Piece of Crap

Here is a short list of things in Uganda which suck:

Cardboard boxes.

It’s not complete. There are a lot of things here that suck, actually. The fact that children here die of easily preventable diseases, for example, sucks. The predicament of adults who planted coffee because some Mzungu researcher told them that was how they could “develop” but are now starving because the price dropped and they didn’t plant food also sucks. So does living in a sham democracy.

The items I listed above, though, don’t suck in the moral sense; they just plain suck. It appears to be literally impossible to get a cardboard box here that does not fall apart as soon as you put something heavier than a stapler inside. I wasn’t aware that a cardboard box was really capable of exploding until this morning, when 500 questionnaires in a box burst out into freedom, leaving only a few scraps of cardboard wafting down to the ground. The bread here tastes stale practically by design, and crumbles instantly when taken out of the plastic bag in which it was previously sealed. As for the ketchup, well, don’t even get me started; who knew you could mess up tomatoes and salt so much?

My parents once joked to me that the U.S. won the Cold War because – as they discovered during their travels to the Soviet Union in 1989 – the U.S.S.R. couldn’t manufacture a ballpoint pen that worked. While I think there are better explanations for the collapse of communism, they have a point (or is it “nib”?). Pen-production may not be a mark of civilization, but it does suggest something about the level of advancement in a society when such basic items are so wanting.

The situation in Uganda is different, though, because none of these crappy items actually come from Uganda. It’s not that Ugandan’s can’t make a quality cardboard box; they just don’t make them at all. Practically everything here is imported. When I first came to Kampala, I figured that the perpetual haze over the city was the result of industry, a byproduct of the rush to modernize. I now know that the haze is natural, and that Uganda could – quite frankly – use a little pollution, because it would mean someone was producing something.

I can’t help but compare what I’ve observed in Uganda with what I’ve learned about the supposed place of the Third World in narratives about the globalized world. The simplistic, popularized view, articulated most obnoxiously by Thomas Friedman, is that globalization is all about interconnectivity and information, internet and technology. Thanks to the indomitable Professor Kelly, I know that this version of globalization puts a rose tint on the very real inequalities and exploitative situations created by globalization. A more accurate (if dangerously Marxist) characterization of globalization is as the process by which the means of production move from the first to the third world. Globalization isn’t so much about South Asians on cell-phones as it is South Asians working long hours in factories producing items once manufactured in the west.

I’ve learned very quickly that Africa seems to be the exception continent, and describing production in Uganda is, well, no exception: neither narrative really fits here. Take, for example, cell phones. Cell phone coverage in Uganda, while imperfect, is better than in most parts of Arizona, and assuredly better than anywhere on the Navajo Reservation. Cell phones are incredibly prevalent here; they are such a basic commodity that on every block there is a charging station, so that people without electricity can still have a cell phone. Moreover, Ugandan’s are serviced by five or six networks locked in fierce competition. The marketing is so intense that probably every third storefront in a given village is painted orange for Mango, yellow for MTN, or pink for Zain.

Thomas Friedman et al. would likely be convinced that this shows how quickly Ugandans are integrating themselves into the global economy, using information technology to leverage their comparative advantage and market Ugandan products to the rest of the world. This can’t be true, though, since no one here produces anything, and the owners of the cell phone companies – some of whom, strangely, I’ve met – are never Ugandan nationals. Uganda doesn’t fit into the poor producer / rich consumer relationship we see between countries like China and the U.S. because, fundamentally, Uganda is a consumer society. One thing that amazes me about Uganda is the amount of effort that goes into selling things to people who have nothing; billboards arrive in Ugandan villages long before running water. Those Ugandan’s that are employed, as far as I can tell, are involved in buying and selling (and re-selling, and re-selling, and re-selling, as the people hawking phenomenally random shit at every intersection attest).

Economists generally agree that it is better for a country to be exploited for its cheap labor and exports than to be cut out of the global economy entirely. While I tend to believe that this is bullocks, being in Africa makes me think that they have a point. Countries like Thailand or Mexico, where people busily manufacture goods for a pittance, are at least involved in a two-way relationship with the rich world. Uganda, on the other hand, is in an even worse place: literally the dumping ground for unwanted and useless crap. And, as far as I can tell, there’s no way out.

