Thursday, April 19, 2007

moving day

the africa blog is moving to

almost everything from this site and from philsgoodphoto is there now. this is the prelude to a full redesign of

please update your bookmarks or point your newsreaders to the new address, if you're hip to that jive.

thanks for checking in!


Monday, April 09, 2007

queen elizabeth national park

we have returned from a 6-day trip to queen elizabeth national park in western uganda. it was our first time there and it did not disappoint. every day was a 6something am wake up to view game or birds or drive to the next place so i don't have the energy just now to go into full detail, but here are some tidbits:

-click here
-or click the phil's photo blog link to the right
-or type or copy and paste into your browser
to see some photos from the trip and to read my comments about each.

-the drive was half as long time-wise as we were expecting. good roads all the way to qenp.
-amazing first-view overlook of the great rift valley on the drive there. kinda like seeing machu pichu for the first time from the sun gate.
-we're east african residents now, so we get the good rate for park entry fees.
-in total we identified 50 new bird species on this trip. black bee-eater was a highlight.
-we met up with friends erin & drew for two nights and a day. fun to share our new country with friends from home!
-a hippo showed up at dinner literally within arms reach of the deck with the outdoor dining. it just mowed the grass of the lawn as all the guests oohed and aahed.
-the ishasha sector of the park was my fave, but the road to get there is terrible. i may not go back because of that road, and it had the best landscape and wild life. more cats down there, though.
-lions! we cat people saw our first cats in the wild. we wanted to rub their tummies.
-we were bluff-charged by a huge (is there any other kind?) bull elephant shortly after i said that we were going to make it angry by continuously pulling ahead and cutting off its route. paige is screaming at me to drive as i'm trying to get the photo. in fairness to her, it was on her side of the car though i'm sure his tusks would have reached to the driver's seat, too.
-i got elsie (LC, land cruiser, our car) stuck for the first time. fortunately, close to park hq so it didn't take too long to get a tow. the differential was on a rock, so neither back tire was carrying weight.
-speaking of elsie, the aforementioned road was so rough that the bouncing severed the exhaust pipe from the manifold. we made a lot of noise on the drive home. all the windows open to avoid CO poisoning.
-and while we're on the subject, uganda is in a bit of a diesel shortage. so we had a bit of a tense drive around the south of qenp, running on fumes, tracking down some fuel. if the fourth and final pump that we had come to had been empty, we would have been stuck until a tanker came to town. this is around 100km from the next closest pump.
-that's the most of it. check out pics on philsgoodphoto.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa

i've been lethargic in my reading lately. i think it has a lot to do with phil being home. i read a lot more when he's gone, which explains why i have a new book review since i read a lot when he was in scandanavia last month.

abyssinian chronicles is one of the few (only?) books written by a ugandan about uganda. uganda is the lesser known sister of the e. african trio - kenya, tanzania, uganda. kenya and tanzania get much more attention in the popular press because of "better" tourism, stronger economy (kenya), or famous islands (tanzania). uganda is known for idi amin and maybe its gorillas. to find a novel set in uganda is rare, especially one that's not all about amin (last king of scotland) or gorillas (gorillas in the mist...sort of uganda and not really a novel, but you get my point).

i really enjoyed abyssinian chronicles. the story was good, but even more fun was reading a book that was set right out my backdoor - literally. minneapolis isn't a hotspot as a setting for novels and neither is kampala for that matter, so any books that are set in either place feel very personal. as if i'm one of a very few who are able to connect directly with the book having lived in that neighborhood, having driven on that road, having shopped in that market. that's how it was with abyssinian chronicles.

isegawa's prose is often reminescent of gabriel garcia marquez - i guess i'm not the only one who thinks that considering the back of the book jacket says "like an african one hundred years of solitude" - with its flowery magical descriptions of everyday events. the beginning of the book dragged for me as it was more the uber-detailed story of a young boy's life than about uganda, but by the middle i was engrossed. i liked reading fiction about the 1980s guerrilla insurgency and later the onset of HIV/AIDS (two seminal events in modern ugandan history) in familiar places like masaka. i could connect to the events on a more personal level, identifying with the places and the characters.

i felt like isegawa sometimes got caught up in his overly analogous, metaphorical language, which left me wondering what he was really talking about for sentences on end, but in the end his accurate portrayal of life in uganda (kampala, village and the in-between) leaves this on the top of my recommended-reading-if-you're-traveling-to-uganda list.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

first-time party hosts

we've been together close to 7 years, living together for 3 1/2 and we've never lived in a place where we could truly throw a party. we do now, so yesterday we threw a going-away party for our friends chris and lindsey.

