Saturday, May 30, 2009

Microfinance Tour

Exciting times around here. We're leaving tomorrow morning for a tour of microfinance projects in the Southwest with the Business School in Kampala. It just so happens that the Southwest is ALSO alledgedly one of the more scenic regions of an already quite scenic country, so clearly we're looking forward to that.

As an added bonus, it sounds like we will be joining a school from somewhere in the midwest for the tour, so we get to hang around with a bunch of Americans. Should be fun, as long as they don't bring any of that swine flu along for the ride. We may even briefly get to play the role of grizzled, experienced field workers. On that note, we spent last night at the same hostel in Kampala that we were staying in when we first got to the country. This time around, we're much less surprised/terrified by cockroaches, lizard attacks, monkey fights, etc. The experience was almost like going back to visit your elementary school after getting grown, where everything looks just a bit smaller, duller and less intimidating than you'd remembered it.

In other news, our visas are about to expire, meaning that (a) we've been here for three months now, and (b) we have a solid excuse to make a quick trip out of the country to renew that visa. Kigali anyone? Why not.

Ooooh. And we ate some fried grasshopper today at the beach. How worldly did I feel when I could say that it tasted just like ants without batting an eye. And when our Ugandan buddies were impressed and grossed out that we ate ants? All I can say is solid work, Field Directors Philips.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Psychologist's Chair- Our Web Presense

So the weird dreams came back with a vengeance last night:

It's game day for Oregon Ducks basketball. I'm at Mac court and people are streaming by.
(Home Sweet Home)

I run into some lady that apparently has a job I want. So we sit down at a plastic table and chairs (a restaurant/bar standard in Uganda) in front of the ticket window. We are talking about this and that, job interview stuff and Pat walks up. We call to him but he's like sleep walking or something because he's dead to the world. He comes up and places a stack of 3 project description documents on the table (this is something we do at every meeting). She picks them up and looks at them: "What are these?"

Document 1: The first is titled something like "What's important to us." There a bunch of chicken scratch and halfway down there is a subheading that says "Crumpled Peanut Sandwich." At this point Pat reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wadded up peanutbutter sandwich and splats it onto the table.

Document 2: Is a more or less normal document except every like 5th or so letter is blanked out with Whiteout.
Pat: "This one is a work in progress, do you see anything missing?"
Her: "yea, there are all these letters missing."
Pat: "What? No, there's no date at the top."

Document 3: About the same except there's a website at the bottom. She says "What's this URL at the bottom?" Pat responds: "Oh, that's my personal website."


I, no joke, laughed myself awake.

Friday, May 22, 2009

brotherly love

We have moved into our house and we are approaching a sense of normalcy now. Not a moment too soon, that's for sure. We're finally getting into a normal routine, even drinking coffee every morning. It's nothing fancy, really just cowboy coffee brewed in a pot of water. But it's legit, non-instant coffee, and it makes a big difference when you're cooped up with the same stinking deadbeat brother for weeks on end. No mango tree unfortunately, but Luke is back to his routine of sitting in the early morning sun until it gets too hot to bear and retreating inside. That African sun is no joke, let me tell you.

Our house also has a family living in the back quarters for now, which has been fun because it means we have some kiddies to play with. It's less fun when they start running around the back yard yelling and playing at 6 in the morning, but you take the good with the bad.

(What you Africans call Football)

(What we Americans call football)

We do a lot of reading around here. Something about the combination of (a) no TV, (b) no decent bars and (c) a "flexible working environment." Luke is reading Sometimes a Great Notion right now, and starting to talk like an ignorant, half-witted lumberjack. I am working through East of Eden, which will provide a closing quote that captures our current situation well:
When two men live together they usually maintain a kind of shabby neatness out of incipient rage at each other. Two men alone are constantly on the verge of fighting, and they know it. Adam Trask had not been home long before the tensions began to build up. The bothers saw too much of each other and not enough of anyone else.
Let's just say it's a good thing those kiddies are around. Something about these little kids playing together takes all the fun out of my fantasies of violence.

(See what I mean?)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Village Visit

Last weekend we went up into the mountains with our SACCO friends to see if the bamboo had made it to market yet. It hadn't really, at least not in the quantity they were looking for, but we did get to see market day up on the slopes of Mount Elgon. Check it out:

Other than that, it's just been more of the same. We've been focusing on trying to bring our house "up to code" (we have a gas cooker that doesn't cook, a hot water heater that doesn't heat and a shower with no pressure. And the toilet sometimes refuses to flush) and haven't done too much work lately, but we made some appointments this morning to get back in action. Also, we have a meeting with a local university hopefully this afternoon, which promises to be fruitful and productive (fingers crossed).

