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.

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.

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.

East vs. West – Uganda

I spent last week in Kamuli lending a hand as another IPA project launched an endline survey.  Many IPAers only ever run one or two surveys and it’s great to get to see how other people manager their field work – we all learn a lot from the dialogue.  Previously I’d only driven through Eastern Uganda and it was nice to get a little time in a new rural setting.  At first glance, an east – west comparison:

West (Kamwenge)

  • Hilly
  • Hazy air
  • Mud and wattle houses
  • Sparse water access – leads to culture of collecting rainwater, seen at least in part by a high presence of gutters on iron sheet roofs
  • Terrible unpaved access road
  • No mosquitoes
  • Calls of “I’m fine, how are you?” and “Mzungu!” follow one throughout town

East (Kamuli)

  • Flat
  • Clear skies
  • Predominantly local brick houses
  • Easy water access – many small streams and plenty of borehole sites, no gutters on roofs
  • Seemingly more varied crops – someone explained it that these communities are more self sufficient and less integrated in the big commodity markets for maize and bananas.  Seems strange to me because they are so much closer to Kampala then the far southwestern districts but perhaps it’s the nearby presence of Kenyan commodities, others explain it as a result of the government favoring the western region, hard to say.
  • Terribly paved access road.  A new sight for me – small crews of school aged boys filling in potholes with dirt and then directing the passing taxis to pack down their repairs.
  • Mosquitoes
  • Some “Jambo,” some “Good morning,” but altogether far less interest in making a scene over a mzungu, a welcomed relief.
  • Biggest chapatis I’ve ever seen
  • My fifty word Kiswahili vocabulary actually came in handy for once – nobody in Kamwenge speaks any at all.

All in all it’s just another reminder that it’s hard to even talk about “Uganda,” much less that dreaded label “Africa.”  And, per usual, I have no photos to illustrate any of these casual observations.  I almost always carry a camera with me but taking it out usually causes a stir that I prefer to avoid.  This week I’m in Hoima again lending a hand as yet another IPA survey gets underway.  Hoima’s the western town near Lake Albert where oil has recently been discovered and has a distinctly different feel than any other town I’ve visited in Uganda thus far.

What do you do when the kindest man in the world asks you to get lost?

I guess you pack your bags and go.  Don’t worry, nobody around here is asking.  I recently watched Gandhi, the movie.  I had seen it in high school but had forgotten many of the smaller details.  The one that stood out most strongly is when Gandhi tells his good friend and fellow non-violent liberation hero, British Reverend Charles Andrews, that he aught to head to Fiji and leave the Indian struggle for independence to Indians.

“I think, Charlie, that you can help us most by taking that assignment you’ve been offered in Fiji.  I have to be sure – they have to be sure – that what we do can be done by Indians… alone.”

That’s from the movie script, who knows what was actually said.  I wonder what any of the thousands of western aid-workers in Uganda would say if a Ugandan man of slightly lesser esteem made the same request?  I wonder what I would do.  The fact is that groups like IPA assume that there are not any locals who know how to do the highly technical work that we do.  Perhaps that’s true, it would be fascinating to see the breakdown of top economic development papers by author nationality.  And if what we do is really the solution then we cannot leave, our work is too important!  If Gandhi told us it wasn’t actually that important might we reconsider?

More than that I wonder if ‘we’, the collective aid-industry, will ever be asked to leave.  Or has the dependency become too entrenched?  Or do they assume that if we all left we would take with us the 30% of the national budget supplied by western donors?

On the International Post System

I’m looking for a little community feedback on this one.  In the last nine months I’m guessing I’ve actually received less than 50% of snail mail letters that I’ve been told were on the way.  Finally I’ve started to notice a pattern.  All the letters that have gotten through are in the shape of cards (4×6, 5×7, etc.) and I am yet to receive a single letter in a regular 4×9 inch envelope.  Coworkers in the office attest to the same.  The only thing I can think of is that someone is opening these larger envelopes looking for cash or checks but they must have enough decency to let my aunt’s Christmas card get through (albeit at the end of February). The irony of course is a dollar bill would just as easily fit in these smaller envelopes.

So, a question for anyone who has ever tried to receive mail in faraway places – is this just a local problem here in our local post office or is this an international phenomena?  In either case, if you intend to send anything I’d recommend going with a smaller envelop.

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The Nile

Jinja is an industrial city on Lake Victoria about 2 hours east of Kampala.  It is also the source of the longest river in the world, the Nile.  I got back into Kampala Friday night just in time to hear about a gathering headed over for a weekend stay on the river.  The primary attraction for tourists on this part of the Nile is a whitewater rafting trip that is, by all reports, a lot of fun.  It’s also a big destination for kayakers.  I had been told by a few friends that I had to go do the kayaking but the guided trips run $250 a day and quite frankly I’m just not a very good kayaker, meaning I just don’t feel inclined to pay that kind of money for a half day of kayaking and a half day of swimming.

