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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

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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!

Scratch, and Building From It: 2 Years in the Pearl of Africa

Spread your open wings and learn to fly

Spread your open wings and learn to fly

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.

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Terraced hills of Kabale

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Karamoja road with mountains in the distance; near Kaabong

Bonobo Love, Uganda's first rock band! (or maybe second)

Bonobo Love, Uganda’s first rock band! (or maybe second)

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).

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Tanzania – Serengeti. Typical!

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Burundi – Lake Tanganyika

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South Sudan – just wouldn’t be complete without the radio-masted UN car in the foreground

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!

Pizza.  Pesto Pizza!

Pizza! Pesto Pizza!  In Fort Portal, Uganda!

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.

Landslide on the way to Bundibugyo

Landslide on the way to Bundibugyo

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.

Mediterraneo - not your mental image of Africa?

Mediterraneo – not what you were expecting?

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.

Rwenzori Sunset, from Ndali Lodge

Rwenzori Sunset, from Ndali Lodge

Sunset over the Rwenzoris in Ft Portal

Sunset over the Rwenzoris in Ft Portal

Endiro Coffee: the muzungu version of the village phone charging shop

Yesterday I went into Endiro Coffee, the muzungu coffee shop, and found it absolutely packed at 3:30 in the afternoon.  What could explain this off-hour onslaught (besides the fantastic coffee)?  And then it hit me:

No power.

Electricity had gone off in the neighborhood, and Endiro has a generator.  So all the expat office workers had to come in and spend $2.25 on a coffee to charge their laptops.

This morning, power was still off at my house, my laptop was down to 10 minutes of battery, and I had world-saving emails and partnership proposals to write.  Perhaps more importantly, my coffee maker had no electricity.  So of course, even though it was raining and my only means of transport was by motorcycle, I had to put on my rain coat and ride to Endiro.  The old African proverb is true: A muzungu with an uncharged laptop just isn’t worth much of anything.

A jolt and a volt

After arriving, I plugged in my laptop and was in business.  The world was safe once again.

It strikes me, this is essentially the muzungu version of the village phone charging shop.  In the village, nobody has power, but everyone has phones.  They do everything they can to extend their battery life — switching it off at night, using power saving mode, keeping a spare battery around — but at some point, every good phone runs out of juice.  And when that happens, it means a trek into the nearest trading center that has electricity, where they pay UGX 500 at a shop to charge their phone.  If it’s urgent, that means another UGX 2,000 to hire a boda boda round trip.

And the tragedy of it all is that the phone charge doesn’t even come with a coffee!

Image courtesy of kiwanja.net, http://www.kiwanja.net/mobilegallery.htm

Now muzungus know what it’s like.  When there’s no power in Kampala, we have to trek to the nearest expat coffee shop, shell out UGX 6,000 for a coffee, and sit while our electronic devices charge.  The only difference is, we sometimes LIKE having to pay that money.  “Ah damn, power’s gone off.  Oh well, I guess I HAVE to go to the coffee shop.”

An expat aid worker’s thankful list

It’s become a cliche to say that moving from the US to Africa makes you appreciate the things we have in the rich world.  Still, it’s true.  You notice it anytime you hear yourself thinking either “I wish…”, “wow, they have that here?”, or “good thing that…”  Here follows a list, in no particular reason, of 61 things I have become more thankful for since living in Uganda – both here in Africa and back home:

