Life / Work Update

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind.  I recently applied to transition from my current position on the Rainwater Storage Device evaluation in Kamwenge to a new IPA project in Kampala.  The project is a little different than the traditional line of work for IPA, namely rigorous impact evaluations, instead we plan to work with NGOs to support and improve upon their Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) systems.  Two weeks ago I got the new job, last weekend was spent looking for an apartment in Kampala, and the past four days were spent running around Kamwenge putting things in order before my departure.  Yesterday I packed up my life and hitched a ride with a government truck headed into Kampala.

And with that I said goodbye to Kamwenge.  While this is a transition I wanted, and am very excited for, it was oddly strange to leave.  Many of the things I loved about Kamwenge in the first six months lost their glow in the spring (eg: doing my laundry by hand on Sunday mornings went from a refreshing chance for some mental housekeeping to a monotonous chore).  At first the pace of work kept me preoccupied but this spring, with a more regular work schedule, I definitely hit the doldrums from time to time.  I had all the time in the world to read and cook and play soccer.  If I had decided to I could have set myself to studying the local language or volunteering in one of the nearby schools.  I never did either of those things; partly because I wound up not being there for much of the last three months, but mostly because I wasn’t comfortable initiating a commitment I couldn’t keep.  In the end I had three good friends in Kamwenge.  They are all guys who are young, smart, and eager to succeed and I’ll miss seeing them around town and learning from them.  While most of the town recognized me as the mzungu who lived “up at Balaam’s place”, to them I was still just that, another mzungu.  And after another year in Kamwenge, or even three, I’m not sure that would have changed.

One thing sank in this spring: in being the only outsider in a community it’s easy to forget that there was another before me and there will be an endless stream of others that follow.  For the first several months last summer I was frequently called Stuart around town.  Each time I corrected them, No, Stuart was a Canadian man and he left Kamwenge several months ago. Frequently I also had to explain that not only were we not brothers, I had in fact never met the man.  Similarly I imagine that anyone who shows up in town this summer will hear my name from time to time.  We outsiders operate much like a revolving door, turning over in time with the projects we come to implement.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to live and work in a rural setting.  I don’t think I would have been content if my first position had been in a developing capital.  That said, I am ready to live in Kampala, ready to have colleagues in an office and share an apartment with a roommate, ready to have the regular amenities of a city (supermarkets with perishable items, sandwich shops, tennis courts, live music, decent internet, etc.), and the daily interaction with other expats.

Professionally, I’m excited for the new challenge.  The M&E project is still very much an abstract idea: NGOs often want or need to evaluate the impact their projects have on beneficiaries.  IPA does really great impact evaluations but the methods we employ are sometimes simply not feasible for certain NGOs and are not appropriate for certain types of projects (eg: first pilots).  That said, excluding a long and expensive RCT style evaluation, what is the best method for NGOs that want to evaluate their projects?  What data should they collect?  And, ideally, how should they interpret and use the data they collect?  We don’t know all the answers to these questions and therein lies the challenge of this new initiative.  Personally the appeal of the project is this idea that we can help bridge the gap between rigorous evaluations and actionable M&E work.  Hopefully the partnerships that we form and the systems we propose will build upon current best practices and help NGOs better understand their current projects and use this knowledge to implement better projects in the future.

The ordinary: bicycles

This is a first post attempt to try to describe in writing some of the many things that are truly ordinary in my daily observations.  There are many simple phenomenon that are not special or unique but fascinating nonetheless and perhaps even more difficult to portray in a balanced and sensitive manner.  Bicycles are a pretty easy one, malnourished children are far more difficult. We’ll see what I can do with it – maybe it will become a Saturday thing.  Everything that follows should be prefaced with: In this corner of rural western Uganda…

There’s something pastoral and idyllic in seeing the mzee peddling, gliding, meandering through the village on what was once a shiny black single speed.  If he’s a herder he’ll keep the ubiquitous short wooden staff propped up on a shoulder, a third appendage connecting handlebar to core.  Or to see the young boys hot-shotting; one hand, no hands, drifted corners, the passenger on the rear wheel rack laughing in unison.  But most often bicycles are a means of industrious transport.

