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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.

The worst pothole in the world: or, an addendum to what Africa has to say about Obama v. Romney (part 1)

Kids, always pay your taxes with a smile.  This is what your roads look like on Romney-level taxes.

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I can see Russia from down here! Wait, wrong election…

What Africa has to say about Obama v. Romney (part 1)

“I spent my life in the private sector. I know why jobs come and why they go… I know what it takes to make an economy work, and I know what a working economy looks like.”

-       Mitt Romney

 

“I think a lot of this campaign, maybe over the last four years, has been devoted to this notion that I think government creates jobs… That’s not what I believe. I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world’s ever known.  I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative… But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that’s how our economy’s grown.”

-       President Barack Obama

If Mitt Romney says he knows what it takes to grow an economy, he ought to try running a business in Africa.  See how much tax cuts help you when you have to deliver products on THESE roads:

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Small government in action

A year and 3 months ago, I came to East Africa to build distribution for solar lanterns. Besides selling solar lamps and co-founding a rock n’ roll band, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what this small East African country, which itself is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence from the British, can teach us in the West about our own politics.

On the one hand, I’ve become more conservative in my views toward charity: seeing so many NGOs run around looking for donors, you realize that for all the good work charity does, it’s the private sector creating the wealth that funds both donations to charities and taxes for governments.

At the same time, I’ve also experienced first-hand what it’s like doing business without the framework of laws and infrastructure that make business easy in the USA.

For example, a few weeks ago I was making a scouting trip to find distributors in Bundibugyo: a remote corner of western Uganda between the Rwenzori Mountains and the Congo border.  There’s a new road being built that you can normally drive on, but this time it was closed.  Instead, we would have to take the old dirt road through the mountains, which the locals have given an ominous name: “the Corners.”

True to its name, the Corners winds its way through the heavily rainforested mountains, traversing under-tree through crazy switchbacks so sharp that they make you wonder how a 40-foot bus can maneuver around them.  The road is barely wide enough for one bus to pass, and during the rainy season turns into a slippery mess of mud that claims dozens of lives each year.  After arriving in Bundibugyo, one local told me, “oh, you took the Corners?  Cars slide off that road all the time, and sometimes boulders or landslides fall down and wash cars off the road.”  I didn’t know that at the time—otherwise I would have bribed the police to let us on the new road.  (So Mom and Dad, don’t worry; never again will I take the Corners!)

Fortunately the worst thing that happened was that we got stuck in the mud for an hour.  One of the workers heroically climbed down UNDER the bus and dug each wheel out with a hoe as the rest of us pushed the bus from behind.  The bus got free, and we finally reached our destination at around 10:30pm.  The 200-mile (337 km) journey had taken 9 hours.

Now I’d like to ask Mr. Romney: How much more expensive would goods be in the US if they all had to travel on roads like The Corners?  How many jobs would trading passable roads for lower taxes create?

For that matter, will low taxes help businesses’ sales when consumers spend 50% of their income on school fees instead of buying businesses’ products?

Does it help productivity to have your employees miss work because they’re sick with malaria or they’re burying their child because they couldn’t afford health care?

Does it help food buyers’ wallets when 1/3 of the corn crop is killed by record drought caused by global warming—the result of oil and coal production?

And is it worth it to reduce gas prices and regulations when the result is pollution so thick you literally choke on it during your morning jog?  Nothing like a thick black blast of diesel exhaust to the face to remind you why we have an Environmental Protection Agency!

The other thing I’ll say is, 40 years ago, Idi Amin deported all the Indian immigrants from Uganda.  Without these vital workers and business owners, the economy collapsed.  Let’s not be too gung-ho about getting potentially good workers out of the country!

So look, I know what makes jobs come and go: a private sector filled by hardworking people with good ideas (many of whom may be born elsewhere), oiled by a financial system that allows people without money to start and expand businesses, and all of it operating on the foundation of good infrastructure, an educated workforce, and a framework of laws that preserves fair play and limits the profit motive’s excesses.  Essentially, Clinton-Obama capitalism.

Low taxes?  Well, it’s nearly impossible for the Ugandan government to collect most taxes, but that doesn’t make it any easier to get my goods from point A to point B, find skilled workers, protect my property, or do any of the other countless business functions that depend on reliable public services!

