Assign-Uganda 2

Dear friends,

My first day of work on June 19 began with a two km, 25-minute walk up Entebbe Road with heavy traffic, passing scores of small shops of all size and description, a large factory complex, winding unpaved trails branching off into more neighborhoods like mine.  Ugandans drive on the left (damn those Brits!), and it takes some getting used to new habits of where to look.  It also brings up a question, by me at least, about which side of the stairs and sidewalks to walk on when encountering people coming the other way; points to ponder.

Ugandans are friendly to muzungus, and I make it a point to greet them personably in like manner.  It’s not enough to say hello; custom also calls for asking how their night was, or their health, or their children, and replying with your own reports before you can get down business.  This can make for fine schmoozing and good relations with my neighbors, and is downright enjoyable to me.  The local beat cops are beginning to recognize me – the crazy old muzungu who walks with a heavy messenger bag.

Fortunately, the weather is fine for walking, given daily lows in the high 60s and highs about 80, with occasional showers eat your heart out, East Coasters.  June-August here are the driest and coolest months of the year.

The air is another matter.

It’s thick with engine exhaust, trash fire smoke (do-it-yourself solid waste management), and cooking and other smoke, anoy, the dust.  Kampala is on a cluster of red clay hills, which local boosters compare to the seven hills of Rome, but I know are just generators of endless clouds of dust.  Any wind or motion on the hard pan kicks up the clay dust, which hangs in the air and clings to every object.  The rains only temporarily damp down the dust.  And if the locals don’t think there’s enough in the air, they sweep their clay surfaces busily, raising even more; they constantly sweep.  I suspect that I breathe in about a pound of dust per day, so if I return to Tallahassee heavier than I left, it’s ingested dust.

Even though there are hundreds of pedestrians per km on Entebbe Road during most of the day, there are no sidewalks (as in much of my dear Tallahassee).  Besides two traffic lanes, there are 6-8 foot wide paved shoulders, depending on the condition of the pavement, usually poor.  You walk on them cautiously because they are actually makeshift traffic lanes used by speeding boda-bodas, cars and taxis passing slower vehicles, storage space for daily deliveries for the produce merchants, parking, whatever – so pedestrians like me walk on what’s left, the unpaved shoulder, where it exists.  As I wrote about the taxi/matatu system, the roads are organic, another adaptation to dysfunction.

Work that day at the offices of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) was more productive than I expected.  It has 17 professional and support staff in a rambling house surrounded by a masonry wall, with a fulltime guard controlling access.

Private guards are everywhere in Kampala, brandishing weapons from billy clubs to antique Enfield rifles and AK-47s in various states of repair.  I wonder how many of them actually fire, but will leave that for someone else to determine.  Violent crime here is low by African standards, and Kampala has the reputation of being a low-crime African city for tourists and expats.  Most of us feel safe even at night.

But when you go to large shopping centers or other commercial or public spaces, you have to check bags at a counter and guards wand you for metal.  Heavy steel gates and high walls (ours has accordion wire on top), solid locks and bars on windows and doors are standard home equipment.

There are lots of police, too, as well as army, walking beats or seated on benches in the back of pickup trucks.  There’s usually one or more within sight.

Well, back to first day at NAPE.

The offices are equipped with a wireless modem that is serviceable, if not speedy, so I can work on the Internet all day; in fact, I listen to WFSQ-FM online while I work.  There’s an office girl who brings me instant coffee (I’ve given up trying to get the brewed kind) in the morning – and then afternoon tea, a fine contribution by Britain to Ugandans that almost makes up for cars driving on the wrong side of the road.

NAPE gets support from numerous international funders from AJWS, Open Society Foundation and Friends of the Earth International to the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and an unpronounceable Norwegian outfit, among several others.  Most of the international organizations active here are European, not American, especially when it comes to funding Ugandan groups – contrary to our popular impression (e.g., by the Tea Party ignoramuses like Rep. Steve Southerland) that the U.S. is generous to a fault to the undeserving poor of the world.  Compared to our economic size, we are actually the stingiest developed country.

NAPE covers the full spectrum of environmental issues with a strong emphasis on open government and citizen participation – you know, the features of democracy that Rick Scott is trying to kill.  (Ouch, the second political pop in as many paragraphs.)  It even has started the Sustainability School, which provides environmental education and, more important, how to organize towns and rural communities to demand the rule of law and push back against counterproductive development projects.

Its immediate challenges include reining in a new, out-of-control oil industry at Lake Albert, forcing the government to follow World Bank rules about a new hydro dam on the Victoria Nile to protect affected communities, stopping land grabs for large plantations for commodity crops like palm oil, and controlling use of dangerous chemicals.  They also are serious about gender equality, to train and empower women in male-dominated villages to get active in these efforts.

NAPE has done a good job of mobilizing affected communities and building partnerships with other Ugandan and international environmental NGOs – measured most notably by arrests and official harassment in recent years, a sure sign that they’re gaining traction.  It also has access to good legal help, so it can sue the government, and does, to enforce Ugandan law and defend their staff and allies in criminal trials.

Leading NAPE is executive director Frank Muramuzi, a committed, gutsy leader with an arrest record to show for his work.  He had just returned from New York City when I started work on Monday, making the rounds of funders.  He pulls few punches in publicly accusing the government of corruption and heavy-handedness, not the safest approach in a semi-democracy like Uganda. His international support seems to insulate him from what could be worse treatment.

My first big task is to reinvent NAPE’s inadequate website with new content and up-to-date features to compete for attention on the Internet.  NAPE has a talented IT guy who lacks content skills, and I lack IT skills, so we make a good team.  The program officers also want a better website for their issues and activities, so I’m getting a lot of help.

Frank is serious about improving the website, so he is making sure I get the help I need.  He also wants the new website to be sustainable – that the staff can maintain it after I leave – so I’m taking pains to involve them as I proceed.  He also had me write a news release about me (“Jimmy Carter’s speechwriter joins NAPE!’) and a letter to the editor in his name bashing the government’s inept or corrupt (probably both) contracts with Tullow and other oil companies developing fields in Lake Albert.

The rest of the staff are professional, work hard, very friendly, and are glad to have “Jimmy Carter’s speechwriter!” on board.  We have lunch together offsite usually and are getting acquainted fast, in the Ugandan custom of openly sharing personal details.  We brag abut our children a lot.  They’re a good team, and I like them all.

They also paid me a high compliment on Wednesday – they called me an “elder” – mostly because I’m older than any of them by at least 20 years, but also from respect.  Old guys really do rule here.  They also get a real giggle from the fact that I walk to and from work.  Walking is for poor people, not the middle class like us.  So what’s up with the walking, Bohb (their pronunciation)?

So I plunged into the website right away and kept up a steady of pace of reorganizing the pages and adding content – although I barely scratched the surface this first week.  Much of my work is to decide what belongs where, what overarching message there should be – while facing basic problems such as there’s no list of publications, which have proliferated over the last few years.  The publications staffer is compiling this list, and I expect all will be downloadable when we finish the summer.

On Tuesday (June 21), we AJWS volunteers congregated at a pleasant downtown outdoor Indian restaurant for Noa’s 27th birthday party.  She’s settling into her assignment and apartment across town.  Getting together like this involves a lot of planning, so we don’t see each other enough.  We made plans to attend the U.S. Embassy 4th of July picnic (on Sunday July 3) at the American Recreation Association (ARA), a private club.  It’ll be a good opportunity to expand connections and schmooze, plus have some fun.

Back at work, the rest of the week went by in fits and starts, interrupted by Internet down or power out, but generally productive.  I did some intellectual thrashing around, trying to develop, not yet successfully, a more cogent structure for the mountain of information contained in print but unavailable online.  Also, I convinced Frank to put full-action videos on the website, so we’re noodling how to do that.  Facebook?  Maybe.  But YouTube definitely.

My big motivation in all this is the importance of NAPE’s work.  Uganda has a gloriously varied geography and people that Winston Churchill in 1907 called “the Pearl of Africa.”  It’s a phrase government leaders use a lot, but betray in their economic development decisions the harm the environment grievously.

