Monthly Archives: July 2013

Uganda –> South Africa –> USA

I woke up in Uganda at 5 AM to begin my trip back to the US.  I was returning on South African airlines, which fit my schedule and was cost effective, but had the disadvantage of necessitating about as much flight time as the first Apollo mission.  To break up the flying time I had a 10 hour layover in Johannesburg, and I planned to go out and see the city.

And that’s where the planning stopped, really.  I knew I wanted to get out and about but I had absolutely no clue how to get around Johannesburg, what sights to see, or how to get to anything of interest and still make it back for my evening flight.  My knowledge of the city was largely informed by the local newspaper they had distributed on the flight down, which read like a vastly expanded version of my local paper’s Crime Watch section.  All of the front page news was about housebreaking, serial rapists, and carjackings.  I left my bag in a storage locker at the Johannesburg airport, thought twice and put in my passport as well in case I ran into trouble in the city, and asked for a ticket “downtown” on the Gautrain.  The Gautrain is brilliant: it’s an ultra fast commuter train that links the airport to all of the major neighborhoods of Johannesburg, and is lightning fast and impeccably clean and well-ordered.  I happened to sit down opposite a placard advising passengers of the list of Gautrain rules(see pic below), and it quickly became apparent why this was such a utopia in the grime and crime of the city.  The rules forbade everything.  I thought that since I wasn’t chewing gum, wearing a hood, wearing soiled clothes, gambling, or bribing anybody I would be OK, and I resolved to just sit there very quietly so as not to commit any infractions.  I then realized that I was guilty of loitering, and I spent the rest of the panicking quietly about all the rules I was breaking.

I arrived at  Park Station, which multiple Gautrain employees had assured me was very centrally located, and as I stepped out of the station and the train pulled away it quickly became clear to me that I was in the hood.  Instead of the sparkling buildings and bustling thoroughfares I had expected from South Africa’s economic engine, I found myself in a neighborhood with cracked tar streets, squat cement buildings, and tons of young men just squatting next to walls and hanging around on corners.  I walked on, looking for some kind of commercial section with restaurants and whatnot, and soon I was walking on shards of glass from shattered car windows on the curb.  Posters on the walls advertised abortion services for as low as $9 in under half an hour, and guys in bulky jackets stood on the corners selling car license plates and ID photos.  I walked around for an hour, and unlike the hustling and interest I’ve received while traveling in other African cities, people here just watched me approach and pass, silently.  I travel a lot and I walk everywhere I go, and it’s unusual to be concerned for my safety when I’m out and about, but I was distinctly uncomfortable in this neighborhood.

I found my way back to the train and got on without a destination in mind– I just wanted out of Johannesburg Central Business District– and got off at Sandton Station, where tons of white Afrikaners also descended.  When I scheduled my layover in Johannesburg I had originally intended to visit the Apartheid Museum, and by the time I arrived I wasn’t sure I would have enough time to make it, but as I rode the train out of central Johannesburg I couldn’t help but think about Apartheid on my own.  The white people rode the train through the downtown as they passed from one of the affluent encircling suburb to another, but they never got off in the middle, and almost nobody black from Central Johannesburg got on the train to go to the outskirts.  I felt afraid when I was walking through that neighborhood, which is an unusual feeling for me.  I remember taking inventory of everything I was carrying: sunglasses (didn’t wear them), camera (never took it out), my wallet, and my jacket, and realizing that the value of those things far outweighed the danger of taking them from me.  I felt much more secure when I got into the softly lit Gautrain platform, and heard people talking English to each other.  I had come off the train to visit Johannesburg for an an afternoon to see the real life in the city, and in the end found that after only an hour I felt much more comfortable spending time with a small minority of the population.  When I got off at the station that all the white Afrikaners got off at, I discovered that they were all going to a shopping mall.

I visited the Peacemakers Museum, an art gallery currently dedicated to works about Nelson Mandela, and was impressed by how the exhibit was universally deeply respectful of Mandela’s work while also revealing some of his faults and struggles.  I also visited a bookstore where I bought “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” by Phaswane Mpe, a great and poetic novel about a neighborhood very close to where I spent an hour earlier that day.  I read it on the plane and I recommend it.  I made it back to the airport, collected my stuff, and got on my flight back to JFK.

