Assign-Uganda 7

September 11, 2011 – My 13th Week in Uganda

Dear Friends,

As I wrote last week, we were at Murchison Falls National Park, immensely enjoying the remarkable scenery and wildlife of northwestern Uganda.  “We” were six AJWS volunteers, who managed to improvise some Shabbat services while there – including Saturday at sundown observing havdalah, the end of Shabbat.

Sunday morning at Camp Hermione

OK, the real name is the Red Chili Camp, but Hermione the Hippo pretty much runs the place, at least at night.  She stuck around Saturday night after lights out, noisily crunch-munching her way through the tent area again – and was long gone by the    time I needed to walk from the tent to the bathrooms/showers building in the middle of the night.

I rose about sunrise and went to the terrace for coffee, brewed with real grounds in a coffee press, and enjoyed the growing light over the forested Nile Valley.  Our group gradually filed in to reconvene over the breakfast table and get ready for our morning trip to the top of Murchison Falls.

We had to keep the van’s windows shut for most of the trip to the falls because of swarming tsetse flies.  They no longer carry sleeping sickness, but they sting ferociously, like horse flies, so we didn’t give them a chance to get near us.

Plenty of warthogs and baboons lounged around the forest edge, indifferent to our presence.  The best wildlife sighting was three water buffalo taking a mud bath together in a small roadside pool just the right size for them.  The mud was a light cappuccino tan, completely covering them, and they lolled around contentedly and free of tsetse flies.

Ascent to top of Murchison Falls

Well, it wasn’t that much of an ascent but it was steep.  Led by our guide, we hiked up a path to the highest overlook, then made our way back on a separate path to the rapids where the falls begin.  The guide gave us plenty of time to absorb the views and didn’t monopolize the experience with nonstop narration.

The falls were spectacular at the top – the effects raw and powerful because we could get so close to the roaring water.  Yes, Esther, they have railings now at most vantage points.  I took a couple dozen photos from various angles; one is now the wallpaper when I turn on my MacBook.

The overall effect was memorable and I reflected about what the original Ugandans thought about it as part of their animist beliefs.  Then the British explorers must have been awestruck when they first saw it.  I was struck by the geology and physics of it all and how beautifully sculpted the rocks were by the unrelenting wear caused by water slipping over them seemingly without effect but wearing the rocks by nanometers year after year.

Return to Kampala

We resumed our drive down the unpaved roads to Masindi 85 km away, back through the poor rural areas of north Uganda.  Being Sunday, hundreds of dressed up families walked or bicycled to church and markets.  Esther is very eloquent in describing how enriching church and other family routines are for people who have so little material wealth.

We stopped for lunch at the same roadside café in Masindi, eating on the front porch overlooking the Sunday bustle in town.  I saw a guy hauling a medium size refrigerator strapped on his bicycle down the main street, among other sights now routine for me in Uganda.

Paulette was leaving our group to ride back to Lira but stayed for lunch with us.  The four at my table traded stories about the stresses of our assignments (which always help me feel very fortunate), and the conversation turned reflective and segued into how we thought our time here had changed us.

Mostly, we knew that it had, but just weren’t sure how this experience had changed us, but in ways we won’t understand for months, if not longer. I know that this has deepened my Judaism, partly by being with volunteers who grew up practicing it and visiting the Abayudaya, but also because service and seeking justice are so central to our faith.

I learned a lot about Ugandans and the complex texture of their lives, and how much we can learn from them.  When I got angry about the latest outrage by indifferent or corrupt leaders, I remember how we have so many of the same maddening problems in America.

I also know that I like international work and will look for more.  I feel useful here, and the work is important, which is fulfilling.  I am now truly a Muzungu-American.

Back on the road, we saw a lot of cattle, which feel entitled to wander into the road and require motorized humans to slow down and weave through them.  As a traffic-calming device, it’s quite effective.

We also passed by a new truck weighing station, one of the first in Uganda and long overdue, to stop overloaded trucks and reduce the damage that they cause to the roads.  According to what I’ve read, truckers deeply resent these weighing stations as trampling on their rights to be irresponsible – like in America.

Here and there were backyard charcoal kilns operated by small-scale colliers to convert firewood into lump charcoal.  The kilns consist of piles of wood covered by layers of damp dirt and straw, then lighted.  It takes several days of smoldering to produce the charcoal.  Getting it right is complicated – too hot and it consumes the wood, not hot enough and it doesn’t fully char – so the job falls to skilled artisans.

The need for rural people to make a living, rising population growth (almost the fastest in the world) and the rising demand for charcoal is remorselessly consuming Uganda’s forests, by 2 to 3 percent a year.  About 90 percent of Uganda’s energy for cooking and heating comes from charcoal and wood.  Only about 10 percent of Ugandans have electricity.

In fact, at this rate, there will be no forests at all by 2050, according to Uganda’s environmental agency.

Charcoal prices recently have exploded as part of overall inflation here because of scarcity and increasing distances.  Wood gatherers and charcoal producers have to range farther out to find forests to cut down.  Along our route I could see stacks of big bags of charcoal every kilometer or two, waiting for a truck to pick them up, pay the producers, and haul them to Kampala where women in sheds, like on my lane, sell to customers one gallon paint can at a time – a chain of energy production and use and a spreading environmental catastrophe.

Never a Dull Moment

On Monday (Sept 5), we had a horrendous late afternoon rainstorm that lasted about 1-1/2 hours.  It rivaled the most serious rainstorms in Tallahassee of 2-3 inches an hour that bring much of Tallahassee to a standstill.  (Weather news is spotty here, so I don’t know how many inches of rain fell.)

The rain came down at the NAPE compound, which has a brick and stucco wall all around it, at the back a retaining wall holding back water runoff and soil uphill from us.  I could see it from my office window, beyond a cement patio that extends about 20 feet to the wall.

