Friday, July 31, 2009

A fair and balanced view of Kampala

Kampala is a bit of a puzzle. On the one hand, it really has a lot of things going for it. It's the financial, cultural and social capital of the country. If you're a looking for a good cup of coffee, or an air-conditioned screening of Harry Potter, or some mexican food, or even a Michael Jackson tribute concert, there's really no other option. In a country where the vast majority of people live in small towns and The Village, Kampala is first and last option for a little bit of city life.

For example, even though the coffee in Uganda is all grown just outside of Mbale, on the slopes of mighty Mt. Elgon, there's really no place to get a decent cup of coffee in town (Income-generating activity, anyone?). If that weren't enough, remember that we also drank coffee boiled in an aluminum pot for three months, so this is basically a little cup of heaven.

(If a bit excessive with the inscription)

Not to mention, when you just have to rub elbows with the rich and powerful, knocking back whistle-punishers like there's no tomorrow, Kampala is it. The bee's knees, as my great-aunt Trudie liked to say.

There's really just one tiny problem with Kampala...

(A bit of a jam)

Other than the traffic, it's not a bad place. The problem is, the traffic spoils everything. You can't really move around well in a car or a taxi because you get stuck in traffic constantly. Meaning you can either (a) jump on the back of a boda-boda and put your life in the hands of special breed of fearless maniacs who enjoy nothing in this life quite so much as veering through oncoming traffic to the gasps and screams of the terrified mzungu hanging on for dear life , or (b) grab another adult beverage and wait for things to calm down.

Of course, you can see and taste the air most of the time, because the traffic is so bad. Around nightfall, thanks to the exhaust and dust from rush hour traffic , there's a brown cloud about ten feet tall throughout the city. At the end of the day, you can smell the traffic in your clothes. If you're lucky enough to be staying someone quiet, you can hear it in the ringing of your ears.

So the thing is this. If they would just do something about the traffic, Kampala would be very OK. At this point though, the traffic IS Kampala. If Pauly Shore had stuck with his original dream of driving a garbage truck, he might not get beaten up trying to do stand-up. But some things just can't be undone, some things will never change and some sins (e.g., "Son in Law") are unforgivable, so you might as well stop beating your head against the wall hoping for a miracle.

(having trouble finding a sufficiently annoying picture of the Weasel wow. bonus top-up)

* * * * *

Anyway, after a quick trip, we're back home, safe and sound in Mbale, where the traffic is mostly bicycles and even the Supermarkets are overwhelmed with the slow, kind-hearted goodness of a small town.

Monday, July 27, 2009

All Business, All the Time

A little bird told me that some people out there think we don't do anything but sit around playing cards and eating any bug that crawls by. Well, I'm here to set the record straight. We work hard. We just don't talk about it, because it's top secret. And maybe a bit boring. So to spice things up, I might throw in a few random pictures.

(Lifeguard Man- He dances. He guards your life. Get it?)

Basically, as the project now stands, MAPLE works with microentrepreneurs, providing basic skills training to complement the financial resources that have been assembled within the community. We shifted away from trying to work with the larger microfinance banks, because they were bureaucratic and, frankly, didn't always seem to have the borrowers' best interests at heart. This isn't really the place to get into the whole debate over the need for financial sustainability in order to reach to the most people and all that noise. Leave it that we shifted to working with SACCOs- local, grassroots-type financial groups that take collect savings from individual members within the community and then lend that capital back out within the group. Often they are composed of women, and even dedicate more than just lip service to combating poverty, so ideologically, they are more pleasant to work with than banker big men with fat bellies and fancy cars.

(Lake Victoria. Note the beastly dragonfly)

We have found some existing training resources and are in the process of identifying a facilitator/teacher. We held a big meeting this last weekend to introduce ourselves formally to the members of the pilot SACCO that we found that is located here in town, and have been running all over The Village looking for some good rural SACCOs to work with that aren't corrupt, shady, etc.

(Meeting with a SACCO. Note the sharp pic of el presidente hanging above our heads...)

So, that's what has really been keeping us busy. We're looking for another SACCO to work with and trying to get our teacher lined up so that we can actually, finally, really start working with people. It's fun to look back and see how much we've got done, and it's also a bit disheartening that after all this time, we're still trying to start actually working. Other than the never ending process of Needs Assessments.

