Today marks the 2-year anniversary of my arrival in Uganda. Two years ago I rolled into Kampala after a 16-hour bus ride from Nairobi, including a 3-hour breakdown in the tea fields of Kericho, those hours passed over chicken and chips while awaiting the spare part’s arrival from Kisumu. It was 9pm by the time I reached Jinja (still 90 minutes from Kampala), my phone was dying, I knew only one person in the country, and I could barely understand what my contact was telling me through the crackling phone over its last gasps of battery. Something about a red chilli and a driver named Moses. I had no idea what he was talking about, but sure enough, when the bus parked there was Moses with his ancient Toyota Corolla waiting to take me to the Red Chilli Hideaway: a sort of backpacker paradise that nearly every muzungu in Uganda will pass through at some point.
In the two years that have passed since, I’ve been to nearly every corner of this country, from the cold mountains of Kabale, terraced and fertile and worked hard by industrious Bakiga farmers, to the arid plains of Karamoja, its vast expanses broken by sudden mountains around which its pastoralist population drives its remaining cattle. I’ve traveled to six other African countries and the USA three times. I’ve played in a band with an awesome drummer from Iceland and 4 talented Ugandan musicians. I learned to ride a motorcycle, and “only” crashed it 3 or 4 times (sorry Mom and Dad). I’ve seen corrupt charities and ennobled businesses and the opposites of both. Best of all I’ve made friends from nearly every corner of the world.
And now finally I’m back to blogging to tell you all about it. Since I know friends, family, and Internet strangers are just DYING to hear every last word I have to say.
My two years here have forced me to think. A lot. They’ve taught me what it means to be on your own – REALLY on your own, in a new business, with no support functions, and no public infrastructure to make things easy. Sometimes wondering, if I got in an accident, who would take me to the hospital? What if I’d had to make it without having started with a padded savings account – and without the knowledge that if I failed, I could always escape home to the States?
They’ve made me more conservative and more liberal, having boosted my appreciation both for Big Business and Big Government: Big Business to make all the things I like and get them in places where I can buy them, and Big Government to lay the foundation of law, order, and infrastructure to make the work of business possible.
I won’t be here forever, but I’m not back yet. And so I’ll actually be keeping up this blog regularly: about what the African experience has to say about politics and society and development, investment opportunities in Uganda, renewable energy, and the everyday experience of being an expat here. Also I’m on Twitter apparently. Perhaps I’ll post something there sometime (although I still don’t really GET Twitter).
More controversial topics are forthcoming (why, for instance, sub-Saharan Africa is the Tea Party’s paradise), as well as some updates on what I’m doing here, but for now let me re-begin by addressing the question people always want to know: what’s it like?? I mean, wow, Africa. It must be so hard. Isn’t it hot?
Well, maybe not: just check out the 10-day forecast for Kampala. 12 hours of sunshine every day and you still don’t need air conditioning. And the nights are the best: cool enough where you don’t break a sweat when you walk, but warm enough where you don’t need a jacket to sit down at an open-air restaurant. (That said, I do miss seasons).
To be sure, there are problems. So often I hear people talking about all of the country’s issues that it sometimes seems hopeless. Corruption, poverty, crumbling hospitals, and various combinations of the three (think doctors who steal free medicine from government hospitals to sell in their private clinics): “Man, we have PROBLEMS here.” There’s even an acronym for whenever things mess inexplicably up: TIA (“This Is Africa”).
But then again, ten days ago, I ate brick oven pesto pizza at a bar in upcountry Uganda while uploading photos onto Facebook. In fact, Kampala has no fewer than seven places to get quite good, Italian style pizza. There are also over a dozen Indian restaurants, several Ethiopian joints, a Korean BBQ and karaoke restaurant, and at least five places to get Chinese or Thai food. Hell, Kampala has TWO Mexican restaurants!
And the coffee? I used to drink Starbucks coffee black, but on my last trip to the States in June, I had to put milk in it. The coffee here is that good. Thank you Great Lakes Coffee Company!
In fact, you can get just about anything you want, thanks to a bustling private sector that fills in gaps left by government. One year ago I was in Bundibugyo: a stunning land of cocoa and coffee between the Rwenzori Mountains and the Congo border. Apparently the entire district’s water supply had been cut off for two weeks due to road construction… but thanks to the Rwenzori Bottling Company, I was able to procure clean drinking water at any shop in town for 40 cents a liter. Actually forget water: one local corner store was actually selling Toblerone. Sure, it was the hot season, and the contents were all melted, but in the village, Swiss chocolate tastes just as good sucked out of the package as when it’s opened and chewed.
Now that’s not to make it sound like things are easy. The pleasure at having found something like Toblerone is magnified only in proportion to the difficulty of the search. You can find almost anything, but you do have to find it. It’s a common boast of excited expats: “Guys, you’ll never guess what I found.” Brie cheese! Dark chocolate! Basil!
And interestingly, such finds are becoming measurably more frequent. When I was coming home for Christmas, all I could think about was how much food I was going to eat. On my next trip six months later, I barely cared, because Kampala could supply nearly all my culinary needs: enough variety to keep things interesting, but not enough to overwhelm you with choice.
It would be a cliché to say that not having so many things has made me appreciative of everything we DO have. What I’ve REALLY come to appreciate is the people who make sure we can have those things. Sure I might have been able to find Toblerone in the village. But before I could find it there, some businessperson had to bring it there: take a risk of importing a huge amount of the stuff by container or by air freight, and busting his ass on bad roads to convince supermarkets in Kampala and apparently 7 hours away to buy some and put it in their shops—and do it cheaply enough to still have money left over to do it again.
There’s not much better than luxuriant long dinners at Medditeranneo, where white curtains hung from mahogany posts keep out smoggy street dust, and the perfectly cool Kampala air mingles with the scents of delicate spices and imported cheeses that flavor the meals. But it would all be just another good idea if not for some Italian who left the comforts of home, flew to Uganda, sourced the materials, built the restaurant, trained the chefs, imported ingredients, and manages employees well enough to ensure it’s just as good every time.
Soon Ben & Jerry’s will come to Kampala! But that’s a misnomer. Ben & Jerry’s is not coming to Uganda. Someone is bringing it here. Taking a gamble that they can keep it cold the whole way here, at a cost low enough and quality high enough that people will still want to buy it here.
People often talk of building something from scratch. But you don’t appreciate the building until you’ve experienced the scratch. And that’s perhaps the coolest thing about being in Uganda, is being able to see and experience the building of a place, and all the people who are doing it. Something wasn’t here. And now it is. Because a person did it. All with the backdrop of some of the most awe-inspiring sunsets you’ll ever see.