The question isn’t whether Business or Government is the primary wealth creator: both Democrats and Republicans agree that the private sector is the engine of economic growth. The question is which types of policies help businesses grow–and grow in a way that benefits society (without, for example, choking the air with pollution): small government or smart government; cut and de-regulate, or invest and moderate.

And if you want to know what the Right’s vision of small government, cut and de-regulate looks like in practice, well take a trip to sub-Saharan Africa.

This is not to disparage Uganda or other African countries.  Despite all their setbacks, these countries have been making strides for 20 years in the right direction in developing infrastructure and better lives for its people, and they are now great places to tour and invest.  But let’s not now go the opposite direction in the USA by cutting taxes, reducing infrastructure, and eliminating laws.

If you’re down by 17 and put in a replacement quarterback, you don’t pull him out after he’s thrown 2 touchdowns and driving.  And you especially don’t put the old guy back in.  You leave him in for 4 more years, and maybe get 3 Super Bowl rings in the meantime.

“Dewey Defeats Truman” Moment for CNN? Plus why conservatives should rejoice in the Supreme Court decision

I’m taking a break from the ordinary focus on this blog to chime in on the momentous Supreme Court decision UPHOLDING President Obama’s landmark health care reform law in its entirety.

First, is this a “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment for CNN?

Struck down or upheld? Make up your mind!!

Second, on a more serious note, here’s the clearest explanation you will read for why the decision is important.

It’s important because if the Supreme Court had struck down the individual mandate, we may well have seen a complete collapse in the health insurance market.  Here’s why:

The health care law prohibited health insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, and also bans the practice of “recission”, whereby an insurance company cancels your health care coverage as soon as you get sick and actually need it.  Almost everyone, conservatives and liberals, agree that these practices are wrong.

But what most people DON’T realize is that in ordinary circumstances, these unsavory practices are in fact critical to the very existence of a private insurance market.  The whole point of insurance is to combine sick and healthy people in the same risk pool, with the healthy people effectively subsidizing treatment for the small percentage of those who get sick.

So if someone who is ALREADY SICK applies for insurance, it would make no sense for an insurance company to give them a policy because it would be guaranteed to lose money: the sick person is 100% guaranteed to need more money to pay for coverage than they will pay in premiums.

So now, imagine that insurance companies are REQUIRED to cover people with pre-existing conditions.  Why would anyone choose to buy insurance before they got sick? You know you can just take your chances and save your money, because if you never get catastrophically sick, why spend money on premiums?  And if you DO get sick, the insurance company HAS to cover you if anything bad happens.

In this world, insurance companies would lose their healthy customers, and be stuck with only the sick customers who actually need insurance – and cost the most to insure.  Premiums would skyrocket to cover their costs, and eventually insurance companies would go bankrupt.

That’s why the Individual Mandate requiring everyone to buy health insurance was so critical.  It’s sort of a grand bargain: people with pre-existing conditions are protected, but in exchange you have to buy insurance to preserve the market.

So if the Mandate had been struck down, we would have probably seen one of two outcomes: (1) a collapse in the insurance market, leading to the federal government taking it over and establishing a single-payer system, or (2) the states would have stepped in and created their own individual mandates to preserve health insurance for their citizens, meaning 50 different regulations to comply with: a costly administrative nightmare for insurance companies.

Hence, why conservatives should rejoice: the Individual Mandate is better for business, and prevents a government takeover of health care!

Finally, on a PERSONAL note, I wish to express my personal gratitude to Chief Justice John Roberts for casting the deciding vote.  See, I have been in Africa working for startups for the last year.  Right now I am insured by International Medical Group, paying about $54 a month out of pocket.  But if I were to get cancer or injured in a motorcycle accident, requiring long-term treatment, it could be tricky upon returning to the US to get coverage (and most personal bankruptcies in the USA are caused by medical problems).

Thanks to the Supreme Court decision, I now know I will always be able to get good health insurance when I return to the States – even if I am not working for a big company or decided to start my own.  So Chief Justice Roberts, webale nyo ssebo!

7 Months in the Pearl of Africa and Counting

Sunset over Kamwokya, Kampala, as seen from my apartment... the Indian lady from whose balcony I took this picture was NOT happy

Uganda is again in the news, and I’m realizing that I’ve been radio silent for a while.  You may be wondering, what it’s like?  Well this post will hopefully explain it, with minimal mention of famous warlords.