You’re Stealing, I’m Exploiting. You’re Black, I’m White. You’re Fired, I’m Fine.

Mitch Duneier – the ethnographer who advised my thesis – wrote a book called Slim’s Table with a chapter asking “I’m Black, You’re White, Who’s Innocent?” It’s a complicated question, but in Uganda, the answer is fait accompli.

A few days ago, our project manager – a Ugandan named Charity – approached me and said that she suspected one of my team leaders, Daniel, had taken money from the project. I was skeptical of the accusation. Our first few days of enumeration were ridiculously chaotic; each Research Assistant (that’s me!) had to oversee three separate teams in three separate locations. Because we had to pay drivers, buy lunch, and compensate respondents in each place, I had to entrust money with some of my team leaders. Thanks to the truly unfathomable disorganization of our project, though, I had neither receipts to give them to fill out nor the time to properly supervise and check over the payments. In short, I figured any irregularities in the money were the product of my own incompetence and their confusion.

As the week went on, though, her suspicions started to seem more valid. We called one of the organizations that this team leader supposedly paid and discovered that it seemed as if he reported paying them more than he actually did – though they weren’t sure what exactly they had received. More people came forward claiming that there had been some irregularities. This was enough to call in his team and ask them if they had noticed anything. Not a single one made eye contact with me as they told me that, no, they never handled any money and no, they never suspected anything. Eventually, one admitted that they had asked my team leader why he was handling the money in a certain way, and that they had though some things were a little strange.

We hardly had damning evidence. Guy, however, claimed that what the enumerators said was “as condemning as Ugandans ever get” and felt confident that we could “kick my team leader’s ass.” We brought him in, and Guy confronted him. He denied everything. Guy told him he was going to be fired and that he would be paid nothing for the previous two weeks of work, except for the money he stole (which couldn’t have been more than $50). Dan then admitted that he took money from us, and we parted ways. Guy called every research company in Uganda and put him on their blacklists, ensuring that he will never get another research job in the country.

I worked a twenty hour day on Monday, when we fired Dan, but I still stayed up until 5:30 a.m. Even though in an hour-and-a-half I had to wake up and train twenty people, I had to write some things down. You could say that something about what happened didn’t sit right with me.

Part of it is simply that I can’t help but apply Western standards to the situation. No court in the United States would consider what we had on Dan as meeting any minimal burden, much less “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” His confession was far from voluntary, and seemed primarily to be a product of Ugandan’s cultural aversion to confrontation. Ultimately, we determined his guilt based on the minimal, evasive responses of a few individuals who maintained they knew nothing. It’s hard to appreciate all the procedural protections when we see them in place in the United States, keeping “obviously” guilty people on the streets and burning through taxpayer dollars, but its shocking to see what happens when they aren’t there.

All in all, though, what really nags at me is that I’m not sure I can answer the question of who is really stealing from whom. Every enumerator on my team is a college graduate, and most of them have masters’ degrees and extensive survey experience. In exchange for twelve hour days, we pay them the handsome sum of 30,000 shillings, which is about $15. What bothers me, though, is not so much the wage – which really is an excellent take for a Ugandan – but the respect we accord them as employees. We literally gave them one days notice before taking them into the field and away from their families for three straight weeks. While every one signed a contract guaranteeing him or her a month’s work, we terminate them on a moment’s notice when we change our schedule, drop a survey instrument from the study, or have the slightest doubt about their ability to perform. While I drew the line at firing the pregnant woman (I do my best to adhere to as many American labor laws as possible – if only my boss would do the same and cut down on the 100 hour workweek), I’ve been forced to terminate people without any explainable reason, only to be confronted by tearful and confused enumerators waving what appeared to be a valid, and set in stone, contract.

None of this, of course, excuses stealing for personal enrichment. Wait, scratch that. I have no idea why Dan stole, and that’s the scariest part. I suppose anytime, anywhere someone steals, there is a chance they are stealing for a good and necessary reason. But here, I really can’t help but wonder what kind of desperation would drive some to risk losing employment semi-permanently in exchange for $50. While my mind first jumps to wondering if maybe Dan’s wife has cancer, it doesn’t have to be so drastic. It would be just as hard for me to convince myself that the integrity and finances of our study are more important than, say, school fees for Dan’s kids.

