Saturday, April 26, 2014

Culinary Catastrophes

The last few blog posts have been a bit too serious for my liking so I think it’s necessary to have a more light hearted interlude (although still a serious matter in my opinion). For those of you who know me well, you should be aware that Rachel and food have a very close relationship. I think my love of food was sparked around the same time as my love of travel. I was also blessed to have a mother who cares deeply about the environment, health, and what that means for the food we put in our bodies. I blogged about food the last time I was in Uganda because it became a HUGE source of frustration for my slightly snobby taste buds.

I do not consider myself a picky eater. I will willingly eat whatever non-meat food item appears on my plate (and even meat when I’m forced to be culturally flexible). That being said, I’ve discovered in my old age that I feel a lot better emotionally and physically when I eat quite frequent small portions of a whole-grains plant based diet with a plethora of delicious spices and flavours. I’ve also learned that I go through spicy food withdrawal if I don’t get a nearly daily dose of spiciness.

Recently a friend of mine sent me this gem of a buzzfeed list that fairly accurately describes my relationship with food (as long as the said food is healthy). This list was particularly valid when I was in my crazy running stage of life and therefore needed frequent calorie boosts to make up for all the calories I lost when I destroyed my muscles every day. Unfortunately, my food life in Uganda does not fit any of the above descriptions. I am all about adapting and attempting to be a local as much as possible. But Ugandan cuisine seriously fails to inspire or fulfill my nutritional needs. While I also find Dutch food uninspiring and bland, at least I can find anything I could want in a supermarket and most of my cultured friends will begrudgingly admit that perhaps Dutch food should not make it into any list of popular international foods.
Let me describe a typical day here:
Around 7 am: wake up make myself a hearty bowl of oatmeal/porridge (I will never get sick of this for breakfast) with some tea and fruit on the side.
Just before 8: walk to my office.
Between 9 and 10: depart for the field (depending on how efficient things are on a particular morning, but the word efficient doesn’t really exist in Ugandan vocabulary)
Between 10:30-12: Rachel starts to get a bit hungry. Ignore it knowing that it will only get worse and you won’t see food until 4 at the earliest.
1 pm: Sneakily eat a small snack (so that I don’t have a share it with the driver and my translator, evil and selfish I know).
3 pm: Yep. Starving and tired. How are the driver and intern just fiiiiine?
3:30 pm: If I haven’t given up already, conduct one more interview then insist on heading back to town (this usually involves around a one hour plus drive back).
Around 4-4:30: arrive at the one restaurant in town that still seems to have food (since they make all the food at once in the morning then run out at the end of day). Conversation with the waitress:
“Do you have beans?”
50% of the time: “They are not here.”
“Do you have gnuts?” (the only other vegetarian protein option)
50% of the time: “They are not here.” OR no response then 15 min later: “Gnuts are over.”
“Fine. I’ll have a chapatti.”
This is where I resign myself to eating the oily flatbread that offers no nutritional value.

If I’m “lucky” a bowl of beans and a huge plate of white rice awaits me. Upon its arrival I promptly ask for the chili sauce and pour half the bottle into my beans to the horror of my Ugandan co-workers. This still fails to fully give the food flavour. 

Because I am usually afflicted with low blood sugar and very grouchy during this time, talk is limited and when the conversation turns to Ugandan food and questions of whether I have tried matooke (boiled mashed bananas with zero flavour) or other local “specialities” (I had tried every single Ugandan food within about a week of my first visit since there is absolutely no variety), it is all I can do to politely respond through clenched teeth: yes I have tried matooke. It was not my favourite.

Although I’ve spent a decent amount of time in this country, it is a constant source of frustration that given how fertile the land is, Ugandans continue to “nourish” (if that is the best word considering that SO many people develop diabetes later due to the very carb based diet and love of sugar here) themselves with a startlingly limited variety of food and virtually no spices. Food wise, I can hardly wait to get back to my quinoa, greens, whole grain bread, larger variety of veggies, buckwheat, loads of bean varieties, nuts, and a pantry full of spices to satisfy my culinary creativity.

