Monday, August 24, 2009

Well Done Paul

You ever have the experience where you think you know someone pretty well and get floored with some new information? I had that the other day with the guy we share a compound with, the father of the kids we spend all our time chasing around. I already knew he was a really pious guy and all around good citizen, but I guess I didn't know the extent. I ran into him in town on Sunday, got to talking a little bit. Then he's like "I have to go, I have an appointment to read to bible to the invalids in the hospital."

This guy works 10 hours a day 6 days a week, Sundays are his only day off. His chosen way to spend his day off is 4 hours of church, then spending his afternoon reading and praying with dying people in the hospital. I guess I already knew he was a good guy, but I had no idea. It's a good feeling to learn that guy who's like our last line of defense against intruders in our home is even more stand-up than we gave him credit for. Well done Paul.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Gutter meat makes my tummy hurt

On Sunday we decided it was time to do an American style barbeque to celebrate our close friend and confidant Mr. John Baptist leaving for college in the morning. Chicken is boring, so we decided to mix it up and go for pork. At home this wouldn't be much of a story, but since we're in Africa... Wow, not going to make that mistake twice.

First of all pork is kind of hard to get your hands on in this town. As I write this I am hearing the Muslim call to prayer from somewhere (yep, must be 4:00), and Muslims don't dig swine in case you haven't heard. So to even get some pork you have to go to some certain neighborhood that only JB knows about.

Me: "Why only this neighborhood Beezy?"
JB: "This where all the Karamajongs live. The people down here are so hostile that the Muslims are afraid to come in and try and tell them what to do."
Me: "Is it safe for me?"
JB: "As long as you don't try and tell them what to do and never ever go here by yourself, yea for sure it's fine."

We got to the Karamajongs' hood and by no small coincidence it was the same place we went for locaal brrew a few months ago. JB takes a quick look around finds a guy swinging a machete wildly at a hunk of raw meat and we have our target. After some expert barGAINing, we have meat. Splat! Dude moves a fat handful of pig from the filthy tabletop to the filthy scale. But we need to package it, so he goes and gets a kaveera (black plastic bag) and fills it with pig bits. Of course I don't need to wash my hands between handling raw meat and money- and even if I did, do you see any water? I didn't bring my camera and it's really hard to do justice to just how filthy the whole experience was. We literally broke every single rule in Food Handlers 101. At one point in my life (say six months ago) I would have said this meat is guaranteed to kill you.

Next step was to transform this meat into something resembling edible. As Pat was making from scratch something that resembled barbeque sauce (tomato paste, glucose syrup, vinegar, onions & peppers, and some certain secret marple spices) JB and I proceeded to wage war on Porky's Karmajong cousin. Since the meat as purchased contained both skin and fur, it was no small task. Basically it was you hold one end I'll hold the other then I'll hack at it with a kitchen knife.

(Get in there)

The intersection of my and JB's culture reached its apex at precisely this moment:

Me: Jim Bob, wash your hands after handling raw meat. Particularly if you're going to pick up and play with every little thing on the coffee table.
JB: (puts hands to mouth, smells them) Nah, don't worry about it. It's cool.

(Just havin' a snack, while I handle this raw meat)

Or maybe it was here:

Me: JB are we going to get sick from eating meat that has sat unrefrigerated in the sun for 10 hours?
JB: It hasn't been 10 hours. What time is it, 8pm? It's probably only been out in the sun for 3 hours. Don't worry about it. It's cool.

I don't really know who won this one ultimately. We really punished that pig. Seriously. And it was delicious and went down smooth like butter. On the other hand, he hasn't exactly processed through yet. The odds that Ol' Porky has some nasty surprises waiting in the wings? Pretty high.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The African A+

Finally. Luke's birthday care package finally arrived. For those of you keeping score at home, Luke turned 23 on June 30. Seeing as how our mother sent this package about two weeks before his birthday, and it just arrived today, some might wonder what took so long. Furthermore, since one of the girls who got here in July has already gotten a package and several letters, some might even be irritated and bitter. Not us though. Because the package actually arrived without being torn open, soaked through or crawling with rats and roaches, we will happily award the Ugandan Postal Service what we like to call the "African A+."