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mbugs in my sandwich

You don't want to play the weird foods game with me. Not now. You don't stand a chance. I traveled in Africa, I've seen some things.

Plates are always covered here, I guess it's probably either for suspense or to keep the bugs out. Opening your plate is a major event, because you never know what will be in there that you never thought to eat. Not because Ugandans eat weird food, but because they eat different food. As much as I think things I'm served are strange, the same goes the other way. Nutella is seen as bizarre and spicy food borderline dangerous. Our friend saw a package of pasta, and demanded an in-depth explanation of how, and why, we eat that bag of pointy ends. I'm now at the point, by the way, where I speak for my entire race as if its no big deal. I'll say "pasta is like matooke for white people." Meaning a major starch staple of our diet that's welcome anytime.

We went over to the house of the woman who's SACCO we are working with to help her pound g-nuts (like p-nuts) into butter. We're working away and she starts talking about how with the weather last night there were lots of ants flying around into the lights. Ok, sure. One thing you can always count on is weather and bugs.

Later she says that she made us lunch, another thing you can always count on is African hospitality. We go inside and there's no lights, because as per usual, the power is out. No problem, we can eat in the dark. We sit down and there's two plates on the table, covered as always. So I joke to Pat, cause I'm a funny guy and all: "God, I hope there's beans and rice under here. But will it actually be?" Haha, yea. I open it up to a delicious spread: bread with g-nut paste, avocado, pawpaw (papaya), and a mystery pile. There weren't any lights, so we couldn't be too sure, but it looked like a big pile of bugs. Oh, right ants. Roasted white ants is a delicacy around here. They're the big ones with the long wings that fly around all dumb at night. Big fellers, like the size of Mike and Ikes. Not just a few either, but like a USDA food pyramid serving of protein. As long as you didn't think about it, they were actually pretty tasty. Kind of nutty (Austin Powers) and crispitty-crunchity. I made a little sandwich. Clean Plate Club of course.

(Except ours were toasted)

Move over jelly, most-hated-peanutbutter has a new best friend.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Making Progress, Slowly by Slowly

Sorry for another break in the posting. We are in the process of moving into our new house, so we've been out in the 'burbs supervising the various repairs. But it's starting to come together. We had a nice home-cooked meal of rice and beans last night, complete with the obligatory avocado. Tonight, it's pasta. Luke is giddy like a schoolgirl at just the thought of some good ol' white folk eatin'.

The past week has actually been amazingly productive. We met with a local SACCO, a type of informal-ish credit institution. Basically, there are a bunch of members who pay in some small sum, then take turns borrowing a larger portion of the group funds. The one that we have partnered with focuses on vulnerable women and children, and is actually based out in our neighborhood. It's looking much more promising than trying to work with the larger microfinance institutions, if only because there is much less bureaucratic nonsense to work through. Plus, we may have more to offer the members, who seem relatively less educated, affluent, etc. than microfinance borrowers.

But yeah. This past week we have spent a lot of time with the chairwomen, who makes various packaged food items. We learned how to prepare malewa (bamboo), to roast and grind g-nuts (like peanuts), to wash and prepare simsim (sesame seeds). We also got a chance to meet some of the members as we try to fill out our house. We met the nice lady that sells bed-sheets already, and we're still waiting to meet the lady that sells the Obama calendars and tapestries, but based on the other shops in town, I have no doubt that she's there.

(Anybody got a Rocket Stove?)

We are also starting to notice some sweet Ugandan idioms popping up in our everyday speech. Some are fun and logical (like the title), whereas others are just confusing. For example, sometimes "where are you from?" actually means "where have you been?" I guess that is also fun and logical. Whatevs.

At this point, the name of the game is to buckle down and get to work. The first bunch of students are coming in about six weeks, and we are determined to have some fun and rewarding activities for them to do, other than sit in the backyard and get a sunburn. After meeting with this SACCO, that's starting to look like a real possibility. We are supposed to go on a tour of microfinance projects in southern Uganda with some colleagues from the big city in the first week of June, so we're hustling to get enough done to be able to go on as much of the tour as possible.

Other than that, it's just more of the same- casual good times and unexpected terrors. Luke is in the process of crafting a post describing some of our recent adventures, but we thought it would be good to throw in an organizational development post in as well, since we actually have something to report (for the first time).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A word on the roads...

As we have mentioned, the roads in Northern Uganda weren't the best. I've been lazy lately and haven't posted this, so here goes. I was going to make a little poetry reference, but like I said I'm lazy. I think you all can piece together on your own where I would have gone with this.

I came to a fork in the road.

