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.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Fall Classic

Esther, the maitre 'd and host at my favorite lunchtime haunt, invited me to her house in an adjacent district today for lunch. She's getting married next summer to another Baganda called Vincent. She wanted me to meet him and enjoy some Baganda food. I cleared my afternoon for what promised to be an interesting visit.

After a five minute boda ride to the Kireka stage, I picked up some coconut biscuits and a box of Mango juice to add my own flavor to the party. I was baking in the sun, waiting at a bus stop for a short spit-fire of a woman to show up riding her motorcycle side-saddle. When she finally showed, she immediately grabbed my bag, pointed up the street, and told me to follow her.

There was an odd stench coming from the kitchen when we walked inside the cozy apartment. The walls were painted a fading sky blue, chipping near the doors and behind the furniture. The sitting room had a sofa and barca lounger - matching no less - with three Christian icons hung on the walls. A simple wood-paneled window with iron bars gave the room a prison-y feel. But homely too if you can imagine...

Vincent aka Djimon Hounsou came in a few minutes later. He was wearing a blue button down t-shirt, fresh from work stacking bottles at Pepsi-Cola Company.  I say 'was wearing' because as soon as he sat down next to Esther he unbuttoned it and went shirtless as two sisters prepared rice on the front step. He was 22, a year younger than his bride-to-be.  Esther's youngest and oldest sisters mostly stayed in the kitchen as the three of us "chatted". Vincent was obviously not comfortable speaking English so Esther was the go-between. In fact, he spent most of the time listening to Ugandan reggae on his cell phone and rubbing his triceps. And they were impressive. No doubt about it.

Lunch topics included:

  • A local Witch doctor's spells on thieves in Banda (this apparently consists of some sort of kaybosh followed by thieves eating their own fecies. I shit you not).
  • The salaries of cooks at the guesthouse (They make 2,000 shillings a day. That's one buck ladies and germs. One.)
  • Esther's impending "Introduction" to Vincent, a de facto engagement party consisting of two families, several friends, a wedding announcement and lots of formal attire. 
  • Esther's sister, Baba, and her dream of one day becoming a housemaid in America. 
  • What I can cook and can't cook. 
  • Our favorite soft drinks
  • Wild animals
  • Other stuff I didn't really catch

At 2:30 I was 'given a push' back to the tarmac and a salivating Boda driver waiting to take me home. Esther's younger brother was washing our dishes on the front step as two toddlers chased each other with sticks.

I needed to unwind after watching "Eat, Pray, Love" during a rain storm a few hours later, so I took a jog up above campus to a nice bluff overlooking Nelson Mandela Stadium and several other of Kampala's volcanic hills. The last time I had run I literally got stuck in a peat bog, turning my nikes from white to purplish-brown in about three footsteps. This time I was a little more careful to follow the lay of the land and not end up in a pond of papyrus reeds and horse puckey.

After the run I came upon an official soccer game going on at the ballfields, replete with uniforms, fans and referees. So I walked into see what was going on. A few score of people were on both sidelines watching the orange and yellow pinnied teams traverse up and down the soggy pitch. I kept going to the furthest field to run some wind sprints. That is, until I came upon a most beautiful sight: teenagers with leather mitts, aluminum bats, a mesh backstop and balls flying everywhere.

And no. This wasn't a filming of "Romancing the Bone".

They were playing baseball. Kids. With 45 minutes of sunlight still washing the sky, I moved in closer. Was I in a dream? Were little Ugandans really playing catch? Fielding grounders? Taking BP? Making friends whiff with knuckle curves?


I had so many questions.

The batter was a precocious teen of about 15 or 16 years, smacking soft balls, rubber balls, tennis balls and anything else round and bouncy back into the sea of outfielders. He was wearing an English football jersey and an L.A. Angels baseball hat. Backwards.

"Are you guys always here? When do you play? Is this a team? Who teaches you? Would you guys mind if I come by some time? I've got a glove and a ball. Do you think I could pitch to you sometime???!"

I sounded like a school girl.

"We let you try now..."

The boy smiled and motioned me to home plate. Another kid handed me a 31 ounce bombat. Grip felt good in my hands. The pitcher had a twinkle in his eye. The sun was fading west over left center field.

And for the next ten minutes I got to step up to plate and make that cricket field rain with white smoke.

After whiffing on the first two of course.

I thanked them, found out their weekly schedule and gleefully chugged home, firm with the knowledge that anything can happen. Even baseball in East Africa on Halloween, as Game Four of the World Series gets set to begin 10,000 miles away.


I feel a little bad interviewing Jared, my #2, and not Tom, my bread and butter. But, really, Tom is more of a meat and potatoes guy; he's less effusive and not quite what we're looking for in the blogosphere. I knew I'd get more out of Jared. He's in his mid twenties, rought but handsome, always sporting dark sunglasses, and a deep, brooding voice. What ensued was an improvised interview as we raced from Nakawa to Banda to beat an imminent rain storm early in the afternoon last week.

ME: When did you start driving a boda boda?

JARED: About 5 years ago. 

ME: Why?

JARED: Make some money. My uncle had a boda and he let me use it. 

ME: How old were you then? 

JARED: I was making my 17th year. 

ME: So 16.

JARED: Yeah.

ME: Have you ever got in an accident?

JARED: No. I drive safe. You don't trust me, man?

ME: Of course I do (as I clutched the back seat cushion with the whites of my fingernails). How long have you had this bike?

JARED: It's new. Last week!

 (Smiling with pride)

ME: Nice..did you buy it new or used?

JARED: This one is new. One week. 

ME: So you bought it from a dealership?

JARED: A what?

ME: A store. Like Toyota or something.

JARED: Yeah, there is a store on Kampala Road where you can buy them.

ME: Do you mind if I ask how much it was?

JARED: I don't care. It was...2.5 million shillings (that is about $1,200). 

ME: What if I wanted to buy one?

JARED: You? (laughing) Do you want to be a boda driver? (more hysterical laughing) 

ME: Why not? I would be worried about someone stealing it though.

JARED: Yeah, it's not good idea. They can steal them easily. And it's dangerous at night. 

(It is beginning to rain now as we turn left off Jinja Road onto the tarmac leading to Kyambogo's main gate)

ME: Do you change higher prices when it rains?

JARED: Yeah, it's higher. I don't like rain. 

ME: What about for people like me? Do you always overcharge foreigners, except for me of course?

JARED: We bargain...it's not about overcharge...it's a business. You bargain, we bargain. I make the best price for me and I don't care about if you are mzungu or Baganda or what.

ME: Is it more dangerous driving at night or in the rain?

JARED: Night. 

ME: Why?

JARED: Bad people on the road. They can kill you. 

ME: Who can?

JARED: Passengers. Especially here. Kyambogo area is so dark.

ME: Passengers? I always thought it was guys waiting for you in the bushes or something. 

JARED: No, the passengers tell you to go to some dark place and then when you stop they beat you, take your boda...they can even kill you.