Bicycles are not ridden uphill.  Flat, check; downhill, golden; uphill, bicycles carry only the weary upper body of the man as the rest of him follows, the left leg crossing the right on each step of his angled slog.  There’s the nonchalant hunch, elbows resting, arms crossed, hands draped casually over the handlebars; the return trip.  Then there’s the market trip; there’s a fight in the weight of the fruit of the labor, one last push to get product to market, one last effort to make a buck.  A fifty kilo half sack of maize for the mill?  No biggy.  The angle grows slightly, the hands grip the cheap shiny bars, left right left right, maybe the shirt comes off, depends on the weather.  Six bunches of matooke (green bananas)?  That load calls for full exertion and maybe a Heisman pose – right arm wrapped snug around a bunch of bananas, left extended to the handlebars to keep that sucker in line.

One size fits all.  How tall do you have to be to ride a bicycle?  To pilot, we’ll say four feet even.  Passengers need only the ability to sit upright and hold on; we’ll say three years old, two with proper supervision.  At four feet tall your inseam just isn’t long enough to sit astride and reach the pedals – but you are nimble enough to weasel the right leg between toptube and downtube and determined to succeed at all costs.  The arms quake, the right can barely reach the handlebar, wrapped as you with your center of mass listing ten inches to port.  The counterweight is the bike, plus maybe the tongue hanging out to the right.  And maybe your passengers / younger siblings lean right to help the cause.

Bike helmets?

Roadmaster, Hero, Avon, they come in black with different variations of decals true to the Manchester United color scheme.  The spring cushioned seat: if ever there was a design intended to spur the sale of replacement parts it is the standard issue spring cushioned seat.  Yes the roads are rough, and no the bikes don’t have shocks, but the glorious relief of the spring cushioned seat is short lived.  After weeks or months in that granny saddle the rear springs go first, the nose starts to rise in the front, and soon enough the wide winged seat is aimed skyward.  The common remedy is to pull out the seatpost and rest the saddle, springs removed, directly on the toptube – no relief there.

What can’t be loaded onto the rack on the back of a bicycle?  Two adults.  A cow – a goat or medium sized pig in the lap of a passenger, yes, but a cow, not likely.  No more than a dozen hanging chickens – but up to 50 in a large papyrus basket.  The hanging chicken off the handlebars is one of the great spectator sights: said bird has its feed bound with a scrap of twine or maybe just some long dried grass and then the feet are looped over the handlebars, sometimes up to three each side.  If the bird has other inverted company he plays it cool, strength in numbers.  If not he’s likely to keep two eyes dead ahead; calmly examining the trajectory and the impending jostles.  I’ve never seen a hanging bird struggle, cluck or cock-a-doodle-doo.  Pineapples or cabbage, no more than maybe 60, each held in place with an intricate series of twists and binds of dried grass and elastic rubber ties.  No more than four crates of soda.  No timber over four meters in length accompanied by no more than one sack of concrete.

Ever tried to start a single speed from a standstill?  No, you take the two or three casual jump-start steps, plant that left foot on a peddle and then casually drape the right over the saddle and into place.  Not with a stack of soda crates, or even a passenger sitting in the way.  At 5’9” I’m just about the tallest guy in town but every adult male has mastered a technique to thrust that right left up through the narrow gap between chest and toptube – all without risking the perilous equilibrium on the rack.  And then off they go.

Microfinance, Part II

A few months ago I wrote about a small loan I made to a friend in Kamwenge.  Last Wednesday my friend came to my house, all smiles and thanks and handed over the balance of the loan plus the interest.  I was just excited that he had managed to recoup his investment and pay off the loan but I was in for a shock.  I thanked him and then asked, well, how’s it going?  He handed over an account balance slip from the local bank which read 870,000ugx (the loan was for 1,000,000 = ~$450).  I thought, ok, well, he’s paying me the 550,000 and then has a balance of 320,000, pretty good, that’s a 30% return for him in only a matter of months.  Not even close.

