Archive for March, 2008

Fire…Fire…Fire!!

March 30, 2008

A few days ago we had just finished some shopping at the Uchumi supermarket at the newly built Garden City Mall. As we left the mall and walked through the car park we noticed the commotion of hundreds of people watching smoke billowing from the roof of the six story Standard Chartered Bank building. A few of the workers had made their way onto the roof and were removing tiles to allow the smoke and heat to escape. The roof of a building that’s on fire is possibly not the safest of places to be but quite a few workers seems very happy to be up there, being watched by the huge crowd that was gathering on all the mall balconies and car park levels. As the smoke continued to grow some people decided the safest place to be was as far from the mall complex as possible. The cars queued to leave via the only exit which, incidentally, is also the only entrance! The two lanes provided for entrance and exit were both fully clogged up by cars leaving the mall. At that moment the fire engine arrived. Or at least it tried to arrive – it couldn’t get into the entrance of the car pack due to the cars trying to flee the scene. There was a huge panic as officials tried to get the cars that were trying to leave to back up. The same people that were desperately trying to flee the scene of a six-story building potential about to burst into a flaming fireball were being forced to reverse back down the ramp towards the smoking bank. It was clear that there had been little planning for the eventuality of a fire within the mall. Eventually a route was cleared for the fire engine to drive to he outside of the ground floor of the bank. There was a ramp to the right which allowed vehicles to drive up and around to be outside the 3rd story of the building but they chose the ground floor level.

The smoke was still rising out of the roof and the bank workers were still frantically pulling up roof tiles to allow more heat to escape. Meanwhile the six or seven members of the fire engine crew were busy trying to get the ladder off the fire engine’s roof rack. The ladder was in three parts and it took all of the crew a good few minutes to assemble. Only when they put it in position on the floor and leaned it against the wall did they realize that the ladder only reached up to a point midway between the 2nd and 3rd story of the building! They dismantled the ladder, placed it back on the roof rack of the fire engine and drove the vehicle round the ramp and parked it outside the 3rd story of the building. The ladder assembly process began again. They managed to put it together slightly quicker than the first time – practice makes perfect! Unfortunately, even from the 3rd story, ladder did not quite reach up to the roof of the building. There was a balcony on the adjacent building to the bank where a large group of people had gathered. One of the firemen realized he could go inside the mall, up the escalator and onto the balcony where the people were standing. Four of the other firemen then started to climb the ladder at the same time, each holding a separate part of the hose, aiming to pass it from the fire engine up to the fireman who had reached the balcony.

Meanwhile the bank workers on the roof were still pulling up tiles and the smoke was still rising through the holes – although it seemed to have been dying down a little. The hose reached the fireman on the balcony who was now only one story below the roof. He stood prepared with the hose in his hand aiming up at the roof of the bank. The fireman closest to the tap turned on the hose. Only then did it become clear that the hose had not been used or checked for some time. It was completely ridden with holes and almost all of the water from the tap leaked out of the holes in the hose before reaching the end with the nozzle. Everyone in the vicinity got soaked through before the firemen turned off the tap. They had run out of ideas. Fortunately the smoke had completely stopped and it seemed that the fire had somehow put itself out.

I think the moral of this story is to really try exceptionally hard not to leave a chip pan unattended on your stove while preparing dinner in Kampala.

The Leader, Brother Colonel Gaddafi

March 29, 2008

Old Taxi Park, Kampala

Yesterday we were on a mutatu coming back from Ggaba (around seven miles away on the shores of Lake Victoria). We covered the first five miles in good time – in fact at the precise moment that I was thinking how quick the journey had been we hit a jam. We didn’t move an inch for over half an hour. No one else on the mutatu batted an eyelid. We waited for another ten minutes before a few people chose to get off the bus and walk the rest of the journey. The major roads are not the most pleasant of routes to walk along. Every vehicle pumps out an incredible about of black smoke from their exhaust pipes which more often than not are directed at the pedestrians walking alongside. The pavements are strewn with holes – some of them large enough to swallow up someone who steps in it unexpectedly. It’s easy to be distracted. There’s quite a lot going on when you walk around the streets. People shouting questions at you; Boda-Boda drivers pulling out in front of you on the pavement offering their services; hopeful locals taking your hand and asking you for a job; mutatu drivers attempting to entice you into their vehicles. It would be very easy to lose concentration on the actual pavement and drop into an open man-hole. Scary thought. On this occasion we chose to stay in the mutatu and sit out the traffic jam.

