In which I write an actual blog about what I’m doing in Uganda

It occurred to me that I’ve now been in Uganda for two weeks and I’ve yet to write anything about what I’m actually doing here.

First off, my living arrangements. I’m staying in a house that has been in the hands of one graduate student or another for years. The Ugandans in the area – Nguru – where we are staying know it is as the “Mzungu House”; basically, the “white people” house, an oasis of wealth in a sea of poverty. Even though the five-or-so constantly rotating residents are students, so not particularly wealthy, we employ three people full-time. We have a maid that does our dishes and laundry and cleans, and two round-the-clock guards. (Plus an extremely racist guard dog named Pasha that some how grew up in Uganda hating Ugandan people). The interior of the house is quite nice, but there are limits to the extent to which we can wall ourselves off from the reality of life in Kampala: we still don’t have consistent power or hot water, and we still sleep under mosquito nets.

Outside, though, our neighborhood is very mixed; on our street, there is a row of well kept, nice houses and then a market that is surrounded by haphazardly nailed together one-room shanties occupied by squatters. Even though we are close to the center of Kampala, our roads are dirt (and really bad dirt roads at that) and it probably goes without saying that few of our neighbors have running water or power. It’s very strange to be in a city of 1.2 million people and have cows, chickens, and goats everywhere, but they make a constant, loud animal symphony (which is mixed in with calls to prayer from the nearby mosque, which are actually really cool except at 5 a.m.) We are also lucky to be near several elementary schools, so in the morning when we leave for work there are children in adorable uniforms who line the road to gawk at us, chanting “Mzungu! Mzungu!” I think if I could have a Ugandan baby (not half-Ugandan, only whole Ugandan) I would be willing to have children – they are incredibly cute.

We have been working pretty much non-stop since we got here, writing surveys and developing protocols for the economic games we’re playing. Our workdays have been at least 12-hours, so I’ve gotten out very little (hence the lack of pictures). We did get a chance to visit the Kasubi Tombs where the former Bagandan monarchs are buried, but they were somewhat of a disappointment, since they are supposedly Kampala’s main tourist attraction and were really just a few thatched huts.

It’s very safe here. Uganda has been described to me as “baby Africa” – a low key, stable place in Africa that is a nice respite from tourist-infested locales like Kenya. I walk around at night with a laptop in my bag and it doesn’t phase me. I’ll hop on a boda when the driver doesn’t speak English, and can confidently assume that, although I will probably mispronounce the name of where we are going, which will leave us to get horrendously lost, nothing really bad is going to happen.

Kampala is a cool city. It was built by British colonialists on seven hills, making it a bit like Rome, a comparison enhanced by the ridiculously nice village in which all variety of white ex-patriates live. When I first arrived, I thought the air quality was terrible because it’s hazy all the time, but I’m now fairly convinced it’s fog. Although Kampala has horrible traffic, it’s a factor of the fact that – as one Ugandan told me – “they built these roads when no one thought a black man would ever drive a car.” Even the biggest boulevards are no more than two lanes, making travel by motorcycle a must (you can cut between cars!)

I’m heading out into the field now. Ironically, I think that now the logistics are situated, I’m actually going to have time to update this occasionally, thanks to the bizarre fact that I get internet anywhere in Uganda when I can’t even get on half of Princeton’s campus.

What they can’t take away

So far, my trip to Uganda hasn’t quite met expectations. I knew I was going to be working here, but I wasn’t quite expecting to be putting in investment-banker hours (eight days here so far and the other Research Assistants have calculated we’ve each worked at least 105 hours – you do the math). When I casually talked to the Principal Investigator of our project about the things he had done while he was in Uganda, he closed his cataloging of the fantastic national parks he had visited by saying “It’s too bad you guys aren’t going to get a day off while you’re here.” We’re here for 7 weeks and we’re not going to have a single day off? Wasn’t there some labor movement in, I don’t know, the 1880s that already dealt with the question of the 90 hour workweek? Add to that the collected toll on my body of not running and eating a diet consisting of greasy street-corner vendor bread and various forms of root-crop mash, and I get the feeling I’m not really on summer vacation anymore.

Obviously, this is the privileged and spoiled white American kid in me talking. In reality, if it has done anything, Uganda has made me keenly aware of how lucky I am to be so fortunate that I can visit a foreign country, eat regular meals, and have consistent work. But there is something very disappointing about the fact that I’ve come all the way to Africa and I’m not going to leave here with a picture of a zebra or any stories of adventures in the wilderness.

