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.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Woke up to a beautiful Tuesday morning and since I had no instant coffee, it was time to get a boda boda into town. Here's what the ride is kinda like...


I've been here a month now. It feels longer than that in some ways. But what is time anyway...? Past memories floating in and out of the brain as you try to focus on the present? Time flies during the day here. That's for sure. Since dusk is at roughly 7 pm, daylight - or more precisely, sunlight - is precious. And with the afternoon rains almost always coming between 2 pm and 4 pm, it's morning that really sneaks up and passes. It's morning that's crucial. Crucial for washing clothes, hanging clothes, bathing, shopping, traveling. It's all predicated on the threat of heavy rain.

 If it rains you can't take a boda boda, the roads are a mess, pot holes fill with red mud, and traffic comes to a screeching halt.

Rain hit hard at 3 o'clock today and I sprinted across campus to take down my underwear and slacks from the clothesline. Since I'm in my office waiting for students to show for meetings, I thought I'd take the time to let you know what I do most days....

7:00 - 7:55: Notice birds chirping and Dan raking. Contemplate sitting up. Usually roll over and listen for imminent threats of danger or think of excuses to go back to sleep. Invariably this leads to:

7:56-8:00: Rising, I boil water, check the color of the sky, get caught in the mosquito netting, open front door, wave to Dan (he's usually in the yard), pour instant coffee and sugar into coffee cup.

8:00 - 8:30: After rinsing off dishes with boiled water, I eat some sort of breakfast consisting of yogurt, bread with peanut butter or salami, drink instant coffee, hopefully avoid throwing up, turn on computer, check sports scores and emails, stare at the pile of essays to correct and brainstorm where to go into town for groceries, better coffee, a real breakfast, and a slice of civilization.

9:00 - 11:00: Either spent at "Game", the WalMart of Kampala, "Good African Coffee," the Starbucks/Dennys of Kampala, or in office chatting with office mate and fellow Literature prof, Benon, as I try to find a cool idea for the week's lessons. Note: Benon is a grown up, Ugandan Alfonso Ribero with less musical talent but more personality and charm. And less hair. He's actually bald. But in a cool way...

11:00 - 11:30: Boil more water for a bath. Put dirty clothes, cold tap water and detergent in basin. Mix the three. Wait a few minutes. Set up hammock for afternoon down time.

11:30 - 11:34: Bathe in the tub. This does not need visuals or much description. It's not hygiene at The Four Seasons. It's also not entirely unsatisfying. Afterwards, I always pronounce myself clean.  The problem is - with the humidity - how long will I stay that way.

11:40 - 12:15: Wring out clothes and hang them in front yard clothes line. This takes longer than it seems, especially so with cottons. I have come to loathe wringing out cotton t-shirts and my husky bath towel. It takes nearly 36 hours to dry that towel.

12:15 - 12:45: Make any adjustments to the kitchen, check emails, relax in hammock and think about walking up the hill to the lunch spot on campus.

12:45 - 1:00: Walk up the dirt road, past the guest house, and into the house that serves lunch every day between one and three. I'm usually one of the first to arrive. I chat with Esther, who is very funny, sweet, motherly, and almost always is wearing her bright green Mountain Dew t-shirt. She tries to get me to pronounce the word for "fresh fish" in Luganda. It's impossibly impossible to pronounce. Chen-lahn-di-yuh is about as close as I come. All the female servers at the buffet break out laughing when I ask for it in Luganda.

1:00 - 1:30: Eat lunch. This is generally very, very good. home cooking. Tilapia (the local fish), rice with steamed carrots, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, pumpkin poshua (white root), and gravy. I've met a couple teachers eating outside in one of the six tables next to the old teachers college, which is now a secondary school. The past week an accountant named Andrew has sat with me. The meal costs $1.50 and is thoroughly a daily highlight.

1:30 - 2:30: Go home and check on the rain clouds, laudry, tasks to complete at the office, and my general energy level. Is it time for a nap? Midday naps coincide wonderfully with thunderstorms and hard rain. I know it sounds a bit lazy but after the meal, and with a lot of things accomplished already, why not?

3:00 - 4:30: Identify bullet points to go over with Dr. Okaka, make any phone calls to staff, return emails, and make copies for class if it's coming the next day. Usually, this can also be stretched into a longer nap, research for classroom activities, reading, or surfing the net.