Another few minutes passed with absolutely no movement and our patience broke. We got out and started walking and coughing. When I first got to Kampala I held my breath when a dirty truck drove passed filling the air with black soot and poison. After a while I found that I was holding my breath for considerably more time than I was actually breathing. I’m now resigned to the fact that it’s not possible to walk around the streets without breathing in the toxins. It’s one of the most disappointing elements of Kampala for me so far. Anyway, so back to walking through the traffic jam that we’d been sitting patiently in for so long. We walked no more than a couple of hundred yards when we came to a large roundabout where the police had blocked all traffic in all directions. Not one vehicle was moving. All of the pedestrians that were trying to walk to their destinations had also been prevented from passing. We had to wait.

Two of the streets had been cleared of all traffic and a few of the pedestrians along the streets had large placards adorned with the photo of Colonel Gaddafi. Suddenly there were sirens coming from our left. Two police cars sped past along the emptied street. A third police car approached the bend at high speed and came to a skidding screeching half spinning stop right in front of the amassed crowd. My first reaction was that the car almost killed a group of innocent by-standers. The innocent by-standers first reaction was to cheer and clap. The car did a wheel spin, throwing a huge amount of dust and dirt into the air and all over looking crowd – still cheering! Seconds later a convoy of at least 20 SUVs came hurtling passed, most of them accompanied by sirens or holding their horns on continuously. Then a sedan car with the man himself in the back seat, flanked by body guards, waving and smiling at the crowd – of which the vast majority hadn’t come to see him but had in fact just been caught up in the wrong part of the city at the wrong time. Nevertheless, Colonel Gaddafi sped past what I’m sure he thought were streets lined with his adoring supporters. Once Gaddafi’s car had passed another 20 or so SUVs sped by with people inside who clearly did love the man.

I couldn’t help but thinking why does a man holding no public office or title have the right to hold up an entire city and it’s people for over an hour. Can’t he get on a mutatu like the rest of us? Has he forgotten his peasant family upbringing? Who the hell does he think he is? Since the day he arrived in town the newspapers have been full of stories and photos of the colonel. Streets around the university have been renamed after him. It’s been reported that he’s frequented numerous lap dancing bars, having the entire female staff perform for him while the usual patrons are locked out on the street. Nice man.

Early thoughts from Uganda

March 28, 2008

Nakawa Market, Kampala

Arriving in Uganda was as welcoming as my wife (Genevieve) and I had expected. We had heard and read such glowing reports of the country and its people. After only a few days in the country my first impressions of both the locals and the city of Kampala are extremely positive ones. As we left the arrivals area at Entebbe airport and stepped outside in Uganda for the first time we were greeted by a large advertising board for Barclays Bank. It says in hugely proud letters “Enjoy Africa’s friendliest country”. The people are among the friendliest people I have had the pleasure of spending time with – not only in Africa, but worldwide. I’m not sure if it’s because the locals are all aware of this label that they have and make the effort to live up to the hype or if it’s because they are simply incredibly friendly. But which came first – the chicken or the egg? It doesn’t matter, from my experience so far, it’s been a pleasure to be here amongst the Ugandans. Unlike the locals of many other developing countries, they genuinely want to make sure that their overseas visitors are made welcome, feel comfortable and at home in Uganda. They offer to help at any opportunity and, surprisingly, are rarely looking for anything in return except a thank you and a warm smile – and the opportunity to shout Muzungu (“White man”) at you. This is purely an observation. Apparently, the locals refer to each other as such things as the brown one, the fat one and the blind one so their use of the local word for “White man” isn’t supposed to be racist in any way. This kind nature is not only reserved for foreign visitors, it is also their way with each other.

