Monday, September 22, 2008

Over the river, through the woods, to Brett's house I go...

This past weekend I decided to go visit my friend Brett in Jinja (a good sized town about 2 hours east of Kampala, site of the source of the Nile river, and hot spot for white water rafting). Brett is coming up on the end of her 2 years of service in the Peace Corps and has been working with a great organization in a village about an hour’s walk away.

I left work early on Friday about 5:00 to be able to get back to my house, throw some random clothes in my backpack and make my way to the taxi park downtown. The easiest way to get around during rush hour “jams” is to take a boda, or public motorcycle, praying the whole way that the car 3 inches from your side doesn’t swerve and take you and the speeding boda driver out. Usually if you ask them to go slowly or pole, they tend to listen. I managed to hop on a boda and make it to the taxi park around 10 to 6. The taxi park is an insane experience. A huge parking lot filled with VW vans, painted white with blue checkers across the side, and various short buses called “coasters.” Weaving in and out of the scene of organized chaos are hundreds of vendors and merchants trying to get you to buy their wares and supplying snacks and drinks to waiting passengers.

The park is hectic but somewhat ordered. The taxis clump in sections according to their regional destinations. You walk through the mayhem to try to hear someone yelling your area and then choose the vehicle that looks like it will fill up most quickly. I chose a coaster because the larger vehicles tend to move slightly slower and give you the illusion of more space. I squeezed into a small seat at the back of the coaster and waited for the rest of the thing to fill up. Once every seat is full the driver takes off, weaving through the mayhem and people out to the packed Kampala roads.

Driving, even in the country side brings you past throngs of cement roadside shops, wood furniture sales space, young men grilling meet on sticks to be sold to passing cars, vegetable and fruit stands, and hundereds and hundereds of people on bicycles. Buses and cars routinely swerve, attempting to dodge, potholes, pedestrians, cyclists, and boda drivers. The only stretch of road not bustling with people and shops is through a small forest shortly before arriving in Jinja. Along the main paved roads though you will never see an uninhabited strip, the sheer quanitity is incredible. This time the trip took about 2.5 hours because of traffic and I arrived in Jinja after dark. I hopped off the taxi right before the bridge across the river, hopped on one of the 10 bodas waiting to shuttle taxi riders around, and enjoyed the wind on my face as the driver zoomed down the dirt road to my friend’s house. It was so quiet, clean, and peaceful…already quite a change from Kampala.

I saw my friend sitting on the side of the road, had the boda slow down, and hopped off. The first thing I noticed was the unbelievably clear sky, peppered with an impressive number of stars…you could make out the cluster of the milky way clearly as a backdrop to bright shinnings in the sky. Brett’s house was part of a family compound. Gated at the edge of a hill drop off to Lake Victoria and the crossing of the Nile, her view was incredible and her house quite nice. She might be the luckiest peace corps volunteer (PCV) to have ever graced the earth. Her house had a kitchen, common entry area, living room, two bedrooms, and full bathroom with indoor plumbing, running (hot) water, electricity, and a fridge! It was quite the treat. When I arrived we chatted for a few hours and then put our weary selves to bed.

The next morning we woke up around 7am, showered, ate muslix, yogurt, honey, banana, and fresh papaya, and then made our way to her site so she could do an HIV/AIDS prevention training with school children. We walked for a little over an hour over red dirt trails weaving through the country side and around the backs of small villages. The land was green, lush, overgrown, and rolling. We passed men tilling soil in fields, children playing in streams, and women doing their weekend laundry. When we got to her organization I was blown away by the oasis they had created. Amidst a fairly dirty and very poor village was a well groomed compound, fresh cut grass grounds, a clean cement clinic and resource center and small wooden school house/cantine a few feet away. The place was bustling with peer educators, school children, and members of the community coming to get tested or treated. We walked over towards the peer educator meeting and Brett was just about knocked down clean by one of the school kids coming to hug her. Many of the kids were orphans and HIV positive themselves so loved the consistency and positive attention they got from Brett.

