Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Guilt, Aid, and other Unanswerable Questions

It was my first day back in Kampala after two weeks of beef-eating in Murchison Falls. H.M. was off working, buying electrical supplies or something. Knowing he would disapprove of any fast-food venture, I quietly stole off to Nando’s--the African version of KFC—for some well-deserved chicken.

I ordered some chicken strips in a chapati (flat bread) along with fries and sat down with the day’s newspaper to wait for my tasty meal.

“Hello. How are you?” A quiet voice intruded into my concentrated reading of the front page.

I looked up to see if I was being addressed. A young Ugandan woman had sat down across from me. It is considered polite to speak quietly in Uganda, which means that not only are most foreigners considered rude for speaking at what we consider normal levels, but most foreigners (“mzungus”) are often loudly saying “What? Can you speak up?”

“Fine. How are you?” I responded with some skepticism. I just wanted to eat. Alone.

She smiled and said, “I am Regina,” as if I knew her.

For a moment, I thought she was the realtor who had shown me around on my third day in Kampala. I greeted her warmly. Oops. The realtor was named Lynn, I remembered.

This encouragement was all she needed.

“I would like to be your friend,” stated Regina.

I pondered this without responding.

“How many months have you been in Uganda?” she asked.

“I’m a tourist, just here for a few days.” My self-protection instincts kicked in.

“Oh. Where are you from?”

“United States. Do you live in Kampala?”

“Yes. I have been here my whole life. I have never been outside Uganda. I have not even finished secondary school because I do not have the money for school fees.”

Ah. So she was looking for a sponsor. Well, I would not get her hopes up.

“I have the same problem,” I responded. “I would like to finish my schooling and get a Master’s but I cannot afford even the cheapest school.”

“I understand.”

We sat in silence for a minute. I realized she was not leaving and I didn’t like where the conversation was heading. My skepticism had kicked in but so had my guilt. I had money while she had none. Actually, I didn’t have any money either but my level of poverty is totally different than hers. I made about $14,000 whopping dollars last year. She probably made a miniscule fraction of that. Was I being a selfish bitch by never giving money to beggars, by never helping sponsor, and did this take me back to the age-old question of is aid okay or does aid beget lack of self-reliance? Did my solution of “fair trade, not aid” really work? I tend to spend money in local economies, thinking this helps solves things. At home, my token efforts to buy Fair Trade coffee and local produce are kind of a joke on a global scale, but we all do what we can.

“I’m going to read my newspaper. Okay?” I said, burying my head in the paper and hoping she’d take the hint.

“Okay.” She stared at me while I read.

My food arrived. I ate it. She stared at me while I ate.

After several minutes, I offered her my paper to read. She read it while I ate. I didn’t finish. All I wanted was an escape.

“Okay, I’m leaving.” I stood up and held out my hand for my newspaper. She rushed through the end, glancing at each page.

“I have a question,” she said.


“Come outside. I will ask you outside.”

This was too much for my self-protection mechanisms and I didn’t even think before it was out of my mouth.

“Whatever it is, I am not interested.” I said firmly.

She nodded and left.

I gave her a few minutes and then trailed her for a bit. Where was she going now? Would she look for another foreigner? Would she do this to me again if I came back for more chicken?

She turned left up the hill towards the Sheraton and Speke Hotel. Maybe she lived up there. Maybe she was going to look for another Mzungu.

H.M. and I had discussed aid and development just a few weeks ago. He had gotten into an animated discussion with some travelers at Red Chilli. Both were small groups who had just driven down from Ethiopia. The conversation with anyone who has been to Ethiopia recently always turns to pondering the ramifications of aid.

I had read one tale of a cyclist’s journey who had described himself as a walking ATM while in Ethiopia. I myself described it as “the white man is Santa Claus” on mariesworldtour.com in 2001. The most common greeting in some parts of Africa is not a friendly wave but a “give me” hand. And of course this is to be expected, as for years our solution to our guilt over Africa was “throw money at it.”

This has not worked, obviously. But can you just walk about and accept no responsibility for slavery, the price of coffee, and colonialism? Well, no.

That was the solution the people had offered to H.M. during the Red Chilli chat. “All aid and development should be thrown out of Africa. It’s the only way,” one man had declared.

As a development worker, Herr Marlboro was helping to rehabilitate the infrastructure of Uganda’s largest national park. Murchison Falls has been sadly stripped of animals and equipment during the wars. The animals were coming back slowly. The Germans were helping with the electrical and water systems, as well as the roads and the airstrips. Murchison was once teeming with lion, elephants, giraffes, and rhino. It would be again and was already well on its way.

Obviously, H.M. did not agree that the solution was to abandon Africa. I did not agree either, but neither of us was able to offer a solution of where to draw the line and how to help without hindering.

