a small restaurant that would serve traditional African dishes: potatoes and mean, beans, and cassava.

Journal: Alex

Alex lives in a house he built himself from logs and mud in the Acholi quarters of Kampala. It has electricity from a pole, and water is purchased from a nearby tap. He is the father of six children, three of them in school. He owns goats and does construction work, and with the loan he received from Kiva, he purchased bundles of clothes to sell.

His brother helps in the business by manning the stall when Alex isn’t there. Alex says that transporting the goods from the Indian shops in Kampala town where he buys them to the place where they are sold can be a challenge. The fluctuation of fuel prices affects his profits, but he says, “I can see a profit,” even if the profits change from day to day.

His hope for the future is to become a wholesaler of clothes.

Journal on Doreen

Doreen continues to work in her cloth import business, buying colorful cloth called bitenge from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The bitenge come in bundles of 100 of 6 meter long pieces that can then be tailored into shirts, trousers, blouses, skirts, or even headbands for men, women or children. Doreen can make a profit of 20,000 Ugandan shillings (UGX) on 100 pieces, so business is profitable. She has brought in five bundles so far, and a boy sells them in front of a local hotel.

The business is going well, but personally she has had some setbacks. As reported in the last journal entry, her daughter has a paralyzed leg and needed an operation in September. The daughter is doing well, but needs to go to the hospital once a month for an examination. Also, a sister died in December and she had to travel to her village in northern Uganda at that time.

But despite these setbacks, things are going well. She and her husband, a police officer, continue to live in the government housing where they have lived for seven years. Profits she gets from the cloth business pay for school fees for her four children and two others, the children of friends for whom she is caring as well.

Exhibit A

I’m starting to feel like Barney, the big purple dinosaur, when I walk around here, based on the reaction of small children. My favorite was a couple of days ago with some little’uns from down my road came RUNNING over saying, “Mazungu! Mazungu!” I said to the girl, maybe 4, “How are you?” and she said, “Fine.” I said to the boy, “How are you?” and he said, “Fine,” and they both cracked up and ran away.

Behind me I could hear one of them saying “lugandaluganda Mazungu lugandalugandaluganda How are you lugandalugandaluganda Fine lugandaluganda How are you lugandalugandaluganda Fine lugandaluganda” gigglegigglegiggle.

Here is my very loose interpretation, which is probably the same as your own, since we know equal amounts of Luganda, except for those of you who know more than I do. “We went over to the mazungu and first she started talking to me and she said, ‘How are you?’ and I said ‘Fine’ and then she said to my brother ‘How are you?’ and he said ‘Fine.’ Can you believe it?” gigglegigglegiggle

I don’t know, that may be topped, though, by the time I was going home from the office after a day at work. The office is on the second floor of a building that has a restaurant on the first floor with a patio with square tables. I go out the back and down some stairs and then walk up the side and through the patio and up some stairs to leave. As I walked up the side and into the patio, a child, maybe two, sitting at a table with her older brother and her father, dropped the piece of pineapple she was holding, pointed, and shouted, MAZUNGU! I could just see her father cringe. But what can you do? I’m an exotic beast in these parts. It is a little like being at the zoo—being an inmate, that is.

Swaddling clothes

I have to admit, I love the way the women here strap infants to their backs. I hope that isn't patronizing, but I'm just fascinated by it. If it's a very small baby, all you will see is the soles of a couple of feet sticking out the side of a woman's body; as they get older you'll start to see legs and knees.

These two pictures were taken at the meeting I spoke of in the other post. I watched each woman as she bent over and piled a child on her back. Then she would take a towel or other rectangular cloth and tie first the top two corners together, tuck the lower half of the towel under the lower half of the child and tie that, too. It looked really cozy. I would worry that the towel would come untied and the child slip out, but then I've never had any practice.

Tales from the Office: An Important Meeting!

Life in Africa held an important meeting on Friday for its members up in the Acholi Quarters. Their children’s program was about to go under because people weren’t paying the weekly fee of 250 shillings (about 15 cents) for their children’s lunch that was included. So at the Tuesday staff meeting, Grace announced that they should have a meeting and talk about this important issue. They decided on Friday at 2:00. But the meeting was so important that they decided they should announce the meeting was at 1:00 so that everybody would be there by 2:00.

I asked if I should go, and they said sure. They were holding it at Alex Opoka’s place. I had been there before so I imagined I could find it again. (Now, don’t think you know where this story is going because you don’t!) On Friday, I went home for lunch and told Peter and Jessica, still laboring over their plans, that I would meet them there.

I left a little after 1 and took matatu #1 to Spear Motors, and then matatu #2 to the Banda stage. I walked through the marketplace and up the hill, across the railroad tracks and over the street, and up the further hill. It was about 10 minutes to 2 when I reached the Acholi Quarters, and by a decent memory and some luck I made it to Opoka’s place right at 2.