(America in a box. Real America, that is.)

The African A+ is a funny, funny thing. Like any A+, it is awarded only when someone or something really exceeds your expectations. On the other hand, though, it is definitely a qualified A+, along the lines of, "that overhead shower you installed today is everything I asked for and I love that you did it quickly, but now there isn't any water pressure. Oh well, job well done."

Another example? Sure why not. The other day we were taking a taxi back from Gulu. Amazingly (if somewhat forebodingly), the taxi left when it was still basically empty, so we had all kinds of space to stretch out in without fear of being attached by chickens, pawed by curious children, puked on/near, etc. This was a nice surprise, but all in all, simply not exceptional enough to warrant the coveted A+.

(Sweet there's a dumpster right in our neighborhood. No more trash fires. African A+)

Then the taxi pulled to the side of the road and told us to get out. Apparently, something got lost in translation and because there weren't enough passengers, they decided to head for Kampala instead of Lira. No worries, the driver assured us, laughing as he pulled away, lots of cars heading to Lira will pass. Good thing we didn't award that A+, by the way. I'm not sure if it can be retracted retroactively.

Before long, a pickup pulled up next to us with a few people in the back. After it became clear that we were heading in the same direction, we jumped on board and took off. Because the guy insisted we ride up in the cab with him ("this african sun is too strong for you. you whites are so fragile"), we decided to award the whole trip home an African A+. It exceeded all our expectations by being comfortable and relatively fast, yet it has to be a qualified A+ because (1) we had to hitchhike and (2) the cab was really only built for two people, meaning Luke was basically sitting in the driver's lap while I was pressed against a door that was too dented and bent to close properly. Sans seatbelt, naturally, on a seriously bumpy road, so there was a real risk of falling out and getting run over. Plus I got a sweet sunburn on one side of my face.

(Do you think this is going to peel?)

You've exceeded all my expectations. You've thought about what I might like, and went out of your way to be helpful. All the elements of exceptional service are there, so even though there are a few things I wasn't expecting, I really can't hold it against you. African A+.

("Nope, the room looks great. Thanks.")

Saturday, August 15, 2009

This taxi aint full yet

(Lira: approximately this fun)

[Part Two of the epic tale of our triumphant return to Lira- for part one see "Gyspy in Rasta's clothing"]

So we last left off in the middle of nowhere in Gulu just stranded, lost and hopeless. That being said, it was a huge relief to be out of that situation- constantly waiting for the next thing to go down. The problem wasn't so much that he was being a gypsy. Rather, given that he had shown himself to be a card-carrying gypsy, all bets for proper behavior were out the window and we decided its better to be stranded, lost and hopeless in NGO-town Gulu than on a rutted dirt road halfway between Gulu and nowhere. Because the last thing we'd want is to be in some 3 shop village between two places no one has ever heard of with no cellphone reception and like $20 between the two of us. Oh yea, and we don't speak Acholi. Because no one would want that.

To my knowledge we had one piece of useful information about Gulu: We had overheard someone say that there's a good coffee shop with White People Food in Gulu called something Cafe- Coco, Caca, Khaki, something. So we found our nearest friendly bodaboda driver and proceeded to attempt communication. "Excuse me dude who doesn't really speak much English, we're looking for a place we don't really know the name of, any help? They serve coffee there, coffee- its a drink like tea, it comes from beans, it's very dark, it makes you (pantomime wide open eyes and spastic behavior)." Believe it or not this eventually worked. Kope Cafe (like when you greet someone in Acholi: "Kopango" then he responds "Kope") , it's just around the corner that way- branch by the petrol station, slope down. 1 steak sandwich and tasty cup of joe later, time to uhh figure out how to get home.

