Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Will I ever get all the sand out of my backpack? - January 5, 2004

I'm back in kampala again, home from my 'vacation'. From Stone Town, zanzibar's main city, I took a dalla-dalla (the tanzanian equivalent to a matatu, a minibus) to Nungwi, a little village at the tip of the island, a trip which took about an hour and a half. The dalla-dalla trip was actually kind of a fun adventure- it was all open air, and it was nice travelling along being able to loook at the scenery and have the wind breezing by. (And thank goodness for the breeze, cause they really pack people in - at one point there was 28 people in a vehicle that is probably meant to hold 12!) It was funny watching the women with their babies on the dalla-dalla- as they got on and off, they would pass their baby along the line of hands until the baby got out the door. One woman handed her baby to stranger to hold as she climbed into the vehicle, moved down the row to find a seat, and then proceeded to just stare out the window - she didn't collect her baby until about 25 minutes later when she disembarked! I watch my bottle of water more carefully than these guys care for their babies - it's bizarre and funny!

I picked Nungwi as my desitination because the beaches were supposed to be amazing and it was supposed to have the most social atmosphere and 'party scene', which i thought would be good for New Year's, with a plan to then spend a couple of days more off-the-beaten track. When the dalla-dalla arrived there a tout took me to see the guesthouse he worked for - i figured i might as well follow him, because I don't know where else to start. The place was kind of disgusting so i said i was going to look for something else. Well, i went to every single hotel/guesthouse/bungalow complex in the village - probably about 10 places - and they were all completely full, so back to the gross guest house i went. (It was the day before new year's after all, which explained the busy-ness.) At this little guesthouse was two English guys and a Japanese girl, who was also travelling on her own. I spent that first afternoon just wandering and exploring the beach by myself, which was lovely. It literally was the most amazing beach i've ever been on - wide, totally white, incredibly soft, fine sand and the most bright turquoise warm water, and each beach go-er probably had a 100-meter stretch of beach to themselves. The weather was fabulous the whole time - in the 30's at least i'd guess, and blue skies the whole time. In the evening i went back to the guesthouse and went out for dinner with the japanese girl and these two guys she had met. We went to this all-you can eat seafood barbecue place that is right on the beach (and i mean 'in the sand' not 'within view of the beach'.) The next morning Kita, the japanese girl, and I went snorkeling, where we met lots of other people on the boat. One of the people we met was this German girl Katharina, who i ended up spending a great New Years Eve with, along with these two australian girls and an american guy (they didn't snorkel, they came along with Katharina.) Nungwi and Kendwa, another village 2 km down the beach, are largely backpacker-resort towns, so there was a couple hundered other people there to meet and socialize with, which we did. The village was small enough that I ran into the other 15 people I met snorkeling several times, and after a day-and-half you actually end up feeling like you have a social circle of friends, which was fun after all the semi-solitary time i've had so far.

One thing that is sort of funny - about 80% of the people I met the past two weeks were people working/volunteering in africa who were on christmas break - hardly anyone was just on vacation!

I spent four days in total in Nungwi, and I didn't want to leave ! :-) The plan to move somewhere off the beaten path was abandoned - i was too relaxed to care, and 'touristy' in africa is a pretty relative term, so it was easier/better/more fun just to stay.

On saturday katharina and kita and I took the dalla-dalla back to Stone Town (we were all sad to leave!) and I bought a plane ticket back to Kampala. After that great relaxing vacation i couldn't bear the thought of sitting on the bus for 30 hours! So, then I flew back to Kampala yesterday.

I can't beleive i'm in uganda and i have that 'ugh, back to work feeling!'

Lions and leopard and giraffes, oh my - December 29, 2003

I'm in Stone Town in Zanzibar right now. Its incredibly incredibly hot here (kind of what i thought africa would be like in general, actually.) I'm checking my email in an internet cafe mainly as an excuse to get out of the sun and in front of a fan! (Besides, internet is only about $0.75 an hour, so why not!) Stone Town is interesting, but the touts are driving me up the wall. You can't walk three feet with someone saying 'Jambo' (hello in Swahili) and try to sell you something. The worst is the touts who are trying to sell tours and excursions, cuz they'll just follow you around for ages, until you somehow get to lose them. The town is relatively small, and I've probably seen 80% of it by wandering around since this morning. It reminds me a lot of the 'old city' sections of Granada and Seville. They both had a lot of arabic influence, so they both have the same kind of narrow winding streets, intricately carved wooden doors, and mosaic tiling. Except that with this being africa, there's a lot more disrepair and garbage. Somehow 'garbage cans' is a technology that hasn't hit east africa yet. (Probably because there's no garbage collection, though.)