ME: How?

JARED: Usually a hammer. They wait for you to stop in a place and then they hit you on the head. 

ME: So you stop driving at night because of the passengers?

JARED: Yeah, you are okay though. You call me anytime. I pick you up and take you somewhere. 

ME: You trust me? Maybe I have a hammer.

JARED: You don't....I don't think you can use a hammer. Can you?

ME: No. 

(We pull up to Stanbic bank, go over the two speed bumps, the meteor shower of pot holes and then turn right up the hill, past the student center and ease right up to my gate)

JARED: See you next time, Mac. 

ME: Matt. 

JARED: What?

ME: Nevermind. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Two days of teaching

I walked towards RAC E at exactly 10:46 a.m. I was low on chalk but had the rest of my supplies: textbook, the dollar worth of handouts, a bottle of Rwenzori water, and a plan. Of course, there always has to be a plan.
But the plan often changes here at Kyambogo. When I walked past the thatched hut selling phone credit, bananas, passion fruit juice, chapati and other snacks, I could smell the wet grass, mud, and body odor as well as the fragrances of perfume, flowers, and burning garbage. Then I heard the common chorus of lecturers: booming, brooding male voices echoing down the halls, expounding on tax accounting, Plato, and sociology. I turned right thru the slit of light, past the photo copier, the fetid stench of the toilets, and into the courtyard where I taught my eleven o’clock class. The familiar excitement and uneasiness of walking into a class kept me pensive. Was I ready? I felt ready but really, who the hell ever knows…sometimes a lesson plan’s success is as arbitrary as releasing a paper airplane into a crowded theater. You hope it doesn't hit the usher but if it does, it might trigger a chain reaction worth recounting. You hope...

I spotted Becky and Mary in the grass first, sharing earphones.
“Hello, sir!” They said in unison. Their eyes moved from me to our classroom, a strange apprehension on their faces foreshadowing more chaos. I could tell my help was being summoned through the course of their disquieting body language.

A female lecturer was leading a class of forty in an equation of some sort. I thought I smelled pi. I kept walking. I noticed Baker, Thomas, Ben Mugume and the other cast members in the next room; some were writing, others waiting. All of them sat up when I walked in the room.
“What’s going on?” I asked, wondering why I was setting my things down in a room with fifteen desks and half of my students standing in a corner. I quickly spied the chalkboard for random sticks of chalk or a proper eraser. 
Damn. No dice.
“We…there is a problem, sir. Another lecturer is in our room.”
“Yeah, I saw…where is everyone else?”
Ben looked at the others and then back at me. “We have a test in the West End at twelve. A lot of us…it's just the desks, sir...” his voice trailed off.
“Your test is in London?” I asked. 
A few laughed. Others eyed me nervously, hoping I was going to be lenient on this unspectacular Wednesday. The attempt at levity was quickly swallowed by the stress in the room.
“So do you have your essays?”
“We have them,” Christine answered. “But, sir, our test…it’s so far to walk and we need to get a chair. Can we leave early, sir?”
“Mm,” I grumbled. Suddenly an hour had shrunk to twenty-eight minutes with several no-shows. Thus was life teaching at Kyambogo.
My lecture started several minutes later…after I personally escorted seventy-five disgruntled statistics majors and their teacher out of our classroom. They congregated in the doorway for the next few minutes, carrying on a discussion better left for a stadium tailgate.
“Sir, we can’t hear anything,” Dillis complained. “They are too obnoxious.”
“Really, sir!” Bridget seconded.
The others agreed. Soon the chorus grew too loud to ignore. So it was: yet another chance for me to play bad cop.

The mob's gazes went from quizzical indifference to resigned malaise. Slowly, they filed out, heading across the grass into a vacated portable. It was a small victory and led to some much needed quiet. I had the majority of them for the next twenty-three minutes, as their impending twelve o’clock exam loomed and I squeezed in as much argumentative essay tidbits as humanly possible. By 11:35 my class of 51 had shrunk to twelve. And with an exhaled breath, the pitch of my voice returned to normal; it almost felt like an ESL class again once again, if only for a few minutes. I actually had the chance to sit down, have a discussion, look each student in the eye, and field those all-important questions impossible to ask in a class of fifty-plus with the cacophonous ripple of co-ed noise filtering the dialog between chalkboard and back row. 

Thursday was one of those glorious sun-soaked skies that makes you happy to be alive. My morning instant coffee was better, spent out in my neatly trimmed lawn, watching eagles and hawks and cranes soar above the mango tree. Students sat quietly outside the house to my right, studying at random wooden desks in the middle of an abandoned front yard. It was campus life at its finest. And I had forty-five minutes to myself before walking four minutes to class.

When I arrived, I was met by more surprises: my evening coordinator had malaria for the second time in a month, my evening class was cut in half because of African movie night on campus, and I had a new student waiting for me..in Week Nine. 
Why hadn't she come earlier? 
Her father had been in the hospital, she couldn't pay tuition, and her papers hadn't clear from previous academic indiscretions. After a talk with the dean and department head, she was admitted. Luckily, Sheila has a head on her shoulders and actually handed in a type-written essay for her first act. 
Both Thursday classes had a rousing debate (read: controlled argument) concerning bride prices in Uganda, a topic I had read about but not yet discussed. It evoked lots of emotion and an outpouring of opinions from normally reticent students who avoid my eye contact. If you want to read an entertaining and fictional story related to this, check out Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa. 

As dusk set in and I once again had a moment to myself, it was time to reflect on the week of teaching before satisfying the grumbling in my stomach, calling my boda driver, and initiating the weekend. After more than two months, there are clearly some hot button issues that need more exploration:
  • the role of women and gender (in)equality
  • domestic abuse
  • traditional wedding and courtship customs
  • bride price
  • tribal differences and customs
  • tribal languages and their promotion (or lackthereof) in primary education
  • politics and the impending February 2011 Presidential Election
  • Morality
Now, it's 4:41 a.m. on a Friday morning. I was woken up by a hellish thunderstorm, deafening rain pelting the corrugated iron roof, and the subsequent barking dogs and frogs. It's nearly November, there is no sign of seasonal change (still rainy and warm), World Series Game 2 is in progress, and grasshopper season is right around the corner.

I'm also making inroads on my Thanksgiving party, having secured the campus caterer, their cooking gear, chairs, plates, and three staff to work the evening. A scout is checking on turkey prices (I might even get to kill it myself, although probably will defer). Once I get the students's schedules for Finals, I can start handing out wristbands and working on crowd control. Dan - little does he know - will be bouncer, police blockade, and crowd control during the proceedings. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Rachel, one of my many second year Literature students, took the time to talk to me in my office this week to kick off - what I hope - will be a weekly interview with people from this community. I had ten questions written down but allowed the discussion to evolve organically rather than stick to a script. She was, after all, doing me a favor.

