Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas in Uganda

Christmas is upon us, but you wouldn’t know it from the looks of things. It’s just another day. My favorite restaurant, Sky Blue, just today (December 20th) put up about 3 Christmas decorations. I’ve heard 3 Christmas songs on the local radio so far this month and I saw 3 French hens in Kampala last week (not really, but I needed another “3” to throw in). The only other indication that it’s Christmas is the occasional flyer in the newspaper from Game, the country’s only Wal-Mart type store in Kampala, a mere 5 hour drive from here.

The Big Question

Corruption. How bad is it? Recently Jacob was asked an interesting question by an Australian man. “If you wanted to give money to a person or organization and you had to go through a Ugandan that you didn’t know very well, how many Ugandans would mis-manage that money and pocket some?” Get a number in your head before you continue to read. Guess for yourself what percentage of Ugandans would pocket some of that money which is supposed to pay someone’s school fees or go toward building an orphanage for needy kids. Got it?

I’ve posed this same question to Ugandans and their answer is shocking. The answer is typically within the same range of one another and the answer comes quickly, as if they need no time to even consider it. The answer: 90% Ninety percent. 9 out of 10 people would help themselves first before putting the money towards who it is supposed to go to, regardless of how needy they are. This is the answer across the board. So the question that begs to be asked is, why?

“We live in poverty. We are more needy than those people in America and we have extended family to look after and provide for,” was one answer I received. “Won’t you feel guilty for taking school fees from some child?” “Most people wouldn’t. But we would still put that child in a school, but they would be sent to a lesser school than what the money was sent for.”

So maybe the question to ask you is: What percentages of Americans would do the same?

In the nearly 2 years I’ve been with Compassion I haven’t once seen money go where it shouldn’t go. I haven’t once seen the staff get something for themselves or try to work the system. Whether it’s money for the kids or money that’s going into the community center. The people I work with are very trustworthy and show a lot of integrity.

12 Days of Christmas. How to save money for Christmas by living like a Ugandan

#2 & #1. I have to do two because I skipped a week of blogging in there somewhere.

#2. Recycle everything imaginable. Plastic bags can be wadded up and tied together to make cheap soccer balls. The rubber from inner tubes can be cut into long strips and used as bungee cords. And you would be shocked by the amount of uses you can get from banana trees and leaves!

#1. Raise goats. Sure your neighbors might think it’s strange that you live in town and have goats grazing in your front yard, but goats multiply quickly. If you have 5 goats, in a year you may have 15. The meat is tasty, they can help you mow your lawn and the droppings make great fertilizer.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

2007 MTN Marathon Moments

The MTN (cell phone company) Marathon was this Sunday. It was #7 for me and the first marathon I’ve run 2 times. Two other PCVs ran the marathon and another 2 ran the 10k. How incredibly blessed (I honestly don’t know any other word to describe it) were we to have friends like Jen and Przemek (psh-EH-mek), our missionary friends who used to live in my village but have since moved to Entebbe, drive us around Kampala. They took us to eat Italian the night before and then they picked us up at 6am (they were even 15 minutes early) to take us to the start line.

Allow me to describe the race. For weeks now the newspapers had bragged “6,000 to run Marathon”. In reality, as I suspected, only a few hundred ran the marathon distance of 42.2 km (26.2 miles). The rest of the “6,000” ran the 10k and the new half marathon. We arrived at Lugogo Mall, an upscale strip mall with Game (think Wal-Mart) and Shop-Rite (think Krogers), just as dawn was beginning to break. Kampala weather is generally hot and sticky so an early start time is imperative. My running mate, Chad, had purchased some, I can only describe them as, 80’s style spandex to run the marathon in. As if he wouldn’t stand out enough just being a white guy… After we stretched and warmed up we made our way to the starting line. There was a massive bottle neck of people as everyone tried to get into the blocked gate of the starting corral. I’m pretty sure that white men introduced the concept of a line here because it is noticeably lacking. When the starting time came and went and still the corral was empty, a few anxious runners charged the guards holding up the gates, toppling the guards and the gates, and allowed the marathoners to approach the start line. The half and 10k runners had to wait until the marathon began.