The rain fell nonstop in a massive downpour, and several of us watched as the water in the patio rose to within two inches of the back door.  Then I began to notice water seeping through the base of the wall at a couple of points.  After a few minutes, water squirted out a small hole higher up.  Then every two minutes or so other holes in the retaining wall appeared also squirting water.

I kept thinking, where’s that little Dutch boy and his finger to hold back the water and save his community?  Nowhere near here.

Then suddenly the wall collapsed with a dull whump!, releasing a large wave of water scattering now-loose bricks, cement and soil onto our patio.  The force of the water accumulating from uphill shoved our wall over, creating an unobstructed view of our neighbors’ crops of maize and matoke up the hill.  Fortunately, the patio drains did their job and there was no flooding of our building.

The wall had been there before NAPE moved in, built with backyard kiln bricks, gobs of cement to make the irregular bricks fit together, with cement (who knows if they mixed it right?) stucco to cover over the shoddy workmanship that characterizes most construction here.  Naturally, there was no rebar to give it strength or drains that would have relieved the water pressure and prevented the collapse.  Senior staff huddled and hired a crew to come out the next morning.

Getting home that evening

By our time to leave work, the rain mercifully slacked off, but we saw from our front porch (by standing on its railing for a panoramic view over our front wall) that all that water from uphill in three directions had created a small lake just downhill from us, blocking our only direct access to Entebbe Road and home.  Entebbe Road was flooded and impassable, as well.  Traffic on the main traffic artery south from Kampala just stopped.

Unlike the flood two weeks earlier, which left me an alternate path, the floodwaters blocked that way out too, which wouldn’t have worked anyway because Entebbe Road was flooded.

My resourceful co-worker Robert (whose 10th wedding anniversary celebration I attended the week before) offered to drive me, on his way to his home near mine.  He guided his car slowly uphill on an insanely rutted dirt lane, with dozens of cars ahead with the same idea.  We went first north, away from Sseguku, painstakingly negotiating the bottom-scraping ruts, then doubled back to the south at a glacial pace.

We let an ambulance ease by us, only to be stuck behind equally stuck cars ahead.  A few gawkers peeked in the ambulance rear window to check out the patient, if there was one; they didn’t tell me what they saw.  After about 45 minutes to travel about 2 km (barely one mile), we emerged on Entebbe Road at Sseguku to see four lanes (on a two-lane road) of immobilized vehicles.  But all Robert had to do was get across to drop me off, and I walked about three muddy blocks home.

Well, as I wrote earlier, Kampala is two thirds hills and one third wetlands.  The NAPE offices are probably no more than 10 meters in elevation above the flood plain, high enough not to get flooded, but low enough to be affected.

From my stormwater management days in Leon County, I know that the lack of zoning to protect wetlands, prevent wholesale deforestation of the hills, and require retention ponds and drainage creates problems like these.

Plus, the very poor people living in the former wetlands get the brunt of flooding with shit-filled water from all around.  Their children get sick from contaminated water, and many of the youngest die.  (Diarrhea caused mostly by contaminated water is now the leading cause of death among children under five in Africa.)  The government shows no ability to manage this, despite its usual posturing and blather.

On my walk to work up Entebbe Road the next morning, I took some photos of the damage to the road and shoulders.  At least a city crew was out shoveling out the silted ditches and culverts, but then Entebbe Road is too important to neglect; President Museveni lives in Entebbe, and this is his only route to Kampala’s government center.

Save Mabira Crusade

The intensity at work soared with the Save Mabira Crusade, which NAPE is coordinating, expanding the coalition against the giveaway of one-fourth of this “protected” rainforest – so large and useful that it supports a very favorable microclimate and helps clean up surface and groundwater runoff before it gets to the otherwise much-abused Lake Victoria.

President Museveni last Sunday invited about 20 opponents to his mansion in Entebbe to discuss Mabira.  They included executive director, Frank Muramuzi, a couple other NAPE senior staff, some parliament leaders and others.  It was cordial enough – and Museveni tried to charm everyone – but mostly he was deaf to the very obvious argument that intact rainforests are a much higher priority than more sugar factory farms.

In fact, one of his flacks on the Office of the President website, wrote a sneering piece denouncing “the people that are now masquerading as environmental activists through groups like NAPE-Uganda and particularly ACODE, whose promoters have been involved in everything political and nothing tangible in their pursuit of a more environmentally-conscious Uganda that they are now promoting.”  Not exactly conciliatory.

It was nice to be mentioned, of course, but the menace behind the words is obvious.  It reminds me of the man tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail, who said, “Except for the honor of it, I think I’d rather walk.”  But Frank and NAPE staff are largely unfazed by President Museveni’s bellicose statements.

Progress on the Website Continues

Sort of.  The distractions of the Mabira firestorm (not an exaggeration), Monday’s flood and retaining wall collapse, and prolonged electricity outages (on Thursday virtually all day) sapped Ivan’s energies in getting my copy and home page design into electronic form.

Then there were technical problems getting the new Warid ISP interfaced with our intranet and wireless router (Ivan spent two days working fulltime on this).  Since he is the only IT guy, everything technical falls on him – which will seriously impair his ability to be webmaster when we get the site up on the web.

All this happened in the second to the last full workweek before I leave on Sept 20 – and I have yet to see the website up on a screen for testing and editing.

So instead of going postal – I was on the verge of getting in touch with my inner asshole – I drafted two memos about 1) upgrading our technology to prevent unnecessary delays and improve staff productivity and 2) creating a management plan for the website, spelling out who does what and cross-training existing staff so that someone can take over if one of the primary website staffers is absent or otherwise taken.