Tomorrow I'm going to take a dalla-dalla (minibus) north to Nungwi (on the northern tip of the island) which a beach town, where i'm going to relax for a few days; or if i get bored, I might take a ferry to Pemba, another island in zanzibar archipelago, which is apparently quite beautiful but less touristy. I'm hoping to meet some people to spend New Years with when i go to Nungwi, otherwise it'll just be another early night in my hotel room. (I lucked out on a clerical error with my hotel here in stone town - i got the only room in the place with a double bed and the only room with air conditioning, and they are only charging me for a single bed and no air-con.)

My safari was absolutely great! I took 7 rolls of pictures of the animals and scenery in only 4 days. Hope you like pictures of zebras - I've got lots. We were there at the right time to see wildebeest migrating around the serengeti, which happens when things begin to dry up and they start herding together to find water. Sometimes you'd look around and there'd be nothing but wildebeest as far as the eye can see (and you can see pretty far.) Also, the very first animal we saw on our first day was a leopard, which is very rare - sometimes people go on safari for a whole week and never see one. We saw almost every large animal you could hope to, most of them really close up. (The lions and elephants were particularly exciting!) My safari group was a french couple (the girl didn't speak much english, so i got to practice lots of french) and an english guy and a danish guy; that grouping meant that i got to have my own tent, which was good. Although i was a bit nervous on our third night when there was a lion prowling around the campsite! (Apparently a fairly regular occurence; our guide had never heard of a human getting attacked.) All in all an awe-inspiring experience, well worth the money it cost! When would ever get to see those animals in their natural habitats other wise?

2 weeks of work/2 weeks of holiday - December 23, 2003

Well, I'm off on my safari tomorrow!! It was a bit of a hassle getting this trip organised (first i was going fly, then i wasn't, then i had a safari booked, then i found i wasn't going to make it on time, etc etc.) But, its actually worked out really well. I had confirmed a safari to depart this morning, and was going to take the bus to Arusha in Tanzania, but then found out that the bus wouldn't get me to arusha on time, so then i cancelled the safari and returned my bus ticket; then i decided to just buy a bus ticket again and just go to arusha, because everything i'd read said the booking a safari should either be done way in advance, or on the spot, for good deals. (Basically, it was disadvantageous to continue to try to book by phone/email from Kampala.)

So, I took the bus here [arusha] in the hope that it would all work out, which it did. I walked around to a bunch of places, and couldn't find anything - its tough to sign up as an individual, because most safaris are booked by groups, not many companies do ones specifically for individuals, or you need to find and meet people who are willing to let you join their group. So I went to the Arusha tourist office, and they knew of a company that had a couple signed up for a 5-day safari, and they wanted more people to join them. So i went around the corner to this safari company office, and there was already two guys, not together though, talking to the woman about doing a 4-day (i didn't want to go for 5 whole days), and i said i wanted to too, so the three of us who just happened to go into the office at around the same time are going on a safari together tomorrow morning. And, i only needed to spend about 3 hours looking for a safari, instead of a couple of days, like i had feared. So its alll good. (Plus, we got a pretty good price - $90 US a day. Sounds like a lot, but safaris are expensive. And it includes your meals and the park fees, which are pretty expensive themselves.)
The bus ride to arusha was quite an adventure in and of itself (and i use 'adventure' in the way that you use it when you'd try to convince yourself that something crappy was in fact good.) The roads are CRAP, you are bumping up and down for about 20 straight hours, on the first leg of the journey the bus both got in a small accident (clipped a truck while passing, no one was hurt) and broke down for an hour and half. Plus you need to get out at the borders, go through exit immigration, walk through no mans land, go through entrance immigration, buy a visa, blah blah. And we had to do that twice, once a the uganda/kenya border and then again at the kenya/tanzania border. Sounds simple except that its the middle of the night, there's no signage, an there's all these men trying to get you to exchange money on the black market that only exists in no-man's land, and little kids trying to sell you boiled eggs or pineapples, and its kind of chaotic. And yay, i got to spend money on a kenyan visa for the privilege of sitting on a bus through the country for 6 hours.