That’s when he told me that no, 870,000 was the account balance after he withdrew the money he just handed me, and that stack of bills was 700,000ugx, an additional 150,000 because he’d kept the loan for longer than we’d agreed (I had never asked or pressured him to pay).  I was floored.  After forcing him to take back the 150,000 that put his account balance up to 1,020,000 – more than the amount I loaned him in October.  Plus this – he’s accumulated a stock of 500 chickens, worth about 3,500,000.  All told, this 23 year old man has about 5,000,000ugx to his name and made a 500% return on a small loan in five months.

Aha, so this is why you hear stories of people who quit their day jobs to start microfinance NGOs.  In five months, I received 5% interest and my friend made a 500% return on an investment.  Incredible.  It also explains why I could have probably asked for 10%, but that’s a different story.  The thing is that this young man is an exceptional individual and I’d get myself into a lot of trouble if I assumed in any way that others could easily replicate this performance.  He is an entrepreneur, he is hardworking and dedicated, he has cornered a market (he bought the 500 chickens in order to maintain his monopoly on the grilled chicken business in Kamwenge) and he had a good sense of timing – Christmas and the election boost was good for all businesses, his included.  That’s a rare combination anywhere.  And he’s grateful, incredibly so.  Throughout I have joked with him that it’s straight business, I don’t expect him to give me a free piece of chicken, just that he pays back the loan in the end.  He did that and a lot more.

So that’s a small success story from Kamwenge.  Not small for my friend, as he keeps reminding me, but in the end I learned a lot and his small business got a major boost.  Will that lead to university for my friend?  Probably not, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

New Old Google Maps Photos

I recently learned that Google Maps loaded an updated set of aerial images for much of East Africa, Kamwenge included.  So I went on and looked up my town of residence and much to my surprise the photos are in pretty high resolution but are still very dated.  Now I can easily see the trees which once stood where my house sits now and I have a decent idea of what this town looked like some unknown many years ago.  Makes me curious as to how Google and other free mapping services source their images.  I tried to make some inquires in town to try to put a date on the current photos but didn’t have much luck, my guess is between 1980 and 1995.  For instance, as of the date these photos were taken, two of the three petrol stations in town have not yet been built and neither has the expanded District government office, but the building I sometimes use as an office is standing and so is the elementary school where I play soccer in the evenings.

On the other hand, in western Kenya, specifically in Muhuru Bay, the site of the WISER School for Girls, their new images are clearly from 2009 because they captured the construction of the school (brick walls up, no blue roofs yet) making that series of “new” map images many years more recent than the series being used in western Uganda.

If you click on any of the blue bubbles below there’s a little blurb.


Sunday Soccer

Last Sunday (took a week to write this) I joined my new soccer team, Kamwenge Town Council, for an away game in Mayhoro.  In middle school I played on a team in Westchester, NY that traveled much of the Hudson Valley for Sunday games.  One distinct memory from those years was my mom refusing to let us join the team caravan that drove “way too fast” on the Taconic State Parkway.  With that in mind, last Sunday I piled into the back of a blue Isuzu economy-class dump truck with 35 of my new best friends for a brain rattling and backside bruising 90 minute dust bath.  The team sang songs and threw political fliers as we rolled through towns – a local candidate sponsored our petrol for the day in exchange for us chanting his name throughout the district, this type of loyalty lasts only until the petrol runs out.  After this exhausting drive we arrived at the shores of Lake George – not as beautiful and not as clean as the New York lake – and the rest of the team jumped in to wash off and cool down.  I had to be a little delicate in trying to explain that yes I do know how to swim but no I’m not that interested in getting worms getting wet before the match.  (Sidenote: the major lakes of Uganda are: Victoria, Edward, George & Albert – who colonized this place again?!)

