This week in Kampala…

… a young man of maybe 25 walked up the stairs to our office (all five flights) and approached me on the front balcony – he looked a bit old for secondary school but with a bundle of papers under one arm and an ill fitted tie I was prepared for either the “I’d like a job” pitch or the “can you help me with school fees” pitch.  Instead I got:

Him: Hi, I have just started an investment company.

Me: Oh.  Ok, what can I do for you today?

Him: Well, how can your business help my business?

Me: Well, we’re not a business.  Wait a second, what did you just say?!

By far the best business pitch I’ve heard all week.  I debated, and then refrained from, explaining that occasionally we evaluate interventions that seek to train micro-entrepreneurs in basic business practices and maybe he could sign up to learn something about sales.

… a four car freight train came rumbling through town, crossing a main artery during rush hour, backwards.  Here there aren’t exactly any flashing lights or electric wands that descend to block the flow of traffic.  Fortunately a few astute drivers had their windows down, heard the extending blare of the fog horn and looked up in time to stop traffic.  I pulled up just in time to see the unlit backside of a freight car leading the way through town as the conductor, at the other end, was leaning out his door to see if they were about to crush anyone.  And then we proceeded.

… a man riding a bicycle down a hill by my flat with a full size six foot overstuffed couch strapped to the back.  Of all the things I’ve seen carried, that takes the cake – I hope someone was meeting him at the bottom of the hill.

… MTN, the largest telcom provider in Uganda, has a massive new billboard up the road that reads:

The UN has declared that internet access is a human right.  So we’re giving you that access for free.

Definitely the wittiest crack at the UN I’ve seen in the public forum.  Also an indication that internet here is really starting to catch on.  For a town without too many internet cafes (professionals / expats all have wireless USB modems) there are now a slew of billboards by Google promoting Gmail and the wireless providers promoting various packages.

Part of the challenge with keeping the blog going has been that many of the things I see day to day are no longer such novelties – this was a good week for novelties.

From Ghana

I’ve been away from the blog for more than a few weeks.  A friend recently shuttered her “life in Uganda” blog on the anniversary of her arrival in the country – I am thinking I will stick with this but am not sure how frequently or exactly what topics will come up.  Regardless of what I promise it will largely be a matter of when the mood strikes me, frankly I’ve got more going on now, both work wise and extracurricular, than I did for most of the spring.

I certainly have not kept quiet for lack of material.  Kampala has been interesting of late.  As I mentioned before, the government is broke.  Soon after the Shilling plummeted it was announced that the government has failed to pay private power companies the better part of the electricity bill for the last three months which led to load shedding throughout Kampala (and likely extended blackouts outside the city) which prompted the city’s merchants to call a two day strike.  The matatu drivers also struck for two days leaving thousands of Ugandans with no real economical means of getting to work.  Boda drivers doubled their prices and had a field day.  It’s so easy to talk about these things as “oh, life in Uganda” but really it comes down to the government having abused the treasury to ensure a landslide victory for the president in last February’s election.  And that glaringly obvious detail is something people are quite comfortable discussing and seem to accept.  Museveni actually wrote a rather wacky op-ed in the Monitor where he simultaneously proclaimed that a) Uganda would prosper through export led growth due to a weaker Shilling and, b) that Uganda must increase production and exports in order to ensure that the Shilling will rebound against foreign currencies.  I’m not a macroeconomist but neither is he.  Piece here.

Tomorrow’s the final day of the Ghana edition of IPA’s annual training for new staff.  IPA trainings are kind of like nerd camps for development types.  Try as we might, most casual conversations are interspersed with the words: survey, random, measurement, impact, data, sample, random, significance, field, random and power.  The five day program includes some beginning sessions on why we do what we do and then gets into some rather technical details on how we go about managing field research, specifically randomized control trials.  I came over in part to lead a session on electronic data collection (using computers / smartphones) which was pretty interesting and perhaps the only somewhat contentious discussion of the week.  There are two competing hardware / software solutions being widely used by IPA and the primary issue of contention is that nobody, myself included, understands both.  There’s the Blaise camp and the Pendragon Forms camp and trying to figure out exactly which is best in which instances, and the limitations of each, has been very interesting.  Frankly it sounds like if you have a lot of time and some programming experience you can do a lot with Blaise, which runs on netbooks.  That said, Pendragon is far simpler to program, runs on smartphones / PDAs, and there isn’t anything in a 1,000+ question survey that we cannot program.

