Monday, March 29, 2004

More, just... social stuff...

Ok, so this past few weeks or so have been quite stressful for me at work... The thief is still thieving, and is giving me attitude about it, and it's all just making work quite not-so-fun for me right now. I think push has come to shove, and I'm going to have to fire her, which is not something I'm looking forward to. I end up leaving work at the end of the day clenching my jaw and just trying to maintain a semblance of order and control in an environment where somebody is getting away with breaking all the rules and knows she's doing it within a culture that is willing to overlook it for the sake of social cohesion. I'm struggling with the decision of whether i should just let it all slide (I am, after all, only working here for another month), or if i should be the clueless muzungu, and bring it all out in the open for what I see as a necessary step in the organisation's ability to develop. We'll see!

In other work related news, I was informed that in a few weeks I will be giving a speech at the wedding of the new U**** staff member, who I have known for a whopping 3 weeks. Apparently, the programs have already been printed, and she needs to have a speech from both the groom's and the bride's co-workers. Considering how prestigious it is just have a muzungu at your wedding, I can't even imagine the delirium that will occur with a muzungu giving a speech! What in the world I will say, let alone what I will wear, are beyond me! No matter what though, I'm sure it'll be quite the experience!

This weekend offered me a good opportunity to get rid of all that work related tension - it was the 30th birthday of the owner of the Blue Mango (the bar/restaurant/hotel i mentioned in my last post) and so he hosted a really big, really open-bar party there on saturday night, attended by pretty much every muzungu under the age of 35 in the city. It was a great party, and suffice it to say that it was the kind of event that saw me (and several others) getting picked up and thrown into the pool, fully dressed, at about 3 a.m. Good times, good times, but what a waste of hair gel and eye liner!! :-)

Considering that the rest of the weekend involved party recovery, I don't have much other news. On friday afternoon I went with my friends Zorin and Maria to book gorilla tracking permits, which we are going to do next weekend in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. With the world's only remaining mountain gorillas living in Uganda and Rwanda, and with a firm grasp on the theory of supply-and-demand, the Uganda Wildlife Authority gets away with charging us a whopping $275 USD fee to spend one day tracking the gorillas, with a maximum of one hour in the gorilla's presence. Despite the outrageous costs, i've been told it will be one of the more amazing experiences of my life (if not also the steepest & slipperiest hike ever) and that it'll be worth every penny. I hope to have some great photos and stories to share with all of you when I get back next week!

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Slow news day today

Okay, so just last week, I say i'm going to start posting at least every monday... And then I go and miss my first self imposed deadline... I'm in africa, ok? I'm working on 'Africa Time'! (ie. what's the difference between monday and tuesday? Or even between monday and three mondays from now?)

This past weekend was a bit less exciting-africa-action-packed than my previous posts. The Rwandan volcano-hike episode resulted in a sprained ankle that is somewhat limiting my ability to do super-fun-to-read-about stuff. Hey, i hobbled somewhere! And then I hobbled a bit more! Cool, huh?

In an effort to stay off of my foot though, I've been taking boda-bodas a lot more, as an alternative to walking. As mentioned in my rwanda post, boda-boda's are motorcycle/scooter taxis. They're quick and convenient (since they can zoom in and out of traffic jams) and they're really cheap; and you've got, like, a 80% chance of not getting in an accident, at least. (Ha, ha, just kidding mom and dad... its an 85% chance for sure.) Oh, and why are they called boda-boda's you ask? Because they were originally used to transport people from the border of, say, uganda, to the border of, say kenya, which are placed, conveniently, about 1/2 a mile apart, and which, for some reason, you can't sit on your bus to go through. So, border-border transit! Transportation in general is kind of an interesting subject here, in that the main forms of public transit are the boda-boda's and matatus (which are according to my Lonely Planet guidebook are unique to East Africa.) I'm assuming that uniqueness=interesting, since as I said above, its a slow news day. Matatus are basically Toyota HiAce vans that go along mostly set routes, and have mostly set prices, and hold about 14 people. You stand at the side of the road and flag one down. The 'conductor' (usually some bad-attitude young guy who thinks that my white skin renders me too stupid to understand how to calculate change) sits in that back section of the van and slides the door open. You clamber in, sitting either on a bench seat or on one of the flip-down seats that fills the aisle at the side of the van. Getting stuck with a flip-down seat means that any time someone needs to get out, you also need to get out, and then get back in. People are super-lazy about their departure stops too (god forbid they should walk ten feet) - so sometimes you end up getting in-and-out of your seat three times in a 40-meter stretch. Anyways, when you finally arrive in the centre of town (where all matatus end; you can't go from one part of town to the other without going downtown first) you disembark in the Old Taxi Park, which is one of the most chaotic & overwhelming sites you'll ever see. The Taxi Park is sort of in a valley, so when you first see it from above, you get a true idea of how nuts it is - there's hundreds and hundreds of identical matatus, with no apparent rhyme or reason to their organisation - no rows, no right angles, no signage. Just a whole load o' vans jammed in and every angle, their honking competing with the conductors who just stand there and yell out the destination over and over again, the drivers making no effort to avoid knocking over the women selling bananas from baskets on their heads, or the guys selling chewing gum and hair barrettes through the van windows, or the booths selling pop, phone cards, fruit, or sunglasses around the edges of the park. Somehow though, it all works, and i've never actually seen anyone get knocked over, and my matatu is always in the same spot - just up from the billboard encouraging family planning, to the left of the Pepsi/mango booth.

