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Reverse Culture Shock, Winter 2015 Edition (#36-43)

Another trip home is almost come and gone.  Each time I come back, I like to write down a few new items of “reverse culture shock” I’ve noticed about home—whether it’s the United States or the West in general—that I’ve only been able to notice by virtue of having been in Africa.  You can check out the master list here.

This time around the list is small—I have been gone for 4.5 years after all—but there are always a few.  Starting from #36…

36. Ice Water.

America is obsessed with ice water.  It doesn’t matter that it’s winter and 35 degrees F (about 1 degree C) outside and you’re sitting next to the door so every time it opens you get a gust of cold air.  If you order a water, it’s going to come with at least 50% ice.  Don’t get me wrong, I like my water nice and cold, but the water that comes out of the fountain is already chilled: you don’t need to make it even colder by adding ice to it.  Not to mention harder to drink—don’t you hate all those ice cubes clinking up against your teeth?

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Thoughts on Paris, Terrorism, and Refugees: Why We Don’t Need to Step Up Counter Terrorism and Why Refugees are on Our Side

Taking a break from the usual Africa focus.  It’s been nearly two weeks since terrorists from the Islamic State massacred 130 people on the streets of Paris, and 40 more in Beirut.  Since then there’s been an outpouring of support on Facebook and from governments around the world, a lockdown in Brussels, intensified military action in Syria, and of course the inevitable calls to close the borders to scary refugees.

But there’s also been something else: Paris, at least from a distance, seems to have largely returned to life as usual.  And it’s beautiful.  Scenes of Parisians flocking back to cafes show more defiant patriotism than all the bombing raids we can ever do; I never thought it would be possible to feel patriotic by drinking coffee, but that’s exactly how I felt when I sat down at the ArtCaffe at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, scene of some of the first shots of that horrendous mass murder, a few days after it had re-opened.  Returning to the scenes of violence to eat dinner, drink coffee, and listen to music sends a clear message: terrorists’ goal in committing such violence was to change us, to goad us into doing something stupid, and they failed.

Here’s what I think we can learn from the attacks in Paris and other places around the world.

  1. There is no moral equivalency between terrorist massacres and Western military actions in the Middle East or elsewhere.

One article circulating on Facebook was a Guardian piece pointing out that perhaps 450 civilians have been killed by US- and European-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.  The implication is clear: yes the terrorist attacks in Paris were evil, but we’re not so great ourselves—just look at all those civilians our drones have killed.

Yet comparing the two is to conflate results with intent.  When a Western country’s actions result in civilian deaths, there was no intent to kill civilians.  Quite the opposite: we consider civilian deaths in war to be a tragedy, and actively try to minimize such casualties.  For example, a friend of mine’s mother works as a “humanitarian mapper” in the RAF: a position whose job it is to find where all the civilians live so air strikes can avoid killing them.  Think about that for a second: a military organization is employing someone whose job it is to stop it from killing people.  Indeed, Western militaries spend billions every year developing precision strike technologies to minimize civilian deaths, and it seems to be working: according to the Guardian piece, there have been more than 5,700 air strikes since the air campaign against the Islamic State began, but only 52 of these strikes have resulted in civilian casualties—in other words, 99% of Western air strikes have NOT resulted in civilian deaths.

In terrorism, of course, the intent is precisely the opposite: to maximize civilian casualties.  To gun down unarmed, defenseless people, exactly because that is what will create the most fear.  (For that matter, pretty much all other societies in human history—including western ones pre-1945—have been willing to inflict broad civilian casualties on enemy populations if it advanced the aims of the war.)

Of course we don’t always succeed in protecting civilians, and of course it is true that Western armed forces have sometimes been implicated in atrocities.  But the fact that we consider them to be atrocities matters: they are atrocities because they go against our own values, not because of them.

  1. There’s not much we can do to entirely prevent terrorism – and we probably wouldn’t want to do much more than we’re already doing.

