Tuesday, February 23, 2010

So that's what they mean by "farm-fresh."

Generally speaking, hard-boiled eggs make me gag. The smell, the texture—I can’t even manage a chef salad, because in my mind, the possibility of any hard-boiled egg makes everything else contaminated. But as the bowl of hard-boiled eggs, which were assure to have come from “local chickens,” (that’s right, each region of Uganda has a “local” chicken) was pushed towards me at breakfast, the expectant looks on the faces of the farmers and woman who was serving me was enough to make me park my lifelong aversion to the food. As I took my first bite, I was just crossing my fingers that my mind would be stronger than my physical gag reflex, and I wouldn’t embarrass myself by spewing chunks of egg into the plate of cassava and gooseberries in front of me.

But Uganda continues to be full of surprises, as I not only ate the egg without mishap, but actually LIKED it. I guess “local” chickens really are better…

The providers of this breakfast, and my first positive experience with hard-boiled eggs, were the apple-banana farmers in Mbarara, who sell their produce to Biofresh, the exporting company I traveled with. Mbarara is about 5 hours south-west of Kampala, and is considered the bread-basket of the country. Everything is green and fertile; I’m pretty sure you could plant a shoe and an avocado tree would grow. I joked with the farmers at breakfast, telling them that even me, with my negligible green thumb, might be able to grow something here. Mbarara is also the district that President Musveni comes from, and so it has been somewhat privileged with infrastructure development and aid, as made evident by my first encounter with actual road construction. Ah African favoritism…

The two and a half days spent in Mbarara were marked by good food, breath taking scenery, and farmers who were unfathomably friendly and generous. I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but time and time again, I am taken aback with the reception I receive when I visit these farms. I was talking to Sonia, my host mom, about the collectivism in African societies, as opposed to the individualism in America, and how refreshing it is to be welcomed without question or feeling like you are imposing. I would imagine farmers to be somewhat NGO and research weary—those of us in the field pop in and out, questioning and noting, but hardly bringing about any tangible change. There is no reciprocal arrangement here, it’s just me coming and peering into people’s daily lives. It would be easy to be jaded and skeptical, but instead these farmers welcome you into their home, share their breakfast, and give you a tour of their plantation and a run down of everything you ever wanted to know about bananas. (This tour also included a special visit to the pen where the “hybrid” goat of the chairman is kept. I’m not exactly sure what a “hybrid” goat is…I thought about asking if it released less CO2, but figured the joke might get lost in translation…)

My farm visits have worked to increase my interest in both business and agriculture. I’ve never really thought about where my food comes from, where the beginning of the supply chain is, and how agricultural markets work. To be quite frank, I always viewed agriculture as too simplistic to hold any real interest for me. Yet I find myself laughing now, because when it really comes down to it, everyone needs food. And when you are working in a country like Uganda, where 80% of the population is engaged in agriculture as a livelihood, you wonder what in the hell NGOs focused on “anti-corruption” and “governance” are doing. These farmers know how to farm, but it’s a lack of financial power and viable markets that keeps them in the poverty trap. As one farmer in Mbarara told me, he has more food than he knows what to do with, but he has no market where he can sell at a fair price. All in all, I will be going back to Seattle with a renewed interest in business and how it can be used to actually improve the welfare of those at the grassroots level.

On a social note—this weekend was the first weekend that I actually went out with some people my age. Hearing from my friends in Spain who are drinking sangria (maybe a bit too much…) and meeting other students has been kind of hard, as my living situation and work have made it difficult to meet people and go out. Granted, I have had an unparalleled cultural experience, but every once and a while it would be nice to socialize. Anyhow, I met a British medical student the other day when I was walking down to the taxi station past the hospital. We started chatting because, well, that’s what you do when you see another white person—you strike up conversation, mostly to figure out what in the world they are doing in Uganda. He is staying at the Makerere University Guest House and has been able to meet some other students who are studying here, and so I met up with them this last Saturday at a local expat/Ugandan hang out. Again, the Ugandan socializing stamina made me feel quite pathetic, as I couldn’t even hide my yawns at 1 a.m., which is the time—as three Ugandan sisters informed me—the “party really gets started.”

