About Me

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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An unassuming Tuesday in the dark

August 31, 2010

As Ice Cube once said, "Today was a good day..." Whereas he messed around and had a triple-double, I just did the double. University double, that is. Met the University president (Vice-Chancellor) and his deputy in back-to-back meetings this morning.  The former had his self-portrait hanging behind his desk. I nearly said something. He is actually Kenyan and had a painting of marathon runners on the same wall. In between the two works of art was a rug depicting a cigarette-smoking dog and cat playing poker at a casino. It had to have been a gift from a dignitary. Or maybe an heirloom. On the other hand, the couches in his office couldn’t have been more comfortable. He must take 3-6 naps per day in them. I would.

His deputy was a large man who spoke from the heart. So frickin' sage. Wisdom and experience oozed out of every pore of the dude. I listened and shuddered. I have so much to live up to. They are expecting so much. I am not a savior nor a wunderkind. Just a fellow on a ride. 

Several hours earlier...

It's 3:35 a.m. and you can find me enclosed in mosquito netting.  After six hours of sleep, my eyes open to complete darkness. I stick my left hand underneath the netting to trawl the floor for the essentials: my flashlight, cell phone, and bottled water. No dice. I'll have to sit up and thus wake up. Finally I  make out the figures just inches from my fingertips.

 I’m still jet-lagged; now less so than three days ago but the early morning awakenings are still part of my first-week routine. I search for something to eat. Wheat bread or a half-eaten pineapple?. My index finger is longer than the knife I have so I choose the bread. A mosquito flies in an aperture near the kitchen sink. I wonder if it’s a female. I wonder if it’s carrying malaria. I wonder if it’s going to attack my skin with raw abandon seen only in Pixar movies and National Geographic documentaries. I turn out the lights and try to crawl back into my netting. Enmeshed and thoroughly distracted, I lay on my hard pillow and listen to the symphony of the night. Three dogs are singing the cacophonous sounds that only hunger can inspire. One of them seems wounded. The other two are in my front yard, barking at the top of their lungs for something I shan't and won't give them.  Are they trying to warn me or just piss me off? Are they hungry or in pain? Within minutes, it’s all quiet again and I reach for my Ipod to temper the white noise with soothing sounds of Neil Young and Sarah MacLoughlin.

Soon I’m asleep and dreaming of the things I did not bring but wished I had:

·       A coffee maker
·       A Swiss Army knife
·       A soft pillow
·       More linen shirts
·       My guitar
·       A 50" flatscreen with built-in DVD and nonstop reruns of "Seinfeld"
·       A printer/scanner
·       A second mitt to teach Dan how to play baseball
·       Shoe polish

Tomorrow I start my assignment in earnest. I can't wait to see 80 students waiting to hear me lecture. I am really curious as to what is going to happen. 

Monday, August 30, 2010

I smell a matt

After a weekend of surviving without running water, transportation, and a campus cafeteria, I kind of welcomed Mondays routine: embassy meetings, security briefings, department introductions, eschewing chapel service, syllabus planning.

Sister Frances led us in prayer at least four times today; twice before departing in the car to and from Kyambogo, another time at lunch, and another upon my entrance to the U.S. embassy. I haven't made the sign of the cross so much since confirmation back in '92. Good times.

I was awoken by her wake-up call at 7:15 this morning. Luckily the phone was by my bed.
"I"ve already had breakfast sir, I think it might serve us better to get on the road by 7:30. Can you be ready by then?"
"What. Time. Is. It?" I said as I searched for sand crystals caked under my eye sockets.
"Quarter past."
"Seven, sir."
(String of expletives followed by heavy breathing)
I washed in a sterile tub, boiled water to make instant coffee, ate a piece of wheat bread, and threw on my suit (all with just three fingers on my left hand, mind you). I had a meeting with three of the brass from the embassy and a couple more faculty in the afternoon. I didn't want to come off as tired. Or hungover. Or aloof. Or dead.

