Disaster on Kaabong Highway, Part 4: Africa’s Health Care Systems Strike Back

Police officer inspecting the damage while the crowd looks on

Police officer inspecting the damage while the crowd looks on

For part 3, click here

To start from the beginning, click here

The police had called a tow truck, but when it arrived it became immediately apparent that it could not tow the van.  The “tow truck” was nothing more than a beat up old Land Rover that looked as if it had been disassembled and reassembled several times, driven by two yellow-eyed Karamojong men with a bit too much money and a bit too few teeth.  The Land Rover probably could have towed a normal car, but the Super Custom’s front wheels could no longer turn, as the front axle had been mangled such that the wheels now bent 45-degrees inwards.  The police had to look for a bigger truck that could get the van’s front wheels off the ground.  And Jolly was still in the hospital receiving God knows what kind of medical attention.

David was here now though, and he offered to escort the van to the police station, freeing me to check on Jolly.  The Land Rover guys also made themselves useful by giving me a lift to the hospital for UGX 20,000, which was an experience in itself.  Their eyes were bloodshot, and the driver cackled rather than laughed, the corners of his mouth turned up in a manic expression that bared all his missing teeth.

At least the Land Rover had a seat belt.  My exhortations to drive slowly even met rare success, the driver having seen the carnage of the Super Custom.  They dropped me at the hospital and I rushed in.

Kaabong Hospital is a surprisingly impressive facility on the surface.  Covered walkways criss-cross green courtyards to connect a half dozen solidly-constructed buildings, the roofs of which are adorned by at least $100,000 worth of solar installations: several kilowatts of solar panels, Solahart solar water heaters, all professionally and expensively installed, no doubt funded by some well-intentioned international organization.

But all those good intentions have not translated into a sustainable health care system.  The solar system hardly works anymore.  At night the lights in most of the walkways are off, leaving the courtyard pitch black on a moonless night.  Maintaining things is just not how it’s done in Africa, especially if the things being maintained were given freely by expats who donate and disappear! Continue reading

Disaster on Kaabong Highway, Part 3: Totalled

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I’d just received an ominous phone call.  It was one of the War Child staff on the other line.  “I heard your Super Custom got in an accident and one of your staff was hurt.”

An accident?  In town?  “No, it can’t be us,” I told him.  “Jolly just took the Super Custom over to Pajar, and it’s just 4km.  No way he could have gotten in an accident in such a short distance in a small town with no traffic.  Thanks for the concern though!”

For a few minutes I felt better.  Then as I left the staff training, I noticed a crowd of people had gathered in the distance.  A crowd in Africa is never a good sign: either a politician is giving a speech, a thief is being lynched, or there’s been an accident that everyone is staring at, and none of those are good.

I started walking faster.

The scene was terrible.  A crowd of at least 100 slack-jawed Karamojong onlookers was gathered around the mangled ruin of the Super Custom, which was lying on its side five meters off the road.  The car was destroyed almost beyond recognition: the front completely smashed in, one tire hopelessly crushed beneath the twisted body of the car, most of the windows shattered.  Police were shooing away the curious crowd and warning them not to take anything from the car.  Jolly was not there.

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Disaster on Kaabong Highway, Part 2

(Click here for Part 1)

Karamoja - big sky and mountain

Kaabong plains with the Rift Valley escarpment in the background

Kamion is the most remote spot of land in the most remote district in all of Uganda.  The installation team had continued there the day before, riding in David’s little Corolla and a medium-sized dump truck that was carrying our stock, while I stayed behind in Kotido one more day to finish signing warranty contracts.  From Kotido to Kaabong is a minimum 2 hours drive, and it’s another 1 1/2 hours on a bad road to Kamion, which is little more than few clusters of huts scattered across valleys or perched atop ridges like thatch-roofed crowns.