The skin color is black and white, but the morality is all grey.

State of De-Nile

It finally happened: we got a day off. It took us working until 5 a.m. on Friday night, but today, we were indeed, really and truly, free (at least, as long as I kept my cell phone on silent and studiously avoided reading any text messages from my boss).

So far, I’ve really enjoyed experiencing Uganda somewhat more as a resident than a tourist. My time here has certainly been made richer and more fulfilling by getting off the beaten path (for a Mzungu, at least), talking to real Ugandans, and patronizing Ugandan restaurants and hotels (and, somewhat less willingly, clinics). On Saturday, the other Research Assistants and I kept to this trend, spending our afternoon in Kampala’s sprawling Owino Market where Ugandans buy, well, everything.

As much as I feel like I should, it’s hard for me to maintain my typical disdain for capitalism and consumption at a place like Owino, where buying and selling is simply fun. We had been told that the market was a borderline no-go for whites, because the cramped halls between stalls were a perfect environ for pickpockets. People were indeed after our money, but not illicitly; as soon as we walked in, I was literally mobbed by vendors shoving into my face knock-off Adidas from China, designer pants shipped as aid to Africa by well-meaning yuppies, and refurbished radios that looked like their original cases were made in the 1950s. A single hour inside was exhausting, but ultimately exhilarating enough that I even happily strolled through the open-air meat market.

Today, though, I was a tourist. I spend a lot of time in Uganda feeling guilty for my wealth and angry at the unequal system I am a part of, and doing my best to distance myself from the reality that my time here is short and my commitment to fixing Uganda’s problems is transitory. There are times, though, when it’s nice to embrace my privilege and realize that hating myself doesn’t fix anything. So, today, I tapped Uganda’s second biggest tourist attraction (the first being Mountain Gorilla tracking): rafting down the Nile.

Today really felt like some higher power decided that I had earned a day of stereotypically African experiences. We drove to Jinja, the town at the source of the Nile, and went to the headquarters of Adrift, purportedly the safest of the rafting companies, a compound of fake thatch huts and generically African-looking trees. Outside, there was a pack of monkeys eating bananas on a fence. It was almost too good to be true. Jinja is in the wetter part of Uganda, and it feels truly tropical: the vegetation is almost impenetrable on both sides of the river, and at stages, we can’t go in the water for fear of crocodiles.

The Nile itself was totally unlike any river I’ve rafted before. It has almost ten times the rate of flow of the Colorado, and it shows in the rapids: I have truly never seen waves so large. Flipping is pretty much a given (I took two involuntary dips in the water), but it was surprisingly low key and – thanks to having so much volume – the river has very few rocks.

I spend most of my time in Uganda completely clueless about what is happening around me, so it was particularly exciting to be in a situation where I was the “veteran” who could teach others how to take a wave and grip a paddle. Ironically, my guide was from Richmond, Virginia, and (coincidentally) a fellow paddler in my boat was a Princeton in Africa fellow who is close friends with Jackie. Quite frankly, after a tough week dealing with some issues that felt very, well, Uganda-specific, it was nice to return to La-La, where I’ve lived for the last twenty two years, and will – with luck – be returning in three weeks.

Ordering Food – My New Metaphor of Choice for Life in Uganda

When I first arrived, I declared that riding a boda encapsulated my experience in Uganda.  While there is still something appealing about spinning down potholed roads at night on a rickety motorbike with the cool tropical air whipping around me, recent events have made me switch to other modes of transport.  Namely, almost getting smacked by a car and receiving a second degree burn on my leg from an exhaust pipe.  In short, if riding a boda boda is a metaphor for life in Uganda, than Uganda is going to kill me (see previous post).

And so I present my new way of grossly over-simplifying life in Uganda in order to capture it in a 1000 word blog post: ordering food.

Traditional meals in Uganda are very simple.  You get a plate of “food” which consists of posho (corn mush), matooke (banana mush), potato (sometimes mushed), and rice (inherently mushy), along with a bowl of sauce, which ranges from beans to meat, by which I mean it is either beans or meat.  While this means that there are hypothetically 48 different permutations of food+sauce you can order (don’t check the math), ordering food and paying still shouldn’t be very complicated, since most people order the exact same thing, almost everything costs the same, and most restaurants have only about four tables.