Intermission #1
(Young Aga, grandson of Veronica, nephew of JB)

In a rational world this would have been a good time to hit an ATM, since we spent most of our collective scratch on accommodation (I know someone in Gulu, we can stay there for free), food (you buy lunch, I'll buy dinner), and beer (you're charging $1 for a beer? I refuse to pay). Unfortunately, there are certain days in Uganda when there are lines stretching around the block at every single ATM. Intuition tells me that these days should roughly correspond with the 1st and 15th. It's not exactly the case, but I think it has something to do with the salaries. Anyway, so due to the fact that every ATM had a line like effing Space Mountain we decided to just take our chances and just head since we had to get to Lira before dark lest we get abducted by witchdoctors. I had received a call that morning that on a friend's bus ride to Gulu, they got a bit delayed when they hit a guinea fowl which blew up the windshield of their bus. The first 3 rows got covered in feathers and blood. So probably we we shouldn't push the envelope, because things tend to happen around here.

The next part the story Pat already told, so I'll kind of gloss through it.

We arrived in an oddly abandoned taxi park to find out that the Lira bus already left and we'd have to take a taxi. We get in a taxi which then immediately leaves, like a quarter full. This never ever ever happens, so I was 5% sure that by the end of the day a witchdoctor would be in possession of my internal organs. Shockingly enough, everything went ok- sort of. We're on the road in total comfort, a whole seat to ourselves. Then the taxi stops. "Ok, guys you get out here, we're going to Kampala." Umm ok? If it's gonna be like that I'm only going to pay half because you only took me halfway. Fair's fair. So there we were stranded, lost and hopeless in some 3 shop village on a rutted dirt road between two places no one has ever heard of with no cellphone reception and like $20 between the two of us. Oh yea, and we don't speak Acholi.

Intermission #2
(Eddie, Pat, Luke, JB)

We hitch a ride on a truck for a while, all's cool. Back in Lira. Good old Lira, just as we left it. Hot? Check. Dusty? Check. Preschool with picture of dog-attack on the front? Check (top of the page). Good, everything's as it should be. Speaking of Lira, I think we talked about the pool that was supposed to open "next week" the entire time we lived in Lira. No surprises, next week is the big day. Allegedly, the reason for the holdup was National Water and Sewerage. They had a fully built pool the whole time and were waiting for the water company to bring up their water, but they were slacking. Sounds about like the status quo as far as Ugandan governance is concerned.

Since Lira was so awesome, we decided to hop the night's last taxi to Mbale and take our chances getting in before dark. This taxi was decidedly full by the time it left, the 14 persons limit on the side must have some kind of rounding error. Including children, I think I counted 35 at one point. I had two grown men sitting on my lap a la a certain bearded mze in red pajamas.

At this point things get a little fuzzy because the taxi stopped probably every 2 miles to either let out or more often add on people. Oh plus I forgot to mention that we were pretty thouroughly hung over from "trading off buying rounds" (AKA I'll buy one beer then make a huge scene about the nicest hotel in the state overcharging by roughly 15 cents per beer) with this Rasta all night. I remember at one point a chicken attaching Pat's foot, and him being so smashed in with people that he couldn't summon enough footroom to kick the little devil and teach him a lesson. I remember the dude next to me eating chicken then wiping his hands on the back of the shirt of the guy in front of him. I remember getting to Soroti and the taxi that told us it was going to Mbale I guess decided that the trip was over. Ok, but I'll only pay you half since you only took us halfway. Fair's fair, next please.

We got into Mbale by maybe 10pm. We left gulu at like 11am. Long day. Luckily the wellbe back committee was ready for us.

(Musa, you got a little something on your face there champ)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Gyspy in Rasta's Clothing

[Part One of a two part epic]

(Scenic Gulu)

Last week we were extended an amazing invitation from a friend of a friend of a friend. He runs a project for war-orphans in Pader, which is way way way up north in the "war-torn" region about as far from somewhere as one can really get. Normally this would immediately go into the "thanks but no thanks" pile, but this one felt different. First off, it's not everyday that we get chance to go see that area with someone with real business up there- if the stories are true, you can't up there and not see some real wild ish. Second and perhaps most relevant, dude was a Rasta. You know like Bob Marley, dreadlocks, red, black green bracelets. The Rastaman is a friendly people, and if you can't trust a Rasta then who can you trust in this world, right?

