If I could…

On Christmas Eve morning I was sitting at the kitchen table checking my email and a message popped up with holiday wishes from Fred, one of our Kiva borrowers in central Uganda. He closed his email with “always remember me”. It brought the biggest smile to my face because it is impossible for me to forget Fred or any of our borrowers I met for that matter. If I could…

Even though it’s been awhile since my last post, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Uganda. It’s sort of impossible not to with all that is going on in the region: from horrific violence in South Sudan, CAR, and Congo to new laws being championed in UG. I once wrote a post about falling in love with Kampala. Now that I’m gone, this is what I miss most:

1. The people. My Friends.
2. The reckless abandon of riding on the back of a boda
3. How bright the stars are when you ride through dark Naguru at night
4. watching the bats fly at dusk through Kololo
5. Nile Special
6. Apollo’s big toothy grin
7. Waking up to Miriam and Patience singing in the backyard
8. The way Ian yells “Uncle Frank” as he wanders around the compound looking for Franco
9. Franco greeting me every morning/night “yes, good morning/evening madam”
10. Morning walks from MTN Tower, past Parliament to Brood Bakery
11. Warm chapati
12. Rolling thunder
13. Smiling kids waving and shouting “muzunguuuuuu!!!”
14. Dinners at Khana Kazana & Paradis
15. Ladies in their colorful gomesi
16. Going to the shack outside Gusto to buy Zo cigarettes and airtime
17. Overcrowded taxis jammed with people and tilapia hanging off of the front
18. “sistah! where are we going?”
19. Doryn singing to herself at work. Pizza Fridays.
20. Homemade pesto from the farmers market
21. Lazy weekend breakfasts at Prunes. Stealing Kale’s pancakes.
22. The feeling of total freedom you get from being lost.

shelter from the storm

If you’ve been reading my blog then you know how much I love the thundershowers in Kampala. When it rains, it pours. Hails even. Mostly I loved the rain because I was either at home or in the office working on my computer with a cup of Kenyan black tea. Also, it was a nice albeit short break from the ever present sticky heat.

There is nothing better than being woken up in the middle of the night from flashing lightening and torrential downpour and to be snuggled up in bed. There is nothing worse than being woken up at 7am by rolling thunder when you have to be at the Kololo airstrip by 8am. This was the case one morning when I was scheduled to drive to Masaka with several Grameen coworkers for a field visit.

I tiptoed down to the kitchen like a church mouse trying not to wake Chloe. As I stood there boiling water for coffee, I stared out the window watching the dark clouds gather over the compound wall. “Please don’t rain, please don’t rain”. I scurried back upstairs with my piping hot mug of instant coffee to quickly get ready. I threw on my dress and raced into the bathroom to put on some make-up. Because who goes on a road trip in sub-Saharan Africa without mascara?? Right? Then I heard it. The sound of fat rain drops smacking the palms outside the window.

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I walked back into my bedroom to pack up my laptop and survey the damage. It was a full-blown downpour. I was SOL as my dad would say (sh*t out of luck). Then I did the dumbest thing possible: heaved all my belongings on my back, picked up my helmet and walked out the door. I had to get the airstrip and didn’t want my coworkers to leave without me. I also was the only woman on this trip and I didn’t want to be “that girl” who is holding up the rest of the group.

I rang Apollo several times on his mobile but he didn’t pick up…smart man. Eventually I was able to flag down a random boda driver who had covered himself in plastic bags. I quickly hoped on the bike, draped my kikoy (a kenyan scarf) over my legs, and shoved my helmet on. “Ssebo. Go VERY VERY slow. kale?” I instructed him. “Yes madam”. I gripped the wet plastic seat with white knuckles as we headed off down Mbuya hill.

Why didn’t I call a private hire you might ask? That would be the intelligent thing to do after all. My two drivers Jermone and Daniel only work nights so they both head home around 5am to sleep until their night shift begins again. Also, neither of them live close to me so by the time I woke them up and they came to my house it would be too late.

