Monthly Archives: June 2014

Motorcycles and Matches

“I was probably born with some designing abilities.”

-Mikhail Kalashnikov


I spent 13 hours in the field with Patrick on Friday, and in that time we got two flat tires on our motorcycle. In Soroti the office doesn’t have a nice field bike like the one we use in Hoima, so instead we rent a boda bike from one of the guys in town. The machine is chunky and sluggish but wicked strong, and with enough patience and pushing it can handle the worst roads and gluey swamps that Soroti region has to offer. We were working in Ongatunyo Village, deep (2.5 hours ride) in the village, when suddenly our ride down a narrow dirt track was interrupted by the slap slap slap sound of a flat tire. We pulled to a stop, saw an acacia thorn piercing the tough rubber tread, and then asked a boy passing by on a bicycle to go to the trading center and send a mechanic.

After half an hour of snoozing next to the disabled machine the mechanics came tearing through the bush on a boda bike of their own. Neither one could have been over 18 years old, and they unwrapped a bundle of tools and began dismantling the bike. Changing a motorcycle tire isn’t difficult, but it’s a complicated process, and these barefoot kids quickly and efficiently began the many steps of pulling off the tire and grafting on a rubber patch fashioned from an old bicycle inner tube they had brought. It took less than an hour for the bike to be dismantled, the punctured inner tube epoxied, the tire reinflated with a rusty bicycle pump, and the whole 15-step disassembly process to be repeated in reverse. When they noticed a worn brake pad they plucked a corresponding part off their own machine and bolted it on to ours. The whole operation cost $3.

On the way back to Soroti the tire went flat again: even before it burst in the village the inner tube had been punctured so many times that it was starting to look like a donut shaped collection of patches. Night and a cold rain had fallen, and we pushed the broken bike a kilometer through the drizzle until we found a mechanic at a trading center who sold new inner tubes and could refit the tire then and there. I watched with interest, this being the second time that day that the tire had been repaired, and was amazed with the speed and confidence with which he approached the bike: he worked without any illumination in the moonlight, a cigarette between his teeth dipping and bobbing as he worked, and—I timed it—it took him 13 minutes to remove the whole wheel, insert and inflate the new inner tube, and put the bike back together again. Parts and labor cost $5 combined.

As we rolled back through the dark, our headlight cutting a jagged beam through the scintillating rain drops, I realized that the bike that we were riding on was perfect. Just perfect. These boda boda bikes are ubiquitous in Uganda, and 90% of the motorcycles on the road are Indian Bajaj 100 or 125 cc bikes, low and stocky and usually decorated with stickers and paint and bright upholstery. Everything superfluous has been removed from the motorcycle: no tachometer, no fuel gauge, no windshield, no automatic starter, and the suspension is reactive enough to handle rough Ugandan dirt roads, but stiff enough to carry enormous amounts of cargo. I’ve seen five grown men riding on one of these motorcycles, and I’ve seen boda drivers carrying couches and cows behind them as they crouch like jockeys over the fuel tank. The bikes have little pickup, low top speed, and they look chunky and squat, but anyone can ride them and a smart mechanic can repair any problem with a pair of pliers and some baling wire. Bajaj has designed a motorcycle that can be ridden by a barefoot 12 year old through a sandstorm, that can carry a cow along a village track, and that sells brand new for under $1000. The bike is absolutely perfect, and because of that it is everywhere.

There are a lot of Perfect products here in Uganda: useful items that people need every day that really have no competitors. The fact is that there is very little commercial variation from one end of Uganda to the other, and a roadside shop in Hoima will sell the EXACT same products as a roadside shop in Soroti, or Kampala. This gives the country a strange commercial homogeneity: as I move from between regions I find people speaking completely different local languages, ethnic groups in certain regions that don’t resemble any other ethnic group, people in the villages building and thatching their huts in different styles, but the exact same products are sold and advertised throughout. When I first arrived in Uganda I found this universality boring, but as I turned things over in my mind while chundering back from the village I became more and more impressed thinking about products that were everywhere, unremarked because of their ubiquity and effectiveness.