In the end, though, no amount of work or tedium can take away the fact that I’m in Uganda. I’ve taken midnight boda rides through an unfamiliar city dark enough to see the stars overhead. I’ve driven through beautiful countryside and even stopped at the equator. And I’ve learned more about humanity – about the way millions of people live and survive – in one week here than I’ve learned from years of study.

… and I think to myself.

Today was my first full day in the field. There are just a couple of thoughts I wanted to jot down before they leave my mind. We started our day in Rakai, the district capital, which is really little more than a large shanty-town. Driving into the countryside was a surreal experience; all the vegetation is thick and jungle-like, but because of the drought, everything is dying and covered in a half-inch of dust.

At the end of the day, Guy and Delia jetted off to some meeting, leaving me the complete shitshow of paying all the individuals we had surveyed for an entire day of their time. I entered the decrepit, mud and stick church where we had met, and, through a translator, thanked them for their time. I added, “Weebale Nnyo,” the Luganda word for thank you, which I mispronounced to a round of laughter. I saw that one coming, but the next thing that happened boggled my mind. I announced to them that we were paying them 2000 shillings – less than a dollar – for their time. And then they all clapped.

I’m not sure exactly why they clapped. It’s possible that they were thanking me for our generous payment of .85 cents, a daily payment large enough to qualify them for “extreme poverty” by any definition. Maybe they clapped out of respect for the fact that I was a white guy in a remote village. My guess, though, is that they clapped because they thought that, even though the vans and researchers would leave in a few minutes, that we would be back, and we would bring development money.

We won’t. I’ve very quickly realized we’re not doing this project in Uganda because we want to help Ugandans. We’re doing it because you can get an entire day’s worth of data from a person for a single dollar. When I think of all the money and time that went into us playing a few games and administering a few surveys in this “village,” I can’t help but wonder if this is really the best use of our time and money.

What if, instead of doing research, we spent the money we spent on photocopying surveys on bricks, and we built them a schoolhouse without holes in it. Or patched the roof of the church. They’d still be poor, but we’d have actually done something for them.

When I’m here, and I think about my privilege, and the poverty of the people around here, and the absurdity that I’m typing this on a laptop that cost enough to feed a family of Ugandans for a year, I can’t help but think of a simple line from one of my favorite Propagandhi songs, screamed over and over: “What a stupid world.”

The Project, Part III: Games!

Let’s play a game. It’s called the ULTIMATUM GAME.
(Cue sinister music – but don’t get too excited).

You have one-hundred dollars to divide between yourself and another person. You can divide it however you’d like. However, the other player will have a chance to accept or reject your offer. If they accept it, both of you get the proposed division. If they reject it, both of you get nothing. Make a decision, but don’t screw up!

Imagine playing this game (and a few other variants, such as the “Dictator Game” in which the second player doesn’t have a chance to reject your offer, and a “Punishment Game” where a third player can take away some of your money if they think you made an unfair offer) a few thousand times with farmers in rural Uganda, and you have a fairly good sense of what I’ll be doing for the next six weeks. Sounds kind of boring, right?

Maybe. I’ve spent the last few days writing elaborate protocols to ensure that illiterate farmers internalize each and every rule of the game without being pushed into one decision or another. That’s a little bit boring. But the concept of these games are actually pretty interesting. Simple bargaining games like these can tell researchers quite a bit about cultural norms of fairness and reciprocity and personal values of altruism and vengeance.

Think way back to the division you made two paragraphs ago. If you’re like most people, you probably chose something close to a fifty-fifty division. You probably figured an even division was fair, and that if you had chosen something unfair, the other player would reject it and you both go home empty-handed. But that’s not actually a rational decision. The smart split is to give the other person 1 cent (or about twenty Ugandan shillings!) and keep $99.99 for yourself. Think about it: if the other person is at all self-interested, they ought to realize that something is better than nothing, and so they will accept any offer that isn’t zero. And since people are rational about these sort of things, you should be able to predict the other person’s response to your offer and know to give them as little as possible.

The irony, of course, is that almost no one (barring a few economic grad students, maybe) behaves in the way the previous paragraph describes. And yet, the idea embodied in that game strategy – that human beings are competitive, selfish, and calculating – holds incredible sway in our society. It’s not just that assumptions of rationality are fundamentally still dominant in mainstream economic theory. Claims about human nature resting on this idea of selfishness are essentially a trump card in any argument about the shape human society must take. Why will there always be inequality? Why will there always be competition? Why can a society never be based in cooperation? Because it’s our nature! Because we’ve evolved that way!