new year's eve 2003-2004 i tried to throw a party at our apartment in mpls. 6 guests - 2 didn't show and the other 4 came 5 minutes before midnight. i'd made food and snacks, bought drinks, cleaned and decorated the house. it was a huge disappointment for me and definitely made me "once biten, twice shy." the night wasn't a total bust luckily, we salvaged it by hanging out with my brother and sister and extras, but i certainly wasn't going to jump back into hosting any parties anytime soon.

my only past successful excursions into playing hostess came at the cabin. there was a stretch during our last 2 years in mpls where we regularly had friends to the cabin for long weekends - it's easy to entertain at a place that has built-in entertainment. i'll be excited to reinstate the weekends at the cabin once we're back in mn.

new year's '03-'04 was in the back of my mind yesterday as we waited for guests to show up. the first hour ticked by with no one. argh - not again! alas, history wasn't going to repeat itself and the party turned out to be a huge hit. all told we had something like 35 people, the first ones arriving at 1ish in the afternoon, the last ones leaving at 1ish at night. i really think it's all about the location. our patio is perfect for chatting, the garden is great for kids and games, the main room in the house is a good conversation starter with its dramatic ceiling and expansive view of the city.

hosting a party in africa is the way to go, i'm telling you. you have a cleaner to clean the house before, a husband to do all the grocery shopping, a cook to cook an amazing spread of food, a cleaner to clean the house after. none of which will break the bank. all i did was invite people and enjoy the party. i know, i have such a tough life.


introducing ttaano

the latest addition to the anderson bowen household is a tiny black and white cutie in the form of a 6-week old kitten that we've dubbed ttaano (pronounced ta-no) - luganda for 5. over the years there've been stray cats and dogs between uno and ttaano which accounted for 2, 3, and 4. yes, we're very creative with our naming scheme.

driving up mbuya hill on monday we passed a potentially sleeping, potentially dead kitten lying on the side of the road. phil was unanimously elected as the one to investigate since i wouldn't do so well finding a mangled kitten on the side of the road. lucky for all of us, ttaano was curled in a ball sleeping and responded with furtive, well-bellied meows to phil's tsk tsks. little did we know that those first meows were an indication of ttaano's persistent propensity for talking. so unlike quiet, observant uno. we're hoping ttaano grows out of his chatty cathy phase as he grows bigger.

the uno / ttaano introduction was drawn out over the first week - first to not stress uno, second to make sure ttaano didn't have any crazy infectious disease. uno is tolerant but cautious and is the one to run away when ttaano tries to get too much affection rubbing uno's belly. once uno figures out that he's 10 times bigger than ttaano, i'm hoping that he relaxes back to his regular laid-back, content self.

we're not commiting ourselves to being a two-cat household, yet. right now it's a waiting game to see how uno adapts. i anticipate though that the longer we wait, the harder it'll be to send ttaano away.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

this post has no title

i'm back in uganda after almost two weeks in norway and sweden. it was definitely a worthwhile trip in terms of ski racing photography and maintaining my contact to the nordic ski world. i had more tourist time than last year's trip, too, so i got to see some good sights in oslo and stockholm. and i went for a ski! if i hadn't, this would be the first year completely off snow since my first ski in 1979. and i bet i would have started sooner [than age 5] if we hadn't lived in arizona. i skated the 16.7km loop at holmenkollen, having a hard time imagining racing it 3 times around. but having an easy time wishing that i were in shape so i could do that (race it for real) again.

i'm glad that i found ski racing and that i had enough sense to pursue it for real, because i think it is what i was meant to do. not everyone finds what they were meant to do. sometimes i would think that ultimate was the sport for me and there were times when that was true. i was really good at it, but sporadically. and i never lead a team to a championship. which is a good thing to do if you're a really good player in a team sport. i had a great tournament at nationals my senior year of college and i owned alumni game for three or four years afterwards, but yeah, glory days. once in high school i was banging golf balls around in the field behind the school. walking back to kris's house i pointed at the 8-inch diameter trash can hanging on the chain-link fence around the tennis courts. it was about 50 yards away and i said "trash can." i dropped the ball on the ground, and dropped a 9-iron into the bottom of the trash can. but that doesn't make me a great golfer.

so anyway, skiing. the lifestyle suits me. i'm very good at relaxing and doing nothing, which can be a huge benefit for nordic ski training. and as long as i had a coach telling me what to do, my work ethic was impeccable. there are a lot of stories of type a athletes overdoing it, not resting enough, getting sick and not backing down. there are also stories of lazy athletes who never worked hard enough to get there. but i think most of the top tier xc ski athletes i've met are people that are able to turn it on in training and turn it off at all other times. people who's energy does not make you nervous to be around them.