In the end, I can only suggest that there is good aid and bad aid, good development and bad development. Throwing money at things has proven foolish and detrimental. But carefully planned projects that are potentially sustainable have succeeded in many cases.

I quit following the woman who probably wanted a sponsor and went into an upscale bookstore. I spent $8 on a book about an Irish doctor who’d worked in the Ugandan bush. Maybe I really was selfish. I placated my guilt with the knowledge that 16,000 Ugandan shillings wouldn’t have sent anyone to school.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Hell on Wheels

“Are you coming?” yelled H.M. to the ranger from the rhino camp. “C’mon!”

The ranger looked astonished, blinking his eyes at the DED Toyota that was driving away from him in third gear. Then he realized… the truck could not stop or it wouldn’t turn on again. He ran as fast as he could while the gate rangers giggled. He caught up to us, opened the door, and jumped in.

We were en route to Kampala by way of Masindi. We’d left early and given a ride to only one ranger, who was going to the rhino center where Uganda Wildlife Authority was preparing the area for the rhinos that had been newly purchased from South Africa. Rhinos had been wiped out during Uganda’s hard times and they’d be back, but not before a lot of protective measures were introduced.

Herr Marlboro and I were carrying all my luggage and a pillow for his brother-in-law’s seat. H.M. would leave me in Kampala for at least two weeks, while his brother-in-law, niece, and nephew visited in conjunction with H.M.’s big-boss (unfortunate timing). I wasn’t sure if I’d make it back to Murchison before moving to Namibia for September, so the things I normally kept at Murchison—such as the big camera lens and my camping gear—were with us.

We’d driven about 40 minutes when the clutch started to scrape with every shift. I looked at H.M. with alarm, but he was already pulling over.

The ranger got out to help--or rather watch--while I stayed inside. H.M. was a Master Mechanic in his past life in the Munich suburbs, and I was a comic book colorist and writer.

H.M. dug around in the glove box for a while. He looked for tools behind the seat. He sadly eyed his mini-Leatherman and wished he’d invested in the full-sized model.

He announced that there was a leak in the clutch fluid system. This wasn’t really surprising as Africa is “hell on wheels” and on the rest of the car too. H.M. then took the hose off the windshield fluid reservoir and popped the lid off the brake fluid. He sucked. He made a face when he caught the taste of brake fluid.

H.M. put the brake fluid into the clutch fluid system. Problem alleviated, but to tighten the whatever-was-at-the-leak, he needed a certain wrench.

A Land Cruiser pulled up behind us, carrying a British man and Australian woman. They worked in a lodge in the Serengetti and just happened to have a full-size Leatherman on them.

H.M. lay down on the ground and took the Leatherman under the car. He had me pump the clutch a few times and—voila—we were mobile.

Our new system worked for a while but it was eventually clear that we were still shedding fluid. He paused and looked again. “We cannot stop any more,” he muttered.

We made it to the gate.

“Open the gate! Open the gate!” Our pleas could not be heard by the ranger who casually strode over to swing the gate open. He was used to H.M. stopping and saying hello. They don’t get a lot of entertainment at these ranger outposts.

We stopped at the closed gate. The truck engine cut off. Big sigh all around.

H.M. started to suck more clutch fluid, but when he crawled under the truck, he realized that a gasket was needed. Even my offered duct tape, found deep in my luggage, wouldn’t help.

“We will have to push-start and go in third gear to the Masindi Shell station,” H.M announced. Which is how we ended up driving away and nearly leaving our helpful-pushing ranger behind.

There were two potential pitfalls with driving to Masindi without stopping, and both of them were busy intersections with stop signs.

Somehow we made it to Masindi without a single stop. H.M. and some Shell mechanics crawled under the Toyota while I went (where else?) to the Internet café.

He pulled up 40 minutes later for lunch. The truck was fixed. Great. We found the ranger, who had gone wandering around Masindi. We stopped to turn in our Coke bottles for the deposit, and headed towards the rhino camp.

It wasn’t long before H.M. discovered that we were again stuck in third. We were able to stop near the rhino camp, but could not go into it. (Too bad because I wanted to see if the rhinos were there yet and H.M. wanted to eyeball their solar electric fence for ideas on how to make one of Murchison’s airstrips into a place airplanes could land instead of the park’s number one antelope habitat.)

It was a joyful moment when H.M. managed to get the truck into fourth gear, but this made for a horrible racket once we reached towns with speed bumps. We were carrying three massive (empty) oxygen canisters in the back. He was getting them refilled in Kampala for welding purposes. The water tank at the education center had been raided by elephants too many times and a massive stand was being welded together--one that was too tall for elephants to get their trunks into.

Finally, we found a Shell with a mechanic’s bay. H.M. was able to casually step under the truck instead of crawling. He messed around with it a little bit and then, mysteriously, it was fixed. It had just had a little impediment in it and had been repaired in Masindi.

