Assign-Uganda 3

Bob Rackleff volunteered in Uganda. Dear Friends, It’s been another productive week at NAPE and the feedback so far has been good. The NAPE staff likes the basic organization of the new website, at least as it looks on paper. I came up with a new organization and look for the website that will be visually compelling, content rich, user friendly, and a powerful communications tool for NAPE (if I do say so myself). I wrote two sections -- "Challenges" and "Action Agenda" -- the former about Uganda issues, the latter about what NAPE is doing about them. They comprise about 32 articles 600-1200 words each, researched from NAPE’s own piles of documents and hundreds of other websites – and a lot of thrashing around mentally. There's a very detailed "Quick Links" section, with an extensive list of organizations and agencies dealing with environmental issues, each accessible online by a hot link. Then an encyclopedic "Library" section of NAPE documents and documents by others, with hot links, organized by subject. We'll also have links to videos, a YouTube library, Search, and other features. We should have final comments from program officers about what I wrote by Monday and can begin pasting the content on the website immediately afterward. We still have some design decisions to make, but can finalize them next week, too -- with a full website available for viewing by all staff in about two weeks. Once clear of that, we can light it up at www.nape.or.ug. Aiming for sustainability of the website after I leave, I will schedule some brief training sessions about writing skills, including a writing manual I am drafting to give to everyone. In the meantime, we are changing ISPs from the current overpriced, excruciatingly slow company to two new ones -- Warid and MTN -- which will increase our download speeds eight-fold and save NAPE lots of money. (Having two means that if one goes down, the other kicks in, with no interruption of the website.) The current ISP costs $500 per month -- Warid and MTN will cost $150 per month each -- saving NAPE about $2,400 per year. Plainly, the current ISP sucks, and sticking with it would mean no website. I've had to use my locally-bought wireless internet stick to download files in my research. It charges by how much I use it, which has been a lot – but it’s faster and more reliable than the office wireless modem. So the vastly more capable website and prospect for much more Internet traffice has forced a long-overdue decision. After much nudging by me, we also now have remote backup of all computer files, so that if another burglary or other loss happens, NAPE loses equipment only. It has taken a major effort by staff in the last three weeks to recover files lost when burglars stole virtually all the desktop computers. (Ironically, the burglar cleared out a lot of obsolete equipment, and we bought much more capable hardware, including a printer to replace the antique one.) Finally, in looking around the NAPE compound, I realized that we practice very little sustainability to match our preaching, so I wrote a proposal that NAPE form a staff sustainability committee to plant trees, install a rain harvesting system, use our grey water for irrigation, create a rain garden, install PV solar panels to lower electrical costs, and other improvements. About the solar panels, the more frequent "load shedding" (the current solution to the nationwide lack of electricity production) is running up NAPE's fuel costs to power our emergency generator, which now averages several hours a day. Given the high cost of gasoline for the generator, we can recover the solar panel costs fairly quickly. This sustainability initiative will let NAPE lead by example, and not just exhortation (and show what we're doing on the website). So things are falling into place, and I feel good about finishing my tasks before leaving for Tallahassee on Sept 20. I hasten to add that I couldn’t do this all myself. The staff knew that a lot had to change and just needed a catalyst to speed things up. I’ve gotten a lot of cooperation and encouragement. Organizationally, NAPE has been feverishly busy trying to save Uganda’s environment from further plunder, so they had a lot to distract them from technical issues. All I had to do was sit here day after day with no other responsibilities and focus on this one task. So NAPE should get the credit.Uganda Little League Team take 2 I wrote earlier about how inspiring it was that a team from Uganda became this year’s Africa-Middle East regional champs and were on their way to the Little League World Series this month – only to have visas denied by the U.S. because of faulty birth records. Taking the Ugandans place and representing the region now for the 12th time was the Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, team of mostly American kids whose parents work in the Saudi oil industry. Friday’s New York Times had a follow-up article about the Uganda team watching the expats play in their World Series game against the Canadian team and lose. The article described how devastated the team members had been to lose their berth in the World Series and their range of emotions from disgust to determination to try again. The latter emotion won out, and the team a week later began practicing for next year. Visa problems kept the Uganda team from playing in the World Series in Williamsport, PA.

 

 

The article resonated in several ways:

  1. Ugandans work very, very hard, especially the children, who’re expected not only to go to school, but also bear heavy household responsibilities.  Every day I see even pre-schoolers in my neighborhood carrying big jerry cans of water home from community wells, hoeing gardens, washing clothes and sweeping, hauling bricks and hammering nails.  To get the time to practice an exotic game like baseball takes a big effort
  2. The boys viewed the game in a rundown “video hall” in a poor neighborhood (almost all neighborhoods here are) of Kampala, described as “a small structure reinforced by wooden poles, sheet metal and cardboard boxes on an unpaved street lined by open gutters.”  (Sounds like my neighborhood.)  I see these video halls all around; it’s where Kampalans watch pirated movies and why there’s only one U.S.-style movie theater in the city.

3.    It also shows what these kids were and are up against in competing in this region in an American sport, perennially dominated by a team of affluent American boys stuck in an American enclave in Saudi Arabia with not much else to do but practice baseball.

4.    Despite all that, the Ugandan boys – remember how insecure and easily hurt you were at 11 years old? – are determined to try again.  With a year to come up with better birth records (and, I hope, a less rigid U.S. State Department), I bet they can do it.

Incidentally, at their age, I was one of the worst players in Tallahassee Little League history.  I played for the Dodgers at Levy Park an entire season and never got a hit – the entire season.  I was regularly booed – by my own team.  For the next two years, I lettered in
baseball in the 7th and 8th grade at Florida High, but the coach never let me in a game, until the very last inning of the last game.  That was the last team I ever made.  At age 68, I am still athletically incompetent and avoid any game that includes keeping score.  I bear the emotional scars to this day.

 

In the meantime, the political heat is rising here as the economy is souring.  Inflation is picking up, the shilling keeps falling in value, shortages of things like sugar and electricity are stirring discontent.  Large demonstrations have become frequent.  President Yuweri Museveni continues to blame economic problems on “economic sabotage” and “indiscipline” by environmentalists like NAPE and political opponents.