She discusses her childhood, her family, her goals, and her future. Rachel's first language is Kiswahili (having grown up in the foothills of Mount Kenya) but has lived in Kampala since 2000, where she and her mother came to rejoin her father. I hope to have photos and video to accompany these interviews once I get a camera again.

Question 1: Tell me about your childhood.

Rachel: I came in 2000 from Kenya to live with our Dad...our real Dad. We started living as a family but it was so hard because I had not lived here (Uganda) before and I did not know all these languages around me and I could only speak Kenyan languages. All the people were strange...I don't know how to describe it...but you find yourself in this strange place and suddenly you just want to leave but you can't because it's your destiny to be here....yeah...and much as they try to make you feel comfortable there has always been that feeling...that somehow you need to go back.

Me: And so when you say things are strange..what do you mean?

Rachel: The cultures. Kenyans are different from Ugandans. I'm sure you know that. 

Me: Tell me more about that.

Rachel: In the way they behave. Ugandans are much more warm I guess. Now that I'm older I know that, but then I didn't know (when I lived in Kenya) because I lived in a small community full of warm people of the same tribe so I didn't know that then but now I do. And um...they (Ugandans) have a tendency to speak so many languages. I haven't got around to learning them all. Even Luganda, I cannot speak it. I can understand it if someone is speaking it. Really, I can. And maybe if I need to speak Luganda I can, although I don't find it necessary. 

Me: What about your parents?

Rachel: Well, they live up country because my mom works in Kenya. do you know Tororo?

Me: Yes...

Rachel: So they live there at the border. My Dad works in Uganda.  My Mom works in Kenya but she comes back home every day. It's a hard thing to do but she just has to...if they are to stay married of course.


Me: How did you get here?

Rachel: I was given a course in Social Sciences but it was flat and my hopes and dreams did not lie in that field so the better option was Literature which means I had to do Education. I had to take it because it was the only other option and I have always been passionate about that..ever since I was a child, everybody knew that, much as my parents were against it. They didn't want me to do that. Nobody believes I can be a teacher. I should say so...

Me: Why not?

Rachel: I don't know I guess it's just the way I behave, my character...People don't believe that I can stand in front of people and share knowledge...um...they say I'm shy. Okay, I think I'm shy too but not really to that extent, so (sighing)...now that I'm doing what I do, this course, I love it. I think, just think, not know that - perhaps - it is what I was meant to do. You know, like pushing us to go to that place, where we never intended to go but it's really the best thing that could happen to us. 

Me: What about your goals after you graduate from Kyambogo (University)?

Rachel: Well, I don't think I want to teach, but I might have to. 

Me: Why do you say 'have to'?

Rachel: Because after next semester we have to go for teaching practice. It's not an experience I'm really looking forward to, but it's something we have to do in this course. So, that is really going to determine whether I am going to teach or not. If I don't do that, I'm just going to go into my dad's business I guess and probably stay there for some time before I really know what I'm going to do with my life, yeah...but in the meantime I guess I could teach Literature in Secondary school. I think I love teaching but not a big group. Maybe a small group of people who can understand me really. 

Me: What about where you want to live?

Rachel: City life is really hard so after the semester I go back home (Tororo) and I don't really come back until the next semester starts. As for Kenya, it's just a matter of when I want to go...I've built my life here in Uganda but I still have my relatives in Kenya.

Me: Do people think you are Ugandan?

Rachel: Well, actually they guess I am from the west, but that's not really true. They also think I'm Kikuyu. do you know that tribe?

Me: From near Nairobi?

Rachel: Yeah, they think I'm Kikuyu, but I'm not. So I just let people think what they want. You know, sometimes you try to convince people but they think what they want. It's kind of nice to have people guessing...

Me: Who is the most influential person in your life? 

Rachel: My mom. I can say she is not my best friend but she is almost my best friend. I tell her everything. I admire her. If I have something that has been disturbing me or some issues or pain or whatever, I always talk to her. Actually every day before I go to sleep I have to talk to my mom. 

Me: What's her name?

Rachel: I don't know if you can pronounce it...Zipora.

Me: Zee-pora?

Rachel: Yes, it's Kenyan. You probably cannot grasp it. 

Me: Probably not...so the next question is what is the best thing about Uganda?

Rachel: You know I'm torn between two borders. I can say I love Uganda. The people are so warm. And for Kenya, I love the countryside. The place is so nice. Okay that's where I live somewhere near Mount Kenya in a place called Meru. It's a lovely place...very cold...but just nice. 

Me: What's Uganda's biggest problem?

Rachel: I cannot really answer that...

Me: That's okay. Tell me about one vacation or trip you would like to take in your life.

Rachel: Um, there's a place in Kenya called Tsavo. Have you heard of it?

Me: Tsavo National Park?

Rachel: Yes, I would like to go there with my mom and brother someday, because my mom has always wanted to go there but she's kind of terrified of wild animals and maybe she can get over her fears and have a great time of course.

Me: Okay last question...what are three words to describe yourself.

Rachel: Maybe quiet...I don't know. I'm not overly ambitious. 

Me: So that's what you're not...

Rachel: (Laughing) It's really hard to describe myself. 

Me: Oh, it is?

Rachel: Yeah because I have these different views about myself. 

Me: Like what?

Rachel: Like I'm a person who hides her feelings. I don't really let people know what is going on inside me. Eventually I get to tell them but not at that moment. I take out my feelings in my writing. I just...at the end of the day I just go to my diary and I write everything that has been going on...so I don't know...does it have to be three words?

Me: I doesn't have to be....so all I have for you is quiet...

Rachel: You know when I give somebody a piece of paper, they read it and say 'If only you could express yourself in this manner it would be a different Rachel, not the one we know...'

Me: Mm-hmmm. Okay I lied. One more question...what do you like most about writing?

Rachel: Let me put it this way, it's the ability to put into words what you want them to know, what is going on in your mind or in your life...that is your experience you are writing about. It's just that what I love most about writing. 

Around Kampala

I looked out the window and saw the storm, ancient, apocalyptic, and foreboding. Clouds were the color of charcoal, skirting over lake Victoria, across munyonyo bay and towards lush, green and defenseless kampala. It was earlier in the morning that I had had a plan…go to the market, buy slippers, drink coffee, grade papers, take a ride to khaddafi’s mosque…then relax. but the storm dictated its own schedule. 

The power went out before the first drops of rain hit my iron roof, a quarter to twelve. Winds hurtled towards ggaba, then kabalagala, rose up over the hills of muyenga and kansanga and then down into the valley and center of the capital. By the time the eye hit banda and kyambogo, the sky was nearly pitch black. my drapes flowed like robes of Saudi princes, shutters snapped open and shut as I searched the drawers for the matches.