skiing is solitary and i'm all about self-reliance. no, really, i am. but you need a big support staff to be successful and you need to communicate well with them. and i'm definitely social enough to work well with others. that said, i really like knowing that out on the road or the trails or on the race course, it's all about me. team sports have their pluses. to sacrifice together and succeed together, that's a tough feeling to top. but i don't know, because i never won a championship. i was 6 points and 3 points away in the two games i was involved in. so it kinda felt more like sacrifice than success. not that that's a bad thing. i never won a ski championship either, but there were a number of times that i finished a race with nothing left and knew i had done my best that day. and not once had the long trail runs through the forests in northern MN felt like sacrifice. team sports are so win/lose, and even if you win you can feel like crap because you didn't play well.

but skiing, that's the sport for me. and i'm lucky, because unlike ultimate, i'll get to do it til the day i die. the mimeographed sheet that coach horak passed around on the first day of high school practice in november always said "cross country skiing is a life long sport."

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

last king of scotland - the movie

last king of scotland premiered in uganda right around the time seth arrived in town...about 5 weeks ago. it was a big deal - forest whittaker was here, there was a red carpet at garden city. we didn't have enough connections - although we do know the bbc correspondent - to get us to the premiere, but i wasn't going to miss the chance to see the film. this is the first movie about uganda filmed in uganda, and i'm in uganda. i had to see it.

i am proud and grateful that the movie was filmed in uganda because years down the road i can watch it again and see uganda as it is. uganda scenery, uganda people, uganda idiosyncracies that are so familiar. i wish it had been a movie with a more uplifting plot, but as seth pointed out there are probably 100 countries that have never been a hollywood filming location. so, i'm happy i at least got something because it's true - some of the scenes, especially in the beginning, are very quintessential uganda.

knowing only the peripheral history of amin (this movie compels me to learn more), i cannot comment much on the in/accuracy of his portrayal. even so, i think the movie does a good job of tracing amin's trajectory from beloved savior to quirky paternalistic leader to sadistic despot. although dr. nicholas garrigan is a completely fictional character, he is a good stand-in for illustrating how ugandans were caught up in and affected by amin's transformation over his 8 years of power. in the beginning, amin brought nicholas into his inner circle, impressed him with his charm and magnetism. eventually, amin drew a line between those on his side and those against, taking care of his own. he terrorized the country, but sheltered nicholas from the bloodshed. by the end, however, very few were sheltered and all were in danger, including his former most trusted personal advisor.

the end of the movie is intense and at turns made me cringe and at others made me want to cry, not because of the torture suffered by nicholas but because of the atrocities suffered by uganda under amin. most understated line of the film: "there is too much hatred. our country is drowning in it."

i appreciated the movie for forcing me to think more closely about uganda's history and politics. the other night at dinner, our visiting friend erin asked my opinion of museveni. i wasn't able to say much other than that i felt he missed his chance to be a leader among african leaders when he rewrote the constitution to authorize himself to seek another term as president. otherwise, i am pretty uninformed. i am starkly reminded of nicholas and his naivete when he off-handedly says to sarah, "right, obote. he was the guy here before, and now it's what's his name? oh right, amin." i have a colleague who grew up in the congo and now devotes her professional career to working in africa. i asked her about her reactions to the film. she said that she felt it was a good portrayal of how westerners unknowningly affect local situations negatively because they fail to do their pre-homework.

prior to discovering npr, i was essentially tuned out of the political scene in the u.s. once i became an npr convert, however, i at least could talk the talk and form my own informed opinions. here, in uganda, i get all of my news and current events from bbc world. bbc world is good and there is a bbc africa segment, but overall the programming is not uganda specific and i continue to be somewhat unaware politically. i don't want to be another oblivious dr. nicholas garrigan, so i am hereby committing myself to investing more time into staying up-to-date. first step, read the local newspapers (there are two: one pro-museveni, one not-so-pro-museveni) more regularly.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

ultimate, post-7HC

sunday pickup was fun for me tonight for the first time in a good 1.5 months. following the tournament (see 7HC), maybe i was a little burned out. i'm struggling with the constant restart - this is a forehand, this is a stack, this is a cut - that comes from having new players every week. i would love to coach a core group of 15 players. that core of 15 would be a-mazing; we have some serious athletes with serious skill playing with us and i daydream about the possibilities of ultimate greatness... but, in reality, i have yet to find a suitable method of separating the 15 from the rest while still supporting the remaining players to learn and have fun.