Take Krishna matches, manufactured by V.G. Keshawala and sons in my old home town Jinja, Uganda. I keep a few boxes of these at home in Massachusetts because they are so distinctly Ugandan: they are white wax matches with black tips, and they come in a yellow box with a disconcerting picture of a blue baby on it. You can drop a box of Krishna matches in a bucket of water, shake them dry, and they light instantly and without fault, burning for 20 seconds before scorching your fingers. Or cell phones. Everywhere I go in the village I see people using little Nokia phones, which have no color display, no internet connectivity, and no features like a calculator or games. Nevertheless, these phones are perfect: they float when dropped in water, when dismantled and spread in the sunlight after a dousing they work perfectly when put back together, the battery lasts for almost a week without charging, and they have a built in flashlight that spills a surprisingly bright light over whatever path you happen to walk on. All Ugandan bicycles are made by an Indian company called Champion. They are single gear iron frame workhorses, and when I go out to the village I see bicycles built in the 1980s which are still bumping over the punishing Ugandan marram roads.

What I’m getting at here is that in this regard, Uganda could not be more different from the United States. I can name six different brands of bicycle for sale in the US off the top of my head, and when I tried to think of an American brand which had absolutely no alternatives in its field, all that came to mind was Hellman’s mayonnaise. Variety is a luxury that wealthy countries can afford, whereas in Uganda it would be risky to face the corduroy village roads unless you were riding a motorcycle that you could assuredly get parts for in the bush. An American friend of mine who works in Kampala told me that when her NGO needed a generator to cope with the frequent power outages here, their American donors sent them a beautiful one thousand dollar generator made in Germany by people who take electricity generation very seriously. The machine blew a gasket after someone untrained in its use let it overheat a week after they got it, and because parts for this generator do not exist on the continent of Africa, it now gathers dust next to the one hundred dollar Chinese generator that replaced it. The Chinese generator belches oily clouds of smoke and sounds like a jackhammer compared to the hum of the German machine, but it works and can be repaired with 5 dollars and a roll of duct tape.

The Bajaj motorcycle company has done more to jumpstart economic development and community vibrancy than most NGOs here. Bajaj motorcycles carry brides to weddings and coffins to funerals and old men to the hospital, they are the first and last step of any journey to and from the village, and whenever anyone in a rural area invests in iron roofing sheets or a cassava mill or any weighty purchase, these things are ferried out by boda bodas. In the US we crave distinction and specificity from our products, and find ourselves with a surfeit of stuff to accomplish minute variations of the same task: laptops and iPhones and tablets and Kindles and MP3 players, while Ugandans get news and music and entertainment from 5 dollar radios with clothes hangers twisted around the antennae to pick up dance music from broadcasters in the Congo. Simplicity works.


And now for something completely different…

And now for something completely different...

At Lac Blanc, Alsace, France



With his buddy Theo

Pit Stop



Village mechanics patching an inner tube during fieldwork. Ongatunyo Village, Uganda.

In the tobacco fields

In the tobacco fields

Wilberforce pushing the bike through the tobacco fields. Bwikya Katikara Village, Uganda.

Finding Jino

The other day I went out in the field with Wilberforce, one of the intervention leaders that I’ve hired, to deliver cash transfer vouchers to six people in Bwikya Katikara village, Uganda. The program that I coordinate consists of giving a plan making and motivational workshop to ultrapoor villagers, as well as a cash transfer totaling roughly $130. To inform participants that they have been selected for this program, we visit them about a week in advance to inform them when and where they can receive their cash transfer, and give them a voucher with their picture on it that they redeem to attend the workshop and receive their cash. Armed with nothing more than the name of the village we were looking for and a thundering 250cc motorcycle, Wilberforce and I set off into the villages to locate our six designated recipients and tell them about their impending cash transfer. These days the job is a combination of the lottery and the US Postal Service.

Finding these people is tricky, to put it mildly. None of the villages Village Enterprise works with appear on any maps and few of the roads we drive on have names, so before setting out we need someone who’s been to this village before to give us directions to the general region where this village can be found. As we drive away from Hoima town the roads get steadily worse, progressing from a gorgeous 20 yard wide road leading to the oil fields, to a well maintained dirt road, to a severely pitted and washed out dirt road, and finally to a narrow track through the bush that leads to the village we’re searching for. It’s rare for the people we’re looking for to have cell phones, and reception in the villages is terrible anyways, so we typically visit the elected chairman of the community to show him the list of names we’re looking for and get directions to each person’s home. This is typically a committee process: we read out a name from our list, and at least one of the half-dozen people who have gathered knows where that person lives. Often people are out working in their fields when we go to their homes, so we need to enlist neighbors to point us towards the plots where they work, which can be several kilometers from their houses. I used to work for a microfinance NGO in Senegal, and it was in fact easier for me to find people who owed me money than it is to find people who I intend to give money to.