I lit a candle and continued reading. I was nearly finished and had been furiously anticipating the climax of the latest novel, hoping to get through it and still leave the afternoon free. The wax dripped off the wick and onto the coffee table as I strained to focus on the pages in front of me. Outside, a torrential downpour mixed with wind gusts, thunderclaps and falling branches distracted. as i looked out the window i saw a student taking refuge on my patio, smiling appreciatively at my hospitality. The gutter overflowed, spewing mud, random twigs and cascading rain water into a large swirling pool the color of french open clay. Cranes and hawks squawked, heading for refuge in the foliage of the mango tree. church music stopped. cars got off the road.

this went on for a good ninety minutes, as i stretched out on the couch and kept reading. 

After it was over, the skies remained grey. The power was still off. thus began the almost daily ritual of campus drying itself off. 

by 1:30, The familiar purr of boda engines signaled life had returned to normal and it was okay to go out and do stuff. So I did.

i had a brief chat with a student as i ate lunch in the center of town once it was safe to travel. nangos is a downstairs pizzeria and coffee shop off kampala road. Jared dropped me there so I could get some lunch and finish my book. I spoke with alex for a few minutes before resuming my lunch and dipping into a few more essays. he was getting ready for work and had heard i was at a table outside. the job was paying his tuition and giving him money for food. 

I walked back to garden city shopping center after my meal. It was still reasonably calm and cool in the city and traffic was at a minimum. I walked past men selling phone credit and newspapers, past closed bookstores, gas stations and a dominoes pizza. A woman held her baby on a strap, the newborn clutching her mother’s neck as her fading orange heels clomped down the cement sidewalk. i sidestepped puddles of mud, hungry vendors, bodas, and boys on bicycles. vultures with beaks the size of pilons congregated on a willow tree in the middle of the street, occasionally soaring above the two- story mechanic shop toward a pile of garbage and empty water bottles. 

i've managed to see more of the city this week. i saw port bell and miami beach, home of bell brewery and the most depressing harbor since "goonies". rumor had it a cargo ship allowed tourists the unique opportunity of an overnight boat trip to tanzania. i inquired at the boat launch early tuesday morning. Outside security, four men and two women were playing cards in a circle, hunched over a spot of driftwood, furiously focused on the next man's play. they immediately dropped what they were doing when they saw me, sweating and smiling, asking to see about a ship for mwanza. 
"mzungu. you are welcome..."
"where do the boats launch?"
"Green portable down on the left by the water. talk to the man inside. you are welcome. boda must wait outside."

while jared sat on his ride and kept watch, i went to case the joint. the smell of hay, urine, farm animals and the lake was pungent. i passed the customs office and immigration. two goats playfully tussled in the weeds, running at and then away from one another. a chain link fence ran the entire side of the port. off in the distance were metal factories and the brewery,  sasquatch sized savannah grasses and the smell of a distant beach. closer by, two tug boats were anchored onto a rickety dock. there was a crew on one of them, dressed in matching blue work clothes, idly staring at me as i waved. it must've been nearing ninety and it wasn't yet 10 a.m.

"NO chance."
"No chance?" I repeated.
"not much business these days and we never know when the boats come in. sometimes it's once a month. sometimes none. you can't plan on it."
"Mm," I said. 
An apparent dead end. One of my favorite travel writers, paul theroux, had taken the trip across lake victoria ten years ago. i thought i might do the same. 
"you can call mr. ogiya every week if you are looking to go later this year or next winter. but i can't promise you anything. we unload cargo, reload it, then the crew turns around. there is no schedule. you see it's not for people like you..."
"Mm," i repeated. "Who is this mr. ogiya?"

I thanked mr. ogiya for his time and took down his number. 

later in the week, i took a boda south to munyonyo and speke resort, a sprawling lakeside hotel 40 minutes from campus. it had a dominican, cuban vibe going as we neared the coast, lots of dingy bars, palm trees, rustic huts, and people sitting on their chairs watching cars go by. no baseball but plenty of soccer fields outside every primary school we passed. the air was cooler too...almost, dare i say, chilly. but no, this is east africa. and i am still not cold. never. not once in two months. 

on friday, i finally poked my head into church and a 45 minute catholic mass at midday. besides fouling up communion (wine-soaked hosts anyone?) and nearly snapping my ankle as i knelt on a two-by-four, i remembered the service quite nicely. stand, sit, kneel, pray, listen, nod, stand, sing, kneel, stand, pay, receive, pray, and exit. i couldn't understand much of what the priest was saying. his accent was thick and perhaps from the north. i heard him mention something about opening up your toilet to thine neighbor and then muted laughter...i smiled and looked around. most people were watching me, not him. 

it'll be two months wednesday since i arrived. one fifth of the way through this odyssey. seems like a lot. i still have so much to see and do and teach and learn. it's kind of overwhelming. but i am upbeat about the prospects of a new week. 

i've also learned to make rice, boil potatoes and carrots. dinners are shaping up nicely. i also have aspirations to host some sort of a thanksgiving turkey outside my place if i can manage to coerce esther at the guest house to cater the thing. i am currently looking for butcher shops around kampala that sell turkeys. stuffing could be a whole 'nother challenge. 

peace in the middle east

Friday, October 22, 2010

Classrooms in Kyambogo

The classrooms are loud, acoustics are bad, outside noise is distracting, and facilities are decrepit. Empty bottles, paper, dust, dirt, and mud disguise the floors. A dusty, often chalk-covered blackboard greets me when I walk into class. So do the students, most of them eagerly waiting my arrival, dressed as if they are off to Sunday Mass. Random students often interrupt our class discussion to take chairs out of our room so they can have a place to sit in an adjacent classroom. Study groups are always eying our space to hold meetings. There is constant movement and noise in the hallways and courtyards. Walls are thin and discussions are difficult to coordinate.

Students don't have a textbook for the class. I pre-assign a copy to the class coordinators, whose job it is to make the page(s) available for everyone to copy before the next class meeting. One page costs 5 cents but still many students avoid and can't afford the payments for each class. So they share or cower in the back rows. I have learned to check before assuming everyone's following along. I have struck up a relationship with the I.T. guys so I'm allowed to print things out for lesson plans once in a while. But printing out one photo or one page is usually not enough to satiate a class of 53. Other times I use realia, such as a piece of fruit, book, sunglasses, baseball...anything to elicit a point I'm trying to make.

The chalkboard eraser is usually a crumpled up piece of paper lying on the floor. I had an eraser the first week of class but forgot it one day and now's it's someone else's.

My assistant is a MA student who has come to exactly one of my classes. She's assigned to assist in essay grading but has yet to mark her first paper. She had malaria last week and a conference the week before. I'm learning to assume I'm on my own unless otherwise proven.

Some students struggle with the organization style and form of an essay. Others commit basic grammar mistakes that impede communication and clarity. Most of them are getting it, but slowly. There a few outstanding ones that submit near flawless work.

Spoken English in Uganda is a bit different than we're used to at home; ascertaining meaning from local idioms and colloquial speech in their essays is often a matter of guesswork. I sometimes feel as if I am reading cryptic compositions in Sanskrit or Czech.