Oh, yeah and what have I actually done this week: On friday night, I went out for dinner with a bunch of friends to the Blue Mango, a funky restaurant where you pile a load of meat, veggies and sauce onto a plate and then they 'stir-fry' it for you - its delicious and a very welcome change from the home-cooked goat-and-no-veg meals i get at home. Afterwards, my friend Sara and I went to a bar called 'Just Kicking' in the Kisementi district (where a lot of the popular bars & restaurants are) where we had a few drinks and met up with a friend of hers who plays for the Uganda's soccer team. Saturday afternoon was a pool party at a friend's house, and Saturday night was big dinner at Sara's house - she actually made perogies from scratch - I'd always thought they only existed in a bagged-and-frozen state. Sunday I went with Maria, another canadian, to 'Chimp Island' (actually called the 'something something Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary') which was a bit of a dissapointment (we thought we were going to get to walk around the island and see the chimps in their natural habitat; actually we were basically penned in away from the chimps and just saw them at feeding time) but was still an interesting day (it's not ike seeing chimps up close is exactly an everyday experience for me) and another opportunity to get out of the city. Sunday evening, Maria and I raced from the chimp-island-boat to a see a performance of a traditional drum/dance band, and then went out for drinks with some friends. So, i guess I did stuff, but who wants to hear about a pool party?

Oh, and did you notice? I've added a the ability for readers to put in their own Comments to my posts! So comment away!

Thursday, March 18, 2004

I know that you've got nothing else planned...

Hey everybody, I've just decided to stay here for an extra month and travel around Kenya for the month of May. Anybody feel like joining me for a leg of the trip?

It'll be fun, I swear!

Monday, March 15, 2004

What? I didn't tell you? I didn't think it would be a problem...

What's better than a long weekend away? Leaving for another long weekend away... two days later. Yup, I came home from Murchison Falls, spent Tuesday and Wednesday at work, and then took off on Wednesday evening on a flight to Rwanda with three other Canadian girls - Tina, Larissa and Jen. Tina and Larissa are also CIDA interns, working for the Uganda Cooperative Alliance, while Jen is working at a local university.

Rwanda is a teeny, compact little country (map), so we were able to see quite a bit in four days. We took off from Entebbe airport in Uganda at 9 pm, and thanks to the wonders of time zones, landed in Kigali at 8:15. From there we took a cab to the Okapi Hotel, and like the old ladies we are, zonked right out in bed. This brief introduction to Rwanda was startling in a few ways: first, it is easily twice as expensive as Uganda. Secondly, things in Rwanda actually work and there's no garbage all over the place and the fountains have water coming out of them and the streetlights were on and the roads were actually good. I know all of that sounds pretty basic, but after it was pointed out that the streelights actually had lightbulbs in them, we all stared at them, as awe-struck as if you decided to go on a road trip and discovered that the neighbouring town had transitioned from cars to hovercrafts. The lack of garbage (and the absence of the corresponding marabou storks, 3 foot tall garbage-eating Kampala residents) was a really nice change. In fact, Rwanda in total was just absolutely gorgeous. Its called the Land of a Thousand Hills (though a thousand seems like an under-estimation) and so the country is just endless rolling hills, covered in terraced gardens and the green green greenest rainforest, and the cutest, happiest children i've ever seen in my life.

