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.

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.


  1. Nile beer sounds like it could save your ass. Hospitality and hope are two big themes I'm getting out of your blog.
    Can't wait till you get out of the city to find those gorillas in the mountains.
    What attitutde do Ugandans have towards ethnic minorities? You mentioned Indians. Just curious.

  2. Phil my man,

    Not sure about ethnic minority feelings yet. I'll seek out the answer this week. I think in Kampala people get along for the most part. there are lots of different ethnicities (far eastern, Indian, white, and of course local African that seem to mingle easily) but where I'm living there is just locals, me, and some Korean chem professor I have yet to meet. He might be a legend or a ghost. Or just super slippery.

  3. Sounds like they have a little animosity toward Indians because there's a common belief they get tax breaks to come set up shops here and they also are "taking" jobs away from the locals in every class (lower, manual labor jobs, white collar and entrepreneurial stuff) as well. They like us though.

  4. Hi Matt,
    I'm a long time friend of Nora's so I remember when you were born! I love your blog and the sentiments you are expressing. Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading about all of your terrific adventures.
    Best wishes, Helen Szablya

  5. Hi Helen,

    I remember you from my birth. just kidding...thanks so much for the comments!