i'm excited that we've built our club up to 45+ players, but i've been discouraged in not feeling like i've made any progress in skills-building, spirit-teaching, strategy-coaching. then, tonight comes along and my motivation is rejuvenated. no different than in the u.s., we're in need of fields. our former home (kampala rugby club) is no longer available (rugby drama stirred up by emma being traded from the rhinos to the pirates; the kampala rugby club pitch is controlled by a high-up member of the rhinos hierarchy, who's now feeling stiffed by emma...drama), so for the past two weeks we've been homeless. tonight we shared a pitch with a volleyball tournament, no room for a full field but enough to play a box game and mini. because we were hard to find, for the first hour of training i was blessed with 10 players and i was actually able to teach something (the buttonhook cut) and run a great drill (flygirl). we then played a series of 4-minute 3 v. 3 games in the box where 7 completed throws in a row counted as one point. everyone loved it. next, as more players trickled in, we played a series of 3-minute 5 v. 5 make-it-take-it games on a 40 x 25 yard field with 15 yard endzones. again, everyone loved it. success for one night.

next weekend is centex - the perennial start to the paige/phil coaching season. i'm feeling very nostalgic for syzygy, so it was good timing to have a rewarding coaching experience tonight. sometimes i feel like i'm pushing against the river, but tonight i did no pushing.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

today's answer is employment

i recently wrote about the influx of people looking for jobs now that we've advertised the location of our offices. i may have unintentionally sounded frustrated...seeming to say, "please, stop - no more!" then, yesterday i was reminded of the unique position i am in to make a difference. we talk a lot about sustainability in development work - there is a lot of money now to do x, y, and z but what happens when the project funding ends in 1, 2, 3 years? i'm not convinced a lot of the time that all of the money and investment dropped into development produces results. strategies may make positive change in the short-term, but how do we make long-lasting change and truly create a world free of poverty, death from preventable disease, and abject despair?

you can argue (and i have) about what entry point is the best for solving the development conundrum, whether it's health, education, economic, environmental. obviously i've made my choice, but i don't deny that all are necessary and you can't have one without the other. for example, the longer a girl stays in school, the more likely she is to delay having sex, which increases her age at first birth, decreases the total number of children she will have, which then decreases her risk for maternal death and decreases the risk of her children dying before 5 years. likewise, the older she is before sex, the less likely she is to practice risky sexual behavior, which decreases her risk of HIV/AIDS. all because she stayed in school. plus, now that she has an education, she can find a more stable, more skilled job, earn more money, and have the resources to send her own children to school. the cycle continues.

i work in public health treating communities, but today i am convinced that the best thing you can do for an individual person is to give them a job. employ someone, pay him, and enable him to help himself. income is money to feed his family, send his kids to school, buy a suitable home, go to the doctor when sick. the psychology of dependence that is created thru give-aways compels me to shy away from blatant charity. employment, on the other hand, allows a person to be independent and build pride in his work and himself.

i am proud to say that personally phil and i employ three people - robert, mary, and sam. it probably seems indulgent from a western-perspective to have so many staff. maybe it is - really, we probably don't need all the help we have. we don't see it as self-indulgent, though. yes, we're lucky but the really lucky ones are robert, mary, and sam who have full-time, well-paid jobs working for (we like to think) nice employers.

i wish i could hire everyone that comes knocking on our door, but i can't. we hardly have enough work to keep our trio occupied. we don't need our house cleaned 2x a week (1x per a week is plenty), i don't need someone to drive me around town (i am perfectly capable of driving myself). but, robert is married with three girls, sam is married with three boys, and mary is raising more than 6 kids - some her own, some left behind by her brother who was killed last fall in a road accident. without work from us, what would they do? they'd piecemeal a livelihood together and they'd survive, but it'd be much harder.

i just said they're really lucky and we're just lucky...our luck came in finding such great people to hire. mary came to us through a reference from a friend, both robert and sam took their own initiatives. driving up mbuya hill some months ago on a sightseeing trip, we stopped to admire the view. robert walked right up to our car and handed us his resume. we didn't have any jobs at the time, but were impressed by his courage and remembered him when we did have a job. i met sam within the first weeks we were in the country when i was renting a "special hire" car most days for work. sam drove me a couple of times, the last time giving me his phone number and saying he'd like a job with an NGO if i ever had one to give. when i did, i called him up. we used to have a cook, too. we don't employ barbara anymore, but that's because we helped pay for her to go to cuba where she is studying at university on a 6-year scholarship sponsored jointly by the cuban and ugandan governments.

sam surprised me the other day when he refused to let me pay him. i wouldn't take no for an answer (i was stunned, in fact), so prodded him until he told me he didn't want to be paid until he had his new bank account ready because he wanted to deposit the money directly into the bank. i pay him $145 per month and he pays $60 per term for his son's school fees, and he didn't want to be paid without an open bank account because he didn't want the money in his pockets where it could be spent inadvertently. our short conversation solidified my conclusion that i'd hired the right guy.