On we went to Kampala. H.M. would head to the airport the next evening, while I would get back to my regularly scheduled program of taking minibus taxis to wi-fi hotspots to upload files.

The next morning, when I took a minibus taxi to the hotspot, its clutch gave out.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Ugly American, Beautiful Nile

“I don’t care! I want a key and I want it now!”

H.M. and I were blissfully sitting on the banks of the Nile, enjoying a Coke and a Nile Special in the shade. He had taken me to Nile Safari Camp as a late birthday present. The staff had presented us with cold towels as we’d arrived—a switch from the usual steaming hot towels but this must have been a relief to people who’d traveled for hours over dirt roads. We’d driven only 20 minutes from our Paraa home but nevertheless accepted them gratefully.

The man disturbing our afternoon was an overweight American. The staff was smiling and staring at him, uncertain of how to react. Yelling at Africans always produces a smile and deer-in-headlights kind of reaction. It is considered bad manners to lose your temper in public.

“I don’t care that your rooms don’t have keys. I want a key!”

We left the man to his yelling.

Our cabin on the Nile was a kind of tent on a wooden frame and stilts. Cute little monkeys bounded around the roof and outside shower, which was enclosed by a large tarp. In the evening and morning, the staff poured hot water into the container above the shower. The stilts meant that there was a nice breeze and we didn’t get too hot. It wasn’t 4-star by international standards, but to us, it was pure luxury.

We headed to the pool for a lazy afternoon. After a sunset on our cabin verandah, we sat in the open-air restaurant for an excellent dinner (although the next morning’s English breakfast on our verandah could not be beat). We’d just finished a banana cake dessert when we heard a familiar voice.

“I’ve been trying to get a key all day! Give me a key!”

Groan. Not all the cabins were tents but they did all have mosquito netting for windows. I wondered how a key was going to secure anything. Plus there were no locks. How could you have a key to a non-existent lock?

The situation deteriorated. The man absolutely started sputtering once the manager arrived.

“We’ve driven through villages of beggars to get here! I want a god damn key!”

Villages of beggars? I wondered how he’d gotten here. The nearby village housed park rangers and their families. Our friend Celsius--park electrician and teller of the puss-cat story--lived there. The trading post outside the gate was full of people selling sugar cane and bottled water. Masindi was hardly a village and certainly not full of beggars (aside from one old man who went around begging cigarettes off everyone, local or foreign).

The staff and manager’s responses were inaudible, but it wasn’t hard to figure out what they were given the context.

“Don’t tell me not to cop an attitude! No one here has been helping me and I want a key.”

Then, a murmured response about mosquito-net windows.

“Yes, but if someone comes in through a locked door, I can shoot him. If he comes in through an open window, I don’t have that right.”

Whoa. This was just embarrassing. “We aren’t all like that,” I thought a bit helplessly. Where was this overweight cowboy from? Texas? Wyoming?

Apparently he was from Maryland. And word was that he worked in Kampala for the American Embassy. Could this be real?

In the end, the manager bored a hole and fitted a lock at 10 p.m. at night, obviously done to shut the customer up. All the other customers were giggling conspiratorially and laughing as the charming fellow followed the manager to his cabin. I had a laugh too when he came back later and sheepishly asked if he’d left his camera at the front desk.

No one had seen it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Hippo Shit and Other Aspects of the Bush

“What’s that?” I said, pointing to some straw and mud gunk on the side of our Murchison Falls home.

“Hippo shit,” said H.M. firmly. “They flip their tails around when they shit, and it gets it all over the place.”

I hadn’t realized this when the hippo had walked past us on the verandah the night before. Usually, we just hear and smell the hippos, but last night the moon had been full and we’d watched as the hippo ate grass in our yard and then thudded its way past the bed. One night, the hippo had not thudded—it had delicately tipped past. We’d both worried that it was a person until a Nile hippo let loose with a echoing “ho ho ho.” Our yard hippo responded with two throaty grunts. No, that was not a person in the yard.

Hippo shit is just one aspect of African bush living that takes some getting used to. I also had to get used to barking that comes from antelopes, not dogs. And we had the challenge of rubbish disposal. Where do you put your trash? There’s no dumpster. Most of the houses have pits, and the workshop separates and burns trash. H.M. put our rubbish into workshop bins a few times only to turn around and find the rubbish already gone. Someone would grab it and go through it, hoping for some useful mzungu stuff that we’d foolishly thrown away.

People used to go through my trash in New York so this was not new to me. But in the park, everyone knew who we were and that this was our rubbish. It’s a little more than I really want people to know, plus I don’t want them rooting through old coffee grinds and rotten foods scraps. At least I had the foresight to switch from tampons to a re-usable silicone cup.