Ghana is interesting, the food is a huge step above the Ugandan cuisine, Accra feels like a huge sprawling town with a good size middle class, and the beach, well, the beach is always nice.  Soon it’s back to Uganda and work, which is going well and I’ll write more about later.

On Currency

This is one of several old blog post ideas that I never got around to.  Maybe only marginally of interest:

The current exchange rate is 1USD : 2,392UGX (Uganda Shilling).  A one-thousand shilling note is the smallest paper bill; I generally just think of the two-thousand shilling note as a dollar but know that I’m actually paying less, whatever.  The largest bill is the fifty-thousand which now comes to just over $20.  Uganda, like most comparable countries, is an entirely cash economy, which necessitates that people sometimes carry large amounts of cash in thick wads bound with rubber bands or in a count-and-fold system that the locals have mastered and the rest of us struggle with.

That’s not the interesting part though.  What is interesting, especially in the rural areas, is this: the smallest coin in wide circulation and regularly accepted is the one-hundred shilling coin.  Worth about four cents, these are not coins that I dump on my desk at the end of the day; in the village, one coin would buy a bunch of small sweet bananas, an avocado, a cup of tea, or a chapati.  In Kamwenge town, two would buy a chapati or an avocado, three got a bunch of bananas, five got me a boda ride home, eight a small pineapple.  Of course one hundred shillings doesn’t go as far in Kampala, which is funny because produce in Kampala is very cheap compared to prices back home but feel high to me now relative to what I was accustomed to paying in Kamwenge.  Point being, while few in America these days ever buy something for a nickle, sellers have the option of setting prices to the precision of a penny; in Uganda, the smallest unit of currency, widely accepted, is also the unit price of many common items.

So what to do when prices start creeping up?  These days Uganda, as the newspapers have made abundantly clear, is going through a period of significant inflation, especially in food and energy commodities.  Take flour for instance – I can’t actually tell you exactly what a kilo of flour is today or what it was six months ago – but suffice it to say that the price did not increase by 50%.  But the price of chapati in Kamwenge did – because that’s the only unit of change available to the vendor.  And that wouldn’t be a problem if we were buying in bulk, but when the single unit cost of an item usually bought one by one is equal to the smallest denomination, well, that’s the recipe for an inefficient market.

Another interesting anecdote: the variety of items commonly available in rural areas is minimal.  Within a given town or region, nobody ever asks the price of a bottle of water, a bar of soap, a pack of peanuts, a stack of five tomatoes, or, as in the case above, a chapati.  People are shocked when prices do change, and I expect this partially explains why the price of a 1.5liter bottle of water recently changes from 1,000 to 1,200; they could have increased the price in two incremental shifts but throughout the country one store after another made the same 20% adjustment.  My read on it is this: producers are so rarely afforded the opportunity to change their prices that when they get the chance they seize the day, and we end up paying nine cents more for that bottle of water.

Gaddafi Mosque

As I’ve mentioned, the massive and prominent Gaddafi Mosque is right up the road from my current residency.  This past weekend I dressed up like a mzungu tourist – sunglasses and a camera in addition to my regular attire – and went for a walkabout.  Given that my only real experience visiting religious sites in foreign countries has been confined to Europe and Istanbul, I was expecting some rich history and a view into some previous era of religious worship in Uganda.  After the guard at the gate retrieved the napping tour guide I was given a private tour of the mosque inside and out (not sure anyone else came through that day).

Although I had not noticed from afar, the mosque is very modern.  The original plans were designed during the Amin era but the site lay dormant for decades until in 2003 Col. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya stepped in to fund the entire project from scratch.  At that time they scrapped the original drawings in favor of the current design.  Gaddafi covered all construction costs and a generous 25 year endowment to cover operations and maintenance.  He and Amin were buddies back in the day but I’m still not too sure what led him to get involved again.  The mosque is beautiful but stark – and came across as slightly out of place.  With prayer space for 7,000 men and 1,000 women, the interior is cavernous but on Eid – the largest prayer service of the year – the Muslim population of Kampala can barely fill even half the hall.  To provide a more intimate environment they usually opt for a smaller side building for daily prayers and only  use the main hall on special occasions.

