Potty Contract

Potty Contract

This is the only place I’ve ever had to enter into a contract with the toilet before using it. Really, though, it wasn’t asking for anything unreasonable. Plus, it was either this or the pit latrine outside.


On Sunday I took a minibus to the equator!  (I don’t get to say sentences like that very often!)  It was my first time in the Southern Hemisphere, so I wandered a whole hundred meters to a cafe for an avocado wrap and to a shop benefiting local disadvantaged women to buy some paper mache flower vases.  Here I am half in the Northern and half in the Southern Hemispheres, assuming of course that the Uganda Department of Transportation (and Equatorial Line Painting) got their coordinates right.



Kampala Dreamin’

August 14, 2008

I took a “short little trip” to Kampala last weekend, not realizing that it would be a miserable almost-6 hours each way.  Since Kampala is the only Ugandan city I’d ever heard of before coming here, it was a must-see.  Also, I appreciate it’s orderly mix of consonants and vowels — other towns here have consonants stacked upon consonants, like Mbarara and Mbale, which results in people sounding very unsure of themselves. 

“Where is your hometown?”


On the way down, the organization I was working with was kind enough to let me hitch a ride in their Landcruiser pickup, since it was heading south anyway.  I crawled into the back of the extended cab, and two hefty Uganda ladies piled in after me.  Who needs a radio when you’ve got a very disgruntled and dramatic NGO worker talking nonstop in English and Luganda for the entire trip about her children’s school fees and which co-workers should be fired, punctuating every emotional sentence with a painful-sounding knee-slap. 

We stopped in every little trading center along the way so my travel buddies could pick up the best cassava, the best pineapples, the best charcoal…(how do you judge the relative merits of charcoal?).  At one stop, a teenage boy thrust three live chickens through the window at us.  What I considered assault by fowl, the Ugandan ladies called a bargain.  The chickens were paid for and tossed, feet tied together and eyes wild, into the back of the pickup with everything else (except the pineapples, which were rolling around at my feet).  A couple of hours down the road, as twilight was settling, I got out and inspected the pickup bed.  There were no chickens to be seen or heard. 

I asked the driver, “So, are the chickens dead yet?”

“Dead?! No, they’re not dead!”  He laughed.  “They’re back there under the charcoal, keeping warm!  They enjoy the ride, just like you!  When we stop, they’ll be happy!  They’ll say, Cluck, Cluck!”

Yeah, I’ll bet.

 We finally arrived in Kampala around 9 p.m., with chickens and charcoal presumably intact, though I had been squashed by my seatmates into a space the size of one lady’s purse.  I know, because she made room for it on the seat to her right while making sure her thighs were taking up the space of about 2 of me. 

The hostel, Kampala backpackers, had lost my reservation, but put me in the lovely (no, really, it was nice) “Nature’s Dorm,” with one wall open to the outdoors.  I was lucky to get a bed at all, since the hostel was hosting a tribal king from a neighboring district who’d come to see visit his subjects living in Kampala.  Nothing but the best, I tell you.  I felt around in the darkness for my flashlight, gave up, and spread the mosquito net around the top bunk, after removing the last tenant’s lace bra (which had gotten tangled in the net) from my face. 

The next morning was much brighter, though, as I was awoken by a monkey alarm – a couple members of the hostel’s resident troop chasing each other onto the roof.  The Hilton couldn’t have done any better. 

More to come – with photos!


August 6, 2008

Some people collect tiny state-themed silver spoons on their vacations. Other, like Angelina Jolie, collect multi-ethnic toddlers.

Now I see why.

There was no water or power at my hotel on Saturday. After an hour or so of getting repeatedly dressed and undressed, staring at the sputtering tap trying to will water to come out, and weighing the cost in shillings of a bottled-water bath, I decided to give up and go with my friend Donna to an orphanage, St. Jude’s, just outside of Gulu.

We couldn’t play with the older children, since they were doing their Saturday chores, pumping water and laying laundry out to dry. More importantly, they didn’t seem terribly interested in us. The house mothers sat us down near where some screaming two-year-olds were getting their baths and being dressed for the afternoon in hand-me-downs that didn’t always match their gender, as I discovered when I found a little boy in a pink satin Sunday dress.

Soon a tinier-than-most girl crawled out of the nursery onto the front porch, and I decided that perhaps babies might like being picked up better than my childhood cats enjoyed it. Turns out I was right!

Her name is Sophia, and here is what must have been going through her mind:

Yikes! Her eyes! They’re the color of my snot!

Hmm. She hasn’t dropped me yet. Maybe she’s alright.

Hmm. She hasn’t dropped me yet. Maybe she’s alright.

Hmm. She hasn’t dropped me yet. Maybe she’s alright.

Okay, since we’re here and I can’t get down, I have a proposition for you.

Yep…that’s more like it…Snzzzzzzzz…

Yep…that’s more like it…Snzzzzzzzz…

The Gulu office had a huge send-off for me today, and I actually enjoyed the food!  This is the first lunch I’ve had in a week that I didn’t just wolf down, thankful it wasn’t fried chicken or a piece of meat in a greasy bowl of stew.  Here I am wrestling with a goat kebab.  The dress was tailored in the market by a very talented woman who works with intermittent electricity and an old Singer sewing machine with a pedal. 

Goat on a stick, and me.

Goat on a stick, and me.