Although reporting on the Paris attacks frequently described them as “sophisticated” and “coordinated,” I am struggling to see what is so sophisticated about eight guys getting guns and shooting unarmed people in crowded public places.  In fact, it seems incredibly easy: as long as you can get a gun (especially a fully automatic one), it’s very, very easy to walk into any crowded area and start killing people.  Indeed, lone wolves like the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook gunmen managed to kill more people per shooter than the Islamic State terrorists in Paris.

terror deaths

While the ISIS terrorists killed more people in total, there were at least 8 attackers – the lone wolves involved in America’s own mass shootings have killed more per gunmen

Could intelligence agencies have acted faster on information indicating the possibility of an attack?  Perhaps.  But of course any information before an attack is, by definition, imperfect, and can only be known to be accurate in hindsight.  So intelligence officers must make judgments about how real or likely a potential threat is based on the information they have at the time.  And inevitably, that judgment will sometimes be wrong—unless, that is, we are willing to require our intelligence agencies to act on any possible threat, which would be hugely disruptive to life and civil liberties.

If we don’t want to give indiscriminate power to intelligence agencies, what about beefing up security at “soft targets”?  For example, one conservative commentator said he was too scared to see the new Star Wars movie because there are no metal detectors at theaters.

Ubiquitous security is essentially the approach taken in many East African countries—and trust me, it’s not worth it.  Imagine having to go through airport security every time you wanted to enter your office or go shopping.  Just walking into a supermarket in Kampala, Nairobi, or Kigali usually requires a pat down and a trip through a metal detector.  At higher end shopping malls, you can face as many as three security checks: a security guard opening each car door to check inside as you enter the parking garage, followed by a metal detector and a rummage through your backpack when you enter the mall, followed by a pat down when you enter whatever store you are going to.  The car checks frequently cause traffic jams as it takes 2-3 minutes for each car to enter the garage: if there are only 10 cars, that’s a 30 minute wait.  I was happy to endure these small hassles for a few weeks after the Westgate massacre, but after a while you realize it’s not possible to live life under lockdown.

And really, does this added security actually do anything?  If you post a guard and a metal detector at the entrance to a shopping mall, all it does is force a terrorist to take out his gun outside the mall instead of inside.  The Economist points out that even airport security allows a lot to slip through, partly because the job is just so repetitive that humans checking metal detectors become numb to the routine; “A lot of what passes for security at airports is more theatrical than real.”

Unless we’re willing to go all the way and make every soft target a hard one—to require armed guards and metal detectors at the entrance to every shop, train, and bus, to post snipers on the perimeters of every mall, to subject ourselves to random police checkpoints on every road—it will always be easy for terrorists to attack.  And such a security state is not one most of us would want to live in.

  1. This huge gap between ease and frequency shows how little we have to fear from terrorism, not how much.

So it begs the question: if these attacks are so easy, and the world is full of terrorists trying to carry them out, then why aren’t these attacks happening all the time?  While I’m sure some of this has to do with the few dozen terrorist attacks that are foiled every year by our intelligence agencies, I think there’s a simpler explanation: there just aren’t that many terrorists out there trying to kill us.  If there were, you’d see a lot more Westgates and Parises.

The CIA estimates that there are 31,500 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.  That would just about fill the visitors’ side of Cowboys stadium.  Even if you quadruple that estimate, you’re getting into the realm of The Big House—certainly a lot of people signed up for an evil ideology, but not much compared with the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, and certainly nothing that can threaten the economic and military juggernaut of the US, Canada, and Europe.

And the results show.  With so few terrorists in the world who are trying to kill us, there are just not that many of us being killed by terrorists.  In fact, terrorism is about the least likely thing in the world to kill you—you’re more likely to be struck by lightning.