Gaddafi didn’t cut any corners – the rugs are Libyan, the stained glass comes from Ethiopia, the solid mahogany doors and window trim came from the DRC, all the masonry was done by Egyptians flown in for the job.  The bright sunlight filters through the soft yellow, blue and green glass to light the room nicely – but my guide insisted on showing off the chandeliers which when fired up cast down the sharp white glare of 1,000 little CFLs.  It’s beautiful, but in a different sense.  The guide made multiple comments about the inability for Uganda to cover even maintenance of such a site, much less the construction.


So Uganda, much like Kenya, is not internationally renown for its food.  And, as previously noted, I am still making do without a kitchen, so here’s a rundown of the more memorable food moments from the last week or so.  I have already gone on about Rolex – unfortunately my favorite Rolex duo from Supa Rolex are a couple sleepy teenagers and don’t start cooking before I leave for work.  That leaves only about a dozen other stands on the street with marginally weaker omelet wraps.

We’ve found “Luwombo Best” for lunch – where you get “food” – which can include, depending on the day and your ability to tease out the menu options from a reluctant server, a massive plate of rice, beans, cow peas (yummy), pumpkin, sweet potatoes, russet potatoes (called “Irish”), cassava,  posho (local ugali), greens, and probably a couple other items we’re yet to discover – all for about shillings (just under $1).  Then, you’ve got to try the luwombo itself at least once.  The presentation is great, a stew of either chicken or goat or fish that is cooked wrapped up in a big leaf bound in twine and set inside this steaming pot for who knows how long.  That said, the display is much finer than the meat.

The other lunch alternative, which we tried yesterday, is burgers and fries from a local place just across the street.  After 30 minutes the young manager came out and promised that it would take another 5 minutes as they were just having some slight technical difficulties (they ran out of gas) and that they tried to operate like McDonald’s and this wait would never happen again.  Sure enough, 25 minutes later we had our first and last burgers from the Sea Scallop Restaurant.

Dinner the other night was certainly memorable – one of the IPA interns and I walked into the takeaway chicken market on Sunday night and were immediately surrounded by at least 8 different vendors, all pulling us towards their stands to show us their rotisserie chickens that appeared completely identical to those at every other stand.  So while no one vendor would distinguish his product on the basis of price or quality or waiting time, the competition was intense.  We finally just sat down at one stall and after a decent wait had a great chicken dinner with cabbage and chapatti (completely manageable with two people – an unfortunate situation for anyone trying to take down one on their own).  However tonight, same place, about the same time, same two mzungus, and nobody paid us any attention and we had to place our order like regular human beings.

The Office & the Dorm-room

I haven’t really posted at all on what exactly it is I’m doing in that office for the better part of every day, so here goes: the first step of any evaluation is conducting a baseline survey to understand the current state of affairs.  A good baseline needs to ask questions about every aspect of a family’s life that one suspects might be impacted by the intervention under investigation.  For instance – if we want to understand the impact of a rainwater storage device on school attendance, we need to collect precise attendance records from both before and after the intervention.  That’s the easy part – the harder part is trying to build a picture of a rural family’s level of economic activity when many are at least partly self sufficient or are not paid in cash wages.

The first step to conduct a baseline survey is to build a survey, and that is what I am doing.  Typical baselines can run anywhere from 5 to 50 pages, from 50 to 400 questions, and need to pass approval by a Human Subjects board at whatever university the research is affiliated with (Yale in our case).  This process is the same (or very similar, not sure actually) for psych, medical, sociology, or any other type research involving surveys or experiments on people.  Although the approval process can be a pain, I think it’s actually a good check to ensure that questions are properly worded (not leading, not offensive, etc.), but that said, you really don’t want to raise any flags when you send in a survey for approval.  So, I am in the process of reviewing a wealth of previous surveys that were successfully conducted by IPA around the world and using the best sections from each to create one stellar survey.  I have also been able to observe a training of enumerators (survey conductors) and will hopefully get out to observe the actual survey process in the next week or so, just observing the process once or twice will undoubtedly help me organize my own survey in due time.  Once we have a polished draft of a survey and submit it for review it’ll probably time for me to head to Kamwenge to find a place to live, start talking to local officials and set up logistics.