So that’s that.  I’m here in New York now, surprisingly unfazed by time differences and sleep deprivation, and preparing to go in to work tomorrow.  This trip to Africa was unlike any of my previous stays, and will definitely inform the way I approach the work that I do at WSA.  Unlike Senegal Sam, I plan to keep this blog going for a while over the course of my travels.  The next time I leave the country I’ll let you know about it, and keep updating this same site.  I may have another post in the next few days, but that’s all for now.  Thanks for reading.



The Nile, seen from Jinja


The Road



Go North Young Man



The road to Soroti

The Rules



The full list is available at any Gautrain station; this is partial




The Gautrain platform looks like a nightclub




Made entirely of pennies

Making Moves

It’s been a busy last few days.  I had a whirlwind trip through Kenya, changing towns almost every night and visiting 3 different projects, touring the largest sugar factory in East Africa, and discussing research projects with development economists.  On my last day in Kenya I separated from my WSA colleague, and while I went to the border town of Busia to catch a bus to Kampala, he went to Kisumu to fly back to the states.  I spent about six hours there coming to the conclusion that Busia is a wicked boring town: I had thought that because it straddles the Uganda-Kenya border it would be a real meeting hub, a confluence of cultures.  In fact it’s small, dusty, and characterless, like a strip mall under construction.  After a friend I was hanging out with there invited me to a gas station/supermarket for lunch, describing it as some of the best food and the only pizza in town, I decided it was time to go.  Given my uncharitable thoughts towards the town, when I went to the bus station to pay for my pre-booked ticket out of there I was dismayed to learn that my registration was unrecorded.

“How can it be unrecorded?”  I asked.  “I spoke on the phone with a guy from the booking office for 10 minutes yesterday.  He even noted down my US address and passport number.”  The girl behind the counter looked at me for a full 10 seconds before answering.  “It is not that your ticket is not recorded [here my heart leapt with joy], it is that the registration does not exist.  There are no reservations on this bus line.”  It seemed strange that they would ask for passport numbers with the express purpose of not reserving tickets, but I didn’t think this line of argument would get me far.  Is the bus full? I asked.  “Oh very,” she answered, “this is the only bus we are running to Kampala for 12 hours.”  “What time can I show up to get one of the remaining seats?!?” I asked, panicking.   One gas station pizza was enough for one day.  “Come at four,” she said dismissively, “the bus will be here then.”  I left my name and 2000 shillings, in the hopes that she would remember me fondly when I returned.  I was there at three PM, clutching all my worldly possessions and wondering how much I would have to pay to be allowed to ride on the luggage rack on the roof.  The bus came at 4:30.  There were 10 passengers on a bus the size of a Greyhound.  The rest of the trip was uneventful.

I had a great day and a half in Kampala.  The same night I arrived from Kenya I was tipped off to a hip hop concert at a bar/ art gallery called Mish Mash.  I heard about it through some strange circumstances— I had just discovered a folder marked “other” in my Facebook inbox, and while browsing through it idly I found an eight month old message from M.H., who had read my Senegal Sam blog.  I wrote to thank her for reading and tell her about my current travel in UganYa, and she bounced back a reply 10 minutes later telling me about this concert that a friend of hers from the UK had organized.  I went and it was awesome; a great mix of jazz and hip hop, with Ugandan artists I had actually heard of before.  I mingled in the crowd afterwards (more white people than I’ve ever seen together in Uganda in my life.  It looked like Connecticut) and met a Jordanian who I think told me he exported sand (good business, that), a Ugandan named Rahman who had recently converted to Judaism, the British guy M.H. told me about who organized the concert, and 12,342 drunken Brits.  It was great.

I’m now in Soroti, a town pretty much precisely in the center of Uganda.  It took seven hours to get here from Kampala because the road was so bad it looked like a battlefield after a mortar attack.  The area around Soroti is perfectly flat and grassy, and the feature that distinguishes the town is a single tremendous rock that looms over the countryside.  It draws the eye for miles around and looks majestic, like an African Uluru.  The town itself looks like a cowboy town in the Wild West: perfectly flat, hot, sunny, and cut through by three main roads, one of which is called Pioneer Way.  The town is compact and quiet, and I was surprised to learn that only ten years ago in 2003 Joseph Kony and the LRA had attacked it and held a position in the surrounding countryside for the summer.  I like it a lot here.