The scenery here is amazing though- spent the whole bus ride staring out my window, i didn't touch my book. More than the landscape (which, until we hit Tanzania and the view of Mt Killimanjaro, wasn't spectacular), it is the people landscape that is so interesting. Its like going through a National Geographic - there really aare all these people walking around dusty villages in bare feet swathed in all this bright gorgeous fabric and all this beaded jewellery while they lean on a big stick and stare at the goats. And the bus had to stop on the highway for a giant wildlife crossing. It was neat! ( I wish i could have taken more pictures, but we were going too fast; hopefully I'll have another chance.)

I sound really naive, but i'm posting anyways - December 18, 2003

My one main thought recently has been about the huge gap in 'general knowledge' that even very well educated Ugandans appear to have. My co-worker Sophie has a university degree (which is extremely exceptional in the African context) and has won an international award from Junior Chamber International, and founded a young professional association here in Kampala: in short, fairly impressive. But her lack of 'general knowledge', the things we would learn in high school or junior high, is really surprising. For instance, they don't appear to learn anything about science or genetics, because whe i explained to her about melanin and why she is black and i am white and how that developed, us being from sun-intensive vs sun-not-intensive (?) regions of the world, she looked at me like i was a loon, asked questions that indicated that she has never heard of genes, and later indicated that she was under the impression that i had just recounted some sort western-based mythology. I actually heard another (sunburned) white guy in a restaurant explain this same concept to the two african business men he was having a business lunch with, and they laughed their heads off at him, as if the story was absolutely nuts. Its actually sort of frustrating. Also, what with Saddam Hussein being captured, there's been some discussion around that, and they have been given the impression that he is some wonderful benevolent leader. (I'm sure the media accounts we receive in north america are very biased too, but still.) She is also was shocked, SHOCKED, to hear that people in developed countries are healthier and live longer than people who live in developing countries; or that crime or poverty, while still an issue, is much less of one than here. Its extremely hard to dissuade her of this. (Goodness I hope she doesn't find this weblog.) She really doesn't beleive me. Uganda also has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world, with 70% of women giving birth by 19; she finds it difficult or impossible to acknowldege that this is not a global norm; she thinks that in north america we must be all having abortions left right and centre if it is true, much as i try to explain the concepts of birth control and the right of the woman to say 'no' (a concept that truly doesn't really exist here; parents still sell their 13 year old daughters to old men if they can't afford to repay their debt of 6 goats, or whatever.) Its all extremely frustrating, because if she is one of the more educated people in the country, it is hard to see even into the long term how there will ever be enough of a critical mass of educated people for sustainable development to really take place.

I'm pretty sure that that whole previous paragraph will make me sound either really ethnocentric or really naive, or probably both; but those are the things that i'm thinking about so i'm putting 'em up here anyway!

Also, I've discovered one of the more horrifying phrases i know, which is "child-headed households"; used non-ironically, and distinguishing 'child' as to not include 'teenager'; the number of AIDS orphans has outgrown the number of community/family members who can care for them; you see families with small babies being headed by a 9-year-old sibling-parent out begging on the streets. Its really quite heartbreaking. I don't think i'll be as sensitive to the 35-year -old able-bodied bums in toronto after walking past these children, or past all the disabled and limbless people begging on the street here; we should all thank some higher power every day that we were born in a country with a social safety net.

Sort of depressing, isn't it?

I guess it would be worse if i never did notice these things at all, though.

Oh yeah, I'm here to do work, right? - December 15, 2003

Work here is going fine so far. I've still yet to have a proper meeting with my boss (she's the volunteer Chairperson, but is crazy busy with other stuff - she owns a store, she does consulting work, etc etc) so i don't want to start in on anything major yet until i talk with her. Right now, I've assigned myself the super-stimulating task of bringing their membership database into the 21st century, (ie out of notebooks and onto excel). Any project that i have in mind will involve targeting the membership obviously, and damned if I'm going to do that by paging through handwritten membership forms and receipts all the time. A rubber stamp that says 'paid' and shows the date would be a huge leap forward even!

The projects that I want to propose is to set up a mentorship program, and to set up a U**** co-op. Everything I've read about the organisation is that members most want networking and learning opportunities, and I also have concluded that all of the many many problems facing small- and micro-enterprises (which is about 90% of membership) in africa really all comes down to not having any economies of scale, either in purchasing or in export development. So mentorships and co-ops will maybe save the day?!?