Obviously there is a good choice and a bad choice here. One is a road, the other is not. Roads are for driving, driving is for roads. This should be a no-brainer. Of course of course of course there should be no question in anybody's mind which we ended up on.

This is pretty much par for the course, just a small hitch in an otherwise fully functional road. Hopefully by the next time we travel up there, the new road will be finished. That would shave off a good couple hours from our journey from Mbale to Lira.

Oh, and a little math for your minds:

1 km = .6 Miles

Mbale to Lira =250km
x .6 =150 miles

Mbale to Lira = 6 hours by bus

250km/ 6 hours = 41 km/hour
x .6 = an average speed of...

24.6 miles per hour

*Disclaimer: for theatrical purposes I didn't discount the time we were stationary, which was significant.

Buses in Uganda are fun though, once you get past all the sitting and roasting in the sun. When on good roads, you are flying along the countryside way above everything else. There aren't a ton of other cars on the road between towns, maybe one every couple minutes. You pass through tons of little villages which are cool, because that's where the really real life occurs. I wish we could take a picture of that, but it just seems like a little bit bad mojo since its just people trying to go about their own normal lives. The big question in my mind was whether there would be livestock in the bus, because that's just kind of the image I had of buses in Africa. I'm not sure whether I was more afraid of being right- and therefore listening to a rooster pacing up and down the aisle cockadoodledooing for 6 hours, or being wrong- and by implication a racist and bad anthropologist. There was in fact an occasional chicken, pretty complacent. No big deal.

The best part though is when the buses stop in the towns: a zillion vendors swarm the bus to sell you drinks and food through the window. Not food as in Doritos, but food as in live chickens and meats on sticks. I remember some movie where they're talking about how there's not enough meats on sticks, clearly they hadn't been to Africa. At some point the driver decides he's ready to go, and you're gone. It doesn't matter if you're mid transaction or out in the bush makin' business, that bus is leaving.

The only real problem is that Ugandan buses aren't really made for American bodies. We're just too big. Our Mr. Atlas shoulders needed a seat of their own.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Good times

Because we are nothing if not fair and balanced, I'm going to whine about some things that went wrong the other day. Also, Luke gave me the beating of a lifetime playing Gin, which never gets old.

1. As some of you may know, the NBA playoffs are in full swing right now. Given that we are decidedly not in basketball country, we've given up trying to follow with any regularity. However, there are maybe two or three games a week that make it on the South Africa satellite feed. Amazingly, there were games on Saturday and Sunday, so even though that is prime soccer time in these parts, we had double the odds of catching a game. One we had to miss for official business (seriously, we are really starting to make real progress), but we were all set to watch the other.

Except that the power was out and there were big soccer games. But that is relatively common, so we had a contingency plan. A small place, with a generator, that the soccer hoards only frequent for the biggest of games. We show up, the TV is on and there is no crowd. Golden. Then we go to change the channel and find out that they forgot to pay the bill. Not to worry though, the payment will process before the big Manchester Derby that night (Man U. vs Man City). It's only out for the next three hours. Right when the basketball game is on. But for some reason, CCTV (straight out of the Chinese Ministry of Truth) comes in loud and clear. Whatever. Just brush it off and keep moving.

2. We also spotted a calling center, where we can call home for pretty cheap (around 5 cents per minute). So I cruised over there Sunday night, the only time to really call home with the time change, only to find a line of Indians out the door. Not too surprising, given that they run a lot of the businesses here and also need to call home. So I wait for probably an hour, no big deal. Just the cost of doing business around here.

I finally make it into a booth, figure out how to make calls (just add a # to the end of the number, obvi) and even get through to one of the three people I was trying to talk to (Sorry Mom, Happy Mothers Day. We didn't forget. And Dr. Wazee, good luck with the fire. We'll get through yet). Except that the connection was so terrible that I think we only tried to talk for a minute or two. Thwarted again.

3. So I head back to the room, getting a little frustrated, and figure I'll just do some reading and chill out. I settle in, open up the ol' libro and immerse myself in a bit of well-deserved escapism. Then the power shuts off. Too dark too read. I guess I'll just go to sleep. Damn.

* * * * *

See? It's not all fun and games. Luckily it's still a beautiful country and the people are super friendly and warm. Plus we changed our organizational focus just a bit and it is already paying huge dividends. So don't get me wrong. We're still living the good life.

There's is supposed to be a Sox game on the satellite feed this afternoon, so maybe we'll get lucky. Everybody send some good mojo our way. Over and out.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

This Little Life of Mine

We are beginning to settle into some sort of routine again, now that we’re in Mbale. Or at least as much as one can while sharing a hotel room the size of a very stingy dorm single and eating out every meal. This time around we won’t be pulling up the stakes and moving to a new town, so things are good. Still loving things in Mbale, still smile every time I look up and see the huge mountain, still very happy in my new home.

