Monthly Archives: February 2014

Adam and Eve

Look, I set out to write a very different post tonight, but something happened in Uganda that diverted my attention.  Two days ago Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti Homosexuality Act, which imposes a sentence of seven years in prison for anyone found guilty of committing a homosexual act or promoting homosexuality in Uganda, with an additional life sentence in prison for anyone convicted of “aggravated homosexuality.”  The current version of the bill is a watered down version of the original iteration, which called for the death penalty for anyone found guilty of homosexual acts.  I’ve been on Facebook lately and heard a lot of buzz about discrimination in a new law passed in Arizona, but frankly I think what’s happening right now in Uganda is more extreme and deserves our attention.

Tonight I went down to the Hoima Resort Hotel to watch football matches when I ran into G., my football teammate and a representative for Airtel, a Ugandan telecom company.  Because the news was on before the matches and everything on the news was a debate over this new bill, I asked him why Ugandans were so opposed to homosexuality.  He explained that Uganda was traditionally a conservative culture, and because homosexuality was condemned in the Bible it was condemned in Uganda today.  “Haven’t you heard of Sodom and Gomorrah?” he concluded his explanation, “and anyways, when Adam needed a companion did God create another man?  No!  He made Eve, a woman, as this is the natural way of things.”  I found his explanation weak, and told him so.  I pointed out that traditional values in Uganda can’t have been much influenced by the Bible, because Christian missionaries only arrived in the last 150 years.  Why did traditional beliefs condemn homosexuality?  He thought for a long moment before answering quietly.  “Have you ever seen a bull mate with another bull?” he finally asked.  “or a hog mate with another hog, or a rooster mate with a rooster?  Even the simplest animal knows that male is made for female and female is made for male.  If humans are the king of the beasts, the cleverest of all the animals, surely it is a perversion if any human mates with another of the same sex.”

I’ve heard variations of this same response whenever I’ve asked any Ugandan why they are opposed to homosexuality.  As opposed to the vitriol and political bluster that accompanies most gay marriage debates in the US, condemnation of homosexuality in Uganda is frequently justified with the ineffable, visceral belief that same-sex unions are just wrong, for some reason.  Maybe it’s because gay couples don’t have children.  Maybe it’s because gay people are seen as unreligious.  Maybe it’s because homosexuality is widely believed to be the product of “nurture” rather than “nature,” so anybody identifying as gay is believed to have been coerced into their identity.

I find myself in a weird and liminal position whenever I discuss this new law with any of my Ugandan friends.  On the one hand I’m well known around Hoima town: I play football, drink beer and watch matches, work out at the gym, go out to the club, am a terrible cook, and do a lot of activities that people see as incontrovertibly straight.  On the other hand, whenever a conversation I have with a Ugandan turns to the subject of gay marriage I find that the person I’m talking with assumes the defensive, because they think that as a white American/European I want to impose my views on them and urge them to adopt a perspective they’re uncomfortable with.  Here’s the thing: in my experience the existence of gay couples has never bothered me or jeopardized my happiness, and so I support same sex relationships between consenting adults.  But here’s the other thing: I’ve never tried to convince a Ugandan to share my point of view.  The overwhelming majority of people here are staunchly opposed to same sex marriage and see it, frankly, as an abomination of some natural order.  I’m conflicted.  As a traveler I’m here to learn from those around me without imposing my culture on them, but as someone who supports the right of homosexual people to be openly gay, I feel like a guilty bystander in an intolerant culture.  Is it my prerogative to support the traditional culture of the country where I’m a guest, or to support the rights of what I believe to be an unjustly marginalized group?  What would Martin Niemöller do?

I’m a stranger in a strange land, trying to understand a culture that is not my own.  As domestic politicians endorse Museveni for his courage to sign a bill defending traditional culture and international aid agencies yank their aid to Uganda over this benchmark of discrimination, I’m still here in Hoima town, listening to whoever speaks.


To Hell with Good Intentions

I don’t often (ever) post about other blogs, but sometimes (often) other people say things far more concisely and articulately than I ever could myself.  I recommend the following post, and I have the impression that the author knows what she’s talking about.  Her post reminds me of the speech “To Hell With Good Intentions” by Ivan Ilich, which I read before working abroad in 2011 and have reread a couple of times a year ever since.

View story at

New Year’s Resolution

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  –Mark Twain

In the summer of 2013 I had a conversation with an elderly Luo woman in Kenya that I’ve been thinking about ever since.  I was there to evaluate an NGO that had a very simple model: they gave cash transfers of $1,000 to poor farmers, and then encouraged them to spend the money however they thought was best.   At the time I was working for a  grant making and consulting firm that was interested in exploring the effectiveness of this program, and I spent a day rolling around Western Kenya in a Land Cruiser meeting with some beneficiaries.

This woman welcomed us to her compound, gave us a tour of her two neat brick houses and her kraal of half a dozen cattle, and then invited us into her home to talk about how she had used her cash transfer.  One of the first questions we asked her is what she had decided to spend the money on, and she told us straightaway that she had needed to build herself a new house and had put the majority of the cash towards that.

At this point everyone’s ears perked up.  She had two nice houses on her compound; now she was telling us that she had spent most of her money building the second one?  To really visualize the situation you need to realize that there were some exceptionally smart people in this room.  I was with a MacArthur Genius grant recipient who was the youngest person ever to receive tenure in the Harvard department of economics, the field director for this NGO who had graduated from Harvard, spent two years working as a Goldman Sachs market analyst, and then decided to move to Kenya to work in the non profit world, a senior consultant at a prestigious NYC grant making and consulting firm, and finally myself, who I suppose was there to serve as a counterweight to all the stunning intellects surrounding me.  The woman announced to this audience that she had spent her grant constructing a brand new house for herself, and the question on everybody’s lips was: why?