Oh, and rap artists might want to start looking to Uganda for women for their music videos…Tom (the British student) and I spent about half an hour discussing the merits of the Ugandan female body. Our discussion changed only when we realized that we were privy to an encounter between an overweight, middle aged, hairy, white man and what was sure to be a hooker.

And my latest groundbreaking bus ride revelation: I haven’t eaten cheese or peanut butter in almost two months. I also watched a Chris Brown music video and thought he was white for the first 2 minutes...I'm becoming local.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

an appeal.

Job is the night watchman who lives and works at the Mwadime residence. Not only does he stay awake through the night, making sure the house is safe, but he is also the one responsible for the immaculate condition of the garden, as well the ironing of clothes.

Yet here I am, having lived with Job for more than a month, and it was only the other day that I found out about his family and life in the village. I came home from work on Wednesday and Job was sitting in the shade under the avocado tree, with a look of concern across his normally jovial face. Job is fairly reserved, but when I sat down and asked him what was going on, he shared that one of his children was in the hospital with a fever. I was dumbfounded by the fact that I had been with the family for all this time and had no idea that Job had a family and life beyond the Mwadime residence. Through my questioning I found out that Job has a wife, Alfa, and three kids under the age of 6. His wife and kids live in a village in Nebbi district, which is in the northwest portion of the country, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. As he explained, he sends his kids to school in town because it provides a good education. However, the school in town is expensive, and it is hard for him to pay school fees and cover the other expenses of the family. As Job put it, “Africa’s problem is that when the school fees become too expensive, the family takes them back to the village.” When a child or family member gets sick—Job’s current worry—then medical expenses often cut into whatever little a family has saved for school fees. If both can’t be covered then school fees are usually the first to go. This is what happened to Job and his wife Alfa, and is the reason for Job’s 6th grade educational level.

My separation from my family and friends is self-induced. Job’s is a matter of survival—if he wasn’t here in Kampala working, his family would be struggling even more so than they are today. Job is able to see his family only a few times a year, and as I try to imagine what it would be like to miss the milestones in the growth of a 3 year old, I can’t help but feel like I must do something to make it so that Job’s life is a little bit easier.

I explained to Job how important education is to me, and that I wouldn’t be here in Uganda today if it wasn’t for the opportunities that education has provided me. I told him that I wanted to do whatever I could to make sure that his children were always able to attend school, and have more doors opened than Job did.

My time here in Uganda can be best described as a learning experience. And I’m the one doing the learning. I came under the guise of an “international development internship program” which insinuates that I will cause change and make a difference. But I know that is not going to be the case. When I pack my bags and return to my comfortable life and academia, it will be me who comes back the more developed and changed. But with Job and his children’s’ education, I might be able to make real, tangible difference.

I told Job that I would like to set up a business deal with him by the time I leave Kampala, and that I would inquire with friends and family to see if they to would also like to help. So that is what I am doing, friends and family reading this blog. Job and I discussed setting up a bank account, which could transfer money directly to the Nebbi Town School. While the details must still be worked out, I said I would first request the help of family and friends, and then Job and I would solidify our business deal.

It’s not that Job is the only person who has daily struggles or troubles, but he is someone who I lived, talked, and laughed with. The fact that he greets me with a smile and a “welcome back” every time I come waltzing into the house is enough to make it so that I must help him in some way. And for god sake, he irons my pajamas…

I have created an Excel spreadsheet with the school fees for Job’s three kids, which are copied from a receipt that Job has. The school fees he pays for all three children per year is about $318. I can pass along more detailed information to anyone who would like it, and please let me know if you would like to help.

Hello National Geographic.

African babies don’t cry. Ever. They can be strapped to their mother’s back, sitting in the dirt playing with a bottle cap, or squashed on a bouncing bus next to a chicken—they never cry, they just stare with big wide eyes. And it’s quite unnerving because most of the time, especially when it comes to bus rides and public transportation, I feel like crying.