Port Bell road was jammed as we wove in and out of traffic. We finally made it through and turned out onto Jinja Road. My heart sank as I realized we’d have to make the u-turn into oncoming traffic on Jinja to branch off onto Lugogo bypass. Keep in mind there are no real traffic lights or laws for that matter. We started to make the turn as I took a deep breath, pursed my lips and closed my eyes. “If I am ever going to die in Kampala, this is how I’m going to go” I thought. I cursed myself for being such a jackass. We made the turn and sped up the bypass towards the airstrip. Bismillah.

At this point my dress was completely soaked through and my legs were covered in red clay mud. As we pulled up to the strip there was a group of people huddled under a makeshift tent. I quickly paid and thanked my driver and bolted under the small shelter. Everyone (and I mean everyone) stared at me while I fumbled for my umbrella and fished around my bag for my ringing phone.

First of all…no one wears a helmet except expats, secondly I looked like a bag lady with my pack, computer, and camera equipment, thirdly I had just ridden up on a bike in a complete downpour (something most bodas won’t even do). I can only imagine what they were thinking…”what in God’s name is this completely ridiculous mzungu girl doing??”.

Simon instructed me to walk down the entrance to an MTN building garage where the van was parked. He came out around the corner with an umbrella and started laughing. I looked like a drowned rat. He helped me with my bags as I took off my squishy shoes and wrung out my dress. We waited for the rest of the guys to arrive as I drip-dried and wiped the mud off my legs. Eventually I was dry again, it is just water after all, but I learned my lesson about bodas in the rain.

how we roll

how we roll

One of my all-time favorite songs:

Alice

Alice is one of the most beautiful people I have ever met.

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I was lucky enough to get to know her while our Kiva media fellow was visiting Uganda to get some footage on the Grameen CKW program. Liz needed a list of 3 men and 3 women involved in the loan program for us to interview. I pulled together some names from the profiles and after consulting my coworker, Godfrey, we decided on Pascal and Alice.

We arrived to the usual stares from adults and shrieks of “muzungu!!” from the kids. Alice welcomed us into her small, meticulously clean store front. She had set-up plastic chairs in a semi-circle for us to sit and talk. We started off with Godfrey explaining the purpose of our visit and then going through the normal niceties of a social visit.

Alice outside her home

Alice outside her home


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We discussed her crops, her work as a CKW, and she told us about her piglet named Kiva. Godfrey had already explained earlier that it is customary to give livestock names of significance, either the date or by what means they were received. Alice decided to name her piglet “Kiva” since she used the income she’d earned as a CKW to purchase it. She was eager to show us and led us around behind her storefront to see it. Liz and I started snapping pictures of the pig while Alice stood with her boys around the pen.

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After a few minutes a crowd of children and men from the village had gathered. This is nothing out of the ordinary so I continued taking pictures until it became clear that several of the men were drunk. Usually they stand to the side and just watch, somewhat uncomfortably, but again, nothing new. One of the men approached me and demanded that I take his picture. His shirt was unbuttoned and he was swaying slightly and reeked of grain alcohol.

The children had moved away from him to another side of the pen. I obliged, showed him the picture in my digital screen and then walked over to where Godfrey was standing. He said a few things in Luganda and then walked off. I looked over to Alice and her boys and was struck by the difference between her and this radiant light she seems to give off versus the drunken hostile man who lived next door.

Godfrey with some of children in Alice's village

Godfrey with some of children in Alice’s village

Alice is stunning on the outside with her bright smile and shy demeanor but what makes her beautiful to me is her strength, determination and obvious love for her sons. She dedicates her energy to working tirelessly on her own farm to earn money for her boys’ schooling but also helps other small-holder farmers in her village.

Alice working with Tonie, another farmer who is partially deaf

Alice working with Tonie, another farmer who is partially deaf


Alice is special to me because she opened up her home and life to us but also because she set in motion one of the most significant interactions I had on a field assignment in Uganda.