She took five minutes to give her response in Swahili, and the translator explained that her husband and his first wife (the woman before us was the second wife) had lived in the older house until they both became sick and died about six months ago.  According to Luo tribal custom, if her husband dies the second wife can never move into his house, and so the building had just sat there, untouched and unaltered, since the day that his body had been carried away.  Immediately after hearing this response the rational economists around me began fizzing with questions for this lady: could she take the metal roof off of the old house and put it on a new building?  Could she rent the old house out to someone else?  Could she tear it down and plant crops on the land beneath it?  No, no and no.  As far as this old woman was concerned, the other house didn’t exist anymore, and that was why she needed to spend her grant to build a brand new house next to, what appeared to us, a perfectly comfortable and habitable structure.  This was an occasion where I felt like I was present at a collision of worlds.  For the economists, maximizing utility means not building things that you already have; for this Luo woman, there was not a house that she could live in on her compound.

This brings me to my second experience.  About a week before Christmas I was working out in the villages of Soroti Region with Patrick, the Intervention Leader I’ve hired to conduct the Behavioral Intervention workshops.  We were returning from the field by motorcycle late in the afternoon as the sun was starting to collapse into the horizon.  I was zoning out and looking absently at the road ahead when we bounced over a culvert and Patrick shouted at me over the whine of the motorcycle’s engine: “They found my uncle’s body in that culvert ten years ago!”

Whoa.  What?

He went on to explain that back in 2003, when the town of Soroti was besieged and briefly captured by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, his uncle had found himself walking along this road after dark on his way back home to his village.  He was stopped by government soldiers, accused of being a rebel, and was shot right there on the side of the road, his body stuffed in the culvert.  As we rode on and I digested this fact, Patrick continued to point out features of the landscape to me as we passed them.  Here was the land his grandfather homesteaded during the colonial era where his cousins still lived; here were the rocks where the LRA used to hide at night and spray RPGs and Kalashnikov bullets at unsuspecting truck drivers, here was his second cousin twice removed, who we stopped to congratulate on the birth of his sixth child.

I was astonished.  The land around Soroti town is flat, hot, and marshy, and the monotony of the level horizon is only occasionally broken by massive volcanic plugs looming out of the earth like leviathans.  For the last few months I had been skidding through this landscape on motorbikes, and the most profound thought that I could muster as I looked out at the landscape was “god, this place is FLAT.”  Patrick and I were riding on the same motorcycle, but looking at different things.  Where I saw parched earth, bony cattle, and ramshackle huts, he saw his uncle being spotlighted by soldiers on a dark night in 2003, his grandfather sinking his plough into untilled soil in the 1930s, his cousins drinking banana beer in the dark villages even now.  I’d never before been so conscious that someone else and I were looking at the same thing and seeing something so radically different.

I guess I have a problem with my eyesight.  I visit an old woman’s compound and I see a house that isn’t there; meanwhile, I look at a flat and dusty landscape and fail to see Joseph Kony stalking in the twilight and a sixth baby being born in a village that doesn’t appear on any maps.  I’m shocked to discover how out-of-touch I am with my surroundings.  Despite the stamps in my passport and the Latin on my degree, I’m in no way qualified to say that I know what’s going on in East Africa.

This brings me to my New Year’s Resolution: from now on, I’m going to pay attention.  I’m going to pay attention to things that I thought were insignificant, I’m going to spend as much time in the field as possible, I’m going to work harder to make sure that I’m getting the full picture.  I really enjoy seeing Uganda through my own perspective and sharing my experiences on this blog.  Now, I’m going to try to see the same things through someone else’s eyes.  I have a lot to learn.

Boda Bodas




Handsfree Helmets

Right now I’m in Kampala traveling between Hoima and Soroti. I’ve mentioned boda bodas before–the little Indian motorcycles everyone uses to get from place to place–and since arriving here last night I’ve taken two motorcycle rides that at some point involved squealing tires and a barely-avoided collision. Boda rides are crazy, terrifying, and wonderful: it’s a terrific way to move from point A to point B, it costs about $.40 per kilometer, and you get to see and smell Kampala whipping past you as the driver slings you through the crowded dusty streets of the city.

Way back in 2004 the city of Kampala reacted to the shocking annual death toll of boda drivers by enacting a mandatory helmet law, that required all motorcycle operators to wear helmets AND provide helmets for their passengers. After the roughly 200,000 boda drivers of Kampala recovered from their fit of the giggles, they went ahead and promptly did nothing whatsoever. For years the helmet law was widely ignored by both boda riders and the police who were supposed to enforce it. When I lived in Uganda in 2011 it was rare to see a Kampala boda man with a helmet, and you certainly didn’t see anyone wearing them outside the capital.

But now it’s 2014, and on this sojourn in Uganda I’ve been seeing tons more boda guys wearing helmets. I have a theory about why this is: I think that the popularity of motorcycle helmets is directly correlated to the accessibility of cellphones to even the poorest boda operators. A few years back it occurred to some visionary that if you were wearing a helmet, you could make a call on your cellphone and then wedge the phone between your helmet and your ear, allowing you to talk hands free as you go ripping through the city. Now instead of pulling over when they get a call, the boda guys jam their cellphones into their helmets and roll on, barking into their Nokias and looking for all the world like high powered executives coordinating mergers through their Bluetooth headsets. Pro: the boda guys wear helmets. Con: they now have one more thing distracting them. And that addendum to the law that boda operators have to supply helmets to passengers? It ain’t happened yet.