4:30 - 5:30: Identify needs for dinner, social outings on the docket for the evening, and time to relax. Really good time to sit outside in the hammock, read novels, or walk over to oak tree and listen to the drummers and dancers practice. Sense a pattern in the afternoon?

Note: If I'm teaching that day (Wednesdays and Thursdays) I am usually sweating bullets, running to the copy center to make one copy for the student rep, going over lecture notes, and trying to keep my shirt dry. But only on those two days.

6:00 - 6:30: Walk thru campus, listening to i-pod, waving at students, enjoying the late afternoon African sunshine, avoiding boda-boda requests, finding my "boda boda guy," Tom, and ask him to take me somewhere new for dinner.

7:00 - 10:00: Either spent out for dinner and drinks or at home preparing something menial at home. It's pitch black by eight so if I'm out I've got to start to wonder how I'm getting home. If I'm far from home, I call my "regular taxi guy," Issa to pick me up in a real metered taxi.

10:00 - > Avoid malaria assassins.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Freshers Ball

I have 83 students in two classes. These students come from all over Uganda. From Gulu and Arua. From Kasese and Kabale and other towns you've never heard of. Beautiful people, eager to shake my hand (the Ugandan shake, by the way, is: regular shake, what's up, bro'! shake, back to regular shake, slow release...) and get my thoughts on their country.

Their names are impossibly impossible to make up: British colonial first names followed by tribal surnames.

I've got Mercy and Maxwell, Prima and Victoria. Charlotte and Damalie, Richard and Julius. Three Juliuses actually. Three Pauls. A couple of Richards. A Simon. A Jimmy. A Sharon. Two Fionas. Two Racheals. A Patrick. An Anita. Even an Ivan.

Today was the Freshers Ball, a celebration to welcome first years into the university. I guess they prefer than neutral gender title to our "Freshman" term in America. I actually had no idea about it until I saw caps and gowns and a big gathering outside the main hall on campus. The Vice Chancellor made a speech. There was music. The setting was fabulous. I even ran into a few of my students which was really nice. I feel like we're starting to connect as people.

Julius saw me first and rescued me from a physics student talking my ear off about America. Then came Prima and finally Moses. That's Moses Kibuuka for those scoring at home. He loves "The Bourne" trilogy almost as much as I do. Then a few Freshers I am teaching showed up after the ceremony. One of them noticed a huge bug on my shoulder and saved me from a nasty bite. That student, Richard Orijabo, has about the widest grin one could imagine. To his left was Florence Hantongo. Florence is cross-eyed but plenty capable. Her first essay was captivating. I've noticed if I stare at her right ear she and I connect. It's like ear-contact. Without getting anywhere near the lobe.

So I had a good afternoon at the ball then came home to prepare vienna sausages and buy Nile beer at the local bar. I made a special deal with the owner that if I bring back the empties I can take their beers out of the bar and into my fridge. Each 24 oz bottle costs 2000 shillings (or approximately 90 cents). God bless.

The students are starting to get the idea of an academic essay. It's not the most riveting of classes as far as song and dance, fun activities, but they see the use of it and how badly they need the structure. Their ideas are so fluid and fascinating that if I can somehow harness their organization and teach them the skills for writing an academic paper, they might actually find the class useful.

We have individual meetings in my office this week so I can try to learn all their names and help the weaker ones before we start moving through the course syllabus a bit faster.

I am also supposed to be leading a workshop on writing in October but as of yet haven't heard any specifics on dates, audience, or specific topics to be discussed. I'm getting used to that around here.


I have been neglecting to update this blog. Not out of malaise or boredom, but rather because I've been correcting. Correcting all the essays I have assigned the past two weeks. I'm slowly but surely getting to know my students. I am learning about their ideas and lives through these essays, designed primarily as a diagnostic tool, but also as a lens into their minds.

All essays are submitted in sheets of paper, lined, three-hole punched, and smelling of Camas, Washington. Most students have hand writing that belongs in Monticello. The thoughts of these literature students are vast and expansive. Often one paragraph assignments are handed to me with two full pages of thoughts. Sifting through a stack of 85 essays and quizzes took me nearly three full days.

