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)!
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.”
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.
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!