Foreign investment has been pouring into Uganda for the past quarter-century, after a disastrous 15 or so years of misrule.  Yoweri Museveni took power then and has been president ever since, achieving semi-democratic and economic reforms, and reelected in sort-of democratic elections.  There’s a lively press of at least a half-dozen daily tabloids with lurid headlines every day.  (One, Red Pepper, features semi-nude women on every front page; I avert my eyes.)  Opposition parties remain active and relevant, although subject to occasional crackdowns.

Museveni talks a good game about environmental protection.  There are numerous agencies to do that, and lots of bold statements, but business deals trump everything, including protections for public lands and even private property rights.  For example, the government thinks little of selling big parcels of national forest or wildlife refuge lands to foreign companies to clear-cut and plant commodity crops for biofuels – ignoring legal protections and local communities that rely on the forests for their liveliood.  Much of the new oil exploration is in national reserves.  (Um, I guess that’s not very different from here.)

I’ll write about these problems in more detail later, but want you to know that plenty of international environmental organizations call attention to problems like these, but their presence in Uganda is limited.  In contrast, NAPE is here and has been for 14 years.  Its staff is all Ugandan (except for one skinny old muzungu), rooted in extended families that span most of the country, and they put their lives on the line simply by showing up for work.  That’s all I need to keep me working.

But I also take some of the weekend off.  This Friday (June 24) Barbara and I took the matatu minibus-taxis to the American Recreational Association (APA) to buy tickets to the Embassy-sponsored 4th of July picnic.  We took one up Entebbe Road, then changed to another up Makindye Road to the APA; cost 1,500 shillings, about 60 cents.  The APA has a restaurant, bar, lodging, tennis, swimming, event spaces arranged in a leafy complex that looks like a colonial oasis of calm (at least what I envision based on movies like “Out of Africa”).  We stayed for dinner, lingered, then took a special-hire taxi home.

Saturday was a hoot.

Sylvia, a staffer at Barbara’s NGO, was marrying Patrick, her husband of eight years at the Catholic Church at Makarere University.  Yes, you read that right.  They’ve been a couple for eight years, have three delightful children, and now they made it official. The NAPE staff attended this, although most skipped the ceremony but went to the reception (don’t the rules say you can’t go to the reception if you don’t go to the ceremony?).

The two-hour ceremony was joyous and musical – the Army Band and church choir performed – lots of homilies and prayers – communion – lining up to congratulate the bride and groom (and hand them money) – much of it blocked from view by 6-8 photographers and videographers and their lights.  Not content with the three children  born already to the couple, the priest emphatically urged them to have more.  Then to the steps for “snaps” of various groups of family and dignitaries.  I got dragged into a group family/friends photo as a visiting elder or honorary cousin, I guess; I appear conspicuous, as you can imagine.

The reception was a good hour drive across Kampala to the Hotsprings Villas, atop one of the highest hills in the city.  Designed like a tropical resort, its best feature by far is a commanding 360-degree view that includes much of Lake Victoria.  That’s a special treat for me because it’s not easy to get within sight of the lake – not like, say, getting through Chicago to Lake Michigan.  The sun was setting and the sights were breathtaking.

Also breathtaking was the reception attended by at least 400 people, more organized a ceremony than in my experience – with speeches (I was enlisted to give one), food, beer, more speeches, musical interludes by the Army Band – and a cake-cutting that beat hell out of anything I ever saw.

Get this:  There were about 20 cakes decorated the same, with sweeping stacks of icing in bold colors, arranged in three tiers on a round table in the middle of the lawn.  After much fanfare, the bride and groom took knife in hand and cut the main cake.  At that instant, fireworks and sparks erupted right there by the table in a blaze of glory, which sent many for cover while the Sylvia and Patrick gamely stood their ground, newly adorned with ash. Nothing exceeds like excess, I always say.

The whole thing was pure pleasure for me.  The crowd was friendly, and I got acquainted with a lot of new people, and it was a memorable introduction to one of the most important conventions of middle-class Ugandan life.

The reception was still going strong at 10 pm when Barbara and I called it quits.  We were tired after eight hours of wedding, although I could only imagine how exhausted the bride and groom were.

Today, Sunday, we’re relaxing at our apartment and getting ready to go downtown to the National Theatre for a dance performance.

More about that and the week to come in my next email.

Assignment Uganda, Week 3, July 3-9

July 4th Celebration

It was a splendid 4th of July (although celebrated on Sunday, July 3), one of the best.

Sponsored by the U.S. Embassy, it was at the American Recreation Association (ARA), a private club just south of central Kampala.  It’s good place to escape occasionally the frantic pace of the city.  It has a decent restaurant with veranda and lawn seating, a bar, tennis courts, swimming pool, playground for children, some lodging, and a broad lawn for special events like ours.  Its orderly, manicured facilities were welcome to me, although I like to mingle on the streets with Ugandans, too.

I assume the Embassy likes the ARA because security is much simpler there, compared to the bunker-like Embassy compound a couple of kilometers away.  After the Nairobi U.S. Embassy was devastated by a bomb in the 1990s, our embassies around the world have become more forbidding and isolated from the host country citizens around them – a far cry from the 1950s, when we built numerous new embassies, designed by our leading modern architects, to show off our artistic prowess.

The celebration was from 5 pm to 8 pm, attended by about 300 Americans. There were lots of children, obviously having a good time.  We adults had a good time too, although I was clearly the oldest one there; I usually am, wherever I go these days.  There were a lot of Embassy staff there, including the Marine Security Detachment, some of who wore their dress blues to present the colors; a few minutes later, they reappeared in their casuals to join the festivities.

I got to talk with some of the senior staff, who were friendly and promised to make time for me to drop by to find out their perspective on environmental issues in Uganda.  With enough pestering and name-dropping, I suspect I can get an appointment to visit them.

I was struck by how young and professional they are, even though I expected it, long knowing about the Foreign Service rigor and esprit from my previous life in DC.  Half of them also had spouse and children in tow, and I imagined how dedicated to public service you have to be to balance work with a family you uproot every few years to relocate to another foreign capital, many of them not choice assignments; probably that’s why they’re so young and no senior enough for better assignments (I remember in my DC years that Chad was considered the worst).  The Tea Partiers probably consider them mere bureaucrats, but they are the elite of federal employees, and we are fortunate they choose to serve.

The rest were the usual expats – staffers at NGOs like the Clinton Foundation, AJWS volunteers, grad students doing field research, backpackers touring East Asia, and a few business executives.

Throughout we had several performances by a Ugandan drum band, dancing by a cultural troupe, singing by a children’s choir who also danced quite well, and my favorite, an acrobatic group who did amazing things.  The Patriots Club, a group of Embassy children, performed a skit in costume about U.S. history, with a passable Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, a cowboy – and that’s how we won the Revolutionary War!

The food was good, standard 4th picnic fare (no matoke, yay!), with a cash bar, bags of popcorn and a very tasty 235th birthday cake.

When darkness fell, the fireworks burst forth, all the more impressive because of the confined space; the fireworks were staged on the tennis court just a few yards away.  I like to be up close and personal for fireworks displays; the closer the better.  Everyone, including me, ooh-ed and aah-ed at the appropriate times.  We all had a fine time.

At work on Monday, I made a point to tell NAPE staff that this day (it was the real 4th) is our celebration of independence.  It was news to them, probably about what we would think when Canadians tell us that it’s their Canada Day (July 1, when the three provinces were united by law as one).  The NAPE staff did perk up when I reminded them that the U.S. used to be a British colony, just like Uganda, only longer ago.

Modes of Transportation

I know you’re just dying to learn this, but this transportation wonk can’t resist.

It takes a major effort to get around in Kampala, and I know now to allow three times the usual travel time to get to my destination – and my major time in transit gives me the time to observe and reflect on Kampala transportation.  It takes just as much time for Ugandans to get around, despite their knowledge of the street network, and even if they have their cars.  Kampala has about 1.5 million residents, but the population doubles on workdays, as people flood in for work.