Composting isn’t really an option as it could draw baboons. The warthogs already get my pineapple scraps, but they eat them quickly. In the end, I kept food waste in a bag separate from other waste so at least whoever went through the dry stuff wouldn’t get too grossed out. Anything unmentionable got shoved deep into an empty UHT milk carton.

Many of the other challenges were fairly pedestrian: cold water showers, slow flushing toilet, termites, ants, the occasional snake or scorpion, mud, rain, an oven that took forever to light but I still succeeded in baking cookies for the laborers…working challenges were more unique. I had a job to do (several jobs to do, actually) on my laptop. In the morning and early evening, I’d zip along through the work. But with mid-day came the humidity and heat, and I’d crawl through the assignments.

One day I had to work well into the night to get work done for uploading as we were heading to town the next day. I was relieved when the temperature went down. Now I could really get some work done!

Unfortunately, the laptop screen is a beacon to all small flying insects. They were attacking and crawling all over my iBook. I tried hard to ignore them and color behind their many legs.

Finally, I lit two mosquito coils. One went by my feet and the other by the screen. This helped a little until the wind blew the smoke directly into my face.

I reached out to move the mosquito coil. A mosquito landed on my hand. I gave up. The work would have to wait.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Equator Rain

The sound of wind at night is a kind-of alarm clock in Murchison Falls. H.M. and I both wake up as soon as a breeze starts gusting. Wind on its own is okay, and rain on its own is fine. But the two factors together mean one thing: get out of bed and batten down the hatches.

Initially, we both always wait and silently gauge the weather. There is never any disagreement; weather changes are usually too dramatic to miss. But when the back door blows open, or the mosquito net blows into our faces--and it’s wet--then it is time to get up.

We both grab the two small flashlights that we keep next to the bed and slip on our flip-flops. He runs for the door and the car windows, while I always head straight for the laptop and shortwave radio. We clear the verandah of papers and electronics, and then head for the bedding. One of us gathers the pillows, sheets, and blankets. The other lifts the light foam mattress off of the frame and drags it into the house. We both run around the house then and check for things near windows, or open windows by piles of clothing or books, and then crawl together into the only remaining bed that is not on the verandah: a single bed with a mosquito net frame so massive that the bed cannot be moved.

The night continues but for me, there is not much sleeping. The thunder, wind, and discomfort of being crammed into the corner of a small bed makes sleep challenging. But getting up isn’t an option either, as there is no electricity until 8 a.m. If the rain continues, the electricity will be late, as the man who has to start the generator is also watching the rain and thinking how unappealing a walk in it might be.

The first time we had a midnight move, I was confused and watching while H.M. did most of the work. What was he doing with my laptop? Where was he going with that mattress?

The second time, we were bush camping, along with one ranger, H.M.’s French-Bavarian friend Luc, and Andrea’s husband Ivo, as well as Ivo’s cousin Hannah from Hamburg. Ivo had brought along a spectacular spread of food, which he and Hannah cooked over an open fire.

H.M. and I had showed up late, as he was working until 5:30 and I never miss an opportunity to color comic books. Ivo and Hannah had set up the tents and the campsite. The tents were staked, but there were no flies (covers).

"It’s not raining tonight," someone said.

old lionWe went out a short distance in the cars. Down the road were some hippos, and directly behind them was a pride of ten adult lions and countless small cubs. The boss lion, an old male named Abraham by the rangers, tolerated us for a while as Hannah trained the spotlight on him. Finally, he seemed annoyed and turned his back to us. We returned to camp and crawled into our tents. H.M. and I stayed in his small tent, freshly delivered from Bavaria by Luc. The other three shared Ivo's larger tent.
A more superstitious person might blame those who believed it would not rain for the drops that started at 2 a.m.

"Where’s the fly?" I asked. H.M. had no idea what "fly" meant and asked me where the cover was. We often have these language misunderstandings.

The fly was in Ivo’s car. 2 a.m. is not the ideal time to be working out the set-up of a tent you’ve never seen before, so I just threw the fly over the tent and looped its ends under the stakes that were already holding down the tent. I didn’t know yet the power of the sudden wind of Murchison, or I might have looked at the directions. I crawled back in the tent and collapsed back into my sleep-sheet.

We heard some muffled talking, but until later did not know that the other tent ended up collapsed, its occupants sleeping in Ivo’s Land Cruiser. It had started to pour by the time they figured out how to put the cover over the tent. The ranger was already asleep in H.M.’s car.

“I will keep on my clothes in case there are problems,” is the last thing I remember H.M. saying as I drifted off to sleep in my small Target-bought nightshirt.

“What could happen? It’s a strong German-made tent.”

