Posts Tagged ‘Uganda’

Car horns, dogs, cockerels & muezzins…

May 14, 2008

Warning: The following story is not supposed to suggest that I think every African is noisy and offensive! It may seem that I am complaining about something very trivial and some sections of society will read this and say “If you don’t like it them leave”. To them I say… I am not asking anyone to change – I love it here – merely writing about the fact that I havent managed to sleep through a night since coming here. I love the life and energy here and wouldnt want it any other way (My god, these white church going middle class americans are really a difficult audience!) Like I’m doing this for them!

I’ve been in Uganda for over two months now and even though we’re living in one of the quietest parts of town, I’m pretty sure that I haven’t managed to make it through an entire night without being woken.

I’m getting used to it now – I’ve stopped expecting to get a solid night’s sleep. The locals here not only have much smaller personal spaces (if none at all), but they also have less consideration when it comes to making noise at night. There’s never a question of “I’ll be quiet now, some people could be sleeping” – even at two or three in the morning. It’s not uncommon for someone to return to their home in their car from their evening activity at some point after midnight and repeatedly honk their horn or simply hold it down until their night watchman opens their security gate for them. Even in the quiet of the night it doesn’t occur to them that a simple tiny hoot – or better still, getting out of their car and knocking on the gate – would be more considerate to their neighbours. Maybe it does occur to them but waking others out of their sleep is not considered rude here.

Maybe it’s because that even if they don’t wake me up with their horn they know that the Islamic call to prayer will be upsetting me at four or five in the morning. Even though Uganda is a Christian country the small minority of Muslims seem to have strategically placed their mosques so that it’s simply not possible to avoid the wailing call to prayer – five times a day! I can deal with the screeching tones coming from the muezzin at three o’clock in the afternoon but to be woken by “Allah hu Akbar, Allah hu Akbar” at four thirty in the morning is starting to get a little bit annoying. Maybe it would be alright if the muezzin actually had a decent voice and I could enjoy his song. Oh no. Our local muezzin not only has possibly the worst voice in the entire world but he insists, as so many of them do these days, to unashamedly broadcast his call at full volume via a sub-standard amplifier and speaker system. So not only does the singing sound like it’s coming from a donkey’s arse, it’s also cranked up to max volume and pumped out through a system that’s probably failed quality control at the Panashiba factory in Taiwan. Put it another way, even if I was the world’s most devoted Muslim I’d still be offended by this guy’s attempts to entice us all to mosque.

Even if by some miracle, none of the neighbours returned late incessantly blasting their car horn, there was a power cut and the mosque’s back up generator has failed the pack of homeless dogs that roam our streets at night would find a way of interrupting my slumber. It doesn’t take much to start them off – usually a car horn or the muezzin does the trick! And they just don’t know when enough is enough. They’ll continue to bark, howl, yap and wail until about quarter of an hour before my alarm is due to go off. Why is it that noisy dogs keep you up all night with their relentless barking – for hours and hours, completely unrepentant – and then suddenly go all quiet only a few minutes before you were going to wake up anyway? And then just as you’re finally nodding off the beep-beep-beep of your alarm comes crashing through the beautiful silence, reminding you that you need to leave for work in half an hour. Just perfect!

There is the hope (although it’s not good for the state of the dirt roads in the morning) that it rains heavily through the night. This forces all the dogs to look for shelter and forget about their need to bark for no apparent reason all night. So, on a rainy night when the mosque’s power cuts out and the neighbours all stay home I might just be able to get a decent night’s kip. If only it wasn’t for the cockerels!

Even without the muezzin, the car horns and the wild dogs, you can guarantee that the day always breaks and the dark turns to light. It’s the signal for the cockerels to stretch their vocal chords, mark out their territories and have a crack at wooing the hens. How can any female be even slightly attracted that that repulsive noise? I know it doesn’t do much for Genevieve – but poultry’s not really her thing I suppose. So, from around six o’clock every morning, without fail, the cock-a-doodle-dooing starts – in 5.1 surround sound.

There’s no real solution to my sleep deprivation problems. The neighbours won’t understand that I think it’s selfish to beep their horns in the early hours of the morning. It’s a different culture – there’s no point even trying. There’s a fine balance between wanting a storm to rage all night to shut the dogs up, and not being able to sleep through the thunder. If the rain’s not heavy enough the dogs don’t hide and if it’s too heavy the roads become an impassable mud-bath in the morning. There’s no simple resolution to this complex dilemma!

Maybe, if there’s an extended solar eclipse during the normal sunrise hours, the cockerels would miss their cue to crow? It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get to find out. Solar eclipses are rare enough for me to be waiting for one to happen at sunrise in Kampala! Anyway, I’m starting to think that the time of day bears no relevance to the timing of the cockerels’ calls. I hear them going off in the middle of the afternoon, a few hours after sunset and even in the middle of the night. This idea that they act as nature’s alarm clock and go off with the rising sun is very dubious.