We waited around in true east Africa style for about an hour for the other facilitator to come with the materials for the lesson. When he finally showed the kids got started discussing examples of peer pressure and how to counter it. They went through role plays of pressure situations and then discussed positive role models and methods for staying safe and healthy. It was very interesting to watch. By noon we made our way back to Brett’s place and made some grilled cheese and salad, with fresh Ugandan avocado. We then made pumpkin vegetable stew and rested for a bit. Around 5pm we started walking to Jinja town, about another 45 minutes away. Once on the outskirts of the town, we hopped on bicycle bodas and rode into the city center. There we hopped on another packed taxi, went through some ridiculous routine of local youth pushing the taxi through the streets to get it moving and then were on our way to a near by campsite/rafting center.

Jinja town is well known for its rafting. The Nile has some serious rapids and tourists come from all over to take part. It is a bit of a weird dynamic since it does attract some college frat like individuals and almost entirely muzungus (white people/foreigners). We were heading to the rafting center because one of Brett’s fellow PCV’s sister was visiting and they decided to go rafting and hang out in Jinja for the weekend. Two other PCVs decided to join so we headed up for dinner and some beers. We ate largely American fare and drank Nile beer overlooking the falls and enjoying the sunset. Topped it all off with an ice cream brownie and then went to the outdoor bar to hang out with Brett’s friends.

While throwing back a few beers one of the people who had been in Brett’s friend’s raft came over to talk. We quickly discovered mutual friends and spent a good portion of the night laughing over how small of a world it truly is. Finally around midnight we had a special hire taxi pick us up and bring us back to Brett’s. We both passed out hoping to sleep for a good long while. Unfortunately the rooster outside the window didn’t wish for that to be the case. Come 6:30am incessant crowing…no use trying. We made some eggs, hung out, read, and talked. Finally around 11am I packed my bags and said good bye. I walked to the main road, hailed a boda, and was taken to the highway where I loaded into a taxi heading to Kampala and counted 17 people squeezed in. We would stop every 10 minutes or so to try to squeeze more people in or let others off. Right outside of Kampala the taxi stopped again and this time the runner told me to get out and switch to another Taxi. I was very confused but did as was told and set off to town in the new crowded taxi. Thankfully it all worked out and I got off a few blocks from the house, hailed another boda and was home.

I scarfed down some food, chilled for a bit and then hopped in the truck and drove to the country club to fit in a swim. When I had finished my workout I drove to the downtown supermarket, stocked up on the week’s lunch supplies and fruits, and picked up dinner from my favorite take out place. All in all I have to say a great weekend. Tomorrow my boss gets back from England and I’m sure the work will pick up greatly.

Monday, September 15, 2008

First comes the rain, then comes the ants

A lot of people have been asking me about where I’m staying and for other descriptions of Kampala. I expected it to be much hotter and more humid than it has been. When I was here last in February it was the height of the hot season and the air was heavier than DC summer. Expecting the same I dress for work in my lightest dresses only to catch a few chills as the sky turns gray, the wind starts blowing and the monsoon like rains fall. Usually I’m told the rain pours for 30 minutes then clears up to a beautiful sky but I have been through two large storms, each dumping for the majority of the day and then leaving a gray and overcast sky. Most days though it is bright and sunny.

A side effect of the rain are the ants. They are everywhere. At a certain point you just have to pretend they don’t exist. They crawl all over your bags, the kitchen counter tops, and floors. If you brush them to the side they scurry on their way, returning a few moments later. I’ve stopped flicking them away. Because of the usual humidity, the vast difference between day time and night time temperatures, and ants, most houses have cement like walls and tile floors. They are easier to wash and care for and keep the house cool in the heat. Windows are always open to allow for cross breezes. Almost no where has air conditioning, though with this weather I’m grateful for it.

Showering is a bit of an art. Even with my country director’s nice house you are dependent on small hot water heaters attached individually to each shower. At night before you go to bed, you flick a switch to heat up the water so you have some in the morning. There’s not much time to wake up though, because the hot water lasts 3 minutes tops then starts tapering into sharply cold. The rest of the house has all the amenities you could want: washer, dryer, refrigerator, TV, DSTV, couches, and a yard. No matter how nice the house or neighborhood, you are always subject to the random power outages. On Sunday the power was out from when I woke up in the morning until 5:45 that night. Most of the time it works pretty well though.