(Deep, deep, DEEP in the Village)

What else? I'm really thinking about what my parents would probably like to see here. Our friends Eddie and JB, famous for their goat-roasting abilities, have been teaching us how to slaughter chickens. And wouldn't you know it, there are some tasty bits hidden away inside a chicken. For example, the gizzard is choice. You just have to beat it a bit to soften it up.

A few days later, we whipped up fried chicken necks. Quite possibly the most southern-sounding dish ever. And it wasn't too bad. Also, that delicious drink in the background is none other than the famous Sex on the Trash Fire, the tastiest damn drink that's ever been dreamed up by a bunch of bored white people in Africa. Mango juice, local gin, fruit drank and a bit of tonic, if you can find it.

Yeah, so that's about it. Now we can return to talk of vacations and intestinal parasites. Sorry for the interruption.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Graveyard

In honor of those who are no longer with us:

Nambozo Hercules
? - June 29, 2009

A good chicken with a real lust for life. A family man who enjoyed enjoyed chicks, millet seed and the early morning. Seasoned with a cumin & coriander spice rub and served with roasted matooke, onions and irish potatoes. You will be missed.

Kintu Dwight Howard
? - July 03, 2009

A true prince among poultry who never hesitated to give to others. Never has a chicken been so strong and such an inspiring leader. Seasoned with black pepper and salt. Served with roasted matooke and fried cabbage.

Tin Can Tony I
? - July 04, 2009

Never before has such a noble goat graced this green earth. The memory of Tony will without a doubt be cherished for generations to come by all who knew him. Truly a goat with a passion for excellence. Tony, in death you live forever. Seasoned with red chili, served with mashed Irish potatoes, locaal brrew and chocolate cake.

Odongo Venus and Akello Serena
? - July 22, 2009

Though we knew you only briefly, our lives are the richer for it. Chickens who loved and were loved by all who met them. Seasoned with a dry rub spice medley and served with roasted matooke, sweet potato and onions, and a Mediterranean chickpea salad.

Survived by:
Nakayenze Kobe
Numkuta Lebron
Mafaba Romeo

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Another day in the life

A while back we did a post about the morning routine around these parts. Lately, we have found ourselves "busy" enough that we can't exactly sit out in the sun for a few hours reading each morning (tough life, I know. We manage). On the other hand, we really don't need any alarm clock.

5:15 am - Call to Prayer goes out from the nearby mosque. Not too bad, if maybe a little odd at first. Honestly, it's not a bad sound to wake up to, though, and it would be totally fine, except that it wakes up the neighbor's rooster. Maybe he (the rooster) is Muslim too, I'm not really sure. Religion is sort of a touchy subject sometimes.

5:17 am - Obnoxious rooster next door comes over to make passes at our chickens, who must have no morals at all. The rooster is always prowling around, and these girls just don't know how to say "no."

5:18 am - 7:00 am - Rooster sets up shop in the yard, meaning that at times, he's probably 18 inches from my sleeping face, and starts to just disturb everyone. Seriously, I don't know what kind of burning trash this bird eats, but he has the loudest voice. Ever. To add to the fun, he usually he paces around the house, meaning that all three bedrooms get equal treatment. Sometimes he even jumps up into the windows to really bother people.

7:00 am - Someone gets too annoyed, gets up and tries to chase the rooster away. Typically, this involves throwing rocks, chairs, spears, old chicken bones or just a football.

7:07 am - Rooster returns, continues his morning song.

7:30 am - Another person gets up, tries to kill rooster. Fails.

7:32 am - Rooster returns. Etc. This goes on until the last person gets up.

The big problem is our chickens, Namakuta Kobe and Nakayenze Lebron. Like I said, these girls must be sending some pretty strong signals, cause the stinkin rooster (Mafaba Romeo) is around all day every day. I think we will solve this problem by what? by cutting off their heads and roasting their bodies with cumin and coriander. If the rooster still comes by after that, maybe we'll have to throw him on the grill too. That ought to really endear us to the neighbors.

* * * * *

By the way, for those that haven't heard, MAPLE's Summer Crew arrived a few weeks ago, meaning that Luke and I no longer have to play gin for four hours every night for entertainment. It's been fun seeing Uganda through fresh eyes, getting internet at the house and generally realizing just how much we have learned to like it here. Seriously, the days of "good God, how are we going to survive for six months" are long gone. Minor inconveniences (like hot water, cheese, eating raw foods, beer that tastes legitimately good) aside, it's just awesome.