For the last week I’ve been coming home to Nana Hostel – which IPA is slowly taking over, there’s four of us in here now.  It’s a pretty large establishment, 5 floors, probably 40 doubles on each floor, located just a 5 minute walk from Makarere University’s campus.  Randomly most of the university students that I’ve met are from Kenya (not representative at all); there seems to be something going on where kids come here from Nairobi because school is cheaper but arguably just as good, and then they go right back because there are more and better jobs in Nairobi than there are here.  I’ve noticed some subtle and not so subtle tension between these Kenyan guys and the locals on more than one occasion.  The rooms are pretty big and cheap, each has it’s own little balcony.  Laundry service for $2 a week was a blessing, except my socks came back about 18” long!?  There are stoves on each level but I am still lacking my own fork much less cooking utensils and pots, so it’s been a lot of street food and small restaurants for dinners – very much looking forward to my own place with a kitchen and cooking my own meals.

The sounds outside this place at night are nuts – as I started to write the little kiosk selling CD rip-offs was blasting some Jay-Z just as the call to prayer came out from Gaddafi mosque right up the hill.  The windows over the door to the balcony are just screens, so at night I hear: from 10 to 1am – general hoopla, loud music, the regular trucks/matatus/bodas sans mufflers, etc.  From 1 – 4 or so I’ve awoken to dog fights nearly every night – ok, maybe it’s just dogs howling, I haven’t investigated, but it sounds like a bloodbath.  And then about 6 to 7 every morning it could be VT – just roosters, cows, and the occasional old truck rumbling by.  That said, I’m actually sleeping alright.

K, time to go stake out a seat for the US –Ghana game, this is going to get heated.  Tonight we’re not the local favorites for the first time since the tournament began.  But there’s plenty of mzungus where we’re headed – but that’s for another post…

6/23 – A Method to the Madness

Many of my one on one interactions with Ugandans so far have been with boda (motorbike taxi) drivers.  Primarily because we take them everywhere and those with a solid command of English love to chat.  At first glance, and most subsequent glances, the boda system looks like complete madness.  As is customary with taxis, you must negotiate the price before getting on the bike, if you pay more than 60% of what they ask, you’re getting ripped off (to the tune of maybe 50 cents…).  During traffic hours (read, most waking hours) a boda can get from point A to point B probably three or four times faster than even a private car.  They honk incessantly, sometimes to say “hi”, sometimes to say “move”, other times to say “don’t hit me”. To get a boda is about the easiest thing in the world: every passing boda will honk at a mzungu and unless you give some direct indication that you are not interested they will usually stop.  However there is a difference between the passing bodas and the ones sitting in a group at the corner.  These corners, called “stages”, operate like small enterprises: to preserve their reputations the stage manager keeps a record of each driver’s license and passport number.  In order to join a stage you need someone to vouch for you and to file papers with certain offices – and I’ve heard there are other wrights of passage which I am not yet aware of.  This way if anything goes awry, someone can be held accountable.  My driver from the last couple nights explained that he works from 5am to 7pm and then goes home to be with his family.  He owns his bike (many do not) but does not rent it out to anyone else because it’s pretty old and he must take good care of it.  He appeared to be one of the leaders of his stage and supports a family of 4 children from what he described as a decent job.  He even socializes with the other members of his stage and they join up with one or two other stages to form a football team every year.

Which brings me to football – last night I skipped out of work by 5 to go down to a nearby pitch  to see if I could find a game (“pitch” might bring to mind imagines of green – oddly, the barren red clay surface is surrounded by a good deal of grass on all sides).  Some high school boys had said that I could probably play with the team that practices there, and as I approached the coach he asked if I wanted to “train” with them, he just nodded and told me to get changed.  I’m not sure if they’re practices usually draw such a crowd but I am not in the best shape these days and was panting pretty hard by the end of warm-ups.  I was quickly assigned to defense, and one of the younger guys on offense (it’s an 18+ club team) started cheating to my side of the field and laughingly told me he realized I was tired and he was not so he was going to play my side all night.  Not sure whether it was the super fast kids, the uneven and slippery playing surface, the dry air, or the slight altitude, but I got a proper workout for the first time in a long time.   That said, either I did alright or merely for the comic relief they invited me to come back anytime.  I hastily made up some excuse about having to work later the next few nights and that I would come back soon – in all actuality I knew there was no way I’d be able to run today…