H.M. has lived in Murchison Falls for three consecutive summers and he knows a bit more about the erratic weather than I do. He was ready at 4:30 when the wind buffeted our little tent as if we were atop a mountain. I fought the urge to wake up—really, I did—but finally I had to admit that my hastily assembled fly might not hold. Also, the wet side of the tent was caving in on me as the wind pushed it.

“It’ll hold,” changed to “shit, I better get my clothes on and fast.” I didn’t think the ranger needed to see me running around the national park in my pajamas.

Then, the fly blew off. The rain started spraying in while under the weight of the gusts, my half of the tent clung to me.

H.M. arched his back and arms, physically holding the form of the tent up while I grabbed everything I could feel. We could see very little as our flashlights were somewhere on the wet floor. I was still in my nightshirt but had managed to get my pants on under it.

"Okay," I said breathlessly. He unzipped the door and we jumped out. We hastily pulled the poles down and sprinted for the pick-up, leaving the tent flat and staked to the ground.collapsed tent

We were both soaked. The ranger, cozily curled up in the backseat with his gun and our blanket, was awakened by our laughter and slamming of doors.

"Hello. Are you wet?" He asked.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Chicken or Beef?

Sunday mornings are the quietest time at Paraa, the small ranger/tourist village at Murchison Falls National Park where I share H.M.’s home. Mornings are beautiful, as he has set up the bed (covered in a mosquito net) on the screened verandah, which faces east.

Hippos grunt from the Nile, which is located right down the bushy hill. Birds chirp cheerfully and relentlessly. The eleven warthogs that roam the grounds battle for pack supremacy, using strange grunts and wheezes as war cries. The sunrises are frequently dramatic, and thanks to the 7 a.m. Nile ferry that acts as a daily alarm clock, we never miss them.

Sundays are unique because this is the day that the Uganda Wildlife Authority staff slacks off a little. The Paraa master generator, which uses diesel and runs daily from 8 a.m. to midnight, fires up late on Sundays, sometimes by as much as 20 minutes. This is probably frustrating for the nearby Red Chilli Rest Camp, which has to get its daily business going as tourism does not stop on Sundays. It can be frustrating for me, as my laptop battery power runs out rapidly when I run all my peripherals off my USB outlets. But mostly, this is a pleasant time for listening to the sounds of the forest without the drone of engines as accompaniment.

Once the generator fires up, I usually try to drown it out with my iPod or with shortwave BBC news. I work on the verandah until noon, when the humidity and heat drives me inside to the shaded dining room, which in turn becomes intolerable by 4, when I move back to the verandah where afternoon breezes bring down the temperature. H.M. bought me a small desk fan when I complained, and I train it directly on my face from noon to 4.

H.M. works daily from 7:30 to 5:30, but no one works from noon to 2 as this is the hottest part of the day. He comes home and lays in the hammock while I cower in the shade of the house, hunched as usual over the laptop and whatever comic book emergency I am dealing with at the moment. Sometimes there is a reason to drive to the north side of the Nile; when there is time I go along and we look at animals along the way. This is the main tourist drive, where tourists go on game drives to look for antelope, lions, leopards, hippos, giraffes, and even the pedestrian (to us) warthog.

Nights are cooler. Usually we cook dinner although on rare occasions, we go to Red Chilli, Nile Safari Camp, or the local village for a bite to eat. Only Nile Safari dishes out the goods in a serious way though; the others are just for variety and are never as good as what can be made at home.

Food is usually one thing cooked in a variety of ways: just beef. Beef, beef, and more beef. It’s good and cheap and plentiful in Uganda. I foolishly showed up in Masindi the first time and said to H.M.: “Where can I buy some chicken breasts?”

He pointed to a live caged chicken by the side of the road.

“There is your chicken.”

At this point, I decided to stick with his steaks he’d bought in Kampala. I don’t know how to kill or butcher a chicken. And vegetarian options are limited to using whatever is on sale in Masindi that week. Right now, avocados are big and mango season has passed us.

So if anyone has any suggestions on something to cook with a piece of amazing beef, please send them my way. I just downloaded a recipe for “chicken fried steak.” This week we’ve already had goulash, some marinated steaks, and something in a yummy sauce that I found on the Internet. Thanks.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Landlocked in Paraa

I've been in Murchison Falls National Park for a few days now, but getting here was, as always, a bit of an endeavor.

On Saturday morning, I sat in a long-distance minibus in Kampala's "New Taxi Park."

"Who buys this stuff?" I wondered as sellers shoved all kinds of things through the windows in attempts to entice passengers to buy their wares. I found myself viewing-but not desiring-cheap watches, flip-flops, socks, cookies, pens, and charred meat-on-a-stick.

As a foreigner, I was spared the brunt of the onslaught, but water sellers and newspaper boys eagerly flashed their wares at me.