My first experience with a local minibus taxi (called a Mutatu in the local language) highlighted this. There is space for 13 people in the taxi. All seats were full with 12 passengers and the conductor seated next to a serious looking man in smart business attire. I presumed we were full but we stopped to pick up a market woman. There is no space for standing on these taxis but there was absolutely no problem with the conductor sitting on the businessman’s knees as we carried on along our way. The Ugandan people have such a gentle nature. They are softly spoken and I am yet to hear someone raise their voice in anger. They all seem to have genuine consideration for each others feelings. If someone drops what they are holding and it breaks, everyone around will say “sorry” – and they mean it. One minibus taxi I was on drove passed the scene of a lady who had fallen off her bicycle and was being helped by a few locals. Almost in unison, all the passengers on the bus said “sorry”. They say it in such a heartfelt manner that you can’t help but be taken aback by their compassion for one another.

Their positivity is apparent through their beaming smiles – from small children through to the frailest of old men. Almost everyone I have seen looks well and healthy. They have an abundance of naturally grown produce, available cheaply in the local markets. They have a low fat and low sugar diet – their teeth are all great (so my Genevieve tells me – she’s a dentist!). In the respect of living in a lush, green, plentiful country the Ugandans have a lot to be happy about. Their climate allows them to grow an abundance of fruit, vegetables tea, coffee and also sugar. The country now exports some of these products and the government is hopefully using the revenue to improve the country and the welfare of its people.

It seems that the tremendous weight of the Idi Amin era seems long forgotten and the country is moving forward positively. While I have spent most of my few days here in Kampala I have also been fortunate enough to visit two separate groups of people in rural communities in Jinja and Mukono. The people here are also progressing nicely. The Micro finance institutions based all around Uganda are able to offer loans and other financial products as well as training to a wide section of the population, at more affordable rates than local money lenders. This relatively recently introduced form of money lending is allowing those not previously able to apply for bank loans, able to afford the extortionate money lender rates or live in too remote a community to have been reached in the past to receive financial support. Their small businesses are starting to thrive. Individual brick-makers now have four or five full time workers and are dreaming of buying land and building homes and services for their village. Families who previously owned one cow now have a few cows and a handful of calves and can sell milk in their village market to the locals at a more affordable price. Women who used to buy a handful of bananas and sell them on the roadside now have a stall at the town market and are able to buy and sell in much larger quantities. Rural families are able to send all their children to school and many have hopes of going onto further education and becoming professionals. People are building themselves new brick homes. Drainage channels are being dug and paved alongside the roads to manage the rain water flow. Roads are being re-laid. Construction is everywhere. The companies in charge are employing large numbers of locals to help with the manual labour. A few mobile phone companies are competing for the market, offering affordable communication for all. It is not uncommon to see a family living in a mud brick house to have a few mobile phones between them. There is wireless internet all around Kampala. These are exciting times for Uganda.

Everyone has a great sense of pride in their appearance. They all dress immaculately and it is an insult to them to not wear appropriate attire. A muzungu who goes around in ripped pants, flip flops and a collarless t-shirt is considered to be showing disrespect by not dressing according to how he or she can afford to dress. While outward appearance shows a prosperous and healthy nation the bitter fact that so many Ugandans are infected with HIV AIDS, malaria and cholera are widespread and the Ebola virus is once again starting to spread in the west of the country. There are public notice adverts on huge billboards urging people not to have cross generational sex. Power cuts across Kampala are extremely common and often lengthy. The vehicles on the roads are mainly old, emitting black smoke, making large areas of the city dirty and polluted. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a guerilla movement, allegedly supporting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), operates in Northern Uganda and Sudan and is accused of widespread human rights violations. They are in armed rebellion against the Ugandan Government in what is one of Africa’s longest conflicts. This is a nation not without its problems – and some very serious ones at that.