It’s far, and it’s beautiful.  Kamion borders the Great Rift Valley, where the African Plate is slowly rending itself apart.  As the plate pulls apart and breaks in two, the valley’s floor is slowly sinking into the earth’s molten mantle while the valley itself grows wider, until one day millions of years from now it will be filled by the sea.  Until then, it’s a hell of a sight.  Your 15 hour drive is rewarded by a magnificent view from the top of the escarpment that lines the sinking earth: the golden plains of the valley floor bounded by sudden cliffs that stretch as far as the eye can see, dotted by huts and ponds and acacia trees standing sentinel atop the high ridges, the trees’ outlines silhouetted individually against the gold-blue sky.

But I had to get there first.

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Disaster on Kaabong Highway, Part 1

Karamoja: Nomads and Open Spaces

Karamoja: Nomads and Open Spaces

One of the first words of advice I got before moving to Uganda was “if you get sick or injured, don’t go to the government hospital—that’s only where people go to die.”

After 3 years, I finally got to see what they meant.

The events that follow pretty much explain Africa, both the tragedy and promise of the place.  You don’t have to go to an ebola affected country to know what it’s like trying to treat illness and injury in an African health care system.  This is a long story, so I’ll post it in multiple parts.  Check back over the following days for each segment.

It started well enough.  BBOXX, the solar company I’ve been working for since July 2013, had won a contract to install solar systems at 7 schools in Karamoja for the NGO War Child UK.  Karamoja is the most remote and undeveloped region of Uganda.  Located in the extreme northeast of the country, its main towns are at minimum a 10 hour drive from the capital, mostly due to bad roads – the journey would take 4 hours in the USA.  Its people, the Karamojong, are traditionally warlike nomadic agro-pastoralists who wear plaid blankets like the more famous Maasai, or else wear nothing at all, and live off their cattle: their staple food is a porridge of cow blood mixed with milk, their marriage dowries are paid in cows, and their disputes are settled by violent cattle raids.  These  raids spiraled into out of control violence in the 70s and 80s after the Karamojong got their hands on the Uganda army’s armoury and switched from spears to guns.  Even Joseph Kony feared the Karamojong and did not bring his Lord’s Resistance Army there.  Karamoja is stable now—the Ugandan government brutally disarmed the Karamojong several years ago—but Peace Corps still is not allowed in Karamoja.

So nowadays you didn’t have to fear guns, only cars.

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How Rwanda Almost Made Me a Republican (And Why It Didn’t)

I’m definitely one who believes in the power of government to solve certain problems.  And the problem that I complain about most frequently in Africa is the suicidal way people drive.  If only Government could crack down—requiring all drivers to actually have a license, ensuring that those licenses actually mean something, and actually punishing offenders of traffic laws—then the roads would be much safer and less intolerable.

Accordingly, I’ve never had much sympathy for those who complain that perfectly necessary and proper government regulations make it more of a hassle to run their business.  “I have to listen to the food safety inspector!”  “I can’t dump toxic waste in the town’s drinking water!”  “I can’t chain my employees to their work stations!”  Boo hoo.

But now I’ve had some experience wearing their shoes.

At BBOXX, we’re setting up a distribution network to supply solar systems in rural Africa.  From a central warehouse in the capital, we deliver to a medium-sized “hub” in a major upcountry town.  From there we ship smaller quantities to shops in rural trading centers, where motorcycles take the solar systems to the most remote customers’ households.

In Uganda this is surprisingly easy.  8-seater Toyota Ipsum station wagons travel daily from main towns to rural trading centers, overloaded not only with 12+ human passengers (often forcing one passenger to sit in the driver’s lap or astride the stick shift), but also with cargo: goats, chickens, bags of rice, TVs, and sometimes even solar systems.  The rule in Uganda is, “It will fit.” 

And it always does.

Installation and solar system delivery to Mahango by boda boda

Installation and solar system delivery to Mahango by boda boda

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Drivers of Death: A Roadtrip through Kampala

The other day I found myself staring into a car’s headlights.  On my side of the road.  And I was heading straight for them.

“I’m going to die,” I thought.

But the panic lasted only a moment, because after approaching the car a bit closer, I realized it was actually not driving toward me.

It was being towed.