I was diplomatic in writing, although I cornered Frank on Friday and spoke in more direct terms about what was (and was not) happening.  All in all, a constructive channeling of my frustration.  My inner asshole remained under control.

My Going Away Party

NAPE on Friday (Sept 9) held a going-away party for me at a nearby Entebbe Road hotel named, aptly, the Florida Hotel.  I leave on Sept 20, so there will many individual good-byes still to come.  The festivities were in the hotel side yard, venue for the wedding anniversary I attended a few days before, with drinks, dinner and a DJ playing very danceable songs, mostly disco.  Hey, there was nothing wrong with disco!

All the staff showed up, plus some guests, like a women from the Oil and Minerals Ministry and some wives.  The drinks flowed, contributing no doubt to the effusive praise several speakers heaped on me.  I also don’t think I’ve ever been called old so many times so nicely.

I got to say a few words, telling the NAPE staff how important their work is to Uganda and how much I admire how they perform it under daunting circumstances.  They are unique in their candor, focus and lack of timidity.  I spoke about how I’ve come to love Uganda for its natural beauty and hard-working people.  All sincere and true statements.

We took frequent dance breaks that enabled me to display my enthusiasm and limited skill at dancing.  It was a memorable performance.  We experienced a spontaneous outbreak of fun that brought everybody together in comradeship.

I also reflected about how office parties and their stock characters are universal.  At ours, the office sexpot was flirty and fun.  After two drinks, the quiet bookkeeper dominated the dance floor.  The women tried mightily to avoid the grabby vice president.  Our dignified office manager (a Jehovah’s Witness, she revealed to me last week) was an excellent dance partner.  It was innocent fun, and I felt right at home.

A Digression About Matatu Names

Many Americans have a pet name for their car, but they don’t display it with four-inch letters on the front and back like Uganda’s matatu owners do.  They affix these names with banner decals at the top of their windshield and on the rear window of their Toyota mini-vans.

Intrepid researcher that I am, I’ve been recording these names for the last few days, categorized them, and reflected on their significance.  I present my findings here.

1.  Leaving aside the African names (I’m too lazy to translate them), the most popular names are religious, reflecting the importance of Christianity in Uganda. The names range from simple – “God is Great,” “God is Good,” “Christ Reigns,” “Help Me God,” “God’s Decisions,” “Jesus is Working,” “God’s Decision” – to more complex declarations, such as “Jesus Has the Light,” “Glory Be to God,” “Glory Be to the Lord,” “God is Still Able,” and “With God All things Are Possible.”

2.  Next in popularity are aspirational or status seeking, such as “Five Star,” “Investor,” “Modern Age,” “Royal,” “International,” “Executive,” “Senior,” “Estate,” “Smart Job,” “Ever Smart,” “Bravo,” “Rockford” and my favorite, “Obama.”

3.  Then there are sports teams.  Seemingly every Ugandan has a fervor for a European football team, mostly British, such as “Arsenal,” “Manchester,” “Man United,” “Man U,” “Real Madrid,” “Liverpool,” and the occasional religion/sports fusion, “Man United in Heaven.”

4.  There are sassy names like “Puff Daddy,” “City Boys,” “Kitosi Boys,” “Gheto [sic] Life,” “Born Lucky No. 1,” “Young Boys” and “Kisoro Happy Boys Too.”

5.  Then there are my favorites – “Africa Not On Time,” “Have a Seat Boss,” “Network Busy,” “Sorry Dear” and “Slow But Sure.”

These matatu names are just a sample of the exuberant commercial names you read everywhere – pre-school names like “KissyFur,” “Briliant Angels,” and “Little Swans” – store names like “Christ the King Electrical,” “Wal-Mart Supermarket” (for a store front half the size of a 7-11), “Jesus Saves Supermarket” – and my favorite, a nightclub named “Tickles and Giggles.”

The latter is brilliant branding.  Who wouldn’t want to hang out in a nightclub names Tickles and Giggles?  Check it out on YouTube.  Note to Esther: I didn’t go.

The intrepid researcher pushes back the frontiers of social science once again.  There, aren’t you glad you took the time to read this?

Our Volunteers Begin to Leave

Our fellow AJWS volunteer in upcountry Lira, Paulette, arrived on Saturday to stay with us until she flies back to New York on Tuesday.  Joe, who lived east of Lira in Gulu and worked to resettle ex-child soldiers, is headed home to Chicago, then off to London for graduate school.  Noa, fun to be around in Kampala, heads back to California and grad school in social work.

That leaves me and Barbara, flying home on Sept 20, and Marta, whose assignment is for six months.

But there’s a new batch of nine AJWS volunteers for Kampala who’ve been in training this week; another three are headed to Kenya.  We’ll meet them this Sunday over dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant in town (across from the Tickles and Giggles night club!).

We had a party at Noa’s house Saturday night, where I mixed my last batch of Kampala martinis, and schmoozed some of the about three dozen young workers and volunteers there – some Ugandans but mostly Americans spending from a few weeks to years here – all doing fascinating work from farm enterprise development to promoting HIV virus diagnosis equipment in rural clinics.  I spoke with one young woman from Boston whose mother’s family, the Parramores, live in Marianna, Florida, and she knows the Hinsons, as in Mark, the Tallahassee Democrat arts reporter.  A small world, indeed.

It was a fine party.

In my next email, I’ll write about my last full week in Kampala.

In the meantime,






Week 14 September 19

Dear Friends,

The website itself is coming together now (I keep my fingers crossed) and it’s going to look good — a lot more visual, content rich and user friendly – eventually.  I may have to settle for having a working home page, which is the most important part.  Everything else is pretty mechanical, so the home page gets me most of the way to a satisfying package.