It’s clear that there are many western organizations here to help. Although, a few of the locals we have spoken to about this, are under the impression that most westerners are here to make money and reap the financial benefits of being here. The NGOs are here to do good for Uganda and its people. Many of the expats here live very comfortable lifestyles – in securely walled apartment blocks or houses, with round the clock security, daily maid service, buying imported food from the modern supermarkets, frequenting expat-only bars, being chauffeured around by personal drivers in huge 4-wheel-drive SUVs. Having said all that, most expats are here to contribute to the country; they spend their foreign money here and therefore support the Ugandan economy.

My wife and I are here to volunteer with PEARL Microfinance. It’s an organization that provides financial services to those people that are not able to use the regular banking system due to their remote location or lack of equity to put up against a loan. It’s unfortunate but unavoidable that companies like PEARL have to charge higher interest rates than the bank to enable them to cover their costs and be self sufficient. While the interest charged is around 30% per annum when you consider that inflation is around half of this amount, it doesn’t seem so unreasonable. The recipients of the loans that we have met so far are all happy with the way the money has helped with their businesses and also their private lives. We have heard some interesting stories about the small businesses that the loan recipients own. They include such businesses as brick-making operations, banana sales, general stores, scrap metal collection and sales, milk production, sugar cane farming and restaurants. The locals tell us about their businesses and also about their family situation. Many of them are women, married with five or more children and are also supporting the children of their brothers and sisters who have died young. Yesterday we met a young lady who was holding back the tears telling us how her youngest child recently died of AIDS and how her eldest child now has the HIV virus. The medication is available but the costs of the drugs have forced her into making the decision not to give them to her daughter. When you consider that these drugs cost less than a dollar a day it’s just incredible to think that it’s not an affordable option for many families here.

So after hearing and writing the stories of all the people we meet the next challenge is to upload the info to the Kiva website. It’s hard to describe to someone that has only ever accessed the internet from a computer in a developed country. Everyone can remember dial up speeds before they had the luxury of broadband. Even the snail pace of the very first dial up connections was made to feel super-speedy when compared with the dial up access we have to deal with in Uganda. I’ve just spent the past four hours trying to set up an online bank transfer between two of my online accounts. Back home I’d complete this task in a few minutes at the most. Not here. It took me all morning. Lost connections, website time outs, page not recognized, unexplainable errors, power cuts, computers crashing. Maybe 30 attempts later, the money had been transferred. Our job involves uploading stories of local businessmen and women to Kiva’s website. The target to collect and upload 15 stories per week sounds like an easy one when you consider it takes five minutes to collect a story, tens minutes to write it up and, in theory, one minute to upload it. Simple! Meet a large group of entrepreneurs on Monday morning, interview 15 of them in the space of a couple of hours, return to the office and spend the afternoon writing and uploading all of them, have Tuesday to Friday free to do other things for PEARL and Kiva. Things just happen much slower here. Patience is a key attribute for everyone to have – and lots of it. The journey to the field which is planned to start from the office at 9am doesn’t leave until 1pm. The “45 minute journey” takes three and half hours, most of the time sitting in “jam”, or stopping at a kiosk for 20 minutes to buy a bottle of water. Don’t ask my why it takes so long to do such simple tasks. It just does. There’s no point trying to speed things up – it won’t happen and people won’t understand why you’re in a hurry. The quick interviews with the entrepreneurs each take five times longer than anticipated due to everything having to be translated back and forward through an interpreter.

Processes simply aren’t as efficient here. I have to lower my expectations of everything and everyone. If I expected to be able to do the same things here as I can back home in the same space of time then I would spend all day every day incredibly frustrated. It’s much easier to say this than put it into practice but I have to try to laugh at certain situations rather than let them get to me…