If you haven't noticed, I am going through a phrase of irritation this week, mostly by the lack of privacy and organization going on around me. The lawn blower came to trim the grass yesterday morning. At 7:06 a.m. Dan was hoeing outside my house at 7:17 a.m. this morning. My morning off. Usually it's the raking that gets me but today it was the hoeing.
"Does that have to begin now?" I asked politely, wiping my eyes as I scanned for rain clouds and suicide flamingoes circling the terrace.
"Place has to be clean, sir..."
"Yeah, but right outside my bedroom window? At 7 o'clock."
Our relationship is soggy at best.
He just finished mopping the house, taking an hour to do a fifteen minute job. What can I say, I like my space. Especially on my day off. Luckily, I was reading a Ward Just book in the hammock outside, watching the world pass slowly by on a listless Friday afternoon on campus.

Drums beat irreverently a hundred meters away, down the path but out of sight. The music department's grassy auditorium always seems to have some pulsating rhythm as background noise. Today it's drums. Yesterday two trumpets. Choir music tomorrow and Sunday the psalms of Hosannah. Hosannah in the highest.


Last Sunday I went to watch an English Premier League game at Centenary Park with some teachers. A beer turned into dinner and then dusk fell and music began. In the midst of the outdoor beer pavillion, fifty African dancers beckoned. Minutes later I was singing the second verse to "Amazing Grace" in front of seventy-five strangers to a rousing round of applause and high fives from the shaman/MC running the event. Some of the costumes and gyrations were very impressive. From what I remember.

Last night was the inaugural Kyambogo Film Society event, set in a dusty classroom with laptop and film projector. I brought my evening class at the request of Dr. Okaka, head of the Lit Department and my immediate boss. After watching "Pursuit of Happyness" starring Will Smith, I was asked to say a few words.
"Uh, me...?" I asked to the Film Society Prez.

I stood up wearily and feigned a smile. Meanwhile, all I could think about was where I could find dinner at nine in the evening without having to grab a boda-boda and how I could get this chalk off my hands, my slacks, my hair and how I was going to get my clothes dry if it had rained the past three hours.

Thursdays are long.

I have managed to take some responsibility for things around the house. I cooked potatoes on Tuesday and bought a cutting board and knife for the kitchen. I learned how to cut a pineapple and a mango after splicing my index finger and selling out Jesus in the name of blasphemy. Cuts hurt. I have been washing clothes by hand the past ten days, saving nearly ten bucks a month that would otherwise go in Dan's pocket. Not that I'm cheap but...well, okay. I am.

But the thing is about Dan....

Three weeks Prior
(Day Four in Uganda)

(A light knock at the door. In my plaid boxers, flip flops and ELF t-shirt, I follow the sunbeams. I see Dan, 29-46 years of age, reasonable facsimile of Seal, staring out the window in green tank top and Apollo Creed boxing shorts.)

--Morning, Dan. 
-Yeah....I think maybe you can help me....I...uh...want a bicycle for myself and I have been saving money. But the bike costs 180 dollars and I need 80 more. Do you think you can give me the balance?

(I look incredulously at the wall, following a spider past my two hanging windbreakers and towards a cookie wrapper. 4 days and we're already asking Matt for cash. It takes me a few moments to gain composure and allow the blood to flush out to my extremities)

--Dan, I uh...
-Sir, I think maybe you can help me.
--Dan, if you need a bike maybe you should ask the school or Sister Frances. I am a teacher. My contract is to live here and teach. I don't have money for that. I don't want to be rude but I can't just give you money. If you need a bike, you should ask Dr. Okaka or the Sister. Maybe they can help or the school or someone.
-No! No, please sir. Please don't tell them I asked you. Please I am sorry sir...yeah...sorry. 

It's been awkward ever since. 

I'm not fully sure what is going on actually. Dan is supposedly living on the premises for security but I am not really sure he's secure. Dan's living on the premises to take care of the grounds in exchange for free housing. Either way, I'm 35 and perfectly capable of locking my door each time I go out. Beyond that, I'm not really too sure he's going to be the difference between me sleeping soundly and me dancing with the Kampala Keibosher after hours. Just a hunch.

So anyway, I'm doing a lot of things on my own now. I wash my clothes, I clean the kitchen, I boil water for a bath, I boil more water for coffee, I make coffee, I try to eat breakfast, I correct essays, I lesson plan, I wander around campus, I take a boda-boda to shop, buy some things, take one back, read a little, check emails, and go to bed. Pretty much like an adult would do. If they lived without a security guy. Which most do.