We started off on thursday morning with a trip to the still-being-built Genocide Museum (it officially opens in April, on the 10th anniversary of the end of the tragedy, and looks to be quite impressive and depressing.) Because it only happened barely ten years ago, memories and landmarks are still quite fresh, and it was interesting, in an awful kind of way, to have it pointed out that bridge we were walking across had once been held up by a pile of dead bodies, or to eat lunch at the hotel that provided refuge for hundreds of Tutsis. It was also interesting to see the difference in the two tribes - the Hutus are generally darker, with a shorter, stockier build, while the Tutsis are quite tall and slender, with more golden skin and a tendency to be absolutely beautiful. The differences seemed important, somehow, when you realise how easy it must have been to carry out the genocide of the Tutsis, when it is so obvious how easy it is to identify them.

After our visit to the museum, and a quick stroll around town (it was pretty small), we hopped on a minibus to the small town of Ruhengeri, adjacent to the Parc National de Volcans (Volcanoes National Park). Our arrival in Ruhengeri must have been a big deal, because we quickly had a crowd of at least 30 locals surrounding us, just staring. A taxi driver approached us to take us to our guesthouse, and sensing the opportunity, the local kids, most under 10 years old, started bargaining for our business as well - all these kids just yelling, with quite serious expressions on their faces, '5000 francs! i take you!'. I couldn't tell if they wanted a handout, or just wanted in on the excitement, but either way, it was funny!

Once in the Parc, we hunkered down by the fireplace (it was way colder there than we'd anticipated) of a guesthouse within the park, and got a good night's rest before we set out early the next morning to go on trek partway up one of the volcanoes to see Dian Fossey's grave. (Fossey was a pioneering researcher on mountain gorillas, and wrote 'Gorillas in the Mist'.) The walk was absolutely gorgeous - we were going through rainforest - and the weather was great, not too hot. We didn't see any of the world's last 650 mountain gorrillas, all of which live on the volcanoes of the Uganda/Rwanda border (which we were hoping to do, since official gorilla-tracking permits costs $250 US! We did however, come into pretty close contact with buffalo dung... man, those animals are prolific. Just ask my shoes.) One thing we didn't think about though, is what its like to walk uphill through a rainforest during the rainy season - it is muddy!! (So, I, um, feel bad for the housegirl who has to wash my stuff...) After the trek, which took about 5 hours, we returned to Ruhengeri, all set to get on another bus to Gisenyi, a beach town on nearby Lake Kivu, only to discover that the 2, 3, 4, and 5 oclock buses had all been cancelled (you spend enough time in Africa and this sort of thing ceases to surprise you), and so we went to 'the best restaurant in Ruhengeri' and ate the world's toughest chicken and the africa's most consistently edible dish - french fries - and played cards until 6 pm and the townspeople got tired of walking past and starting at the four muzungu (foreign) girls.

Gisenyi was a real treat - at one point it was something of a beach resort town, but what with the lack of tourists, is now a great bargain. We spent $15 and stayed at the cushy beachfront Hotel Palm Beach and ate italian food for dinner- it was a good way to end a very long, tiring day. The next morning, after checking out of the hotel, we walked from Gisenyi to the Rwanda/Congo border, and crossed over into the Congolese town of Goma. (We did lots and lots of security research, and had been assured that despite an ongoing civil war, that Goma itself was relatively safe to visit.) Goma is a pretty non-inspiring town, but a good chunk of it had been buried by a volcanic eruption in 2002, and we wanted to take a look at the results. It was really interesting - all these building submerged up to the second floor by what now looks charred wood, or a frozen river.

We returned to our hotel in Gisenyi, where our boda-boda (bike or scooter taxis) drivers got a brief beating for being on hotel property while they waited for us to collect our bags, and then boda-boda'd into town and back to the bus station, where we took another minibus back to Kigali, where we spent the night. The next morning we departed Kigali for Butare, a town in the south of the country, which (according to Lonely Planet) has 'the best museum in East Africa', and where I bought a bunch of tourist-oriented handicraft-crap that I actually quite like, ate a yummy lunch of grilled Nile perch fish, got back on yet another minibus to Kigali, and flew back Uganda.

It was a great, but busy, weekend!