On top of this, Museveni acts as if nothing he does should be questioned, no matter how outrageous or baffling his decisions are.  On August 12, he unilaterally announced that he would go ahead with clear-cutting and giving away one-third of the Mabira Forest Reserve for a sugar plantation for bio-fuel production.  First, he has no legal authority to do this.  Second, he tried this four years ago and touched off massive demonstrations that forced him to back down. The Mabira since 1932 has been a forest reserve (a legally protected status somewhere between a U.S. national forest and national park).  Uganda’s second-largest forest reserve, its120 square miles form the eastern end of the Guinea Congo Forest in central Africa, and is one of the most biologically diverse rainforests in the country.  (I visited the forest on Aug 21 and will write about it next week.)

 

Mabira Forest

The sugar corporation of Uganda plans to clear cut a third of the Mabira Forest

 

Located near the Nile River, it’s home to many endangered species, and is a growing eco-tourist destination – and, importantly, only 25 miles east of Kampala, so it’s very accessible to visitors.  Plus, in securing World Bank funding for a dam on the Nile, Uganda in 2001 agreed to preserve the forest.  Well, I guess to Museveni, that was then, this is now.

The government dropped plans four years ago, after intense opposition and remained quiet about it until Friday (Aug 12), when Museveni announced his decision in a public forum. This week, he reportedly told a business audience, “Tell anybody out there that I am ready for war on sugar.  Let us fight this war once and for all. I am not ready to listen to anybody who is saying that I save Mabira.”

Maybe he’s not serious or maybe he is.   If he is, he doesn’t care that it makes no sense to rip out a priceless, irreplaceable rainforest to plant one commodity crop to process into gasohol as a phony “green” solution to climate change.

Museveni says it’s about jobs, neglecting to mention the many more jobs that depend on the forest today. And he had the nerve during his announcement to warn against environmental degradation.  “Destroying forest reserve, wetlands will cause a
very great danger to you people,” he said, evidently with a straight face.  A local newspaper over weekend ran a photo of him watering a newly planted tree, encouraging more planting.

If there were any doubt about the need for greater efforts to protect Uganda’s environment, Museveni did his best to erase them.  And my work just got a little more important.

 

 

 

Kampala floods

A third of Kampala city (including Sseguku, where I live)
is a wetland.  The other two-thirds are
hills – high ones, averaging 300 to 500 feet above the wetlands.  Both used to be covered with trees.  Wildife flourished.  Water soaked into forests, wetlands and
aquifers.  At the bottom of this watershed,
Lake Victoria was pristine and productive.

 

Then
Kampala’s population grew and people got other ideas – cut down the trees and
build a city with buildings up and down the hills and all over the
wetlands.  No trees means no water
retention when it rains.  Under those
conditions, torrential rains mean the water rages down the hills, into what
used to be wetlands, flooding the poor who now live there in makeshift homes.

Friday
afternoon (Aug 19), we had a heavy afternoon rain that flooded the lane between
the NAPE building and Entebbe Road.  To
get home, I had to wind my way up and down muddy paths to reach the road.  Entebbe Road itself had flooded there but was
clear by the time of my walk.

Judging
by the local newspapers, this
was a citywide problem on Friday, adding one more misery on the poor in their
wetland slums.  Among its impacts, the
flood has added new shit (from thousands of unsanitary latrines) to the
community wells most Kampalans depend on.
More shit in the water means more cholera and other diseases, so we can
expect new infectious outbreaks.

The government
has known about this potential problem for decades.  It enacted laws and regulations to prevent
encroachment in wetlands, protect water quality of Lake Victoria, prevent
deforestation, etc.  These documents
cover pretty much all the bases, and they look good on the Internet.  But nobody pays attention, least of all the
government, and now nearly all of Kampala’s wetlands are gone, most trees are a
memory, and the flooding and contamination get worse.

The government springs to action

Lest
you think the government can’t do anything right, it showed its muscle this
week in Kampala by clamping down on peaceful assembly.  The police and army were out in force all
week, including in harmless Sseguku.

Protesting
higher prices, the opposition in April staged “walk to work”
demonstrations.  These were just like
they read, leaders and supporters walking to work instead of driving cars – no
carrying weapons or calling for revolution, just walking.

As usual the
government overreacted, fired tear gas and then bullets, killing 10 people
around the country.  The police wounded
Kizza Besigye (the runner-up candidate for President in the February national
elections) in the hand with a rubber bullet, then assaulted and gassed him,
sending him to the hospital.  He left for
Kenya to recover.

 

 

Earlier this month, Besigye was tried
for inciting violence in the April demonstrations, but a judge dismissed the
charges for lack of evidence.

Two
weeks ago, led by Besigye, the opposition launched a “light a candle”
procession in Masaka, about 80 miles southwest of here, to mourn the protesters
killed in April.  The police broke it up
with tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring several, but no fatalities.

There
was the usual bluster by Museveni and senior officials – calling the peaceful
demonstrators “terrorists” and making baseless charges that the opposition was
preparing an armed insurrection and other scary talk that few people take
seriously.  Museveni’s chest-thumping was
deafening.

Besigye
announced that they would continue protesting.
On Wednesday a group led by opposition members of parliament organized a
vigil in a Kampala suburb, but police broke that up, too, with water cannons
that stained their clothing with pink water (who says Uganda can’t
innovate?).  Bull Connor would be
proud.  It was part of a citywide show of
police and army strength to discourage gatherings.

So
in peaceful, harmless Sseguku this week, the police were everywhere along
Entebbe Road.  I first noticed the
buildup on my walk home on Monday, when police reinforcements were setting up
pup tents at my local substation for themselves.  It rained all that night, heavily, so the
next morning I could see they were grumpy from what must have been a miserable
night.

The
show of force in Sseuku and Lubowa (the next neighborhood north) peaked on
Thursday, when I counted about 60 police and army guys along the two-km of
Entebbe I walk every workday – including four or five riflemen positioned on
the high bluff at the Roofings Company factory.