Happy first King’s day in a while to all my friends in the Netherlands! Someone go eat a nice meal for me please!  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Expectations Revisited

Just after moving to the Netherlands I wrote about the faulty expectations and the disappointment I felt about my last Ugandan experience. Even when I think about it now I feel ashamed at how disconnected I was from the local community. Since my time in Uganda this time around is so short, I came into the country with the idea that I would simply make the best of the time, get the research I need done, and see what comes of it all. I had no expectations of making new best friends or getting overly attached. All of this has been successful so far, but what has been most rewarding about the past two or so weeks is how incredibly easy it has been to connect here compared to Karamoja. This connection has made me feel SO much better about the disappointment I felt leaving Karamoja and made me realize that perhaps the lack of connection I made with Ugandans last time was not entirely my fault but more the culture and environment of the region I was living in.

Last Friday I was invited by the Ugandan general manager of our office to a party/sort of church service in his village. I went with some other friendly staff members for a very long day of speeches in Runyankole (that I have almost nonexistent knowledge of), lots of Ugandan food (NOT my favorite, more on this later), and later some drinks and more food at his home. Although I was the only white person there (win in my book!) and I mostly had absolutely no clue what was going on (apparently it was a 50th wedding anniversary celebration for his parents) it was a fun day! Being free to drink beer also aids in the connecting with locals process.

Most of the Ugandans I've met this time around are some combination (or all of the above) of very smart, well educated, and well traveled. This had made for some very interesting and open conversations. The last time I was in Uganda I was very reluctant to bring up the homosexuality bill (which at the time had been pushed aside) but now that Uganda is all over the news it has been very easy to bring up the issue. Which is probably one long term positive aspect of the bill. Now people are talking about it, activism can breed and the whole world is aware which will hopefully all bring change. What is frustrating is that the media has honed in on Uganda when in reality most of the continent shares similar sentiments only with slightly less harsh punishment. A few of the things I've gathered from my conversations and from my previous stay in Uganda:

  • The anti-gay sentiment prevalent in this country I really think is more related to culture than religion or outside influences. Most of the people I speak with aren't particularly religious and don't support the bill per se but rather say that people should be able to make their own decisions. However, they share the concern that homosexuality will spread which they find disconcerting. The last time I was in Uganda I had a hunch that most of the uncomfortableness that Ugandans (and perhaps most Africans) have about homosexuality is how theoretically same sex couples cannot bear children. Fertility is so incredibly valued here. Recently a very smart man asked me if I wanted children. I answered directly and said I don't know. Certainly not anytime soon and it's not on my life to do list. He was a bit shocked and replied: I've had a name picked out for my first child for the past five years. I have yet to meet a Ugandan no matter how "progressive" or educated or empowered (to use Western vocabulary) they may be who does not have eventual plans for children. Conversely, in North America and Europe I know many people you have no plans for children. I'm not suggesting that Africans change to become more western but their love of children could explain some of the attitudes towards same-sex relationships. 
  • Another issue that was brought up is the fact that most (perhaps almost all?) secondary schools here are separated by gender. During the hormone filled teen years apparently this can bring about some experimentation. 
And... the rest of my post didn't get saved and I don't feel like rewriting it all. So I'll conclude with this: Ugandans (rightly so) don't want to be continuously pushed by the west to accept western culture and values. What is difficult is when culture becomes intertwined with human rights violations. Gay rights aside we have a lot to learn from how Ugandans prioritize people, relationships, and community. I am very far from adapting here but spending time in Uganda has forced me to slow down my usual hyperactive self (I now have the reputation of "running" from the office because apparently I walk super fast) and take a bit of a breather. And here are a few photos of the past few weeks: 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Job searching? Or room searching? There seems to be no difference

There seems to be no difference between finding a room in Amsterdam and applying for jobs. Both require top notch networking skills, strong motivation and determination, obsessive checking of job or room websites, an outstanding cover letter, and perhaps references. Seriously. I've lost track of how many messages I've sent to prospective housemates only to be mostly drowned out by the hundreds (or thousands perhaps) of other desperate room seekers, or ignored because I cannot meet the housemates in person, or simply ignored for no reason, or in the best situation realize that I will be miserable or in a super boring neighborhood far from where I will work. The few skype "interviews" (because that's seriously what they often are) I've had have often involved people rigorously questioning me on my music and movie taste and my social habits.