After we finished taking pictures of “Kiva”, Alice took us to her farm a short drive away. As we toured around, the sun was getting low in the sky and Liz suggested doing the interview in a clearing towards the edge of her farm. Just past the farm was a small mud house with a thatched roof. Alice explained that it was her mother’s home and she’d like for us to meet her. She called out and moments later a tiny, old, barefoot woman appeared in the doorway. Her hair was grey and she was hunched over, her small frame swimming in her yellow and orange gomesi (traditional Ugandan dress).

traditional gomesi

traditional gomesi

She began shuffling slowly over towards us so I walked quickly toward her. When we reached each other she took my hand and began kneeling down onto the ground. Some Ugandans, mostly elderly people and children, have this practice that makes me very uncomfortable: kneeling down on the ground as a greeting. When I saw her begin to do this I protested “please. don’t.”. It was too late so I sank down to the ground next to her.

She still had my hand and began speaking to me in Luganda, revealing a wide, semi-toothless smile. Godfrey had caught up and was standing behind me now, translating into English. She began to tell me about Alice as a young girl and then, her eyes welling up with tears, she said “I am so proud of my daughter because I never dreamed that one day she would host a muzungu”. Speechless, I blurted out something to the effect that she should be proud of her daughter, she’s such a loving mother and an admired leader in her community. I was stunned that she was proud of her daughter because of our visit. As I sat in the dirt holding this old woman’s hand I thought to myself I will remember this forever.

Alice on her farm, next to her mother's house

Alice on her farm, next to her mother’s house

life is a highway

A few weeks into my fellowship I had my first opportunity to go out to “the field” with Grameen (that’s what people in the biz call it). I jumped at the chance and told Hosea, one of the lead trainers, that I’d like to tag along. The current group of Community Knowledge Workers had received their in-kind loan of a “business in a box” except for the agriculture scales. Something had gotten gummed up in the ordering process so Hosea, Godfrey, and Wahab were taking an 8 day trip around Central UG to distribute the late scales and conduct a quick Q&A. The plan was visit several villages and stay in Masaka since it’s the largest town with a hotel/guest house Grameen typically stays with (the Maria Flo).

The previous Kiva fellow who went on to take a full-time offer from Grameen suggested I only go for a few days instead of the full trip. She explained that it can get a little slow since I’d just be a fly on the wall and not doing any trainings. So I decided to go for 3 days and then just take a bus back to Kampala later that week. This seemed easy enough and Hosea was OK with it so off I went.

The scale distribution itself went really well. It was such an amazing opportunity to meet our borrowers, listen to their questions and concerns, and hear some of their success stories. Everyone was very welcoming: asking questions about Kiva and wanting to take pictures. Below are just a couple. As I quick side note: what I especially appreciated about all the organizations I worked with Uganda is that they are locally run. It never felt like I/we/Kiva were perpetuating the paternalistic practice of white people coming in to save poor Africans. It is always about our borrowers as entrepreneurs running their own businesses with some help from a short-term loan. The loans themselves are managed by local organizations and audited on a routine basis.

Dorothy & I

Dorothy & I

one of our borrowers, David

one of our borrowers, David

passing out scales

passing out scales

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we made it to Gomba!

we made it to Gomba!

So. Thursday morning rolls around and I asked Wahab to drop me off at the “bus stop” aka the last gas station leading out of town. We all pile into the van since the rest of the group is continuing on to Sembabule. As we pull up to the roadside where all the buses are parked Hosea told me to stay in the car with Wahab while he and Godfrey talked to the bus driver. As they negotiated a price I watched all the travelers milling about with their belongings and the vendors bombarding them with an assortment of snacks and drinks for their bus ride. Anytime your bus makes a stop along the highway in Uganda there is usually a group of vendors who rush over with either grilled meat on sticks, fried cassava, or grilled plantains for sale. They crowd around the windows, holding up their food.