There was nobody there. Well, there was a girl and a small boy there. They knew nothing about a meeting. I called Peter; no answer. I called Grace and told her where I was. She said that she would tell them what to do. I wasn’t sure if this meant the girl or my colleagues. I handed the phone to the girl, but Grace had hung up.

At this point Alex Opoka came back. I told him that I was here for the meeting. He hadn’t heard about any meeting, but seemed agreeable about it. He started off to get more benches. Then Jessica called me and I told her where I was. She told me to go to the meeting place (a pavilion near where one first enters the Acholi Quarters). Alex came back with a bench and I told him what Jessica had said. Alex walked me over to the meeting place, he limping. I asked what happened. He said an animal like a leopard had come to get one of his pigs and as he was chasing it off, he had fallen. Yeah, don’t you hate that?

I got to the meeting place and sat down on a bench in the shade, feeling comfortable and quiet. At this point, a woman shows up wearing a Life in Africa T-shirt and says I need to go to Esther’s place. Oh, OK. So I follow this woman to Esther’s place. I go inside, where it’s very warm, and sit on a chair while two other women sit on mats on the floor and a small boy plays with a stuffed animal. They speak in Acholi and so I sit quietly, for the most part, sweating.

Eventually, Esther arrives. She’s an energetic woman who speaks fluent English and welcomes me to her home. She decides it’s too hot in the house for me and brings me out to sit in a more open shelter next door to the house, which is much better. I sit quietly in my chair, not sweating.

At about a quarter to 3, Peter arrives. He and Esther determine that Esther is going to bring me to the place where they are having the meeting. Peter leaves. Esther tells me she will take me to the meeting place…

…after she bathes. Which is very sensible, you know. If all you have is cold water, makes far more sense to bathe in the middle of the hot afternoon. So Esther gets a basin of water and her soap and her washcloth and troops off to wash. She comes back and goes into the house to dry off, and finally comes back and says OK. And so we leave for the meeting place.

We get there a little after three. It’s a classroom in the middle of a field, as you pictured here, and it is full of women, all making beads from slips of paper. Esther and I walk in and there is applause and ululation from the women assembled. Peter gets out his agenda. Now, at last, since the mazungu has finally arrived, they can get started. Those dang mazungus! They never show up on time!

[The other picture is of Peter and Grace, leading the meeting.]

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Ketchup and catching up

For those of you still holding on wondering where on earth the Heinz 57 ketchup for my fish and chips came from, the answer is...Egypt! So now you know.

I have had a busy couple of days and lots to report, but right now I am wiped out after a trip to the Acholi Quarters to see Life in Africa's children's program. It's hot and very sunny bright today, and the kids wanted me to take off my sunglasses (those exotic blue eyes got a huge reaction), so I have a headache and will be going home shortly. But I shall write a great deal soon, and then you'll be sorry!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

At the bank

As I mentioned in the last post, I came up to Ntinda to go to Stanbic Bank, the only bank that takes my ATM card. I withdrew 250,000/=, a little under $150, which should last me over the next couple of weeks unless I go crazy with the luxury items. Last week, I spent 60,000/= on a toaster--a huge indulgence, but I could think of no other way to make toast given the gas cooker that I have, and I had a hankering for toast! (I've been eating a lot of toast to make the expense worth it.)

The thing that hit me is that 250,000/= is the amount that many of the clients I am seeing borrowed to start their businesses, repaid over the course of 6, 8, 12 months. When you see all those zeroes, it seems so huge. It hadn't really occurred to me what a small amount that really is.

Matatu mysteries revealed!

On Monday, Peter and I went to visit a couple of clients, taking a matatu to a neighborhood new to me. As we stood in front of the Rise and Shine building, Peter let two matatus drive right by without signaling for them to stop. A third one came along and this one he flagged down.

There were no signs that I could tell indicating one matatu over another, and nothing showing a destination. There are no numbers or routes flashing on the front, that's for sure. So I asked Peter how he knew which one to take. Turns out, he told me, that the conductor, who sits by the door with head and arm out the window, indicates with his hand whether the matatu is going straight on or in a circular route (at least in the Bukoto neighborhood). So easy once you know!

Today I took a matatu to Ntinda to go to the bank and sat in the front seat, watching the conductor make his flapping roundabout gesture, obvious to all and sundry.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Tales from the Office: Staff Meeting

I learned that there would be a Life in Africa staff meeting Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. and asked if I could come. Peter, the center administrator, said sure! Was he wondering why someone would volunteer to come to a staff meeting?

On Tuesday I arrived at 9:30 or so so that I could check my email, a more arduous process than you might think. Luckily, one of the other staff members hadn't arrived and so the meeting didn't start at 10. Or at 10:30. Or at 11. Or 11:30. Or 12. Finally, a bit after 12, one of the staff members told me, "Meeting's starting," and I trooped into the office.

