so this is it. my final night in kampala. i can't believe how quickly the month has come and gone and yet how impactful this short time has been. i'll miss a lot of things about uganda; the friendly people, the warm weather, the beautiful landscape. and i'm grateful above all else for the much-needed humbling i've received.
as a farewell, i'd like to share photos of some of the amazing things i've seen and the extraordinary people i've met.
thank you so much for following me on my journey...and stay tuned for my upcoming travels to tanzania!
yeah, yeah, i know…it’s a shame to admit that i’ve been watching a lot of tv since I’ve come here. even worse to tell you that i’ve actually enjoyed it. but i strive to give accurate accounts of my experiences, and i’d be remiss in excluding the hours spent in my hotel room lazing in front of the tube (in this case you really can’t blame me—since the bombings of july 11, everything in kampala’s dead at night anyway).
but why, you may ask, do i so thoroughly relish an otherwise mundane activity i could do in my own home? i’ll tell you: 1) the incredibly in-depth coverage of world news; and 2) the really really bad entertainment programming.
let’s start with the first – the news. there are no fewer than 5 channels dedicated to global news coverage - and i’m not talking about skewed partisan pandering (*ahem*fox*ahem*) or glorified celebrity fluff talk (i’m lookin at you, cnn) – i’m talkin old-fashioned, down and dirty, hard-hitting news…like the kind your grandpa used to mutter and shake his head at. not only is the coverage refreshingly raw, but the breadth is beyond anything we ever get in the states. did you know war, famine and natural disasters lead to actual death and destruction?? it’s true – i’ve actually seen it with my own eyes, thanks to the news here.
now on to the next – entertainment tv. where do i even begin? is it the movie channel dedicated exclusively to lifetime made-for-tv movies made circa 1998 i love? or is it the telenovelas that are horribly dubbed into english (example from a recent episode of “la tormenta” where a mob of villagers is chasing a suspected witch to the outskirts of town: “you are mistaken, dimitrio. you want to burn maria-teresa on a stick, but do you not remember how you felt when the townspeople wanted to hang you by the neck only last year? this was not a good feeling, no?”)? or perhaps it’s the local programming, which consists of such shows as “trickstars”- an african candid camera dedicated solely to swindling unsuspecting victims out of money, jewels or property. ahh, but why chose? i can love them all…and i do!
(the only thing i don't get is the national obsession with big brother africa - there is an entire channel dedicated to watching the contestants 24-hours a day!)
but i digress from my original sentiment: thank you, ugandan, tv…you’ve livened my stay beyond what I can express…
to all those who have traveled to far off places and felt like an alien landing from outer space: i totally get you now. sure, i’ve been an “other” plenty of times before (from being dubbed the “exotic princess” in college, to being ridiculed by my own people in iran for my manner of speech and system of beliefs), but never have i felt so completely different than i have during my trip to uganda.
on the one hand is the peculiar interest that i have garnered all over the countryside, simply for being “white”. adults stare, little children trail me rubbing my skin or yanking my hair, and everyone everywhere raises the alarm that “mzungu!” (ugandan for “whitey”) has arrived the minute i touch down in the villages. a talking dog would have caused less curiosity. although strange, and in a way reminiscent of what life as a b-list celebrity might be like, this type of attention has been harmless for the most part.
what’s really bothered me is the elevated status i’ve been awarded next to my own peers, for lack of any qualification other than my appearance. during my work travels, it was a given that i would always be offered the front seat, the largest hotel room and first consideration for times to rest, eat, whatever. this, in spite of being in the company of much more senior personnel (both in age and professional standing) from the ministry of health and partner organizations. while ugandans are quite a friendly and hospitable people, i have a hard time believing that was the true origin or sole motivation of this behavior (maybe they thought i expected even demanded such treatment? and there were times i could swear that even my companions were reluctant to be seen with me, loathing the added attention i brought to every mundane task.
i have no deep, sweeping commentary on the whole thing. i can only say that i’ve been disturbed by it, and can now sympathize with all my fellow sideshow freaks. sorry, bearded lady, i never knew you had it so tough…
For the past three weeks, I’ve been traveling the Ugandan countryside, meeting with workers in the most remote rural health posts. Our job (to keep it simple) is to assess whether interventions aimed at improving the recruitment and performance of health care workers in these resource-poor areas are actually taking effect. While the results of the evaluation are yet to be tallied, one thing is for certain: the work we do, though sound in intention and application, is like trying to fill the ocean one bucketful at a time.
Now, I’m not trying to undermine the value of service in public health (lest I render myself obsolete); but during these journeys I’ve come to realize that at the heart of everything we’re striving for, every health target at which we aim, is a rotting core of economic underdevelopment. To say the conditions here are poor, abject, wretched, whathaveyou, would be to vastly understate the case. A quick run down the list of lacks will include anything from basic needs (food, water, shelter) to basic services (sanitation, electricity, transportation)…and let’s not even concern ourselves with luxuries such as clothing, education, or employment. In this context, you soon come to question the impact of narrowly focused health interventions. In other words: What good is a dumb ol’ program on health workers when the very foundation of human subsistence is so precarious?