It’s gone much slower than I like, mostly because our tech guy’s software for building and maintaining websites is too slow, complex, and excruciatingly time-consuming – plus other technical and administrative barriers.  I should have assessed the software two months ago and badgered NAPE into buying better software that has more shortcuts.  Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Plus, we get going good, and the electricity goes off, and we sometimes run out of fuel for the emergency generator.  Given that the incompetent utility company is cutting off power to the southside of Kampala more and more, NAPE’s generator fuel bill is climbing.

Earlier in the week, I did a training session for all staff about writing skills, using a European Union writing guide as the basic outline.  Participation and discussion were good.  Later in the week, I did one-on-one training with NAPE’s publications director and future web content editor specifically about writing for the web.

While cooling my heels on the website, I did several memoranda about what staffing and management changes will be needed to keep the website up to date and to add enhancements like social media.  I emphasized that all staff will need to pitch in and not leave it to just a few. All have been well received, even the memo about a more sustainable office compound that included my snarky observation that the compound has only three trees.

So instead of cursing the darkness, I planted a tree in the NAPE compound on Wednesday (Sept 14) in appreciation of what NAPE does.  Also, in hopes that other will follow.  Most of the staff turned out to watch me dig, drop and fill – and each pitched in with a few tosses of dirt.  I started out with a small tree, but it’s an avocado tree, which should do well and begin bearing fruit in a few years.

It’s already known as “Bohb’s tree,” and David, who helped me pick out the tree and prepare the planting, promised to email me updated photos as it grows.  Like just about everybody else at NAPE, David grew up on his parents’ farm in southwestern Uganda and knows his plants.  In fact, Kampala is a lot like Florida – most adults here grew up somewhere else.

After the planting, some of the staff lingered to talk about next steps, like solar panels, which can be cost-effective because, I realized, even urban Ugandans don’t use much electricity, so even small panels can make a difference.

Because the climate is so good, homes and small offices like NAPE”s don’t need air conditioning and heating.  In fact, a lot of middle class families here cook with charcoal because that’s what they grew up using in their villages.

The other big consumer of electricity, water heating, is taken care of by tankless water heaters in the bathroom only.  That leaves lighting and electronics like TVs and computers.  So even the size of solar panels you can find in a U.S. big box store makes sense here.

Although I don’t know the economics of it, the Lagoon Resort I visited on Lake Victoria was all-solar, including its hot water.

The new batch of AJWS volunteers

We had dinner Sunday (Sept 11) at an Ethiopian restaurant to socialize with the dozen new AJWS volunteers – nine posted to Kampala, and three to Kenya.  Nine were women and three men – most of them young, very young, but then most everybody looks young to me these days.  Three AJWS staff from New York were there, plus our two in-country directors, so it was a full house.

One of the volunteers, Robert, will go to Nairobi to help staff the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), which I was originally assigned to.  But just before I would go, GALCK had some internal turmoil and the executive director quit, so I got reassigned to NAPE in Kampala.

I was looking forward to the challenge of helping Kenyan gays and lesbians overcome oppressive, often violent, discrimination, so it was disappointing.  But the NAPE experience has been great and just as rewarding.

Horrible pipeline explosion in Nairobi

I don’t know how it’s been covered in the U.S., but this week was a tragic gasoline pipeline in a Nairobi slum, killing at least 100 people.  According to news reports, the pipeline from Mombassa to Nairobi was riddled by corrosion that went without repairs for years.

After knowing their problems, not only did the managers not repair or replace the line, they made a decision three years ago to double throughput by upgrading four pumping stations to increase operating pressures.

It was predictable that the higher pressure would rupture at its weakest spots, which it did.  In this case, gasoline surged into an adjacent sewer flowing into a creek that runs through the slum, where it exploded in flames.

Many news reports blamed the victims for living near a pipeline, but the responsibility begins with the operators who tolerated massive corrosion problems, a history of numerous leaks and spills, and ignored engineering advice to replace the existing line.  They still have their jobs, but over 100 slum-dwellers lost their lives and many more suffered burns and loss of their homes.

And so it goes for Africa’s poor.

With Uganda’s oil production industry about to take off, there will be similar pipelines built here – with no assurance that management and regulation of these new pipelines will protect public safety any better than Kenya did.

FYI, there’s a draft pipeline safety bill in Congress that a Republican House subcommittee just voted out to weaken existing regulations – despite preventable accidents like one in San Bruno, California, last year that destroyed a neighborhood and killed eight people.

These same Republicans were outraged that President Obama suspended permitting in the Gulf of Mexico after 11 rig workers died and over 200 million gallons spilled in the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  How dare he stop us from doing things perfectly, went their thinking.  And what temerity he had to prevent more potential disasters by stopping to figure out what happened and what regulatory changes are needed.

So there’s no reason for us in the U.S. to feel smug about how much better managers we are than Africans.  We can be just as careless, except our disasters are more epic.

Rackleff, the Muzungu-American

Small children delight in yelling out, “muzungu” when they see me passing on the street.  They grin and wave and are delighted when I greet them and wave back.  Young good old boys often do the same, with a touch of (friendly) wiseguy and like it when I answer back in a wiseguy way, like, “Number one Muzungu – Obama’s friend!”  They laugh in response, having found a white guy who doesn’t just sulk off.

Muzungu is commonly thought to mean “white man,” usually in a friendly way, but the origin is slightly different.  In Swahili, it literally means “aimless wanderer,” which aptly described the early European explorers and missionaries they encountered, so it came to mean “person of foreign descent” and sometimes, an employer or person who pays.

As my reference put it, “muzungu” doesn’t really mean white, because color-coding ethnicities are not central to their culture – plus they think Europeans are actually reddish or pinkish.  In Rwandan, Europeans are “rutuku,” which means red.