And yet, somehow, eating at a restaurant in Uganda tends to be an incredibly complicated ordeal.  The first hurdle is getting the waitress to know that you are there.  Practically every Ugandan restaurant reminds me of Carousel in Princeton, a probable mob-front where the employees seem genuinely surprised that someone is actually patronizing their establishment.  Here, once you are seated, the waiter may or may not ask you if you want a drink.  He or she will then come at intermittent periods to ask random individuals what they would like to eat; waiters never take orders from everyone at once.  Potentially before the entire party is done ordering, they will then start bringing food out, and then probably forget about the remaining people.  Inevitably – despite the fact that everyone ordered the same thing – they will bring each person a completely arbitrary selection of food and sauces that bear no relation to what they requested.  Or, perhaps, they will announce that they are out of whatever it is you ordered (or didn’t order, but they think you ordered), or, if you’re really lucky, that there is no food left whatsoever.  Paying itself is a nightmarish experience, as the owner will quote to you a price off the top of their head, take money, and bring you change as if you bought something at a completely different price.

I think my favorite Ugandan restaurant experience happened a few nights ago, when, after waiting for an hour, Guy walked into the kitchen to see why we hadn’t been served.  Our food was sitting there on the counter, getting cold.  When Guy queried why we hadn’t been served, our waiter responded “Oh, you wanted us to bring it out to you?”

The cultural relativism cultivated in me by my training as an anthropologist pushes me to just say that restaurants here are run differently, not better or worse than the ones I’m used to.  All in all, though, it’s hard for me not to come to the conclusion that people here are – if not incompetent – at least kind of making it up as they go.  Every request I make in a Ugandan restaurant is treated as if it is the first time anyone has ever asked for such a thing. You want to have food served to you?  And you want a drink too?  And then you want to pay for it?  Ridiculous!

And here is where I make the jump from ranting Mzungu to erstwhile sociologist.  What makes Ugandan restaurants so frustrating is that there is no pattern; every time you eat, it’s a whole new experience.  When I sit back and thing about it, this is true for practically everything here: stores never have the same items, boda bodas never charge the same price for a given distance, and taps never discharge hot water two days in a row.  It occurs to me that the ad hoc way people go about their lives is a way of coping with uncertainty; if nothing is reliable, why become wedded to doing something a certain way at a certain time?  The unfazed response of people in Mubende to a five hour power outage exemplified, to me, this flexibility.

The problem, of course, is that us Westerners live by patterns.  Even in the heady, crazy days of college, my days were incredibly reliable: I woke up at the same time, ate at the same places, and did my homework for a certain number of hours, facilitated by reliable power and internet.  Our way of life thrives on predictability; we are able to live at an absurdly accelerated pace because the vast majority of social interactions and economic transactions occur in invariable and standard ways.  The situation here is different, and as a result, everything slows down.

I think if I stayed here long enough, I could learn to enjoy the pace of life here.  Right now, though, I feel like I am at war with it.  Like any project run by good Western professionals, we have a very specific schedule; certain farmers are supposed to be mobilized on specific days and at certain times, and if any of these pieces falls out of place, our data is incomplete.  So my days are spent pushing square pegs into round holes, convincing people without watches that they need to arrive promptly at 9:00 a.m. and convincing farming organization that taking a survey on the right day is more important than planting the day after it rains.

Going Native, Part II

There are borders to how far I wanted to go with the whole “living like a Ugandan” thing. For example, Ugandans have high rates of rather exotic maladies and afflictions. I was hoping to avoid that part of life in the third world, but that’s not how it turned out.

For the sake of the children, I will spare everyone the gory details of what happened, or is happening – except that it involves insects living inside the bed of my hotel and now living, well, somewhere inside me. It’s one of those kind of afflictions that I had heard about but had a very difficult time imagining anyone ever actually got, because it sounds simultaneously both painful and hilariously absurd. Anyway, after a few days of trying to tough it out, I conceded that some medical care was in order.