Dillis had a headache and was leaning against the wall at the start of class. She's part of the three-headed monster of female personalities that sit in the front or back row (depending on their arrival time) and stay late each day to talk to me for a few minutes. Christine and Bridget are the other two. Most everyone has a wonderful sense of humor but these three ooze personality and caustic wit. They complain when there's too much homework, they highly anticipate getting scores on quizzes and essays, and openly ask for help when necessary. In fact, almost all students have asked for individual help.

After we discussed common mistakes in the essays I had marked, we turned our attention a reading on "Shyness" that served as an example of a cause/effect essay. Not the most brilliant onset to a class, but a necessary one to develop a working model.

In fact, I really have a hard time encapsulating what goes on in my lesson; if it goes well, it's self-aggrandizing ESPN highlights, but if it's poor it's shameless self-pity. Regardless, this lesson is fairly productive. After sensing their malaise after a brief lecture on cause/effect transitions signals, I quickly put them to work on practical application. I hand them a topic on a strip of paper, asking them to brainstorm causes and effects before they are to demonstrate a situation to the class using dialog. The students, normally well-behaved and glued to their seats, go wild with creative adaptations, interviews and scenarios that had most of their peers in stitches. It almost went too far. The objective illustrations of causes and effects were masked by improvisational discourse that highlighted male dominance and immaturity. I had to put a stop to it and be a responsible authority figure.

Students dress in a bevy of pastels and creams. Yellows and pinks and oranges for men. Lots of neckties and leather shoes. If a man doesn't wear a collared shirt to class, he's in the minority. You can imagine how I fit in with my hawaiian shirts and linen draw-string pants. I have yet to don flip flops into a lecture, however.

Students have been eager to meet me in office hours lately, taking time out of their days to sit down with me, one-on-one or two-on-one to discuss their essays, questions they have about lectures, or just rap about life. I usually ask a few questions about their lives and goals so I can remember them the next time I see them in class. After eight weeks, I've pretty much nailed down all the names, but keeping track of their writing strengths and weaknesses takes a sizable excel spreadsheet.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Where did he get that T-SHIRT?

Ever wonder where people get their t-shirts from? I do. Especially here.

I see jerseys of sports teams that have no fans within 6,000 miles of Kampala. Cal State San Bernadino tank tops. Duke University polos. Pittsburgh Pirate hats. Nebraska sweat pants. Mesh shorts from a high school  in Hartford, Connecticut. Band Camp t-shirts and concert t-shirts and t-shirts that are rude and lewd and if people knew what they were wearing they probably wouldn't be wearing them but there is writing in English and it fits so what the hell....

On campus today there was a guy wearing a black tee that simply read "DORK."

Another kid wore a white "A-ROD SLAPS BALLS" tee shirt a few weeks back.

One of my female students wore a shirt to class on Thursday that read: "Tomorrow morning I won't be drunk, but you'll still be ugly" across her chest. Good times.

Grammatically, these shirts aren't as entertaining as shirts pressed in the Far East, where most companies settle for western language irrespective of contextual accuracy. If it looks like English, it's good enough to print. Here, most of the shirts do come from the west and were worn by people like you and me. At some point in the past.

So random.


I've spent most of the last eight years abroad. Most of it alone. I almost forgot about the isolation until a few days ago. The isolation returns after the honeymoon 'can-you-believe I'm here' period ends and work begins. I start to notice the cracks in the facade and then it's here. I start daydreaming about hot showers and washing machines, buffalo wings, and halloween costumes. Extra large snickers bars and NFL football. The isolation  seeps into my life when I'm abroad. I start to think I ought to find friends, find a community, build relationships, and seek out a niche. But the truth of it is, I really don't have to do any of that. I just hope to have those moments that last...in between those other moments...when it's silent in the house. The isolation is there. It is always there.

I noticed it in Prague...the evenings staring at an empty dinner table, wondering what movie to watch or CD to play. Or should I go play foosball with Honza and the owner at Bar 69 and drink a pitcher? When to go to bed really doesn't matter if you don't have to wake up until four the next afternoon.  When is it time to go out, find a bar, meet people? What was my excuse to wander this part of town, right now, in the middle of the day? Exploration or curiosity or boredom, or all three? Or did I just want to fit in, be apart of a place without having to be with someone else. Like one of those cool goth chicks who go to cafes, read novels, and daydream of Trent Rezner.  In Prague there was always another me, another American seeking me, the commonality of an upbringing or sports bringing two idle wanderers onto the same team for a night. Maybe an exchange of numbers and a friendship would ensue. Or not. Maybe it was a late night chawarma and "Fargo" at three in the morning. Cigarettes burning on the window cill. Snow falling sideways. More silence. And then listless sleep. When I wake up, more quiet...

if you want to know the truth, I never really like seeing another me. I never know when to start a conversation and how to call it off once it starts going south. How nice do I have to be because he's from Eugene and she's from Colorado? I always cringe when I spot a Red Sox hat, a beer gut, a fanny pack, tube socks, or a brand new Patagonia fleece.

"Where are you from? Why are you here? What an exciting adventure! Aren't you afraid? You came here alone? What does your family think of it all?"

It's always the same conversation. Polite and uncomfortable. Better just to avoid eye-contact and proceed to the nearest exit.

In Ukraine, the isolation grew. How could it not with the winter and the Black Sea. The cold, awful freezing wind, putting on the same gloves, hat and coat each day. The harsh Russian language and tourist graveyard that was Odessa, The City of Humor. Except there wasn't much. There was the teachers' room, the classroom, Derebbossivskaya Avenue and - if you were lucky - a weekend event planned. But there was also the vodka. Even if you didn't remember it the next morning, you probably had made friends the night before. Cloudy mornings, a lesson to plan, maybe a train ride to Kyiv to look forward to the next Friday after class. Other teachers become your saviors. So many nights spent boiling potatoes and cabbage and cold soup, drinking bad Ukrainian beer before going out, laughing about a student we all knew. Watching soccer in empty sports bars just because we knew the others would show. Sooner or later everyone showed. The days with no electricity, no hot water, when you didn't have to ask your colleagues why their hair looked like Flock of Seagulls and they smelled like the train to Poland. The common understanding we all shared, what we had as friends and colleagues..was knowing those good times were those moments you wanted...the moments we spent together to offset the silence and the isolation and those other moments.

In Asia, it was a separate sort of isolation. A physical difference and a bit less blending in. Working harder, for more money, brought the responsibility of employment but also the reticence to Go Big.There's something to standing on a packed train full of suits and hairy legged-women. Employers had expectations of me. I really did have something to lose. I really did need to walk the fine line. I had to pick my spots when I wanted to Go Big. I was in my thirties. I had to dance around the expat hashbars, I'm twenty-two and I don't give a f---Ijustwannarage attitude prevalent with teachers younger than me. This was the phase in Korea, in Japan, in the pensions travleling thru southeast Asia, and on the overnight trains in between hostels. I started having a conscience, two-day hangovers, meloncholy and fatigue, pangs of guilt about where my life was heading...thoughts of the future and making something of my time. Isolation wasn't as fun anymore.