The funny thing was, the car being towed as an explanation for the curious direction of the car’s headlights did not even occur to me – while it would have been my brain’s default reaction on a more sensible roadway.  The FIRST thought that raced through my head was, “hmmm, a car is driving on the wrong side of the road directly at me.  That’s not good.”

Because in Uganda, anything can happen on the road.

Uganda’s road fatality rate is nothing short of horrifying.  At 1.5 deaths for every 100 motor vehicles, Uganda has the 23rd most dangerous roads in the world.  To put that in perspective, that is 110x the road fatality rate in the United States. Some of it is certainly due to the poor condition of the roads themselves.  Some is due to old, poorly maintained vehicles.  A good portion is because vehicles carry more people than they do in the West; a 67 passenger bus, 14-passenger matatu taxi, or a truck carrying passengers sitting atop its goods will kill more people if it wrecks than a station wagon with a family of four.  But it is mostly due to the way people drive—the reckless, logic-defying, suicidal way they drive.

This is why I don't take matatus upcountry anymore.  These things carry 14 passengers plus the driver and conductor.  No one survives.

This is why I don’t take matatus upcountry anymore. These things carry 14 passengers plus the driver and conductor. No one survives. source: http://kfm.co.ug/news/14-perish-in-motor-accident.html

When I’d first written this as a journal entry, I’d been riding a motorcycle in traffic here for about 3 weeks.  And man, were those first 3 weeks were stressful.  After all, I’d never ridden a motorcycle at all before, much less tried it on the anarchic streets of Kampala.

I wasn’t on my own, though—I took riding lessons from Walter, Uganda’s most famous boda driver, who today owns a successful and growing tour company.  The first two lessons were tough.  I don’t even know how to drive a manual car, and this was a manual bike: a 125cc second-hand Bajaj Platina that I’d bought from Walter.  On more than one occasion the motorcycle accelerated into the bushes as I shifted into the wrong gear or mis-coordinated the clutch, gas, and gear shift, Walter all the while shouting desperate commands uselessly from the back of the bike until being thrown into the grass.  Making matters more difficult, finding a place to practice riding a motorcycle in Kampala is nearly impossible; the good roads are full of traffic, and the empty roads are either made of loose dirt, built on steep slopes, or wind narrowly around corners such that if a car ever DID come, it would not see you until you were under its tires.  Not a positive learning environment.

But despite those difficulties, Walter was a good teacher, and after around 3 lessons, I got the hang of it.  Sort of.  My housemate even convinced me once, over my protests, to carry him home on the bike.  It was only about 1 km, but we almost fell three times, and by the time we reached the main road, I realized I could not cross it; he had to get off and take another boda.  You only learn from experience.

Finally, after about another 3 weeks of driving around the neighborhood, it was time to cross town for the first time.

You don’t fully appreciate the chaos of Kampala’s streets when you’re in a car, or even on the back of a boda boda.  It’s only when you get behind the handlebars of a motorbike that you grip the sheer extent of the streets’ lawlessness.  And I’d picked the worst time to venture out into them: Friday afternoon rush hour.

Kampala’s streets are a jungle clogged with all manner of moving objects: Land Cruisers, smaller cars, matatu taxis, boda bodas, bicycles, pedestrians, goats, drunks, stray dogs, Ankole cattle, etc.  These all move at different speeds, in different directions, carrying objects of varying degrees of danger, and with varying predictability in their movements.  Matatu taxis stop suddenly to pick up a passenger, and pull back into traffic just as suddenly.  The car in front of you may swerve to the right, and you immediately find yourself face-to-back-of-the-head with a sweaty pleb laboriously pushing a bicycle laden with steel pipes up the hill, leaving you with mere seconds to avoid a pipe through your helmet visor. Once I found myself behind a boda boda carrying a coffin on the back; always drive prepared I supposed.  Cars move more quickly than bodas, while bicycles move more slowly (although they pedal frantically to avoid being mowed down from behind), so you often find yourself threading the gauntlet between vehicles of different sizes and speeds.