But what medical care? As the ongoing debate about health care in the U.S. lays bare, there is nothing intuitive about the system I am used to. Medical school. Hospitals. Doctors and nurses. Pharmacies. These are universal labels that we apply to very different things in different places. Given how different I know health care in the U.S. and the U.K. to be, I realized that Ugandan health care might very well be totally foreign to me. When I thought about it, totally absurd questions started bouncing through my brain. Do they have doctors here? How do I know they’re really a doctor? Will they have a framed diploma on the wall, a front office full of forms and records, a nurse to clean me up first? How do I pay? If I go in with an open wound, will I leave with HIV?

Given the circumstances, I got my answers from the same source I always do: a Ugandan. I pulled one of my researchers aside, and asked him to point me in the direction of a clinic. I added that I wanted a good place, a clean place (as if he – by merit of being Ugandan – might recommend someplace that is dirty and bad). Ultimately, I have to admit that these questions were code for what I really wanted to know. Deep down, I knew that for my peace of mind, I wanted to go to the clinic where the white people go, where I knew they spoke English and might offer services familiar to a Westerner. So much for going native. I’m in rural Masaka, though, and so my team leader told me that I had no option but to go to the single local clinic. I’ll admit it: I was scared.

It occurs to me that my mentality about this whole “living like a Ugandan” thing is a bit like Sarah Palin lauding her daughter’s choice to not get an abortion, while missing the distinction between people making the choice to save their babies and have that choice made for them by the government. It’s easy to pat myself on the back for trying local cuisine, staying in local spots, and adopting local customs, but in the end, each decision was mine to make to make. I always knew that – for the cost of just a few thousand shillings – I could have all the comforts I am used to. When I no longer had a choice – when I had to accept the whole package of living like a Ugandan – it was terrifying.

We walked to a nearby clinic, which had a completely inconspicuous front nestled between a tiny grocery and a stationary store. The front room had nothing to indicate that it was a doctor’s office except for a few government issued posters about avoiding malaria and boiling water to kill bacteria (no water here that does not come in a bottle is remotely safe to drink). The woman behind the reception desk – who appeared to be cooking dinner on a stove in the corner while her five-or-so-year-old daughter ran around – greeted me by joking “I’m the doctor.” She probably sensed the panic on my face when it hit me that my “doctor” was about twenty-two, because she quickly retracted her statement and said the doctor would be in soon. When the doctor came in, he took me to the only other room in the clinic, which was only about 10 foot square. Medical equipment was sparse – there was a stethoscope, a box of gloves, and some bandages. I’m sure everything that really mattered was clean, but the room itself did not have the antiseptic atmosphere I’m used to (the dried blood on the walls didn’t help).

And yet, all in all, it was a good experience. The doctor sat with me for thirty minutes, did everything himself, and explained what was going on in detail, despite the language barrier between us. I can’t help but compare it to a few months ago, when I broke my nose and spent four hours in Princeton Medical Center, a top-notch U.S. hospital, in order to get a battery of tests that the doctor – who spent all of three minutes with me – never explained. PMC cost $4,000; the Masaka Clinic cost 10,000 shillings (5 dollars).

The entire experience was a good reminder of a maxim I repeated to myself last summer, when I was living in one of Brooklyn’s worst neighborhoods: even in the worst places people live, there are still people living. What I mean is that you can be in the ghetto – where the crime rate is sky high and drug use is rampant – and the majority of people are just simply existing like anyone else. Things here are bad and there are many, many things that can go wrong, but the reality is that what I got was the whole extent of the health care to which most Ugandan’s have access – and it was okay. That’s not to say I don’t think it’s criminal that I can get a $3000 CAT scan for a broken nose and people here can’t afford a $15 malaria treatment, but the whole experience has been a good reminder that just because something is different doesn’t necessarily mean it’s crappy.

** Addendum: I am back in Kampala, and went to the reassuringly boring (that is, familiarly Western – there was even a fish tank) clinic that all the Mzungu go to. It looks like I am not going to die. Feel free to google “Mango flies” if you really want to know more.

The Politics of (Near) Starving

I think most Americans’ mental images of Africa – or at the very least, mine prior to this trip – are of some sort of cross between a National Geographic special on savannah wildlife and a Christian Children’s Fund television appeal for donations, replete with starving children sporting desperate eyes and distended stomachs. I’m pretty sure the former image is an accurate depiction of at least some part of Uganda – I just have to get a day off and go to a National Park to see it. The latter image – and the issue it depicts, hunger – is a little more complicated on the ground here.