  1. Being able to eat turkey, dressing (stuffing for you non-Texans), and pumpkin pie in Kampala
  2. Those little stripes down the middle of the road that tell you what lane to drive in
  3. Water fountains
  4. Parks
  5. Coffee
  6. Coffee farmers
  7. Coffee exporters
  8. Coffee processors
  9. Only having to boil tap water instead of carrying 20 kilo (44 pound) jerry cans back from the river
  10. Being able to do meaningful work
  11. The Rule of Law
  12. That George Washington voluntarily stepped down from power 216 years ago
  13. Banana trees – seriously, what is a more perfectly convenient snack than a banana?
  14. Trade routes that make all kinds of food available to me
  15. Re-sealable packaging
  16. The way African kids are always running, running, running, and just generally having a great time
  17. President Barack Obama
  18. Chocolate
  19. Cocoa farmers
  20. Driving tests
  21. Traffic police
  22. Private enterprise
  23. Government that works
  24. That even if I develop a pre-existing condition, US insurance companies must still cover me
  25. And that anyone who tries to free ride and wait until developing such a condition before buying insurance must pay a penalty
  26. Entrepreneurs who own restaurants serving muzungu, Indian, and Ethiopian food in Kampala
  27. Families of 2.1 children
  28. The word “No”
  29. That I caught the thief who had stolen my laptop and got it back after just 2 days
  30. The Indian family who taught me how to make dhal and rice
  31. Light switches
  32. Street signs
  33. Traffic lights
  34. Electric mosquito zappers
  35. Awesome Ugandan musicians who can play rock music
  36. The door to door convenience of being able to find a boda boda anywhere, and reach any destination in any traffic in less than 45 minutes for less than $5
  37. Boda bodas whose engines are too old to go very fast
  38. The companies who make sure I can get bottled water even in the remotest corners of Uganda
  39. Scientists
  40. Air quality and vehicle emission standards
  41. Modern medicine
  42. Being able to get modern medicine (at least of a sort) even in a provincial Ugandan town of 5,000 people
  43. People who do helpful things and don’t expect any money in return
  44. Wilderness
  45. All the people who came before me who developed science, technology, social mores that respect human life and the rule of law, and all the other things that make us think we are smart and hard working, when in reality our successes stand on the shoulders of these giants – Plato/Aristotle/Socrates, the Roman engineers, Galileo, Newton, America’s Founding Fathers, Pasteur, Einstein, Fleming, etc.
  46. Carbon trading schemes that subsidize clean energy technologies
  47. Return policies
  48. Not having to find change because every store accepts credit cards
  49. Being able to see the world
  50. Airplanes
  51. Whoever must have eaten the family of turkeys that used to live in my driveway and make lots of noise gobbling
  52. Cold weather
  53. Sinks that aren’t just there – water actually comes out of them when you turn the tap
  54. Street lights that don’t just stand there – they actually give light to make the roads safe
  55. Computerized accounting systems
  56. Smooth, wide, well-constructed roads
  57. Planning
  58. My parents and brother
  59. The Kents and the Browns: all my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and aunts
  60. Friends at home who care about what I’m doing
  61. Awesome expat and Ugandan friends who make it possible to live 8,000 miles from home, even on Thanksgiving.

Expats in Uganda and around the world: add your own in the comments!

Should developing countries starve to stop climate change?

President Obama has won reelection, and he FINALLY mentioned human-caused climate change in his acceptance speech.  “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t… threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”  Apparently it took New York City underwater — hot on the heels of the warmest summer in US history, a summer so hot that it destroyed nearly the entire US corn crop — to reawaken Americans to the dangers of messing with Mother Nature.

But as devastating as those disasters were, let’s not forget that most of the humans alive today live in developing countries.  These countries will produce most of the next century’s growth in greenhouse gases, and they will feel the impacts of climate change most acutely.

In that regard, I received this question from a friend:

I always read your posts about climate change, because I am in some ways undecided on it. Related to that, I have a question that you are uniquely qualified to answer: should developing countries (like Uganda, for example), be required to slow down their economic growth on account of global warming?

Good question.  First of all, let me just say that a visit to any developing country will reveal that climate change is, if nothing else, real.  Any Ugandan farmer will tell you that the seasons don’t behave like they used to.  It rains during dry season, and rainy season does not start when it’s supposed to.  It’s hotter than it used to be, the glaciers atop the Rwenzori Mountains are retreating, and things have generally become more unpredictable.