Here are the transportation modes that Kampalans use, descending in order of number of people who use them:

Feet – Because most of them have no car, or are maybe short of cash to catch a “taxi” or boda-boda, or going a short distance, they walk.  As I mentioned in an earlier email, there are almost no sidewalks; the few that exist in central downtown are often too crowded by other pedestrians and sidewalk merchants, so you walk in the street.  In the suburb of Sseguku where I live and work, people are everywhere at all hours.  You can get a haircut at midnight, if you want, and have the pick of the half-dozen barber shops every kilometer on Entebbe Road that are still open.

Bicycles – They not only take the cyclist where he wants to go (I have yet to see a woman cyclist), they’re also used to carry passengers – as a sort of non-motorized boda-boda, on long cushions over the back wheel – and to carry virtually any kind of cargo.  In the city I’ve seen cyclists pushing bikes laden with huge charcoal bags, lumber and steel beams, whole door frames (door included), and all sorts of fruits and vegetables.  They are a major part of the freight short-haul system.

Motorcycles – These also take motorcyclists where they want to go, and they take passengers – often more swiftly than anything else, given their ability to weave in and out of lines of stalled vehicles, and usually charge 3,000 to 5,000 shillings, about $1.20 to $2.00; I see hundreds of them carrying passengers to and from work.  They also haul a lot of cargo, and you can hear their two-stroke engines really straining under the load.

Boda-bodas get a lot of public criticism for their horrible safety record and contribution to congestion – although they also provide a valuable service to people in a hurry or whose origin and destination are off matatu major routes.  If the government succeeds in ridding the city of then, the question comes up, how would people get around?

To me, the boda-boda is a reasonable, affordable alternative – not that I’d ride one – having been in a motorcycle accident when an undergrad and vowing never to ride one again.  But it’s the most practical way that hundreds of thousands of Kampalans have to get around.  So back off with the criticism, government planners.

“Taxi,” also “matatu” – My favorite.  I’ve described before this 14-passenger mini-van, invariably a Toyota.   Now, having used them regularly for nearly three weeks, I regard them as highly useful, especially when traveling by major routes.

Fares are usually 1,000 shillings, about 40 cents, which does not include comfort.  You get a seat crammed together with others, and you have to get off and back on when letting passengers behind you get off or on; this happens automatically, as people get off and back on, filling in the empty seats in back first, observing a long-ago agreed etiquette of letting people off and on without negotiation or complaint.

You catch one by the road as they pull onto the shoulder – or just stop in traffic – unless they’re already full – and alight wherever you want it to stop, telling the conductor, who sits in the second row next to the door.  They have routes, not posted, that the conductor can tell you; he is how you learn where to catch one going to your destination.  There’s a lot of stop and go, so it takes time, but it works reliably.

In our case, we take a matatu downtown to the “taxi park,” where most routes originate and end.  It’s a marvel to see – hundreds of minivans jammed close together – gathered around a route sign, then somehow breaking free of the jam to begin their runs.  It defies explanation, but it works.

They get a lot of, I believe, unjustified criticism about blocking other traffic, but each one carries 14 passengers, a lot better than a private car with only one or two riding in it.  Fixed route buses sound great but require a management infrastructure that Kampala would probably find both expensive and impossible to implement.  If a matatu breaks down mechanically, another one comes by; the taxi gets repaired at the roadside by nearby mechanics (they’re everywhere) or some buddies.

The matatu system essentially works on its own, with no real public costs, carried out by owner-drivers or small multi-taxi companies; there are licenses, and some oversight of routes, but not much else that’s apparent. To me, it’s the molecular level of mass transit, moving 14 people at a time on the traffic arteries through the city.  On my walk home this Friday, every third vehicle on Entebbe Road was a matatu.  Another third were commercial vehicles, the rest boda-bodas or private cars averaging two passengers.  The vast majority of people traveling were in matatus.

Special-Hire Taxis – Then there are special-hire taxis, which are hassle-free but relatively expensive.  Fares are negotiable, and you know what to pay only after a few weeks of experience.  The usual fare home from downtown is 30,000 shillings, but I’ve paid from 25,000 to 35,000; $10 to $14.  Since it usually costs me $25 to go to the Tallahassee airport from home, it’s an ok fare; it’s a comparable distance, too, about seven miles.

Our bargaining power improves when we tell a new driver that we’re here for three more months and may want to call him for rides later; they provide a business card or a cell phone number.  Once they get you as a regular, they are happy to pick you up when we’re on the town, even late at night, and are usually quite good about showing up timely.  While it’s not unsafe to take matatus at night, by the end of the evening, with sleep beckoning, it’s worth the extra money to just get a ride home.

Full-Size Buses – There are none, except for travel to other towns.  The cheapest and best one is the Postal Bus, operated by Uganda Post, which both delivers mail and carries passengers.  We’ve looked into its northbound bus, but it doesn’t operate on Sundays, when we’d need to return in time for work on Monday.

However, government ministries and other big employers provide buses to some of its employees, which I know because I see them going up and down Entebbe Road during rush hours, while I walk.

Railroads – Freight trains barely exist, even though railroads used to be the mode for freight and passengers.  This is a shame, because the nation relies almost exclusively on trucks to move imports and exports, and the Kenyan port of Mombasa is 575 miles – about the same as Tallahassee to Charlotte, NC – but on two-lane, poorly-maintained roads with frequent stops in towns along the way.  Passenger service is nonexistent, much to the chagrin of this train fan,

The government talks a lot about revitalizing freight and passenger rail service, but few people take it seriously.  It’s one of  Uganda’s most serious competitive disadvantage in global markets.

Private Cars – Car ownership in Uganda is so low that it’s just an aspiration for almost everyone; by one count, there are only four cars per thousand nationwide, although it’s obviously much higher in Kampala.  Even if more people could buy one, there’s no room for them, so only the upper middle and upper classes drive cars.  Some car owners pay for them by becoming special-hire taxis, since there’s no apparent licensing scheme in place.  At NAPE, there are usually only six or seven cars parked outside the office; some car pool, others take matatus.

I’ll describe the street and road system in a later email.  I’m sure you’re waiting with bated breath.

NAPE work

Work proceeded steadily, as the website took on a more coherent shape.  Actually, I just plunged ahead, making changes as I went.  The more I get into it, the content I realize is needed – so I’ve picked up the pace.  I have 11 weeks left, punctuated by field visits and other interruptions, so there’s not much time.

And, no, you can’t see anything yet.  We won’t light up the new website for at least six more weeks, maybe later, and only after getting it right during testing.

Since I want this effort to be sustainable after I leave, I’m also working closely with the policy staff – almost all of the 17 are professionals – to get them accustomed to the need to communicate in ways that keep web readers involved – a challenge in any organization.

We also had a reminder this week of the powerful forces arrayed against environmental values in general and NAPE in particular.  Facing criticism about a falling shilling, rising prices and more power blackouts, President Museveni issued a full-throated statement (it was reprinted in two full pages of the well-read New Vision newspaper on Friday) defending his initiatives – and denouncing as “economic saboteurs” the environmentalists who’ve opposed several energy and corporate farming projects that flunk any fair cost-benefit test.

He denounced the “indiscipline” of “unprincipled opposition,” and called on “patriots” to stand by him as he proposes “to stop political indisipline.”  He called for support for “serious legislation and amendment on rioters and other economic saboteurs [emphasis mine], not to forget murders, rapists and traitors.”

Hmmm.  So anybody who wants to protect the Nile from further degradation, prevent continued decline of water levels and quality of Lake Victoria, and rainforests from clear cutting for huge sugar and palm oil plantations – not to mention solutions that have yet to work economically – is up there with murderers and rapists.  The language of his proposals is still not known; his legislation is now before the ruling party caucus (numbering about 2/3 of Parliament), which crafts bills behind closed doors, out of the public eye.