So what about the off-key shrieking muezzin? Last week, I went to the mosque to find him. He wasn’t there but I asked the imam if they had electronically amplified calls to prayer in Muhammad’s day (praise be upon him). He didn’t understand the sarcastic tone to my question and told me that the prophet Muhammad was around in the 15th century – well before the joys of the electronic age. Ok, I had to be more direct. I asked him it was possible to turn the volume down for the 5am call. He was shocked! He says he gets many complaints about the early morning call. I was happy to hear that I wasn’t in the minority. I turns out that I was! Apparently all the other complaints have been grumbles about the volume not being loud enough, causing them to not hear it and miss their prayer. He also saw nothing wrong with the fact that there are literally thousands of people living in the near vicinity of the mosque and only a handful of them are devout Muslims. He told me that the Christians also like the early morning call to prayer because it acts as their alarm clock. Surely they have cockerels for that!? I was clearly fighting a losing battle.

Just as I had given up the struggle and made peace with my broken sleep, right there at the mosque with only the Imam and Allah as my witness I had an incredible epiphany – earplugs!

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The bus journey…

May 14, 2008

Warning: The following is a simple account of an event in Uganda. It is not intended to offend. It is not criticising anything, but merely some observations of the events of that day. There is some sarcasm, tongue-in-cheek comments, laughing at myself and others around me and is supposed to be read in a light hearted comical manner. Some conservative church going middle class americans have had a few things to say about it ;))

Trying to get a bus out of town from Kampala’s central bus park is an interesting experience. The large buses operate in a similar way to the smaller minibus taxis in that they don’t leave the station until they are completely full. There are almost 100 seats to fill so this can take anything between five minutes and five hours, depending on public demand. The long distance buses in Uganda have five seats on each row arranged in a three and a two with an aisle between the two that’s barely wide enough for Flat Stanley, never mind the huge bottomed African ladies.

If you’re one of the first onto a bus then you get the pick of the seats but you may be waiting hours to set off. If you’re one of the last few to arrive than you’ll be on the back couple of rows. All though you won’t be waiting long to leave, the lack of rear suspension on all of these buses means that you’ll more than likely arrive at your destination with bruised buttocks, compressed spinal chord and minor whiplash. A lengthy departure delay is usually preferable!

Last week we got on bus that was around three quarters full – usually this is the ideal moment to board as the bus will be leaving soon (ish!) and we managed to avoid the agony inflicted by the back row. The two of us chose to sit in a triple seat – the window seat was missing its back and so we thought we could put our bags there to keep an eye on them. The bus started to fill up – the broken window seat next to two muzungus was clearly not high on most people’s order of preference. However, I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to sit on a backless seat for a few hours. There were other seats next to windows that were missing their glass and even though the passenger would have had to put up with a gale force wind blowing in their faces for the entire journey, these seats still filled up before the one next to me. I’ve been told that the African’s think that muzungus’ body odour is just as revolting as theirs is to us. Being a muzungu who’s had to endure lengthy bus journeys under the armpit of a local man standing in the aisle I know which type of body odour I’d rather suffer. Maybe it’s an acquired taste – like Vegemite or Guinness – but a strong smell of African B.O. for me, at this early stage of my life on the continent, is something that absolutely repulses me. I’ve never smelt anything like it. It’s repugnant. It makes me feel immediately queasy. It’s actually much worse than vegemite! I really don’t think there’s any comparison that can be made. I don’t know what it is. If it’s due to the food they eat or maybe the soap they wash in, but the smell that some of these locals exude is truly amazing. Certainly not for the feint hearted.

Neither Genevieve nor I were particularly stinky that morning but the spot next to me just happened to be the only one remaining. It must have been the lack of back on the seat. I suggested to the conductor that we should go and leave this space vacant as it’s not fair to charge someone to sit on broken seat. There was no way he was going to leave now and miss out on a fare. We waited for another person to come and he was shown to the seat next to me. When he sat down I hinted that he shouldn’t have to pay full price for half a seat. We all paid 12,000 shillings and I suggested he should tell the conductor that he is only going to pay 6,000 for half a seat. He didn’t understand what I was getting at. His opinion, and also that of all the other passengers, was that if you’re on the bus then you have to pay full fare.

At the moment a newspaper seller came past our seat. I bought a Daily Monitor for 1,000 shillings and took the middle 20 or so pages out and offered it to the man next to me for 1,000 shillings. He laughed at me saying “Why would I buy half a newspaper for the full price?” Only then did it become clear to him as to what I was saying about his seat! He started explaining the newspaper analogy to all the other passengers. They were amazed by his insight. It was like twenty light bulbs all turning on at the same time. I’d started a revolution. Never again would anyone in Africa pay full price for a sub-standard level of service.

The conductor came to take the money of the last passengers to board. The man next to me told the conductor, in Luganda (the local language), that he wasn’t willing to pay the full price for the ticket. He said he’d pay half. The conductor laughed. The passenger laughed. The word “muzungu” was used quite a bit. Everyone around us laughed. We laughed. The man ended up paying 10,000 for his seat.