Right now, because of the rain, things are pretty green. Somehow though, no matter how wet it gets, the dust doesn’t disappear. It is a red dust that gets onto everything but is pretty easy to brush off bags and clothing. The western part of the country is even greener and populated with rolling hills and bits of forest. Kampala itself is also pretty hilly as it is affectionately known to be the city of seven hills. Our office sits on Nakasero lending itself to a beautiful view of two adjacent hills and the small valley.

Driving in the city is insane. There few lane markers and no street lights. Every major intersection is broken up by a round about, which makes traffic back up for 15 minute waits. Once you approach the roundabout you put your life in god’s hands and pray that the 20 cars jamming within 3 inches of your door have good enough breaks to avoid smashing you. If you navigate the circle you’re home free. During the morning and evening, the circles are all manned by traffic policemen and women. A few months ago, when the Queen of England visited, the government updated their usual khaki uniforms to a crisp full white outfit with white gloves. With the dust and number of cars it is an odd choice but certainly a unique look for the city.

Food wise, Uganda has a few main staples. Matoke, which is mashed green banana, is used almost as a rice replacement. People often eat it with lamb, beef, fish, or chicken curry, or ground nut sauce (peanut sauce…they call them gnuts, but still refer to the spreadable stuff as peanut butter). They also eat a ton of cassava, and usually top it all off with the Indian bread called Roti (flat, dense, greasy). Many American foods are available but you have to pay. Right now, Rice Crispies in a supermarket costs about $8-10 a box. There are a few fabulous fresh foods though that I can’t get enough of. Avocados are everywhere in every size you could imagine. They also have tons of Pineapples and they are so juicy and sweet. Their mango’s aren’t bad but tend to be pretty small. Apples are very expensive, and their non-imported oranges are green and tart. Lemons are also green.

I think that about covers my impressions of the city. Let me know if there is anything you’re curious about and I can add it on in.

Trucks, friends, and country clubs

On Saturday afternoon my friend Nick, who just started Peace Corps, and his friend came by on their way through the city. We hung out for a while at the house, letting the dirty peace corps kids get in a hot shower and some faster internet. We threw around the football for a while and then departed on my great adventure for the day. My country director left one of our organization trucks for me to drive if I could get acquainted with the roads here. Since Uganda is a former British colony they drive on the left side of the road. Normally that wouldn’t be that big of a deal but in Uganda they don’t have many if any stop signs and traffic lights so it’s really just a big game of merge. Right hand turns (cross traffic here) therefore scare the crap out of me. To add to the challenge the truck is a manual, meaning I have to shift with my left hand. It’s all very awkward.

Nick and I headed out for a few laps on quiet streets and then ventured out to the supermarket or as he called it, muzungumart (muzungu means white people and you get it shouted at you everywhere you go). After stocking up on some basic fruits, veggies, and yogurt we headed out to my favorite Kampala Indian restaurant, Kahna Kahzana. It is a truly bizarre place. Owned by Indians, fabulous food, servers are all Ugandan…in Indian clothing. It is a confusing sight. A friend of a friend who is living here joined us for dinner and we ate far too much for our own good and then headed back to the house to watch a movie and catch up.

Nick and his friend took off Sunday morning to get back to their sites and I did some reading since the power was out when we woke up. Later in the afternoon I headed to the Kabira country club with a friend to get in a lift and some laps in the very nice outdoor pool. The place is a completely different world. It is always jarring to see the juxtaposition of the extreme poor in developing countries with the affluence of foreign expats. If you saw only the neighborhood I’m staying in you would have a very rosey view of the reality of most Ugandans. I have electricity, running water, internet, cable, a yard, and a gate. All things one would take for granted in the US, but rarities in a country with high unemployment, 50% of the budget subsidized by foreign aid, and an ever growing divide between rich and poor. You may now call me Debbie downer 

Sunday, September 14, 2008


The hotel we had our retreat at was beyond nice. I don’t mean nice by African standards, I just mean nice. The rooms were huge, with big king sized beds and canopies with mosquito nets. The bathrooms were gianormous and had very modern, pressurized showers with glass doors. At the back of the room was a balcony overlooking lake Victoria and the surrounding hills. To top it all off they had installed flat screen tvs with satellite stations (8 instead of the usual 2). As nice as it all was we didn’t really have time to enjoy it.