And then to Mexico and the tortillas and tacos and cerveza, ordering it all in Spanish (or trying to) and the poverty and wonderfully awful air I breathed every day. Still no Americans or allies, just strange looks on the buses, friendly people who thought Godknowswhat about why I was in their little town, carrying text books and a jug of coffee, chalk on my jeans, and the accent of a gringo with no street cred. Before I knew it, I was on chicken buses in Guatemala, grad school in less than a month, freaking out about re-entering my own country again, Christmases and Thanksgivings already planned, cultural deviations out the window. In short, conformity and accountability. The whirlwind of travel and chaos and uprooting a life you barely understood when you were living there and now you're going back to it and all your friends are married with two kids and a third on the way and Facebook-posting is the equivalent of catching up with old buddies and nobody has time to re-hash the past unless it's happy hour. And even then, they can only stay for one because dinner's getting cold.

I am mostly comfortable in this isolationist paradise. I'm comfortable getting stares, being different, being left alone. But very uncomfortable besieged with requests. I do much better with less to do than with the restrictions, commitments, normalcy, and a routine....that makes life comfortable but not unique. Or wacky. Or unpredictable.

People are starting to call me by name around campus. Black, collegiate men in their twenties who know me.  I always say hi then spend the next ten seconds trying to remember who they were. I usually have no idea. Not by name anyway. I keep walking and get more stares. People are curious but leave me be, watch me but don't follow me. I am an oddity.

Ben, the village neighborhood kid, came by this morning after a month's absence. He wanted something again. Money. First, it was companionship, then water, then the bathroom facilities, now cash. Cash for a trip to Entebbe with his class. And it really bums me out.

"Why do you think to ask me?" I ask him. "What makes me the guy and not your parents, your relatives or your older brothers?"

I knew the answer but I wanted to hear him say it. But he just smiles and looks away. The whole thing just set me off...

I had another one of those conversations with Dan yesterday about money. He still hasn't paid me back the cash I lent him three weeks ago. After promising to twice, yesterday he finally came clean.
"I think I'll have to do some laundry to repay you...."
"But I do my own laundry."
"You know, the lecturers that lived here before had me work for them," he begins. I can see where he's headed with this one. "The one from Indiana gave some stuffs to do and-"
"Dan, I'm not here to put you to work. As much as I appreciate it, I don't need your help. I appreciate you mopping my floor, but beyond that...I can kinda take care of myself..."

I listen to gospel voices, birds cawing, and the occasional child laughing. The wind picks up and dries my clothes on the line. I read more, wash my kitchen sink, and cook potatoes and sausages. Sunday Brunch.

I'm through my day essays and now just have the evening's group to go. 51 down and 23 remain. I start in on a few of those and then put them down. I think about Ben some more. I think about the mindset of a black boy asking a white man for money. A man he barely knows. And I wonder where he learned it. Is it instilled from the moment he's on the streets, watching his world work? Do his parents hammer it home? Either way, it's rampant and he's not to blame. And, no, I don't think it helps to open the floodgates.  If I say yes today, he'll come back tomorrow. The pattern repeats itself, with Dan, with Ben, with everyone who wants something.

Time to go out and find life in this day. This breathy, windy, liturgic, Sunday that - like so many before it - is silent. Everything I do is contingent on choices I will make alone. Do I read, do I take a boda, do I go to a cafe, to a bar, to a museum, to a park? No matter what, no one is going to bat an eyelid whether I do or I don't. There's freedom in that, but also fear. Fear of not doing anything and regretting it. Fear of wasting time. Fear of the unavoidable debate I have with myself, of my choices and their consequences. Is there anything I really should be doing?

Actually, there isn't.



I just completed a week without running water on campus. Filling up jerry cans (yellow gasoline-sized cannisters) each day at the only pipe on campus takes time and planning..and patience. Luckily, it's Dan's job. I just put the cans on the patio each morning and magically the reappear, filled to the brim a couple hours later.

Water is so important here. You wouldn't believe how many people take trips back and forth to retrieve it on campus. The yellow jerry cans are all over the place. Women lug them back on their heads. Kids take multiple trips, rest when they see a friend, then resume toting the jugs back home. Men toil a jerry can in each arm, walking half a mile or more back to their home. Quite a sight during a week like the last.

Water finally came back on Friday morning. Having two gas cannisters is enough for one day of use but it still limits you. Flushing the toilet once requires 1/2 a cannister, boiling water for cooking or bathing: another 1/3. Washing dishes: a quarter cannister. Washing clothes: at least another 1/2, depending on the load. Drinking water for the morning java: a cup will do. I use bottled water to brush my teeth and obviously for my own drinking during the day.

I did some laundry this morning and there's plenty more to wash tomorrow. What makes washing difficult is the red dirt caked on the bottoms of my pants. I need a combination of detergent and JIK, a stain removing product, hot and cold water, and of course time. Time for the solvent to do its job and remove the grime. And time to rinse, squeeze, hang and dry. With wind on my side, things get done. With rain or heavy air, it could be an entire day before the clothes are ready to wear.

Mother nature, the world's most unpredictable clothes dryer.

Friday, October 15, 2010


Friday is my day off. I mean, I actually have five days off but Friday is really my day off. My day to unwind. Take care of a few loose ends. Drum up some relaxation. Maybe a couple naps. Buy some groceries. Drink a mocha extremely slowly. Sit outside at a café and watch couples argue in public. Fun stuff like that.

That was my plan when I woke up this morning too. All of it. I was actually looking forward to getting a move on too; after a hard early morning rain the fresh air breathed new life into my lungs. I was on the boda by nine-thirty hurtling toward a real cup of coffee.

4,000 shillings and a couple of dust clouds later, I dismounted the pommel horse seat and walked gingerly down the Garden City pavement towards Café Javas. It was ten o’clock and I had to eat, buy phone credit, drink coffee, email my boss in Tanzania, submit a conference proposal, and pick up a package from the U.S. embassy all before 12:30.

Not ten seconds later I saw another weary westerner - greying, disheveled, mid fiftees - eyeing my surreptitiously. He was slowing down, glancing over his right shoulder and then, all at once, upon me.
“Yeah, hiya. You speak English?”
“Yeah, Uh….uh-huh…”
“Ohyou’re American great..seewell I’vehadabitafbad luck take a look at my ear.Gotattackedthreedaysagooutsideoftownandlostmywalletandcreditcardandtheybloodydidthistome,yousee…..(pointing toward his ear). I'm Robbie by the way. You are..?
"Matt, right. I'm Robbie. I said that already...sorry...."

A huge ‘oh no’ went through my mind as I listened to Robbie from Wales give me the whole bloody story. I knew, nice as he was, desperate as he was, I was going to hear everything that had happened. My body language was so unwelcoming. Not that I wasn’t sympathetic, but I was in complete “accomplishment mode” and I knew this guy was going to set me back

"So....anyway... what i’m getting to is i’m holed up at the City Centre hostel but my father cant send me Western Union and the British High Commission won’t do a blessed thing, yousee…”

I saw.

