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?


6 responses to this post.

  1. Fun article to read! Totally enjoyed the months gone by!


  2. Posted by laura on March 19, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Wow!yo analysis of the Pearl of Africa is spot on!I will have to disagree at the point where you say flavor can’t be counted among the potent virtues of Ugandan food!so not true!in my opinion,Ugandan food/cuisine can blow your taste buds!the best cuisine for me in the East African region is found only in Uganda!


  3. What. A. Man. As always, you are seriously my hero. Keep up the adventure buddy!


  4. Posted by Rita on March 31, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    Great piece…absolutely true! Glad that you get the full picture of our strange but beautiful country.


  5. Posted by Ashok on June 22, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    when are we getting another update???


  6. Brilliant stuff, love the pictures.
    More please.


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