I’m in my last week in Uganda, but it feels like I’ve been here for much longer. Less than a week from today I’ll be back in New York.  I’ll try to put up another post before then.

Road Trip

Yesterday I went on a road trip.  My day began at 6:30 AM in Hoima, where I rose early enough to see the sun piercing through the pine trees on the mountains around the town, and ended in Siaya, a small town in western Kenya.  I had four days of meetings and travel in western Kenya, and my WSA colleague that I was traveling with had insisted that we set aside the whole day for travel. Now, I thought this was a little bit extreme: the distance between the two towns is about 260 miles, which is the kind of round trip that many Americans will happily make to get a milkshake.  The trip took 15 hours from door to door, and here are some of the things I saw along the way.

The trip east from Hoima to Kampala took about three and a half hours, and we made pretty good time considering the condition of the roads.  The problem with the highway we were on was that it was excellent, and therefore everyone was using it: bicycles and motorcycles jockeyed for space along the narrow shoulder of the road, vendors clutching skewers of meet and sacks of groundnuts swarmed any car that slowed below 20 MPH, and cowherds pushed herds of dozy cattle through the tall grass on the roadside.  As a former British colony Ugandans nominally drive on the left hand side of the road, but in fact no lines are ever painted on the highways to facilitate easy passing.  The road is wide enough for three vehicles: one lane on the left, one lane on the right, and one in the middle where drivers play chicken with each other to see who gets to pass the lumbering banana trucks.  To prevent things from getting out of hand the Ugandan Transport Authority sprinkles the road with speed bumps, and the entrance to every town is marked by a gauntlet of up to half a dozen speed bumps that cars crawl over.

We reached Kampala, deposited one of our traveling companions at a hotel, got coffee, and rolled on.  I loved finding myself on the road east to Jinja again.  We flew past sugar companies, low tea estates, fields of maize and the Nalubaale dam before entering my former hometown.  For lunch I suggested a place about 10 kilometers north of town on the banks of the Nile— the Black Lantern, a ridiculously nice restaurant with a first-class menu and a terrace perched 100 feet above the river.  The last time I had been up there I had eaten sandwiches at the hostel next door and dreamed of the day when I could enter the Lantern’s imposing spiky gates, and finally the day had come.  We had an incredible meal overlooking the river with spider monkeys swinging through the trees above us, and after chilling on the patio for half an hour after finishing we were on our way again.  We were now farther east than I had ever been in Africa, and as we approached the Kenyan border the land got flatter and drier.

We crossed at Busia, the busiest border station between the two countries.  The border crossing can take more than two hours unless you know what you’re doing, and to facilitate the process we had arranged with a fixer named Patrick.  Patrick’s ancestral land is in the 2 KM wide zone between the Kenyan and Ugandan borders, and as a result Patrick and others like him have an unparalleled ability to slip between the two countries.  After reading out the make and plate number of our car to him over the phone, we met him at the Ugandan side of the border where he presented us with pre-filled out forms for us to use to cross.  The border was hot, dusty, and full of tankers and shipping trucks moving between the two countries.  After obtaining a Ugandan exit stamp and paying $50 USD in cash for a Kenyan visa, we crossed through, and Patrick met us on the other side with registration papers for the car.  We were through, and we rolled on into Kenya.

It’s strange to say but the air was different across the border.  Kenya smelled like the sweet brushfire smell of smouldering charcoal, and when I rolled down the window I heard people speaking in the sharper consonants of Swahili rather than the more mellifluous sound of Luganda.  Frogs popped and croaked in the night, and we drove slowly: perhaps to save themselves the cost of installing speedbumps. Kenyan roads contain huge potholes at unpredictable intervals.  Once dark fell the police came out in force.  We were stopped twice in 60 kilometers at impromptu roadblocks consisting of spiked chains laid across the road and officers in camouflage holding semiautomatics.  After sticking his face through the window and grilling us— where do you come from?  What’s in the trunk?  Who are you meeting— the officer would allow us to travel on.  We got wicked lost on the wide dirt roads leading to Siaya, but we found our way in the end and got to our hotel by 22h.

I spent the night in a hotel less than 10 miles from where Barack Obama’s grandmother still lives.  It was a wonderful trip, and I saw some great things on that first day in Kenya that I hope to write about later.