There
I was walking to work that morning, wondering, do they think I’m protesting
something?  Is that rifleman on the bluff
looking at me funny or am I just imagining things?  The regular beat cops I greet every morning
were nowhere in sight, just strangers trucked in from elsewhere.  So I kept up my usual routine of friendly
greetings, assuming that they would figure I’m harmless.  I guess it worked.

By
Friday, the number of police and army along Entebbe Road had dropped to about
20, having redeployed the rest to other parts of the city.

Throughout
the week, despite all the official tension, the life I’ve seen every day around
me went on as usual – people making things, selling things, grilling meats and
frying cassava, sweeping the dust, burning the garbage, catching rides in
matatus, people schmoozing with friends, children playing with makeshift toys,
and men occasionally grinning and shouting, “Hey, mazungu!” to that skinny old
white guy walking by.

I
hope life stays peaceful like that for years to come.  Ugandans deserve peace, a government that
cares about them, and a better chance for the good life. Unless their
leadership betrays them again, these things could happen.

Saturday’s exploration

I
set out Saturday (Aug 20) to buy a couple of things I wanted, by retracing some
of my steps of two weeks ago – getting off the matatu to town about three km
this side of downtown and walking through the Ndeeba market, where only poor
Kampalans or serious cheapskates do their shopping.  I needed a new power strip for our living
room and found it, at a good price, in an electrical shop about the size of
your walk-in closet.

The market is plagued by
strikes and wrangles

Then I
strolled further into the market, which includes hundreds of homes, as well,
venturing down narrow lanes and creating quite a buzz among the residents.  It was less than 24 hours since Friday’s
downpour, so the mud was prodigious.
Emerging onto Masaka Road and walking along it, I refreshed my images of
the lumber and wood products businesses centered there.

Then back to
Entebbe Road and downtown on the most intensively commercial strip in the
city.  This time, I took more photos, so
that years from now I will remember the amazing sights I saw – the metal shops
making bunk beds on the sidewalk, auto parts stores with whole front ends
displayed on the roof and rear axle assemblies stacked on the ground – well, it
just went on and on.

Just before
downtown, I took a side street I was curious to follow, into another market
district of foods, mostly – then into the back entrance of Owina Market, the
scene of the recent devastating fire but now back in full swing.  I was squeezing my way through the throngs of
shoppers and merchants when a downpour had me seek shelter under several
awnings.  Now I know what happens in
Owina Market when it rains – everybody and everything gets wet.

Making
my way past the market, I rendezvoused with Barbara, who got fitted for a new
dress from the material she bought last week, and we met two other AJWS
volunteers for an early dinner.  One was
Joe, who is in town for a few days from Gulu, in the north, where he works in a
program resettling former child soldiers for the Lord’s Resistance Army.  He needed a break, as you can imagine.

It was a break
for me too, since I could hang out with a guy; all the other AJWS volunteers
here a women and they’re great company, but a lot of their conversations don’t
resonate.  So we got to talk guy talk for
a while – a refreshing change.

Then
it was back home and an early night, to be ready for our day trip on Sunday.

Until then, best wishes,

Bob Rackleff

August 21, 2011 Week 11 in Uganda

Dear Friends,

Sunday’s (Aug
21) car trip was terrific.  I saw Mabira
Forest, rode a pontoon boat at Jinja by the source of the Nile into Lake
Victoria, visited Bujagali Falls up the river, and on the way back stopped at
the upscale Rainforest Lodge in Mabira.
Barbara and I paid our regular special hire driver, Frank, to drive us
the whole day, so we could travel where we wanted, at our own pace.

Mabira Forest

I wrote about
the Mabira Forest Reserve last week because it has flared up this month as a
front-page issue.  President Yoweri
Museveni announced two weeks ago his decision to give, at no cost, 7,100 acres
of this rainforest to the Mehta Group for a sugarcane plantation – something he
tried four years ago, when intense opposition forced him to back down.

So my trip
there had the dual function of a nice walk in the woods and firsthand
research.  We hired a guide, Hussein, to
take us on a brief hike through the forest, and he was very knowledgeable
especially about the plants and trees there that his fellow villagers use as
food, fuel, medicine and household cleaning.

Hussein handed
us a few leaves of the ficus exasperata tree,
or sandpaper fig (and it really feels like it), which villagers use for
cleaning and polishing.  Another, the
Sausage Tree, can provide the bark used for bark cloth, made by beating sodden
sheets of the inner bark into a thick paper-like fabric used for paper or
cloth, especially now for ceremonial wear.
It has an open breathable quality that makes it comfortable for hot
weather.

Intrigued
after I read about it in a guidebook, back in July I bought a bark cloth sun
hat for the novelty of it, and actually wore it a couple of times – until I
looked in the mirror and I looked like Pa Kettle with it on.  For those younger than, oh, 60, Pa and Ma
Kettle were characters in a series of 10 movie comedies in the 1950s.  Sort of earlier versions of the Beverly Hillbillies genre of goofy, but
salt of the earth, people.

Deciding that
at my age I don’t need to look any goofier than I already do, I now keep the
bark cloth hat in my room.  But I will
bring it back to Tallahassee and may wear it occasionally for the amusement of
friends.

The most
fascinating tree was the strangler tree, a kind of ficus, which grows first as
a climbing vine around a host tree, eventually strangling it.  Then it continues to grow taller and stronger
as the dead host tree rots away, leaving a hollow strangler tree that all sorts
of wildlife can inhabit, such a bees and their hives.  I have a photo of me standing in one.

Most of all, I
learned from Hussein how much forest villagers depend on Mabira for their
livelihood.  The National Forestry
Authority operates the reserve as a conservation area, but by agreement
villagers have the right to harvest plants for food and other uses and gather
firewood from branches and trees that have already fallen.  They often abuse this, but not enough to
jeopardize the forest, and there’s a healthy balance of growth and harvest in
Mabira.

As you can
imagine, they’re very unhappy with President Museveni about losing a quarter of
their forest and will be a core group among the project’s many opponents.  They want to maintain their way of life and
not work for some foreign-owned corporation, if they get any work at all. NAPE
will help mobilize them if this bizarre sugarcane plantation idea lasts much
longer.