And there is no question this is caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases.  We know that CO2 traps heat – this is easily measured in a laboratory.  And we know that humans are emitting CO2 into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels; in fact, the measured increase in CO2 matches exactly the amount predicted by adding up all the fossil fuels burned over the last 150 years.  So all else being equal, the temperature of the planet MUST increase.  And indeed, NASA has confirmed that there is less heat escaping into space at the exact spectrum of CO2, and temperatures have steadily increased for the last 100 years.

So whether you ask a NASA scientist or Ugandan matooke farmer, the evidence is not just overwhelming, it’s undeniable that the planet is heating up, and human fossil fuel emissions are responsible.

But the real question is, what do we do about it?  Conventional wisdom is that reducing greenhouse gases reduces economic growth.  We can survive reduced growth in rich countries, but what about countries that are already so poor they can barley feed and medicate themselves?  Should they be required to slow their development to forestall climate change?

And the answer is… well, actually, you don’t have to choose.  The tradeoff between protecting the environment and economic growth is in reality a false choice, for two reasons.  First, climate change itself will devastate developing economies, canceling out at least some of the economic benefit of fossil fuel led development.  And second, economic development does not depend on fossil fuels the way it used to; just like developing countries do not rely on landlines for their telecom needs, they will not need fossil fuels to power their broader economic growth. For these reasons, reducing global warming pollution does not mean reducing poor countries’ development.  Quite the opposite: their economies in fact depend on finding sources of energy that don’t contribute to global warming.

Developing countries are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change because their largely agricultural populations are most closely tied to the climate.  Small changes in rainfall patterns mean subsistence farmers can’t predict when to plant and when to harvest – and any farmer will tell you that “rainy season don’t come when it used to.”  Moreover, as the climate warms, more water evaporates, causing dry season to get drier and wet season to get wetter – and indeed, heavier rains are contributing to more frequent landslides and flooding here in Uganda, which can wipe out entire villages.  In agricultural economies, such climatic shifts can ruin farmers’ livelihoods.

Landslide in Bududa, Uganda

But the impacts in Uganda pale in comparison to what could happen in South Asia.  1.5 billion people there depend on Himalayan glaciers for their water supply: everything from drinking water to irrigation to hydropower.  And global warming is melting those glaciers at an accelerating pace, according to CIA-funded research.

Now why would the CIA care about climate change?  Because the two countries hosting those 1.5 billion people are nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.  What happens when the glacier-fed rivers dry up and it comes time to “allocate” scarce water resources between rival nations?  You can connect the dots.

Drought, floods, famines, water-shortages, nuclear war – whatever economic harm developing countries might suffer from STOPPING climate change PALES in comparison to the consequences of NOT stopping it.  It is the great issue facing the developing world.  What an injustice that the countries least responsible for causing climate change will be the ones to suffer the most from it (although Hurricane Sandy may cause us to rethink that).

So we’ve established that even if reducing greenhouse gases might slow short term economic growth, there are also huge long term economic benefits in terms of better agriculture, better water supplies, and reduced risk of war.

But the good news is that reducing carbon emissions does not have to reduce developing countries’ growth.  Instead, it can boost the economies of these nations: by replacing iron-age technologies that fail both their users and the environment with modern clean energy solutions.

For one thing, sub-Saharan African countries (excluding South Africa) generate much of their power from hydro, which means that their energy needs are less tied to fossil fuels than countries like the United States.  In fact, the UN estimates that one day, hydro could meet ALL of Africa’s electricity needs.

But developing nations have other energy resources: most are tropical, and thus well-endowed with sunshine, meaning solar has the potential to “leapfrog” dirty energy.  Just like developing nations did not rely on landline technologies for their telecom needs, they may not need old fossil fuel technologies for their energy needs (barring transportation of course).

Take cooking, for example.  More than 90% of sub-Saharan Africans use firewood or tree-derived charcoal to cook food for their massive families, releasing massive amounts of CO2 in the process.  Countries like Uganda are losing 2% of their forest every year to cooking fuel.  In fact, deforestation is East Africa’s single biggest contribution to global warming: not only do you release CO2 by burning the wood, you also eliminate a carbon sink by destroying the forests.  It’s a double whammy.