phil and i have decided to take our commitment to our staff one step further and have agreed with robert that we will pay his daughter's school fees. kate is 5 years old and just old enough to start kindergarten next term. i am a huge proponent of on-time and consistent schooling, as evidenced by my interpretation of the education-health-employment cycle. so many kids in uganda start school late or are forced to take 2-3 years off here or there due to lack of resources to pay for school fees and uniforms and supplies or because a parent dies from HIV/AIDS or because the family needs that child at home to work. i don't want that inconsistency and insecurity to plague kate in her education.

sam tells me that he doesn't like universal primary education (UPE - president museveni's plan for free primary education for all ugandan children) because the quality of education is low: classrooms have 50+ students for one teacher, the school buildings are run-down, the resources just aren't available. plus, even though the education is supposedly free, you still have to buy the uniform for the child to attend class. robert and i agreed that he should choose the school that he thinks is best for kate and that, although we will be giving him the money for the school fees and uniform, he should be the one to pay the school and purchase the supplies, not us. i want to leave the autonomy and control in his hands. we're just the enablers.

a few days ago, a co-worker from headquarters who was in country told me that her favorite thing to do while abroad is to hire people. she is so right - hiring people is far and away the best thing i've done while living here.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007


following the tradition of NGOs in africa, we recently installed road signs pointing the way to our offices. added visibility is good for the organization. an unforseen but expected consequence, however, is that the signs bring people knocking at the door looking for a job. robert, our guard/gardener, tells me that in the days since the signs went up he has "too many!" visitors asking for jobs.

when we first moved in, pre-signs, several people stopped by with credentials (resumes, recommendations, employment history) looking for jobs as cleaners, cooks, gardeners. one woman visited with her small daughter asking for school fees. the new mzungus were in the neighborhood and everyone knows that we employ. now post-signs, everyone knows that NGOs employ and they've redoubled their attempts to find gainful employment.

they're even looking for a job at 7:45am on a saturday morning. no joke. the painfully high unemployment here compels people to be excruciatingly persistant and dedicated so that they are the ones that get lucky this time. but, then when i'm hiring for professional positions, i spend months recruiting trying to find qualified people to no avail. it's a dichotomy that i'm grappling with now as more and more people come knocking for jobs i don't have and no one shows for those jobs that i do.

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uno teaches me a lesson

uno's in high heaven here. for the first time since he was 7 months old he gets to go outside and he loves it. our new house in mbuya has an enourmous yard ("garden" in uganda-speak) with lots of vegetation and animal life to explore and - to our comfort - comes replete with a solid, high wall. so far uno hasn't discovered an escape route, although we know it's there evidenced by the stray cat that wanders into the yard some nights. the rule is that when the sun goes down, uno comes in. he abides by the rule pretty well and often will find his own way into the house just as the sun is setting. but, when the sun is high, his days are full of sprinting at phil's camera, lounging on the patio, climbing trees, rubbing his face on the scratchy asphalt, eating the papyrus, and...hunting...

i love all of his new found freedom, except the hunting. i'm still struggling with his transformation from my sweet, cuddly uno cat to my stealthy, ruthless hunter cat. i was proud of his cockroach catches, i tolerated his running tally of tailless geckos, but i'm not so good with his recent habit of preying on moles. moles are rodents. i don't like rodents. i especially don't like rodents when they're being deposited at the foot of my bed dead. yuck.

it's phil's job to recognize uno's triumphant trot-trot-trot and jingling collar bell as he returns to the house prey-in-mouth. it's also phil's job to get uno to drop his catch and return the poor creature outside. now that phil's gone (he's in scandanavia shooting pics), i'm not so keen on taking over his job responsibilities. so, phil's first day gone, uno got sidelined from the outside.

i knew it was going to be rough, but i was determined to stick it out. he went from happy, affectionate cat trying to coax me to caving in to a crying, insistent cat begging me to a quiet, reserved cat guilting me. i thought i had won the test of wills when seth and i left for sunday ultimate, so i (naively) left the door open and the gate closed. the gate has chicken wire the length of it so that uno can see outside but he can't go outside. or so i thought. he somehow squeezed, contorted, and pushed his way thru the one spot he could fit himself. freedom!

i got home from practice and found no uno; i knew immediately that uno had stuck one to me saying to himself, "beware if you do this to your kids someday." touche, i say, lesson learned. if kids want to do something badly enough, they're going to do it. if you tell them no with no explanation why not and cut them off cold turkey, they're still going to do it. simple as that. i'm going to write a book called: all i really need to know i learned from my cat, uno.