It was on my 5 hour bus ride north of Kampala, to a town called Lira, that I made this observation about African babies. After 3 hours of sitting and noting the steadily increasing outside temperature I finally realized that there was a baby—maybe even one that would fall in the “infant” category—sitting directly behind me. This got me thinking, not once have I heard or seen an African child cry or throw a tantrum, whether out of discomfort of in seeking attention. And Lord knows there are enough kids here…

I wish I could have shared this same contentment on my bus ride, but my 7 hour trip (2 hours were spent sitting in the bus park waiting for the bus to fill) was the ultimate test of everything in me. By the time we actually reached Lira (the majority of the time was passed contemplating the temperature difference between this area and the surface of the sun) I was thanking the powers that be for holding me back from screaming, tearing out my hair, and otherwise harming passengers around me. I tried to invoke an assortment of meditation techniques, but at a certain point, the man sitting on the mattress in the center aisle who decided to use my leg as an armrest was more than I could bear. Most of you who know me well are aware that my face does not hide my displeasure, and I apologize to all of those who had to witness the pissed off white girl get off the bus and snap at anyone who tried to talk to her.

While my transport experience left much to be desired, I did enjoy my (short) time in Lira, as it was the first time that I actually thought, “Shit. I’m in Africa.” I had read about how the north of Uganda has been somewhat marginalized compared to the central area, but I didn’t realize how visual and apparent this disparity would be. Last week I visited pineapple farmers about an hour outside of Kampala, and while their lives are undoubtedly difficult, they have relative security in their living situation and welfare. In the north, almost every home is made from clay or stucco and a thatched roof. As you travel north, the rising temperature is complimented by aridity and an increasingly brown landscape. Of course, by my Utah standards, it still looks awful green, but the terrain no longer has the lush quality that characterizes the central and south of Uganda.

On Monday I held interviews with two farmer groups in Lira, one male group and one female group. We had to travel about 45 minutes outside of town to the village, and as the number of motorized vehicles was slowly surpassed by people on bikes and their own two feet, I had a slight existential crisis. I couldn’t wrap my head around my actual presence in the type of place most people see filtered through the lens of National Geographic.

The village, in many ways, fit to the stereotypes of an “African village”—shoeless children with distended bellies, pregnant women with an 18-month old in their arms, toothless men in worn Kansas Bulldogs t-shirts, and chickens and goats moving in and out of gardens and homes. On the other hand, none of the stereotypes capture the hope or resilience that these people continue to exemplify in the most trying circumstances, whether seasonal drought or the LRA insurgency. The farmers I talked to are former IDPs and were resettled in 2007. If trying to rebuild your home wasn’t a task in itself, now farmers face drought that has led to poor crop yields. In the interview, the question “describe your daily tasks and activities, from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed” was rarely answered with the mention of dinner. When we questioned further, they said that during seasons like this, they don’t eat dinner, as there is not enough food. And I come waltzing in with water bottles, juice boxes, and snacks for the times when I get slightly hungry…this was quite the reality check. I was also struck by the pride that the farmers have in, by American standards, what little they have. As I walked around with one farmer and the translator/nutritionist Denis, every plant, building addition, and tool was pointed out for me. These farmers have a sense of ownership, they want to do everything in their power to better their condition, and they have ideas about how to do so.

Talking to Denis after our interview, I learned a bit more about Lira, and about the fact that the town and the city were severely disrupted during the 20 year long insurgency by the Lord’s Resistance Army. He told me that the roads were very unsafe and that you couldn’t even travel across from the village we were in to the town. Most of the people have returned to their homes only in the last 5 years or so, and most are still struggling to put down roots. As I traveled back along the road from the village to Lira I was very unsettled as the stories and facts about the LRA and the atrocious acts they waged against civilians suddenly came to life. Most of you know that I’ve done my share of reading about genocide and the horrific crimes that humans can commit against one another, but no amount of reading prepares you for being physically present in the place where these tragedies occurred. You can watch Invisible Children and feel sad and mad by the injustice of everything, but there is a protective layer—a distance maybe—that is always maintained. But when you are walking along the road where people fled for their lives, it is absolutely disconcerting and you finally sense the actual fear that people lived with and through.

Today I am setting out for Mbarara, which is the OPPOSITE direction of where I just came from. I will be observing the collection of apple-bananas (no, not a hybrid, google it) and holding a focus group discussion with the farmers on Friday. I’m getting somewhat travel weary, but I know that the end of my internship will come soon enough and so I have to make the most of every opportunity.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Rap music started in Southwest Uganda.