So now every seat was full it was time to set off. Not quite. Apart from the bus companies there is also a whole host of mobile market people operating in the bus park. I’m not sure exactly how it works but it seems that in return for being able to run a bus business the owners of the bus station require that the market people are given ample opportunity to sell their wares to full buses. I suspect that the owners of the bus park also take a percentage of the market takings. So even after all the seats on the bus are occupied, the passengers still have to experience the hard sell of various mobile market men and women as they walk up and down the aisle on the bus. The variety of goods available to purchase is just staggering. If someone can carry it then someone is selling it. You name it…

Television aerials, 20 litre pesticide back pack spray, hot plates of fried chips and vegetables, AM/FM radios, watches, meat samosas, glucose biscuits, single boiled sweets, pens, handbags, muffins, baby clothes, and fake football tops, loaves of bread, sunglasses, jewellery, bags of maize flour, fluorescent camping lamps and beard trimmers (always comes as a pair).

There’s more… cold drinks, ladies dress shoes, newspapers, belts, gas lanterns, cutlery sets, silver windscreen sunshields, floor mats, sandals, plastic food storage containers, cakes, children’s toys, mobile phone airtime, wellington boots, photo frames, handkerchiefs, socks, toothpaste, pain relief balm, table cloths, footballs, cotton suit jackets, men’s vests, photo albums, leather wallets, note books, bibles and worm treatment (in both the tablet and cream variety).

Each market person, apart from the men selling fluorescent camping lamps and beard trimmers has a specific single product to sell. So for each of these items there is a separate salesman that tries to convince you that it would be good to buy from him. It wouldn’t be so bad if you had to tolerate each of these sales pitches once. But for some reason the same sellers come onto each bus at least five or six times while the bus and its passengers are waiting to go. I suppose the repeat hard sell of the pain relief balm could be a good idea for the seller. The first few times you don’t need it but by the eighth time of asking you’ve developed a stress headache that you’d like to relieve. The persistency with the food items is also understandable. At the first time of asking you’re not hungry but by the time they’ve come back for a sixth time a few hours have passed and your desperate for a cold meat samosa.

But for most of the other items?! Gee let me think! I didn’t want to buy that pesticide spray the first, second or third time I was offered it but now the seller is asking me for the seventh time, I’ve just remembered the locust infestation on my vegetable patch – I’ll take two please!

And if the relentless bombardment of sellers inside the bus isn’t enough as you’re sitting waiting patiently to leave the bus park after three hours of waiting, there’re always the sellers that hassle you from outside your window. It’s amazing that the same person who you’ve already told four times that you don’t want to buy a loaf of bread can stand below your window smiling up at you, hoping that you’ll think his bread is somehow different when he’s outside the bus. You have to admire their persistency.

There are certain products which the sellers are not allowed to bring onto the bus and they have to try and sell to you through the windows. These are usually the hot food items such as goat meat on a stick, eggs, grilled bananas, and chickens.

The chickens are still alive. The seller usually has a few of them tied up by the legs hanging upside down. The chickens seem resigned to their fate. They just hang out (literally) without complaint as the seller swings them around trying to convince people to buy a bird. When someone does buy one he’ll release the chosen chicken from his bond and pass it up through the window for the customer to stuff it under their seat. It stays there, clucking occasionally, for the entire journey with very little fuss. It’s like the chicken has seen it all before. How do they so calmly accept their destiny? The elder chickens of the community must tell the youngsters that there’s no point fighting it. “You’re all going to end up as soup – or if you’re really lucky, alongside rice in a delicious curry.”

I’m not sure if all the egg sellers either had the same idea at the same time, all work for the same employer, or just follow each other like sheep. They all carry salt to accompany their hard boiled eggs. And for some reason it’s always offered in a recycled and cleaned out yellow 200ml motorcycle brake fluid container! What’s that all about? What’s wrong with a simple salt cellar?

The same strange methods apply across the board. All sellers of a particular product use the same sales techniques and present their wares in an identical manner. The grilled banana sellers all have their bananas in small baskets of either five or ten, and they give it to you in old newspaper. There are only two kinds of drinks on sale – mineral water and a bottle that contains the most brightly coloured orange juice that I ever seen – it practically gives off light. It must be radioactive. The drinks sellers always carry six bottles at a time in a cardboard tray.

There’s no one minding their own business on a bus in Uganda. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. The person sitting next to you always knows what you’re doing, what book you’re reading, who you’re talking to on the phone, what you’re eating, and certainly what you just bought from a market seller. So, I wondering what kind of person would buy worm treatment cream on a bus? You’d be basically announcing to 100 people all at once, “Hello everyone, I’ve got worms!” I don’t think it’s the kind of product that would sell well on a bus in the UK or Australia but the Africans just seem so much more relaxed with each other in public. It’s clearly not a problem to buy worm treatment from a man on a bus, in the same way it’s ok for a mother to leave her young baby with a total stranger while she gets off the bus to find a toilet. They share their food, their problems, their emotions and even their children.