Sound familiar?  In fact, I think I’ve found Rick Scott a soul mate.  Both blame environmentalists for holding up progress.  Less regulation, less public interference, more streamlining, and so forth.  Clean air and water are for sissies.  Real men don’t bother.

At times like this, I feel like I never left Tallahassee, except the cost of living here is cheaper.  Keep quiet about this, though, so Scott doesn’t fly here in his private jet to trade ideas, like he did two weekends ago to visit the Koch brothers in Colorado.

The NAPE staffers I discussed this with seem to take it in stride and claim that he’s said this before without going after them.  Although Frank Muramuzi, the executive director, was under indictment and out on bail for three years until a few months ago for inciting a riot and unlawful assembly; the courts finally dismissed all charges.

Which sustains my admiration for NAPE and their staff for opposing and organizing against obviously damaging proposals, the intimidation by government of affected communities, and the official corruption that drives so much decision making here.

This isn’t a rigid dictatorship, by any means.  There are opposition parties, a lively free press, outspoken citizens unafraid to hold strikes and demonstrations, and even government officials who bravely take a stand.  When Museveni about three years ago gave a huge tract of forest preserve land to a foreign company for a sugar plantation, the forestry minister and senior staff resigned in protest; the president backed off.

NAPE helped lead opposition and still does.  While most people choose not to go this far, NAPE crosses this line, marshalling facts, building coalitions, getting the word out, and openly challenging authority, namely the Big Man, President Museveni.  (That also why I’m especially friendly with the beat cops on Entebbe Road; they may come in handy some day.)  Good for NAPE to keep up their brave work.

Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary

Saturday four of us spent the day in Entebbe, 30 km south of Kampala.  The airport is its main feature, but it also has numerous tourist spots, hotels and restaurants – plus some government and NGO agencies.  Much smaller than Kampala, for many it’s an alternative to living or working in the chaos of Kampala.  For us, it’s an easy trip down Entebbe Road by the 14-passenger matatu, for the bargain price of 1,500 shillings (about 60 cents).

We had signed up for an afternoon trip to the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary.  Since Entebbe also has a decent zoo and botanic gardens, we left Sseguku early to take in those sights too.  Both were interesting.

The highlight was the sanctuary, operated by a trust formed by the Jane Goodall Foundation and other NGOs.  The island is an hour-long boat ride out from Entebbe to one of several archipelagos in the lake.  Victoria is the largest lake in Africa, the largest tropical lake in the world, and second only to Lake Superior in size.  It’s about 20 percent larger than Lake Michigan.

Visits are timed to coincide with the 2:30 pm feeding of the about 50 chimps who live there, so we got to witness the fascinating interaction of their self-organized community as they ate.  Not much sharing, but then not much fighting either.  After the food ran out, they drifted back into the jungle to continue their daily routine out of our rapt gaze.

All but about three acres of the island is heavily wooded, to simulate their natural habitats around Uganda, Rwanda and other countries.  But the small size of the island (about 120 acres) has only enough wild food to support only about three chimps, therefore the feeding.  It’s a humane solution and opportunity for us to learn firsthand about the species that genetically is about as close as you can get to humans.

The chimps usually are orphans, left behind after their parents were killed by poachers, and would die in the wild.  On the island, they can live in peace.  Some could be released back into their wild – if the trust can find a suitable habitat – but so far they will live here for the rest of their lives.

The staff interacts with them enough to learn about their unique personalities and give them names.  My favorite is Robbie, the former alpha male deposed and sidelined a few years ago after overstepping his authority.  (My son Robby, pay attention: watch your step!  Wait a minute, it sounds like me!)

Well, it was a good trip, with lots of “snaps” (photos).  After dinner in Entebbe, it was home by matatu and, best of all, the electricity was back on at my apartment!

Next week will be more work at NAPE, my 68th birthday on Tuesday July 12, and a weekend trip to Mbale, about 150 miles east of Kampala, at the foot of Mount Elgon, one of the highest in East Africa.

For us AJWS-ers, travel to Mbale is our chance to attend Shabbat services and visit the only organized Jewish community in Uganda – the Abuyadaya – about 1,500 descendents of ethnic Africans who decided to become Jews after concluding on their own in the 1880s that the Old Testament was just fine with them.

More about that in next week’s email.

Assignment Uganda, Week 4, July 10 –17

Dear friends,

On Tuesday my fellow volunteers and I met at a downtown pizzeria to celebrate my 68th birthday.  Mine had anchovies – pungent, salty, delicious anchovies – which Esther never lets me get in Tallahassee.  Pizza here is more European, the way I like it, rather than the America version heavy on the red sauce.

The staff and we sang Happy Birthday, I got a slice of chocolate cake with candles, and a goofy party hat festooned with frilly aluminum foil doodads and Spiderman standing tall amidst a group of small, multiethnic children.  A photo of this exists.  A fine time was had by all.

Wednesday was a bummer.  Overnight on Tuesday, the NAPE offices had been burglarized of most of its computer hardware, despite supposedly having 24-hour security; a rogue guard may have been involved.  As I learned Thursday, the first full day of work after that, virtually all the desktop computers and screens were stolen.  Worse, there was little data backed up, so at least six months of work is gone.  We’re retrieving email attachments and other data to piece things back together.

Our tech guy, Ivan, spent Thursday shopping for new hardware, so at least the new machines presumably will be more capable.  Unfortunately, the burglars left behind the antique printer that my laptop cannot interface because it’s so bloody old.  I hope Ivan remembers about the printer and will buy a new one while he’s replacing the desktops.

I keep my laptop with me, schlepping it back and forth in a backpack, so I wasn’t directly affected; however, when I got home, I backed up my computer and resolved to do it daily.

The burglary could be political, although probably just another property crime in a city where it continues to be a serious problem.

Of all the burdens that Ugandans bear, property crimes, preventing those crimes, and private security services are a major business and family financial burden and drag on national productivity.  Middle class homes are armored – surrounded by masonry walls topped by razor wire, solid steel gates secured by serious padlocks, bars and gates on doors and windows – providing at least the illusion of security.

Obviously, it didn’t help NAPE, even with 24-hour security guards.

So I went home Wednesday morning, I did some work on the website, some shopping, cooking dinner, reading.

Despite the absence of computers on Thursday, staff got some work done.  The NAPE staff truly is dedicated and hard working – and wring as much work out of me as they can (which is why I’m here).  So I got tasked to help prepare a funding document to help finance a board meeting of the African Rivers Network, for which NAPE is the secretariat.

It will have representatives from about 12 African countries all facing similar problems with dams and other projects that impair the rivers’ natural functions and dislocate entire communities.  Besides the planning, I’m supposed to help conduct the meeting in the first week of September.  I got it done quickly, much to everyone’s satisfaction.

Visit to Abayudaya community near Mbale.

On Friday we five AJWS volunteers took the day off to visit the Abayudaya, a unique Jewish community of Ugandans in Mbale, about 150 miles east of Kampala, in the foothills of Mount Elgon, on the Kenyan border.  We attended Friday night Shabbat services, then Saturday too, getting to know the community and bearing gifts (I brought the wine).

First a little history.

The Abayudaya (literally “people of Judah”) descended from a group that followed its leader who had to converted to Christianity at the urging of missionaries, but in the early 20th century read the Bible intensely and decided that the Old Testament was all he needed.  After consulting with local Muslims, who said that he was following Jewish practices, he declared, “Then we will be Jewish!”

He had himself and sons circumcised (ouch!) and established a semblance of Jewish practices.  An otherwise unidentified wandering Palestinian Jew, “Josef,” visited the community in 1920 and stayed about six months to teach the Abayudaya in detail about Jewish principles and practices, especially the calendar and festivals.

The community later underwent a schism, in which many converted to Christianity or Islam, then declined further under anti-Semitic persecution by Idi Amin in the 1970s.  But the Abayudaya rebounded in the 1980s, established close ties to Reform and Conservative Jews and Israel, forming a self-described kibbutz.