Minibuses, like nearly all public transport in East Africa, leave "when full." This particular minibus to Masindi took about 40 minutes to fill. We all buckled our seatbelts and began the 3-hour journey.

Herr Marlboro was picking me up in Masindi since he had to be there anyway to pick up cement and a 3-meter plastic pipe. I was lucky this time-on my last trip, I had to hitch a ride from MFNP to Masindi with a Uganda Wildlife Authority pick-up truck on official business. H.M. cannot, unfortunately, jump up and drive to Masindi any time Madame says "boo." He uses an official car and is actually in Uganda to work. But we usually manage to coordinate my arrivals and departures.

On my last trip, I left unexpectedly after becoming frustrated with trying to work at H.M.'s house. Murchison Falls is a tourist destination and lots of people come to visit. I'd found my workspace crawling with pleasant visitors and had fled to Kampala to get some work done.

I had traveled with the security warden and a driver. In addition, there were assorted park workers looking for a lift, including one with a pedal-operated Singer sewing machine. But the primary purpose of the voyage was not to transport H.M's Madame or a broken sewing machine. We carried six poachers and a ranger with a semi-automatic rifle. The poachers were going to jail in Masindi, where they would be probably be forced to work for 30-90 days depending on their sentences.

We left Paraa (the park headquarters as well as the site of H.M.'s residence) with dozens of people packed onto the back of the green truck. I was lucky enough to be inside the cab.

"It is land-locked," offered the warden as an explanation for the crowd. I knew this already. No transport goes empty to Masindi, and H.M. and I always had passengers when we went.

We drove to the park gate, where another park worker flagged us down.

"I need a Daily Monitor," he explained, hopping onto the already-crowded pick-up bed. The Daily Monitor is one of two legitimate Ugandan newspapers. The third, Red Pepper, is an entertaining tabloid that just makes up stories when it lacks interesting headlines.

Eventually, we got to the Masindi-region-maintained stretch of dirt road that was shaped like an upside-down V. This is scary to drive when it's dry, but downright perilous when wet. It had rained the night before.

The driver crawled along slowly, passing by a bogged tourist mini-van with an anxious driver. We stopped as soon as we got off the dangerous part of the road, and the driver and warden got out. They motioned for all the men on the back to follow (the sewing machine stayed on-board). The guard motioned the poachers down as well.

There were two (what is the polite word?) massively fat American or European tourists inside the mini-van, while the scrawny Ugandan driver sat behind the wheel. The sight of a dozen Africans-including six in rags and one with an AK-4--descending on the mini-van was too much for the tourists. They wound up the windows, locked the doors, and refused to move.

vehicle in mud

The warden and the driver directed, while the rest got to work. The soldier also sat aside, keeping alert in case the poachers decided that now was the time to disappear into the bush. The poachers did not even try. Digging a tourist mini-van out of the mud at gunpoint seemed a sensible alternative to being shot in the back for fishing in the wrong park of the lake.

The poachers and the park workers dug and pushed, while the mini-van driver pushed the accelerator. This resulted only in spinning wheels and a deeper rut.

There was a break while the Ugandans considered the situation. Someone said something, and everyone gathered brush to throw under the tires.

This helped a little, but the mini-van still refused to budge. People sighed, rested a minute, then started pushing and digging. All of the men-except the warden and the guard-leaned on the mini-van. It nearly moved but then sank back into the mud.

Now I could see the warden leaning into the van's window, talking to the tourists. And they finally emerged in all their heavy glory. It was quite a contrast to see the large white couple against a backdrop of skinny, sweating African men, all working for the betterment of the tourists and receiving only fear as thanks.

vehicle in mud

The workers and poachers pushed again, in unison, and finally, the little mini-van's wheels gripped the mud and the van slid back onto the road.

Laughing, the warden and driver got back into the cab with me.

"We couldn't just leave them there," explained the warden.

The poachers and guard and workers and man needing a newspaper climbed back onto the pick-up truck. The guard nudged the poachers back into their submissive squats in the middle. The driver started the engine, and we continued to Masindi, where I caught the mini-bus to Kampala and comic-book productivity.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Woman and the Puss-Cat

At the end of the working day at Murchison Falls National Park, H.M. likes to come home and open up a Nile Special (local beer) and relax on the sofa on the verandah. Sometimes I use the wooden hammer with screw halfway out (Ugandan bottle opener) to pop the lid off a Coke bottle and I sit with him, ignoring the guilt the nearby laptop seems to throw my way.

On Monday night, we were just winding down from a day of work—H.M. from supervising toilet-building and electrical connecting around the park and me from coloring some Donald Duck pages—when we heard a knock on the screen door.

It was Celsius, the park electrician. He was dropping off some sort of electrical meter. H.M. invited him in for a Nile Special—Celsius opted for a Coke—and we sat down to chat.