By 9am we had started our retreat meetings. My country director has more than doubled our staff since being here so it was a really great chance to get all 10 people on the same page about our organization’s mission, our method for work, and the state of Ugandan politics today. We started off by listing out what democracy means to us. This elicited very general responses about the broader context: “freedom of expression without fear of retribution, informed populations, equality…” Our country director then began digging deeper, asking what does informed mean in reality. Informed who? Citizens? Leaders? Who is or isn’t informed? Who needs to be informed? Whose burden is the informing? Why does that matter to democracy? We discussed that one for about 1 hour and then moved onto freedom, and the reset of the terms. When we were done with that we moved on to identify the gaps in democracy in Uganda and tried to match those up with our programming. It was an incredibly tiring way of thinking but ended up being so worthwhile in more clearly defining our reason for being in Uganda and a picture of what we could accomplish in 4 years. On a personal level it was a really great chance to put the work I do into a more realistic and vital context.

The following day my country director left at 6am to head out of town with her family, leaving me in charge of the office and her Kampala house. I spent the first part of my day in the office trying to coordinate for an upcoming trip to the western districts of Kasese and Busheyni to conduct our final local organization selection interviews. If one of the staff members ends up having to attend to a family matter then I will be going in her place. To prepare for that possibility I had to read up on the local organizations’ application papers and get briefed on our selection process. We didn’t end up leaving the office until around 7:45pm at which point it started raining. It kept going so I decided to stay in, read and watch a movie. I finally got in some much needed sleep and woke up without an alarm…so nice.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Hitting the ground running

I arrived in Entebbe on Tuesday night around 8:30pm. When I stepped off the plane I was hit with that powerful smell associated with tropical developing countries. That slightly offensive yet wholly comforting mix of roadside bonfires and humid equatorial air. I don’t know why, but it always makes me happy. The plane landed about a 100 feet away from the gate so I savored the Ugandan night on the walk to the terminal. Once inside I joined the very long “queue” to get my single entry visa. I am always struck by how many missionaries are in East Africa and this time was no exception. Of the few hundred people on my flight I would say 75% were with a church group or mission sponsored trip. It really does add an interesting dynamic to the already diverse planeful of people.

After I got my bag, a driver picked me up and we headed the 40 minutes into Kampala where I am staying with my country director. By the time I got in it was around 10 pm and I was ready to crash. I stayed up talking with my director for a while and finally got to sleep around 12:30 or 1. The next morning I got up at 7:30am, got ready and headed into work…no rest for the weary! The first day was jam packed. Around 10am we headed to Parliament to meet with Members of Parliament (MPs) on the FDC (opposition party) parliamentary caucus rules and procedures committee. Since Uganda was a one party state until 2005, political parties are still incredibly new and weak. The ruling NRM is the party that held control for the 30 years following Idi Amin’s fall and has held the presidency and majority in Parliament since. The opposition parties are all currently trying to create structures, rules, and platforms, and decide what they stand for…all monumental tasks.

A part of our program is working with these parties’ members in parliament (making up a parliamentary caucus) to create some of these documents and policies. A caucus code of conduct states the expectations the party has of its members in parliament and delineates who communicates for the group, how decisions are made, how they make deals with other groups, and the consequences of breaking the rules or not showing up for work. We had worked with them to draft an initial document and during this meeting went over some of the practicalities to determine what additional clauses would be needed to accomplish their vision. In the end only the chairman and one staffer showed but it was still a very interesting meeting. It took us 3 hours however because every few minutes someone’s cell phone would ring, and in East Africa people always answer.

