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Old Kampala Taxi Park
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Rebecca and her Rolex
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Unloading Matooke at the Iganga market
Among the rapid development and progress seen all across Uganda, I have noticed that many things have not changed. For instance, I am still awoken at the crack of dawn by the Islamic call to prayer. Some of my most beautiful memories of Uganda (apologies for the overt sentimentality here) are of sitting in my backyard, overlooking the mini-forest of jack-fruit trees and watching the red sun rise, while listening to chants from the Qur'an. If you haven't heard this, there is little to compare it to - these chants really are a musical experience.

The first-timer Rolex addiction also certainly has not changed, as Rebecca has taken to eating some variation of the Rolex for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A Rolex (not the watch) is Uganda’s signature street food, which consists of a burrito-type structure made of Indian-style chapatti (a thinner form of naan, if I must compare) stuffed with fried eggs. Sold everywhere on the street, this is quite the profitable business, with materials often costing fewer than 100 shillings per Rolex, and sold for 1,000 shillings per Rolex. Talk about profit margin. In my past visits to Uganda, I’ve heard young men swear they made their fortunes selling Rolexes.


In other areas, the progress and change are nothing short of astonishing. Peanut butter and WiFi - I can't get enough of either and the development of both in Uganda is remarkable. As I wander through the (largely Indian- and Pakistani-owned) 'supermarkets' (aka convenience stores), I see the jars of peanut butter that would have made my cravings so much less intense had they been there two years ago. I even enjoyed a peanut butter and Nutella chapatti at an African Grocery that advertised itself with the slogan of "It's like there is a chapatti in your mouth and everyone's invited!!" (I question Ugandan companies' marketing strategies - my dream consulting job right here.)

As for WiFi, upscale cafes from the Source of the Nile coffee shop in Jinja to the Mokka coffee shop in Kampala's Oasis Mall all proudly boast "WiFi Here" signs. Since the U.S. is somewhat behind much of the developed world in our wireless coverage, might I make the bold bet that in fifty years' time East Africa will catch up with us? (I don't really mean this, but for a country that skipped right over telephone landlines and to cell phones and subsequently iPhones, what an interesting idea non-the-less.)

As Elizabeth and I were stuck on the side of a Kampala highway waiting for the fender bender in which we found ourselves to smooth over (our matatu rear-ended the car in front of it, so all of the drivers involved were out on the side of the road yelling at each other in Lugandan, with no end to the spat in sight - at least not until the matatu drivers would offer up a bribe large enough), Elizabeth turned to me and said, "I really want to look into the future fifty years and see how all this will turn out." 

And she wasn't referring to the fender bender spat (although at the rate the drivers were moving toward a solution, I wouldn't be surprised if they were still fighting fifty years from now), but to the development of Kampala and Uganda. The Kampala we know today was more or less built from the ground up in 1986, after the current president - Yoweri Museveni - took power. How much would change in fifty more years? I thought of Uganda turning into a smaller version of India - if I may be so bold as to judge that India is attempting to build a sturdy mansion on a shaky foundation. When I lived in Delhi, my apartment building (accommodated with electricity and running water) was right across the street from a large slum but among tall sky scrapers. There was no sewage system, no garbage disposal system, few paved roads and no real road rules. In fact, India has more traffic accidents annually than any other country (a statistic I was lucky to escape in my time there). Would Uganda be the same mesh of sky scrapers without a sewage system for support? Would East Africa be home to megacities with populations equal to that of all of Canada (a la Mumbai)? Oh the strife of urban infrastructure development.

Finding myself in Uganda and traveling with two other mzungus (the term used affectionately here) has been very much a different experience from being totally immersed in the community with a host family, as I had been my past two times here. It's interesting to see the other side of the experience, as I always wondered about the lives of the Westerners who came in to work on specific projects rather than simply to learn about the communities. (In my humble opinion, you really can't have the former without first having the latter, but who am I to talk.) I notice this time around I'm much more comfortable taking photographs of daily life, wearing the large rhombus earrings I bought at the Jinja craft shops and wearing the long dresses I bought from a Kampala clothing store. Aka I'm more comfortable looking like your typical tourist in East Africa. In the past, I would have felt like a fraud, but as I am here mainly to work on project implementation, perhaps I am a type of a 'fraud'.

Step one of Operation Piglet (as we have decided to dub our mission to get our Empower U project this summer off the ground) can be reported as a success. Elizabeth, Rebecca and I travelled to Iganga, where I navigated my way to my old host home from memory. I was never more ecstatic than when I found my host Mom - (known by many names, but by Biti to me) -  sitting on the porch of her home in the middle of the day, as Elizabeth, Rebecca and I literally appeared out of nowhere. Hugs and giggles later, Biti gave my former program coordinator from Experiential Learning International organization - Michael - a call, and he came rushing up on his motorcycle.

After the typical conversation of—“Ssebo, oliyo tiya?” ("Sir, how are you?")

“Ah burungi nyabo.” ("Very well, madam.")

“Mm.” ("Mm.")

“Mm.” (Obligatory.)

And a long roundabout conversation about how he didn’t know I would be coming back and how happy he was I came back and how happy I was to be back, I asked him to give Immaculate a call.

“But I lost her number,” he said.

Ah the typical Ugandan resistance—as if saying, "no, don’t call Immaculate, stay with me". Eventually after a few times of Michael insisting he did indeed lose Immaculate’s number, he gave her a call. She was ecstatic to hear from me and we immediately arranged to meet in Kampala Saturday to get started on project evaluation and next steps.

Such a way of doing business might be considered nothing short of ridiculous in the States. Although I went through intensive cultural appreciation classes prior to my first time living as a volunteer abroad all the way back in 2006 where I was taught never to use adjectives such as 'ridiculous' or 'crazy' to describe my experiences abroad, I have since reintroduced these words back into my international development vocabulary. I mean them in a comparative manner, not as an absolute term. To think that a business deal could be closed in the matter of minutes, and a business partner located through a friend of a friend is simply not reasonable in the U.S. But TIA.

Our next step is to travel up north to the village with Immaculate, where we will proceed to engage first in project evaluation, then in the selection of new beneficiaries and training workshops. Can't wait!

- Jen

Invisible Hand
7/25/2011 08:27:06 am

Well thought and smart. Your project, guys, is not about aid or donations. It is about investing. Investing into human capital. This is what can change the world. Keep going.

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5/27/2012 08:00:47 pm

nice post

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    Elizabeth, Rebecca and Jen

    The three of us are spending July and August on the Empower U project in Kumi, Uganda. We will be recording our (mis)adventures here.

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