This particular trip to Bwikya Katikara had not gone swimmingly. The back tire of the motorcycle had no air pressure when we first started out, so we had to push it into Hoima town to get it inflated. On the way out to the village wicked bumps in the road snapped off the license plate and shook the brake lever off, and I was getting concerned as I realized that I was starting to transfer important parts of the motorcycle to my backpack. We eventually reached the chairman’s house, who held court in a pair of Wellington boots and a suit jacket, and who eventually agreed to show us to the homes we were seeking for 4000 shillings. We shuffled between houses finding the people on our list and delivering vouchers until only one person was left unchecked: Jino Tuma Akudi.

Finding Jino turned into an epic quest. We went to his house and were told that he was out working in the tobacco field, and when we asked for directions there people just pointed and said “you can’t miss it.” They were right. The field must have covered 20 acres, and when we rode over the hill we saw a sea of chunky tobacco plants spread out in the valley before us, punctuated by the thatched roofs of the wigwams where the cut leaves are hung in the shade to dry before being sold to the British American Tobacco conglomerate. We rode the motorcycle right into the crop, the knobby back wheel churning up the loose red soil, and it was eerie how quickly we lost our bearings. Tobacco only grows about four or five feet high, but all plants look the same, the drying huts we came across periodically looked the same, and pretty soon we were somewhere in the middle of this massive field looking for one guy we had never seen before. Occasionally we ran into workers—once almost literally—who were weeding and spraying insecticide, and we would ask if they knew where Jino Akudi was working. No one knew anything. Some claimed they knew a person named Jino but his last name wasn’t Akudi, some claimed they knew an Akudi but his first name wasn’t Jino, one said Jino Akudi didn’t farm tobacco, he farmed beans, and a lot of people said Jino worked “right over there,” pointing in wildly different directions each time. At least I think they were different directions: it was hard to tell, alternately wheeling and riding the bike through the anonymous swell of tobacco plants. We were in there for two hours, battling through the narrow rows of plants on the chattering motorcycle, searching desperately for Jino so we could give him $130.

We found an old lady who claimed to know Jino Akudi, and eventually agreed to direct us to him. After reeling off immensely complicated directions, involving left turns at very big rocks and a right turn at the drying hut missing half of the roof, she casually asked if we were going to arrest Jino just as we fired up the bike to go sputtering down the route she had outlined for us. We burst out laughing—Wilberforce was wearing a sweater vest and I am 22 years old, so neither of us project the awful majesty of the Law—and told her that no, we were actually going to invite him to a training session and give him a cash transfer. She paused, digesting this new information, and then eventually said “OK. Since you are not going to arrest Jino, he is not where I told you he was. In fact, what you must do…” and she launched into an equally complicated explanation to head in a completely different direction.

We found Jino, and talked with him while hiding from the sun in a tobacco hut crouching under the fragrant rows of drying leaves, and he was very happy to receive his voucher, but the point of the story is this: I really like my job. I like the challenges of jerry-rigging the bike back together when it breaks and pushing it through the sticky primordial tobacco leaves, I like visiting the beneficiaries of our program at their actual homesteads, I like getting out of the office. I recently applied for a position in Boston that was listed as having a fieldwork component, and when I asked what this entailed I was told it could involve attending academic conferences, doing research in archives across the city of Boston, and interviewing executives to write business cases. The job has a lot of advantages, and I guess I would enjoy it if I actually got it, but still, I’m going to miss doing fieldwork in fields.

What Noah Thought

I knew it was going to rain today from 30 miles away. Standing on the balcony of the Hoima Resort Hotel (which is definitely a hotel in Hoima, although it hasn’t yet realized its potential as a resort destination) I could see roiling black clouds forming over the green mountains in the North and rolling closer. The rain was a solid wall of water, and I watched in fascination as the red dirt turned instantly to mud in a clean line as the rain swept across the landscape. Then the storm was on me, and in the instant before I ducked into my room it soaked me as quickly as if I had jumped into a river.