I took a look at myself in the mirror as I went through security and knew exactly how I was going to come off. I might have even smelled (allegedly). Just no swearing, awkward silences, bodily noises, adjustments, or intense scratching, and I'd be happy to put the day behind me. That was my plan. That was my M.O.

After the meetings in Kampala, Frances drove me back home as I nodded off in between boda-boda near-misses on the dusty roads leading back to school.

A department meet-and-greet turned into an awkward four person debate over the curriculum for my course this semester. The incumbent and 8-month pregnant professor (nicknamed The D.A) had written up a syllabus I neither had the materials for nor the acumen to pull off. Luckily Sister Frances and Doc (soon becoming power brokers on my behalf) changed the course of the course (and thus the next 15 weeks of my life) for the better. I start teaching Wednesday. I think. Beyond that, I was left to write up a lesson plan, walk around campus to scour for hot food (fish scales and mootoke anyone?) and finally pop the cork on my patio hammock as I finished chapter one in the Alan Furst novel, "The spies of Warsaw."

That was then. This is now. And now I take a nap from heaven, as the banana trees and elephant grass sway to the sweet sound of a Ugandan afternoon lake breeze.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The first two days

Indoor Camping and Down-home Hospitality

“Doc” and Sister Frances were waiting with huge smiles and a simple sign that read Mattew Mulka in pencil. I didn’t correct their spelling. I could have but I didn’t think that would be the prudent move. Not in Uganda. Not this Uganda.

The view from my front porch
Sister Frances and I this morning
Frances was wearing convent-issue blue, a habit on her skull and had a large motherly hug for me, as if I was one of her own  I felt at home right away. Doc would give me a hug before the night was out, too. A nicer man I couldn’t have asked for. He stood 6’2” with a wide, fleshy nose, dark, warm eyes and a huge laugh that revealed a gap between his front teeth; endearing if not modelesque. The two of them escorted me to the embassy vehicle with plenty of seating for the four of us, bags full of snacks, and my luggage. 

The streets were alive with locals walking up and down the shoulder of the streets. We passed huts, dim alleys and raucous night markets on our drive toward the capital. People appeared seemingly out of the darkness into large congregations, making the conversation in the van hard to follow as I scanned the road for menacing danger, women holding baskets of bananas on their heads, and other oddities. It felt as if we were in a new cauldron of humanity and I had a matchbook.

Once we reached town, we got out to get a bite to go at CafĂ© Javas, a modern establishment that could have passed for a chic Paris or L.A. juice bar, save the young guards holding automatic rifles in the parking lot. Young couples, distinguished families, and packs of gregarious teenagers sat all around us. Even though I was the only white man in the joint, nobody stared, gawked, scoffed or batted an eyelid.

The center of Kampala, even at 9:30 at night, was a frenzy of commotion. Dusty roads and thousand of pedestrians made their way from corner to shop corner, carrying goods, talking, and moving in and out of traffic without disruption. The road turned from dusty asphalt to red dirt once we were inside the university. 

Kyambogo U. looked the part of a sprawling compound on top of large bluff overlooking one of Kampala’s seven hills. Doc pointed the departments as we drove by.
 “There is the French department, sir…the university chapel, the Business department, the English department, Curriculum Planning, Art Design, Drama department…”
All of the buildings looked like private homes, not university buildings with ivy walls, cedar desks and blackboards. Still, the community was inviting and comforting, much the same as Mr. Drummond was to Arnold and Willis Jackson in those early years of "Different Strokes". 

We took two lefts, passed an open gate as our Toyota rolled down a small clay road, over pot holes and then parked next to a plot of land with two shanty rooms flanking the house I’d be living in for the next ten months.

My security guard, Dan, was dressed in tiger striped sweatpants, a green flannel, and simple sandals. His ivory smile lit up the night, greeting me cordially with a shake of the hand and escorting the three of us into the house. His veins were the size of pipe tubing and his countenance revealed virtue and honesty.