Meanwhile, Dan's been hoeing, raking, washing, gardening, watching TV, going to church and mopping twelve paces from my front door. I hope things better between us. But, to be honest, the Dan I like is the Dan I don't see. Or hear.

Like I said, I'm irritated this week. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Being White

Mzungu is the local word for white man in Uganda. It comes from South Africa (if memory serves me correct) and is used widely throughout the region. Adults use it. But children reaaaallly use it. White people (namely: me) are a poster here in Uganda. We stand out. I've seen one other white person on campus in three weeks. A campus with 8,000 African students and many hundred more staff. All black. Mostly tribal. All very intelligent, educated, and well-dressed.

Mzungu means many things here. I've gathered it can be a positive and a negative moniker. It can be construed as racist and uneducated, a simple acknowledgement of one's skin is never going to go straight to the heart and warm your soul. Aren't I more than just white? Don't I have a soul, a personality?

To the taxi drivers and street vendors, it means I have money. It means I am a client. A client of the first order. But it also means I am an outsider. I can be taken advantage of. He doesn't know our rules. The prices. The routes. The skinny. He is gullible. He is a fool. I don't know their country and therefore am prey. I am a mzungu.

To the children I bring happiness. I am a mzungu. So a mzungu is hope. He has money. He has goodness in his heart. He gives us things. Food, clothing, perhaps some pocket change. He is friendly. He is not dangerous. He smiles. He waves. He has money. The mzungu is good.

To the educated class, uttering mzungu is derogatory. "...judge a man not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character," right? To imply the person's character, his depth, her spirit...just by the color of the skin is not right. It is not right. Not then. Not now. Not ever.

And yet the word is everywhere. It's on the tongues of the locals, the proprietors, the tour guides, the children, the elders, the street urchins, the orphans, the politicians. The mzungu dilemma is one I am struggling with. I am not a mzungu just as anyone I meet is not black. We are all more than that. We are all individuals.

How does being white help me? How does it hurt me?? These are the questions I ask myself each and every day. In places, I am served first; cashing money, at banks, in nice restaurants. My skin means money. My face is a social class. But I am also a target. For the hustlers, the thieves, the scammers, the thugs.

I kind of like riding the 14-seat minibuses that stop every twenty yards. In that cab, I am a local. I pay the local rate. I ride alongside locals. We can gripe about the same potholes, about the same traffic. We travel together. Skin does not matter. The fifty cent fare brings us together. We can talk about our day. I can ask them where to go. I can be honest. I can be friendly. They are the people of Kampala. This is how they travel.

But I am a hypocrite. I do have more money than most here. I can ride private taxis and eat at nice restaurants, take the occasional trip upcountry, see gorillas, see lions, pay a driver. I'm being hypocritical. My situation is never going to be the same as a local. Maybe that's the reality. Maybe I really am a mzungu and all that that means.

But that's not right. I am here to discuss such things, not accept them. I am here to talk about those issues, those differences, meld two societies where possible, highlight similarities and encourage indviduality, showcase culture and challenge stereotypes that injure and defame.

This conversation is not going to be solved in one blog. It's not going to be solved in one post. But it's been on my mind. I am not a preacher or a disciple. I am not standing on a pulpit or talking to a congregation. I am just aware. More so each day I live here. Aware of what standing out in a crowd can mean. And how it feels.

As I write this, a boy from a nearby home comes by and knocks. For the third time in two days. His name is Ben and he wants something. I am not sure what. Companionship? A friend? Money?
I am grading papers, drinking coffee; completely in my morning routine. He finally asks for drinking water. He is thirsty. I boil some but have nothing to put it in. I ask him to get a cup and bring it over so I can fill it. Doesn't he have water at home? Why does he come to me?? Where are his parents??? Why isn't he in school today????  Like I said, these things happen to me all the time here. I can tell he wants to come inside and spend an entire day here. Someone wouldn't come over three times in 24 hours just for water. Things aren't that dire for him, are they? Or are they?

Nearly all Ugandan people treat me with respect, courtesy, curiosity and appreciation. On campus, I may be an oddity but I am also a member of the community.  So this is not a tirade. This post is not a complaint. Only an observation. I am not entirely comfortable with being a mzungu. And I am not entirely sure what the word is going to mean to me in nine months.

To be Continued...