So anyways, we went to Kampala to talk with him and iron out the details. All seemed to be ok, we agreed to help split the costs up to but not exceeding x shi-shi's. All seemed well, and early the next morning he picked us up with his buddy the former-soldier-turned-Rasta and we were off. Oh but wait we have to get gas first. Umm, no problem let's just stop at the gas station. It'll take five minutes, right. Haha, quite wrong my friend. Not for a rasta. The simple process you imagine when you think of fueling a car went a bit different with this dude.

Step 1: Drive to a sketchy neighborhood taxi park
Step 2: Ask the sketchiest guy you see about where to get some gas, ya know gas- wink wink.
Step 3: Follow his directions to a different, sketchier neighborhood.
Step4: Repeat step 2, squeeze guy into the backseat.
Step 5:Following his directions, find sketchier-than-sketchy backalley where he knows a guy
Step 6:He runs off and returns with a full jerrycan and a cut-in-half water bottle.
Step 6: Fill gas tank with discount, bootleg gasoline using homemade funnel.

Easy right? It only took three hours, but it was firesale prices. $30 to fill the tank instead of like $50. Oh you silly rastas.
(Sometimes image search really comes through in the clutch)

So this stereotypically gyspylike behavior continued and continued. In retrospect I don't think we bought a single thing on the up and up. As things progressed we started to hear those few words a bit too often for comfort: "Can I have..." Well, to represent Ugandan English accurately: "You give me..." I like to think I'm a generous person, but one thing I'm not is a mealticket. I'll pay for my friends all day, but sorry brah I and I ain't really close like that. We knew it was time to ditch when we went to sleep hungry after agreeing to "You buy lunch then I'll buy dinner."

So there we were in Gulu, last outpost of civilization before South Sudan, sans Rasta convoy. Time to get home. You know anyone or anything in Gulu? Me neither. I guess we gotta get somewhere somehow.

The stage was set for our triumphant return to Liratown.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bigups 2 da Selektaman, Bumbaclot 4 da Haters

Sunday was my roommate Shawna's birthday, so we decided to get a little fresh air and hit the town a little bit. Luckily Radio & Weasel were doing a show in town that very night, so of course we had to go check it out. Since no one outside of Uganda probably knows who Radio and Weasel are, interspersed with the tale I'll do a small, and long overdue, primer on the Ugandan music scene.

Radio and Weasel are the stars of our little adventure. They're hugely popular, apparently they're nominated for an MTV award for Best African Act. There's not much Ugandan pop-culture outside of music (no tv or movies are produced in the country), so the rock stars are really the biggest fish in town. You literally cannot spend a night out without hearing one of these guys' songs. They make hot fire, this track is the biggest thing since posho & beans. It's about getting a little of the morning bizniss- breakfast in bed style.

The concert was at Mbale Sports Club, coincidentally the very same Mbale Sports Club where I (allegedly) contracted malaria in May. An auspicious start to the night to say the least. The show was outside on the lawn- right next to the untreated, abandoned swimming pool- so if there was ever a good chance to re-up on the Malaria, this was probably it. Fortunately my risk was reduced by the 5,000 other people crammed shoulder to shoulder around me.

Next up is The Bad Man Ghetto President, H. E. Bobbi Wine: The Snoop Dogg of Ugandan music. This song is about being from the Ghetto. Kamokya (Kamocha) is a neighborhood in Kampala I've been warned to stay away from.

The show was fun, a few acts I had never heard of (no surprises there) and then the main event, The Goodlyfe Crew. As soon as they hit the stage the crowd surged forward and we somehow ended up in the very front. Jamie and Shawna were chest against the stage and I was a few feet back, dead center. 5,000 people behind us, really the very front of the action. They started rocking the show and people went crazy. 5,000 people singing along and everything.