I’ve heard Uganda called “Baby Africa” or “Africa-lite” by Westerners here, who claim that – compared to “tougher” places like Zimbabwe or Somalia – the poverty in Uganda is pretty mild. Sure, people have very little, but they have enough to survive. When I read in a newspaper that people were dying from famine in one of the Northern districts, my boss assured me that this was basically government propaganda. (I’m not entirely sure why a government would want to suggest that its people are starving, but it has something to do with regional disputes.)

It’s easy to understand why a famine would be taking place when you take a look at the Ugandan countryside. The vegetation is tropical, but everything is brown and dusty. It’s supposed to be the rainy season here, but unless Ugandans have a very wide definition of “rainy” I would say the season is not as it should be.

A few nights ago, we were in Rakai, and at the end of a long day, us three Research Assistants set out in search of a restaurant. At place after place, we were told there was no “food” left, which to Ugandans means no staples like rice, posho, matoke, and beans (they all had meat, which is unhelpful). One of the other RAs kept questioning the hostesses about why this was the case, suggesting that if they were out, they ought to make more and adding that perhaps we were being turned away because we were white. After we were rebuffed by about four restaurants, though, it occurred to me that perhaps there was no food left not because they were “out” for the night, but because there was virtually none of these foods left in the village. A stroll through the market the next morning more or less confirmed what I thought.

Still, there are none of the starved skeletons we are used to seeing in media images of, say, Ethiopia (The skeletons here are suffering from AIDS, not hunger). The cattle, goats, and pigs, though, hint at lean times. I’ve quickly gathered that livestock here are one of the key signs of wealth and are inevitably a prized and cherished possession. It is certainly a bad sign, then, that I can count the ribs on every cow I have seen in the countryside.

I got a quick primer on the way the specter of constant – if not acute – malnutrition affects people during our enumeration yesterday. Our research requires us to mobilize around 50 people to take surveys, play games, and fill out forms. We don’t have enough on our team to work with everyone at once, but farmers take forever to show up so we ask them all to come at 9 a.m. and sit for eight hours. In return, we give them 4000 shillings (a whole $1.85, since these are some of our more well-to-do respondents and thus need to be “well” paid) and – this is where we really clinch their attendance at our future session – we feed them two chipati (basically, tortillas) and a soda.

My days are completely crazy, so I usually send out driver to fetch the chipati and soda (he gets a better price anyway). This day, though, many people showed up late, after I had placed our order. When the driver came, he brought sodas and chipati for 24 – but there were forty present. Nevertheless, I carried the crates the assembled groups, proudly said “this is for you,” and walked away to murmurs of appreciation.

I doubt anyone in that group is actually starving, so my interpretation of the events that followed should be taken with a grain of salt. But I should have known that dividing 24 sodas among 40 people almost always deprived of such “luxuries” would be problematic. Within a few minutes, farmers were standing and shouting and gesturing at one another. I speak exactly four words of Luganda, but it was clear that people were mad, and not at me. I was fearful enough that people were going to start seriously fighting that I considered retrieving the sodas, but I couldn’t figure out a good way to do that without throwing myself into the imminent fray.

If a few sodas are worthy of a dispute among villagers, how far will a needy person go for a cow, or an acre of land? It’s moments like these that make me realize how almost reasonable it can seem for people to take up arms to obtain for things like land and water. Starvation makes people inert – deprivation puts people on the edge of a knife, ready to lash out at a moment. Those that are completely hopeless are also harmless, but the people that can’t have but see the others who can are dangerous. Like Against Me! says, real world politics are the politics of starving.


There are a million things that can go wrong with field research, a million variables that could be carefully controlled in a lab.

Today pretty much set a record for things going wrong, though. Our Mutatu broke down in the middle of nowhere during a “shortcut” we took on a barely-existing road (a situation fixed when our driver – with surgical precision – ripped a huge piece of metal from the bottom of the car and left it by the side of the road. Most of the farmers we were supposed to survey showed up three hours late (it rained the night before, so they had to plant). After a day in the sun without eating, I had bad enough heat stroke that I passed out for hours (meaning I have hours of work left for the morning – and don’t even get me started on my spider bites).

On the other hand, I saw a pack of wild monkeys sitting in a tree. Chalk today up as a “win.”