Living in Uganda you witness a manic depressive dance between life and death, the two swirling arm in arm in a tight but unpredictable arc that swings from one extreme to the other without a moment’s notice.  A new birth, to a death in the family.  The thrill of a sale, to the anxiety of being temporarily broke while Mobile Money service is down.  The chaotic vibrancy of the local bar and market, to the flooded squalor of the slum in rainy season.

The coffin trade is booming.  So is the school industry.  And yes, I mean that schools are an industry, most being run by businessmen in the pursuit of profit.  For example, if you talk about how rich someone is, you might say, “eh, that guy is RICH – he owns a bank, a resort, and two SCHOOLS!”  And indeed, Ugandan businesses’ revenues are dominated by back-to-school season.  Business is tough in the first month of school, because parents are broke after paying nearly their entire incomes on school fees—typically $120 per pupil per term in a country where most families have 4+ kids and the average income is less than  $1200 per year.

In this setting, the rapidly developing economy produces some strange contrasts.  Shopping centers sell French wines alongside chicken feeders.  Farmers who have not yet discovered the cattle-drawn plough might own three mobile phones and have solar panels on the roof. Everywhere in the capital city you see smart new construction rising above roads adorned with potholes, goats, chickens, and cattle; as one driver said, “it’s like putting on a tie while the shoes are fake!”  And you’ll find people with 3 masters degrees who own 3 small businesses, and others who you have to ask 3 times to put your order into the kitchen at the local food shack before they slowly amble away, dripping with resentment.  (And things DO move slowly – as one friend said, “I could do it in 1 week, but they want me to do it in 1 month!)

Farmer with solar lamp and phone charger

Weather is similarly bipolar.  For three months I hadn’t seen a single cloud, and the sun had baked the roads into suffocating red dust.  Then about a month ago, I saw the first wary wisps making their timorous debut in the sky.  Within three days of those advance scouts’ initial test of dry season’s defenses, the cavalry of rainclouds arrived in force, charging over the horizon and blanketing Kampala in a barrage of heavy rain, wind, and lighting.  It was, we thought at the time, a welcome liberation from three months of unrelenting dust and heat, and, forgetting how rainy season stained our pants-bottoms brown with mud kicked up by foot or by boda, we welcomed the rains like so many waving handkerchiefs at returning soldiers.

But it was a false hope: since then, we’ve seen barely a drop, with only the occasional pleasantly cloudy day; as one boda driver said, “today is nice: no rain and no sun!”

Rainy season - is it back yet?

I’ve been in Uganda for 7 ½ months now (and Africa for 8), living in a 2BR flat with a Ugandan friend who’s quite the whiz with computers – email him if you ever need a website built!  It’s long enough to wish for the rest of you to visit, but barring that, to at least enjoy my temporary expertise as a “seasoned” expat aid worker with freshly arrived newbies.  “You paid WHAT for a boda ride?  My friend, that distance cannot cost more than 1,500 shillings!”

Flatmate Raymond Besiga in Mbale en route to Sipi Falls. FYI that is a New England Patriots hat... and my guitar

I got lots of stares wearing a kanzu into the supermarket on the way to the introduction ceremony (traditional Ugandan wedding)

It’s also been long enough to pick up more than a few idiosyncrasies of Ugandan English.  There are, for example, no fewer than five different ways to say “eh” in Uganda, and I unwillingly sprinkle even my expat conversations with them.  (One thing I have NOT picked up yet is the local style of text-messaging, which goes almost out of its way to misspell words.  For example, if you’ve borrowed money from someone, you may soon receive a text message reading something like: “Hopping u r gud.  Wat tym r we mtg at da place?  Am broke and nid 2 get ma mony dat u owe me.”)

Also, there are not actually words for “hi” or “good morning” – the translation is more like “how are you?”  So when you greet somebody “good morning,” they might respond, “I’m fine, how are you?”

A third example: “sweet,” when used to describe food, does not mean sweet in the sugary sense—it just means “good.”  So when somebody tells you that the fried grasshoppers (nsenene) are “sweet,” he actually means they taste salty.  (In fact, nsenene are not bad; once you get past the little squirt of grasshopper insides that greets you when you crunch down on them, nsenene have the consistency of a rather meatless chicken nugget, and taste like little more than the substance in which they are fried and, occasionally, seasoned.)