Do you know the feeling of freedom when you are about to quit a job?  You can have it again and again, if you stick to month-long unpaid internships!

Where am I?

July 31, 2008

Does it mean I travel too much if I have to make a conscious effort to remember where I am? I don’t just mean that  get disoriented when I wake up, thinking I’m at home and then being surprised to find my head on an unfamiliar pillow. I mean walking through my Ugandan office thinking “Filipino culture is really interesting!” Or gazing blankly out the window at the red dirt, with no idea what continent it’s part of.

I can’t help but love this line of work when I can eavesdrop on my colleagues passionately debating the best way to distribute goats.

The Soon-to-be International Student (center)

The Soon-to-be International Student (center)

This weekend I went out with a co-worker to celebrate a secret.  He won a scholarship to get his Master’s degree at a British university, starting in just two months.  He’s holding his breath and his good news to wait for official confirmation, and then he has to go through the month-long (at least) visa process, which usually takes longer because, as he told me, “The embassy people are always losing your documents.”

As the only person at work who has absolutely no stake in when and if he quits, and also since I am not inclined to gossip (since I know almost no one), I am one of only two people in town he has confided in.  At lunch, on the way to the post office, on the walk home, he catches up to me and starts speculating with hushed excitement about what life in the U.K. will be like.

“They keep saying bring very warm clothes.  I wonder how cold it’s going to get?” (Ugandans think that today, rainy and 69 degrees Fahrenheit, is an extremely chilly day.)

He is excited about seeing Westminster Abbey, paying for things in pounds instead of (Ugandan) shillings, and meeting a school representative holding a sign with his name on it as he steps into the arrivals area at the airport.

His excitement was infectious and I could relate, with the thrill of my move to New York City for graduate school not even a year behind me.  However, after dinner, as he swayed with eyes closed in blissful dreams  about his future, I realized that I could only understand a fraction of the happiness he was feeling.

He will be the first person in his family to leave Uganda.  On his scholarship, which he won over 10,000 other applicants, he will receive not only a living stipend but the opportunity to work up to twenty hours during the week and full-time during school holidays for the year he is there.  With the strength of the pound, any money is able to save from working in Britain can be socked away for the future – if he is able to extend his student visa or find a job after he finishes his degree, he is on his way to securing a comfortable life when he returns to Uganda.  He will have enough money to buy a house, get married, and better support the relatives that he is already helping out.  For him, studying in the UK is more than just a cultural exchange or the chance for a good education – it can mean financial security and a much happier future.

I noticed him grinning, the kind of elated grin where your cheeks hurt but it’s impossible to stop smiling.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked him.

“Butterflies and flowers!  England, of course!” he replied.

This trip means so much to him.  He is about to encounter months of culture shock, homesickness, and uncertainty, but none of this can dampen his excitement.  I thought of all the immigrants I have encountered through my jobs throughout the years, whether refugees, students, or workers.  Immigration is a word that has been muddied in the U.S., covered with layers of vitriol and bitterness.  Since September 11, even those lucky few who’ve gotten student visas to study in the States have come under suspicion.  But for generations of people, many of our ancestors as well as millions of people embarking on their journeys today, it is a synonym for opportunity.  Security.  Freedom.  Hope.

I wish him all of these.

Unsolicited Greetings

July 25, 2008

MTN Uganda

MTN Uganda

Standing outside of the Bomah Health Club and Spa (they do massages, steambaths, and manicures!) after dinner last night, I struck up a conversation with the policeman/security guard.  It was getting dark, and I didn’t want to walk the 10 minutes back alone, so I asked him about flagging down a boda, or motorcycle taxi, to take me to my guesthouse.  We exchanged a couple of pleasantries about Gulu and the weather.

For him, somehow, the next logical question was,

“Can I have your phone number?”

While the answer was a resounding, “No!” I was too polite to say it flat-out.

“Why do you want my phone number?”

“So I can greet you!”

“Greet me?”

“Yes, I will greet you with messages in the morning and in the evening!”

Yes, that’s exactly what I want.  To be greeted morning and evening on my cell phone by random strangers.  Please, take my number.  Give it to your friends, in fact!  I am lonely and need to be greeted!

My boyfriends superiors will be surprised to find that, while they think he has been at work, he has actually (well, according to me) been showing up periodically in Uganda, “waiting for me” back at the guesthouse, and is very very jealous of random people who greet me, especially “morning and evening,” on my cell phone.

This tactic was effective, my phone number is secure, and I am “deploying” Jay with the full back-up of the U.S. Army in these situations from now on.

Be the first (human, at least) to arrive at school.

Crowd into your classroom with 61 (yes, 61) of your closest friends and enemies.

Recess!  Climb a tree.

Play an instrument.

Find a goat tearing up the school gardens; punish it.  (Not shown: Join three classmates in holding down the goat and kicking it; get yelled at by a horrified-looking mzungu, or white person.)

Play with strange-looking brown hair on the white girl’s head.  (Not shown: Yank on it, get yelled at again.)

Lunch! Stand in line for gooey posho (ground maize) and beans.  Scoop it up, wolf it down, go back for more.

Try your hand at digital photography.



Head home. 

**Author’s note: While I’m sure that actual learning does go on in these schools, you can’t tell it from my photos.  My presence within 10 feet of a classroom meant that all education ceased and everyone in the room clambered to the doors and windows to get a look at me, making candid classroom shots a bit tricky.