Meanwhile the bus had been full of passengers for over an hour and was still sitting in the bus park. The engine had been running for half an hour but the market sellers that moved around don’t even flinch when they breathe in the black smoke from the exhausts. How does it not affect them? I suppose in Uganda, with a life expectancy in the fifties, something else is going to kill you before your body begins to feel the effects of breathing in pollution.

I turned to the man sitting next to me on half a seat. I suggested that it would be better for the bus companies and the passengers if this bus had set off three quarters full, three hours ago. It would have reached its destination by now and be filling up for a return journey. The bus could go back and forward four times a day rather than two and the remaining quarter passengers can be picked up on the way so there’s no loss in revenue – in fact there’s a doubling of revenue. I think the man was starting to think that I was some kind of Martin Luther King character planning on bringing radical change to the entire continent.

He lost his train of thought as the bus finally started to move. There were still quite a few salespeople on the bus and they didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get off. They’d seen it all before. The slow edging forward by the driver was just a clever way of letting people that haven’t yet boarded know that we’d soon be leaving. Even though the seats were all full there was still standing room to be sold – still at 12,000 shillings a ticket! A few standing passengers got onto the bus and we edged forward a touch further. The market people were still peddling their wares, unperturbed by the movement of the bus. Painfully slowly, we crept towards the exit of the bus park, the market sellers finally realising that their time was running out. Last minute panic buys took place both on the bus and through the windows from the outside. Maybe the prices get cheaper once the bus starts moving.

A few more standing passengers boarded and the last of the sellers got off the bus just as we left the bus park. The bus park in Kampala is conveniently located right in the middle of the busiest part of the city – also where the town planners very cleverly put both the old and the new taxi parks. It’s absolute chaos – gridlock all day, every day. After sitting in the bus park for a few hours going nowhere it’s not unusual to then sit in traffic jams for another hour or so before the bus finally frees itself from the city tangle and glides through the rolling green hills that make up Uganda’s countryside.

I use ‘glide’ in the loosest sense of the word. The buses here have long past their sell-by-dates. When new, these buses are used in developed countries until their more stringent rules require them to be taken off the roads. The buses are then adapted to be able to carry more passengers and transported to countries like Uganda to be sold to their bus companies. The Ugandan bus companies will literally run their buses into the ground before they take them out of service. I prefer not to use them but there are many buses here, struggling along pumping out thick black clouds of smoke, many windows missing, others cracked, seats missing, others torn, windscreen wipers held on with rubber bands. The engines are probably held together with gaffer tape. They’re not safe but the drivers insist on driving them as fast as possible, racing around corners, clearly in a hurry to get home.

Speeding is a real problem in Uganda. There are no road side speed cameras and when the government tried to introduce handheld cameras it was rumoured that they render the user impotent! The rumour mill is very strong in these parts – the police simply refused to use the cameras! To crack down on speeding the only way is to physically prevent vehicles from being able to travel quickly. Every road in Uganda is lined with speed bumps in various guises. There’s the huge single speed bump that you have to go over at an angle or come off the road entirely to avoid the underside of your chassis being scraped. There are those that are made up of four small speed bumps in very close succession. If the vehicle goes over them too quickly a violent shudder goes right through the car and its passengers’ spines and necks. At slow place however, these mini-speed bumps can come in handy for making milk shakes and cocktails.

The ironic thing about the speed bumps in Uganda is that the old roads are now so uneven and completely littered with huge pot holes that the speed bumps are actually the smoothest part of the road!

So after ‘cruising’ in the countryside for maybe ten minutes the driver pulled over and told the passengers that if they want to relieve themselves, now would be a good time. In Uganda they call it the “short call”. Considering that all the passengers have been on the bus for four or five hours already, drinking mineral water and luminous orange juice, it’s not surprising that the majority of the 100 passengers take the driver up on his offer. After the toilet stop the bus continued on its journey. By this stage we’ve probably covered a grand total of 20 miles of our few hundred mile journey. Patience is an important quality to have in Uganda!

After another hour or so the bus stopped at the nearest market town. The market vendors see the bus approaching from a good distance and were all ready with their wares as the bus came to a standstill. At these small market towns the sellers all wear identical blue jackets with a unique number on. There are somewhere in the vicinity of 60 or 70 sellers that swarm round the buses – at these towns the transaction takes place through the bus window. For some reason though there is very limited choice at these markets – usually only goat skewers, drinks and grilled bananas. They all sell their identical food for the same price and seem to be in direct competition with each other. If a passenger expresses even the slightest interest in, say, a grilled banana he will have at least ten banana saleswomen at his window all holding up their identical bananas to the prospective customer. It’s absolute madness. They’re pushing and shoving each other to get their banana under the nose of the customer. I have no idea why these people don’t all come together, have one market with their three products, with all proceeds being pooled and divided amongst the sellers.

It doesn’t happen this way though – it more closely resembles a rugby scrum combined with a Worldwide Wresting bout with all the sellers fighting each other over the next 500 shillings. It seems wrong but I’ve come to realise that the words “Uganda” and “logic” don’t often go hand in hand here.