After the meeting we headed back to our office to prepare some materials for the staff retreat that was starting that evening. Later in the afternoon we met with a very young NRM MP (looked like he was my age) from the central district. He held a leadership position in the NRM caucus and came to speak with us about assistance we are going to provide on communications strategies. We settled on a working meeting in late September and then he had to get back to Parliament for session. An hour or so later, the NRM chief whip’s staffer came by to discuss constituency outreach assistance we will also be providing. Again, we discussed when we would be able to discuss the training (so typical). Around 7pm we left the office and headed 40 minutes towards lake Victoria to start our retreat. By the time we all got there, ate our dinner, and had a few beers we were too tired to do much of anything and headed to bed.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Uganda bound

I am still amazed at just how exhausted I still am from the whole ILF experience. It’s incredible how the body can push off draining effects until you have time to be tired. The first thing my boss said to me when he saw me the Tuesday I got back to the office was “what on earth did ILF do to you? I want my Rojack back” Apparently I was quiet, subdued, rambling and slow…I guess that’s not normal for me.

I allowed myself a few days of 9-6 work days with appropriate tv viewing and laziness in the evening. Labor day weekend I tried to get in one last good ride in rural Maryland but my knee was so bad that I couldn’t make it past 5 miles before it completely gave out. My two friends who had gone the 1hour up north with me were beyond kind and understanding and we decided to go peach picking instead…not all was lost, but I was certainly frustrated.

By Wednesday however I had to acknowledge that I would be leaving in a few days for Uganda and Tunisia. Magically my exhaustion disappeared enough for me to run all my errands, catch up with friends, complete my 6am swims, organize my work materials, and busily prepare for 5.5 weeks out of the country. Not even a tropical storm/hurricane could stop the insane errand running that was taking place!

I write this as I am sitting on a plane to Amsterdam, fully drained, and trying not to physically harm the two people in front of me who have not stopped loudly talking for the entire flight…I may or may not have passively aggressively kicked the man’s seat a few times to send the message that I would greatly appreciate it if he could kindly shut up long enough for me to fall asleep. But that’s just the cranky tiredness talking.

Turns out my colleague is on the same flight so when we land in Amsterdam we can enjoy an early breakfast together, use the internet, and wait for our connecting flights. She’s heading to Kenya so we’ll say good bye then.

After this post I will be getting on another 8.5 hour flight for Entebbe where I land at 8:15pm. The next morning I’ll head to the office in Kampala and then be shuttled off to a staff retreat followed by a dinner with the whips of the opposition parties. The following day my country director will leave the country and I’ll be on my own to a degree. I’ll try to post at some point before then. In the meantime I will have e-mail access so please update me on your lives since I have been so preoccupied with mine.

Monday, September 8, 2008

It's a wrap

I woke up earlier than I’d liked to have on Friday morning because we had to check out of the dorms by 10am. Unfortunately our flight was not until 4pm so my friend and I wanted to head out for a leisurely breakfast or hang out in town. Our operations team however hadn’t really thought through our transport so we were, to put it lightly, screwed over. With no one to watch our luggage, no way to the airport unless we left at 8am for the city to catch a shuttle, we called a cab and headed to the airport at 10:30. We spent the rest of the day hanging out in the not so exciting Denver International Airport. Closer to our flight time I ran into two of my colleagues, an incredibly nice and funny Irish couple who were unfortunately leaving us to move back home.

While I sat and caught up with them we were briefly interrupted when the wife noticed a friend of theirs walking by the gate. She called him over and then told me that he was Tom, a good friend from the DNC. I said Tom? As in Dean’s Tom? She said yes….I said, as in campaign legend Tom? She said yes….I said, as in executive director of the DNC Tom….again, yes. As he approached they introduced me and told him that since they were moving he would have to adopt and take care of me. He pulled me over to his side and said of course. I told him that if put on an Irish accent it would go a long way in making me feel at home…he asked if New Jersey would do.

Throughout the flight he would pass by and joke around with me. Palin had just been announced as McCain’s VP pick and I was watching CNN coverage while on the plane. It was a little surreal to discuss the Republican’s strategy with someone sure to be involved in the Democratic response and quite an appropriate book end to the insane political week.

We got in at around 10:30 at night and I promptly passed out...I am still recovering from the marathon week but better do it quickly. Next adventure up: Uganda!

I'm on my soap box

To some degree I regret waiting so long to write and post this selection but between the insanity of the last few days of the convention and my attempt to recover back at the office I just couldn’t sit down and write. By now certain details are hazy but I will do my best to describe what was quite an appropriate ending to my marathon week.