Rabbi Gershom Shizomu, the spiritual leader today has studied at Yeshivas in Los Angeles and Israel, was ordained as a Conservative rabbi, then returned to Mbale.  To help serve other small communities in the area, he established five separate synagogues for the about 1,500 members.  Most live around the Moses synagogue on Nabugoye Hill, which we visited.

Our Road Trip to Mbale

We took the 8 am Uganda Posta bus (which delivers mail along the way, but also passengers) to Mbale and charges about six dollars, arriving after five hours of stopping and resuming at least 25 times to pick up and drop off passengers and bags of mail.  The postal service operates it, the buses are clean and comfortable, and it was a fine, leisurely way to see the countryside and communities along the way.

We crossed the Nile, at its source in Jinja, called the source because it’s where the waters of Lake Victoria drain to create the river. (It’s also the home of Nile Brewery, which makes my favorite beer, which I’m sipping now.)  From my reading, I was prepared for what I saw, a river so blocked, channeled and swaddled by engineers that it displayed none of the magnificence you should expect for one of the world’s legendary wild rivers.

Jinja is about 80 km east of Kampala on the main highway linking Kampala to Nairobi and Mombassa.  Lots of trucks, which are the main way cargo goes back and forth; the railroads are neglected, even though they have great potential.

Past Jinja, we entered the East African Rift Valley, formed by diverging geological plates creating the mostly flat, fertile land storied in Africa for its productivity and temperate climate.  From the Nile, the valley continues for about 150 km until it reaches a mountain range straddling the border with Kenya.

Mbale is 155 km beyond Jinja, although we took a longer route, by way of Turoro’s post office to drop off and collect mail.  Turoro’s distinction is a huge cement factory, named after the town, which supplies most of Uganda’s construction needs but emits serious air pollution, the usual fate of Ugandan communities that host big industrial and agricultural enterprises.  It also has a huge rock, called Tororo Rock, that juts about 250 m straight up, and the National War Cemetary, which contains the remains of white and black Ugandans who died in the two World Wars.

The land of the Rift Valley is a patchwork of mostly small farms (with corporate farming increasingly muscling in) growing sugar, tea, coffee, matoke, maize, cattle.  Unless protected as reserves or parks, the forests have been denuded by cutting for charcoal and firewood mostly for Kampalans.  It also contains a large number of round mud homes with thatched roofs, the characteristic home for many of the rural poor.

The road from Tororo was bad with often wide, deep potholes that required much swerving as our bus made its way for the last hour to Mbala.  Judging by the (very) occasional road resurfacing project, the government seems to be making a half-hearted attempt to improve them, better I suppose than none at all.

Hang on, I’ll get to the Abayudaya soon.

We arrived in Mbale at about 1 pm, departing the bus at the post office. It’s the third largest city in Uganda, although it’s seen better days, retaining a lot of commercial purpose and some tourism.  It’s not an A-list tourist attraction, despite the dramatic mountain range that rises steeply up about 2 km east of downtown.  The seventh highest in Africa, Mount Elgon is behind those mountains and one of the most hikeable around, but we didn’t have time to go there.

Instead, we strolled through a working downtown with little glitz but plenty of activity.  Mostly two or three stories tall, the commercial buildings were in the colonial style; it looked like the late 1940s through the late 1950s were boom years, judging by the dates on many of the most prominent buildings.  The charms of Mbale would be elusive to most of you, but I found it endearing in its workaday character.

After getting settled in our spartan hotel rooms and having lunch at its good Indian restaurant – I eat a lot of Indian food here, given their dependable quality – we set out for the Abayudaya community at Nabugoye Hill.

Friday Services at Moses Synagogue

It took an effort because it’s not well known to locals, and none of the matatu drivers knew where it was.  But we found a special hire driver who knew about it and took us there, about 15 minutes over mostly unpaved roads.

The synagogue and related buildings occupy a hilltop from which you can look east to a lovely farming valley with the mountains no more than 2 km beyond.  My photography didn’t do it justice, but take my word, it’s a picturesque, bucolic alpine-like scene.

Besides the brick synagogue of about 25 by 60 feet, there are Rabbi Gershom Shizomu’s home, a small yeshiva for advanced Jewish study, fairly large primary and high schools, and a guesthouse that can accommodate about 20 visitors.

The latter had a full house, with 17 college students on an AJWS trip, three recent Canadian graduates of McGill, and a photographer from Seattle and his girlfriend — all young Jews eager to learn about their hosts.   The guesthouse has a small gift shop where I bought a locally-knitted yarmulke.  The compound used to have a free health clinic, but outgrew the building and, with U.S. philanthropy, relocated it to Mbale in its own two-story building.

The services that began at 6:30 pm were memorable, inspiring and challenging.  As a conservative congregation, much of the service was unfamiliar, much was familiar, so this newly-minted Reform Jew coped as best as I could.  Where in the service we welcome the Sabbath bride, singing “Lecha Dodi” we danced around the Bimah (the platform where the rabbi stands in front of the congregation), which got everyone energized.

There was an electrical blackout, common these days of power shedding, so as sunlight dimmed, we moved outside to continue the service.  Prayers were recited in Hebrew and Luganda (the predominant indigenous language in southern Uganda) with a facility that showed me they are serious Jews.  There was a lot of lay participation, including by women members.

Following services, Rabbi Shizomu invited the five of us to his home for dinner.  After five years of study and travel overseas, he is no country preacher, and he was generous in answering our questions about the community and his experiences overseas.  His understanding of the world outside Africa and deep commitment to his community showed throughout.

He shared his experience as a reform candidate for Parliament earlier this year, which he lost because the ruling party broke up rallies, harassed supporters, and kept many of his voters away from the polls – all confirmed by others we spoke with.  I had to admit that I lost my election, too, but fair and square.

Saturday morning services

After breakfast in town, at Wimpy’s, we returned to the Abayudaya for Sabbath morning services, which were even better attended than the previous night.  It included more lay participation and readings from Torah.  In the synagogue’s ark are five complete Torah scrolls with ornate coverings, donated by U.S. congregations.

Prominent in the service was Ari, a twenty-something community organizer from Baltimore, who was at the end of four months of work and study with the rabbi.  He’s very familiar with my son Robby’s art collective there, called Wham City, and probably has seen him perform, along with the others.  Small world, as usual.

Ari is considering rabbinical school when he returns to the U.S. later this summer, but for the time being is keeping his options open.  For the next month he’ll travel to visit African Jewish communities south of here and return to the Abayudaya by bus from South Africa before flying back to the U.S.

The service lasted for about three hours, followed by discussion groups outside under trees, then Torah study featuring the passages in Numbers about how the Israelis maintained their cohesion in the many years it took to reach and occupy the Promised Land, how they had to overcome external and internal challenges – an apt lesson for this once-embattled community.

I said earlier it was challenging to visit the Abayudaya and participate in their services not just because that much was unfamiliar (the Hebrew text mostly, which I can’t read yet).  The real challenge is to live up to the level of piety and community which comes so naturally to them.  As a still-new convert, there’s a lot to master in the years to come, and these poor-to-modest farmers have set a high standard for me to match.  Simply by doing what comes naturally to them, they challenged me to become a more spiritual Jew.

After full immersion for the evening and morning, we five bid farewell and returned for lunch in town, then took a matatu to Sipi Fallls, in the mountains about 60 km northeast of Mbale.  It being a long trek, the matatu driver was determined to collect as many fares as possible, so he managed to cram 18 passengers into a 13-passenger minivan, cranking up the discomfort level several notches.

Then we drove over some of the worst roads yet, even worse than between Turoro and Mbale, swerving and crashing into big potholes, avoiding oncoming vehicles doing the same thing.  After about 25 km, the road mercifully got better and we made better time, although stopping frequently to let people off and on, to put more water in the minivan radiator and, once, to stop at somebody’s roadside home, where he bought a jerry can of gasoline and filled up the tank.