Or, at least that was the claim by the MC at the Ndere Dance Troupe performance that I went to this last Sunday. And I think there is a definite possibility that this statement is true. Because, if rap music didn’t originate in Uganda, then dance, drumming, and every form of theatrical expression certainly did. As if the concert I attended last weekend wasn’t enough to make the white girl feel bad about the way that she can move, this experience worked to make me fairly ashamed of every Caucasian out there attempting to dance…

The 3 hour performance I saw was put on by the Ndere Center, which is a cultural development organization that has been in Uganda for the last 25 years. They have over 9 acres of land close by my Ntinda neighborhood, and the Ndere Troupe (the performing arts section) puts on performances every Sunday and Wednesday evening. The performance took place in a small outdoor amphitheatre, with the audience forming a semi-circle around an open cobblestone area. Two stone staircases, which the performers used as both a prop and an exit, stretched from the perimeter of the amphitheatre to the open area. The performance, which incorporated 30+ artists, was a combination of story telling, dancing, singing, and drumming, with each region of Uganda represented by its traditional dance and costume. It goes without saying that each dance was absolutely captivating, and the drumming gave me the chills, but what I was particularly struck by was the artistry and physicality that emanated from each performer. These dances were not choreographed by professional dancers, but have developed through the generational transmission of oral stories and cultural practices. Because of this, they illustrate some raw strain of what dance and music are supposed to mean to a culture and people. If smiles are a universal symbol, then dance is a universal language, because even though I couldn’t understand what was being sung, the unconscious, emotional part of me could translate and interpret what I was watching and hearing. I’ve always thought of “performance” as something orchestrated and planned, and while this was in no way unpolished or unprofessional, I kept feeling as though what I was watching was really just unfiltered human emotion, expressed in dance and song. I sat wondering how the dancers were able to remember each step and contort their hips in such ways, as well as if they even had to learn how to dance in such a way. A part of me thinks that the ability to move and “feel” music is a Ugandan birthright. All and all, even though I am trying to do so here, it was and experience that cannot be articulated in any way to do it justice.

For those of you who have waited oh so patiently for updates on my internship, here are the latest details:
After three whirlwind days, and too much time spent in a non-air conditioned car in Kampala traffic, I have completed my key interviews with four organizations and businesses who are engaged in commercialized agriculture within Uganda. I think that the interviews went pretty well, and I am now in the process of transcribing the interviews; a process which is tiresome not only because of its slow pace but also for the fact that I have to hear my voice on a recording. And for those of you who have concluded that I have a man voice…(those more sensitive labeled it “unique”)…my vote is now with you. And for others who told me I should never learn German—to avoid sounding like a Gestapo officer—it has been duly noted. I will never speak German. Sorry Tess.
In the coming week I will begin my field work, with my first trip to a pineapple farming area in Luwero, which is about an hour north of Kampala. The following weeks will all be spent traveling and holding focus group discussions with different farmers in districts throughout Uganda. While I’m sure that the actual transport to these different areas will be exhausting (and aggravating when I think of road travel in the U.S.), I’m ready to see areas outside of Kampala, to have a better idea of social and economic gap between those in the rural area and those in the city. The interviews will also help me get a better sense of farming within the country, what could benefit farmers, and what the most pressing issues are. When you conduct interviews with the organization managers and personnel, you hear them rattle off their mission statement and how many beneficiaries they are working with. It’s all nice, but half of the time you are wondering a) if they are actually doing something that gets to the root cause of development issues b) if the same praises will be sung by the farmers themselves.

I’m planning a trip to go to Kigali, Rwanda this weekend to see the genocide memorial, as I know that if I do not visit while I am so close, I will kick myself later. While not necessarily what would fall under the category of “fun,” especially alone, I think that it will be a sobering experience that will resituate my opinions, perspective, and goals. When I mentioned to Brenda in the office that I was having trouble contacting hotels in Kigali, as none of the numbers I had would go through, she immediately sent me to speak to Mary, another worker in the office. Mary, who is from Rwanda, got on the phone, called her brother, and told him to go and book a hotel for me at a place he thought was reputable and in the city. She then told him that he would be picking me up from the bus station on Friday morning and that he should also take me to the Nyamata Church memorial site. In the space of ten minutes, someone who owes me absolutely nothing had coordinated lodging and transportation for my personal trip. It is this kind of selflessness—found in every person I meet and work with—which makes the heat, the dirt, and the omnipresent smell of ripe armpits and burning trash bearable.