So, ah-ha! I’ve got it! It’s all about broad-scale development, right? Not so fast... Despite the decades-long infusion of foreign aid in every area of development (which recently passed the half trillion mark), Africa maintains the dubious distinction of housing the most corrupt and ineffectual governments; governments which preside over the biggest slice of the world’s impoverished populations. It has widely been argued in scholarly articles (letmegooglethatforyou) that the very concept and content of foreign aid is what lies at the epicenter of Africa’s reverberating wave of poverty, underdevelopment and economic dependence.
And yet here I am, a product of just such aid, wandering the Ugandan countryside marveling in horror at the raw display of indigence and wondering to myself: What am I really doing here?
hot, stone enclosure seething with smoke…blazing flames reaching up to lick splattered grease off the walls.. barely visible are dark, sweaty figures moving in the thickness … no light anywhere except that provided by millions of stars and the cloudy milky way reaching across the expanse of the sky…and in front of you, with what little bit of dim is broken by the firelight, rests a plate of the most celestial fried pork. Mouth-size pieces of ribs from the cut of your choosing, chopped by machete on the hollowed out bowl of an old tree trunk, are sent swimming into a bubbling cauldron bath, steeped in the juices of all the pieces that came before it…crisped inside and out by the boiling oil, but made tender by the shock of heat…bone, fat, flesh…all merge in a blissful sensory confluence…
…and that, my friends, is the mountain pub. jealous?
it’s hard to explain what it feels like to be here. i’ve traveled all over the world, and each place i’ve seen has its distinct flavor. but africa, africa has a texture. everything about it is rich in a way that’s new and more intense than anything i’ve felt prior.
its sounds: the chorus of wildlife singing its never-ending score outside my window; the squeal and giggle of the ubiquitous children; the clamor of the kampala bustle; the low rhythm of drum beats seeping out from every car, house and shop…
its sights: the throngs of brightly draped ugandans crowding all corners of my vision; the verdant landscape, unfurling in lush waves across miles of horizon; the expanse of sky, deep blue by day, at night an inky black, teeming with stars…
its smells: the ripe tang of human bodies; the saccharine drip of syrupy watermelons and mangoes; the toxic mingling of exhaust and burning trash that pierces straight to your inner brain...
and its feel: the temperate breeze swirling through my hair; the gritty coat of clay dirt on my eyes, my skin, my teeth; the warmth of each sincere smile and lingering handshake; the contrast of multiple realities layered one on top of the other…
at every moment i am utterly awash in africa, taking it in from all senses, on all levels. and i am gradually beginning to understand the binding spell its cast on so many others...and falling victim…
don't laugh. i really didn't know. i mean, i guess i never thought about how pineapples grew in the first place. well anyway, now i know... and here are some other things i've learned during my first week in uganda:
it’s pronounced wah-tah, not water (learned after numerous perplexed expressions and one particular waiter who brought me a plate of mashed plantains…?)
outside is better than inside for every activity
you can slow it waaaay down and still get it done somehow (less the stress of rushing)
silences are not awkward, it is only you who is akward
peanuts (called g-nuts) make a purple stew when you grind them up, eating with your hands is an acceptable form of fun (for me anyway), and real fish actually come with many many bones
childhood may just be a figment of our social construction
the only thing more annoying than mosquitoes (or, rather, mo-sqweetos) is mo-sqweeto nets
if you keep your wants simple, you will rarely be disappointed
the reason everyone comes back from africa with pictures of smiling children is because the children are constantly following you, smiling
people are willing to sit through anything you want to teach them, long as you give them a certificate at the end
and, most importantly:
everyone is your seestah or your bruthah, and that’s how you keep the love flowing…
Please pardon my delay in posting...I've been busy working with our local counterparts to prepare an in-field assessment for launch early tomorrow. I'll be travelling to some more remote areas of Uganda, so will likely be out of internet's reach until the end of the week (*gasp*).
Don't worry, though, I'll be taking dutiful notes on my experiences and will report back as soon as I am able.
For now, I'll leave you with the contradiction I awoke to this morning: Beautiful clear sunlight...cool, dewy air...the sound of cranes whooping in the distance....and the smell of burning trash searing my lungs....
it took 22 hours to arrive, but merely ten minutes on ugandan soil to engage in my first political discussion. as we trotted along the dark, dusty road from entebbe to kampala, kasim, the cab driver, described the sad state of affairs as he saw them: yes, uganda is a wonderful place...my family, my life is here...but let me tell you, there is no system here that works. you want an education? you have to know somebody. you want a job? you better know somebody. you get sick and need help? well in that case, you better start praying.
kasim lamented the interminable reign of their leader, yoweri museveni, and described "first-hand" accounts (i have seen it, i swear to you!) of government corruption and greed. what started as a promising rebirth from the suffering inflicted under idi amin, museveni's once-heralded economic and social stability have slowly given way to a regression to the lowest political denominator. mutiple violent fronts (in congo and against the lord's resistance army in the north) and the leader's rapacious appetite for control have eroded uganda's hard-fought gains. and with the abolishment of term limits in his own favor, museveni became, in kasim's words, "just another african leader."
but not to worry, kasim assured me: despite all this, we still care for our families, we still love life and we still dance...that is the only way forward. welcome to africa, my sister!