My office is just me and one other person - Sophie, who is actually 28 and very nice, she has been super helpfull in showing me around town and pointing out, very tactfully, the cross-cultural mistakes I'm making, so that I don't go on offending people for the next five months! (For example: when someone gives you their business card, you need to take it with both hands, look at it carefully, admire it and discuss, rather than just shove it in your purse and move on!) U**** (ie me and sophie) gets lots of invites to various events, so i've been exposed to work things outside of the office, which is nice. Last Monday I went to the launch of a report on affirmative action in africa at the British Council, and on tuesday Sophie and I went to this awards dinner at a shmancy country club (lots of mzungus there) for women entrepreneurs, that featured the Queen of Buganda (the tribe, and region, that kampala is in), which is where i first tried Ugandan food.

Ugandan food is pretty crap, although they all seem quite proud of it. Their staple is matoke, which is mashed and steamed plantains, that they generally put this sauce over that is supposedly made from peanuts (or 'g-nuts' as they call them) but which doesn't taste like much of anything to me! Also, a lot of steamed root vegetables (cassava, and 'yam' which is different than what we call yam, its white and purple-y colored), and a lot of a fish called tilapia, which i actually quite like. They also eat a lot of french fries!! But in Kampala many restaurants are 'international', including many that offer the best of modern eating, which is hamburgers and fries, of course. So when you get sick of mashed bananas , all you have to do is go to Nando's, the local (and shiny clean, which is unusual) fried chicken/burgers/pizza/french fries/ice cream fast food place! (There's even a bunch of chinese restaurants, as well as thai and mexican even, and apparently some of the best Indian restaurants around, although I haven't been yet.) Also: 'street meat' here is grasshoppers (and I thought hot-dogs where sketchy!) I think we've found the one food I'm not willing to try!

Since i live on my own and work at a small place, meeting people is tougher than anticipated, but not impossible; admittedly i haven't made huge efforts yet. So, yesterday was my first time out-and-about meeting people. The people i met are actually the Right to Play volunteers that Toby (hi toby! you got the first personal mention in my new blog!)put me in touch with. I've also met a couple of other people in random places like matatus and award dinners, so things are moving along.

Oh, and you know what's weird? There's a PriceWaterhouseCoopers and a Maclaren McCann (the ad agency) office right near where i work - just to contrast with the grasshoppers!!

Muzungus - December 9th, 2003

Things are going well here, and I think I'm doing a pretty good job of settling in. My little apartment is going fine, and after five months i think i'm going to have a hard time going back to doing my own cleaning and laundry! I'm glad I brought a flashlight and lots of batteries, cause the power went out last night (for the second time since i got here), which is apparently quite common here, so i'd better get used to it! One of the things that's surprised me so far is how neat and well dressed everyone is here - i've never felt so wrinkled and casual! (It really emphasizes the huge class divisions, because if you see someone who is wrinkly or dirty, they are the poorest of the poor, since cleanliness and 'dressing smartly' is so absolutely important to do for anyone who actually can.) The other thing that's surprised me is all the pollution - i literally feel nauseous when i'm on my way to work, breathing in all the fumes. Its absolutely disgusting, i wonder what kind of lung damage can happen in 5 months!

I had quite the adventurous weekend, figuring that i needed to come out from under the wing of my co-worker who's been wonderful in helping me out and shepherding me around everywhere. On saturday morning I decided to walk into town (quite the trek, it took me over an hour, and i've learned that pedestrians don't ever have the right of way, anywhere), but unfortunately there was practically monsoon-like raining on friday night though, and when i decided to walk into town on saturday I sort of forgot about the whole 'this country is covered in red dirt' thing, and so I basically spent the rest of my day coated in red mud from about mid-calf down. Its a beautiful thing. I spent the day walking around town and getting the hang of the city, I'm starting to feel a bit less disoriented. (Kampala's downtown is pretty compact, so its not too hard to familiarise yourself with it by walking.)

Kampala is an such an exercise in contrasts: On saturday, i went to this really modern internet cafe in downtown kamapala (more modern, and nicer, than the ones in toronto), and i just bought a cell phone on firday, that is smaller and more advanced then the one have at home, and there's a fastfood joint and big shiny marble Barclays Bank down the street, but just outside the gate of the little housing complex i live in are people living in 'houses' that are basically just cinder blocks, with no windows (just holes in the wall instead), and just dirt floors, and big piles of garbage, and little kids running around with no shoes, and you wonder where Sally Struthers and her camera crew are. Its weird, because in one glance all of your stereotypes about aftica aren't true, and in the next, they absolutely are. And I've been told that those people are lucky, they are much better off than the millions and millions living in shacks and boxes.

Its actually sort of tough to guage the exact status of the area I'm living in, because the gated house to the back of where I live - which is also gated - has a satellite dish, and then on the other side, 50 feet over, is the above-mentioned squalor, so its hard to say.