I’d never experienced a rainstorm like this, never. In no time at all it was everywhere at once. The room smelled like rain, all sound was drowned out by the heavy drops drilling into the zinc roof of the hotel, and looking out my window I saw that the mountains where the storm had concentrated were now obliterated by gray sheets of water pouring from the overflowing gutters. The power cut out as soon as the storm hit, and I found myself alone in a gray room feeling as if I wouldn’t be capable of pushing my door open against the onslaught of water. I turned on music on my laptop, and even with the volume turned all the way up I could barely distinguish the lyrics of the music against the white noise of water on the roof, the deck tiles, the sodden ground. I got off the bed to look out the window and sloshed into an inch of water: the gutters had backed up and the room was flooding. I unplugged everything from the sockets, stuffed a rolled towel under the door, and lay down on the high ground of my bed to think.

After a little while the storm slackened, and I heard someone rapping on my door. I opened it to find a man wearing a shiny pink raincoat over a double breasted suit, who flashed a brilliant smile and said to me “Good evening sir. Shall I push you out?” I hesitated, scrambling to remember if I had paid for that nights stay and trying to think what kind of bouncer would wear pink raincoat, when he hefted a squeegee and said “I am here to push water from your room.” I stepped aside, and he came in chuckling and clucking and started to splash the water under my bed in the general direction of my door. “You will observe that there are very few mosquitoes this time of year!” he chirped gleefully, wringing out a sodden rag. “And the weather is not too hot! The rainy season is the finest time to visit Uganda!”

He might be right. As I lay in my bed I thought about all of the people I worked with in the villages of Hoima district, and wondered what the rain sounded like on their palm-thatched roofs as they lay in bed themselves and waited out the storm. After the dapper man had reduced the standing water in my room from an inch to half an inch, I pulled on my boots and wandered downstairs to see what else was happening in the hotel. I saw groups of men drinking warm beer by candlelight, women laughing and emitting billows of steam outside the wood-fired sauna, and expats cranking their battery powered radios to tune in to the BBC world service. I stood outside and thought about how few mosquitoes there were, and how it wasn’t too hot out.  The moon shouldered its way through the clouds, bullfrogs announced their presence in the new constellations of puddles that had formed in the cassava fields, and then came the night.

From Home to Hoima

For the moment my unemployment is in remission, and I’m back at work as a consultant again. This is my fourth trip to Uganda in three years, and traveling here gets easier and easier every time. Before flying out I re-read the book “Into Africa,” the story of Henry Morton Stanley’s 1871 expedition into central Africa to recover David Livingstone, and it impressed upon me that very few places in the world are inaccessible the way that they were 140 years ago. Over the course of his five-month journey to get only a few degrees of latitude south of where I am now, Stanley’s horses were devoured from the inside out by parasites, his men succumbed to elephantiasis and crocodile attacks, he was at times reduced to eating grass for nourishment, and WiFi connectivity was very poor. Meanwhile my trip couldn’t have been better: seven hours from Boston to Amsterdam, a two hour layover, and then an eight hour flight to Entebbe, Uganda. The customs clearance procedure consisted of a bored guy with an AK-47 giving me a friendly nod, and I made it to Kampala in time to watch England struggle desperately to a 0-0 draw with Honduras. The British expats around me struggled to fend off desperation, I struggled to fend off prostitutes, and finally I fell asleep for the first time in 30 hours.

This morning I bought a cell phone and then headed off to the bus park to catch a matatu to Hoima, where I used to live. I’m traveling on an expense account now, but I still think that paying more than six bucks to go 200 kilometers is outrageous. I got in the matatu and was happy to see that it was filling up quickly—the matatu drivers won’t move the bus until they get at least 14 people in there—but my joy turned to dismay after the 14th person showed up and the matatu driver was still packing people in. I finally protested when the driver tried to squeeze a fifth person onto the three-foot-wide upholstered bench seat I was sitting on. “That’s impossible,” I said “I paid 14,000 shillings for this seat, and if I only get 60% of a seat then I want 5600 shillings back.” The matatu driver scowled at me, and then wordlessly jabbed his finger at a sticker on the inside of the bus that said “IF JESUS SAYS YES, THAN NOBODY CAN SAY NO.” Who could argue with that? I submitted to the will of the Lord and made space on the bench.

So basically, I’m safe in Hoima and looking forward to the work ahead. I’m in Africa, the World Cup is coming up, life is good. This is going to be an exciting month, stay tuned for more updates.