The newest song on the scene in Uganda is this one, it is just straight fire.This song is an All-Star collabo of most of the biggest upcoming stars on the scene. The hook is by our guy Radio. Note the clown wig, the Lil Wayne lookalike, and of course the beater car.

If it's hard to guess where this story goes from here, I'll recap: My two white, female friends were right up against the stage. What comes next shouldn't really be a huge surprise. by the second half of the set, Radio is crooning to Jamie and holding her hand, then asks us backstage. We hung out with them for a bit then took off to Club Oasis to meet back up with them for the afterparty.

This is GNL. He's a bit harder, a bit more "thug." I don't know that he's all that famous, maybe like a "your favorite artist's favorite artist" kind of deal. He's raps in Luganda, which is called Lugaflow and is pretty popular though maybe not too mainstream.

We got to Club O and the girls went back to meet with their African pop superstars. After a while of dancing solo with our other friends- you have never been truly awkward till you've been literally the only white person in a packed dance club- Shawna came to grab me to come back and hang out and maybe chaperone a bit. Hanging out in the VIP of the only nicest club in town. It was hilariously awesome. These two guys are fawning all over Jaime and Shawna gaming their asses off while hoes and revelers are cycling in and out looking for a nod or a greeting. If nothing else, I'll give them credit for giving me free beer despite the fact I was clearly there to salt their game (to use the parlance of our times).

Then finally to wrap it up we have the chill reggae sounds of the late Lucky Dube (pronouced Doobay)- He is like the Bob Marley of Africa.

We ended up staying out with these guys till like 5am, and eventually got a ride home from them in their party van. I think they were a little disappointed that their rockstar appeal apparently doesn't work on white girls. All in all a fun night, unfortunately the camera died during the show so you'll just have to take my word for it that we really met these guys.

Finally, we have this song by this dude. I don't really know who he is or what his deal is, but the appeal needs no explanation.

And of course, no dialogue on Ugandan music is complete without the rap beefs. The other two stars on the level of Bobi Wine and Radio & Weasel are Jose (not actually a Mexican I recently was informed, but like Josie- short for Joseph) Chameleon and Bebe Cool.

Weasel is Chameleon's younger brother and protege, but he split off from Chameleon's label so now they have squabbles. That's trouble, because apparently according to the tabloids, Chameleon has a penchant for falling off balconies and getting beaten up- though that's neither here nor there.

Radio stole Bebe Cool's girl, who just so happens to be the former Miss Uganda, so now they have major beef (The word is Bread and Butter is about hittin it with Bebe's girl). Things have been escalating on this one for a while, it's like Tupac/Biggie at this point. Recently a plot was uncovered whereby Radio had hired a witchdoctor to plant chicken guts in Bebe's bedroom, which is certainly not something to be taken lightly around here. In response Bebe got some Muslim Mullahs to pray up a counter attack.

Bobbi Wine doesn't play any of these games because apparently he's too ghetto and everyone fears to trifle with him.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A different boneyard

I'm not sure how much backstory is necessary. The tap water around here tastes like toilet water and is probably just as clean. So it's all bottled water, all the time.

(Jon, if you're still out there, this is for you)

And we cook on unimproved stoves using charcoal made from the dwindling hardwood forests of equatorial Africa. Basically, we just hate the Earth.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Reflections for a Bulgarian Socialist

Just recently, Luke and I have started our lecture circuit. We're basically going around giving an hour-long empowerment speech, talking about how to find a good idea for a business. The real meat of the presentation is a series of questions, which are designed to help people think about a potential business beyond just "my neighbor is selling second-hand clothes, so I guess I could sell second-hand clothes."

The questions are interesting/appropriate enough (and, as it turns out, are shared royalty-free, meaning that we are not, in fact, stealing intellectual property). Some tease out whether there is demand for a certain product, others focus more on the methods of production. All in all, they're pretty good, and have gone over well in our early trial runs. Especially the strong Obama-themed closing ("Yes You Can Start A Business").