Maybe Uganda's anti-gay bill is compensating for something... source: http://www.newvision.co.ug/article/fullstory.aspx?story_id=633340&catid=387&mid=53

Maybe Uganda’s anti-gay bill is compensating for something…
source: http://www.newvision.co.ug/article/fullstory.aspx?story_id=633340&catid=387&mid=53

This is compounded by the absence of any force regulating the movements of these objects other than sheer will. The traffic pattern more resembles the flow of water around rocks than any organized system of motion, each individual in the stream reacting not only to the shape of the road and the obstacles in it, but to the reactions of all the other actors in the vicinity, the reactions building on each other and cascading through the streets until you have nothing but chaos and jam.  Traffic police are ubiquitous, but their commands, when they choose to issue them, apply only to vehicles of more than two wheels—bodas wantonly drive past them.  Lanes?  That’s just another word for sitting still: if you see a spot, take it, even if it means driving on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic.  And traffic lights?  Oh, you better believe these are not obeyed at all!  Laws do not determine when vehicles cross the street: drivers go as soon as there is a physical window—and that window is often impossibly small.  Bodas negotiate intersections even through cross traffic, sometimes forcing the other cars to swerve or stop to avoid hitting them.

And it’s rare indeed when someone stops; swerving impulsively is the preferred reaction to danger.  It’s as if drivers don’t know their vehicles have brakes—or think the brakes are in the steering wheel.  If an obstacle moves in front of a driver, or if a car slows down in front of him, the driver doesn’t brake to slow down—he simply swerves to go around the obstacle, I guess hoping that no one is coming the other way?  Cars, trucks, and buses overtake recklessly, even when going up a hill or around a blind corner.  The scariest place to be in Uganda is driving toward a slow-moving truck coming the other way on an upcountry highway; best to slow down and stick to the shoulder in case a maniac driver is trying to overtake that truck.  Indeed, traffic can be a blessing: at least no one can go fast enough to kill you.

Not even the basest self-preservation instinct can be counted on as a reliable regulator of traffic.  Once behind the wheel, even the basic impulse to stay alive ceases to determine behavior.  All empathy and awareness are lost, the desire to avoid harming others while preserving oneself fading into a single motivation: just GO.  Bodas drive at night with their headlights off and brakes that don’t work.  Trucks overtake blindly around corners where they can’t see what is coming the other way.  Pedestrians pop out suddenly from behind cars without so much as peeping around the edge first.  Sometimes they run across the street, but at other times you are simply amazed to see how nonchalantly it’s possible for someone to stroll in the face of a 3-ton Land Cruiser hurtling toward them, showing absolutely no urgency to get out of its way.  Last week I was driving a car through rural Rwanda, when a ball rolled across the street.  My instinct to “slow down, a ball usually means a kid running after it” kicked in—and not a moment too soon, for sure enough, a man darted across the road after the ball.  I slammed on the brakes, having already slowed down as a precaution, and even then only narrowly avoided splattering the person across the highway.  But when I looked back at him, you would have never known that his life had almost just ended; he was smiling and waving, trotting blithely around with his ball.  Did HE know?

Traffic accident outside my old apartment.  How do you enforce traffic laws when even the laws of physics do not apply on Kampala's roads?  How does this even happen?  Look at how the car rear-ends the one in front and damages its BACK.  How does the car in front spin at that angle??

How do you enforce traffic laws when even the laws of physics do not apply? How does this even happen? Look at how the car rear-ends the one in front and damages its BACK. How does the car in front spin at that angle??

Perhaps the only other force that offers some degree of predictability to the roads is status: the craziness of a driver increases in direct proportion to the size of his vehicle and his bank account.