To The Villages

Right now I’m in Hoima, a small town in Western Uganda near Lake Albert, about 30 miles from the Congo border.  About five years ago exploratory expeditions found oil – a lot of oil– in the region, and wells have already been sunk, but so far Hoima remains a small town composed of low brick buildings with tin roofs and a few hotels for tourists who go hiking and chimp tracking from here.  I’m here helping to organize an external evaluation of VIE, an NGO that helps people in rural areas start businesses.  Over the last few days I’ve spent a lot of time in the field and visited half a dozen rural villages, seeing the impact of VIE’s programs and learning more about their development model.

Hoima is a wicked small town in and of itself, and once you drive outside the urban limits it gets really rural really fast.  It’s a strange comparison, but the terrain of this area reminds me of Vermont.  You can see beautiful green rolling hills in every direction, we drive along stony dirt roads over culverts for burbling streams and through copses of pine trees planted by logging companies, and visit farmers raising pigs, goats, chickens, and a variety of crops.  The villages we visit are very isolated, and in a conversation with the regional director of VIE he told me a couple of enlightening stories about villages he’s worked with in the area.  One village that we visited is an hour and a half drive out of Hoima, and is one of the most isolated in the region.  It’s literally the end of the road, and while most villages have a couple trading posts and a church or school made of bricks, every single building in the village was a mud wattle-and-daub hut, there was absolutely no electricity, and within this village of maybe 150 people seven languages are spoken.  Now, in the VIE development model, villagers selected through the program get business training for six months on basic bookkeeping and financial management skills before receiving their initial grant from the NGO.  When the Ugandan field organizers first visited the villagers (none of whom had ever heard of an NGO before) to explain the program, the villagers skeptically agreed to participate, but 3 months into the trainings abruptly announced a complete boycott of all future training sessions.  They thought that the Ugandan business trainers were scamming them, and they demanded their grants NOW before they would have anything else to do with the program.  The regional director wasn’t really sure what to do— nobody had ever boycotted a program offering free training and money before— and in the end loaded up all of the international staff into a Land Rover and drove out to the village.  When they saw a car full of Western aid workers the villagers decided that the program was legitimate, and started attending trainings again.  By the time I visited, their businesses were looking pretty good.

I didn’t get a chance to visit the village where this second story takes place, but here it is: a few years back, a fraudulent NGO became active in the region.  They would drive into villages, present some token gifts and convince villagers to deposit money into savings funds that they would hold to be returned later, and then disappear.  This led to a huge amount of distrust and resentment towards all NGOs in the region, and eventually certain religious leaders started propagating the idea that some of these NGOs were satanic, here to deceive the villagers.  It was in this context that the director of VIE got a call from the village leader one day demanding that VIE come back to his village immediately and take away a number of goats that VIE had given them a few months earlier, on the basis of the goats being evil and possibly possessed by the devil.  Befuddled, the director got a truck and went out to the village to collect all of the goats and the kids they had had since they were deposited.  At this point, the villagers intervened, saying that VIE should take the satanic goats but should leave the babies, which were apparently alright.

I’m certainly not sharing these stories to imply that villagers in the rural areas lack sophistication or intelligence.  If anything, I think people around here are extremely canny, and are understandably skeptical of the mzungu who come to their village, test them with barrages of surveys, and then herd them into meeting centers for business training.  The poverty that you see in the villages is very different from the poverty I’ve encountered in urban areas, and I can’t help but feel that regardless of one’s financial circumstances people have a higher quality of life here.  It’s an incredibly strange feeling for me to leave New York City and within one week be way out in the bush seeing chimpanzee nests up in the jackfruit trees and waving at babies that have probably never seen a white person before.  VIE has been active in this area for decades and many of their field staff have been out here for years, but it’s very weird for me to roll into villages in a 4X4 for only a few hours to talk with villagers who have certainly never traveled further than Kampala, if that.

I’ve really enjoyed working with VIE and they have some fantastic new projects in the works.  I think their model could be hugely influential to the field of development, and I shall be following their activities with great interest.  Tomorrow I’m going on a road trip: all the way from western Uganda east to the Kenyan border, and then further still to the city of Kisumu on the shore of Lake Victoria.  It’ll be a long haul but I’m looking forward to being on the move again.  Details to follow.