And for all this dirty energy, what do villagers get?  A 5 mile walk and a house full of smoke.  Every day women (it’s always women) walk farther and farther (because the nearby forests are steadily being cut down) to gather firewood, carry it back on their heads, and start cooking inside their houses.  Yes, inside the house.

Now, you know how when you sit around a campfire, the smoke always seems to follow you, and it’s so unpleasant that you spend the entire night shifting your chair around and shouting “white rabbit!”?  Imagine sitting with the campfire INSIDE A HOUSE!  It is not a place you EVER want to go.  One of the foulest experiences of my time in Uganda was demonstrating a solar light in a mud hut in which a woman was cooking lunch.  All I wanted was to show her how bright it was, but I could not spend more than 5 seconds inside because I couldn’t breathe and my eyes burned as surely as if the fire itself were jumping into them.  No wonder indoor air pollution is one of the top killers in Africa.

Incredibly, the cat does not roast next to this indoor cooking fire

What new devilry is this? (A demon of the ancient world)

Charcoal reduces smoke compared to firewood, but costs a fortune.  My housekeeper, for example, spends 30% of her annual income just buying charcoal to cook.

And yet for $18 (or $6 for a charcoal stove) — only two weeks earnings even for the poorest of the poor — a family can purchase a clean burning cookstove that uses half the firewood or charcoal, and reduces their smoke inhalation by half.  Less time gathering firewood = more productive time at home, on the farm, or in the shop.  Less smoke = better health and thus better incomes.  Once again, reducing carbon emissions increases economic growth and human welfare – it’s the dirty old technologies keeping developing countries down.

Or look at lighting.  97% of rural Ugandans use kerosene – a fossil fuel – for light.  But kerosene is dirty, dim, and inefficient.  The US Department of Energy estimates that kerosene users pay 150 times more per unit of light than those using efficient CFL bulbs powered by the grid.  For a typical family in Uganda, this adds up to $72 per year, or 15% of per capita GDP!  And despite spending all this money, the light is too dim to read by and too smokey for human health, contributing to high dropout rates among students and lung disease among frequent users.  Try sitting inside a small, poorly-ventilated room that’s had a katadooba burning for 4 hours.  It will make you sick.

Yet for less than $50, a poor household can get a solar light that lasts for 5 years without needing new batteries, is 10x brighter than a kerosene lamp, and even charges their mobile phones.  That’s an 8 month payback: Over that same period of time, they would have spent $360 buying kerosene every day.  (And in fact, another $200 charging their phones).

Clean energy is, in fact, big business in the developing world.  The number of companies in Uganda selling clean cookstoves or solar products is staggering.  Drive through any trading center in upcountry Uganda, and you will see at least two shops with solar panels stacked outside the door.  One day a few months ago our car broke down next to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere Kayunga District.  I figured I would use the opportunity to show our solar lamps to the farmer.  He didn’t speak a word of English, but his educated son informed me that “oh yes, we already have solar.”  Sure enough, they had a 90W solar panel on their roof, which cost them UGX 2 million (about $800).  My friends running an up-and-coming solar company are shipping $1 million a year of solar systems into Congo of all places!

It seems counterintuitive at first.  After all, if renewable energy is expensive in the US, how can poor countries afford it?

But when you consider the cost of extending the grid to remote villages, and how even the big cities suffer from blackouts, it’s not hard to understand why: compared to the alternatives, renewables are both cheaper and more reliable than fossil fuels.  It’s cheaper to pop a solar panel on a roof than to string up 10 miles of distribution lines to a rural household that won’t consume enough electricity to pay for the lines.  And the sun is always shining, so you have power even when the power plant faces shortages.

Simply put, when it comes to developing nations’ economies, doing nothing about climate change just isn’t an option: it’s clean tech or bust.

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