Monday, March 12, 2007

hei from scandinavia

i arrived in stockholm yesterday morning, and after purchasing my train ticket and stowing my stuff in a locker, spent the day bumming around the city. i slept in a bed on the overnight train from stockholm to oslo, and today is a lot like yesterday. my stuff is in a locker at the oslo train station and i'm bumming around the city. this afternoon i'll catch a bus across town to the hotel that i'll be in for the next week.

i'm here doing the same thing that i did last year at this time: following the scandinavian spring world cup xc skiing circuit and taking photos. i'll post photos on my photo blog as well as photos and stories on i only wrote one story about last year's experience, but hopefully i can put some more things together this year. i have more time this year, which i'd like to fill with skiing and tourism in addition to more ski racing content.

it's fun to be in the cities yesterday and today. and holy cow different from africa. there are all the obvious differences of climate, infrastructure, skin color, lack of pollution, that kind of thing. but the first thing i noticed (ok, the second thing - the first thing i noticed was that it was noon and the shadows were longer than the object casting them were tall. right now on the equator, the sun is straight up.) the second thing i noticed was that graffiti covered everything. no surface in stockhom is sacred, except maybe the life-size dala horse at city hall. and along with the graffiti, i noticed all the teenagers. counterculture had run amok. posses of goths, skate punks, hyper soccer kids, cell phone girls, you name it, the standard teenager dressed in the colors of rebellion. know that i'm not trying to discourage. i was every one of those groups in my youth. but the reason they all stood out to me right away here is that i don't think that there are any teenagers, per se, in kampala.

in uganda there is no childhood; you go straight from toddler to adult. we see four year-olds on the side of the road carrying jerry cans of water home from the bore hole. the kids there don't have the time or the income to rebel, they're busy just surviving.

seeing all the counterculture here in scandinavia made me wonder about the future of uganda in terms of its youth. maybe all that graffiti and rebellion and attempted individuality is healthy for a society, and helps keep the adults in check? if the kids are unhappy, maybe they'll grow up wanting to do something about it. i don't know if that's the case in uganda. maybe i haven't been there long enough to recognize it, but i sure don't think i've seen any counterculture in kampala. i don't know if that's what keeps a president in office for 20 years, but it sure can't hurt.

paige and i have always commented on how happy the children are in uganda. they have nothing and they are always happy. now after seeing scandinavia with its ideal quality of life and its rebellious teenagers, i wonder if that's a good thing.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

do you value your life?

this happened in december, but it was just before our trip to rwanda, so it got lost in the shuffle of christmas, travel, guests and gorillas. it's probably the story that i tell the most here, though, (now eclipsed by bin laden's urine-mud balls) so i should get around to blogging it.

i enjoy driving around the city and i like the lack of rules of the road, or to put it another way, i like the one rule which is this: right-of-way belongs to the aggressive. actually, aggressive might be too strong a word, i wouldn't describe very many people here as aggressive. assertive. right of way belongs to the assertive. other than that, there aren't really any rules. this is changing, though. traffic lights are just starting to pop up in anticipation of the queen's visit in november. and lines are getting painted on the roads, though they only last a few days.

all around the city, police stand alongside the road and when they want to talk to you they'll take a step out and wave you down. it was my experience that the things they were concerned about dealt mostly with licenses, insurance, paperwork, that sort of thing. "your number plate is mounted too high on your bumper, i can write you a ticket or maybe you can settle this now." 10,000=/ (US $5.50) later, you drive off without having to deal with a ticket, and the policeman has just doubled his day's salary.

anyway. december. in downtown kampala, we dropped off tait and estela at the bank so they could get some cash. we drove around looking for parking or if none was to be found, just do laps until they were done. laps it was. when they came out of the bank, we were on the other side of the street, and unable to get their attention, i did a u-turn at the intersection to get over to the bank. when i stopped at the curb, a policeman came up and started talking, i thought telling me i couldn't park there. as it turns out he was telling us that the u-turn i just did was illegal.

paige pipes up: "there is no sign there!" "yes, but you can not turn there." so i'm getting ready to pay my way out of this and be on our way. but the policeman is young, and apparently hasn't yet realized or been taught that he could walk away 5,000=/ the richer. he tells us we have two options. he can write us a ticket and we can go to court the next day or we can go to the police station now. i spend the next one and a half seconds imagining how impossibly slow a ugandan court must be, so decide that we would go to the police station now. ok, i will go with you. uh, you want to drive? no (big smile) i will ride in back. so paige gets out, he takes off his helmet and ducks into the back seat. we make small talk on the way to the station, maybe six blocks away.

the police station has posters depicting car wrecks, smokers' bodies made up of a collage of photos of smoking-destroyed organs, and blackboards with grids showing the week-by-week number of accidents, fatalities, hit and runs, etc. hint: don't be a pedestrian or ride a motorcycle in kampala. our policeman, who had donned his white helmet immediately upon exiting our car, dropped us at the motor vehicle office and it was at this point that i realized that tait and estela were still at the bank and this could take just as long as a day in court. though no sooner had i thought it, than someone said we could see the chief now.