Anti-terrorism spending per death is 50,000x greater than spending on leading causes of death like heart disease and cancer.  source:

So why worry?  As the wild dog sparks panic in the gazelle, causing the herd to flee and leave behind or trample the vulnerable to make a tasty meal for the dogs, the only way terrorists can actually damage our societies is by panicking us into causing self-inflicted wounds: goading us into foreign wars that deplete our resources and push more Muslims into ISIS’s camp, or curtailing our civil liberties in the name of the illusion of security.  Indeed, more Americans have died avenging 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan than died in 9/11 itself.  How does that make any sense?

If the gazelle just stayed in their herd and kept grazing, the dogs would get close, then get scared of the herd’s sheer size and run away.  Likewise, in response to terrorism, the proper amount of change required of our societies is surprisingly close to zero.

(Yes, I know it’s a bit annoying to refer to ourselves as a herd of gazelle.  Perhaps a better analogy would be a couple of mangy hyenas trying to attack a pride of lions).

  1. The Paris attacks show us why we should let refugees in, not keep them out.

I know that several of our Presidential candidates, despite their tough talk, are actually scared of widows and orphans.  But the truth is, numerically and ideologically, the refugees are on our side.

There were at least 8 attackers in Paris, and out of them 1 had possibly posed as a Syrian refugee.  But that means the other 7 were French or Belgian.  If we’re going to ban Syrian refugees from entering the US, by this logic shouldn’t we be 7x more eager to ban the French and Belgians from our shores?

Nationalities of paris attackers

More than 700,000 refugees have entered Europe in the past year, and out of them one maybe turned out to be a terrorist.  Should we really be basing national policy on 1 in 700,000 chances?  Those seem like pretty non-scary odds to me.

But more than the numbers, look at the nature of the people who are fleeing to the West.  Two months ago I was skeptical of the calls to allow migrants into Europe; their habit of complaining that Hungary wasn’t rich enough, they wanted Germany or Sweden, sure seemed like looking a gift horse in the mouth.  But as I’ve read more, both stories from the refugees themselves and the arguments of those opposing them, I’ve become more sympathetic.  Like this one about three widows who had been forced to marry ISIS fighters and join the religious police, then fled because they couldn’t abide its cruelty or the suicidal ideology of their husbands.

The people who flee from Syria and Iraq aren’t the ISIS supporters—otherwise they wouldn’t have left.  The people who flee are the ones who hate ISIS so much that they are willing to risk everything to get out.  Finding ways to cross ISIS checkpoints.  Leaving families behind and having to figure out how to keep them alive from afar.  Searching for better lives in the West.  These guys are on our side.

It’s the people traveling the other way we need to be worried about.  And the best way to maximize that flow of people is to do exactly what many politicians are now calling for: closing the borders, bombing more indiscriminately, and isolating communities.  Such actions are sure to breed the resentment and economic stagnation that ISIS recruiters feed on.

Instead, we should be welcoming refugees who want to escape repression, integrating immigrant communities so they can join in our societies, and fostering trade with Muslim countries to promote economic opportunities beyond the $100 a month young men can earn as a fighter.

If someone is willing to risk it all to escape ISIS and settle in the West, that’s someone I want to welcome to my shores.


The Problem with Social Enterprises, Part 1: From Fair Trade Baby Seal Clubbers to “Socially” Enterprise

“I work for a company that makes money off poor people.”

That’s how a friend of mine likes to answer the “where do you work?” question at parties.  Apparently people’s reactions are pretty entertaining.

Now let’s see if I can paraphrase it to be less intentionally provocative:

“I work for a social enterprise.”

It’s happened to the best of us.  We’re good people.  We want to make the world a better place.  We don’t want to work for baby seal clubbers or oil companies, or toil away long hours figuring out how to increase ball bearing sales by 2%.  We want our work to contribute to the greater good: solving environmental problems, fighting poverty, improving health in poor countries.  But we also know that the traditional aid approach is fraught with perils of ineffectiveness and dependency, and that the private sector tends to be much more effective at delivering results.  And we definitely don’t want to be “NGO girl,” who came to Africa on her gap year and decided to start an NGO to take care of all those cute little kids she saw, but really has no idea how to run an organization.  If only there were a type of company with the heart of an NGO but the methodologies of business…

It can also go the other way around.  We’re naturally entrepreneurial, good at starting things and making money.  But we don’t want to start just any business—after all, there are real problems in the world that need fixing.  Perhaps we even feel a little bit guilty about the idea of making a profit off the poor.  We want our business to be more… social.