It's also now officially fun to go out. Something about having a crew of girls to dance with. Not that dancing with Luke isn't a hurricane of fun, because it is. Also, somehow we get a lot more attention going out with three white girls. We have had a few fun conversations about our relationship to them. Sometimes, Luke is a Muslim with three wives, which the potential suitors usually don't believe, because everyone knows that white girls are too stubborn to be one of several wives. More often, they are just our cousin-sisters, which means that sometimes we even get to barGAIN about how much it would cost to marry one off. I'd settle for 10 cows and 25 goats, but I'll entertain any reasonable offers.

(MAPLE - Making the Boda Boda Man's dream come true, one friday night at a time)

Friday, July 17, 2009


Local Brew. Pronounced Locaaaal Brrrrrew, with a strong rolling of the R just like you learned in Spanish class. It hard to really describe just how wild the whole experience was. But I'm gonna give it my level best.

First thing. Locaaal Brrrew is best consumed with a bunch of other dudes. You sit around the communal pot, grab onto your straw and hang on tight. From what we could gather, you show up whenever you get out of work, say around 2, maybe 3 or 4. Then you get to sit there drinking until the sun goes down and the mosquitos come out (unless they're friendly mosquitos, which it turns out, most are). Maybe you play some cards, maybe you sing a bit or dance if the spirit catches you. But mostly you just sit there, sipping at your straw and running your mouth. Not unlike a lot of bars in that respect.

But then there's the drink itself. Marua. How best to describe it? It's made from a variety of tasty ingredients, which vary depending on who you ask but include fermented millet and possibly honey. The texture is porridge-like and grainy, think oatmeal mixed with a handful of sand. On the business end of the straw, it's mostly hot liquid, but again, mixed with sand. And let me tell you, if the sight of it being slopped to a new pot when they refresh the mixture doesn't get your appetite going, I don't know what will.

The taste is unusual, to say the least. Sour and tangy, like lemon juice mixed with yogurt. But it grows on you. And luckily, the straws have nice little filtering bags on the end, so the amount of millet seed bits and mysterious sand that makes it way into your mouth is minimal less than it could be. But the real thing about the whole process that makes it so unforgettable is the temperature. The ladies periodically pour steaming water into the pot, which mingles with the porridgeslop, giving everyone plenty of hot mystery liquid to drink.

To review, it's warm, sandy and sour. And vaguely alcoholic. In case anyone is concerned about sanitary conditions, I can happily report that the ladies periodically rinse the abandoned straws in a big barrel of water. And since the drink is warm, I'm sure that means that the water has been boiled to kill off any bugs and critters (and not that it's being kept at a comfortable temperature for growing said bugs and critters). And of course, the straws are probably four feet long, so it's impossible to backwash from that far. Right? Right?

Put it this way. Luke had enough sense to PRETEND to drink most of the time. Me? I figured what the hell. I survived the cow foot soup, the various toasted insects, a dinosaur of a fried fish, all the mystery meat I can find, even millet porridge. I'm not here to mess around. I went after that brew like it was going out of style. In retrospect, maybe not the best decision.

Note to self: Next time, pretend.

Friday, July 10, 2009

5 sweeping generalizations about Africa

The tourist-ness of the Nile made me think about what is Africa really like? When I say this I guess I actually mean Uganda- or at most East Africa. I wouldn't exactly say I've seen Europe or European culture after my two weeks in Italy, right? I don't want to be one of those people who generalize about a continent based on a few weeks in one town. "Well the thing about North America (Cleveland) is its really hot (in August)." Anyway, philosofizing about Africa just sounds cooler than about Uganda, so what is Africa like for me really? I'm not going to talk about The Poverty for two reasons. 1: it's depressing and I'm tired of writing about stuff that makes me sad. And more importantly 2: if you visited Washington DC you wouldn't really say the homeless people and crime are the characteristic features. It's marginalizing and unfair to do that, and bottom line I wouldn't like it if someone did that about my home.

5 sweeping generalizations I will always associate with Africa:

First and foremost for me living in Africa is about bikes. Bikes are everywhere, they are definitely the primary mode of transportation after the "foot-subishi." Bike taxis carrying people, even two passengers at once. Bike delivery trucks carrying crates, stacked 3 feet high with beer and soda. Bike tow trucks carrying other bikes. Bikes carrying our fully assembled wooden beds. A bike carrying 800 square feet of bamboo that became our fence. Bikes bikes bikes.