if our policeman looked young and green, the motor vehicle chief was at the other end of the spectrum. not that he was old, but that he looked like a uniformed african official that you didn't want to f with. we sat down and he said,
"what is your problem?"
"well, the policeman told us that we made an illegal u-turn, so we came here."
"where were you?"
"on kampala road, opposite barclay's."
"there is no sign there."
paige pipes up: "that's what i said!"

the chief proceeds to draw us an incredibly accurate map of the intersection and exactly what happened, which other lanes of traffic were stopped, which were moving, when i made the u-turn to the right, the works. he nailed it, i didn't have to describe a thing.
"there should be a sign there. there is no sign."
a pause while he marks the spot on the map. looking up,
"do you value your life?"
not the question you want to hear in a ugandan police station.
"so many drivers here, they do not value their lives. going here, there, it is dangerous."
the grids on the blackboard prove that last point. i tell him that i am a careful driver and that i do in fact value my life. he hints at a smile.
"you can go".

and we are off. i bet it was maybe 15 minutes from when we almost picked up tait and estela to when we actually did get them. by far the most efficient example of ugandan authority that we have encountered here. and i was pretty psyched to see that there were police that were playing by the book and not content to just pad their pockets. hopefully (though i doubt it) they're getting paid enough now that they aren't looking for extras.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

on assignment

i have started taking on some photo and design projects. it's nice to get some income (new lens, trip to scandinavia) and i imagine that international experience will look ok on the CV and help round out the portfolio when/if i apply for photo jobs. really though, it's just a big learning experience all around. there are technical issues - black skin and equatorial sunshine is a difficult combination for correct exposure. there are political issues - a sudanese mentioned that "if you want us to relate to the photo promoting mosquito nets, you better show it hanging from under a truck, because that's where we sleep." there are cultural issues - in uganda alone are there a large number of tribes with different dress and language, and promotional and aid materials need to have relevance to each. and on and on.

my first big project was a family planning calendar for paige's organization. they had a number of sayings to promote family planning, so my job was to photograph scenes depicting those sayings and put a calendar together with the photos. their main health educator did a great job of setting up the shots and getting the models together and all the other things that would have been way over my head. he took care of things like making sure that the skin colors on the husband/wife and child made them look like they were related and from the right tribe, making sure the settings fit the income level of the people we were trying to portray and the target audience, getting the costume right. he has worked for some 10+ years in the communities that this calendar will target, so he knew what would work and what wouldn't in terms of getting the message across to the audience. all i had to do was make photos. which is as it should be i guess. i had fun with the models - a lot of community-based health education here is done with drama troupes, so we had a great group of actors to play the scenes.

here is a .pdf of the calendar
. it's 4MB so you and your connection speed can decide if you want to just open it or right click and "save as".

over the past week i did two days of photoshoots for a health commnications NGO working on a campaign on malaria prevention education. especially after how smoothly the calendar project went, this definitely seemed like an exercise on how not to run a photo shoot. coming in to it, i thought i was just going to be shooting pregnant women, children and families of different ethnicities sleeping under a mosquito net. as it turned out, there were a number of different scenes to shoot, many involving young kids, and many outdoors. getting a kid to not stare at the mzungu taking his picture with $3000 of shiny camera equipment is yeah a challenge. i had to shoot outdoors in sun directly overhead, in clinics where they tried to shoo the actual sick people out of the waiting room so we could use it, all while trying to accurately depict africans of 11 different nationalities and who knows how many ethnicities.

to put that last point in a perspective americans might relate too: "you need a photo of a sioux indian in his home? here is an inuit model, that's the same right? they're all native americans."

the boy child was completely out of control and never made it in to any photos. one of the actors took to calling him bin laden. "he is a little terrorist!" bin laden's crowning achievement was wetting himself while playing in the dirt parking lot, making mud balls out of the urine-soaked dirt, and then throwing them at us. it was hilarious i think in part because it was so completely opposite the demeanor or behavior of every other african child i've seen or met. the happiest kids anywhere.

the shoot coordinator had come from a commercial advertising background and definitely didn't have the experience that paige's health educator had in depicting accurate scenes. i was taking the stance of "i'm the photographer, i just take the photos." that attitude was great for the calendar because the director knew his stuff, but this time i didn't trust that what i was shooting was correct. i spent the day thinking that i was going to have to re-shoot all the scenes with competent art direction or that the photos i took were actually going to get used and would have no positive effect at all. lose/lose.

i got through it unscathed and am happy, visually, with enough of the photos but i'm still not sure whether they will work for what the NGO has in mind. we'll see.

a couple photos from the days of shooting are over at

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Monday, February 26, 2007

rafting on the nile

uganda's main tourism attraction in terms of people and dollars is the wildlife and landscape and safari sort of thing. but there is also a bit of new zealand-esque adventure sport scene centered around jinja, the source of the white nile on lake victoria. last weekend was our first foray into this scene, and definitely a memorable one. jinja is only an hour and a half from kampala, but we hadn't been there yet even though there is a well-reviewed mexican restaurant there (none in kampala).