And now, with the “social enterprise,” you can.  At least that’s the theory.

Only, what is a social enterprise anyway?

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The 5 Other Things You Can’t Do in Uganda

I thought that at 6 items my previous list of things you can’t do in Uganda was pretty comprehensive.  But who knew, even as I rode down the street past a boda boda whose passenger was carrying three sheep in his lap, past hawkers selling toolboxes, posters of human anatomy, and puppies through windows of cars stuck in traffic, and past butchers offering hunks of unrefrigerated meat from their small stands, it was becoming apparent that my list was not complete after all.  Thanks to the commenters for leaving their suggestions, we’ve now turned up 5 more things you’re not allowed to do in this freedom-loving country.

  1. Hold a political rally for the opposition

Poor Kiiza Besigye.  Why do you keep running for president?  You’re only going to get teargassed.

A bigger deal than Hillary's emails: Uganda erupts in riots after opposition leader is teargassed

A bigger deal than Hillary’s emails: Uganda erupts in riots after opposition leader is teargassed

In Uganda you can have an opposition party.  You can even run a campaign against the president.  You just can’t do anything publicly to support that campaign.  Uganda is set for another presidential election in early 2016.  And every day it seems, there’s another front page headline about another opposition rally being broken up, another teargas-filled police fun-fest with opposition supporters, or another opposition leader, whether perennial #2 Kiiza Besigye or former Prime Minister and now presidential candidate Amama Mbabazi, being arrested for no apparent reason.  If you put up posters for the opposition, they’ll quickly be torn down.  Always classy, President Museveni just tells it like it is:

“No one can disorganise the country. Besigye tried to disorganise Kampala, the capital city. We tear-gassed him until he cooled off. He doesn’t need bullets. Just teargas is enough for him.”

It may seem strange to view the teargassing of rivals as presidential, but some commentators have suggested that in Uganda’s own special way, many voters may actually see it like this.  In an absolutely fascinating op-ed entitled “Teargas and Beatings Show Museveni is the Man,” columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo writes:

Something strangely Ugandan is also on — the beating and teargassing of President Yoweri Museveni’s rivals.


Happening at a time when Facebook and Twitter have grown exponentially, and WhatsApp is all the rage, the images are spreading fast, and if you live outside Uganda and they keep popping up on your phone, you would think the country is sliding back into the Stone Age.


However, that is not necessarily how all Ugandans see it. The threshold for political violence in Uganda is fairly high, and many locals aren’t as horrified by it all as outsiders would be… there is a method to the madness.

As an insightful source put it, Museveni’s vote in the urban areas has largely dried up, but he is still quite popular in the rural areas where most of the votes are.

To peasants and other rural folk, power is a demonstrated thing, so seeing people like Mbabazi and other opponents teargassed and run out of their rally venues is a humiliation, one that makes them look powerless against Museveni.

It works. Unlike the elites in urban areas, fellows in the rural areas who live on the edge and don’t have much power, keep a close eye on who is holding the big stick.

Thus the political violence of recent days that makes the middle class want to hide in shame, translates into votes for the man who is seen as “the jogoo,” the strongman, and in some parts may actually encourage higher turnout.

I don’t know enough about Ugandan culture to say whether this is accurate or not, but it is a reminder of at least the possibility that our western ideals of democracy and human rights are not as universally held as we think.

  1. Put your backpack on the ground

Cafesserie is one of Kampala’s sceniest hotspots.  Walk in past the gelato stand and glass-encased shelves of chocolate mousses, croissants, and tarts, sit down under a beige umbrella at a marble table attended by professional waiters, and you feel like you could just as easily be at a café in New York, San Francisco, or Paris.  I once found myself at a table next to Uganda’s richest billionaire.