Source of the Nile

Back
on the road, we went to a riverside resort in Jinja to see the source of the
Nile, by pontoon boat that included a pretty good buffet lunch.  While there’s some debate about whether the
source is actually there or one of the rivers from Kenya or Tanzania that feeds
into Lake Victoria, the British concluded that Rippon Falls at Jinja was where
the lake drained into the Nile, cascading over some rocks that held back most
of the lake’s water.  So I believe it’s
the source, and that settles it.

The
falls don’t exist anymore because the Brits build the Owen Falls hydro dam in
the 1950s, which raised the water level there, drowning the falls.  You can still detect where it is today by the
surface turbulence.  Barbara took a photo
of me there holding a bottle of, but of course, Nile beer, produced in its
brewery just a stone’s throw from the river west of Jinja.

Bujagali Falls

We
went about 10 km north of there to Bujagali Falls, a magnificent two-stage
torrent that’s a favorite with expat rafters.
We didn’t raft, we just stood there and gaped for over an hour.  I was pleased that our driver, Frank, got an
even better treat that we – he’d never seen it before and enjoyed it even more
than we did, even though he’s a lifelong Ugandan.  We can easily forget that most Ugandans don’t
get around much and may live out their lives without ever seeing most of the
natural wonders of their land.

The market is plagued by strikes and wranglesAdding
entertainment to the natural spectacle was a local good old boy, who rode the
falls down buoyed by an empty jerry can, which he does several times a
day.  When he finishes his run, he makes
the rounds of spectators, soliciting tips, then goes for another ride.  Why not contribute?  He put on a good show.  (It also reminded me of the last words of the
good old boy: “Hey, Bubba, watch this!”)

Tragically,
another hydro dam is nearing completion downstream, which will add insult to
injury by taking the name of the falls that it will submerge into the reservoir
in creates.  (As in Florida, where we
name subdivisions after the nature that they destroyed, such Deer Lake, Antler
Ridge, etc.)  NAPE was first organized 14
years ago, when the original Bujagali Dam project surfaced, and the original
developer dropped out.

But the
government persisted, eventually got the suck-egg World Bank to ignore its own
policies and provide financing, and construction began.  By probably this time next year, the falls
will be greatly diminished or nothing but surface turbulence, like its doomed
predecessor, Rippon Falls, six decades ago.

Work

The
week went well, refining and expanding the website copy I’d already done, while
most of the staff was preoccupied by the Mabira Forest campaign, meeting with
other opponents, generating media coverage.
I edited and rewrote a petition to send to President Museveni, as well as
a “further readings” bibliography for people unfamiliar with the controversy to
read.  You can see this at www.nape.or.ug and click on “Save Mabira.”  The rest of the website you see will be
replaced by my version soon.

We
also decided to move ahead with a new ISP, Warid (based in Dubai), for NAPE
that will be eight times faster and cheaper.
But not as cheap as the Warid salesman first told us.

As
we have all experienced, the first pitch with the teaser price is usually very
wrong.  On Wednesday, we had a sit-down
with the Warid rep, who outlined the real deal, about twice the cost, with
several variations.  I played my usual
role, the resident skeptic, honed by 12 years as a county commissioner, digging
out the details and actual costs.

The
rep gave us a written outline of two choices that, after my digging, were
actually four choices – variations of connection fee, equipment cost, and
monthly subscription fee.  The big
variable is the equipment, which we could buy outright for $2,500, buy and pay
over time (total cost of $3,700 in two years – not good), rent it for $100 a
month (and later buy at a depreciated price, if we wanted), or buy from a third
party.  I recommended that we rent – good
for our cash flow, flexibility in case better equipment comes along, and keeps
the responsibility for repair or replacement with Warid, where it belongs.  I think that’s what NAPE will do.

Because
the real cost is twice what Warid first told us, we’ll forgo having a second,
standby ISP in case of system failure and take our chances with just one – not
a big risk anyway.  If you noticed, the
costs are in dollars, which prudent businesses in Uganda charge, to avoid
currency depreciation risk.  The Ugandan
Shilling has fallen about 15 percent just since I got here on June 11 – from
about 2,450 per dollar to 2,830 today.

Africa
didn’t get widely available broadband until two years ago, after completion of
a 17,000 km undersea fiber-optic cable that snakes down the Atlantic coast,
around the Horn, then up the Indian Ocean coast up to the Red Sea.  Until then, broadband here came from
satellite uplink services, slower and more expensive, which is what NAPE has
now.  Warid will connect us to the
fiber-optic cable by microwave, since there are no cable TV or phone landline
systems around here.

So
another good week at work.

Aug 25 – the 6th
anniversary of Katrina
.

The
anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this week brought back a flood of memories.  I’ve had a 49-year love affair with New
Orleans and was shocked at the destruction to my favorite U.S. city.  I was glued to news reports as the storm and
aftermath unfolded and decided to travel there as a volunteer.

But
I also knew enough not to do it right away and become just one more earnest but
mostly useless volunteer to house and feed during the early chaos.  Urged by a friend, my daughter Holmes and son
Durward went after Thanksgiving as volunteers with Common Ground Relief.  After they returned, they told me how awful
it was – much worse than reported – and that I should go to see for myself and
help out.

At
the same time, I had started dating Esther, she then living in Annapolis while
attending Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, courtesy of Doctors Without
Borders (MSF).  I decided to go to New
Orleans for the week after Christmas by myself, but decided to ask Esther to
come with me.  She didn’t hesitate to say
yes, and we spent a week there working in the Ninth Ward – I gutting houses and
she staffing a free health clinic – with Common Ground Relief.

They
were my kind of people – committee, energetic young lefties and anarchists –
who showed up in New Orleans just days after the storm, bonded with the
remaining community members and went to work, with funding from thousands of
contributors who donated online.  They
set up two free health clinics, a legal clinic, food and supplies distribution
center, soup kitchen, organized demonstrations and rent strikes to keep the
authorities on task, and gutted houses to ready them for renovation – not bad
for anarchists.  They’re still there.