To my surprise, the meeting started with a prayer. Not to my surprise, the meeting required much discussion. It also required some concentration on my part not to lose focus what with the accents and the hunger. I thought I did fairly well, given how cranky I usually get by lunchtime.

At about 3, Grace, who coordinates the programs, said, "We should probably stop. Some of us are probably hungry." I think that was entirely for my benefit because as the meeting broke up, I asked if anyone was going to get some lunch. The six staff members just laughed and continued working and discussing business plans.

I have decided to introduce the American custom of donuts at staff meeting.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sunday at the tombs

One of the great sites in Kampala is the Kasubi tombs where the Buganda kings are buried, and so on Sunday in search of touristy adventure, I went.

It's not a very big place overall, about the size of a baseball field (to use a comparison comfortable to me), with a few huts in it. The largest is where the kings are buried behind a fig bark cloth hung from the ceiling in a place referred to as the forest. I had to wear the skirt you see for my individual tour, which was led by a young man named Nicholas.

I learned about the 52 pillars in the hut, representing the 52 clans of the Buganda; I learned about the table and two chairs sent by Queen Victoria which caused such an uproar when it was suggested that the king and "the" queen should sit in them, as the king had I can't remember how many wives. I saw the preserved remains of the leopard that had been the pet of King Mutasa (I believe), but had gone wild after his death.

Nicholas told me all of this, informed and placid, and as we approached the end of the tour he asked me what I did. I told him about Kiva and about microfinance and Nicholas became tremendously animated. "I make juice," he said, "And this is just the kind of thing I need!"

We sat down in the front office as I passed along the names of the MFIs that I knew about in Kampala, since Life in Africa isn't offering loans at this time. He gave me his phone number and email address and then took me on an entirely additional tour of the Islamic School right next to the tombs.

Nicholas sells some of his juice to the school and seems to me to be just the kind of person microfinance is around to serve: an entrepreneur with drive but not quite the capital he needs to do the job. He showed me some of the packets left lying around empty and introduced me to the headmaster who showed me around: boys dorm, girls dorm, classrooms, and the school building that used to be a mosque: the first mosque in Kampala.

This picture shows Nicholas, left, and the headmaster on the right standing in front of what used to be the mosque.

From the bulletin of St. Andrew's, Bukoto

A message from the vicar included the following paragraph:

‘If your pastor’s arms drop from exhaustion, God will judge you, not him because you weren’t there to strengthen him. Take a moment and let that sink in!”

Yeah! Remember that!

This suggests to me a priest who had a truly exhausting Holy Week. I’m not surprised to hear it. St. Andrew’s Bukoto, my neighborhood parish, has four services every Sunday morning, at 7:00, 8:30, 10:00, and 11:30, and since each one lasts 90 minutes, they go back to back to back without any sort of break. As far as I can tell, the vicar is the only full-time and regular priest, and the 8:30 service I attended—on low Sunday—must have had a minimum of 250 people in the congregation.

Take a moment and let THAT sink in.

The Acholi Quarters

I've been trying to figure out what to write about the visits I’ve been making to borrowers. I’m still trying to figure that out, but I’ll start by telling you about the Acholi Quarters where I have gone for a few of the visits.

The Acholi Quarters is an area of Kampala mostly inhabited by members of the Acholi tribe, people from northern Uganda and southern Sudan, many of them displaced by the war that has been going on in northern Uganda for the past 20 years (and God willing will end soon as Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has indicated that he will sign a peace agreement on April 5).

To get to the Acholi Quarters from the LiA office, Teopista (the loan officer) and I take a matatu through Ntinda to Spear Motors, a big transfer point, and then take another matatu to a stop about 1-2 miles further on. Then we walk through a marketplace consisting of stalls on either side of a dirt (or mud) track through a small valley (it can get very muddy) and up again, across the railroad tracks, across another paved road, and up a hill. That gets us to the Acholi Quarters.

From there, Teopista will ask someone to take us to the home of whomever we are visiting. The Acholi Quarters is a labyrinth, as far as I’m considered, densely populated with very small, usually one-room, houses. Houses have cement floors and often walls made from logs covered with red mud. Pigs are in pens; goats, chickens, cats and cows travel freely. Water comes from community taps, but many houses have electricity. The terrain is hilly and there are rock-lined ditches throughout the Acholi Quarters to aid in water runoff.

Quarrying is big business in the Acholi Quarters. I asked one of the borrowers why this area is so good for quarrying and she said, “God made it that way.” I also gather the rock is hard and good for construction, but at the moment much of quarry business is not possible due to the flooding of the rainy season.

It’s a tough place to live and the people who live here, I suspect, are always close to disaster. On our second visit, a day after some heavy rains, one of the borrowers told Teopista that a child had been killed by heavy waters on her (I think it was her) way to school.