But “muzungu” persists in popular usage.  I heard our landlord observe irritably that we were now on a “muzungu road,” when, after driving us on rutted unpaved roads, we reached a nicely-paved road in a section of town with a lot of expatriates.

I’ve seen a T-shirt in local expat stores with the words “My Name is Not Muzungu,” which seems a bit touchy – and last night at a downtown festival, a T-shirt with the words’ “No Muzungu Price,” meant playfully.

From now on, I am a Muzungu-America, the aimless wanderer.

Some Last Looks at Sseguku

With departure looming on Tuesday night (Sept 20), I’ve been looking more carefully at the neighborhood along Entebbe Road and looking anew at familiar things and finding new things I hadn’t noticed before.

For example, I took a ramble uphill opposite where I live and came upon a big boarding and day high school, big as in several hundred boys and girls – cooped up behind a high fence – with hormones raging, I’m sure, and teachers struggling to keep order.  It’s a credit to the school’s discipline that I never noticed the students on the road.

I made a point the last few days to take more photos of people and stores I pass every day, careful to ask permission and show them the image on the back of my camera.  I tell them that I’m leaving soon and want to remember what I’ve seen by looking through my iPhoto files.

Thursday morning I took photos of the young man who delivers bread to small shops along the road and into my neighborhood, pushing his bread-laden (in a big wooden box) bicycle to the next delivery.  He’s the one who about two months ago saw me begin my walk to work late and said, “You’re late,” with a smile, which I returned in kind, sheepishly.

Then I turned the corner and, halfway to Entebbe Road, took a photo of the lady who sells charcoal by the gallon can.  We exchange greetings every morning and evening, so she was agreeable when I asked to take a photo of her and her shed.  She thought I took a fine photo that did her and her shop justice.

Down Entebbe Road, I encountered my new friend, James, a friendly and ambitious engineering student in his second term walking to classes.  He enjoys European history and we last talked about the Napoleonic wars, which I was able to describe in enough detail to please him – although I couldn’t remember Wellington’s name at the time, you know, the British guy at Waterloo.

I bought the morning Daily Monitor, the major newspaper that doesn’t toe the Museveni line, from the vendor who stands at the intersection with Lubowo Road every morning with about seven or eight titles.  He reflexively pulls out my copy of the Daily Monitor when he sees me coming.  I often have to pull out a staple mid front page stuck on to discourage nonpaying readers.

Across from him is a young motorcycle mechanic, one of four who repair them on the road shoulder.  He always calls out and is a bit of a wiseguy – “Hello, my friend!” – and I always like to see him.

After turning onto the lane to NAPE, I walk by about eight small shops for the 200 meters to the office, saying hello to the proprietors and their pre-school children who like to see the friendly muzungu, the only one they usually see all day, and certainly the only one crazy enough to be on foot.  The lane is muddy just about every day, unless it hasn’t rained for at least five days; it being the rainy season, it’s muddy enough that I track it into the office, despite my best efforts to clean the mud from the treads of my hiking shoes.

Then there’s the community water source – a flowing concrete-lined spring of contaminated water where young children fill jerry cans and lug their heavy contents home – where their families drink it without boiling.  It’s doubly disturbing because of the health impacts this has, as well as the serious household responsibilities of even the youngest children that continue through their school years and consume time they could be studying and improving themselves.

Just before I walk through the gate to NAPE there’s a feed store on the left that does its own milling and sells day old chicks and provides artificial insemination (for the hens, I assume), with about five employees covered with grain dust, usually friendly to me if their attention isn’t on a customer piling feed bags into a truck or a motorcycle.

If I’m lucky, I get to see the Ankole cows from a nearby homeowner/farmer strolling leisurely toward Entebbe Road, where they cross to graze in a large open field across the road.  Several have those great horns that I never get tired of seeing.

A daily routine that always yields something new and interesting to see and learn.

The Rountooit Buildings

Sseguku and points north and south are dotted with Rountooit buildings – already occupied commercial building but half-finished on upper floors – waiting to be completed when the owners get around to it (thus “rountooit” – heh, heh).

Sometimes they build the frame of a three or four story building topped by a roof, then complete and rent out the first floor, and gradually finish the other floors, which are usually apartments.  Or they may build just one story, with rebar sticking out the top in preparation for adding one or more floors as their cash flow improve.

The owner/builders don’t let the lack of construction loans and capital discourage them from starting to build.  Such loans are hard to get and have confiscatory interest rates anyway.  So they just start and proceed, funded by current income or savings.

Unlike the U.S. construction industry, which seemingly won’t budge without using somebody else’s money (these days, our money, borrowed incredibly cheaply), an amazing volume of building goes on at all levels of magnitude.

It adds up to a lively construction and supply scene here that sustains half the businesses in Sseguku – hardware and electrical supply stores, metal works that build steel doors and windows, furniture stores that make wooden chests, sofas and beds from scratch, by hand, and lumber dealers who mostly supply long, sturdy poles used for scaffolding or framing sheds.

The cement comes from somewhere else, but the bricks are locally made in backyard kilns.  And the local food vendors are always around to feed the construction workers.

My favorite Rountooit Building on my way to work is a square wooden shed with another square frame attached.  The finished part is made out of random pieces of lumber scavenged from around the neighborhood.  The frame is poles nailed together, ready to have more random pieces of lumber nailed up when the owner gets around to it.

My last afternoon in downtown Kampala

Exploring downtown Kampala has been a favorite activity, and this was my last Saturday (Sept 17) there.  Just my luck, when I finally master the intricacies of getting around this maze of streets by matatu and on foot, I have to leave.

I made one last draw of Uganda shillings from Barclay’s ATM with my Visa card, and got some croissants (for breakfast Sunday) at a decent bakery, which also has good baguettes.