A wild weekend in western Uganda

Friday, September 10, 6 a.m.
Harrison  was waiting with a white Toyota Landcruiser, safari pop-up top, spare tire and jack. My hand disappeared as he shook it. Big ol' paws. He took the bags and began gripping the wheel as if it was a toothpick, as we set off for the Bwindi National Forest, the mountain gorillas, other primates, birds, and species, and whatever other fun laid in our path.

Screaming thru the pre-dawn hours in the capital, we raced against the onset of rush hour. The sky turned from ashen charcoal to purple and then crimson behind us as we turned passed roundabout after roundabout, going from boarded up markets and honking boda-bodas to lush green pastures of farmland, banana trees, and the occasional rivulet that signaled countryside peace.

By seven we were in the free and clear, bounding west towards nature. Soon there was farmland, children in turquoise and violet school uniforms, girls' and boys' hair cropped to the skull, walking to primary schools all over the village roads of gravel, clay and dust, as morning broke over the equator. 

This trip was different from many others I have taken in a foreign country. And I had my first visitor since arriving two weeks before. I had picked up Jean in Entebbe, after her trip through Mongolia had left her on the precipice of one continent. Another beckoned. And with her experience on the road, I figured we could handle whatever obstacles came our way. 


(This section is rated NC-17)

It's hard to put in perspective how weird this journey really was. We had baboons dropping out of trees out onto the highway. Roadkill included three zebra, several dogs, a woman, a buffalo, and several other mammals. Our driver contracted malaria somewhere between Kabale and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and was slouched in a lodge couch each night, swigging mango juice to offset the fatigue. An elephant nearly charged our landcruiser. A mountain gorilla snarled at me when I got too close to its young. We got a flat tire in between two towns so small we couldn't find them on our map, then watched as scores of children showed up out of thin air, more to stare at a white man than at a damaged tire.

Moving southwest towards Masaka, we were spotting heron, egrets, eagles, cranes, and other birdlife all over and above the tarmac highway. A "Look at that!" or "Oh my God!" were commonplace after breaching Kampala's borders. But this particular groan, this scream from the backseat was different. What Harrison and Jean saw (and luckily I had missed) was a whole different sort of road sighting. 
A dead woman, lying on the side of the road, just after dawn, ten minutes before reaching the equator, stunned us. Harrison put his hands up to his face. I looked back to try to glimpse what the others had seen. Jean's mouth was agape, staring straight ahead, trying to make sense of the awful spectacle. 
"Can we go back? Shouldn't we call someone?"
"The police will pick her up shortly," Harrison slowly retorted. "She must have been crossing the road in the darkness..."

Later it was explained that nobody stops for death in Uganda. As a white man, stopping is as much an admission of guilt as a plea for help. Doing so in a small village is tantamount to culpability. If the blame hits you, and you're surrounded, there's nowhere to go. And there are no judge and jury in these parts of town. The message was clear. Not just from Harrison but from other expats: You stay and you die. So we pressed on. 

Within minutes we were at the equator. A small circular monument and even smaller urinal marked the geographical highlight. I paid 300 shillings (about 16 cents) to get a man in a torn jacket smelling of banana liquor to guide me toward the rest area so I could make sense of the ride and summon the strength to put a smile on.

Our mood perked up some as we entered what used to be Lake Mburo National Park. Harrison pointed out several waterbuck and zebra out in farmlands, grazing a few hundred feet from the road. 

Towns we passed had fruit markets with colorful displays, idle men and women eying the backseats for potential sales. Harrison stopped to buy fried bananas as dozens of boys carried meats on sticks, onions, bananas and soft drinks and shoved them in our faces. The fried banana thing: an incredible snack. It filled me up for three hours. Why don't we do that in the states?

We continued to glimpse wildlife until Mbarara, when the tarmac road evened out a bit and we began to see a change in weather as we headed for the foothills of Kabale. It was raining when we arrrived and - for the first time - I could sense we were nearing our destination. Just beyond the road leading us out of town and up into altitude lay Bwindi, home to half of the world's 700 mountain gorillas, many of them just minutes from where we'd be sleeping.

From Kabale to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

The drive from there was curved esses, zigzags, sliding in and out of potholes deeper than craters. Toddlers the size of cornhusks held machetes in their small hands, sweeping hacks out of thin air to clear plants from the path. Shouts of mzungu were coupled with waves from our roadside audience. It was as if we were in our own private parade, celebrities sheerly by the color of our skin. 