Next would be crowds. Everywhere I go there's between 10 and 50 people just hanging out observing the scene. Should anything remotely interesting happen a massive crowd forms. Truck stuck in the mud? Take the phone off the hook, and strap the baby on your back because you don't want to miss this. Electronics store with a TV on inside? Might as well cross the street, because that sidewalk is closed. The flip side is that no matter where I go, there's someone in the crowd who speaks enough English to give us directions or a hand in whatever we're trying to accomplish. Which brings me to the third thing.

The people. The warmth and friendliness of strangers here is amazing. If I need some help with something, I just ask the first person I see. The majority of the time he'll drop what he's doing and give me a hand and won't ask for anything in return. We are welcomed into people's homes and shops like we're long lost cousins. In all seriousness, every time we are just so fed up with nothing working, power outages and the food, some random stranger makes our day with their kindness. Hand in hand with this is the personal space. Men holding hands with men is normal expected, handshakes can last for minutes. Hanging out with buddies, there is constant contact- arms around shoulders, chucks on the arm, high fives, holding hands. Normal conversation protocol involves casually tracing little circles on the chest or arm of your counterpart with a fingertip. You really feel less like an individual with your own schedule and program, and more just a person among people- which I know makes no sense.

And I guess I couldn't talk about this and not mention the paradox of the waiter. Every random person is so friendly and happily bends over backwards to help you. Everyone that is, except the people who are paid to serve you. You go to a restaurant and the waiter finally comes to take your order- after spending the requisite time ignoring you because they're watching Nigerian soap operas- but only after you have thoroughly debated whether it's worth it to just go somewhere else. Then you get the look that says "you should have just left, can't you see I'm in the middle of something? I'll get your food, but you and I both know I'm not exactly going to bust my ass." Eventually your food will come, but after no less than 40 minutes for eggs and bread. If your order is 70% right, that's a solid gentleman's C. If your starters come before your entree, it's an event you refer back to. "Remember the time when... Let's go back to that place." I just don't get it. Well maybe I do, tipping isn't really expected- except if you're white and even then it's just a coin. "Wow, you brought mostly what I asked for, in almost less time it would have taken for me to do it myself. Have a quarter my friend."

Last I'll say the smells. People always talk about how smell is no longer a part of American life, I guess I get it now. Everything here has a smell, and smells like what it's supposed to smell like. It's hard to describe adequately. The butcher shop smells like blood. The milk stall smells like milk. The sewer smells like shit. A hot, packed taxi smells like people. The market smells like fish and overripe vegetables, like formerly living things marching back towards dirt. We all know all these smells, but everything is magnified. Like realler than real.

And I guess I'll do a bonus, because on a good day there's always a bonus. Bonus airtime, bonus beer, bonus game of pool. Bonus is the roads. Not the roads so much, as the way they are used. At home if you asked me what are roads for, I'd answer without hesitation: "roads are for cars." If you are stubborn enough to ride your bike in the street in America, cars are practically obligated to run you down. Here, not so much. Roads are for those who need to get somewhere. Bikes have a right to the road, as they outnumber cars ten to one. Pedestrians have a right to the road, as sidewalks are absent as often as they're there. Goats have a right to the road, as they make their living eating the tasty morsels on the roadside. Cows really have a right to the road, as no one can really tell them otherwise. Everyone shares the road, with their own place in the hierarchy of who gets out of who's way. At the bottom is chickens, because they're dumb and, well, they're just chickens after all. Pedestrians and goats come next because they are quick and smart enough to get out of the way. Next, bikes because they are kind of clumsy and more importantly because they are in motion with a clear destination unlike the previous. Then cars, certainly near the top. Trucks and buses come next because they will barrel through anything totally unfazed. As far as I can tell, cows are king though. Cows amble across the road as they please and everyone just stops and waits. Everyone else gets a little courtesy "I'm here, get outta my way" honk. Not the cows, they just take their time enjoying the weather. The cows don't take nothing from nobody, you got a problem speak into the microphones. They're the two sharp, spear shaped things attached to my forehead.

[road pic]

That's it, Africa. First one out was bugs.


I heard on the radio that Obama is making his first visit to Africa as Black American President. Unfortunately, he is going to Ghana, meaning he is not going to be able to enjoy a surprise visit from MAPLE Microdevelopment. And even though he is going to be in West Africa, I figured now is a good time to tell some fun stories about Obamamania here in Uganda.