Since Thursday was Invesco day we had a shorter programming schedule to allow our participants to make their way to the giant stadium for Obama’s acceptance speech. During the one panel of the day I made final arrangements with the Secretary for two last meetings and got the room set for the Prime Minister of Mauritius and a few key members of the OECD. After all the meetings we had our closing lunch. Mark Warner gave a great key note speech and you could see joy creeping across people’s faces as the lunch ended signaling a close to our most intensive responsibilities….we had finished and it went well! Our President was visibly giddy and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. As the participants loaded on their special escorted buses to gain special entry to Invesco I stuck around to head over later with my boss.

After some hugging and self congratulations we loaded into her car and were driven to the convention hall to park and catch the special shuttle to the stadium. It took us about an hour and a half to do the whole thing, which was nothing compared to most people’s required 11:30-4pm wait. Once in the stadium we were all a little concerned about how many seats remained to be filled. The place was HUGE and with all the trouble the DNC had given us and others about access it would be a big scandal if they failed to fill it. Of course there was no reason to worry. As the likes of Sheryl Crowe, Wiliam, and Stevie Wonder played, tens of thousands of people poured in packing the place. As the sun began to set the energy was palpable. At one point we got the wave going about 8 times around the whole place. 85,000 people packed into a stadium to express their hope for change and desire to be an active member of their country, doing a giant wave with flags in hand was just the tip of exciting for the evening.

I found myself needing to close my awe dropped jaw every few minutes just trying to comprehend how massive this place was. There were just so many people there and it was for a political event. I really could just not get over it. As the momentum built I started to realize just how tired I was. I couldn’t make myself cheer or clap for the first half and actually started dozing off a few times leading up to Obama’s speech! But as he got going no level of exhaustion could win out.

I am still grasping for the words to appropriately describe what being there for the Obama speech was like. You’ve all seen the pictures, so you understand the scale of it all, but having that energy, that cheering, that chanting was mind boggling. I apologize if the following seems slightly soap boxy but this was the most affecting part for me:

For the past 8 years, the majority of my adult life, I have watched with envy as people from various countries wrap themselves in their flags during the world cup and other international competitions to cheer on their teams and express their pride in their countries. I am a deeply patriotic person and it has pained me to feel for so long as if the symbol of my country was stolen from me, hijacked and made to represent something that I did not believe in. I’ll tell you, I waved a flag that whole night and cannot begin to explain how proud and happy those few hours made me. In the course of 2 minutes, Barack reclaimed the patriotism that I believe in. He said everything that I have been waiting for the Democratic party to say. How dare you question my patriotism simply because I disagree with your ideology and policy. How dare you claim that I am un-American for questioning your decisions. I believe what makes this country great is its diversity of thought, opinion, expression, and people. That is what the American flag symbolizes to me. It is so much deeper than a blind support of leadership and it so much bigger than political ideology. I am a democrat and a proud liberal, but I am first an American just like republicans, just like independents, and just like every other citizen of this amazing country. And that night I could say definitively that I, standing next to 85,000 other cheering, flag waving people, was a very proud American.

Obama’s speech was good, not his most profound but it did what it needed to. However, what I think will be remembered from that night is the symbolism of so many Americans celebrating our democracy, standing up and saying, I am a part of this country, I am a part of this movement, and I will be a part of this future. It was beyond inspiring. Those of you who know me well know I am not a very emotional person. But as I stood with fireworks going off above me, music from Remember the Titans playing (some more symbolism for you), the Obama and Biden families waving on stage, and 85,000 people waving their flags and screaming their hearts out, I got a little choked up. It was some powerful stuff. And though the pundits may say it was all just a bunch of stage craft, what was so powerful to me had nothing to do with the fireworks or roman like stage. It was the mass expression of the American people, a gathering of historic proportions. Walking away from that stadium you just felt like the election was about so much more than the typical democrats vs. republicans. What I had just experienced was about our country and our return to that great nation of inspiration and opportunity. I can only hope that in the coming months the campaign is not pulled into such negative and phony minutiae that we forget the spirit of this movement, because if it is successful it has the power to fundamentally change so much for the better.

I am done preaching, I warned you it might happen if you all let me have a blog J Needless to say however, the final night of the convention did not disappoint.