The children's exuberance, spirit and happiness cannot be underscored driving past these villages. Kids literally leap from their doldrums, put down whatever they were doing, and CHASE our car. Some went into an impromptu dance and song, singing "Going to see the Gorillas...GORILLAS...GORILLAS!!!" in the local language as our car rolled up the hill and boys tried to keep up with their adorable, pudgy, shoeless legs whirrying as fast as they could.

Then, in an instant, we were there. The forest swept majestically in front of us as we rose, then dipped, then climbed a steep incline filled with pot holes until a sign for "Gorilla Safari Lodge" appeared past a small creek 1.5 km from the forest.

Julius and the rest of the staff greeted us with fresh juice, hot towels, and a tour of the 10 room lodge, just opened a year before. There were only three other guests staying in the units, leaving us to roam free, relax, and enjoy the serenity of the surroundings. 

Saturday, September 11, 2010 aka Gorilla Day

We were hiking by 9 a.m. The advance team of trackers had left an hour before, starting first with the location of the gorillas from the day before and following the trail from there. We got wind of their locale and then headed off through the jungle, stepping over creeks, logs, safari ants, and past ivy, eucalyptus, leafs the size of Idaho, and unidentified poo droppings. 

Ninety minutes later we came upon the beasts. 

For the next sixty-five minutes we got to sit within precious feet of them. 18 gorillas in all. Two silverbacks. Lots of babies. The head of group snarled at me. The others were so unaffected by our presence it was laughable. An amazing, amazing time. And it felt like we got quality time with them. Just five trackers, three guides, and 18 gorillas. In the middle of a Ugandan jungle for 65 minutes. 

I'd highly recommend it if you're ever near here.

Sunday, 7:40 a.m.

I hated to leave this beautiful, mystical, mountainous paradise. The thunderstorms started minutes after returning from our gorilla tracking. Minutes turned into a two hour downpour, riddled with sizzling lightning and calamitous thunderclaps, trouncing the dark skies with, well, thunder. 

Nonetheless, we were packed and on the road by 8 a.m. Harrison once again sheepishly showed up out of thin air, weary from a night of malaria-riddled sickness. I really did feel bad for the guy. A large box of Mango Juice and four pills was his only respite from the rigors of playing tour guide for four days. Not a great time to fall sick with malaria. 

Soon, the thick, lush, forest gave way to crater lakes, hills, hot springs and then savanna. Eucalyptus were exchanged for scrubs, euphorbia and flat, clay roads. Gorillas no longer around, but plenty of other spottings. Like elephant, hippo, buffalo, kob, waterbuck, baboon. So much going on and my neck hurt from the swivelling.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

We did a boat launch that netted thousands of hippo, buffalo and one crocodile. Birds of every color, shape, and size flew amongst them, sometimes sitting and playing on the hippos backs. Uh, no thanks.

We did a game drive the next morning but didn't manage to find the pride of lions frequenting Kisenyi Plains. Not a huge setback after all we'd seen. 

After visiting the Queen's Pavillion, we spotted this guy on the tourist outpost's wall.

The long drive back to Kampala

From Queen Elizabeth, we drove through Kasese (an unremarkable, dusty town of no real significance) then on to Fort Portal (extremely provincial but scenic). A buffet lunch and then east to Kampala. 300 km of driving. Nothing to do but go home and resume normalcy, a work week, and life in the capital. 

But we still had to get a flat, coast into a random village, avoid losing our shirts, and get back home in one piece.

The last 64 kilometers were the toughest. Our spare rattled down a road under construction. It was dark, we were hungry, Harrison had malaria, and all of us needed a shower and rest. Traffic in Kampala hit us square in the mouth. Soon the dusty clay of suburbia turned to the manic cage fight of a drive through an urban traffic jam, zooming boda bodas coming at us from all directions like bats on heroin. 

Monday, September 6, 2010


RALPH just moved in this morning. he's the forgetful, naive roommate who doesn't use boiled or bottled water to wash dishes and brush his teeth. he instead rinses off his coffee cup with tap water, dries it with a napkin, pours himself some instant coffee with sugar, then starts feeling sick about seventeen seconds later. then it passes, he takes another drink, the sides of lips start to water, he spits twice into the toilet, walks back to his computer, stops, senses a gurgling, nausea, moistness on the lips, then sprints 180 degrees in the opposite direction for the toilet just as his mouth erupts like Mount Vesuvius. Then he repeats action three more times until the life comes back to his face, his eyes stop watering, his mouth returns to its normal pigment, and he scans for the nearest bottle of water. All has passed for Ralph but a lesson learned. He hopes to be moving out today, never to be seen or heard from again.