People are pretty psyched about the whole thing. Even though they are sometimes surprised that we supported him in the election (because we're white? i'm not sure), peeps love to talk about him. Not his politics, necessarily, but definitely about the man, his family, his relationship with God, those types of things. With the exception of a few cranky Kenyans, who said that since he's Luo he's really not even Kenyan, so they can't figure what all the fuss about, people are into it in a big way. To more than one person, we are known affectionately as the Obama Brothers, which was a bit strange at first but has since grown on me. One guy in Lira even informed us matter-of-factly that the reason that he's so popular around the world is because he was chosen by God.

There is also a motley assortment of oddly-dedicated Obama things around. New Obama Hair Salon. Obama Distributors. Some sweet Obama calendars, including one titled "Black Blood Finally Takes Over," that we really wanted to pick up for the house but has disappeared even from the streets of Kampala. The single most awesome Obama branding we've seen? Check it out:

(Obama Dumps. All Rights Reserved)

But every man has his limits. The other day, we were watching the Confederations Cup finals at a bar. For those who missed it, the USA somehow advanced to the finals after barely making it out of group play. Matched up against mighty Brazil, the US came out of the gates strong, and went into halftime with a 2-0 lead. At this point, one of the more vocal guys in the bar, the same guys who jumped around screaming "OBAMABOYS!!" after each American goal, felt obliged to inform us that "I support Obama in 99 percent. But not today. Today I can only support Brazil."

After Brazil scored three uncontested goals in the second half to win the game, the same guy told us, with a bit of pity, that "you Americans were running around on windows 95. But Brazil? Those guys are XP!" Huh. Fair enough. At least we still have a sweet President.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Tin Can Tony I

Well be back. Well be back. We've had a busy last week picking up our newest MAPLE field team members from the airport, whisking through Kampala and heading back to Mbale. We arrived safely Thusday afternoon, only to turn around and head up to Sipi Falls for the weekend to celebrate the Fourth of July and Luke's Birthday.

Sipi Falls, some of you more dedicated readers may remember, is the site of our previous misadventures with the rastas. So naturally, we couldn't resist the temptation to go back. This time around, though, what with it being a big celebration, we opted to grill some meat. Beef and swine, typically the first choice for such occasions, were out due to various dietary restrictions and a general fear of flies-covered meat. Delicious chicken, while easy and satisfying, is just not special enough. That really only leaves one option:

Tin Can Tony I. The first in (hopefully) a long line of Tonys that will be eaten by the MAPLE Uganda field team. I wish I could say that we helped out with the slaughter and preparation, but to be honest, there was not a lot that our skill-set had to contribute. We rightly deferred to the experts, sat back and drank some beer.

The slaughtering process was quite an experience. We'll call it a play in four acts.

Act I - Opening the Neck, aka squirt-squirt-hang-and-drain

[Too real for TV.]

Act II - "Take his Face Off"

Act III - Operation Make Insides Outside

[Too real for TV times 2]

Act IV - Hack Meat into Tasty Little Bits.

At this point, we have to give a big shout-out to Eddie and JB, who really spearheaded the cooking process. There wasn't a single burned piece of meat on the whole goat. The whole weekend will no doubt go down in history as one of the more epic and unusual Fourth of July celebrations for all involved. I'm sure Luke would agree that he won't be having another birthday quite like this one again.

Tin Can Tony I, I can only hope that you lived a long and rewarding life. You seemed happy and satisfied when I met you, munching on matooke peels and just digging life in the village. Hopefully, you can rest in peace knowing that your memory will live on forever in the exaggerated stories of a herd of silly mzungus.

Oh. And in the two sweet matching vests we will have made from your fur.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Nile

We went to the Nile river in Jinja last week for an afternoon of relaxation. A little sun, a few beers, the Indian equivalent of fajitas. All around it was a good time. It was not that different than your average Oregon-style summer afternoon chillaxing at the rio, except it was the Nile. Y'know the river you read about, with pyramids, crocodiles that eat you whole, and sleeping sickness where you wake up dead. It wasn't really all that though, just a river- albeit a massive one. It was big, it was fast, it was nice.

Though I guess it wasn't too big and too fast for this dude to float the Nile on a jerry can.

If you've spent time in Africa, you know a jerrycan when you see it. A jerrycan is like the one object no household can do without. It's a big plastic container with a handle for carrying liquid- like a gas can basically. Considering that the vast, vast majority of the population doesn't just spin a tap and have water where they want it, this becomes a pretty handy thing to own.

If nothing else, The Nile is a major tourist trap. After three months in Africa I saw for the first time the things we associate with Africa. People playing "traditional" music, for one. Though most of the instruments probably came from China. It made me excited for rafting the Nile, whenever that may happen.