The payoff came after we ascended the mountains and arrived at Sipi Falls, an underappreciated (we saw only about eight other tourists) natural wonder of a three-tiered water fall cascading at least 500 meters down a forested ravine.  At this altitude, the air was blessedly cool.

We hired a guide who led our hike to the “medium” falls, a tough 40 minutes up a steep incline, to get up close and personal with the falls, including walking behind the cascade, savoring its roar, cool mist and light filtered through the water and spray.  The matatu ride was no longer in our thoughts.

On our hike back, we stopped at a lodge with a fine view of the falls for snacks, where I had the first good cup of coffee since arriving in Uganda.  Tea rules here.  It was Arabica in a French press, with milk and sugar.  Ahh.

Our arranged matatu didn’t show up, however, and with nightfall coming, we had no way to get back to Mbale.  But a friendly three Ugandans, who had played hooky from a corporate meeting in Mbale to see the falls, gave us a ride back.  On the way, as we descended from the mountains, with the sun low in the sky, I feasted on a panoramic view of the Rift Valley and its farms and patches of forest, including Lake Bisina in the distance.  I had long read about the Rift Valley, and there it was spread before me from to the horizon.  Quite a sight.

Back in Mbale, we had a leisurely dinner at the hotel Indian restaurant.  I tried to order a martini (how foolish was that!), but the Indian bartender didn’t know what that was, and a scan of the liquor rack showed no vermouth.  I mean, we were in a former British colonial town, with Indians presiding, and there was no vermouth.  Then I had to supervise closely the mixing of gin and tonic for our group; the waitress thought we meant Guinness and tonic and brought us bottles of both.  Sheesh!

Sunday morning after breakfast, again at Wimpy’s, we visited the Abayudaya’s free health clinic about a km north of town.  It provides basic in and outpatient health services, including deliveries and minor surgery.  The staff was welcoming, since one us had known the late benefactor, Dr. Gary Tobin, for whom the clinic was named.

For the trip back, we selected the Hoppa Kampala (so-called) express bus, which took the more direct, shorter route back but still took only a half-hour less than the slowpoke Posta Bus.  We started with 60 passengers on a 50-seat bus.  It stopped to let people off and on.  At the first police checkpoint (each usually about every 40 km), the cop threw off excess passengers, but the driver later let more on.  My proposed motto for the Hoppa Kampala: “We take the express out of express bus!”

The seats are not designed for African bottoms, so we were crammed together as no airlines has yet to do.  Across the aisle, a portly mother of twin infants was performing a tour de force of nursing each or both when they got cranky, her equally-ample sister directing traffic to the nipples.  My seatmate was a young slender woman, but even the two of us were crowded together in the narrow seats.

Well into the trip, when some of the passengers demanded a bathroom break, the driver pulled over next to a sugar plantation, and about half the bus got off (me included) to disappear into the tall canes to do our relieve ourselves.  By the time we arrived in Kampala, we were dragging.

Despite the discomfort, we had a valuable, direct experience of how ordinary Ugandans get around, instead of riding in some hermetically sealed tour bus with other first worlders.  It certainly was memorable – noisy, crowded, discomforts galore – and along the way saw some impressive sights.

The swarm of street vendors standing under our windows selling meat on skewers, roasted corn, fried bread, bottled water, some of who boarded the bus (after which our conductor passed out paper napkins).  The churches with youngsters in Sunday School under a tree, with adults inside.  The farmers even on Sunday working their small plots.  Busy village centers with hundreds of people buying and selling.  People everywhere sweeping the dust to no apparent effect.  Others drawing water for home and field from muddy roadside streams.

There was nothing prettified about these scenes, yet it was a clear window on the daily lives of people who dignify their lives with hard work and family, and deserve our respect.

Barbara and I had dinner downtown and did some grocery shopping, then headed home to get ready for the next week of work.

More next week.

Best wishes,

Assignment Uganda, Week 5

Dear Friends,

Monday morning (July 18) at NAPE was pretty good.   The trauma about the burglary had eased as the staff was busy unpacking their new desktop computers and getting acquainted with them.  Empty boxes and foam packing pieces were everywhere.  Our wireless modem was up and running.

Best of all, the new printer was installed.  Hallelujah!  I was tempted to find a shovel to bury the antique printer even the thief didn’t think worth stealing.  Instead, I just inserted the CD installer, downloaded the software for the driver and was able to print directly.  Ahh . . .

I spent much of Monday and Tuesday emailing files to others as they pieced together the data they lost to the burglar.  Kent Spriggs sent me info about his online backup service that works automatically, and I forwarded it to Ivan, our tech guy. Ivan was very busy this week, dealing with everyone’s startup challenges.  I think he’s secretly enjoying the opportunity to show off his considerable expertise to get the organization back on track and to demonstrate his value.

Work on the website continues apace, as I build up content by borrowing from numerous other organizations online, including the UN, which can add extra depth to NAPE’s site.  Unless I go out with my colleagues for lunch, I eat at my desk – ramen noodles, yum – and keep up the pace all day.

By Thursday, I was proceeding steadily, developing the facts and language for such subjects as abusive mining practices, wetlands destruction, deforestation and the disconcerting tendency of the government to tell international funders one thing and the Uganda public little or nothing – to name just a few issues.

On Friday, I made a creative breakthrough and came up with a very different outline that I think will make the site more coherent and intuitive.  I love it when that happens.

NAPE has been good about describing what they intend to do and what they’ve done, but not so good in describing what’s at stake or enough facts about the projects they support or oppose.  They understand that and see me as the solution to that — Bohb, Jimmy Carter’s speechwriter!

So a lot of Internet research has ensued in the last two weeks, much of it fruitful.  The government’s websites are untrustworthy, so I depend a lot on UN and international NGO sources.  Now that I can use the new printer, I’ve become its best customer.

My goal is to create a compelling case that saving Uganda’s environment is an international imperative, which it is, then that much of what the government is doing is irresponsible, and that NAPE is a credible and effective organization doing good work, winning a few key battles, and deserves our attention and support.

It should be convincing that it’s in everyone’s economic interests to avoid dumb growth projects that consume Uganda’s finite natural resources for short-term gain, jeopardizing the sustainability of both the environment and livelihoods.  Well, we can’t even make that case to Florida’s lame-brained leadership; maybe my effort here will be just as futile.

That also means the site should be much more visual, using photography and video showing the marvelous biodiversity of Uganda and how important that is to the people who live in it – and to the rest of the world.  Did I mention that Uganda has glaciers (on the Equator!) in the Rwenzori Mountains that, unfortunately, are melting as global warming drives temperatures up.

With only two months to go before leaving on Sept 20, I’ve got a lot more research, writing, and designing to do.  I really want this to be quality work.

Ugandan Little Leagues win big

This just in, as I read in Tuesday’s local newspaper:

For the first time in the 65-year history of the Little League Baseball World Series, a team from Africa will be there.  The Uganda Little League team from Kampala won the Middle East and Africa Region Tournament with a 6-4 victory over the 17-time World Series regional champion since 1991, Arabian American Little League from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Having been to Dhahran, the Saudi oil capital, on a Treasury Department trip in 1977, I understand why its team dominated for so long.  The Aramco Oil Co. expatriate compound is in Dhahran, where mostly American employees, consultants and others live on what reminded me of a big U.S. Army base, complete with suburban-style housing, schools, church, guesthouse/hotel (where we stayed), offices and the other usual facilities – All-American, in an idealized, recreated way.

In fact, the compound was more American than America, aided by the insularity and affluence of the residents.  Like the Villages on steroids.

It was the one place in Saudi Arabia where women could drive cars, which they did even for the shortest distances, simply to have the experience.  To leave the compound, their husband or other male would have to drive. Getting booze also was a problem for the residents, so that many there relied on their home brew distilled liquor.  At parties there, the host, being gracious and helpful to guests, would ask, White? Or brown?

I remember talking with the middle-aged woman manager of the guesthouse/hotel, who had spent most of her life in the compound and planned to continue.  The pay was excellent and daily life was ordered there, not like in the States, which she visited on home leave, but couldn’t wait to return from.