Three things I
remember vividly:

— On the day after Christmas 2005, we drove
into the city at about 9 pm on I-10 across the lake, through the wildlife
refuge, expecting then to see the lights of New Orleans East.  There were no lights, only moonlight.  There were no people, no activity, just empty
houses, apartment buildings, stores, and abandoned cars everywhere, resting
where the floodwaters had left them – just desolation.  Accustomed to destruction in her MSF work,
Esther quietly said, “I’ve seen better war zones than this.”

We arrived at
our French Quarter hotel to a grateful staff but no place to eat (although we
found a bar serving gumbo).  Those restaurants
still in business closed at about 9 pm because there were so few workers; we
ate well there anyway, just earlier.
There was none of the usual merriment, even on Bourbon Street.

— The city
had collapsed, hardly anything worked.
Even four months after the storm much of the city outside the French
Quarter and central business district had no electricity, water, gas, phone
service, or functioning sewer.  The few
stores open did a booming business, like Lowe’s at the edge of the Ninth Ward,
which opened late and closed early because of staff shortages.  Street signs and traffic signals had blown
down, but there were few motorists anyway.
It helped that I knew my way around.

But I also
sensed that the city would come back, based on a single incident.  Having gained a nail in one tire, I drove
several blocks to an outdoor tire repair business, got my tire repaired,
observed the neighbor guys dropping by to swap stories, and concluded that this
small business was there to stay, and that others would, too.  New Orleans would survive.

— Our last
night in New Orleans, I proposed to Esther.
We had known each other for over 25 years, and this emotionally intense
week together had convinced me that I wanted her as my wife.  She accepted, and we married five months
later in a handsome 19th-century, red-brick Methodist Church in
Abbeville, AL.  We go back to New Orleans
whenever we can (and will again, this mid-November).

I went back to
New Orleans a dozen times after that first post-Katrina trip, working with Common
Ground Relief or attending conferences (and Holmes’s graduation from Tulane Law
School in 2009).  In Tallahassee, I
raised money and supplies for CGR and advocated in the National Association of
Counties for helping the Louisiana and Mississippi counties get through all
this.  I also wrote a couple of articles
for the Carnegie Corporation about its reconstruction.

I love New
Orleans.  I love Esther.  I always will.

Back to Kampala

I
had a trying experience a few days ago, after taking time off work to get to a
remote business office, which included two matatu rides and a lot of walking,
only to learn I’d wasted my time.  I’ll
spare you the sad tale – just that I was frustrated and angry.

On
the long walk back to catch a matatu home, a young man who’d been on the
earlier matatu with me on the trip to this place saw me walking and stopped me
to ask if I was lost and could he help with directions.  He was just being helpful, and this snapped
me back to the goodness of so many Ugandans, who are welcoming to
strangers.  It improved my attitude in an
instant.  (BTW, I wasn’t lost and knew
where I was going.  Really.)

The police have settled down

After
last week’s show of force in Sseguku, the gun toting along Entebbe Road has
subsided.  All week, I counted the number
of police I saw posted along my route to work.
The ones just passing through in pickup trucks (Toyota Hilux with a
bench down the center of the bed, four police on each side) didn’t count.  Until midweek, the counts were in the
mid-30s, and by the end were in the low 20s.
More important, very few of them now carry AK-47s.  Mostly they now carry billy clubs and no
more.

Lake Victoria

My
son Durward in his email this week mentioned seeing a documentary about the
problems of Lake Victoria, which are massive.
It’s the second largest freshwater lake in the world, second only to
Lake Superior, and shared by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.  The lake gets a lot of attention from NAPE because
of its central natural resource role in Ugandan life and work.

When I was at
the Abajudaya Jewish community at the foot of Mount Elgon a few weeks ago,
among the visitors were three biologists from Montreal who’d just finished
studying the collapse of native fish populations because of introduction of the
Nile Perch.

Some
genius in the 1950s decided that this bigger species would be good for export
commercial fisheries and deliberately began stocking the lake with them.
As humans do, and not just in Africa, they overdid it — with a species
that can grow to six feet in length and weigh up to 440 pounds — although
they’re usually caught before then and top out at only (!) 300 pounds.

As
the biologists I met helped to document, this resulted in one of the largest
mass extinctions observed.  As voracious eaters and top-of-the-food-chain
predators, the Nile Perch wiped out hundreds of species of everything from
phytoplankton to tilapia and aquarium fish.  The decline in fish species in the
lake, the United Nations reported in 2010, “is considered to be the largest
documented loss of biodiversity ever inflicted on an ecosystem by
humankind.”

Fortunately,
sort of, commercial and sports fishers have reduced Nile Perch populations, so
that some of the nearly-extinct species are making a comeback.  So a huge
fish, a top-level predator, may have met its match with the world’s ultimate
predator — humans.  Makes me proud.

Americans
have a similar problem in the Midwest, where humans have failed to control the
Asian Silver Carp which advanced up the Mississippi to the Illinois River —
devastating native fish populations as they went — where several government
agencies are trying to stop them from getting into Lake Michigan. They’ve even
used electrified fences as barriers and are considering permanently sealing off
the river from the lake.  They’re also
try to catch them to process into fish meal, which may work to reduce their
numbers.

In Leon County, we used its cousin,
the Grass Carp, to control aquatic weeds because of their hearty appetites.
At Lake Ella, you can get up close and personal with them.  But we
carefully control them with barriers at outfalls to prevent them from getting
into other water bodies, and used only sterilized carp that cannot reproduce.
This usually worked.

The Oil Curse

Besides
Mabira Forest, the growing oil industry here is our biggest issue, with NAPE
partnering with other Ugandan and international NGOs to expose the government’s
secrecy and coziness with Tullow and other oil giants developing oil fields in
the Lake Albert area.  I’ll write more
about that later (bet you can’t wait!).

On
Thursday, I went to a lecture sponsored by the Uganda Wildlife Society at the
Uganda Museum by a local academic outlining the challenge of oil governance,
attended by students and faculty (mostly Makerere U.), numerous NGOs, and some
government officials. (And two AK-47 toting police outside the door – what the
hell?)