The bus journey usually carries on along a similar vain – stopping every hour or so for a short-call and shortly after that to stock up on provisions. These people eat a lot. They definitely aren’t the starving people of Africa that we had to think about as kids when we left a morsel of food on our plates and certainly not those highlighted by Bob Geldof in 1985. In Uganda they live in a land of plenty – everything they need does literally grow on trees. They may not have the variety in their diets that we enjoy in the developed world but the vast majority of their food is grown locally and travels by foot to their plate where it is eaten. Compared to most westerners it’s a considerably more environmentally conscious way to eat. Let’s just hope the Ugandans don’t discover cheaper ways of growing avocados, mangos or bananas in China.

After five hours on the road and a total of eight or nine hours in the bus we finally pull in to the bus park of our destination town. I can’t say that I feel fresh and invigorated by the journey but the experience has been so much more rewarding than sitting on the high speed train from Leeds to London in silence not interacting with any of the other passengers, shrinking into my own little world. My body may be tired but even the simplest of journeys in Africa rejuvenates the mind and soul.

Seder with the Abayudaya, Uganda

April 25, 2008

In the remote hills of eastern Uganda, in the shadow of the Mount Elgon live a small community of black African practising Jews. There population currently stands at around 800 although prior to the persecutions of the Idi Amin regime their numbers exceeded 3,000.

My wife (Genevieve) and I, currently volunteering in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, asked the community leader if we could be guests at their seder. He was thrilled for us to join them and we set out on the six hour bus journey to Mbale. On the journey we read more about the community and learned a bit more of their history.

In 1919, a Christian Ugandan military leader called Semei Kakungulu, upon further study of the Bible, came to believe the customs and laws in the old Testament were quite true. When he was told that it is the Jews that observe such laws he explained “Then we will be Jewish”. He declared his entire tribe to be Jewish and circumcised his sons and himself. In the early 1920s the community was visited by a foreign Jew who stayed with them for six months. He taught them about the festivals, the calendar, the laws of kashrut and was instrumental in the establishment of a school with the purpose of passing on Jewish knowledge and teaching skills.

In 1928 Kakungulu died from tetanus and part of the community reverted to Christianity. The remaining people became the Abayudaya (“The People of Judaea”) and isolated themselves to escape persecution. Almost 90% of the population converted away from Judaism during the Idi Amin era but approximately 300 members remained committed to Judaism and worshipped in secret. Today there are almost 800 Jews of the Abaudaya, divided into six smaller communities spread across 100 miles in the hills overlooking Mbale.

Genevieve and I arrived in Mbale and a local taxi driver drove us out of town along dirt roads into the surrounding hills. It was almost surreal to see African men, their heads covered in kippot, sitting around in front of the blue and white painted “Shalom Shop”, adorned with a Hebrew sign. The children from the community, rather than the usual African welcome of running up to us shouting “Hi muzungu, Hi muzungu” (which translates as white man), came up to us shouting “Shabbat Shalom, Shabbat Shalom”. It was a Saturday and there still a few hours of Shabbat remaining before they community would start preparing for the first seder. I asked if I could take some photos but the men requested that I waited for the 3rd star to become visible before using my camera. I was more than happy to obey their wishes.

The community leader, who was acting Rabbi while the official Rabbi was in USA being ordained, greeted us shortly after we arrived and took us on a walk around his community. The site where the Abayudaya live is absolutely stunning. They have views to the west over Mbale and it’s lush green surrounds, while behind them to the east stands the spectacular Mount Elgon and it’s national park which separates Uganda from Kenya. The community from which the Rabbi is based is the central administration of the Abayudaya. Over time they have received some funding from the Diaspora which has been used for various initiatives including building and maintaining the synagogue, improving the school and the community library and more recently the community have built a guesthouse for visitors. It didn’t escape my attention that this community, compared with other communities of subsistence farmers, seems to have better infrastructure and their thirst for knowledge has given them an advantage over their neighbours.

We were proudly shown the inside of the guesthouse where a handful of other muzungus were gathered, all waiting for Shabbat to end. All of the other visitors were also Jewish, from various countries and had all come to experience an Abayudayan Seder.

The sun set on the distant horizon in a stunning display of oranges and crimsons as the entire community made their way to the synagogue for the Havdallah service. Prayers were said in Hebrew, a havdallah candle was lit and the spice box was passed around the congregation so that everyone could smell the fragrance.

The community synagogue is one large rectangular room built from red brick with glass windows. It has bookcases all the way up one side crammed with books and encyclopaedias on world history and Judaism. The young men from the community carried in tables which they arranged in a line down the middle of the room. With the women and girls on one side of the tables and the men and boys on the other the Rabbi began explaining the schedule for the evening to the community. There were at least 200 people in the room of which at least half were small children. This population spread is not uncommon in Uganda with 50% of the countries’ population being under 15 years old.