But at such a popular spot, chairs often run short.  And if you have brought a backpack with you, this is something that may cause a waiter’s head to explode as they look for a place to put your bag.  Because in Uganda, you must never put a bag on the ground.  It must always go on a chair or a shelf.

You don’t often get the sense that “properness” or “attention to details” are metrics very often used to direct activity: as long as it works, it is just fine.  In a staircase, each step is likely to be a different size from the one before it.  Meat is not so much cut as it is chopped: there is no sirloin, tenderloin, flank steak—only “meat.”  A motorcycle mechanic once repaired the fuse in my motorbike; a new fuse only costs around $0.17, but apparently those savings were enough to justify the workaround.

Not putting bags on the floor, by contrast, is something people take seriously.  Do so at a restaurant, and the waiter will with great concern search the entire premises for an off-ground place to put your bag, all the while scolding you for your mistake.  “No, place it properly.  Put it well.  The floor is dirty.”

And hence the importance of not putting things on the ground: in a place with so many dirt roads and so much dust, too frequently storing your bag on the ground will in a short time render it a different colour.  (hat tip: Waina)



A few chairs left: if your group is not too big, you could probably put your bag in one of them

A few chairs left: if your group is not too big, you could probably put your bag in one of them

  1. Criticize the food

When a Ugandan goes abroad, they will inevitably complain about at least one thing: there’s no matooke!  Very likely they will have avoided trying the native cuisine of that place and chosen instead to subsist on somewhat familiar fast food like chicken and chips, fish and chips, or burgers, but they will not be happy about it: if it’s not matooke, it just isn’t food.

Matooke, of course, is Central Uganda’s staple food: a savoury banana, steamed and mashed, and typically served with a stew of beans, meat, or groundnut sauce.  To a foreigner, it’s nothing special: you should try it once, but there’s really no need to try it again once that box is ticked.

So... heavy!  So... many... carbs!

So… heavy! So… many… carbs!

But Ugandans (at least in Central Region) have a love affair with matooke that exceeds the love borne for its traditional food by almost any other culture I’ve encountered.  A typical thing heard at mealtime in Central Uganda is “I don’t feel as if I’ve eaten if I’ve not had matooke.”  Not only is matooke not to be criticized, even the idea that matooke could be criticized is something that so completely defies the Buganda imagination that it almost didn’t make it onto this list: that is, you wouldn’t think to say something is not allowed if you did not think it was something that could be done in the first place.  When a Muganda sees you eating a meal made up of pasta, steak, salad, and three types of cheese, he will be too shocked to tell you to stop, but will only ask with great wonderment and much head shaking, “Muzungu, where’s the food?”

It’s in this context that three commenters on my last post critiqued my characterization of local food as “bland.”  I get it: every culture on earth has a special attachment to its cultural food, and no one likes their food to be criticized or altered in a major way.  If you give an Italian a pizza with chicken and pineapple on it, they will scream and run away.  Some cultures may indeed prefer bland food, and I’m not passing judgment on that particular taste.  But objectively speaking, matooke is not cooked with any seasoning or spices.  As a pure carbohydrate its taste is something akin to mashed potatoes—only without salt, butter, or pepper.  And the only objective way to describe that is “bland.”

  1. Eat while walking or standing

This one was suggested by a few people, and makes the list—but only just barely.  It’s something I’ve been told is generally frowned upon.  And indeed, if I find myself standing and eating, someone nearby will generally insist that I sit down, smiling incredulously that I have not already chosen to do something as nice as sitting.  (Which of course is much nicer than standing).  And if you eat while walking, you will get some stares.