It was a good
survey of our situation but also a good look at the unreality and timidity of
the other NGOs – that somehow writing a new law or regulation would bring the
oil giants to heel, produce huge revenues for Uganda, and curb corruption.  Well, to do that first requires a government
that respects the rule of law, which is in short supply under President
Museveni.

Plus, the
government has already signed five production sharing agreements, the basic
contracts, with Tullow Oil and others – so all major conditions are already
decided.  It doesn’t matter what laws are
passed now.  Plus, the government refuses
to show the agreements to anyone – although a flak-catcher from the government
spoke, promising to work with everyone and share “the information that we can,”
the usual horseshit (hey, I used to write that stuff!).

What
I really learned that afternoon is that NAPE is the only NGO in sight with any
realism about oil governance here, the one most willing to confront the
government, and that I’m lucky to be working with the right organization.

This
weekend was mostly work at home on the website.
Barbara, my housemate, went to Eldoret, Kenya, for the weekend to visit
friends.  She worked there for six months
a couple years ago and took the opportunity to go there before we return to the
U.S.

I’ll
write again next week.

 

August 28 – Week 12

Dear
Friends,

It
was a good week for work, getting down to the wire for completing the website,
while the NAPE campaign to save one-fourth of Mabira Forest from being given
away to a sugar corporation for a sugarcane plantation.

But
the massive police presence abated somewhat, and the cop count went down on my
walks to and from work.  Our traffic
police were back on Entebbe Road – I don’t know where they redeployed for three
weeks – shaking down motorists to supplement their miserable salaries.  Back to the familiar and reassuring.

“God Grew Tired of Us”

That’s the
title of a documentary movie I saw at the American Recreation Association, a
private club southeast of downtown, on Sunday (Aug 28).  It was outdoors on a screen a few feet from
the terrace restaurant at the club, so I went early and had dinner before the
movie.

It was a DVD
played on a laptop and projector, so a slightly higher-toned version of the
movies shown in slum bars.

It’s a terrific documentary —
well-produced and powerful – and won an award at the Cannes Film Festival a few
years ago.  It follows three young men
who about 15 years ago fled southern Sudan as young boys, along with thousands
of others.  The Sudanese Muslim
government had decided to exterminate as many men and boys of the Christian
south as they could and went on a killing rampage.

Some 25,000 south Sudanese boys (from
toddlers on up) escaped certain death to endure unimaginable deprivation as
they walked 1,000 miles first into Ethiopia to live in refugee camps until that
government got tired and ordered them to leave. Many of them starved or died of
thirst or attacks by soldiers along the way.

So they walked again through Sudan to
Kenya, where they found refuge in camps.
This group’s camp had about 10,000 boys in it.

They survived by organizing to take
care of each other, the older, stronger ones helping the others, forming
surrogate families.  They fed and clothed the younger ones, nursing them
through illnesses.  In the film, the
older boys formed a “parliament” to debate issues, settle disputes or just
talk.  In the Kenyan camp, they had used
clothing donated by westerners, shelter and enough to eat.

Up to that point, the film was stock
scenes filmed earlier by reporters, and about as grim as it gets.  But the filmmakers begin their narration as
the three young men are in their final months in camp.

It showed them coping as best they
could with grinding loneliness, uncertainty and hopelessness, forming up daily
to look through lists posted on bulletin boards for their names.  Being on the list was their ticket to a
developed country and a chance to build a new life.

The three featured in the film come to
America to build new lives, which they do – but not without making serious
efforts to help those left behind.  One
of the most poignant scenes was the reunion in the Pittsburgh airport of a son
with his mother after over a dozen years of separation.

Well, it was a terrific movie.  I recommend it.

A wedding
in rural Uganda

A
fellow volunteer up-country in Lira wrote this week about attending a
traditional wedding that sounded fascinating.
Paulette is a former Brit who became a New Yorker about 30 years ago,
retired from commercial real estate there, who also worked for three years as
Betty Friedan’s personal assistant (and has some wild stories about that).  She’s always good company and was along with
us on our trip to Murchison Falls this weekend.

Here’s
Paulette’s description in italics:

On Saturday, I was invited to attend the traditional
marriage of my supervisor’s brother Bernard, in their ancestral village!

I was picked up by the groom and
Caxson, Moses and Peter (3 of my co-workers). The wedding was called for
12 noon – Ugandan time. We ran many errands first in Lira, including picking up
the food because the caterers had mistakenly delivered it to another wedding at
the town hall! We finally left for the village with a full truck with 6 men
perched on top of the food! Don’t ask!

We arrived at the village – about an hour’s drive
– at 1 pm. No one had arrived yet! 2 tents had been set up with chairs and
everybody’s sofas. I was put in the front row, on a sofa and was told I was the
guest of honor! I thought, what’s wrong with this picture!

People started arriving – family members – lots
of family members – over 100 of them. All dressed to the nines. The women wore
the most beautiful colorful dresses with big satin sashes which denoted their
individual tribe. All the guests shook my hand – I felt like a leftover from
the colonial days!

Suddenly all the women got up and left and went
to the back of the area, to a traditional hut. The bride’s mother and her
female relatives were in this hut. It was a special welcoming ceremony. They
made sure I was in the hut to see this. Dancing, ululating, and general
freakout occurred. Believe me, in a small grass hut, this was no mean feat with
dozens of women participating.

Despite the conditions I got some wonderful
pictures. This went on for some time then adjourned with a special dance when
all the women left the hut and danced outside. I’m talking about old women
dancing – not just swaying, but jumping up and down. It was very hot on
Saturday, so I took on my dishrag look!

The women then went back to their seats and the
men then left. I was not invited to that because they were entering into the
dowry negotiations!  This is where terms are agreed to on how many cows,
goats, chickens and such
are given to the bride’s family. I kid you not! After about an hour – really –
we all went for about a 10 minute walk into a field to see the cows.

I couldn’t find out the going rate for
young women these days, but it was agreed that Bernard (the groom) was giving
13 extremely beautiful bovines to his beloved’s family, including one fine
looking bull with a huge pair of horns – an Ankola cow!