My family seder usually has around 20 people present. I’m not sure the women in my family would cope with having to make charoset for 200 people but the Abayudaya women did an incredible job of preparing not only the charoset but also egg & salt water, and maror for everyone. While the rabbi had the seder plate on the table in front of him, vast quantities of the traditional items were carried into the room in large plastic buckets and huge cooking pots. Some of the other overseas guests had brought boxes of matza (a gesture which the entire community were both exceptionally grateful and excited about) and this was meticulously divided into small bite size chunks so that every single member of the community could have a piece to go with their scoop of charoset.

A group of young African girls sitting across from me on the other side of the long table spontaneously burst out into song. They all happily sang together “Day Dayenu, Day Dayeny, Day Dayenu, Dayenu…”. The Rabbi quietly shushed them, asking them to save it for later! It was clear however that the rabbi was very proud of the girls with their urge to sing Hebrew songs. For me, it was just incredible to see young black Africans singing songs that I have always associated with people from a very different culture.

While we had bitter herbs in abundance there was not such large quantities of kosher wine. Only a few bottles had to be shared between the entire community. Wine is not something that the Abayudaya have the privilege of being able to drink regularly and it is generally only to mark special occasions. The first night of seder is certainly one of those moments. Not wanting anyone to miss out on sharing the wine it was mixed with a locally brewed alcohol which the community make from fermenting bananas before being poured out into plastic cups.

While the rabbi addressed the community in English (the national language of Uganda), his young assistant translated everything he said into the local dialect to ensure that absolutely everyone could understand. The principle of making sure that the story of the exodus from Egypt is passed onto the children is not lost on the Abyudaya.

A group of thirty or so children gathered at one end of the table to sing the ma-nishtana. After the first question was asked so beautifully the entire community joined in with the remaining three questions. The tune was identical to the one I have grown up with in Leeds.

The aficoman was hidden but by the time the meal had been eaten and all the plates cleared away most of the children were asleep and the adults had drunk enough fermented banana alcohol that they didn’t have the energy to go looking for it!

The ten plagues and the dipping of the little fingers into our cups was carried out with incredible excitement by all. The elders in the community all sat at the bag, allowing the children to be more involved. The elders are all in their 60s and have seen their community shrink from 3,000 to less than 300. Their smiling faces made it clear to me that they were very happy with the enthusiasm of the children when it came to Jewish traditions.

I usually find myself eagerly turning the pages of the Haggada hoping to hurry up time so the meal can be served. On this occasion the joy and positivity in the room led me to hoping that the food was delayed just a while longer while I absorbed the atmosphere. It was wonderful. We finally reached the page in the Haggadot that the community had been given when it was time to serve the meal. Due to the strict jewish observance the preparation of the food did not begin until after Shabbat was out. We had a good deal longer to wait before the seder meal reached the table. It didn’t matter – the young boys and girls took it upon themselves to stand up and sing all the traditional seder songs. One of the older boys had an African drum which he beat with his hands in time with each song. Once all the seder songs had been sung and the meal was still no where to be seen, they sang all the songs again. Everyone joined in. After the third or fourth rendition of Had-Gadya the children moved onto other jewish songs and prayers such as Moshiach, The Shema, Gesher Tzar Meod, Hineh Ma tov o Manayim and Ein Kelohaynu.

The food finally came, many of the children were asleep and were awoken by their mothers so not to miss a meal. The food was no different to the usual Ugandan meals. The locals here eat the same food for breakfast, lunch and dinner – a combination of rice, plantain, potato, some greens and possibly some meat. As the official Rabbi was away there was no one that could bless the chickens in order to make them kosher and therefore the meal we ate was strictly parve.

During the meal I sat next to a man named Aharon from one of the surrounding Jewish communities Aharon had decided to have seder away from his family in the hope of speaking to someone like me. He told me that although funding does come from the Diaspora it all stays with the main community and very little of it reaches the other communities. He told me that while this central community has a brick synagogue, a school, many books and even a guesthouse, his community has a mud hut with no windows that they use for their synagogue. He also said that they can only dream of building a school and they are still hoping for the day when a member of their community can find the funds to attend university. His community is called Namatumba and he told me that they were hoping to raise some funds to improve their village by selling kippot that the women make. He asked me if I could ask the people in my country if they could buy some kippot from them. He had a plastic bag with him with 30 handmade kippot which he pleaded with me to take and return with some money to give back to his community. I agreed to try and sell them and asked him if the women of his community could make more if I did manage to sell them all. He told me that they could make many different designs, sizes and colours and pushed the plastic bag into my hand.

Religion is an important part of everyone’s life in Uganda so it should have come as no surprise that this community was just as passionate about their religion as the Christian and Muslim communities of Uganda. I was, however, still taken aback by the passion and dedication of this remote Jewish community.

It was a wonderful experience.

Lost in Translation

April 21, 2008

Last week I had a heated discussion with a minibus taxi conductor. The locals that witnessed this event rarely see anyone losing their temper, let alone raising their voice in public. Genevieve and I have been using the same bus route for a number of weeks now and, while at first we paid slightly more than the locals, it’s now obvious that we know the price and all the conductors charge us appropriately.