Then by matatu across downtown to the National Museum for my last chance to see the collection; I’d been there for a lecture a few weeks ago and only got two or three minutes to see enough to want to come back and linger.  Alas, about three dozen heavily-armed police and soldiers barred me entering because Britain’s Prince Edward was touring the museum.  I knew about William and Harry, but Edward?

So I continued to the Afriart Gallery further east on foot.  It’s a gallery featuring good contemporary African (mostly Ugandan) artists and craftsmen, with a helpful, likeable staff.  Not much schlock at all.  You can see its website at

I’d been there a few weeks ago but put off purchases until just before I left, so I was in a spending mood.  (Note to Esther: It’s a secret, and I didn’t spend much.)  Plus, this being Uganda, the prices are very reasonable.  Barbara and Marta met me there, and we took a matatu back downtown for dinner and music.

Bayimba International Festival of the Arts

The Bayimba Cultural Foundation put on a three day International Festival of the Arts at the National Theatre (Kampala’s answer to the Kennedy Center in DC).  What’s left of our AJWS group and one of the two Belgian women we met at Camp Hermione, our Murchison Falls camp two weeks ago, gathered for dinner at yet another good Indian restaurant downtown, Masala Chaat, then went across the street to the festival.

It had two outdoor stages and an indoor theater for performances, which were very good, those on the main stage especially.  They reminded me of JazzFest acts in New Orleans – very good showmanship and musical ability.

We went to only one of the indoor performances, an ensemble playing a Mozart piano quartet.  But it was painful to listen to, especially the first violinist who struggled to stay in tune.  The pianist and second violinist were good, but not enough to carry the cellist and other violinist.  It reminded me of my opening joke for some speeches – about the briefest musical review in newspaper history, which went, “An amateur string quarter played Brahms last night.  Brahms lost.”

It was a fun evening, although a little sad because we bid farewell to Marta, who spends three more months here before returning to Tulane School of Public Health, and Shira, former AJWS volunteer here who returned to Kampala to work for the Clinton Foundation for a year.

I gave my email address to our Belgian friend, who’s here researching her geography doctoral dissertation on mobility and urban development in Kampala, and (Policy Wonk Alert!) I asked her to send me her dissertation when she finishes.

Sunday Dinner at Sylvia’s and Patrick’s

Sylvia works with Barbara at their NGO and has been very welcoming over the last three months.  We attended their wedding in June and went with them to the Ndere Cultural Center for performances in August, and had a terrific time at both.

So on Sunday we went to their suburban home a few kms away from our apartment for a Sunday dinner of Ugandan style dishes from millet bread and egg plant the size of peas and chick peas (who knew?) to beef and chicken.  As an honored guest, I got served the gizzard as a special treat, which I ate gamely.

Theirs is a pleasant suburban home, built four years ago, with more similar new homes springing up to create a neighborhood.  Being no zoning, the area is a stew of housing types from solid middle class to very poor hovels.  The roads are unpaved and will gradually degrade as rainy seasons come and go.

They also grow much of their food, including chickens and rabbit, in their yard and use an adjacent vacant lot for beans, cassava, sweet potatoes and maize.  Both Patrick and Sylvia grew up on farms, so this comes naturally to them.

We brought with us toys for their three sons, two in grade school and the other a toddler – two soccer balls and a plastic tower of rings that come off for slobbery gumming – all presents appreciated and immediately put into play.  We had good conversations with our friends, comparing notes about life in Uganda versus the U.S.

Patrick, a career army officer and I compared our military careers – his much more eventful, given his 10 years in the north fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army and losing several friends in combat.  With U.S. help, the Sudanese stopped supporting the LRA, and the Ugandans were able to drive them across the border into Congo, where they remain today.

We came home to no electricity, but we made do as usual, and each of us plotted what bring back and what to leave behind when we and our packed bags leave for Entebbe Airport Tuesday night.

You can expect my final report on Uganda next Sunday.


September 27, 2011   Week 15

Dear friends,

I worked at NAPE during my last two days in Kampala – frustrated by the obsolete software that prevented us from lighting up the website – but also confident that solutions were at hand.  I had lunch with Frank and got his agreement that our IT guy, Ivan, would get the software he needs to complete the website.

I would track down the most capable software and send him my recommendations.  In fact, I did that immediately when I returned to Tallahassee.  And I would stay in touch with Ivan to collaborate our way through to completion.

There were numerous farewells to the NAPE staff, and I returned the heartfelt tributes, reminding them of their important role in protecting Uganda from plunder and of my respect for them personally and professionally.

After work ended on Tuesday (Sept 20), Ivan took Barbara and me to Entebbe Airport.  We stopped for dinner at a lakeside restaurant, seated outdoors overlooking Lake Victoria, with a glorious sunset, relaxing and eating well.

Clearing security at the airport was uneventful and, once airborne, I had little trouble falling asleep.  I woke up about four hours later in the dark, silent cabin, and spent the next 20 or 30 minutes looking out the window at the Greek islands below.

With only scattered clouds, the lights of the towns outlined the edges of the islands as the airplane moved slowly over them.  It was a magical sight and feeling, helped a lot by my grogginess, and reminded me why I love to travel and see sights I’ve never seen before.  There’s so much more to see, too.

Barbara and I parted company in Amsterdam.  She was flying to Providence, RI, where a friend would meet her and take her home to Mystic, CT.  I was headed for Atlanta.

She had been a good friend and housemate – easygoing, funny, smart, with an adventurous spirit, a good cook – who made my life in Kampala very easy and pleasant.  Esther and I hope to visit her in Mystic later this year – Esther has a Doctors Without Borders friend there – so we’ll get a chance to reminisce at least one more time.