Hosea comes back to the car and tells me to come along with him. We walk up to the bus and he tells me to sit in the front row next to the window, followed by “safe journey” as he waves farewell. I began to shove my bags under my legs (no overhead storage) as other passenger board. The buses have individual seats with 2 and 2 on either side of the aisle with jump seats that fold down to create a solid row of people squeezed across the entire bus. This creates an interesting game of Tetris when someone in the back needs to get off.

A family squeezes in next to me with the father sitting to my immediate right, then 1 of his kids and then his wife. Both the parents are holding a small child on their laps. He was dressed in a traditional shalwar kameez and his wife had a head scarf so I assumed they were Muslim but didn’t think much else of it. Uganda is predominantly Christian but there is a decent sized Muslim population as well. My new seat mate starts to strike up a conversation in broken English. I oblige, smile and chat for awhile before the engine roars to a start.

He asks what I do in Uganda and I explained that I am working with rural farmers. His face lights up and he starts pointing out all the plants we’re passing along the road: banana, cassava, sugar cane, coffee, sweet potato, etc.
After awhile of random small talk he asks what my religion is.

Here it comes…I tell him that I was raised Catholic but I respect everyone’s right to practice whatever religion they believe. He smiles and is quiet for a second and then begins to tell me that I should convert to Islam because it’s the superior religion. I say thank you but no thank you. This back and forth scenario goes on for several minutes. “Why don’t you want to convert?” “Why do you like your religion?” etc.

Then he asks if I am married (every Ugandan’s favorite question it seems). I should have said yes and just ended it there but I made the mistake of saying no. “Why not?” (again, every Uganda’s favorite question). I immediately start to back pedal and say I have a very serious boyfriend. So begins my fictitious boyfriend who I spend the next 5 minutes describing in detail. You’d think/hope this would throw off my friend…but it doesn’t. “Do you love him? This boyfriend?” “Why?” “Will you marry him?” “Why isn’t he here?” on and on and on and on.

It doesn’t stop there. He proceeds to tell me that in his religion he can take multiple wives. “I have a friend. He lives in Saudi Arabia. We will go there. You and I. We will get married and then I will come with you to the United States”. It’s been an hour of this already and I started getting tired of my go-with-the-flow shtick. I am nothing if not polite but this was beginning to push me over the edge. I said no thank you, that I was very in love with my made-up boyfriend and would not like to go to Saudi Arabia and marry him. End of story.

I immediately put in my headphones and after a few towns the family got off the bus. I said goodbye and waved to the kids, happy to have the seat next to me free. Luckily, that was my first and last solo bus ride through the countryside. I have never had so many marriage proposals as I did in Uganda although this was the most unorthodox.

This is a special double-header since both are classics:

I like the nightlife, baby

If you couldn’t tell by now Kampala is known for it’s nightlife and they know how to party. Most muzungus stick to strip of Acacia street in Kololo with Bubbles (see previous post) and Mish Mash or Kisementi with a ramshackle upstairs tiki bar called Iguana.

The latter is packed with rastas and expats on Friday and Saturday nights blasting pop music from the West and sub-Saharan Africa. It’s my personal favorite even though my friends are convinced it is going to collapse one night in a tangled pile of rubble and bodies on top of Gusto, the restaurant below. The club scene is also very popular in Kampala although not my bag despite my friends’ many attempts to get me to Guvnor, YOLO, or Venom.

Iguana

Iguana

Holland's world cup match...hence all the white people

Holland’s world cup match…hence all the white people

My first foray into Kampala’s bar scene was my first night in Kampala (no time like the present, right?). K and M’s friend was leaving for spring semester in S. Africa and having some goodbye drinks at Big Mike’s. Later that week the dynamic duo (K and M) convinced me to go to Gabiro or Gabs (noticing a pattern?), a local bar in Bugolobi. Suffice to say I became used to being the lone muzungu early on. By far the best locals spot is Panamera. Not because the drinks or food are particularly better but because of the insane story behind it.