we did a one-day trip with nalubale rafting company and i would recommend them again, for sure. the trip is 29 km and goes over some 12 rapids, equal parts class 3, 4 and 5, and at least one class 6 that we have to portage around because it's not legal for commercial groups to run class 6. for good reason.

in terms of whitewater, one of the nile's defining characteristics is how safe it is. it's really deep so rocks generally aren't a problem, and it's dam-fed so the water level never really fluctuates seasonally. no crocs, hippos or sketchy parasites, either. that's all hard to remember when the raft flips and you're being tossed around underwater, feeling like you're at the whim of the river. we wear helmets though, and as long as you don't panic and can hold our breath for 5 seconds, the life jackets do their job of getting you back to the surface.

we had two rafts with 6 folks and a guide or two in each. the guides were canadian and just as you would expect career river rafting guides to be. they quoted south park and team america. there were also a few ugandans in the entourage in river kayaks and a raft fit with oars. these were the safety boats, and these guys had unreal upper bodies. i felt safe. midway through the trip i asked our guide, who had seven years experience guiding, what the gnarliest injury one of his clients had had. he said, "you mean besides dying?" oh.

the not-so-fun part of the trip was before we had even left the bay where we put in to the river. we were practicing our paddling and doing some capsizing and rescues and stuff. so it was the very first time that i was in the water and learning to get back in to the boat by grabbing the line that runs around the gunnel (if you call it that on an inflatable raft) and hoisting yourself up like getting out of a pool while someone pulls the shoulders of your life jacket. anyway, i went in the boat, but my wedding ring did not. i didn't tell paige because i didn't want to make the trip sad for her. but we're somewhat over it now, and i like to think that my ring will be found by a hobbit and make some kind of journey that changes the course of the events of our time.

when we left MN for africa, i finished the insurance paperwork for our wedding and engagement rings in the MSP business office just before we boarded our flight. between my two knee surgeries (among other things medical) and now this, i'm definitely beating the house at insurance. just my little way of sticking it to the man.

back to rafting, paige and i each exited the raft 3 times and only one of those times wasn't entirely fun. the last time i went under i was really glad that i had been under a couple times before because it was deep and it felt like a long time. but i just hung out knowing that life jackets float and it would do its job. one kayaker documented the trip on video and we will have a dvd of the action. we stopped mid-day for an excellent lunch at a somewhat posh lodge and i think paige and i will definitely go back there for a little vacation. watching some of the ugandan guys running class 5+ in river kayaks was awesome. river kayaking had never appealed to me until seeing that. they were doing all sorts of rodeo moves, too, that looked like a lot of fun.

there is probably more that i'm not thinking of, but for sure a good time was had by all. that all included me and paige, seth who is here for some months, chris who is about to do his PhD vive voce, lindsey who will soon be leaving us, emily who we may convince to stay, and simon who is on the lake vitoria tour researching the world bank for his PhD.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

carleton in the embassy

i was at the embassy today for a meeting at usaid. being in the embassy is a crazy experience because as soon as you pass thru security you are in the u.s. no joke. familiar things everywhere – the soap dispenser in the bathrooms, the library with a wall poster of mlk, the standard office furniture. i got to my meeting 30 minutes early, so i had time to kill. i’m a punctual person by habit, a habit that can’t be broken by the standard ugandan habit of being late to everything, and i never know how long it’s going to take to get thru the multiple layers of security. supposedly the u.s. embassy in uganda was also on the list of targets when the dar and nairobi embassies got bombed some years back; the embassy here was relocated and is now a fortress on the hill. you need an escort o get thru the final layer of security, but interestingly enough the security guards and marines didn’t mind me wandering around in the embassy waiting for my escort. i found a cool (literally cool – the embassy is one of the only climate-controlled buildings in all of uganda) hallway with lots of art pieces from the embassy’s permanent collection. my wandering eventually took me to an offshoot hallway dedicated to u.s. colleges. there were four wall-sized maps of the u.s. (south, northeast, midwest, northwest) showing all of the cads (whatever that is) colleges/universities in those areas. also on the wall was a poster board advertising specific colleges. looking at the seven colleges that made the selective board i was thinking to myself how cool it would be if carleton was there. to my pride, sure enough there was carleton front and center. there i was standing in the middle of the u.s. embassy in kampala unexpectedly staring at a picture of the skinner memorial chapel in autumn. if you know carleton, you know the picture. of all the colleges in the u.s. seven (seven!) had posters hanging in the embassy and carleton was one of them. i’ll brag about that.

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