Arriving Home

I arrived in Tallahassee Wednesday evening after 24 hours of flying — and, boy, were my arms tired!  (Don’t go away folks, there’s more!)  Esther and I kissed and groped (within boundaries, of course) with much enthusiasm.  We were glad to see each other after nearly 3-1/2 months apart.

My hometown was familiar, and yet not familiar.

Familiar was the heat and humidity – and this is late September!  Kampala’s summer really spoiled me – lows in the 60s, highs about 80, just about every day – good walking weather at just about any time of day.  Here the summers last well into October, and we scurry from one air-conditioned space to the next.

We made a short stop at our neighborhood Publix, where I could buy so many things unavailable to me in Kampala – then off to our new neighborhood barbecue restaurant for delicious meats far tastier than goat.  We also drove by the newly-vacant Borders Books, which I could walk to.  Its parking lot was empty and lights were off, an unfamiliar, depressing sight.  Our neighborhood movie theater, featuring independent films, close also over the summer.  Bummer.

I had little trouble sleeping Wednesday night in my cozy bed that does not require a mosquito net.  There was also no noisy nightclub or roosters crowing at all hours or the early-morning preacher’s monotonous, amplified voice carried to my Sseguku bedroom at 6 am.  Just quiet, muffled sounds now.

Waking up Thursday morning, I walked groggily to the kitchen to make coffee and found myself staring helplessly at my programmable coffee maker trying to remember how to start it.  It was a new purchase just before I left in June, and it has these buttons and cryptic words that meant little to me.  After squinting and puzzling for about a minute I remembered.

Of course, this had nothing to do with my advanced years, nothing!

I attended the weekly breakfast meeting of the He-Man’s Club at Jennie’s Lunchbox, a short walk from home.  We’ve been eating breakfast together every Thursday after our morning workouts for about 12 years – even after our gym closed and re-opened as Women’s World, no he-men allowed.  But we also have women members, most notably Patty, an insurance investigator, so our club name is ironic in more ways than one.

I have the same breakfast every Thursday, which includes fried Spam (I talked Jennie’s owner into carrying it), a Minnesota delicacy that looms large in Rackleff family history – because my maternal grandfather worked for Hormel in Austin, MN.  At least one Spam can is always handy in our home today.

I managed to regale the He-Men with tales of life in Uganda for a few minutes until the conversation turned to really important subjects, mainly the stumbling FSU football team – a subject I know little about – except that our collective hopes are pinned on a coach named Jimbo.

Previous to him, our hopes were pinned on Bobby.  I fear who will be the next coach.  Bubba?  Shoofly? Slick?  Murray I could live with; it’s a good, solid, friendly name.

An hour later, I was in the barber’s chair in my Angry White Male barbershop getting my regular trim – I’m usually the youngest customer there – when the transformer down the street popped and the electricity went off.  It gave me a Uganda flashback – could I be back in the land of “load shedding”?  Aw man, not again.  My barber gamely finished in the dark.

Actually, the White Males are only angry about politics, not me – and they helped anchor me in reality over my years on the county commission.  They were glad to see me back – perhaps because their other regular customers are dying off – and even managed to listen to my tales of Uganda for about two minutes before returning to the lagging fortunes of the team of Jimbo.

That night I went to choir practice for High Holy Days at Temple Israel, yawning my way through two hours of singing (thankfully) mostly familiar songs.  We’ve got about six performances to cover, so we’re seriously rehearsing for the next few days.

Since then, I get into my car several times a day and drive somewhere, for the flimsiest excuses.  It’s such a luxury not to depend on matatus or my two feet to go someplace.  By Saturday morning, it was off to the gym to resurrect my flabby pecs and youthful good looks.  It hasn’t worked for the last few years, but hope springs eternal.

Later on Saturday, Esther and I met at a neighbor’s for drinks and a light dinner before heading off in a group for a tribute performance of Carlisle Floyd’s operatic works. It was a marvelous evening of strong performances.

Floyd composed Susannah, Willie Stark and other operas while on the FSU faculty before leaving for the Houston Grand Opera in 1976, but he since returned here in retirement.  Now frail with age, Floyd took the evening and many tributes in stride.  That’s the way to do it – get everybody together and pile on the tributes when your friend is still alive and able to enjoy them.

The performances also resonated because my mother took me to the world premiere of Susannah in 1955 in the same concert hall.  I later attended Summer Music Camps at FSU and would see Floyd around the music school building.  I took my daughter Holmes to another performance of Susannah there about six or seven years ago.

So life in Tallahassee is getting back to normal for me.

What it meant

I spent some time on the flight to Atlanta writing down my thoughts about the Uganda experience, most of which I won’t inflict on you.  But some might be worth telling.

1.  The land of Uganda is truly remarkable.  In an area the size of Montana, the vast diversity of plants, animals and land forms are hard to beat.  The Nile River courses mightily through its center.  Most of the rift valley is fertile and well-watered, its mountains are high enough to contain glaciers (!) and Lake Victoria is a vital inland sea larger than Lake Michigan.

The land of Uganda also does not deserve the unrelenting abuse it has endured since independence in 1962.  Its business and political leaders seem determined to plunder Uganda’s natural resources without regard for the long term.  Underlying this is soaring population growth that adds about a million more people a year; it’s about 36 million now.

Uganda is worth saving, which makes the work of NAPE all the more important, and why I’m still working with the staff by Internet and long distance telephone.  The risks that NAPE staff take are considerable.

For example, there’s a bill advancing through parliament, pushed by President Museveni, that would suspend bail for people charged with economic sabotage, participating in demonstrations, committing murder, defilement, rape and treason.  “We need development in the country,” he said, “which can only be achieved through a stable country. A country that is free from demonstrators.”

So activism to curb pollution is criminal “economic sabotage.”