The bar is in Naguru neighborhood down the hill off the Lugogo bypass. You drive into a huge gravel parking lot which abuts a concrete patio with green plastic tables and chairs surrounded on 2 sides by open thatched-roof buildings. Next to the bar is a lounge area with sofas and a bed (yes, a bed). The other side has a full kitchen where they grill an array of different meats and french fries.

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panamera

Panamera recently reopened after being shutdown in October 2012 when an employee was savagely beaten to death out back unbeknownst to patrons partying inside. The drama is only compounded by the fact that the #1 suspect is the proprietor of the bar and, oh by the way, he recently returned to K’la after a self-imposed exile. He still can be found at the bar every night. This is apparently not his first run-in with the law making him quite notorious around the city.

http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Bar+proprietor+faces+police+query+over+death+of+waiter/-/688334/1521658/-/8n9aidz/-/index.html

My first trip there was for my friend, Sarah’s, boyfriend’s 30th birthday. We met up early at Mish Mash for pre-party cocktails with other friends. As we socialized on the back patio I asked about all the hype around Panamera and its re-opening. Sarah and Chloe recounted their days partying there and proceeded to fill in the details about its most recent and shady history. Meanwhile I am sat there dumbfounded with wide-eyes and my mouth hanging open.

When we got to Panamera and I am, predictably, the only muzungu in the entire bar. At this point I am used to it…I get a few odd looks but mostly people don’t pay me much attention (as far as I am convinced…maybe my friends would have a different opinion). Chris and his buddies already had bottle service and ordered us a round of B-52s (again, predictable).

I was still reeling from this unbelievable story when Sarah pointed out the owner as he sauntered out onto the patio. “THE MURDERER?!” I gasped, ever so subtly, of course. Sarah started laughing and shushing me but simultaneously began looking around to see if anyone heard me. Chloe just responded with her usual head shake and “bismillah” which as far as I can tell is kind of like saying “oh dear God”.

As far as I can tell the best thing about Panamera is that it doesn’t close so it only seems appropriate that my farewell after party ended up there circa 4am. By that time the soiree had shifted from an apartment in Kamwokya to Iguana’s to Big Mike’s leaving a wake of friends scattered behind. Chloe, in her infinite wisdom, decided on Panamera as our final destination. I drew a lot more attention my last time around but for other reasons. Bottom line: no one quite knows how to party like Ugandans.

luck of the Irish

This will be the first year I actually celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with people who are in fact, Irish. The holiday has become an excuse for any bro to wear green and get bombed at a cheesy pub where they serve quesadillas and Bud Light on draft. I’m not knocking it…hell I’ve been standing there next to him but this year was slightly more authentic. The fact that this took place in East Africa is somewhat bizarre.

There is an Irish pub in Kampala. First name Bubbles, last name O’Leary. Bubbles doesn’t sound very tough or very Irish but just go with it. On St. Patrick’s Day they closed for a private party where they sold tickets that included dinner, Guinness, and a band they flew in from…Ireland. Expats of many kinds, particularly Irish, flocked to Bubbles for the occasion. A group of us decided to go and pay the 60,000 UGX each for a ticket which at $23 is considered a ridiculous amount.

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When we showed up the place was a riot of shimmering shamrocks and Guinness promotional banners. They had set up a stage for the band and rows upon rows of white plastic tables and chairs for the dinner. We wandered inside the bar and decided to try and convince the bartender to give the 5 of us a round of car bombs on the house. What better way to start the night off right? Instead he gave us 1 extra for free. Beggars can’t be choosers.

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There is a shot that we always ordered in Kampala, the quantity of which I’d care to forget. The shot is called a B-52 and consists of layers of Kahlua, Bailey’s, and Triple Sec. Since Bailey’s is imported and therefore expensive, the bars usually substitute Amarula which is a similar creamy liquor from South Africa made from the Amarula tree fruit that elephants eat.