Over the weekend i also discovered where all the white folks are (i hadn't seen any before) - in the shiny modern part of the city. At first I thought this was sort of hypocritical (if you're a foreigner here you're almost certainly doing some sort of development or aid work), but then i realised that you need to spend time in this little pocket modernism otherwise your stress level gets too high. (I'm thinking about it this way: newly arrived Chinese immigrants to toronto spend most of their time in Chinatown cause its easier for them, right?)

Going to and from work (and actually, any time i want to go into the city, because I live a bit outside of town, everybody does though, really) I take matatus, which are sort of like minibuses, and sort of like shared taxis, in that they go along semi-set routes, and everyone pays the same fare, but it stops and drops off pretty much anywhere you ask, and different routes cost different amounts, depending on how far you've gone. (They're still really cheap - the most expensive routes are 500 shillings, which is about 33 cents.) The matatu parks are in the older part of the city, and are probably the most overwhelming, confusing looking things you'll ever see. The parks are huge, and there's no signage on either the matatus or in the park, but matatus for various routes always park in the same spot, and once you know where they are its actually pretty easy. I'm feeling quite proud of myself for getting the hang of the whole matatu-thing, actually! I can walk into the park now, and know where to head for my route, and not look or feel like a confused scared white girl!

The other thing that's nice is that i have yet to feel in danger or like someone is trying to rip me off. People talk to me all the time (Hello white lady, how are you???) but i get the impression that they are either being friendly or practicing their english. (although there's been exceptions to this of course, but i'd say the-men-harrasing-you situation is much worse in toronto than kampala.) I'm never nervous about asking for directions, what I'd read about ugandans being really friendly and helpful appears to be true. (Although don't worry, i'm still be really cautious and careful, and not carrying money with me or going out at night.) Also, I'm not so concerned about getting in a car accident anymore, traffic is so bad that its hard for anyone in the city to get up to a speed where passengers get hurt. Crossing the street just appears to be a skill that requires practice, and i'm getting pretty good at it!

Oh, and i've learned one word in luganda (the language they speak in this part of the country)because I heare it all day long: muzungu. It means: white lady!

First Impressions - December 5th 2003

This morning's activities had me being picked up and shown how I will get to work every day - which is slightly overwhelming to say the least. There doesn't appear to be any discernible 'rules of the road' - people try to overtake each other in traffic when there is a car approaching from the opposite direction only 10 or 15 meters or so away. The mini-buses (matatus) that I'll be using to get around seem to stop wherever they want, and you're just supposed to 'know' which one to get on, since there's no signage on any of them.

Last night, there was a small lizard inside of my apartment. I swear, everything could be going fine, but if I have to deal with lizards on an ongoing basis, I'm going to... I'm not going to be able to handle it.

Also, I really need to get used to handling all the dirt. Everywhere I go, I leave trails of red-mud footprints. Which somehow doesn't seem to happen to anyone else.

Also, am I the only one who panics at the sight of a two-inch lizard? (Erm, how about 3-inch cockroaches?)

Touching down in Kampala - December 4th, 2003

I'm in uganda, and I'm alive and well!! I had a nice day on tuesday in London with my friend Jen, and then went back to Heathrow airport in the evening to fly to Uganda. My flight was fine, I slept a lot, so I wasn't in too horrible shape when I got here. I was picked up at the airport by Sophie, a girl who works at the office here (she looks like she's about my age, but its hard to tell), and she (and Sam who is my boss's driver) drove me to where I'm going to be living for the next month. At the beginning of January I'm going to be moving to the house where Vera, the old intern, lived. I actually don't mind where I am now, but i like the idea of living with a family, and apparently the other place is in a better neighbourhood. Right now i'm in a one-person apartment, in a little complex that seems to have a few other expats (aka white people) living in it. Since I'm in a complex, my rent includes a maid to clean the apartment and do my laundry and ironing, but I cook for myself. This whole 'maid' thing is something I could really get used to! (Its pretty well known that i'm not a big fan of cleaning!!)

After the airport, Sophie to me to a grocery store so i would have some food, and then to my apartment. I spent the rest of the day unpacking and putting away groceries, waking up, eating a bit, and then going back to sleep. This morning Sophie came by my apartment and picked me up, and showed me how to get to work by bus, and took me to a bank to change money. I'm also going to be getting a cellphone today, so i'll be able to keep in touch.

Now i'm in the U**** office with Sophie. Everything is going well so far - I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by things, i must admit, but that's to be expected, i think!