2.  Daily life in Sseguku, where Barbara and I lived, was exhilarating.  It was noisy, teeming with people at all hours, bustling with commerce and domestic chores, bursting with children – all of them friendly and engaging.  We usually were the only muzungus on foot they saw all day long.

Out of necessity, we were in close daily contact, so we learned quickly about the lives of poor Ugandans in their one-room homes and ramshackle vegetable stalls.  Most of all, I learned about the complex lives of the urban poor of Africa, how they achieve meaning and fulfillment from life – that it was not just miseries they experienced.

In a city of over two million people, Sseguku was our village and classroom.  At first alien to me, I learned to fit in comfortably.

We would have had a far different experience had we lived and worked in a section with lots of other expatriates – and would have missed out on a lot.

3.  Ugandans are hard-working, improvisational and entrepreneurial – whether it was setting up a fruit and vegetable stall in a rickety shack, or planting crops in the vacant plot of an absentee owner, or converting an aging bicycle into a freight-hauling service, or pre-school children filling jerry cans with ditch water to bring home every day, or thousands of other ways to create value from their labors.

Middle class Ugandans are also strivers.  My landlord, Ntege, owns an agricultural chemical store, builds an occasional building, runs an egg business from his home and nearby farm, grows other crops on his village farm in the west.  All but the very best paid Ugandans work more than one job.

4.  It should be simple for this to produce prosperity, but Uganda’s business and political leaders sabotage it thoroughly.  Incompetent management provides electricity to only 10 percent of people, and even then with ever-frequent blackouts; NAPE was spending $700 a month for gasoline to keep the lights on this summer.  Unfit for drinking, tap water even in Kampala is good for only washing and flushing; Ugandans spend $25 million a year on bottled water.

Streets and highways are unpaved, rutted, pot-holed or washed out.  Smooth surfaces exist only where roadwork was just completed – they’ll be a mess again in a matter of months – battered by overweight trucks, poor materials, and no real maintenance.

Dysfunctional commercial and business transportation is a huge drag on the economy.  Railroad service will be upgraded “soon,” as in don’t hold your breath.  Even Entebbe Airport, the nation’s portal to the world, has no weather radar.

With no zoning, planning, building codes, wetlands, slopes, tree cover, or any other protections enforced, buildings fall down, flooding destroys poor settlements, the water and air gets filthier, and preventable diseases kill far too many children and vulnerable adults.  The schools do a poor job, hampered by ridiculously low pay for teachers, dilapidated buildings and few books or materials.  Private school tuition is a growing burden.

The government claims to be advancing toward meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and submits reports showing this progress – but analyzing their numbers shows they’re phony – for example, defining down sanitary water supplies, or simply lying.

5.  Corruption and authoritarian rule are growing problems, but exist side by side with a healthy political opposition, lively press and a strong independent sector that hold these problems in check – so easy labels don’t apply in Uganda.

I haven’t had the chance to observe rural Uganda, where I expect there is less political freedom.  Rural Uganda is Museveni‘s political stronghold and the biggest reason he won this year’s election by 2/3 of the vote.  Rural districts are also where the civil wars raged in recent decades, and Museveni gets credit for defeating rebel forces and bringing back stability.

As the British newspaper, The Guardian, reported, “’We can move freely,’ a woman tending a rural banana stall says, as others chorus their approval. ‘Other leaders before, especially Idi [Amin], killed people. Museveni has not killed many. Why try a new president who might?’”  So Museveni gets support because he hasn’t “killed many” and gets away with low expectations.

Perhaps the best way to help is continued support by developed nations of a strong independent sector.  Organizations like NAPE provide accountability and balance, with the help of international donors and organizations like Friends of the Earth International and George Soros’s Open Society Foundation.

Have I changed?

The best answer is that I don’t know yet.

I have a new appetite for useful international work, and there is a lot more of the world I want to experience.  I want to go overseas again soon.

I stretched my abilities to create new platforms for advocacy, to analyze and reorganize systems, to write a lot of new content, to teach with cultural sensitivity.  I adapted to daily life in Uganda more easily than I first thought.

My love for Esther deepened while away from her for so long.  I realize that I depend on her more than I thought, and that I must center more of my attention on her and not get so easily distracted.

I’m a better Jew than before, I think.  Visiting the Abayudaya community and witnessing their piety and seriousness was inspiring and helped me resolve to be more serious when I return to Tallahassee, especially in fulfilling the obligation of Jews “to repair the world.”

As for the rest, I’ll just have to find out later.

Was this just about me?

That’s the real question.

Was this just about self-discovery, curiosity or adventure?  That certainly was part of my motivation for signing up.  After all, I spent the last 25 years in Tallahassee, becoming part of the community, winning and losing elections (I liked the winning part best, in case you wonder), raising children and sending them away.  Going to Uganda was my chance to do something very different half the world away.

So a big part was selfish.  My friend Tom Quinn, who is about my age, startled me a few years ago when he observed, “You know, Bob, we only have about a thousand good weekends left.”  Yikes!  He was right, of course, and it helped focus me on not wasting time while my health is good.

But I have also been motivated by the idea of service, even before I acquired the Jewish obligation “to repair the world.”  So in that sense my work in Uganda was just the most recent step down a path I began years ago.

It’s not noble or selfless, just a need I picked up long ago to be useful.  The alternative is just too awful for me to contemplate.  I can thank the American Jewish World Service for letting me find this new way to be useful.

And no more navel-gazing!

Isn’t that a relief?

As Fred, tax lawyer and fellow He-Man at breakfast, said, “Your emails are too damn long.”  He’s always been a good reality check for me.

So I won’t be writing to you like this again any time soon.  I intend to write some essays for publication, but you’ll have to buy the damn newspaper and support print journalism.

Thanks for being good friends.

Best wishes,

Bob Rackleff


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