Bubbles for St. Patty's

Bubbles for St. Patty’s

After multiple B-52s Betsy, a friend visiting from Addis, and I decided to go and talk to a group of guys standing alongside the bar. Our plan backfired completely as they turned out to be Irish and might as well have been speaking in tongue. Betsy saw her exit and snuck off at one point leaving me in the trenches alone. I stood there quietly, eyes squinting (as if that would help?) trying to decipher any word at all in the midst of my B-52 haze and eventually gave up. Mid-conversation I did an Irish goodbye and walked off.

Mid way through the night we decided our goal was to get invited to the US Embassy party the following evening at the Sheraton Kampala. It was the biggest St. Pat’s party in town and since none of us knew any embassy employees, Marines, or CIA we didn’t get formal invitations. Towards the end of the night we joined up with a group of Marines on the dance floor. In the end, I couldn’t invite myself as a +1 to the party…c’est la vie. I did however get some insider information about my neighborhood army barracks attack and sage security advice. All in all, a pretty epic St. Patrick’s day.

In honor, my favorite Irish band and arguably my favorite song of theirs:

p.s. I hope whoever watches this appreciates the phenomenal mullet action going on

the bad with the good

Not all aspects of life are sunny and Uganda was no exception. I don’t want to be a downer but I do want to give an accurate picture, both the bad and the good. This was one of my most difficult days in Uganda…

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my visit to Mulago hospital. One of my best friends in Kampala is studying pediatric cerebral malaria at Mulago and offered to take me around the hospital my last week. As the daughter of a surgeon and having spent a decent amount of time around hospitals, I was curious. I’ve attached a few exterior photos but did not take any of the inside for obvious reasons.

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A lot of people hate hospitals for various reasons: they smell funny, they are too sterile, etc. I never saw hospitals as bleak and depressing…until I walked around Mulago. What was once considered one of the greatest hospitals in East Africa has sadly fallen into decay. The walls are dirty and crumbling, windows are broken and covered in paper, florescent lights hang down and flicker. Hallways are over-crowded with family members and patients on colored grass mats with their possessions stuffed in plastic bags.

The wards themselves are jammed with patients strewn about everywhere, laying on cracked plastic gurneys or the floor with little to no equipment in sight. No IVs, no respirators, no beeping illuminated machines measuring vital signs or heart rates, no sterilization. Nothing. It smells of urine and in some areas trash and sewage litter the outdoor walkways. This is the kind of place where patients not only may die from malaria or appendicitis but can also die due to absurd reasons like broken equipment or a shortage of fluids.

laundry drying

laundry drying

Below is an article from Daily Monitor, an independent newspaper out of Kampala, published this January regarding conditions at Mulago: Time bomb: The inside story of Mulago’s hospital troubles

We started in the pediatric acute care ward, by far the most difficult to see. The walls painted with cartoon animals provided the only bright spot. While my friend and I waited outside the exam rooms to talk with one of the doctors a young girl approached us. She apologized for her lack of English and asked for help, handing us her passbook from the hospital.

The book itself was a beaten up, faded composition book with yellowed lined paper inside. My friend started reading her passbook, mumbling the notes in a hushed voice to herself. This girl was being treated for an “incomplete abortion”. She was alone and looked to be about 15 years old. My friend muttered a few expletives to herself and she called a nurse over who spoke to the girl in Luganda and told her which waiting room to sit in.

Once the attending was done with his patients he came out of the exam room and we joined him inside. The room was crammed. In the corner was one small hospital bed while the rest of the room was filled with boxes, paperwork, needles for blood samples and latex gloves. At one point during a lull in our conversation the silence was pierced by the sound of a woman wailing despondently outside. I’ve never heard anything like it and there’s only one reason a woman makes such a primal cry.