We asked Celsius if he knew any of the teachers at the small school in the village where the park workers live. We showed him why—one of my freelance jobs is editing books about girls and horses. I had finished up a recent editing assignment and the hardcover girl-and-pony books I was carrying around were long-since read and digested. They were now deadweight. Surely the kids at the school would like some new books.

I laughed a little and blushed as I explained what they were about. In these books, horses help with crime-solving and rescuing. Kind of Lassie-horses. This could be a bit funny to kids who have never seen a horse.

H.M. speculated that the kids know what zebras are so they could figure out a horse. Celsius explained that in Africa, they have many stories of other animals doing things so it is no problem for the kids.

“For example,” he said. “There was the story they were telling today before digging the trench.”

H.M. looked puzzled.

“You know, the story of why the puss-cat is always with the woman.”

Now I looked puzzled so it was up to Celsius to tell the story.

“Once upon a time,” Celsius began, “the puss-cat lived in the forest.”

“The puss-cat is a small cat and it was not able to feed itself because the other animals took away all the food. So the puss-cat became friends with the lion. It thought that the lion was the strongest animal in the forest, so there would always be food. And the lion let the puss-cat eat the extra food when he was done.”

“Then one day along came a buffalo. And he chased away the lion and took his food. So the puss-cat became friends with the strong buffalo instead, and the buffalo let him eat his food.Now the puss-cat thought he was friends with the strongest animal.

“Then one day a man came into the forest. And he killed the buffalo for its meat. And the puss-cat said ehh, the man is stronger than the lion or the buffalo, and it attached itself to the man and became friends with the man.”

(The ehh is a noise that Ugandans make to emphasize a point.)

“Then the puss-cat knew that he really was with the strongest creature and he would always be fed. But then the man arrived home. And he laid down his spears and goods at the foot of his wife, and she let him enter the house. So then the puss-cat knew that the woman was stronger than the lion and the man, and to this day the puss-cat attaches itself to the woman.”

Saturday, August 06, 2005

A Break

It's Saturday and I am off to Murchison Falls and no Internet. Look for me to write mid-week from Masindi.

Swahili Freedom

Like every good child of the television age, I knew one word of Swahili before I ever set foot in Africa.

Uhuru. It means freedom. This might include the freedom for sexy African-American women to wear hot mini-skirts while performing their duties as communications officers on the Kirk-era Enterprise.

But Uhuru—and the three other Swahili words I know—doesn’t help me here. The problem is that there are a lot of languages in Uganda, and you don’t know who speaks Swahili and who speaks something else entirely.

Officially, the language of Uganda is English. But I have tried using my English in the mini-bus taxi and it hasn’t worked.

“Stop,” I said when I wanted to get off. My destination went sailing by. This happened several times before I clued into this: no one had any idea what I was saying.

It’s not just the difference in our accents or the interesting formal English of the Ugandan people. It’s because you don’t say “stop” when you want the minibus to stop.

You say “mah-sow.” I don’t know how it is spelled but that’s how it sounds. It means “just ahead.” Or if you want them to pull over into the next bus alcove (there’s a few of these), you say “stehge.” It’s “stage,” actually, but when I said that with a hard “a,” that didn’t work either. Say it like a Ugandan.

My name, Marie, does not work here. It doesn’t exist (or in lots of countries). Here my name is “Mary.” This has resulted in some interesting conversations. “Ah, Mary, mother of god.” Or my favorite, when the woman at the photo developing place broke into a chorus of “Mary had a little lamb.”

In Murchison Falls, I am not “H.M.’s girlfriend,” or “H.M’s partner.” No, I am his “Madame.” It is a term of respect here, not the owner of a brothel.

My favorite formal language story came from Andrea, a friend of H.M.’s from their days together in Sudan. Andrea lives up north and works with an HIV-awareness project.

One day, Andrea and her husband had to leave their Land Cruiser at the mechanic’s. A friend dropped by and asked a neighbor where she was.

“Where is Andrea?”

“She is home.”

“But the car is not here. Where is the car?”

“The car is sick and has been admitted.”

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Energy Lotto

Every Kampala resident gets to participate in a free nightly game of chance called “whose power gets cut this evening?”

Kampala is subject to rolling blackouts, for whatever reason. I think it’s because the city has clearly outgrown its infrastructure. Anyway, by plan or by accident, the end result is that sometimes the power goes out.

The power went out in Bbunga on three evenings this week, which is more than usual. Tonight I quickly turned off my Airport card and unplugged all my power-draining peripherals. Dimmed the monitor to where I could barely see anything. This helps a little, but I still need to run Photoshop and the Wacom tablet, which means I only get about 40 minutes of battery power. Kind of a bummer for deadlines. My stove is also electric so it’s pb&j on power-free nights.