I’ve been assigned number 8 – in the US we speak of positions, here there are just numbers and if you don’t know the numbers then nothing makes sense.  However once you learn the numbers you realize who is out of position (nearly everyone) and who is not even aware of where they should be.  Playing 8, or center midfield, is a little bit like watching a ping pong match take place in the air above your head.  Somehow it’s been decided that a soccer ball must be pumped until it’s about to burst – I’m not sure if this is overcompensating for a history of plastic-bag balls but the result is a ball that never stops bouncing.  Ever.  We took an easy two goal lead and the crowd that encircled most of the field did not seem too engaged (out of bounds is when it hits someone – there are no lines).  I was completely unprepared for the stampede that stormed the field we they snuck a low shot past our goalie – you would’ve thought they’d won it all and the game was put on hold for five minutes.  Other highlights: I fell down rather acrobatically and the laughter must have echoed through the valley; a disputed call that “cleared the benches” as they say – people absolutely love to argue with the referee and one another; bicycle kicks are very popular – passing is not; we won; we had freshly smoked tilapia at the shore; we rode home under a full moon; and lastly, I found a fish bone in my hair while showering at the end of a full day of adventures.

This Sunday I’m about 17 hours away in Lira observing another IPA project that is currently conducting surveys.  Over the course of these five days I am quite literally crisscrossing the entire country: from Kamwenge to Kampala via Mbarara (Thursday); from Kampala to Soroti via Jinja and Mbale (Saturday); from Soroti to Lira (today); from Lira to Adjumani via Gulu (Monday); and then a marathon ride essentially from the border of Sudan to Kampala (Tuesday), which means that all that will be left for Wednesday is the 9 hours back home to Kamwenge (via Fort Portal).  Bonus points for anyone who can find all those towns on a map!

A couple photos

Finally, a couple photos from Kamwenge.

First – the town from the best vantage point I could find:

The main road that passes through Kamwenge - running from Mbarara to Fort Portal.

Next – my house.  I’m looking to sublet the second bedroom, let me know if you know of anyone looking for a place – seriously.  And it’s looking better day by day:

The house that is becoming home.

The product of today’s arts and crafts session.  So Mom, is this why you usually buy from professionals?  And that’s my completely barren living room in the background.

My first attempt at a lamp shade. Binding wire and scraps of wax cloth (kangas) left over from curtains. I'm giving myself a B- for the effort, with room for improvement.

Much more scenic – sunset over the mostly invisible mountains.  They are hidden in the haze / dust during the day in the dry season.

Sunset over the Rwenzori Mountains that divide this part of Uganda from DRC - they're big and not too far away - hopefully headed there at some point soon.

A week in Kamwenge

I’ve officially moved to Kamwenge.  I got out here Tuesday afternoon and moved in to my house on Wednesday.  To say the house is complete would be a stretch.  The kitchen has a sink but no real counters or shelves to speak of.   Appliances are another story altogether.  That first night I just threw the mattress on the floor and collapsed; the bed came on day two.   Hoping to get table and chairs and shelves by Tuesday – right now all my earthly possessions are piled in a corner of the room on one long straw mat.  By now all the rooms have been painted and I’ve mopped all the floors two or three times.  Dust is part of life around here during the dry season.  Anyhow the place is starting to look more like a house and less like a construction site.  Yes I have running water and yes I have electricity.  However I’m yet to see both functioning at the same time.  Tonight there’s water but no electricity – personally I would vote for water during the day and electricity at night but I haven’t found anyone taking requests.
This morning I set to cleaning up around the house, which most definitely still resembles a construction site.  Using a hoe to move dirt and picking up garbage is not exactly new to me – but seeing a mzungu do such things is a grand novelty around here and at one point I had amassed quite an audience.   “You know how to dig?!”  I’m sure I’ll get more of the same tomorrow while doing my laundry.
This afternoon I finally found the produce market in town – for a while there I was really confused as to where it was all coming from – and after a long evening of soccer I was too wiped to walk back in to town and had to “settle” for a dinner of tomato, avocado, passion fruit, pineapple, and some half decent rolls.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll write about what’s been keeping me busy – but only if the power comes back, because otherwise this is nearly the end of two extended life batteries…