But I think people are getting used to seeing muzungus walking around munching on groundnuts and rolex, so it’s not quite the faux pas it perhaps once was.  Bystanders do not rush to rectify your behaviour so quickly as when a waiter rushes to find a chair to rest your backpack on, or a bag girl rushes to stuff your single pen into a plastic grocery bag before you can refuse it.  (hat tip: Emma)

  1. Confront someone else about anything they’re doing.

Uganda was in a state of constant warfare for most of the 80s—and in the North, all the way up to 2006.  But when you visit Uganda and meet the people, you wonder how this was ever possible: it is one of the friendliest, most relaxed, most non-confrontational places you’ll ever visit.  Live and let live is not just a saying: it’s the philosophy of social organization that holds the place together and allows the country to work.

I often say that the best part about Uganda is that I can do whatever I want, while the worst part is that everyone else can do whatever they want.  What I mean is that–and quite unlike what we sometimes believe in the US–liberty is not something that can be wholly individualized and infinitely increased: when different people have different interests, one person’s liberty will eventually and inevitably come into conflict with another’s, as the first person tries to do something the second does not want them to do.  A classic example is noise complaints: the teenager’s freedom to have a massive party conflicts with the neighbor’s freedom to have a nice quiet evening at home.  Resolving these conflicting liberties is the central problem of politics.

In the West, we employ the Rule of Law to do this: resolving to live by a set of pre-agreed written codes that determine what is and is not allowed, and whose interests trump whose in a dispute.

On the other hand, Uganda, as a general statement, seems to employ a different philosophy: do what you want until you run up against someone else; when this happens, sometimes you fight it out, but most of the time that other person is expected to accept your behaviour and move on, even if it goes against their self-interest.

For example, my neighbors had a wedding the other day, and decided to set up the party just on the roadside with massive speakers blasting ridiculously loud music from 10am to 2am nonstop.  But I was not to confront them and ask them to turn it down.  After all, some day it might be me who wants to blast loud music, and then it will be their turn to sit there and take it.

Similarly, minibus taxis stop wherever and whenever they want to drop off or pick up a passenger—even if the passenger they want to pick up is just 30 feet from the previous stop and could just as easily have walked.  All these stops make the journey take much longer, but none of the other passengers complain—again, soon they will be the one needing to get off at the most convenient location, and will be glad to have everyone else allow them to do so.

In Uganda, order seems to be maintained by a system of mutual self-sacrifice, where the good of the One almost always outweighs the good of the Many.  For even if you’re part of the Many now, at some point in the future you’ll be taking your turn as the One.

(Note: many people suggested that there are certain personal household tasks that you cannot ask a housekeeper to do: making your bed, washing your underwear, or hanging your underwear outside, for instance.  I did not include these because I’ve never experienced this myself, regardless of whether I’ve been living with Ugandans or Americans, at home or at a hotel.  I know that it probably is a widespread cultural norm, but it seems to be not as universal as it once may have been – at least based on my own experience.  Also WordPress makes it really hard to change numbered bullet points after I’ve written them.)

Where the Streets Have No Name: How Africa Could Leapfrog the Humble Address and Lead the World in GPS-Based Shipping

Here is my address in Kampala, Uganda (with place names changed for security):

“We’re in Ntinda on Mobutu Road, near Fancy Supermarket – most of the boda drivers know Mobutu Road.  Two ways to get there.  (1) Go on Jinja Road to the Shell station just past the Airtel roundabout. Turn left on Mobutu road at Shell, and go 3.5km. If you get to Fancy supermarket you’ve gone about 50m too far.  (2) If you can get to Kabira Country Club you can also find the house.  From Kabira, go back on Ntinda-Bukoto Road toward Airtel roundabout, but turn left (“go down”) on the first tarmac road, at the busy intersection with 2 petrol stations, God Cares Supermarket, and lots of bars. Turn left again at Mobutu Road and go 3km. Again, if you reach Fancy supermarket you’ve gone 50m too far.  The house is very nondescript: it’s in a compound behind a big dirt parking lot.  Call once you’re close and I’ll come out to find you.”

I got a real kick out of entering that in the “address” field in my response to my 5-year reunion invitation.