“You didn’t get a hold of your father?” I asked solemnly.
“Six rings and not a bloody answer. He’s getting on and can't work the machine, ya’see…”

Poor guy. How long had he been doing this, I wondered. His flight wasn’t for another week and he had no cash to speak of. No cards. And nobody to help him. Believe me, I could empathize. Imagine getting your head cracked, your ear cauliflowered, then nothing but bad news from the authorities. Nobody with  a smile and some cash.
“So what’s your plan?” I asked as I handed him the biggest note I had in my wallet. He really was an all right guy. Nothing like seeing an older man on the verge of tears to sober you up. Even if he hadn’t been telling me the whole truth, the humiliation he must’ve felt as he roamed around city parking lots looking for help was enough to get my heart started.
"Wait for my dad to call...banks er bloody closed the weekend so Monday or Tuesday it'll be...until then I have to ask for..." 

His voice trailed off. Faded pink shirt, worn levis, unmemorable black leather shoes. No jewelry. 

Even with the measly few bucks I'd given him, he kept circling. Just wandering the lot like a lost kid, scanning for an honest face. Looking for help. From anyone. Poor Robbie…

Ten minutes later it was me searching for cash, as four ATMs in a row were either closed or not accepting Visa. I had to walk to the adjacent mall, scurry back to the grocery for credit, skirt past security check points to the café, order food and coffee, and start up my laptop to get some work done.

After a much need caffeine perk, I was on another boda, heading for the embassy. I had my driver by at least eighteen years and fifty pounds and nearly used the leverage to chew him out for getting us lost three times.
“You don’t know where is sir?” He kept asking me.
“I told you…you missed the turn back there. TURN. AROUND.” I yelled at the top of my lungs. We were doing at least 30 mph and the drum of the engine made communication an obstacle.

I was glad I knew where to go. You learn quickly to find out the route you are taking before you take it. The chance your driver knows where you’re going is very, very minuscule. Like the odds of Dick Cheney donating money, or Judge Judy not having balls.

I made it through security just before the mail room closed, in time to get my package and say a quick hello to JD at the embassy. Then it was back to the grocery store, home, to the DVD shop to return a disc, to my office, to the county store to buy water, and then to a very late lunch at the Guest House eatery on campus.

I was too late for fish or beef. All the patrons were back at work or in class. The girls were clearing off plates, counting cash and silverware, and dumping out cooking grills full of grease.
“You are late, Mister Matthew,” Esther said.
“Late? It’s only 2:30. I thought you close at three.”
She gave me a sisterly smile, disappeared, then re-appeared seconds later with a plate of pasta, carrots, rice, and the last drumstick within miles.
“You pay after. Go eat.”

After lunch, I corrected some essays and read a bit on the hammock before taking a walk at dusk. I was just about to head for home, amid hundreds of students, when a voice twenty yards in front of me began to command attention. I could tell this guy was a bit "off" and nothing was going to shut him up. 

“EVERYBODY! Clap your hands. Shut off your tv’s. There’s a MZUNGU on our campus. Give him a round of applause. The mzungu is here. The white man is here Ha ha ha!”

I was mortified. Students started laughing until they caught my glances. Everyone was staring at me; the looks on their faces reminded me of my most embarrassing moments….falling down stairs, drooling during a middle school class, farting during church communion. But this felt worse.

I put my head down and tried to look inconspicuous. Kids were giggling and pointing. Everyone was watching my every move, enjoying the added attention this guy was directing at me. And my color. For what reason I have no idea…

Once more….”Give a round of applause to the Mzungu. The wondrous mzungu is here on our campus. Can you believe it?”  

I wanted to disappear. Fast. I turned up the hill, past the French department, through the hedge and onto my lawn, patio, front door and safely inside.

So that happened.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ugandan Speak

Ugandan Phraseology 101

"Nice day!"

People don't use "Have a...." or "I hope you have a..." in front of their wishes.'Have a nice morning' and 'Have a good time' are just "Nice Morning" or "Nice time!"

"Can I give you a push?"

When somebody asks to walk you to the street or show you the way home or the way out, they use this phrase. Took me a while to figure out what they meant.

"Where do you stay?"

I don't live on campus. I stay on campus.

Directional Ambiguity

People never use the words left, right, or straight when giving directions. It's always, "you pass there or steer down or move up...or go around...shift there..." Body language and gestures are a big part of giving directions. It's the one troublesome thing I've found about the language use here.

"I'm shifting houses this weekend."

People don't move to a new apartment or move across town. They shift.

Passing well

People don't do well on exams. They pass well.

"Are you sure?!"

To express surprise or disbelief, Ugandans say "Are you sure?" instead of "Really?" or "Are you kidding me?"  or "No way!!!"

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"I could have been selling onions in a village..."

I received an email from an old family friend a few weeks back expressing interesting in getting me together with a Ugandan colleague of his from a hospital in Washington State. She was coming "home" for a couple weeks to see her family and attend to matters in Kampala and he thought we should meet.A lunch date at her parents' home for Friday afternoon was set in the sprawling urban district of Makindye, an area of town far from the university campus.
The problem was getting there. A boda b- even by local standards- was highly impractical. It was just too far, over rough terrain, in the middle of the day, with Friday traffic. So, too, was a local taxi (too many transfers) and a metered taxi (too damn expensive). Actually I had no idea how I was getting there as I sat in my favorite coffee shop reading "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence" outside, inhaling secondhand smoke from three Russian men sitting behind me, waiting for my fruit platter and lemon tea to arrive.
Just then an older woman in dark sunglasses walked by on her cell phone, discussing her "lecture notes" from a class she had taught earlier in the morning.
"Excuse me, do you teach at Kyambogo or Makerere?" I asked.
After a brief moment of confusion after putting her phone away, she smiled and sat down gingerly. "Makerere she said. I'm a law professor there."
I filled her in on my job and what I was doing in Kampala as we waited for her food to arrive and my bill to come back. When I looked at my watch it was already 12:30 and I still had no idea how I was getting to Makindye.
"Damn," I said.
"What is it, dear?"
"I've got to be in Makindye Hill in thirty minutes and I don't even know where it is."
She smiled knowingly and checked the clouds.
"My office isn't far from there. I"ll drive you..."

Problem solved.

About two minutes into the journey, the clouds opened up and shook violently all across the valley. The city was flooded within minutes. Visibility inside her saloon was less than nothing. Nothing my hand or the defroster could do would alleviate the blindness as we skirted past impromptu raging intersections of water and mud  towards the U.S. embassy.

The Palace

After Josephine dropped me outside the gate, I knocked. Seconds later I was greeted by two servants and a heavy set woman in her fiftees. Regal gaiety oozed out of her elegant African attire, gold jewelry and warm smile.
"I'm Miriam. Harriet's mama. Welcome."

I wished I had brought my camera.