The first is perhaps obvious.  On Ugandan roads, with no Big Government to tell drivers which side to drive on, when to stop, or who has the right of way, might makes right: smaller vehicles move out of the way of larger ones.  If a bigger vehicle is bearing down on you from behind, it may honk, it may swerve, but it will certainly not slow down—it is YOUR job to move.  The pecking order is very clear:

  • Buses run over everything
  • Land Cruisers and matatus run over smaller cars
  • Smaller cars run over boda bodas
  • Boda bodas run over bicycles
  • Bicycles run over pedestrians
  • Pedestrians shoo goats and chickens out of the way
  • Goats eat grass

The only vehicle that doesn’t fit neatly into this hierarchy is the truck/lorry.  A truck’s danger to other vehicles depends mostly on its condition and its load. On the one end you have overloaded, lumbering lorries just struggling to keep their decrepit wheels turning under the weight.  Ancient dump trucks full of sand and dirt, semi trucks dragging two 40-ft containers behind them: these can move as slow as 5 miles an hour if going uphill.  Though they themselves pose no danger, the temptation to overtake them CAN, especially if you’re stuck behind one in a windy mountain passage and just can’t wait to stop breathing in its black diesel fumes.  On the other hand, an empty or lightly-loaded truck—a fuel tanker that’s just offloaded and speeding back to Mombasa, a tall truck absurdly laden with foam mattresses stacked 20 feet high—these can spell doom for unwary motorists.

But it’s not only size.  More interesting is how wealth and social status seem to affect driving style. Much like American celebrities, rich Ugandans take to the road to display their status and sense of entitlement.  The more expensive the car and richer the driver, the more they seem to disregard everyone else on the road, driving as fast, dangerously, or drunk as they want.  It doesn’t have to be the driver’s own wealth: it may be a wealthy organization—drivers for NGOs and the government are some of the most reckless.

Most dangerous of all is anyone with rank.  Top officials get their own motorcades, and they drive at whatever speed they want (ostensibly to outrun any would-be attackers).  Clearing the roads for such officials is not done by giving prior warning and setting up roadblocks in advance; this is Africa, and here they do it Big Man style.  Big Man style means that the first car in the motorcade drives ahead at 150 miles per hour literally forcing all other traffic off the road, in order to make way for the VIPs who follow; if you’re in the way, you die.  They fly by at a terrible speed, hazard lights flashing to confirm that they have no intention of turning left or right but only of blazing straight ahead, the bumper often adorned by a badge announcing the rank of the person inside, as if the car were wearing a lapel pin: MS for “State Minister,” CM for “Cabinet Minister,” or PM for “Prime Minister.”  The attitude that “I have right of way” trickles down. These days even wealthy businessmen think that if they just put their hazards on, they can plow through traffic however they want!

These are the roads I found myself furtively driving on 2 years ago, that first trip across town from Bukoto to Muyenga and back.  It’s about 30 minutes each way by boda, but at the time it felt like an eternity.  Still, I was making it: weaving in and out of chaotic roundabouts, braving the other heedless bodas pushing their way through intersection cross-traffic, dodging Land Cruisers and matatus.  By the time I was approaching the street that led to my apartment, I was feeling positively proud.

I turned onto my street, a little farther left than I’d intended, onto a section of the road that slopes up sharply … and forgot to shift down into the stronger gear.  The bike stalled, unable to climb the slope, and before I knew it I was falling into the ditch next to the road, the bike on top of me.

I could not move, pinned under the bike.  At least it had not rained that day, so I was saved the ghastly prospect of burial in a ditch of garbage-filled urban runoff.  That’s when I heard a commotion, and within seconds a team of boda drivers from the nearby stage was working together to hoist the bike off of me and out of the ditch. I got up and tried to thank them by offering a few shillings as a token of appreciation, but they refused the money.  “Now you are our brother,” they explained.

Africa’s roads and drivers are the roots of most of my complaints about the place, but here at least was something positive.  In Kampala, all who endure the dust and grit and chaos of the streets from the vantage point of a motorcycle, perpetually beset by bigger vehicles who pay them no mind, are brothers.  If only they would treat everyone on the road that way!

3 Years and Still Here

post boat

Wonderworld: an absurd amusement park in Kampala… the swinging pirate ship was not kind to my stomach

One of life’s most annoying ironies is that the slower you’d like time to move, the faster it seems to pass by—and vice versa.  When you’re a kid in elementary school it seems like summer will never come.  A day can seem like an eternity waiting for 3pm when you’ll finally be free to go out and play. Then sometime around your junior year of college, you notice that you’re more than halfway done with (potentially) the last stage of school.  After you graduate, you lose even the rhythm of summer to break up the time and tell you how quickly or slowly the time is passing.  The seasons change, but with little effect on your daily routines.