Here is my address in Rwanda (again, with place names changed):

Me: “KG 335, house #23, Kimironko”

Delivery person: “where is that?”

Me: “Ok, it’s the same street as Rosty Club – new Rosty, not its old location.  House #23.  It’s 3 houses down from Rosty.”

Delivery person: “Ok”

[10 minutes later]

Delivery person: “I’m at Rosty.  Where are you?”

Me: “Let me come outside and find you.”

The key phrase in both of those addresses was “I’ll come outside and find you.”  At least in Rwanda the government has made nominal progress by implementing a system of street names and house numbers, but no one really uses them.

But thanks to Google, developing countries like Uganda and Rwanda may end up never needing to: they could skip the address and go straight to GPS.

Here’s what Google Maps shows me if I type in “Casablanca Pub and Restaurant, Bukoto, Kampala”:

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The 6 Things You Can’t Do In Uganda

If you measure freedom purely by the amount of restriction the government places on individual behavior, Uganda may be the freest country in the world.  There is almost nothing that is not allowed.  Want to open a noisy bar next to a school?  It is allowed.  Want to carry a loaded gun on the back of a motorcycle?  It is allowed.  Want to become a taxi driver but don’t have a driver’s license?  If you have UGX 5,000, it is allowed.

But every now and then you hear a word or phrase that stops you in your tracks:



“That is not allowed here.”

Excuse me?  Something is not right.  What was that word again… “no”?  You try to remember what it means.  Ah yes, I’m starting to remember that concept.  So there are indeed things you are not allowed to do.

But what those things are, are fairly surprising, and they don’t seem to follow any logical pattern.

So now, after 4 years in Uganda, I’ve compiled an exhaustive list of all the things you can NOT do in Uganda.  There are only six.

In Uganda, you cannot:

  1. Carry things not in a bag.

Once I’d gone to a party with my housemate at the time.  We’d brought a grocery bag heavy with beers and sodas, and a couple of loose bags of chips (crisps to the Brits)—loose meaning not packed in a grocery sack.  But when it came time to carry them to the party, trouble ensued.  When I offered to take the heavier bag full of drinks, offering my housemate the lighter load of chips, he looked at me with shock and disgust.

“I cannot carry those – they are not in a bag!”

“Why does that matter?” I asked.

“Man, no one wants to see what you are carrying,” he replied in a tone that suggested I had almost caused a cross-cultural kerfuffle.

So I took the chips and Ray took the heavy bag of drinks.

This was not a one-off occurrence. Indeed, it seems a cultural staple of Uganda that whatever you buy, you are to carry in a bag of some kind, never loose, no matter how small or how singular.  If you’re buying one thing at the supermarket—a bottle of water, a chocolate bar, a single pen—the cashier virtually forces a bag upon you, no matter that said item could easily fit in your pocket.  Sometimes the bag girl takes bag excess to entire new heights, packing the small item alone in a small bag, then putting it inside a bigger bag with other items.  The flummoxment of my face at seeing the bag girl instinctively put a single pen into a bag is met only by her own astonishment at my refusal of the “kaveera.”  You can almost hear her snickering with her amazed colleagues as you walk out.

Perhaps in a poor country, it is not polite to flaunt your purchases in public—even if you’ve purchased merely a pen.  Or perhaps bags, with their myriad uses (carrying things, lighting cook stoves, covering your hair on a boda ride), are seen as a nice bonus from shopping, and it would be perceived as cheap to not pack your items in a bag.

Whatever the case, carrying things not in a bag can be a cultural snafu.

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Angola Part 2: “A Land of Contrast”

Bart Simpson seemed out of place in the Model UN, but at least he got his stock phrases down.  “In conclusion, Libya is a land of contrast,” he said.

It’s hard to land in Angola without thinking the same thing.  Skyscrapers next to slums, gleaming new hotels next to old façades riddled with bullet holes, Luanda and the rest of the country: the contrast is impossible to avoid.  It’s as if wealth flowed into the country so fast it struggled to keep up with its own potential.

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