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I don’t want to discount the good work that does go on at Mulago. There are countless doctors and nurses who work tirelessly with little to no materials for criminally low wages because they believe in their calling of service. For many Ugandans this is their only option and the hospital provides more care than what they are able to get in small village clinics.

It takes someone incredibly strong to work every day under those conditions and the job they are able to do despite the crushing limitations is commendable. It was a difficult and emotional day for me and these people live it day in and day out. Sadly they are too few as many talented physicians leave the country to work in state of the art facilities for significantly higher pay in other countries.

There is an incredibly interesting and well-written article published last December in the Atlantic about practicing surgeons in Africa. It explains the issues and conditions far better than I ever could and it’s worth the read:
http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/12/gods-surgeons-in-africa/266635/

Many people complain about healthcare in the United States and while our system isn’t perfect, you just really have no idea how bad it could be.

http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/

cool rider

I love this clip from Grease 2 with Michelle Pfeiffer. I remember watching this as a kid and thinking she was one of the coolest babes around…I still do!

I never imagined I would miss the boda bodas but now I can say with certainty that I do. There are 3 modes of transportation in Uganda if you don’t own a car: matatu or “taxi”, private hire, or boda boda. I pretty much exclusively took bodas around Kampala unless I was out late at night in which case I called a private hire. I might be crazy but I don’t have a death wish and bodas at night are notoriously dangerous…poorly lit streets, drunk drivers, and the potential for muggings (or worse) make for a bad combination. Bodas congregate around areas called “stages” that tend to be more organized than just picking up a random driver.

on portbell road approaching the UPDF barracks on the hill

on portbell road approaching the UPDF barracks on the hill

I knew two cool riders in Kampala: Apollo and Wilson.

APOLLO

After I moved into the compound in Mbuya our sweet housekeeper Joyce, who also lived with us, insisted that she call a reliable boda to take me to work every day. His name was Apollo and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Apollo was the first person I saw when I walked out the gate every morning. I trusted him implicitly and as a single father of 4 children he wasn’t about to take chances with his own life let alone mine.

Over time we became friends. Every evening when I would go for a run I’d see Apollo driving people up and down Mbuya hill and he’d smile his huge toothy grin and wave to me. Eventually all of the other boda drivers at the stage on our street stopped bothering to harass me for a ride because they knew I was always waiting for Apollo. (When you’re walking or just standing anywhere in Kampala boda drivers will slow and say “yes, sister!!! we go??” in an attempt to pick up any potential riders.)

my #1 accessory

my #1 accessory

One morning I was getting ready to leave for work and Apollo wasn’t answering his mobile. Joyce called out for me as I was walking towards the front gate and told me that something horrible had happened to Apollo. That Friday night one of his clients asked him to wait outside Bugolobi Flats (an apartment complex nearby) while they went inside for something. After several minutes Apollo was attacked by several men. They beat him up, knocked him out with chloroform, and stole his new motorbike. I was heartbroken for Apollo.

I thanked Joyce for telling me and walked down to the stage. My friend Duncan was working that morning and so I hopped on his bike. As we coasted down the hill weaving in and out of traffic he said “something very bad has happened to your friend”. I asked if he’d seen Apollo and how he was doing, any updates from the police, and what he knew. Duncan said that this wasn’t the first incident of bodas being stolen around Bugolobi.

That evening I called Apollo again and this time he answered. He was okay but his new bike was gone. I started to think of anything I could do to help and decided on a loan to get another bike. A few days later I got a call from him that he was able to get his original bike back and would use that old one to work off the cost of the stolen bike. Apollo continued to drive me to work every morning up until my last day in Uganda.

Below is some footage another muzungu took on the back of a boda driving through central Kampala. Just to give you some idea of what it’s like…

WILSON

Wilson was similar to Apollo but more goofy. He worked at a boda stage outside MTN tower where my Grameen office was located. My friend from work, Laura, introduced us and Wilson became my regular driver home on days I worked from Grameen. Every time I would give him directions he’d say something like “okay boss!”. I still think of Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway screaming “willlllsssoooonnnnnn” when I remember riding his bike and it still makes me smile.