Finding a room in Mbarara on the other hand was quite possibly the easiest thing I've ever done. Send one email to a Dutch contact here with no response, email the general manager of the NGO I'm working with, and send an email to an old friend from my previous stay in Uganda. A few days later I had several options that are super cheap, giant and well equipped. And now that I'm here I've had multiple staff members offer me their spare bedrooms. Incredible. Maybe will just stay here and commute to Amsterdam? I might save money and stress...

I like to consider myself pretty well connected so I started with my own social network but recently have gotten quite creative in expanding my network to find a room. Perhaps I can put this room search process on my CV? My networking skills should be pretty top notch if I ever find a room! 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Blessing in Disguise

Ever since my first trip to the African continent I have devoured every resource I can get my hands on regarding history, development, policy, economics and all of the other complexities that surround development in general. More recently I’ve spent the last few months (or really since I left Uganda the first time and saw how severe their electrification problem is) filling my brain with numbers about electrification, policy, too many impact assessments of rural electrification projects, microfinance, impact evaluation methodology, and statistics. Without realizing it I approached my research here with a rather aloof and scientific perspective. I poured over my questionnaire to figure out precisely what data I would need to make valuable conclusions about electricity access and economic well-being. But now that I’m here and I’ve spent a good portion of the last week driving through the hilly green western Ugandan countryside to rural areas lacking grid access, I realize that I failed to remember how in your face poverty can become. It’s easy to pour over numbers and theories and get excited about new ideas but sometimes this all becomes irrelevant when you sit in people’s homes and find out precisely how difficult their situation is and how so many people really are stuck in a poverty trap (to quote the book Poor Economics).

Three days of interviews and it’s already started to feel like something I could do in my sleep. I diligently fill in the boxes in my stapled questionnaires, probing when the information I receive seems unclear. But still I find myself startled and saddened. During one interview with a woman who does not have solar energy, I inquired about how much she pays to charge her phone. She told me nothing. When I asked my translator to ask why, he calmly responded that the community helps her because she is in poor health and has no money. She was merely forced to start her business because she could no longer work on her farm. Most of the businesses I have surveyed run a loss every month. Their weekly turnover (if above zero) is often equal to what I might spend on a beer.

My life in Uganda this time around is worlds different than my last Ugandan experience. The region I live in is lush with rich soil that allows even the poorest to subsist off the land. I live in a huge house with a large yard with a lovely older British couple. Even when I run through hilly (and 1400m altitude!) Mbarara I am not (often) greeted by the constant “Mzungu how are you?” that I was during my runs in Moroto. The weather is beyond perfect—sunny and cool. My spotless new office is entirely run by professional and friendly Ugandan staff and powered by solar power although grid connection exists. But in spite of how nearly perfect life is here, I am confronted daily with the realities and limitations that poverty brings. The people I interview (with and without electricity) work extremely long hours only to run mostly unprofitable businesses. Yet there is often no other alternative for them. The income disparity in this country is unavoidably obvious and makes me wonder that perhaps if the income disparity that we have in the US was equally in your face to most people, then we would choose to do something about it.