I bumped into my student coordinator (kind of the teacher's pet who is assigned the tasks of distributing copies, taking attendance and being the liason between the teacher and the rest of the students). Both of my coordinators are named Julius. Julius Daytime looks exactly like the Minnesota Viking running back Adrian Peterson. In fact, I can't stop thinking about their resemblance when I talk to Julius Daytime. Nevertheless, another issue was at hand for the two of us this morning: Julius Daytime had indicated the 12-2 block of time each Monday would not work for the group because of another class they all had at 12. Fine. When can I teach them? I went and saw Dr. Okaka, the head of the Literature Department, who told me go ahead and teach them at 1-2. I agreed, took off for an hour, then returned at 12:58 to check on the room. Only it was full, with another group of students paying close attention to a lecturer closely resembling Eddie Murphy's barber in "Coming to America". One o'clock came and went without a single student showing, nor the barber's lecture ending. Finally, at 1:15 I had had enough and packed up to go check on the timetable in my office. Apparently, word hadn't got out to the students about the change in the schedule, prompting us to be pushed  back until Wednesday. While all of this is terribly boring for everyone but me (I'm just frustrated) it gives you some indication of the organization going on around campus as we enter into week three of the semester. I did manage to get an eraser, a box of chalk, lined paper, and some red pens today, which is a minor victory. Now, I'm hanging out at my house, as yet another violent thunderstorm rips through the university heading for the Nile river and Kenya.

The latest anecdote repeated itself five hours later. This time Julius Nighttime didn't answer his phone and - again - no students showed up. So I went to the mess hall to people watch, eat sausage and pop the zit my forearm from not showering in hot water in eleven days.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

God's Campus

The 14-seat taxi drove past my "stop" this evening as I came back from dinner. Once I realized this, two women dressed in traditional Ugandan wedding attire yelled "MAH-sao!" or "STOP!" to the driver. It was too late and the only recourse during expanded rush hour (which is from 6 am till 4 am until further notice) was for me to enter through the back entrance of the university. So I got out, paid my 25 cent cab fare and started walking down the mile stretch of black asphalt and blacker sky toward the campus.

 I passed a boda-boda ('no eye contact, no eye contact...') and a omenous looking range rover. I passed the examination board and youth hostel, the plasticware factory and the cricket field.
Kyambogo's cricket field

Then, when I came upon the entrance to campus proper, I could make out a man yelling vehemently over a loudspeaker or megaphone. As I walked under dimly lit street lamps headed up the hill towards the main barracks (er dorm rooms) and towards lecture halls and the Protestant chapel, the voice became louder and even more animated. Was it military training? A tae kwon do class? Tony Robbins on speed balls?

No, it was a large African preacher, standing on a temporary pulpit, delivering a sermon to his outdoor congregation seated on folding chairs. As I came upon the clearing and saw the mass, they rose to their feet. Not to greet me, but rather because their leader had begun singing "Amazing grace". Men, women and children swayed to the rhythm of the gospel hymn as I stood and listened under an innocuous mango tree near the entrance to the main street on campus. After the song I crossed the intersection and headed home. It was after ten p.m. and two hundred-plus were listening to the word of God on a Saturday night. Of their own volition. On a Saturday night. Voluntarily.

Turning left and up the hill a classroom was lit and several heads were seated in rickety chairs, singing choir songs not a hundred yards from the Catholic chapel in preparation for the three services tomorrow morning. The sounds of Christianity echo through the grounds seven days a week here at Kyambogo. Once I learn the music, I might just have to pop in for an entire mass if I can stomach two hours of pews, kneeling, and the Nicene creed.

Here are some random pics from the week in Kampala and at my house.