Wilson driving me home through rush hour traffic

Wilson driving me home through rush hour traffic

My favorite Wilson memory was the one day he drove me home under threat of a massive hail storm. I was sitting at my desk late one afternoon at Grameen watching the dark storm clouds gather just east of Nakasero over Mbuya hill. As the clouds grew more and more foreboding I began to frantically pack up my computer and rush out the door. I decided it was better to chance it and get home before the storm instead of being stuck at the office. Wilson and I started off towards home with him saying “EH!” the whole way, clucking about how badly it was going to storm. (Ugandans have this higher-pitched sound they make that when they are the least bit dubious about something.)

Halfway down Jinja Road Wilson pulled over at the Warid Airtel boda stage and said the weather was getting too bad and he was going to get stuck. I hopped off the boda and rushed over to another driver to start negotiating a price to the Mbuya army barracks. Wilson, overhearing our conversation, started hollering “EH! no! he’s ripping you off!! too much!!”.

He frantically motioned for me to get back on the bike and said “come, come! we go!”. So I hopped back on the bike and he took off like a bat out of hell towards Nakawa. When we made it to the bottom of Mbuya hill it still hadn’t started to rain but Wilson flagged another boda driver at the stage and gave him a 1,000 UGX note. “You take her up the hill to the Jeba market!” he instructed. I hopped on the second bike and thanked Wilson as he yelled out to me “Don’t give him any money! I already paid him!”, waved, and sped off down Port Bell Road. About 10 minutes after I arrived home it started to hail:

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I feel very fortunate to have made friends like Apollo and Wilson. Both of whom kept an eye out for me for no real personal gain in return.

boda driver out in the village

boda driver out in the village

I dreamed of Africa

It’s been 2 months now since I left Kampala which is so strange for me to think about. It feels like just yesterday that I rode through Kamwokya out onto Entebbe road in the pre-dawn darkness but as they say…time flies. A couple people have asked me why I stopped blogging. I didn’t really realize anyone was reading outside of my family and a few working stiffs looking to procrastinate for 15 minutes.

Friends ask me what Uganda is like and it’s hard to know where to begin. How do you describe a place that is so incredibly different yet your life becomes so routine you begin not to notice the differences?

The “security guards” armed with shotguns, bicycles piled with plantains and live chickens dangling from the handlebars, 4 people riding one motorbike including a swaddled newborn, crowded matatus with tilapia hanging from the front bumper, grinding chaotic traffic and complete lack of street signs all become so normal. It’s like living parallel lives each with their own distinctive realities.

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Compared to the rolling thunder and wild dog fights in Kampala, Los Altos Hills is deafeningly quiet.  As I lay awake at night I think of Uganda: my friends, fieldwork, people I met, funny stories, roadtrips.

Today I regret not keeping a journal so in an attempt to not forget all these memories I’m going to start blogging them. My river of dreams so to speak (I couldn’t resist this amazing Billy Joel reference). Also, I’m unemployed and what better way to break-up the tediousness of job searching than day dreaming about some place far away and infinitely more exciting?!

p.s. I won’t post all of these to Facebook so if you want to read add a bookmark

here comes the sun

One of my favorite songs:

Sunrise is the best time of day in Uganda.

kampala sunrise

kampala sunrise

I love the way the sky transitions from shades of blue to bright pinks and orange, the way the sunlight filters through the banana tree leaves, and the hustle and bustle of morning routines. Children washing before school, old ladies sweeping away the red clay, young girls carrying yellow jerrycans to get water, hens and their little chicks clucking around.

There is an oft-quoted proverb about sunrise on the African Savannah that I love: Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.

A few of my sunrise views…

rukungiri sunrise

buhoma sunrise

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ruhija sunrise

ruhija sunrise

masaka sunrise

masaka sunrise