We’ve found our spot for internet: it’s fast and always empty, the computers are totally legit with brand new mice and keyboards, which goes a long way around here. We’ve found four places with really good (and relatively cheap by our standards) Indian food, dinner is usually one of those three. We found a handful of pretty decent local spots, where we do breakfast and lunch. Breakfast is always eggs and tea, because that’s really the only choice. Lunch is always some combination of: rice, beans, cassava, sweet potato, matooke and meat of one kind or another. Let me tell you though, I will be one happy Mzungu when we move into a house of our own and can cook for ourselves. We have a couple places to go for a beer, mostly the nice resorts in the “ritzy” part of town. We have a gym and two swimming pools for when we really need a little pick me up. We have a few friends our age and similar background to go out with: an Indian guy and two Ugandans bankers who are basically the Ugandan equivalent of I-banking ballers with the lifestyle to match.

I think that’s pretty much it, there isn’t exactly much more to our life than that. I’m struggling to learn to like soccer. I’ve picked a team- Chelsea till I D.I.E.- but really I still couldn’t care less and struggle not to fall asleep during games. We have found the days that the South African satellite TV shows NBA, but we can’t really watch it anywhere because there’s always ten people who would rather watch a no name soccer match.

We found a house and are in negotiations to actually acquire it and move in. The price is right, the location is right, the quality and upkeep of the house are right. It has everything we would expect to be in a house, and even some extras. They said they would throw in a couch and some chairs, some beds, a fridge and a cooker (like a mini-stove) at no extra cost. Why do I have the feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop?

This is as good a time as any to describe the process of house hunting here. We have looked at many, many places, both here and in Lira. Most of the places we see are “a bit rustic” and in need of a laundry list of minor repairs. Generally anything that can be broken is in some fashion or another, broken. Windows, tiles, doors, cupboards, light switches, fences, paint. Everything just needs to be fixed up. There is never a refrigerator or stove included; a water heater is a perk worth noting. In one notable case, we were shown what I would call a closet, given the circumstances:

Us: “So this is the bathroom? Umm, isn’t there something missing?”
Him: “No no, it’s all there.”
Us: “There’s no toilet.”
Him: “Well, yes, there is that small detail. You will need to add that, but its there.”
Us: “But there’s not even pipes or a hole in the floor.”
Him: “Well, yes. But it’s there.”

Ok. Whatever. Next house please.

We just met with a SACCO, and may have found the homerun we were looking for on our project. We're going over there this afternoon to help make malewa, which is a food made from bamboo shoots. So far so good, hopefully no catch.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Gardens

On our way out to Kalangala we stopped at the Botanical Gardens in Entebbe. It was also really cool, though not at all what I was picturing. African Botanical Gardens is to "What I was Expecting", as:

(African cow)

is to:
(American Cow)

Fiercer, less manicured, and just generally more likely to eat you. The garden was not too many steps removed from the jungle it was carved out of.


Really beautiful though.

and monkeys.

(see him in there?)

There were all kinds of plants and trees that I only knew from a jar. Nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon, stuff like that. Of course because we weren't in America it was no big deal for our guide to break off pieces for us to smell. Word is that the old Tarzan movie was filmed here, though Pat says that's a common myth.

Obviously the internet is much better here, as all the pictures indicate. This is the way its going to be, PMW 2.0

Friday, May 8, 2009

Therapist's Chair V.4

So, unfortunately, I don't remember my dreams as well as Pat. Here what I have to work with:

I had a timemachine, but it was broken and could only go to the industrial revolution.

It was also a Transmogrifier ala Calvin and Hobbes. I got turned into some historically significant martyr from the time period but I don't remember who. In the dream I knew who I was, and realized that I was this guy right before his big moment in the spotlight.

That's about it.

American Sensitivities

Several times here, we've been informed that Americans are just too damn sensitive about race. I don't want to get into just why that might be, or whether it could be a good or bad thing, but I will just say this. I was surprised to see the image on one of the bank notes here.

Let's put it this way. I don't think this is something you would see in the US. If that makes us oversensitive, so be it.

In other news, we finally have a mailing address. If anyone wants to send us some sweet things from the motherland (that we won't have to pay import duties on), send us an email and we'll hook you up with the address. Although you'd probably need to send it tomorrow for it to get here before the end of September. Word on the street is that the Pony Express around here is on the slow side.