The games we’re playing are pretty simple. In the short term, we’re only trying to understand how Ugandan producer-organization executives make decisions about buying, selling, and sharing. But our research will contribute to a growing body of literature that suggests a radically different picture of human nature, based in empirical study of societies that are – owing to their “less developed” state – at least ostensibly more reflective of the way human beings really are supposed to live.

If I could only find a game that will show it’s in human nature to be a vegetarian, I’d really be in business. More on Uganda – and, if you’re good, some pictures – tomorrow.

Everything I know about Uganda*, I learned from a Boda

*Almost nothing.

There are so many things about Uganda that are radically different from what I’m used to that to try to select one thing to be the first to write about, and to hope that it would capture what I’ve experienced thus far in Uganda, is an exercise in futility. Instead, I’m stuck just arbitrarily selecting something – tonight, transportation – and hoping to make a little sense of it.

Kampala doesn’t have a public transportation system, at least in the sense that the city government doesn’t play any role in getting people from point A to point B. (In fact, our house near the center of Kampala is on a rutted dirt road). Transportation, though, is certainly not as atomized and individualistic as it is in the West. Aside from cars, there appear to be two main ways to get around. The first are Mutatu, VW buses with a driver and a conductor that drive random loops around the city and pack in an absurd number of people. Aside from being above ground, it’s frankly not that different from taking the subway.

The way of getting around with which I have very quickly fallen in love is “The Boda” (short for “Boda Boda”… almost remind me of abbreviating “WaWa” as “The Wa.”) Mom, you can stop reading now. A Boda is simply one of the thousands of crappy motorbikes being constantly driven around at absurdly unsafe speeds through the already chaotic traffic of Kampala; you simply wave one down, tell them where to go, and 2000 shillings (roughly a dollar) later, you’re safely at your destination. This, of course, would be the perfect thing to illustrate with a picture. Unfortunately, my internet connection’s speed is measured in the kilobytes per second (remember the charming days of dial-up modems?) and after a twelve-hour day of work on our project, I don’t have quite the conviction to sit here and watch a picture load for twenty minutes.

Or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. My first day here, Eliana – one of the other research assistants – and I decided to walk to the University at the center of Kampala and then take Bodas the country club where we were working that day. Eliana – who had already been to Africa before and had been in Kampala for a few days – negotiated with my driver and gave him directions. Eliana gave me just enough shillings to pay for the ride, and I hopped on the back.

A few minutes into our ride, I realized that we were no longer following Eliana. Instead, my driver took me onto some back roads. Kampala’s neighborhoods are pretty obviously stratified, and I could tell that this was not the place where a country club could be found. He then announced that I was at my destination, and that I should get off and pay him. I told him I didn’t think this was the place, but by this point, I had forgotten the proper name of the country club (everything here seems to use the same consonant sounds over and over again). Another Boda pulled up and started talking to my driver in Luganda. Eventually, we figured out where I wanted to go, but my driver wanted more money than I had.

All in all, it was a very confusing situation. It’s hard to tell whether I was being ripped off or if it was simply miscommunication. (People here speak English, but the less privileged people don’t speak it nearly as well.) But here I was in Uganda, with no money, idea where I was, or ability to communicate. Eventually being patient and not getting frustrated seemed to pay off, because I made it fine. But it was interesting to realize how blurry the lines around exploitation are here. On the one hand, this driver might very well have deliberately dumped me – completely clueless – in a random part of Kampala. At the same time, we routinely haggle with drivers over an extra five-hundred shillings – which to me seems a little absurd, since we are begrudging them twenty-five cents, which is a good chunk of a Ugandan’s daily wage.

The other thing I have realized from riding on Bodas is the intense trade-off between safety and authenticity of experience here. You can quite easily move around only in Land Rovers driven by Westerners, eat in Posh restaurants, and avoid neighborhoods with even a semblance of crime. But you very quickly use any connection with the people you’re supposedly here to learn from and to help. A Boda for me combines one of my favorite things about running and biking – the wind whipping around me and the chance to see everything from ground level – with the assurance from having someone who actually has a sense of how to navigate. Beyond that, Boda drivers are just plain normal Ugandans. I’ve learned more about Mouseveni – Uganda’s half-President, half-dictator, from sitting behind a Boda driver than from the CIA World Factbook. I guess a little risk goes a long way.

Heart of Darkness

I really hated Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and not just because my 11th grade English teacher assigned it as summer reading. While our class tried to have a balanced discussion of whether the book was racist, given its historical context, I could never get past the fact that Conrad used Africa as a metaphor for insanity and depravity.