Now, I'm back at work, which has become surprisingly stressful - being the new ED is a lot of work! It's providing me with the challenge I need though, to feel that I'll return to Canada with not just some really cool travel under my belt, but also some meaningful work experience, which i guess is sort of the point! So.... I should probably stop writing this post and get back to things, i guess ;-)
Hope all is well with all of you at home.... !Cheers!

Monday, March 08, 2004

The um, south part of the north ...

I had the day off work today - beleive it or not, International Women's Day is a civic holiday here. There is piles o' irony in that, when you think about the actual status of women here, but the point is that i had a long weekend and hence the chance to get out and away from the city. Myself and 8 others (7 of whom were canadian, and 2 of whom were Queen's grads - i've oh so diversified my social group by moving across the world) drove up to Murchison Falls National Park on saturday morning. Murchison is in the northwest of the country - sort of barely the edge of where it is safe to go in Uganda, but safe nonetheless. (See my posts below, about LRA activity in the north, for more info) Murchison Falls is supposedly "the most dramatic thing to happen to the Nile along its entire length", what with the wide (50 meters possibly, but that could be wrong) river squeezing through a 6 meter wide gorge and plunging over a 70 meter fall. Waiting to be awed by the majesty of it all, we headed straight to the ferry docks to go on a 3 hour falls-viewing cruise upon our arrival in the park. The temperature at Murchison is about 10 degrees hotter than in Kampala, so we spent most of the cruise on the lower deck of the smallish boat, hiding from the sun and checking out all the hippos and crocodiles along the length of the river. (Did you know that hippos are africa's deadliest animal? Yup, more people are killed by hippos than by lions or rhinos or any of the other more viscious looking big animals. Hungry hungry hippo indeed.) When eventually we got to within about 500 meters of the falls, the boat stopped, looked at them from half a kilometer away, and then the boat turned around... Hey, it was relaxing at least...
The rest of that day was spent hanging out at Red Chilli Rest Camp, the parks only budget accomodation. We stayed in bandas, which are mud walled & thatched roof huts, and are generally what most budget accomodation consists of. I lucked out and got one of the bandas that didn't have any bats hanging around the ceiling! :-)
The next morning we got up early and went for a game drive around the park. 30 years ago, uganda was teeming with wildlife - and then Idi Amin came along, and the vast majority of game was killed either for sport, and then later, for food. As a result, the amount of wildlife in Uganda is much lower than in neighbouring Kenya or Tanzania, although wildlife population has been slowly growing since the late 80's when 'democracy'was restored to the country. As a result, i don't have gushing things to say about this drive compared to my experience in Tanzania's Serengeti, but we did see lots of elephants (which are my favourite African animal) and warthogs, which are actually kind of cute in a really ugly kind of way. It was especially neat when I was called out from shower to check out the family of warthogs that decided to visit me and my banda-mate at our doorstep... They've got these big tusks and look kind of scary, but it they're actually herbivores and it was really interesting to watch them get down on their "elbows" to graze on the grass...

So, now i'm back in town, getting prepared for an interesting day at work tomorrow. Its looking to be interesting because tuesday will be my first full day as U****'s Acting Executive Director. Yup, the organisation that I was Interning for has made me ED, and my first day coincides with the first day of a brand-new staff member as well, so I get to orient her at the same time as i orient myself... It should be an interesting experience! On a more unfortunate note, tomorrow will also be just two days following an incident where my co-worker was accused of stealing 1 million shillings (about 730 Canadian dollars and over half her annual salary) from the outgoing ED... And guess who gets to deal with that?!? Yay for me!

This past week also marked my three-month anniversary of my arrival in Uganda, and it also means that I only have less than two months left to go. I've really grown to enjoy my time here, and I've made some good friends, and its hard to beleive that I'm almost done! There's so much that needs to be done (from a work perspective) and so much to see (from a traveller's point of view) that its hard to beleive that I ever thought that 5 months would be enough! The culture, the landscape, the environment, it is all so rich and layered that i'm starting to understand what it means when people say that 'africa gets under your skin' - it is just too hard to feel like you're ready to leave when its almost impossible to feel like you've done more than scratch the surface of the place. I felt like I had sooo much time when I got here - and now that I have 7 weeks left I feel like I need to cram in everything - so hopefully I'll have lots of interesting stuff to put on here in the coming weeks!!

In a related matter, please check out Maternity Worldwide, a UK-based NGO started by a friend of mine from Queen's. They provide pre/post natal care to women in Africa, and have a great way to help the world's poorest women this Mother's Day.