Move now to Africa, to the tropics, and time loses ALL meaning.  The temperature never changes, and every day is as long as the next day and the day before it.  There are no cherry blossoms to beckon you outdoors in April, the long cold winter is over and you can enjoy the sun in the park with all the other young people of the city, and no shortening days to alert you to the coming of the holiday season with its brisk winds and childlike anticipation of family and friends and vacation days.  One day slips seamlessly into the next, with little to mark that time has marched forward or that anything should have changed, and recurring events sneak up on you.  “Wait, it’s already summer movie season in the States?”  “Hold on, how did it get to be Halloween already—I need to book my tickets home for Christmas!”  “Is it already getting cold again back home?  I thought it had just turned to summer!”  Before you know it, you’ve been here for 3 years.

3 years since stepping off a plane in Nairobi and taking a taxi to the hotel that had been booked for me, only to find that it was full—they would have to take me to the annex.  I’d been so nervous and mistrustful about that ride to the annex given everything I’d heard about Nairobi; I remember frantically trying to get my phone to work so I could text my cousin and parents about where I was going in case the shuttle drivers were actually thugs.

Of course they were not thugs.  They were hotel workers.  Duh.  I reached the annex safely, and only had difficulty sleeping on the comfortable bed because of the horrible jetlag.  It’s a little embarrassing now—how could I have been so mistrusting?

After 3 years, I admit I complain more than I should.  About the bad roads and the bad politicians who built them and the bad drivers who drive on them (or sometimes next to them), threatening all other life in the vicinity.  About people who say “I’m on the way coming” when they haven’t even left the house.  About the food—not only about its blandness, but about the fact that the people actually LIKE its blandness, and have never thought of a way to season it despite so much abundance around them!  About the pathetic way men treat women in Africa.

Some people ask, “why are you here?”  I guess now the question is, “why are you STILL here.”

For one, the work is interesting, meaningful—and potentially lucrative.  A little more than a year ago, I joined BBOXX: a solar company focused on providing solar energy to off-grid populations in poor countries.  Sounds familiar, right?  I’d worked with two other companies before doing this during the previous two years.  But BBOXX, I believe, has discovered the formula for off-grid solar: financing to make solar energy affordable, and a retail network to bring the products closer to the people.

That last point is key.  Rather than work through distributors as nearly all other solar companies have been doing in developing countries, we’re opening our own retail shops in rural Africa: renting and branding the buildings, hiring staff, handling the cash and stock, etc.  The work has been intense, and it’s only the beginning, but we’ve already accomplished a lot.  In the last 6 months, just in Kasese District, Uganda, we’ve opened 12 shops employing 23 full-time staff, and electrified more than 500 homes who are reliably paying for their solar systems in small affordable installments.  Now my focus is turning for a while to a country I had amazingly never set foot in until 6 weeks ago: Rwanda (though I will still be based out of Uganda).  By early 2015 BBOXX should be electrifying nearly 2,000 homes per month across Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya—a huge victory for clean energy and rural development (not to mention revenues in the high seven-figures)!

BBOXX solar shop in Kyarumba, Kasese District, Uganda

BBOXX solar shop in Kyarumba, Kasese District, Uganda

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Biira Joviah – Shop Manager in Kisinga, Kasese District, Uganda

Kasese 387

Grand opening of the Kisinga shop

Kasese 399

Customers filing into the Kisinga shop

Kasese 249

Display of solar systems in Bwera, Kasese District, Uganda

My original reason for coming, in fact, was exactly that: to make sure that people’s first experience with electricity was with a solar system.  In doing so, the hope is that dirty energy never gets a chance to gain a foothold in still-virgin Africa; Africa should get rich, and it must do so using renewable energy, not the dirty energy sources that, though they powered the West’s development, have also brought the world to the brink of environmental catastrophe.