The first thing I noticed were the floors; cement from room to room.  The walls were bare, with beige and olive drapes closed over windows in each of the six rooms. The scent of fresh paint dominated the first moments we cased the place. 

Frances and Doc had gone ahead and bought “food stuffs” for my first couple nights: a loaf bread, rolls, butter, orange juice, a tin of instant coffee, tea, a pineapple and a couple of avocados. While the sister inspected the kitchen, Doc and I set up the mosquito netting onto my bed frame.

There was no running water so Dan took the liberty of heating up stored water from three large plastic containers. Once there was enough for a bath, he poured it into a small basin and let me clean up in the bathtub. Visions of 1988 and our family's bathing ritual in Kobe, Japan ran through my bed as I disrobed and cleaned up after the day of travel. Once I had finished, Dan and I sat and talked for a few minutes before he let me unpack and get ready for bed.

Quick note on Dan: he appeared ready to take a bullet for me. He is from the northwest of Uganda (an area known for rebel violence in the past) and he speaks a different language than Frances or Doc. His wife’s family shares a brick hut behind us while he had his own room with tv that adjoined the house. I didn’t ask why.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Main square at Kyambogo University

I woke up at four to eat my dinner, then passed out until I heard the chirping of birds outside my window at a quarter after nine. Soon, laying in a warm room surrounded by mosquito netting, other sounds emerged. Men’s voices, then laughter, then the occasional automobile, then more voices, until a symphony of an audible world outside my bedroom brought me to my senses. I was in Uganda. Now it was time to see what that really meant...

Walking around campus was an out of body experience. Not only was I the only white man on campus, but I seemed to be the only guy wearing sunglasses, shorts and flip flops. Had I made my first international taboo? Was I in for a stern cultural lecture? Actually NO and NO. I traipsed through the library (more stares, a few smiles), the arts and design building (met an artist who said I was cool), and the main drag on campus (more friendly stares and curious looks).  The place was beautiful, green, lush, full of shade, and just so damn different. It’s hard to put it into words how free and far away it feels. I can’t imagine being dropped off in a nicer place.
Outside the Art and Design building
Path at the edge of campus

Grassy study nook leading up to my house
Soccer field overlooking one of Kampala's 7 hills
The taxi station where boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) can take you away

On the walk back to the house I heard Sister Frances before I saw her. She was sitting on the porch, blue nunnery gear once again, asking how "Mattew was". 
We proceeded to try to solve the many issues confronting me as I try to blend in: no running water, a toilet that doesn't flush, white geckos climbing on the walls, no bathroom sponges, no internet or phone services, and too many tomatoes in my fridge. By five p.m. I was spent and besides a sponge we had done some damage to the "to do" list. 

Sign outside the Art building on campus

Now I'm listening to a preacher speak to a chapel full of parishioners on campus as I search my house for things to eat. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


"This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website.  The views and information presented are the English Language Fellows' own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State."

Thank you very much,

Matt (blogger)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Chez Mulka on the site of Kyambogo U. Gardener Dan awaits me with bated breath...

I'm nearly settled with my packing, my last-minute issues with technology, money, housing, and social good-byes. I have plenty of underwear. My deodorant should last me through at least October. Nevertheless, I am thoroughly unprepared for the onslaught of mosquitoes, netting, isolation, and social curiosity that will undoubtedly seep into the crevasse of my daily routine some 48 hours from now. But for now, it's preparation and anticipation. Thoughts of a new adventure, a new challenge, a new beginning, and a new way to make my mark on the world, in some small but meaningful way. How can I do that? How can I affect these people I am about to meet? Am I ready for the surprises, fears, inequities and heartbreaks? Can I deal with them? Can I make an impact? Can I have sleep with mosquitoes the size of crab cakes sizzling past my schnozz? Things just got a whole lot more impossibler.