The Mpiinda household was really three-in-one. The parents' quarters was the oldest part of the compound, built in 1976 in a plot of acreage overlooking Lake Victoria and Munyonyo far in the distance. Three Roman columns and a sweeping staircase led to the Pension, where four bedrooms were rented out daily to weary travelers. An American I never met was sleeping off jet lag in one of them as lunch commenced. Harriet, the daughter and aforementioned contact, had her own private chalet tucked next to the parents' home, with private living area, bedroom, bath and kitchen, with a sun deck and patio and views of the city.

Two women in their forties were draped in bandanas and work clothes, preparing lunch, tending to the garden and carrying water back and forth between the three abodes.
Paul and Miriam welcomed me into their home like relatives, ushering me into a burgundy couch as food finished cooking. Grandmother came in a few minutes later, shaking my hand and getting down on her knees to greet me. I turned red and laughed, inwardly pleading for her to get up. I didn't deserve that.

Harriet, Paul, and Miriam and I talked through lunch and well into the afternoon. I listened mainly. About Amin. About poverty. About buying land. About their lives.

Their family life was a success story on the surface. Educated parents. Father worked for a French firm as an accountant. Got his CPA. Has a pension. They bought a house. Sent their four daughters to school. Two are U.S. citizens now. Grandmother has a place to live and die in. Both parents are retired in their late fiftees, eating fresh fish, living in a paid-for house, traveling to London or Asia once a year. they get to watch their grandkids grow up.

But then I took a walk with Harriet up to the market.
"I lived in the bush with my grandmother, you know," she began. I wanted to ask her where her parents were but let her continue. "Long story..." she said with a knowing smile.
"I somehow got out. Made it to school, university, found a job in the states. Went back to school. Got a computer degree at DeVry. Bought a house. She pointed to a couple kids yelling 'mzungu' at me, trying to get me to look and wave.  We both smiled and then her face turned serious again. "I could have ended up like one of these women. Selling onions on the street. Sitting in an office made up of chicken coops and cardboard. Walking around barefoot selling crap each day of my life. This place changes you. And amazes you. But mostly it humbles you."

Just across the street from the madness of an outdoor market with poverty everywhere was the ARA (American Recreation Area); this was a walled-in compound of elite expats getting away from it all. Shangri-la. Tennis courts, ping pong tables, a sports bar, swimming pool, and a play area for kids. Rooms rented by the day for those wishing for a little seclusion amidst the chaos outside the gates. A mirage. I didn't really like it even though I probably should have.

We stayed for a juice, paid the bill and then returned to reality.

"Don't be a stranger. Don't let yourself be lonely here, Matt." Paul came out of his slumber to shake my hand and say good-bye. "Ever wanna watch telly with me, talk sports, go out...just call and come by."
His wife nodded. "We are your Ugandan family."


I had the bright idea to go see the President speak today. It is Independence Day in Uganda. 48 years free of the British Empire. Yay Independence!

I was having a merry old time, snapping photos of women and men in traditional African garb: yellow and red silk flowing to the red dirt, bright smiles everywhere you looked. Even the boda drivers looked magnanimous. Food vendors were making out like it was an airport food court. I mean everything was selling: bananas, meat on sticks, popcicles on sticks, mesh visors of the president, yellow tees of the president. Elderly women were laying on blankets, chucking peanut casings in the weeds, gaps in their teeth as wide as the Texas panhandle...but so what? The President is here. It's Independence Day!

I saw a man with a cooler full of popsicles and a chubby, adorable girl all of seven staring at them with mouth agape. "Give me two!" I yelled over the noise of the marching band.
She smiled at me and absolutely gorged the stick. She was halfway through the treat just as I was getting my change. And getting my pockets emptied.

God, I hate when people bump into me and don't even say 'excuse me'. Total dick move.
Wait! Where's my camera? WAIT! WHERE'S MY CAMERA?!

A large man in a yellow hat, face indescribable, bumped into me and helped himself to my Panasonic Lumix Digital camera. RIP Lumix. R.I.P.

It took me all of ten seconds to realize what had happened. Ten seconds and one innocuous mental hiccup was all he needed to turn into Casper. By the time I turned and scanned the thousands of men that could have been the thief....POOF! He was gone.

The phrase I kept going back to in those following minutes, is: You have got to be kidding me.

Are there stages of grief following a pickpocketing? I certainly had them:

  • First there was disbelief (Dude, WTF?!)

  • Anger (I almost snapped at two teenagers just for smiling at me...(

  • Back to disbelief (see above)

  • Over to hope... (Wait! Did I check the smaller zipper in my backpack?)

  • Back to despair (Yep, I did)

  • To frustration ('Sure wish I could take a picture right now...')

  • To a mixed bag of resentment, anger and lunacy ('If I find that guy with my camera...'

  • And then finally back to acceptance and despair.  (I live in east Africa and I don't have a camera anymore. FFFFffffudgefactory~)

I took some great pics today too. A male student in pink shirt and tie with yellow parisol. Six women filling up their Jerry Pails full of tap water. Groups of students marching in unison. And I was going to get pics of the President as well. But I guess it wasn't meant to me. I guess the thief needed my camera and it's currency more than I do. I guess I'll just have to chalk it up to the odds. Or find him and turn into his noggen into a personal noogie asylum.

On to other news:

Kyambogo hasn't paid its water bill for several months so there will be no running water for the next few days at least.

I'm just about recovered from a week-long cold. Luckily, I had Cipro and allergy meds to get me through. Thank you Jean!!!

My sideburns are becoming increasingly similar to Mel Gibson's chops in "Patriot". Time to search for a barber.

And just in case you thought I was being sorry for myself or down in the dumps, don't worry! I'm too engrossed in the baseball playoffs and NFL season to really get too philosophical about a little issue like thievery or sanitation. Although I am bummed I won't be able to share the  images of me teaching or traveling for the next little while.

Sister Frances also gave me six seedless oranges and a pineapple today after I got back from the President's speech. Nuns rule.

Friday, October 8, 2010

You know you're in a developing country like Uganda when...

children the size of cornstalks hold machetes longer than their legs.
you find topless women on riverbanks, not dance poles
stocking up on bottled water actually comes in handy
bouncers open the velvet ropes for white guys instead of girls in tight skirts
fast food chains are still a few years away...
everybody wants your glass bottles
people can't afford fresh fruit but have really cool ring tones on their cell
children are holding hands not throwing punches
women and children plow fields 
people offer the last morsel of food to a stranger and do it without hesitation
drying clothes becomes an ordeal, not an afterthought
cows randomly show up in people's homes and nobody bats an eye
strangers offer to drive you somewhere even if it means rearranging their entire schedule
children take care of smaller children
there's always someone burning garbage
people smile more
people actually care what your opinion is about the world
people take the time to find out how you're doing and what you think of their country
important phone calls get cut off because people run out of credit
the other person calls the first person back and then they run out of credit
the two people talking run into each other at the mobile shop buying credit