Of course no matter how interesting the work is, it’d be hard to live in a harsh environment for more than a year or two.  That’s pretty much the impression we all have of Africa before ever visiting: famine and war, poverty and disease.  But that image is far from than the truth, which is that Africa (at least East Africa) is a pretty pleasant place to live—as long as you have money.

Gosh, when I was first moving in 2011, everyone asked questions like, “what will you eat—do they have food there?”  “Be careful you don’t get the AIDS!”  “Aren’t you worried you might get killed?”  True, I do often worry that maniacal drivers possessed by Big Man Syndrome might run me down.  The cities are crowded and dusty, with no sidewalks and some of the worst traffic in the world.  But when it gets to be too much you can always escape to Fort Portal, Uganda or Musanze, Rwanda for cool weather and mountain air (and pizza!), or tropical Jinja for drinks overlooking the Nile.  I’ve not only stayed AIDS-free, but also steered clear of malaria, schistosomiasis, and ebola.

The weather is perfect all the time; during the daytime you can sit in the shade and drink iced coffee, and by nightfall the air has reached that rare temperature where you can walk any distance without breaking a sweat, and sit for any length of time without needing a jacket.  As a result, most of the restaurants are open air garden settings, and doors are never closed—upon returns home to the States I sometimes see a shut door and think the store is closed, before remembering, “ah yeah, they just need to keep the cold air inside.”

Kigali weather

Jealous?

Food is cheap, and the coffee is excellent (at least in the capital cities—Endiro is the best I’ve had at any coffee shop in any country).  Kampala has no fewer than seven good pizza restaurants, a dozen coffee shops/cafes, great Indian food, two Thai restaurants, and even a Mexican joint!  Dinner and drinks at the fancy Indian restaurant will cost you $20, and with $2 minimums at the poshest casino’s blackjack tables, a bad night of gambling losses might put you back $25.  There’s enough variety to keep things interesting, but not enough to overwhelm you with choice.  People are incredibly nice; there are few places outside East Africa where you can joke around with a random police officer or security guard, and it makes you feel good when the boda drivers and shopkeepers wave at you on your way to work.

Best of all, life is always interesting, and it’s easy to meet people.  Things happen here that you would just never see in the States, from the quaint (the innocently bizarre and misspelled names local people come up with for their businesses, like “God Cares Supermarket,” or “Little Tinkles Nursery School,” or “Godfrey Real Estate Blocker”) to the sinister (Uganda’s heinous anti-gay bill) to the absurd (Wonderworld: an amusement park in Kampala built mostly from 1950s era imported carnival equipment).  Everyone you meet is working on this interesting project or for that organization which, however misguided or over-idealistic, nevertheless provides ample stories and interesting conversations.  Trips to the field inevitably produce tales of first-world hardship (“they were out of beans by 7pm so there was only pasted meat for dinner!”), crazy encounters (the frequent marriage proposals expat women receive from young village men), or, rarely, actual disaster (like the time our brand new van was destroyed in an accident in remote northern Uganda).  There’s always fodder for commiseration at the expat bar.

goat race

Goat Races: living in Kampala

The narrator in a very funny book I read remarked that “expats in Africa take care of each other.”  And it’s completely true.  The expat circle is the least exclusive fraternity around–because when everyone starts out a stranger, everyone is welcome.  Few people rebuff strangers’ attempts to initiate conversation.  Another foreigner is automatically a familiar face, someone with whom to talk about home or to share your distaste for matooke.  It’s easy to make friends.

The bad part is when those friends leave for another post or for home, which almost everyone eventually does.  Being far from home is hard—missing weddings, grandparents’ 93rd birthdays, family vacations.  I will eventually move back too, but not yet—there is still a lot of catching up on this blog to do, and there are a lot of solar systems to install!

To that end, I will actually be writing regularly from now on.  After a year of silence while waiting for my work permit to be approved, I have quite a backlog of stories to share and things to write about.  So subscribe or bookmark this page, there will be more to come!

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