Former Leon County Commissioner Bob Rackleff spent the summer of 2011 volunteering in Uganda.   H e shared his account  of working  through  the American Jewish World Service to assist the National Association of Professional Environmentalist (NAPE) in Uganda in a series of letters to the Tallahassee Observer.

Week 1, June 10

Dear friends,

An account of my travels to Kampala.

After an exhausting 28 hours of flying, leaving Tallahassee around noon on Friday, June 10 and depositing me at Entebbe Airport late Saturday night, June 11, I was off to the training site for a night’s rest.

We assembled on Sunday, June 12, at the Ridar Hotel in Seeta, about 15 km east of central Kampala just off the heavily traveled Jinja Road. The Ridar is an affordable resort and conference hotel usually busy with Ugandan groups, including the Seeta Rotary Club.  Tourists and visiting humanitarians and visiting out-of-town Ugandans also use it.

Trainers were Masha from the New York HQ of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and country consultants Irene (Uganda) and Everlyne (Kenya), who conducted four solid days of classes in subjects from East African history/politics to common volunteer challenges and “cultural do’s and don’ts” — as in don’t hug the women, or shake with your left “unclean” hand, or ride the ubiquitous boda-boda-for-hires.

Boda boda’s are the ubiquitous motorcycles that are a major – and necessary — form of public transportation that can thread their way though nearly always congested streets reliably, but also have an alarming tendency to crash and kill their passengers riding on the back.  Masha emphasized that we should never, ever ride a boda-boda.

There are seven volunteers besides me – three other retirees and four 20-somethings – all Jewish of various intensities (I bring up the rear):

n  \Marta, the youngest at 23, an MPH student at Tulane, assigned to a women’s economic development group in northern Uganda

n  Joe, a former Brit now from Chicago who counsels refugees, assigned to a child soldier resettlement program in northern Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army and Ugandan forces only recently lost a brutal war.

n  Pamela from California, a recently retired PR executive with PhARMA after living in Israel for many years, assigned to a Nairobi women’s group that provides job and business skills training to young women.

n  Jonathan, a newly minted lawyer and public defender from Washington DC, assigned to a Nairobi public interest law group that challenges the Kenyan government to enforce laws against sexual violence.

n  Pamela, a former Londoner with a long career in New York City, including real estate sales, now assigned to a children and youth program in northern Uganda.

n  Noa, a young Californian, former AmeriCorps volunteer and MSW student, assigned to a Kampala-based group to improve training in schools for job and entrepreneurship skills.

n  Barbara, a retired biochemist at DuPont and Pfizer, and former volunteer in Kenya, assigned in Kampala to a group that promotes women’s equality and empowerment in areas from HIV AIDS to natural resources rights.

We spent a lot of time getting to know each other, bonding quite easily, as strangers together in a distant place often do.

Then we went our separate ways on Friday, to our assigned locations, after trading phone numbers and email addresses.  I had bought a barebones cell phone and SIM card at the airport, with an assigned number (from the States, it’s 011-0781678976, if you’re so inclined, but remember I’m seven time zones later than you).

Moving from the hotel to our apartment was a day I thought would be easy, but turned out more tiresome.  Getting around by car takes forever, given the traffic congestion and lack of alternatives.  We had to go through central Kampala from the hotel in Seeta (15 km east of the center), drop off Noa at her apartment on the near eastside next to the women’s rights group she’s volunteering for, around by the north of central Kampala, then south 10 kilometers down Entebbe Road, to the Sseguku (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) community, where we live.

Barbara and I share a two bedroom furnished apartment about two blocks off the road, within walking distance of both of our assigned organizations.  We pay $400 a month each, utilities included, for one of four apartments in a walled compound.

There we met our landlord, Ntege, who has been very accommodating.  We’re in a four-apartment walled compound with a locked solid steel gate accessible only by key.  It’s newly built, masonry, one story around an unpaved courtyard, about a block off Entebbe, the only road link between the city and Entebbe Airport.

Our neighborhood is like most of the city – slum and middle-class houses and businesses from stalls to multistory markets all haphazardly tangled up with each other.  Only the major streets have names, so we have no street or address, just an unpaved trail densely flanked by various types of houses from shack to standard suburban, a primary school at the end of the trail, and an occasional shop.

So when I use the word block, I’m just trying to suggest a distance, since there are no blocks or order or, for the matter, any addresses.  (Find Sseguku on Google Earth and see what I mean.)

As Esther warned, Africans are noisy at night, so sleep has sometime been a challenge – especially on weekends when a nearby club plays loud music until the wee hours, playing what sounds like the same cheesy tune over and over.  Fortunately, the weather has not been hot, so closed windows, heavy curtains and a whooshing fan keeps down the noise.