Nsenene with guacamole and matooke

Since we are talking about grasshoppers, we might as well talk about Ugandan food.  It’s abundant, cheap, and high in calories, but flavor cannot be counted among its more potent virtues.  That said, it’s enjoyable enough, and certainly satiating.  A typical meal sells for between $0.75 and $1.80, and consists of “food” plus your choice of “sauce.”  Food means a plate piled high with a standard mix of starches: matooke (green starchy bananas that are steamed and mashed), posho (a mix of maize meal and water boiled into a paste), sweet potatoes (which are blueish-white and taste much different from the ones we’re used to in the States), Irish potatoes (usually referred to just as “Irish”), rice, and pumpkin.  Then you add the sauce: a meat or legume cooked in broth.  Sauces may be, in order of ascending price: beans, g-nut sauce (mashed “ground nuts,” which are similar to peanuts), peas (my favorite), cow’s meat, goat’s meat, chicken, or fish.  For fast food, you may get a meal of chicken and chips (as in French fries), or pilau (rice cooked in seasoned broth, usually served with gravy or meat).

When eating local food, I normally eat vegetarian, because the meats are of varying quality: some very tender and tasty, others consisting of mostly un-chewable fat, or worse: intestines.  (I was tricked into eating a bite of intestine on one occasion.)  Chicken can be bursting with flavor, or dry and sinewy.  (Interestingly, expats who complain in the States about how genetically-modified and ill-treated American chickens are complain with similar indignation about how stringy and meatless the Ugandan chickens are.  Funny how it seems that most of the things we complain about overseas are the direct result of lacking the things we complain about back home.)

Most Ugandans eat this same meal of starch and sauce 2-3 times a day, every day, and never get tired of it.  It at first amazed me, until I realized that European cuisine probably consisted of even less variety before they began trade with Asia and the Americas: porridge and bread three meals a day.  For me, I get local food about 3-5 times per week to protect my pocket book, supplementing it with splurges at the expat restaurants (Indian food is the BEST).

The exception to the rule of bland food is the fruit.  Uganda is BLESSED with it.  The countryside is lush and green, brought to life by the fields of banana trees whose huge, chaotic leaves burst forth from the earth and make it look like the land is dancing.  Pineapples and bananas grow in all seasons.  Then you may also find mangoes, oranges, watermelons, passion fruits, papaya, and jack fruit, depending on what is in season.  Tomatoes, red onions, and avocados are also excellent, making Uganda a prime destination for guacamole.  It’s all fresh, it’s all natural, and it’s all cheap: you can buy a bunch of 10 bananas for about $1.30, or a pineapple for $0.40.

Why so few pictures of said food, you ask?  Because my camera was stolen.  At the airport.  Out of my CHECKED baggage.  Yes, apparently one of the baggage handlers must have been a bit curious on my last trip to Ethiopia back in October: when I dropped my baggage off, the camera was in the outside pocket; when I arrived in Addis, it was gone.  The pictures you see here were taken by someone else (courtesy of Mr. Raymond Besiga and Ms. Aneri Patel) or from my phone’s camera – but now that, too, is lost.

Dusk falls over Addis Ababa

Ethiopia's biggest coffee chain. Look familiar?

Fortunately, despite what it may seem from the above, theft is a rare enough thing here, and Uganda is quite safe (at least, you don’t have to worry about other Ugandans harming you).  Unlike the dodgier Nairobi, it’s not uncommon to see Kampala women walking alone at night down barely-lit streets.  And for good reason: mob justice ensures that thieves fear YOU more than you fear THEM.  Shout “thief!” and the perpetrator may be tackled by the mob and beaten in the street.

Joseph Kony, of course, has not been in the country for 6 years.  You can cross the entire country from Rwanda to South Sudan, from DRC to Kenya, with absolutely no fear of rebel armies or warlords.  In fact, you SHOULD do this: Uganda was recently rated by Lonely Planet as the #1 tourist destination for 2012.

Indeed, the biggest dangers to muzungus in Uganda are the roads.  Traffic rules are non-existent, leaving every driver to fend for himself.  And fend they do – right up to the fenders of the cars all around them.  Without big government to tell cars when to stop and go and who has the right-of-way, the rule of the road is “just GO”: you take the first opportunity to seize your spot, no matter whether you are in the correct lane or have to force someone else off the road.  Indeed, driving on the upcountry roads connecting Kampala to the regional towns, Ugandans seem to PREFER driving on the wrong side of the road—perhaps proof that the American system of driving on the right is the one which Nature originally intended (Uganda officially uses the British system of driving on the left).