Although life is not easy for people in the villages and it’s easy for me to sit through the interview brainstorming how their business might be made to be more profitable; these villagers have a much deeper understanding of the natural world than the western world. Unlike Europe and North America where we have created an artificially perfect environment where we can have whatever food we want whenever we want it, regardless of seasons, drought or weather, rural Ugandans have seen climate change (that was caused by our behaviours in the west) affect their daily lives. These Ugandans may not have even finished high school, often may not even be able to read, and unfortunately have little political power. But they are not debating whether climate change is real because the reality of it has changed their livelihoods. The fact that climate change comes up so frequently during my interviews is perhaps even more saddening when I know that my country has indirectly caused this disaster that is now impacting those most unable to cope with it. Sitting in front of people barely able to support their families makes the useless debate and stubborn unwillingness to change in my own country sickening. Although the comfort filled life in the west is certainly easier, I think rural Ugandans are blessed in a way they don’t realize through their intimate knowledge of the seasons, weather patterns, and their dependence on nature and its resources. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Back to the land of Bodas

Greetings from sunny and green Kampala! I’m currently sitting on the patio of a Dutch owned café called Brood (which means bread in Dutch). I can never get enough of the Netherlands no matter where I go apparently. After a very hectic past few months of stress and preparation when it was finally time to leave I suddenly found myself sad to leave the tiny country I now call home. But now that I’m back in crowded, lively, sunny, and friendly Kampala, it all feels right. Although I’ve already noticed some changes (cleaner streets, a few additional traffic lights that no one knows how to use, and some sparkling new malls) in this bustling city, in many ways it feels like I never left. I visited my old office on Friday and yesterday went to my favorite café/art gallery/restaurant to enjoy the peace of their garden seating area. My Ugandan accent (those of you who have heard it know what I mean) and my hard bargaining skills seemed to instantaneously return as soon as I set foot in this country. It feels perfectly natural to engage in friendly banter with the boda (motorbike taxi) drivers to convince them to lower their price. The process is not even about money, it’s simply the fun of bargaining and engaging in friendly conversation. And since these rides are often harrowing and potentially life threatening because they involve weaving in and out of the endless lines of Kampala traffic perched atop a motorbike without a helmet, I suppose I shouldn’t be willing to pay a high price anyway.

For those of you who are a bit unaware of my coming and goings over the past few months (understandable since I’ve been doing a lot of plane hopping recently) I am in Uganda for the next 5ish weeks to survey small enterprises that have purchased solar home systems from the NGO that I am working with for my thesis. I am going to attempt to draw out the causal link between electricity access and business economic performance. In between sleeping at a lot of different very hospitable friends and doing research, I also had a job interview for a research position at an energy research center in northern California (Arcata to be more specific—more well known as the pot capital of America) working on off grid lighting. As far as I can tell the job is about as perfect as could be, but now that the possibility to leave my life in the Netherlands (particularly) since I’m moving to Amsterdam when I get back gives me a horrible feeling in my stomach every time I think about it. So for now, I’m not thinking about it and just waiting to see what happens. But this job means that after four years of globetrotting I might be (temporarily) back in the US.

Presently, I am going to make the best of my time in the Pearl of Africa. It seems I always choose to come to this country when it is making world headlines. As I hope you are all aware, Uganda recently passed a very upsetting anti-gay bill (not to mention an anti-pornography bill that also includes women wearing skirts above the knee). Already on my taxi ride from the airport and strategically asked questions to my taxi driver about the bill, trying to draw out more information as to what the actual support for the bill is in Uganda (so far it seems overwhelming) and figure out why these attitudes exist in such strength on this continent.

Perhaps being a very frequent flyer is beginning to pay off because all of my recent flights (at not extra cost) I have managed to sit in economy comfort with lots of leg room. This upgrade proved very fruitful this time around because I sat next to a man who was a prosecutor during the Rwandan genocide trials and who was traveling back to the country to speak during the 20th anniversary of the genocide. He was extremely well traveled and knowledgeable and ironically will also be in den Haag end of next month!

Tomorrow I’m off to Mbarara in the west via the Ugandan post bus! It’s nice to be back in a more independent setting and be free to go, meet, and do what I want!