The few hundred of us anxiously approached the start line. Runners were chomping at the bit to get going. The starter had to call them back 3 times before officially starting the race. As I looked around I saw a number of baffling sights. The man in front of me had on a full sized, green book bag. It didn’t seem heavy, maybe holding a jacket. A few runners were wearing sweat pants though the temperature was mild, it would get very hot very quickly. I also saw a wide variety of shoes. High tops, casual dress shoes, boots… one guy had on 1 shoe and 1 sandal.

The race began and people surged ahead. Chad and I went slow and steady. In the first mile I counted 7 people walking. “Only 25 miles to go” I thought to myself as I felt pity for them.

Easily the most shocking moment of the entire run, and possibly the most shocking moment of my entire time in Uganda, came at the 2 mile point. A man from the crowd wearing casual pants, a button up shirt and loosely tied boots jumped into the race a few feet in front of me. “He’s not going to get very far dressed like that,” I said to Chad. Shortly there after a guard, wearing a navy blue sweater and carrying a silver shotgun went after him. When the man refused to stop running the guard began swinging his shotgun at him and hitting him, hard, in the head and legs! He hit him 5 times with a loaded shot gun and then managed to punch the guy in the head with his fist. Still, the bandit runner continued. For a time the guard was running behind him, yelling something to him in Luganda while pointing the shotgun at his back. The people around me yelled “No” and even covered their ears. I was nearly certain the man was to be shot. It cost $2.50 to run this marathon. It’s over $100 to run some in the US. We were in the middle of the pack. I can’t imagine what this guy was thinking or what the guard was trying to prove exactly, but eventually we were able to convince the guard to back off and let him go. I was later told by Japheth, my friend and supervisor at Compassion, that there could have been state officials running the marathon and the man could have been looking to harm someone, possibly even Chad and I, though it seemed unlikely at the time.

A few miles later we turned off the main roads and into “The real Kampala”. Back roads, little shops and stores lined the streets. Garbage everywhere. Kids changing “How are you Muzungu.” Thick clouds of black exhaust from passing trucks. Pot holes large enough for me to lie down in. The elite half marathon group BLEW past us with mud splattered on their backs, kicked up from their fast pace. One by one the halfers went by. You could distinguish the half and the full by the amount of mud on their backs (marathoners were running a slower pace, thus less mud).

Hearing people cheering was unusual. The spectating Ugandans didn’t exactly cheer. They generally yelled something at us and then laughed. I heard someone yell “Sadam” and someone else yell “Bin Ladin”. I even heard “Mexico”. The funniest was when someone yelled “Muzungu Big Balls” to Chad about his spandex… Groups of 30 or so were especially intimidating because you never knew what they were going to yell or do. I fully expected someone to reach out and grab me as I went by, but it never happened. There was plenty of water along the course. Bottles of it. I began carrying the water bottle with me and dousing kids and the most annoying spectators. Fortunately they seemed to think that was funny. Around the 10k point, down a long hill, I began hearing some loud cheering from a small, motley crew of white people. Unusual, I thought, to hear cheering. Jacob and 2 other PCVs had a big sign saying “Only 25 miles to go” with our names on it. Jacob’s idea of humor. They were really yelling for us and it was a nice boost of adrenaline.

The course continued on through Kampala. It was extremely hilly! Extremely! The biggest hill near a place called Backpackers. All the focus for the first half was on that hill. Make it up that hill and you’ve made the marathon. Chad and I reached the hill, buried our heads and chugged along. We passed a few people along the way, including a white guy and girl. Upon reaching the top there was a down hill then another hill, though not as steep. Chad began getting side cramps and the other white guy caught up with me and we ran most of the rest of the way together. With 3 miles to go I could tell he had fresher legs than I had so I told him to go ahead. I thought I would finish in 3:30. The course was only sparsely marked so when 3:25 came I started looking for the finish. “Only 5 more minutes,” I kept telling myself. 5 minutes went by. 10 minutes. 15 minutes. I thought I saw Lugogo Mall at one point and let out a huge “Thank You” only to discover I was mistaken. Finally I came to marking: 41km. I remembered it from last year. They tell you when there is 1 km to go. I’m not sure if that’s beneficial or torturous. As I came around the last corner there was a huge crowd cheering. Not Ugandans. It was about 10 PCVs who had come to see the race, but it felt like 100 of them. They cheered for everyone as they passed, but especially for us! I think I sprinted all the way to the finish line. They were so supportive. The Ugandan runners, as they passed, didn’t quite know what to think. They weren’t used to hearing people cheer them on and had to double check that they were cheering for them. Some smiled, some waved, but all picked up their pace a little bit as they crossed the finish line.