As a result of this chaos, traffic often moves so slowly that drivers turn their engines off to save fuel.  Eh, ssebo, now you are stuck in the JAM!

The solution to the madness rides on two wheels: the ever-present boda boda.  Bodas are the motorcycle taxis so characteristic of Uganda as to be frequent subjects of paintings.  At night or in the countryside, you may have to first wake the boda man lounging asleep atop his bike, but in Kampala, you will be inevitably swarmed by a host of drivers eager for your business: “Yes!  We go?  Sit and we go!”  Negotiate your price, hop on the back, grip your fingers under the seat or on the bar on the back, and you’re off.

Bodas are dangerous: not only are boda men notoriously reckless drivers, but the cars pay them no respect, preferring to swerve and hit a boda man than to drive their own car over a pothole.  And the bigger the car, the less they care about hitting you.

But despite the danger, bodas’ ubiquity, cheapness, and maneuverability make them too irresistible to pass up completely.  In a city where a car might sit still in traffic for 10 minutes before moving an inch, bodas are almost completely immune to the jam: dodging between cars, hugging the shoulder of the road, even climbing onto pedestrian walkways, they can get you anywhere in the city in less than 30 minutes and for under $3.

And in any case, a helmet will protect you quite well: 90% of boda deaths are caused by head injuries.  Thus, for many of us, we move everywhere with a helmet in our hands.

Sometimes I feel like I spend half my waking hours on the back of a boda, jetting off to meetings or our solar shop in downtown Kampala.  But I suppose that’s not ENTIRELY true.  Expats are, after all, a social bunch, and weekends are spent either in Kampala’s outdoor clubs or getting out of the city to enjoy the safari, forest, or water adventures that this BEAUTIFUL country has to offer.  Last month I went whitewater rafting near the source of the Nile.  With several Class 5 rapids, it is some of the best in the world according to most people—and impossible to traverse without being thrown from your raft several times.  Fortunately your lifejacket prevents you from being held underwater for more than 7 seconds.  Indeed, the scariest part was when, after swimming through the most intense of the rapids (the raft lasted about 3 seconds before dumping all of us), the guide found me and exclaimed, “ssebo, your helmet!”  It had slipped off in the water, and I was probably pretty fortunate to escape having my head dashed against the rocks.

Two weeks before that, some friends and I visited Sipi Falls in Eastern Uganda.  A stunning landscape of sheer cliffs and waterfalls descending suddenly into the expansive plains of Karamoja, I decided to experience it from a slightly different angle by rappelling down a 100m (325 foot) waterfall.  Unsure of the safety standards this side of Africa, I first ensured that the ropes were anchored to the rock at 3 separate points.  Probably wise, because the instruction consisted of, “be careful while I tighten the harness – I don’t want to damage your mangos.  Ok, ready?  Now step to the edge!”

Muzungus crammed in a share taxi on the way to Sipi Falls

Laundry with a view

About to rappel down Sipi Falls

Dangling... after rappelling for about 25 meters, for the next 75 meters the wall recedes until your feet don't reach it, so you're just sort of hanging

Ruhi, Rachel, Aneri, Me, Raymond

And I guess I am pretty fortunate to have such a chance to spend time in a country so full of adventure and opportunity.  Ugandans are perhaps the nicest people you will ever meet.  They are eager to work, and the country is rapidly advancing – any wise businessperson would pounce at the opportunity to invest here.  The only question is, when are you coming to visit?

Have Yourself a ToughStuff Christmas

Amazalibwa Agesanyu & N’Omwaka Omujaa Ogwemirembe,

Krismas Njema Na Heri Za Mwaka Mpya,

and

Melkin Yelidet Beaal!

ToughStuff Solar Lamps Adorning a Christmas Tree

African Women Do It All (as represented by Calvin & Hobbes)

This seems about par for the course for Uganda!  And just in case you’re in doubt, some stats to back it up (courtesy of Solar Sister):

In Uganda, women are responsible for

  • 80% of food production
  • 60% of planting
  • 70% of weeding
  • 60% of harvesting
  • 90% of processing & preparation…
  • and have access and ownership of only 8% of the land and production facilities.

(Source: Akello, G. “Women’s Role in Agricultural and Rural Development: The Socio-Economic Condition”, Kampala: Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation)

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