Now, here I am in Kampala, Uganda, and – weirdly – I understand Conrad a little more. Not that I think his portrayal of Africa was at all fair. But for whatever reason, in my mind the idea of going to Africa is just a little more intimidating than anywhere else I could go. Other people seem to agree; when I told people my summer plans, it was clear that I wasn’t just travelling, I was going to Africa. Leaving and saying goodbye simply felt a little more weighty than it has when I’ve gone away before. I’m definitely being a little dramatic, but it does seem like Africa occupies a distinct place in our Western consciousness as “the other.”

Maybe it’s the crazy malaria meds I’m on, but I haven’t slept much in a week, and I’m pretty sure at least part of it is nervousness. I’m not really scared, despite watching stories on the news about a recent spate of third-world-bound planes dropping from the air and reading wide-eyed my guidebook’s chapter on ways to get sick in Uganda. Everyone tells me Uganda is relatively safe and crime-free, and I believe them. After all, for all the hazards of life in the developing world, people do live – and survive – here, so there’s no reason to think I won’t too.

I think the biggest emotion that has nagged at me has been uncertainty. I’ve partly brought that on myself by being horrendously unprepared: I literally had no idea what I was going to do when I landed, except that someone was supposed to pick me up and take me somewhere. I knew that Uganda is poor, but I didn’t know if it would be the orderly and simple kind of poverty or the more desperate, heartbreaking sort. Talking to people who have been to Africa only mixed up my expectations more: the media and academia grind into us all sorts of reports of horrendous conditions in Africa, and yet everyone I know who has been here loves it.

The few hours I’ve spent since I’ve arrived haven’t done much to help me get a sense of the place. Everything I’ve seen so far is dark and obscured. Usually, I can look at the window of a landing plane and get a sense from above of the city where I’m going. Entebbe Airport doesn’t even have runway lights. The road into Kampala is narrow and nothing is lit.

I’m pretty sure these are just the anxious musings of someone in over his head, intellectually, academically, and culturally. My house is on a hill, and my window – as far as I can tell in the dark – offers a panoramic spread of the city. I’m pretty sure in the morning – in the light – everything is going to be fantastic.

The Project, Part II: Social Capital

Time for another thrilling introduction to my research!

One sentence summary that says the same thing I said two days ago except in less than 500 words: I’m going to Uganda to evaluate what makes farmer cooperatives – organizations formed to help alleviate hunger by making farmers more productive, innovative, and market-friendly – succeed or fail. Previous research has determined that the characteristics you might think would matter – the soil quality, the crop chosen, or the education of the farmers – play only a minor role in outcomes. Instead, the key to a successful cooperative is leadership and the social interactions between farmers within them.

“Social capital” is a sociological term that’s entered non-academic parlance (to the extent that my roommate sophomore year went to parties in order to “increase his social capital” prior to bicker). Basically, it refers to the ability to access certain resources through membership in networks of people.  It is, for example, social capital that allows a Princeton graduate to find a job from another alumnus and it is social capital that a single parent draws on when she asks her friends to take care of her kids because she cannot afford daycare.

A few years ago, Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor, published a book called Bowling Alone in which he claimed that American’s social capital is declining, as evidenced by the fact that a long of Americans are – you guessed it – bowling alone. People seized on Putnam’s argument to claim that the problems ranging from teenager motherhood to gun violence are caused by a decline in civic-mindedness and community-participation compared to the good old days of the 1950s. Most sociologists, though, have a hard time taking Putnam seriously, because hesuggests social capital as a cure for all ills, when in fact social capital is useless unless there are other resources with which you can exchange it. (When looking for a job, it doesn’t matter how many people you know if you live in the inner city and you don’t have a diploma).

At the same time, Putnam’s argument – that many of the problems of modern society are caused by a dearth of social capital and its attendant benefits – might actually be on the mark for the Third World. I read an article recently that suggested that what many developing nations are suffering from is a lack of trust. Government leaders cannot be trusted to act in the peoples’ best interest, much less hold elections. Bureaucrats are corrupt and teachers and doctors are unreliable. Western donors are unreliable and often fail to provide promised aid.

Farming cooperatives, however, thrive on trust. Farmers have to be willing to pool their limited resources in order to buy equipment. They have to put faith in projects for long-term productivity rather than short-term profit. And they have to believe that their elected leaders will accurately represent their interests and effectively negotiate on their behalf. In short, farming cooperatives require specific forms of social capital to function properly. Our project seeks to measure social capital while maintaining certain key distinctions (such as that between social capital and its benefits, or beneficial or harmful social capital). The goal is to identify “what works” in terms of leadership and what creates the social capital that makes that possible.  In short, how do leaders in third world farming cooperatives – where just to survive many individuals must learn to count on no one – to put their faith in a community institution?