My complex does have lights that run on a diesel generator. Every reputable business has its own generator.

I used up my 40 minutes of iBook battery. As usual, there was a choice of things to do at this point. I could: 1) stare at the dimly lit wall or 2) pick up my flashlight and head to the Bbunga Internet café where I could stare at the wall while waiting for Yahoo to load.

I chose the latter and stumbled up the road. I sat patiently and watched. Read a few emails and then got a new one.

“My name is Douglas. I was sitting next to you in the Internet café and I copied down your email address. I would like to have a drink with you. Please?”

Drink, visa, what’s the diff? I added silently while blocking his email address.

Another new email came in from my neighbor at home. “Building Inspection” was the subject. Oh no… they only do this once every five years and I have been planning on making a few, uh, modifications before the inspectors came. But I can’t do that from Africa! Minor panic set in as I clicked on the email and waited for the bad news to load.

Then the room went quiet except for the clicking of keyboards. The humming of the generator had stopped. The lights went out. Then the computers went off, leaving me and Douglas and a dozen Ugandans sitting in darkness.

“Sorry, madam,” said the attendant. “It is over. The generator has stopped.”

My imagination would have to go wild over the contents of the building inspection e-mail until morning. I walked out of the darkness into the slightly less dark night beyond, passing women selling grilled corn by candlelight, en route to my room for some quality staring-at-the-wall time.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Chatting in Taxis

I have an apartment in Bbunga, a suburb of Kampala. I use it when I'm not at Murchison Falls with H.M. (who doesn't smoke anymore but still looks like the German Marlboro Man) It's a sort of long-stay hotel and isn't cheap, but as an expat staying for only two months, I didn't have access to inexpensive places. Anyway, it's half the price of staying home so I can't complain.

Since I don't have a car, I use public transportation. Every day I walk up to Ggaba Road and flag down a minibus. These are called "taxis" here but some may be familiar with them as "matatus," the Swahili name popularized in Kenya. They are licensed to carry 14 passengers, one driver, and one conductor, but the local routes cram in as many as they physically can.

For 300 Ugandan shillings (.15 euros), I get a lift about 10 minutes down the road to Kabalagala. There is one of a few free Ugandan Telecom WiFi Hotspots here. (Free during the 2-month introductory period, which coincides nicely with my stay here.) The WiFi at "Chateau" doesn't let me use Mail or Outlook and doesn't let me go on any servers for FTP purposes, but about 2/3 of the time, it gets me on my e-mail. (If I want to do anything more serious, I have to get a "boda-boda," or motorbike taxi, across town to an upscale coffee shop in Lugogo.)

Public transport in Uganda is no different than public transport anywhere in one respect: no one talks to each other and we all stare straight ahead. Think riding an elevator, one that is overcrowded and has a constant soundtrack of honking and a guy yelling "Ggaba Ggaba hey" (I made up the hey but you get the point).

Every once in a while, a rebellious individual will quietly strike up a conversation. One day, the young man sitting next to me did this.

"Excuse me, are you born again?"


"Aren't you American?"

"Yes, but not all Americans are born again."

"All off the Americans in Uganda are," he said firmly.

We both returned to staring out of the window.

Monday, August 01, 2005


Welcome to my brand spanking new blog. I "blogged" a lot pre-blogging... that is, I wrote countless entries on www.mariesworldtour.com in 2001, typing in HTML in cyber cafes from places like Mongolia, Zambia, and East Timor.

Post MariesWorldTour.com (a year around the world by local transport), I struggled to get back into normal life for a while with mixed results. Problem was, I didn't really want a normal life. I moved to Australia for a while, camped across the US, lived in Australia again, back to NYC and then a new home in nearby Jersey City (currently rented to cover costs). Last autumn, I lived in Barcelona until the dollar sunk against the euro and I scampered home.

I don't really have an income, so I pick up freelance coloring and editing work when I can. It's not enough but being out of the workforce for four years has a way of making one both unemployable and unwilling to be employed. I wrote a few guidebooks over the last few years and am currently writing a travel narrative book about the Africa section of MariesWorldTour.com for Seal Press.

The point of this blog is to document my daily life here in Uganda, where I am living for a few months before I move to Namibia. I have an apartment in Kampala, but spend half my time with a Bavarian and some wart hogs in Murchison Falls National Park. Readers of MariesWorldTour.com will know the Bavarian as Herr Marlboro from the Sudan to Egypt ferry. He is working with the German Development Service and the Uganda Wildlife Authority on rehabilitating the infrastructure of the park. I am working on a book, but the truth is that so far all I've done is panic about overdue comic book coloring and girl-and-pony-book editing. And then once in a while, I look up from the laptop (Schleptop in German) and notice, "Hey, I'm in Africa." Cool.