We all then went back to our seats then the bride
and groom were lifted up into the air – a la Jewish ritual – but no chairs!
They were carried into chairs then showered by dancing and ululating women with
branches and flowers from the cashew tree.
They were totally covered in this foliage and it had to be cleaned off
of them.
The bride was presented with a broom and wooden spoon – to signify her
“new role” – no comment!

Then there was general mayhem with major African
dancing and singing. I was called the sister, because I cut a mean figure with
the best of them! Then there were many speeches and introductions of the many
aunts and uncles. I was also introduced. But I introduced myself as being
President Obama’s representative to the wedding. I don’t think I was
understood, but I laughed!

By now it was dark – small lights had been set up
– don’t forget there’s no power in villages or running water. The food was
served. Now I became a traditional African woman. I ATE THE FOOD
WITH MY FINGERS,
which is the way most Ugandans eat. Ever eaten beans, rice and chickens
gizzards with your fingers? No? Well try it. I skipped the goat and millet
bread but I have
to tell you the food was good!

After people finished their meal, they left. Many
had arrived in open trucks. They hauled themselves in and off they went. Some
were old men and women who hoisted themselves into the back of these trucks. I
just don’t know how they do this. Their energy continues throughout their
lives. I was told that some of the aunts were over a 100!

So then a driver took me home. All my co-workers
slept in the village. Fortunately I didn’t – I’m as native as the next person,
but I really try to draw the line at using a latrine. My one experience of this
horrible act ended with me trying to push a pig out of the latrine who wanted
to use the same facility at the same time as me!

So, my
fellow Americans. This was my marriage experience.  I think about this event a lot. It is a
legally recognized ceremony and technically is supposed to be followed up by a
church wedding, but this is rarely done because of the lack of funds. If the
husband dumps the wife after, say, 10 years and 10 children, he can ask for his
dowry back and they have to give it back otherwise the bride’s family are taken
to court. A bill currently in Parliament is trying to rescind this practice!

Robert’s 10th Wedding Anniversary

Robert
Kugonza, NAPE program officer for water policy and staff for the African Rivers
Network, invited me to his 10th wedding anniversary celebration on Thursday
(Sept 1) at the Florida Hotel nearby on Entebbe Road.  The hotel has a landscaped side yard for
special events, isolated by a high wall from the noisy chaos of the road, and
the staff set out tables for the guests, plus a buffet table of traditional
Ugandan dishes.

I thought I was
late, showing up 25 minutes after the designated beginning time.  I was the first to arrive, and it didn’t
really fill up for another hour.
Although three other NAPE staff were there, including executive director
Frank Muramuzi, the guests were mostly personal friends from church (therefore
the nonalcoholic refreshments), high school or university – so there was a
warm, personal tone to the evening, with many affectionate reminiscences.

There were prayers and speeches all around,
including by me, then dinner.  Then more
speeches, as the evening wore on to past 10 pm.
Finally, I had to beg off and leave to get enough sleep before our early
morning departure for Murchison Falls.

Robert is a
quiet, unpretentious, intelligent man who married later than his friends, and
they seemed genuinely happy about his marriage to Frieda.  It provided some more insights to daily
Ugandan life.

The trip to Murchison Falls

Esther
at every opportunity has been telling me to see Murchison Falls.  Whatever I do, I have to go there, she
said.  She had been there about 10 years
ago, while taking a break from an Ebola outbreak.

There
were five of us from Kampala, plus Paulette from Lira, who signed up with Red
Chili Tours, which provided an 8-passenger van for the 350 km trip north from
Kampala.  We rode with two others – Eric,
who works for a security contractor for the U.S. State Department, and John, a
retired Marine now working for a Defense agency.

Since
without them I would have been the only guy – OK, I’m glad your dress fitting
went well, really glad, and sorry about that lame boyfriend.  So I had the welcome break of several hours
of guy talk – relative merits of the M-14, M-16 and M-4 rifles – be still my
heart!  Eric had been here for three
months and, being Jewish, was delighted to have accidentally fallen in with a
half-dozen Jews, the first he’d been with since coming here.  John was here for two weeks volunteer
teaching at a Baptist Bible college in Jinja, and enjoyed the irony of being
the only goy in the van; he assured
us that he’s very, very pro-Israel.

The
falls are due north, so the ride helped me see what northern Uganda – generally
the poorest region – was like.  It was
also mostly through the Rift Valley, a broad, low plain between the mountains
of the east, hills of central Uganda, and the Albert Nile (and Democratic
Republic of Congo) of the west.  Not as
rainy, the valley has some sugarcane, a lot of Ankole cattle and wood products
from rapidly depleting forests.

There are only
scattered villages and a few small towns, Masindi being the largest – a
crossroads town with its four-block business district, a small army base, three
banks, a small hospital, and a restaurant where we stopped for an OK
lunch.  It’s also a sort of gateway to
tourist destinations to the north and, to the west, the oil fields now under
development in the Lake Albert area.

Numerous
pine tree plantations caught my eye along the way.  Farmers having a tough time with bananas or
maize are turning to pine trees – which require less water – planting them in
orderly rows like we see throughout North Florida.  And, like in Florida, they plant them close
together, to maximize output per acre, with the result of a pine monoculture
with no biodiversity – and no forest in 20 years, when the trees are cut down
for poles, lumber or firewood.

NAPE
seeks to limit the spread of conventional pine plantations and especially their
use as carbon credits, because they are monoculture substitutes for natural
forests, which tree farmers clear-cut and spray for herbicides before planting
the pines.  Biologists call them
“coloniser” plants that crowd and shade out competing plants and suppress
understory growth with accumulated pine needles; you can see that throughout
North Florida

So
there I was in the van, scribbling notes and taking photos of the pine
plantations along the road, thinking about how include this in the
website.  Some holiday!

Friday night at the Red Chili Camp

We
seven (John stayed at the Paraa Lodge across the river) arrived at our camp at
about 5 pm, dropped off our backpacks in our tents, ordered dinner from the
restaurant (to be ready at 7:30), took in the view of the Nile and its valley
below us, and walked down the dirt road to see more sights.  Our neighbors along the road were lots of
baboons and warthogs and, in the river, some lounging hippos.