(The Philips & Philips Traveling Circus)

There is some talk about planning, which we are still getting the kinks out of, mostly because it gets into more detail than it probably should, given that it's mostly verbal and brief. Apart from trying to anticipate sales and major expenses, there is a bit of talk on how to plan for unexpected events. If you wanted to get super literal about everything, you might take issue with "planning" for something that takes you by surprise. In fact, the real take-away is just that you cannot always plan for the unexpected, but having some savings can help you to smooth out your consumption, maybe lessen the impact.

(Of course we can't afford to pay you, but why don't you have some more matooke?)

All of which got us thinking about the Bulgarian socialist who scolded us in Florence for going to Africa to trick people into becoming pawns of the global financial industry. Honestly, the exact details of his argument are lost in the haze of alcohol fumes and cheap cigarette smoke that followed him around, but I think it was based on the premise that lending needy people money only to charge them interest is immoral.

To be sure, we've heard plenty of stories about the failings of microfinance. Of banks who only lend against collateral, then move to collect the collateral if you're even a day late in repaying. Or loans to people without good plans for the money, who end up having to sell assets just to repay the loan. Generally, banks pushing microfinance on anyone they can find, using coercive repayment methods, and generally focusing on profits, without much thought to actually helping the recipients (not that I have a problem with that, per se. I'm not a big believer in counting on profit-making companies to save the world). So it's not like we see microcredit as a panacea for the problems of the world's poor.

(Field Work? I just like this picture)

But if taking loans can be good or bad, depending on the details, can we at least say that encouraging savings is basically good. Even though I'm guessing Uganda doesn't have an FDIC, and there are always stories going around about banks failing and people losing their money (minor detail). Again, I think the Bulgarian Socialist wasn't impressed with that idea either, because that is just supporting the financial beast that preys on the poor and powerless. On the other hand, what with this little financial apocalypse that chased me and Luke all the way to Uganda, maybe now isn't the best time to recommend that people get involved in the formal financial sector.

I'm really not sure, but I think savings are, on the whole, a good thing. Just having that little nest egg to fall back on, maybe save yourself from borrowing to pay school fees or to take care of a sick kid. Even if you can count on annual inflation in the double digits, each and every year. All of which reminds me of an article I saw a while back about a guy trying to make good by providing financial services to poor people in Southern California, by way of his network of check cashing stores. The moral, I think, being that access to financial services is a good thing, even if banks aren't looking out for your best interests.

One last thought. If I learned anything during the six months I spent in Argentina eating steak, drinking wine and waiting for my professors to stop striking long enough to hold a class or two, it's that our impeccable development advice is (a) always right, until it turns out to be a bit wrong, and (b) particularly prone to faddish thinking. That, plus all the trouble that we have gotten ourselves into, again, with financial bubbles premised on the idea that financial products (tech stocks, real estate, whatevs) are really different this time around. I guess I'm just wondering how much do these concerns apply to microfinance, which seems to be the newest, sexiest and best way to help the poor, if you buy into all the hype. Especially given the somewhat mixed performance of microfinance here in Uganda, this is what I've been thinking about the last few weeks...

Monday, August 3, 2009

Where "chicken for dinner" still means "going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken"

Nambuya Matilda went to a better place just a few hours ago. She was a sweet bird, maybe too sweet for a world where even Big Papi is now a juicer. She will be remembered for her quiet laughter, and for the delicious crust her skin formed when dusted with flour, paprika and garlic powder and dropped in a pot of hot oil.

By the way, based on our preliminary market research, somebody could make a killing around here selling fried matooke. Seriously people, why hasn't this become a thing? In a country where plantains and french fries are everywhere, it's so close. Just combine the two ideas. So delicious.

I just want to throw in that Michael Pollan is right (sweet article, by the way). Though seriously tasty, fried chicken is just too much damn work. Next time, it's back to roasting over tropical hardwood charcoal. And as far as cooking from scratch is concerned, if you're wondering how satisfying it is to have to cut off a chicken's head and pull out its guts out in order to eat chicken, the answer, of course, is that it's absolutely, cosmically satisfying.