My finish time: 3:42. All things considered, I’ll take that any day.

Ebola outbreak

There’s an Ebola outbreak in Uganda. The newspapers are reporting that over 100 people have contracted the deadly virus and over 20 have died thus far. They are also reporting that it is in 8 districts. The Peace Corps is telling us that it’s only in 1 district and that many of the suspected cases are coming back negative. The Newspaper is trying to sell newspapers. The Peace Corps is looking out for our health… In 2000-01 there was also an outbreak. Ebola is named after a river in DR Congo where it was first discovered. Generally it is lethal 60% of the time. It is spread by contact with a contagious person. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea, upset stomach, vomiting, and bloody discharge. We have been warned by the PC about it and encouraged to continually wash our hands and avoid contact with sick people. I’m not sure how bad it would have to get before PC will become proactive, but rest assured, the #1 priority of the PC is the health and safety of the volunteers.

12 Days of Christmas. How to save money for Christmas by living like a Ugandan.

#3. Haul your water from the nearest swamp or stream. Think for a moment about where the closest pond, creek or stream is. Then think about lugging two 15L containers back and forth from your house to get water. Round trip for some takes over 2 hours… but think of the money you’d save on your water bill.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Internet Indeed

We have achieved a great level of civilization! We now have the internet at my Compassion site! We are now ready to conquer the world! More and more messages that are sent from my site to the Compassion regional offices in Mbarara and Kampala are sent via email. The modem, which is an interesting little device about the size of a small cell phone and which inserts directly into a usb port, cost around $200 and it will cost $70 a month. $70 a month sounds pricy, and it is, but it’s really all that’s available here and the Compassion head offices are trying to get as many of their projects (there are currently 155 in Uganda) on board as they can. It operates using a small chip that is typically in a cell phone called a SIM card and thus uses a cell phone signal to transmit information. I only tried it out this morning. It’s not fast, but it does what it’s supposed to do. The only limitation is that with this package you can only transmit 600 MB of information a month. The unlimited internet package was $120 a month.

Why my dad would have made a great Peace Corps Volunteer

I was thinking about my dad for some reason the other day. And I was thinking that he would have made a great Peace Corps volunteer if they would have had it back in the 50’s. My dad turned 80 last week. It seems like I’ve been bragging to my friends for some years now that my father was 80 and that he mowed 30 yards every summer (though he’s cut back recently). I find a lot of correlations to what my father taught me, by the way he lived, and what it takes to be a PCV. Allow me to indulge:

-Frugal. I live on a very modest salary. I have to budget and think about what I spend. My father raised 5 kids on a teacher’s salary and grew up in the depression era. I can’t remember how many times my brother and I would split a large order of fries from McDonlads. “One large Coke and 2 courtesy coups, please.”

-Greeting everyone. I can’t wait to get home where I can blend into the thread of society again. I’m the type of guy who likes to slip into the back of the room and sit unnoticed and observe. Here, I am given the seat up front, I am stared at daily and greeted by everyone… My father seems to know everyone in my home town and greets them often. How he has managed to thus avoid a job as a Wal-Mart greeter is beyond me. Maybe he’s saving that for his 90’s.

-Exercise. My father was a great basketball player in his day. My mode of transportation through these hills is a bicycle… you do the math.

-Helper. I think the reason my father went into education is because he is naturally gifted at helping others. He just has a heart for it. And he does it without expecting anything in return. If that’s not Peace Corps material, I don’t know what is.

-Patience …he’s getting there.

-Reading. I’ve read more books in my one and a half years here than I’ve read in my life. And that’s a good thing. Although I don’t remember seeing him reading too many books, if you count newspapers he’s far ahead of the curve.

12 Days of Christmas. How to save money for Christmas by living like a Uganda.

#4. Don’t buy toilet paper, just use scraps of regular paper or leaves. Seriously. Even people who earn a decent living do this.