After
walking back to camp, we got settled in at the terrace restaurant and our
Shabbat dinner.  I brought candles, fine
red wine (at least that’s what it said on the box), my yarmulke from the
Abayudaya colony of Ugandan Jews in July, and the ingredients for martinis,
vodka martinis, and gin/vodka and tonic.
The martinis went first and tasted pretty good, if I say so myself.  Barbara brought a reasonable facsimile of
challah.

We
included Eric, who appreciated the improvised ritual, and we had a good time,
as such dinners are supposed to be.  The
weather was cooperative and the natural setting was excellent.

As
we ended dinner and started for our tents, there was a huge female hippo – huge
as in the size of a small mini-van – grazing in the middle of the tent area,
which postponed settling into our tents.
The staff made sure we didn’t stir up the hippo, which can kill people
when they feel threatened by them.
Paulette later named her Hermione.

Hermione
gradually wandered off, so we occupied our tents, I turned off my portable
light, and drifted off to sleep – except that I woke up when she came
back.  I heard what sounded like someone
walking on crunchy snow at a steady pace but then realized it was something
else.  It was a dark and cloudy night – a
shot rang out.  No, that’s another
story.  But it really was dark.

I
couldn’t see Hermione, except in silhouette against the lights from kerosene
lanterns in front of other tents, grazing slowly but audibly (crunch-munch,
crunch-munch) for the next 15 minutes.
She came up behind our tent, then around the other side, then back
behind again, then on my side no more than 10 feet away, still crunch-munching
without skipping a beat.

Sitting up in
my bed, looking out through a mesh window, I was transfixed, especially when
she cast a large shadow against our inside wall.  I also hoped that she would be gone by the
time I needed to walk to the bathrooms/showers building in the middle of the
night, which us old guys need to do at least once per night.  Fortunately, she was gone by then.

So that was
our introduction to African nature up close.
Hermione was the talk of the camp the next morning.

Saturday morning game viewing drive

We
were up before dawn, collected our boxed breakfasts, and off in our van to the
ferryboat landing.  Our guide joined us
at the other side, and we were off for a marvelous four-hour drive along the
winding park road with excellent visibility in all directions.  Unlike the dense forests of the park south of
the Nile, in our destination it was grasslands.

Barbara
kept a list of every species we saw.  The
highlights for me were various species of antelopes (including the iconic
Uganda kob, which graces the 100 shilling coin), herds of giraffes, water
buffalo, elephants, warthogs, lots of gloriously colored birds, hartebeests,
two lions (a rare treat) – and down at the edge of the Albert Nile (fed by the
Victoria Nile and Lake Albert) about 70 hippos soaking in a small inlet.  We left the van to walk to the water’s edge
to take more photos of the hippos.
Hermione was probably back home planning her next trip through our camp.

The
rolling grasslands of that part of the park were a star attraction –
interspersed with clumps of bushes and small acacia and other trees, with
higher trees nibbled up to giraffe neck height.
Everything in a healthy balance, and a Ugandan success story of good
management.  The bush wars for three
decades had nearly driven large mammals to extinction.

Standing
up in the van, we had unobstructed views of all this wildlife through the
roof.   Whoever designed the pop-up roof
for safari vans deserves a Nobel Prize.

Up the Nile to Murchison Falls

Afterwards
it was back to the landing and the ferry across, we returned to the camp for a
leisurely lunch – then to the landing again for the pontoon boat cruise upriver
to Murchison Falls.  Along the way, the
boat crew slowed down for riverbank wildlife sightings, which were
numerous.  Everybody got excited about
the crocodiles, except me.  Hah!  I’ve got alligators in my back yard a lot
bigger than that!

We
motored for about two hours upstream until we got to the falls, stopping about
300 meters short – underwater rocks beyond could sink the boat – and got off on
some rocks to gape at the majestic torrent.
It’s not high, like Sipi Falls we visited in July, but it roared and
splashed with great power.  Yes, Esther,
I wore a life jacket.

We
motored back to the landing in about an hour, where we got off on the opposite
bank to visit the Paraa Lodge, where John stayed.  Perched on a high bluff, it’s a handsome
colonial-era building with a large dining room and outdoor bar overlooking the
Nile.  I had a proper martini, after I
instructed the bartender about the proper proportions (one part vermouth, four
parts gin), relaxed with our group, and called Esther.

About
10 years ago, she stayed there, taking a break from a grueling mission treating
an Ebola outbreak, and nagged me (correction: suggested strongly, repeatedly
and sweetly) to go there.  I have the
photos to prove I was there.

Havdalah Saturday night

As
the cognoscenti know, havdalah is a
brief ceremony at sundown on Saturdays to celebrate the end of Shabbat.  We decided before leaving Kampala to hold it,
to make up for the fact that we’ve had few chances to observe Jewish rituals
here because of our different travel schedules, the hassle of getting to each
others apartments scattered around Kampala, the lack of any Jewish congregation
here, and our general laziness.

Shira,
a former AJWS volunteer here who came back to work for the Clinton Foundation,
organized our havdalah, which we
improvised with what we had in hand.  No
candles?  Well, flashlights would
do.  No spices?  An empty Pringles can would do.  We still had wine, so we left the restaurant
for the lawn by our tents to form a circle and recite the appropriate prayers.

With

us were, besides Eric, some new non-Jewish friends – Tyler, a grad student from
Seattle, and two Belgian women, Daphne and (I forgot).  They seemed to enjoy this new adventure in
Judaism.

So
did Hermione the Hippo, who had returned and was crunch-munching her way on the
same lawn she’d been through the night before.
We waited until she had lumbered off into the dark, and we held our
ritual – marking the end of an excellent, fulfilling day of Shabbat for
relaxation, fellowship, and contemplating the wonders of our natural world.

Back
to the restaurant we had more conversation and sipping of drinks, then off to
our tents for rest for another day at the park.

I’ll
write about our last day at Murchison Falls National Park in my next
email.  In the meantime,

Best wishes,

Bob Rackleff

 

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