I was having a bad day, I shouldn’t have let myself get frustrated in this way, and I’ll try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The argument went something like this:

“Are you going to Bugolobi Market?”

“Yes, 700 Shillings”

“700? You’re joking. We use this route every day and it’s always 300”

“It’s 700 now”

“We’ll pay the same price as everyone else. 300. Can you let us on please?”

He obstructed our path.

“If you come on this bus you pay 700”

“We’ve been in Kampala a while now, we know the price. It’s always 300. It’s not even far to Bugolobi. How can you charge us 700?”

“If you don’t pay 700 you can’t come. We are leaving now”

He signalled to the driver by tapping on the roof of the minibus twice with the palm of his hand. The bus started to edge away.

“Hang on. We’ll do it for 400. Come on – be fair”.

“700 or you stay”

We were meeting people in Bugolobi and we’re already late for them. It would take around half an hour to walk or three minutes on the bus. It was dark. There were no pavements for pedestrians along that road. It had been raining. We really didn’t want to have to work but we also didn’t want to have to pay extortionate prices. We’re volunteering here. We’re not earning an income – it was actually more than we could afford.

“We’re late and you’re making everyone else late. We’ll pay 500. Let us go please”.

He double tapped the bus again and they edged off a little further.

“You will pay 700”.

“No way are we paying 700. We’ll pay you the fair price, 500. OK?”

“700 or we go now?”

We refused his attempts to con us for the final time, shaking our heads as the minibus pulled away from us.

We walked in the dark, along the wet, busy and polluted road for 30 frustrating minutes, dodging truck headlights, treading in puddles of sewage and generally wishing we could have afforded to say yes to the extra 200 shillings he wanted us to pay.

Our friends were waiting for us at the restaurant. No-one expects anyone to be on time here – not even close to being on time. Anything with an hour of the time planned is deemed to be “on-time”. A delicious pizza topped with creamy feta and Italian olives, and a couple of cold Club Beers later and we couldn’t even feel our wet trousers and had forgotten all about the nasty con tricks of the minibus conductor.

A few days later I remembered back to the argument and actually thought about the amount of money that we were arguing about and preferring to put ourselves through the annoyance, rigour and sweat over.

I went over the conversation we had with the conductor, this time converting the shilling amounts into English pounds…

“Are you going to Bugolobi Market?”

“Yes, 20 pence”

“20 pence? You’re joking. We use this route every day and it’s always 9 pence”

“It’s 20 pence now”

“We’ll pay the same price as everyone else. 9 pence. Can you let us on please?”

He obstructed our path.

“If you come on this bus you pay 20 pence”

“We’ve been in Kampala a while now, we know the price. It’s always 9 pence. It’s not even far to Bugolobi. How can you charge us 20 pence?”

“If you don’t pay 20 pence you can’t come. We are leaving now”

He signalled to the driver by tapping on the roof of the minibus twice with the palm of his hand. The bus started to edge away.

“Hang on. We’ll do it for 12 pence. Come on – be fair”.

“20 or you stay”

“We’re late and you’re making everyone else late. We’ll pay 15 pence. Let us go please”.

He double tapped the bus again and they edged off a little further.

“You will pay 20 pence”.

“No way are we paying 20 pence. We’ll pay you the fair price, 15 pence. OK?”

“20 pence or we go now?”

We refused his attempts to con us for the final time, shaking our heads as the minibus pulled away from us.

We walked in the dark, along the wet, busy and polluted road for 30 frustrating minutes, dodging truck headlights, treading in puddles of sewage and generally wishing we could have afforded to say yes to the extra five pence he wanted us to pay.

Absurd isn’t it?!

Muzungu, Muzungu, Muzungu…. Muzungu bye!!

April 14, 2008

Almost everywhere we go it feels like we’re the centre of attention. Most often we’re the only white people around amongst a sea of locals. The attention isn’t bad – it can’t be classed as harassment like we receive in India, Morocco and certain other countries – but we’re aware that all eyes are on us. We’re just different – we look different, we move differently, we wear different clothes, we sound different, we’re doing different, possibly interesting things.

For the small kids, as we walk through their small communities, nestled onto the lower slopes of the small hills that rise from the city’s flats, they are ecstatic just to see a white person. If we walk passed a hundred kids in a community I’d be surprised if more than a couple of them managed to resist the temptation to shout “Muzungu”. Many of the kids will come up to us wanting to hold our hands or touch the skin of our arms. As the first few more daring kids are reach us and hang off our limbs it creates a signal to the rest of the kids in the community that we’re open to being used as climbing apparatus. Within a few seconds there might be twenty or thirty small kids, most of them no higher than our waists, holding our hands, grabbing our legs, clinging onto our arms, all squealing with excitement about the fact that they are in contact with a white person. The kids that are more reserved remain in the close proximity of their mothers. They’ll still shout “Muzungu” and most normally wave, again getting very excited when we wave back. “Muzungu, bye”, is their usual reply.