So the Little Leaguers of Dhahran had a competitive edge that any other team in the region lacked – they’re real Americans playing the national pastime.  But our intrepid Ugandans overcame that competitive edge, beat Dhahran, and won a berth in the Little League World Series.

Beating Dhahran was not all they had to overcome.  For some reason, the regional tournament for Africa and the Middle East is in Poland – Poland? Isn’t that in Europe? – despite entreaties in recent years to have it in Kampala or at least somewhere in the region.  No dice, says the Little League organization.

So the Ugandans needed at least $35,000 to make the trip.  But first they had to travel to the Polish embassy in Nairobi, since there’s none in Uganda – and the Poles required that all team members had to go there to apply in person, with birth certificates, which mostly don’t exist here, and paid-up plane tickets.  They also were told to jump through numerous other hoops.

Fortunately, the U.S. Embassy intervened, the kids got their visas with minimum fuss, raised the money from donors, and they were off to Poland and glory.  Another service the U.S. Embassy provided in previous years had been to receive shipments of baseball equipment and uniforms directly by diplomatic pouch, thus avoiding very high import duties the Ugandan customs officials wanted to levy.

(As I write this, Esther’s birthday care package to me via Federal Express is hung up in Ugandan customs, which wants me to pay about $70 in duties.  I wrote a couple of polite but firm emails in response and am awaiting the outcome.  Thanks a lot, FedEx!)

Two local TV networks carried the Little Leaguers games in Poland, and will cover the World Series games later this summer – not bad for a team and league that didn’t exist until 2004.  Credit for helping also goes to Major League Baseball for money and equipment, the 303 Development Foundation, and the Peace Corps, which already had a little-used program to develop sports programs in Uganda.

I like their story and hope they win.  Even if they don’t triumph in Williamsport, they still did great.

The Passing of the Armies by Joshua Chamberlain

Quite by accident two weeks ago, I found an excellent book at a nearby store – a battered, used paperback copy of The Passing of the Armies, by Joshua Chamberlain, one of the Union’s most deservedly celebrated Civil War heroes.

Chamberlain’s book was nestled in a pile of used romance and mass-market novels but managed to catch my eye.  It’s beautifully written in a Victorian way and hard to put down.  It’s one of those books you try to parcel out slowly so you’re not left too soon with no more to read.

He’s best known for holding the Union left flank at Gettysburg’s Little Round Top – driving back a ferocious assault by a much larger Confederate force that nearly outflanked the rest of the Union Army line; and capturing several hundred of them, to boot.  He won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism there.

He served in battle three solid years from Antietam to Appomattox, consistently led from the front, inspiring his men into action, was wounded six times, had a horse shot out from under him six times also, and was twice wounded so severely that he was mistakenly reported dead.

I visited the Gettysburg battlefield about 35 years ago on a snowy winter weekend, covering it on cross-country skies with (name-dropping alert!) Chris Matthews, when we worked together for Sen. Ed Muskie.  We were the only visitors that day, adding to the quiet dignity of such a watershed event.  Looking across the killing field from Seminary Ridge where Pickett’s division was mowed down in the open, I kept thinking, How could anyone in their right mind advance across an open field into a wall of gunfire?

The late Mike Shaara’s novel, Killer Angels, described his heroism in detail, and Jeff Daniels portrayed Chamberlain in Ted Turner’s film adaptation, Gettysburg. (Mike taught me creative writing at FSU in 1965, and I accidentally ran into him in DC in the Senate Office building cafeteria one evening in 1976 – I was working late – where he was sipping coffee to kill time before going to the White House reception for that year’s Pulitzer Prize winners.)

I learned first about Chamberlain when I wrote for Muskie in the mid-1970s; one of his favorite quotes for speeches was by Chamberlain when he later served a governor of Maine.  It was an eloquent statement about the nobility of government in service to its citizens.  I couldn’t locate it online just now so will have to wait for my return to Tallahassee to find it in my typewritten notebook of quotations.

The Passing of the Armies is Chamberlain’s memoir of the last two weeks of the siege of Richmond and Petersburg that ended with the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.  There Chamberlain received the surrendering army in a moving and respectful ceremony he arranged, with an all-hands salute as the Southerners filed by.  The book is action packed – his division and he were in nonstop combat for those two weeks, maneuvering and attacking aggressively – in the end cutting off Lee’s only hope to escape south from Richmond and forcing his capitulation.

Written in the 1880s – after serving as Governor of Maine and president of Bowdoin College (our Kent Spriggs’s alma mater) – he had years to reflect about leadership, courage and sacrifice – informed by the constant pain from his battle wounds that he endured for the rest of his life.

In this memoir, he mourned dead soldiers with admiration and love.  He marveled at how men under his command could repeatedly march into combat in the face of certain death – some of them veterans of three or more years of war, with wives and children at home, and legions of dead comrades in their dreams.  Yet they re-enlisted and continued to fight.

Now that we’ve so cheapened and squandered the word “hero” by using it to describe sports accomplishments, political stunts, or other parodies of the real thing, it’s a useful reminder to read about genuine heroism of the sort Chamberlain lived and witnessed.

It also reminds me of something I read recently, that leadership does not exist without love for the people you lead.  There are today far too many phony suck-up-kick-down pretenders to leadership, including Governor you-know-who, who deserve our contempt.

My Neighborhood of Sseguku

Barbara and I are probably the only muzungus for at least a kilometer in any direction, which I like.  Expatriates in Kampala tend to cluster together in the up-market neighborhoods (faaar away from us) that limit their contact with Ugandans.  By doing that, they miss out on the experience of daily life here – which may be their point (although that may be unkind and judgmental, given the challenges of daily life everyone has to face here).

In our case, we chose to live here because it’s close to work.  We live on an unpaved lane no more than 100m off Entebbe Road, with neighbors who range from very poor to middle-middle class, in homes that range from sheds to solid suburban.  The latter have high walls around them, the former none.  Coils of razor wire top our compound’s wall.

Altitude denotes hierarchy here – the higher up the hill (everywhere is a hill), the higher your socioeconomic status.  There are exceptions, such as some of the houses on our lane.  The people up the hill we only see when they drive by in their cars; they never walk.

There’s a primary school at the end of our lane, so there are children around all the time, including the preschoolers across the way in one-room homes who always wave and smile and greet me.  The adults are friendly, we exchange the customary “Hello, how are?  I am fine, how are you?  I am fine, thank you” – rote but warm – even when I’m walking fast because I’m late.  Not exactly Sesame Street, but pretty good.

In the morning, others adults are usually walking to Entebbe Road to catch a boda-boda or matatu to work.  There’s a construction materials storage site on the left.  I pass a woman in a shed selling old paint cans full of charcoal, which she buys in bulk to resell.  Then there’s a Kampala Water pump station on the right that reliably supplies us with tap water (shower in it but don’t drink) – behind a fence within which somebody raises chickens and turkeys, including a big tom.  A few feet further, another woman outdoors is frying sliced cassava, which she sells to passersby.  I exchange greetings with the women and their small children.

At the road are clusters of boda-boda drivers soliciting customers as passengers for their motorcycles, the passing matatus honk and gesture for passengers, cars and trucks are headed for work, including the occasional muzungus passing by in their vehicles, usually see the only I will see all day.

As I get to the road at about 8 am and walk the 2 km north to my office, the outdoor vendors are already busy receiving deliveries of bundles of matoke and large bags of charcoal.  They’re cooking skewered meats, frying bread, roasting corn, chopping up fresh fish.  Fresh fruits and vegetables are arrayed everywhere.  There are cages of live chickens for sale (I fear this will end badly for the chickens).

I often exchange greetings with a young man headed my way pushing his bicycle supporting a large wooden box (probably 2.5 x 2.5 x 2 feet) delivering baked products to merchants along the way.  Last week, after getting a later start than usual, he was on my lane making deliveries and saw me emerge from my gate, smiled and said, “You’re late.”  Busted, I thought.