We show up at the Hairy Lemon to learn that the place is the hostel of choice for most of the serious kayakers who come to Uganda.  There are two very large play waves just 500 meters upriver from the campsite and the beach had maybe 40 kayaks lined up under the palm trees.  The New River Academy is a kayak academy much like the ski academy I attended during high school and they were there with 20 athletes and a staff of coaches / teachers.  Others came from Slovenia, France, Chile, Australia and the UK.

From the looks of these kayakers it was clear that I had no business trying the stuff they were doing but I did want to watch and the only way to get there was to kayak up the side and hang out next to the play wave.  I eventually got to talking to one of the Ugandan guides who agreed to let me borrow his friend’s gear and up we went.  Of course we come around the corner to learn that you have to cross the rapid in order to get to the rock that they launch from.  So across we go and upside-down I go and to the surprise of everyone present, myself included, I rolled back up and made it across.  One nice part about the Nile is that it’s deep – meaning that even though it took me four tries to get the roll I knew I wasn’t headed towards any rocks.  I had never seen a play wave in person and it was pretty wild  (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, watch this).

When we got back I saw the girl whose kayak I borrowed and introduced myself to fellow Middlebury alum Kira Tenney (‘08.5) who is one of the coaches / teachers at the New River Academy.  We’d never met at school but shared a group of mutual friends and it was a pretty incredible coincidence.  The next day while Kira was teaching I again went out with her boat and pushed it a little further.  I’ve never kayaked anything other than small and relatively tame rivers in Vermont and it’s a completely different feel.  There was a rafting trip taking lunch on the rocks and I did my best to entertain with many failed attempts to catch the wave, getting caught in boils and eventually swimming after 5+ attempted rolls.

I had a blast and am glad I got to see the river before a new dam comes online later this month.  Apparently it shouldn’t change this lower section of the rapids but one of the upon sections will be lost.  The Nile is the source of most of Uganda’s (and much of Rwanda’s) electricity and believe it or not most of the locals aren’t that interested in paying higher electricity prices to preserve the rapids.

And we’re back…

Ok, to be honest I’ve been back since January 11th but have been slacking.  A couple general updates:

Break:  home was nice.  Very nice.  Odds are if you’re reading this I saw you and therefore I don’t need to write anything more about home.

Cairo:  on the way back I stopped for 3 days in Cairo to work out of the IPA office there.  And by work I hope you know I mean: visiting the pyramids (they’re big), the museum (mummies literally stacked on top of mummies), the mosques (lots of them with some very interesting architecture that was largely lost on me), the markets (hilarious interchange with a spice vendor), and then spending the remaining hours of each day taking tea at street-side cafes.  I went primarily to visit IPA colleagues and Midd roommates Matt Groh and Matt Lowes.  I have to admit I had no idea just how famous the two are in Egypt: at one point we met up with two students from the current Middlebury study abroad program and they insisted on taking a photo as evidence that they had met The Matts.

Work:  with the baseline survey complete the next phase of work for my project is preparing for the introduction of the rainwater storage device to the study area.  The final product that Relief International decided to go with was manufactured in China and is now packed in a shipping container and somewhere in the Indian Ocean headed our way.  Unfortunately for this and every other development project of 2011, February is going to be a slow month.  The Presidential election (see below) has some people nervous but for the most part NGOs are inclined to sit this one out to avoid their projects becoming politicized or seemingly so.  In preparation for the intervention I have been analyzing the data from the survey, assigning villages to treatment or control groups, and  designing the protocols for each treatment.  The idea is that, for example, certain villages will get one marketing strategy and other villages will get either another marketing strategy or none at all.  Furthermore, within each villages we’re going to be holding public lotteries as a means to distribute discount vouchers that are worth varying amounts; so some households will win the chance to purchase the product at a much lower costs than others.  The administration of these treatments must follow some very strict protocols to ensure that we have 100% participation and everyone has an equal and fair chance of winning.  In addition I now have time to write a manual for future IPAers on how to use the Pendragon Forms software to program electronic surveys, and let me tell you it’s an exhilarating read, email me for a pre-release copy…

Life:  work has slowed down considerably, which is a welcomed relief.  Surveys are widely acknowledged to be backbreaking work and the hardest part of the IPA gig.  I’ve reclaimed my evening hours and am back to playing soccer and reading and cooking a lot more.  Cooking has been assisted by two luxury items that found their way into my suitcase: a cast iron skillet and Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything”.  Each added about 10lbs. to my luggage but were well worth the weight.  Also, I know Bittman has done a “How to Cook Everything, Vegetarian”, now I just wish he would write the “How to Cook Everything, on a Stove”.  Quasi successful dinners to date include homemade pastas and an Indian chicken dish I was really excited about until I discovered that I could only get vanilla yogurt, but at that point I was committed and went ahead to chef up a delicious if slightly sweet bird.  I’ve also managed to accumulate a respectable pile of real books (vs. Kindle books) next to my bed.  These pair quite well with the new hammock that now hangs on my front porch.  I’m just finishing up “How to be Idle” which is an hour by hour account of the idyllic day of the idler.  The author has essentially scoured the history books in support of his strongest love: being lazy.  It’s a great read for a sunny evening in the hammock – now if you were to attempt to read it during your commute to work, eh, it might not be as enjoyable.