The older kids that have started school take the conversation to the next level. “Muzungu, how are you?”, they will shout as we approach. They can see us coming for miles. It’s as though we’re shining white lights, glowing bright as we approach their neighbourhoods. You can hear the excitement building amongst the kids as we draw nearer. One kid may spot us coming a long time before we’ve seen him. He’ll light the metaphoric beacon where he stands with a quick excited outburst of “Muzungu”. For the other kids within earshot, who may have been playing with the same half of a plastic bottle or stick on a rope or, if they’re very lucky, an old rubber bicycle tyre for the past few hours, the quiet whispering of the word Muzungu pricks their ears, they see if they can spot the white person approaching and the “beacons” are very quickly lit throughout the entire community.

“Muzungu, muzungu, muzungu”. “Muzungu. Bye”. “Muzungu, how are you?” When we reply to their question it’s more than often greeted with a very quick “I’m fine”, followed by an even quicker retreat to the safety of their front doors. On the occasions where Genevieve is surrounded by hoards of overexcited children I may pull the camera out of my bag to snap a quick photo. The appearance of the camera only leads to more kids coming out from the confines of their home turf to get close to Genevieve for the photo. Yesterday evening, for the first time, I showed the photo that I had just taken of the kids to them all on the camera’s screen. The reaction was immediate. All the kids ran off in the same direction, waving their arms in the air screaming ecstatically, jumping into the air. These are the happiest children I have ever come across. They have next to nothing. Their family homes are one room, built from mud bricks, wooden poles and corrugated iron roofing. They have no kitchen or bathroom.

The mothers do all the cooking on the street out the front of their homes. Most have a speciality dish that they have become known for. One mother will make chapattis, another fried bananas, another matoka. Some will fry pigs trotters, others boil eggs or fry chipped potatoes in huge pans of boiling oil. The community clan is one huge family. The food is exchanged between the mothers so each family has a variety of food for their meals.

The kids’ bathroom consists of a plastic washing up tub half filled with water which has been warmed on the fire and placed next to the front door. The adults must wash in the privacy of their homes.

The homes have no running water. All the water that they use is carried to their homes from the local pump in ten litre plastic yellow petrol containers. Light in the home is provided by the sun and at night, by fire from candles. The community does have electricity, but only for a few communal rooms. The bar is lit at night and pumps out music as the locals play pool amongst the goats. There is a separate big screen which shows movies or, more often than not, English Premiership football. The Ugandans are crazy about football. They’ve never had a strong national team but they all have strong support for teams from England. Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal are followed by 99% of the locals. I did see one poor delusional man wearing a blue and yellow striped Leeds United top from 1993. Maybe he doesn’t know? Maybe the die-hard loyalty that Leeds fans have doesn’t stop at the English based supporters? Maybe he really does know – that, one day, Leeds will be back, bigger than ever and he can say that he stuck with them through thick and thin, the highs and lows, the ups and downs He is proud not to be one of the masses that jumped on the Manyoo bandwagon in 1999 or joined the Russian Revolution at Chelsea or the French croissant eating aristocracy at Arsenal in even more recent times.

Anyway, back to the hillside community and its smiling happy shiny people. The young adult men that approach us usually have a story to tell. They tell us the recent history of their family, their sons and daughters who have died, their nephews and nieces in their care due to the early death of their parents, their struggle to earn enough money to provide all their children with a school education. They don’t want our money. They want us to give them a job.

Rich muzungus in Africa can come across as lazy abusers of the cheap labour that the locals can provide. While some may view the fact that a white man has a driver, a personal shopper, a daily cleaner, someone to cook for them, a nanny for their kids, two security guards, a house keeper and someone to give extra tuition to their children as unnecessary, the reality of the situation is that he is giving his staff a good income, directly supporting all of their families and distributing the money he has around the local community. While we are all capable of washing our own dishes and changing and cleaning the sheets on our beds, a muzungu can do much more for the community to pay someone to do these tasks for them.

It’s even better if a muzungu has a business here in which he can employ locals. It’s just a shame that we’re volunteering here and when young bright eyed men approach us asking for work we have to put out their fires by telling them we don’t have a business or anything we can offer them. Still, they’re too proud to plead and beg and they quickly turn the conversation towards pleasantries about the day.

But it’s the children that have had the biggest effect on me so far. It’s just incredible how happy they all are in their villages. If a small child has one toy it will keep him entertained for hours on end. There might be a small gave of football between some of the slightly bigger kids – I’m yet to see a football being used that has any air in it! Still, they seem to be able to control a fully deflated ball as well as most of us can use a pumped up ball. It’s not uncommon to see two or three babies of no more than 18 months old, sitting down together, communicating with each other while pointing to a few bottle tops that they are amusing themselves with. The kids are left alone for long periods of time, the parents perfectly happy that they are safe to wander round anywhere within the community.

They all seem so content with their lives. They have next to nothing.

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…