On the plus side, our furnished apartment has modern conveniences, from running water (not potable, we have bottled water for that) and electricity (scheduled and unscheduled blackouts about once a day or so, usually for one or two hours only), a decent kitchen and bathroom, and adequate lighting so I can read in bed you’ll be glad to know.  Best of all, it’s only about 25 minutes on foot by Entebbe Road to my work at the National Association of Environmental Professionals (NAPE) offices and 40 minutes to Barbara’s women’s rights organization.

Before Barbara and I had a chance to settle in, at his suggestion, Ntege drove us to the nearest western-style shopping center to stock up on groceries, via the small farm he operates on three acres.  Being car-less, we were happy to go, especially since we needed to buy a lot of groceries and this would save us a big schlep.

His farm has about 3,000 egg-producing chickens, a dozen or so goats (for milk), with room for corn, beans and other crops.  Four adults (including his mother) staff the farm, aided by several preschool children. While there, his worker gathered up about four dozen eggs, which he gave to us.

Besides being friendly and talkative, Ntege is an interesting, enterprising guy.  Late 30’s, I’d guess, married with three children, whose home is just two doors down the lane from our apartment, where he also raises chickens.  Beside the small farm here, he has a larger farm in his village (everyone in Kampala comes from a village, which they visit frequently), a business selling farm chemicals and supplies downtown, and is a builder, and probably other businesses too.  He built our four-unit compound, and scouts for other such properties to redevelop.  After Uganda reached rock bottom in the 1980s, its economy has grown a lot thanks to people like him.  Unfortunately, he also seems to think that property values here will always go up, which we know doesn’t happen.

On Saturday, we hired a housekeeper to clean the apartment and do our laundry, for an embarrassingly low salary, but the market rate.  She started that day and does a fine job.

Barbara and I then took a “taxi,” called matatu in Kenya, to the “old taxi park” in central Kampala for exploring and shopping.  The taxi, a minivan actually, carries about 13 passengers, a driver and conductor, crammed in tight.  It picks up and drops off at will, for the muzungu price of 1,000 Ugandan shillings (about 40 cents) – muzungu means “white man,” who have the honor of paying more than others.

Its only predictability is its established route, which you learn from the conductor calling it out.  The old taxi park itself has hundreds of taxis parked practically touching each other, with route/desination signs directing you to the right cluster of taxis.  Although its order is not immediately apparent, it’s organic and functional, a good example of adaptation to dysfunction.  The government four years ago tried to replace this with fixed route buses but never followed through.  Actually, it works fairly well, if you don’t mind getting on and off to let other passengers off, and are not in a hurry.

After visiting the main post office and buying a mobile modem (cheap and works well), we had lunch at a colonial-era hotel, then off to shopping at the National Cultural Center, which has about 40 crafts stalls.  I bought an African-print shirt there – very snazzy.  More shopping for the apartment at the downtown malls that draws lots of expats and middle class Ugandans.  It has the only decent bookstore this side of Nairobi.  Also a good Indian restaurant on the rooftop with a view of much of the city; we ate well that day.  We took a special-hire taxi (full price but not outrageous) home, not wanting the matatu hassle.

On Sunday, Ntege dropped by to ask how we were doing, then offered to drive us around the area (we paid for his gas) along the shore of Lake Victoria, visiting sites as varied as the Serena resort hotel and Ggaba fish market.  The former is your standard snobby, overdone luxury hotel.

The Ggaba market, though, was captivating – a riot of sounds, sights and smells — a boat landing where fishermen from around the lake pull in with strings of freshly-caught fish (all tilapia), with an auctioneer selling to the gathered throng.  A typical price was 30,000 shillings, about $12, for a dozen or more tilapia, and bidding was spirited. When the auctioneer saw me, he pointed and yelled “Obama!”, to which I smiled and waved, and he went back to selling. If you want to make a good impression here, just say you’re Obama’s friend (partly true in my case, since I shook his hand backstage and exchanged pleasantries at the Democratic convention in 2004.)

Back from the quay were dozens of produce stalls and fried fish sheds, crammed with vendors and customers, next to a boat yard making by hand new long, open rowboats about 25 feet long that are the standard fishing boat, next also to a large yard of firewood brought from forests in nearby islands.  Very much a third-world version of the Fulton Street Market, minus the Starbucks.

After about four hours in the car, we returned home and thanked Ntege for the tour.  We made dinner and retired for the night, preparing for our first day of work on Monday, June 21.

More later . . .

Best wishes,


Bob Rackleff

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