Kamwenge – Day 2

A smorgasbord of reflections:

Language – There are about 6 or 8 distinct but similar Bantu languages spoken in this south western region of Uganda.  Unlike Kenya where each district often has only one vernacular and then Kiswahili as a unifier, the same cannot be said here.  I thought I had covered my bases by getting the Runyoro and Rutooro / English dictionary – nope.  I actually need the Rukiga dictionary, which is apparently almost like an accent on Runyankore, but no one speaks Runyankore here.  Then, scattered around the fringes are Ruhororo, Rutagwenda, Rutuku, Rusongora, Ruyanbindi, and a few others.   So far I have discerned that the word for “5” is the same as they Kiswahili “tano” and that a common response to a greeting is the same as the Kiswahili “yes”, or “ndiyo”.  Pretty good for day 2 huh?  And of course most of the locals can switch between any number of the above with ease.

Internet – the speed of the internet here is determined largely by supply and demand.  3G network, (like what the iPhone runs on back home) is spreading throughout much of the country, but not here.  That actually says something interesting about the corporate outlook on this district – bleak.  However the 2G network (think, the network that allows you to receive email but not browsing ability on a Blackberry back home) is pretty much everywhere.  In Kampala during the day this provides you the ability to receive email after about a 20 minute download and the Nytimes might load in under 30 minutes.  However in Kamwenge, usage is obviously much much lower and I was able to leave Mom a voicemail the other day using Skype just fine.   So forget my earlier threats of not being able to post from the village – it’s actually far easier!

Dry Season – we’re about half way through a dry season here that is hitting worse than usual.  After each of our journeys on the motorbikes my shirt collar has likely changed to a rich red clay color and I look a little bit tanner until I get home and wash of the dust.  At the government office we heard the “cows are dying” speech – I’m not sure exactly how real that is – but people are definitely walking further for lower quality water than they usually would.  I’m going to bring out the camera in the next couple days and you’ll get the idea.

Today’s Sunday – time to make all the edits to the survey, look for a soccer game, and then look for a place to live.

Kamwenge – Day 1

Here’s what I learned today – in bullet form because I’m le tired.

  • There are two towns named Kanara in this district – we spent a long time looking for one of them
  • 2 hours on the back of a boda boda is a long two hours (two hours to get there)
  • Coming home at dusk on a boda boda is a very scenic commute (30 minutes to get home)
  • A 20 liter jerrycan of water in Kamwenge is going for nearly $1 – a lot a lot by local standards – and this is water they still need to boil before drinking.
  • Ugandans (mind you, sample size of 2) like to talk – it took us over 3 hours to get through about half of a 27 page survey
  • Survey questions that seem completely ordinary in Kampala can feel immediately idiotic in rural Uganda.
  • When you ask a rural farmer (weekly income ~ $10) if he owns a car – you feel like a fool.  When you then ask the same man if he transports water from the well to his house in a car – you feel like a jerk.
  • It is apparently quite normal for a full grown man or woman to drink less than 5 liters of water a week.  I interrupted an interview feeling pretty confident that the question had not been understood when a woman responded that she drinks about 3 liters a week.  My colleague assured me that I am just clueless.
  • The current exchange rate in this area is 4 cows = 1 acre of fertile land.
  • When you want a bunch of bananas from a banana tree, you cut down the whole thing – they only fruit once – who knew?
  • Green beans, or what the locals call French beans, are considered too common and tasteless, so although they apparently grow like weeds, nobody serves them.  My eventual garden is going to be full of these tasteless treats!
  • Pineapple plants are supposedly very easy to grow – GREAT news.

All in all a really successful day – got the proper stamps of approval from the local government and got out to the village to start conducting practice interviews.  It’s officially called “pre-testing”, basically asking all the questions that I wrote up in Kampala to see if they are the right questions – so far I think I’m batting about .800 – but some of those misses are really embarrassing.


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