6/21 – More Chimps, Brazil, & Rolex

One of the other IPA Uganda projects just getting started is a study of payment schemes to farmers to preserve their wooded lands which act as corridors for chimps to access various forests and reserves. One of the partners on that project is the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Wildlife Conservation Trust (CSWCT) which owns and operates Ngamba Island, a sanctuary for chimps that have been rescued from human abuses (being kept as pets, attempts to smuggle them out of the country, etc: crazy stuff) or injury. On Sunday the partner was kind enough to invite IPA out for a free tour of their island and operation. 15 miles from shore, out on Lake Victoria, the 100 acre island is home to 44 chimps and a handful of staff and researchers. We arrived just in time for feeding and watched the frenzy from observatory platforms. Interestingly, unlike on Friday when we were in the woods no more than 30 feet from these guys, the staffers at the island never interact with the chimps without a solid steel fence in the middle (unless it’s just some of the younger more playful ones). In my mind it would be the wild chimps one would worry about but our guide explained that many of these animals have had very bad experiences with humans in the past, and our closest relatives have pretty good memories.

Sunday evening we decided to look for a different venue for the Brazil – Cote D’Ivoire game (I already swallowed my pride for supporting Cote D’Ivoire) and found ourselves in Kyebando on the outskirts of Kampala. Previously I had commented that Kampala had nicer roads then Nairobi, but I realized that I am staying much closer to downtown Kampala than I even did to downtown Nairobi, so who knows. Just across Northern Bypass Road (the equivalent to Rt 128 outside Boston) the blacktop disappeared altogether and the dark dusty streets were lit by headlights and small lanterns or candles in the street-side kiosks. I had gotten directions from a friend but didn’t really know where to go from the main market so when I got off the boda I must have looked somewhat lost. One man mentioned, almost in passing, that my two friends were just up ahead on the right – unlike in downtown Kampala, mzungus are a pretty rare sighting in such areas. We crammed into a room with rows of tightly packed benches and paid about 25 cents each to watch the game on three decent screens up front. We had thought we were headed to a bar, but there were no distractions from the game in this joint – it got pretty exciting for a while until Brazil started to dominate and interest waned considerably.

For a couple days I had been doing chapatti and bananas for breakfast but had been too stubborn to ask what all the eggs were about. My best discovery of the week: Rolex. Rolex, which apparently comes from “rolled eggs”, is a two egg omelet sandwiched between two chapatti and then rolled up into a sort of deep fried breakfast burrito. Both parts could do with significantly less vegetable oil but they’re mighty tasty and filling for about 40 cents every morning. One interesting contrast to Kenya – most of the small street food vendors are men or young boys, whereas in Kenya it was almost exclusively women. Also, the intersection up the road specializes in rotisserie chicken, and I got a whole chicken (I didn’t know at the time you could ask for a half…) with cabbage and chapatti from Obama’s Chicken Takeaway for dinner the other night. I even heard an Obama speech ringtone in the office yesterday…

“Now wave your flag…”

Throughout Kampala there are billboards promoting the World Cup under taglines such as “Many nations, one goal” or “Let’s Go Africa, Let’s go 2010”.  No east African country is represented in the World Cup but that hasn’t put a damper on games involving one of the other African teams.  Tonight all eyes were glued and radios tuned to the Ghana – Serbia game, and just after getting off the phone with my friends at Kenyan Airlines (they swear my bags will be here by 10pm tonight), the entire neighborhood erupted in joy as Ghana went up 1-0 on a penalty kick.

After hearing a couple locals badmouth their Kenyan and Sudanese neighbors I wasn’t sure how strong the solidarity would be for other African football (not soccer, happy Canem?) squads.  Wrong again.  It was a pretty cool energy in the streets.  I watched the rest of the game in a “Pork Joint” – not something I ran into in Kenya – and I’ll never want to know what part of what pig that meat came from but the marinade was delicious and the Congolese music blended well with the game.  I wasn’t quite as psyched by the side of raw (or perhaps boiled?) cassava, a local staple that I’m going to say is probably an acquired taste.  While still far from a VT microbrew, Bell, the local beer of choice, is far superior to it’s Kenyan rival, Tusker, in my humble opinion.  Subjects for blog posts to come include: the Sheraton Hotel  (I’m not staying there), picking a boda driver, more on billboards, that upcoming election, really red dirt, and potentially something relevant to my job…


A collection of observations, thoughts and experienced going back to 2010.