The Election:  February 18th is the big day.  In December I posted about some stories in the newspapers that seemed to foretell some coming strife.  Now it seems as though the outcome, with Museveni well in the lead, is such a sure thing there will hardly be anything to protest.  Doesn’t mean I believe it’s all free and fair, but it does mean that I think it will be largely stable and peaceful.

There are two very telling slogans from the Museveni campaign.  First, “Pakalast” which literally means “Until the end”; and second “Stability and Unity”, perhaps implying that the opposition would introduce the opposite?  I actually just missed the chance to see Museveni at a rally here in Kamwenge but I passed by in a taxi on my initial return to town (I didn’t think it’d be wise to try to get past the metal detector with my cast iron skillet and the rest of my luggage).  I could not believe the size of the crowd.  Yellow t-shirts filling a soccer field to capacity (and let me tell you, Ugandan’s have a different idea of capacity) with plenty of very visible security forces.  The message from the people to the president is clear: we love you, please give us a hospital, or a road, or more money in general.  The message from the president to the people was equally clear: if you vote for me in sufficient numbers I will give you all those things and more.

The mindset is fascinating; because Museveni is so likely to win he can essentially strong-arm the populace into a landslide victory by implicitly promising to reward those districts that give him the greatest margins.  Whereas in the US the incumbent might work harder to please (or buy, whatever) a swing state from the previous election, here they seem more apt to punished these troublemakers for their insolence.

Other news: there’s been the referendum in Sudan that turned out not to be a “Ticking time bomb” as Mrs. Clinton had prophesized.  Southern leaders have claimed they reached the 60% participation rate needed to legitimize the vote and the 51% vote for succession was never going to be an issue.  More interesting right now is the situation in Cote D’Ivoire with the president elect holed up in a hotel surrounded by blue helmets (UN) and the grumbling incumbent trying to seize money from the banks to pay his soldiers to keep him alive and viable.  That’s a fascinating situation because African regional leaders have taken the lead on negotiating for a transition without the overt assistance of major western powers.  The UN stance has been to recognize the legitimacy of the opposition’s victory but to defer diplomatic and military intervention to African Union leadership.  I think that’s a step in the right direction.  Oh and then there’s that other part of Africa, Tunisia, Egypt, etc., but I haven’t really got a clue as to what goes on up there.

For another day.

This is cooler than electronic data collection, I promise

I bought a motorcycle.  The most important info: it’s red and now has a Middlebury Skiing sticker on the front (see below).  Second most important info: it doesn’t go very fast and there aren’t any cars on the roads (very narrow dirt paths) that I am driving on.  I also bought a new horn so everyone can hear me coming from a good ways off and have plenty of time to get out of the way.  It’s great for getting around Kamwenge – not in my life would I attempt to ride it in Kampala.  Plus it would take over 10 hours to drive it here.

Interesting: I don’t need to use it for the project every day and on days that I am not using it I can give it to a guy in town who will drive it and give me the equivalent of about $3 a day.   Doesn’t sound like much but I didn’t pay much for it and I should break even within a few months.  These rates are set in stone for each town so all boda owners get the same take per day, the driver keeps whatever he can gross over the $3.  He (there are no female boda drivers) is responsible for petrol and small maintenance (changing the oil, repairing flats, etc.). It’s a fairly common investment for locals who don’t want to buy more cows (one mature cow is about the price of an almost new boda).

Now that I’m driving myself I’m going to have to get a lot better at asking for directions in the local language. Unfortunately that’s on page 7 of my to-do list right now.

NOTE:  I’m promising driving lessons to any of my younger cousins come visit!

A single digit Whoops

So this is totally irrelevant to the vast majority of you, but, and I promise I’m not requesting care packages, there was a little mix up with the PO Box number that I shared with everyone a few months back before I took off.   I was told 4026 when in reality the address is PO Box 40260. Now I should have caught that on one of my three previous visits to the post office (to find nothing there, duh) but I only really pieced it all together a couple days ago.  The good news is that I’m pretty sure box 4026 doesn’t exist so I might be in luck.  If by the off chance you have sent something please do let me know as one of my top missions in Kampala later this week is to beg, bribe, or coerce the folks at the post office to give me whatever they haven’t already chucked.

Work update coming soon.  Headed to Kampala on Wednesday for two weeks of enumerator training for the baseline.  It’s getting real in a hurry!

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