Also, a sign said that it is illegal to send things that are offensive to Muslim sensibilities. Based on the picture, that means that pigs stuffed into envelopes will not be delivered. So keep that in mind too.

Oh and Manny. WTF.

Yohoho and a Bottle of Waragi

We're back in Mbale after a nice weekend in the southern parts of this nice little country called Uganda. We spent a few days in the Ssese Islands, in the district of Kalangala. Quick geography lesson, Uganda is landlocked, so the island is in the middle of a lake. Considering the island hosts a population of well in excess of 30,000, and you can't see it from the mainland, that's a pretty big lake. The second biggest in the world, some will tell you. It was nice, relaxing and quiet. We took a ferry out there, which around here is a little terrifying. About half of the Africans we talk to say they wouldn't be caught dead on a boat, which I can understand. We were told that "yes, there are pirates. But they're not like those Somalis on tanker ships you here about, so don't worry." To recap: the two of us set out to take a boat that even the locals think is way sketchy out to an island in the middle of a lake populated with pirates in the middle of Africa. I'll gauge our expectations at "cautiously optimistic."

(On the beach, near the landing)

The boat was just fine though, it was like any other ferry I've ever taken. We decided to drop the extra $2 to spring for first class, because I sleep under only the finest of silk mosquito nets, which meant a movie. Needless to say, they made some odd choices. Let me remind you that we were by no means sure at any point in our journey that we weren't going to finish it swimming. I guess they found the Chinese bootleg dvd collection of Harrison Ford's Best Boat Disaster Movies. Generally not a bad choice, Harrison Ford's made some solid flicks. In our situation though, really? On the way out there the movie was 6 days 7 nights, about- you guessed it- castaways on a desert island. Umm, at least now I know what to do in the event of water snakes- which by the way "are there" to use the Ugandan parlance. On the way back the movie was called U-17 or something, about a Soviet submarine disaster. So I guess the bullet point of this monologue would be that we weren't exactly able to drift away in the story and take our minds of the imminent danger of sinking, though that would have been hard in any case because we couldn't hear the dialogue over the engine noise.

The island was nice, it was probably the most secluded from the real world I've ever been. For news from America to reach us, it would have had to be like extinction level event- or anything about Obama- and it would have taken easily a week.

We stayed at a campsite ran by a flat-out-insane expat German, I think the 60's were not kind to him (I get the impression the 80's and 90's weren't exactly forgiven either). Lots of monkeys and such, most of which aparently slept under our little cottage if the midnight monkey fight was any indication. At one point I was chillin in a hammock and a little monkey family came to investigate. They came up to within like a couple feet of me; luckily their intentions were mostly legit. Of course I didn't have my camera though.

We did a jungle walk up to the village which was cool. It was pretty much jungle-y, actually kind of like Oregon except everything was totally different.

And that was about it. We're back in Mbale now, getting back to work. No more trips for a while I don't think, because the lost weeks are starting to add up- although we don't exactly work 11 hour days even when we are working. Hopefully in the next week or so we will be able to make some actual measurable progress, something that has as yet sort of eluded us.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Therapist's Chair - Vol. 3

Big shout out to Brito, who seems to really get how this is supposed to work. And to the anonymous hater in Boston, who gets it but it too scared to own up.

The prize this time is one box of authentic African tea. I will say that after both parts of this dream, I woke up laughing. And I'm really thinking I need to find a way to keep taking these drugs after coming back to the States.

* * * * *

Act I - Picture a warm summer afternoon. I am sitting at a table drinking tea with Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Bill passes me the sugar. I put in one spoonful, then pass it on to Jimmy. Bill looked at me incredulously. "Is that all the sugar you want," he asked me. I told him it was.

Then he looks across the table at Jimmy. "Well," he says, giving Jimmy a wink, "us country boys like our tea suh-weeet." They both laugh like drunken rednecks for a good spell.

(Haw Haw Haw. Dango Boy)

Act II - Now I am riding in the backseat of a white Ford Focus, which is apparently what passes for Presidential transport in my subconscious. The car breaks down, so a huge Secret Service guy gets out of the front seat to look under the hood. While out in front, the midget who is driving the car behind us gets out and starts yelling at the Secret Service guy. They get into it for a while, before the midget turns around like he is making to leave.

Then, as quick as a cobra, the midget spins around and hits the Secret Service guy with a sucker punch below the belt.

(Not impressed)

Monday, May 4, 2009

business lunch, aka did this make me sick?

This delicious drink is called Jal Jeera.

The menu described it as a "cooling drink made from mango." It looked like swamp water. It tasted delicious, with hints of mango, cumin and cilantro.

But the real question is, did it make me sick?

UPDATE: Nope. Just delicious.