Early thoughts from Uganda

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…


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