You can buy cellphone minutes from just about any of street merchant.  By the way, do you have any idea of how badly cellphone companies in the U.S. screw us?  For a fraction of what I pay in Tallahassee, I get very good quality service here – no dead zones, in one of the poorest nations in the world.  I call Esther directly from my phone here for less than seven cents a minute.  Try to call Uganda from your phone in Tallahassee, if you dare.

Plus, I have a wireless modem that costs me about $15 per month that connects me flawlessly whenever I need to be online.  If every American went overseas and experienced service even the poorest countries enjoy, we’d have a revolution against our anti-consumer telecommunications system.

OK, back to my walk to work.

The shops behind the clay dirt shoulders usually are wide open in the front, about half the size of an average shipping container, displaying everything from slabs of goat meat and milk in bulk to electrical supplies, hardware, beauty products, Internet services, hair salons, beer parlor, sports betting parlor, pharmacies, and on and on in an impressive diversity.

Occasionally in brick buildings there are larger shops about the size of a very small convenience store, selling fertilizer and feed, building supplies, furniture, women’s wear and groceries.  There are several storefront churches holding services, usually loudly, at odd hours, and a few pre-schools and schools.

The occasional vacant lot usually has animals grazing on it, mostly chickens, goats or pigs and occasionally turkeys or geese.  They feed on the garbage tossed randomly about, at least until someone burns it, producing smoldering, smoky fires – DIY solid waste management, a big problem here, but inevitable given the inept municipal system.

There’s constant sweeping of the dust that collects everywhere.  This helps keep the dust suspended in the air, mixing with vehicle exhaust and garbage fire smoke.  After the first month, my hiking shoes became a dull orange from the clay dust now imbedded in them.

Then there are the shade-tree (except there are no trees, but it’s a North Florida expression) manufacturers scattered along my route.  Bicycle shops piece together parts of old bikes to sell, including ones designed to carry the heavy loads I’ve described.  Others build furniture using mostly hand tools – beds with heavy, carved headboards, stained and finished right there, and even stuffed easy chairs.  Another open-air place builds school desks and chairs.  Repairs of every imaginable electronic devices happen here.

There are metal fabricators everywhere, welding together steel window frames and solid doors with frames, or large corrugated steel water tanks used for larger homes or businesses.  One guy is building on the road’s shoulder a metal store building to sell to some small merchant, which has me wondering how he will move it.

Car break down? Just wait a minute and somebody will be there to fix it. Car and motorcycles repairs are done right there on the shoulder.  Everyone seems to have a welding rig handy; Ugandan guys love to weld stuff.

There is even the occasional native crafts store, one of which does have some mildly interesting wood sculptures displayed outside.  I promise myself to visit his store sometime before I leave.  (Although the best place I’ve found so far for high-quality crafts is in downtown’s Garden City Mall, of all places, which is actually an artisan co-op.)  Yes, Esther, I will bring you something from there.

After about a kilometer after turning off my lane, I come to the Roofings Company on the right, a large steel products factory and major employer (fencing, wire, metal roofing, rebar, sheet steel, tubes, gutters, etc.), which extends by over 300 m along the road.  Across the street are more stores.

Just past the factory is a police substation, then a weedy open field dotted with 4-5 foot tall termite mounds, where an enterprising roadside merchant displays and sells a large variety of ornamental plants – although you have to hop the roadside ditch to get there.

Then I turn left down the lane for NAPE, passing several small homes and shops.  Halfway there is a community well of spring water in a concrete culvert where mostly children in families without piped water can collect water in jerry cans to carry home.  Both sanctioned and unsanctioned human encroachment into almost all of Kampala’s wetlands has polluted groundwater here, so the water collected here has to be boiled before drinking.  Sometimes it is.

My walk to work takes me about 25 minutes – through an urban wonderland of sights, sounds and smells.  Only when I occasionally am dog-tired and wish for my 1995 Ford Taurus do I not exult in where I now live and work.

Ada’s Going Away Party

One of our fellow AJWS volunteers, twenty-something Ada, is leaving to return to the States after working since April in a domestic violence prevention NGO here.  She lived in DC for several years and now heads to Boston College for grad school in social work.

Ada was good company for the last month and usually was along on our downtown excursions and last week to Mbale.  Her grandparents immigrated here from Romania, escaping the Holocaust, and she got to learn a lot from them and shared with us her family stories, many of them hair-raising.

Her departure justified a large going-away party Friday night (July 22) at her group house east of downtown with a big turnout of mostly American and British expat workers and volunteers.  It was a swell party with lots of barbecued chicken, other food, plenty to drink, and fascinating conversations with people who are here for an array of motivations and activities.

It was also Barbara’s 62nd birthday, so we celebrated that too at the party.  I had already given her my present, a kitschy Chinese LED reading lamp with flexible arm, powered by a rechargeable battery – and very, very useful when the electricity goes off, as it does every day at different times.  I got one for myself three weeks ago, which she admired, so that became her present.

Bob Shops for Something Cheap, But Life-Changing and Exquisite

I set out by myself Saturday to explore the downtown shops and street markets in my continuing quest to find and buy products that are cheap, but life-changing and exquisite.  (Don’t snicker.  It could happen, you know.)  I didn’t find anything to fit that description but I did get a Barack Obama plastic shopping bag for 3,000 shillings (about $1.20), decorated with color photos of his inauguration and very stylish in this part of the world.

First I had to change some of my dollars into Uganda shillings at the Bank of Uganda foreign exchange booth in the main Post Office.  For $200, I got 518,400 shillings, in a wad of bills that made me feel rich, but also begs the question, Does my money belt make my butt look big?   Not that I can tell.

The shilling has lost ground against the dollar since I got here six weeks ago.  Good for me, not good for Uganda.  Bloomberg’s called the Uganda shilling “the worst performing currency in the world” this month – down by about 2 percent.

I had set out for the Owino market, one of the largest in East Africa, which contains hundreds of booths along twisting alleys, with everything from homemade (charcoal powered) clothes irons, to American donated clothes (some with Goodwill tags on them), used anything and everything, fresh fruits and vegetables – in a chaotic salad that makes Tallahassee’s southside flea market complex look like Nordstrom’s by comparison.

I saw some of Owino, but the shops and stalls between there and the City Square were just as fascinating.  Sidewalk sellers take up most of the walking space.  What space they don’t take up, merchandise spilling out of the stores takes up the rest. Then there are guys standing or walking hawking whatever they carried; I got my Obama bag from one of them.  For two hours, I was in a swarm of tens of thousands of shoppers block after block.

It didn’t help that this shopping area is in the midst of the city’s intercity bus park and two taxi parks, adding to the congestion, where the matatus park next to their destination sign until they get their 14 passengers and take off, squeezing through the throngs of people and vehicles.  Since they park with barely enough room to walk between them, and there are hundreds of matatus in the park, I still don’t understand how they can exit, but they somehow do, and this completely unacceptable system (to everyone in authority, at least) seems to work fine.

Most of the retail buildings here are five or more stories, with small three-story indoor malls. I went down one street, really no wider than an alley, that made Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side look like a boulevard.  It took me about a half hour to go about three blocks, impeded this time by delivery trucks, not just vendors.  It was interesting to see as I walked the changing nature of the stores, cluster by cluster, beginning with lots of clothing, then housewares and electronics, then the wholesalers of soft drinks, wine and liquor, then building materials, with a lot of other stuff in between.

I didn’t find the cheap but exquisite purchase I looked for, but it was a exhilarating nonetheless.  And there are plenty more Saturday or Sundays to dive back into those waters.

On Sunday, I read and worked, serenaded by music from the several churches within earshot.  In the late afternoon, Barbara and I went to performances at the Ndere Cultural Center as guest of her NGO executive director, Sylvia (whose wedding we attended last month).

I’ll write about that in next week’s email.  In the meantime, it’s back to work.

Best wishes,

Bob Rackleff

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