Fruit market on the streets of Kampala
Another nameless market area en route to Kampala

my bed and mosquito net

Friday, September 3, 2010

A week in the books

Ever sweat through a shirt in front of 43 Ugandan students? As sweat dripped off my brow in the mid-afternoon heat of a Kyambogo classroom in building RAC, room D, I treaded the fine line between educator and ambassador, between curiosity and distraction. I was very much on center stage.
After introductions, we went through the syllabus and the course content I'd be teaching the next 15 weeks. More blank stares. Whereas I have used ice breakers and pair work with classes in the past, this room, this dynamic, this group seemed different. I got through the first 40 minutes until the diagnostic writing sample was administered and I could breathe easier. The second class (a mere 18 pupils this time) was much more engaged, vivacious, personable and accessible. I stayed long after the class period had finished, getting to know the future leaders, poets, authors, and educators of a promising Ugandan tomorrow. Hoping to inspire them to soaring heights, instead I was the one who was motivated to give them a voice and a skill they can use. And I'm in. Now it's time to put a plan in place that works for their future. Designing this course to meet their needs, our resources, and the time frame is daunting. They're bright, well-read, confident, and questioning. I have my work cut out for me.

On to the chicanery sprinkled in my first week of work...

I took a taxi into the Wandegeya area of town, not far from the first university of the country, Makerere, sitting atop one of the countless hills in Kampala. The acrid smoke from boda-bodas and car exhaust was penetrating, seeping into the pores of my lungs with each breath I took. I met colleagues for a pork dinner in a tiny bunker of a restaurant down a cobbled path, amongst family huts, clothes lines, screaming children, and street peddlers. Pregnant women sat on sidewalk chunks of cement, mashing bananas into matooke paste. Ethnic Indians cooked spits of meat over open grills at busy intersections. Life took on a vibrant pace everywhere I scanned. Children and women carried baskets on their heads, eyeing me with inquisition as I darted down dimly lit alleys searching for food, water, or a way out.

Inside the restaurant, couples drank bottles of Nile beer as they watched Ugandan music videos on a 14" television screen high above them.

 A father and daughter indulged in a plate of sausage as the hostess came with a basin of water and soap for patrons to rinse their hands before being served. Fascinating scene.

Everyone was friendly and social while they ordered their own beverage from the owner.

We took another cab to another area of town called Kumotra where a row of bars lined the end of a beautiful, pedestrian street. The bar had three pool tables, a square bar with servers dressed in matching football jerseys and a few outdoor patio tables where business class twenty and thirty-somethings talked over the days events. Boys sat in large groups, women in business suits drank beer at the bar, laughing and paying no mind to others around them. I forgot how much I love watching other cultures socialize in public. I could have sat at the bar stool all night. Unfortunately, I live in a fairly remote area of town, making my commute home a bit of an endeavor once the sun sets. I'm still figuring out the best method of a roundtrip evening out.

Other things I've noticed:

Nobody smokes.
At least not in public. In bars, on the street, on campus, no one smokes. I've seen two cigarettes since I arrived and they were both being inhaled by graying male expats sitting in dark corners of saloons, linen shorts and exposing sallow skin to match their lifeless, decrepit eye-sockets. So glad I don't smoke.
Students care
Education seems to be the way to a better life. While the adage remains true elsewhere, its foundation is very much on the minds of everywhere I have spoken to about Uganda and its education system. There are few trust-fund babies, entrepreneurs who spurn college in favor of a money-making idea, apprenticeship programs for laborers or non-academics, or professional athletic leagues yielding six-figure salaries to promising prodigies. You study, you learn, you advance, you graduate, you find a job. Hopefully.
Kids are still kids
Even in Kampala, you seem them unattended to, roaming free, wreaking havoc, unaware of the dangers and portents in the dark streets of the capital. They say hi to me and laugh when I address them and smile. Good times.
Getting around requires patience and a sense of humor
There are two (at least) major roundabouts in Kampala where traffic simply stops. It's mind-blowing how slow cars move even in the middle of the day. Boda bodas are able to maneuvre - often illegally - in and out of congestion, on sidewalks, across medians, through pedestrians and out of a standstill. But if you're stuck in a 14-seat taxi or sedan, there's literally nothing to do but wait it out.

If you can find it, booze flows
Apparently, Ugandans rank just behind Bavarians and Czechs for alcohol consumption (still checking into that one for accuracy though). Bottles of beer are affordable and plentiful in supermarkets and watering holes up and down dusty downtown streets. Even Sister Frances offered to buy me beer for lunch on Monday after my meeting at the embassy. Does God love hops? Does Jesus love barley? I guess so.

The weekend is here.
It's nearly seven p.m. on a Friday evening. I'm deep into the pile of 60 essays I've got to read for Monday and brainstorming ideas for a night out.