Happy Thanksgiving

The olden days, a.k.a. last summer in Kla

Hey everyone, how are you doing? Well, the site I am doing with Emmanuel is almost ready to go up, though our hosting site is being a bit difficult. Thanks for all your encouragement and support as we transition to our new web presence. This project was definitely a labor of love… and it will be live next Monday at http://www.ugandansabroad.org.

There has been all sorts of interesting/disturbing/fascinating stuff going on in Uganda and her neighbors…

-The U.N. released a damning report to some media houses (still haven’t been able to access the real thing) that said two Rwandan rebel groups, including the FDLR (composed largely of the former Interahamwe, which commited the Rwandan genocide), were recruiting in two refugees camps in Uganda– one of which I even visited in 2007, Nakivale, when I was with SIT. It also said that Uganda and Burundi were smuggling $1.2 billion in gold out of the DR Congo, purchasing gold from FDLR-controlled mines, and reselling it in the United Arab Emirates.
As a reporter, as sick it is, my first impulse was– whoa, what a story! I could imagine eight or nine follow-up stories coming from this report, and stories that would come from the follow-up story. Immediately, I began imagining commodity chains (it’s the Joshua Muldavin in me!). And this report had one hell of a commodity chain, from Spanish NGOs giving funds to the FDLR to recruiting in the camps that are repatriating their Rwandan refugees as we speak (I got to cover this for Women’s eNews!).  If you somehow can find a copy of this report, please let me know– I am dying to see it, and I don’t get why the UN leaked it so many press organizations, then didn’t share it with the public.

In eastern Congo, the mineral trade fuels and funds war-- at the expense of millions of people.

Other things that I have been paying attention to…

-If you want a good story, there’s always the General James Kazini murder saga (and see, this actually is a nice segway from the UN report, since Kazini spent a great deal of time looting minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo).  This famous general, who has led troops against all sorts of insurgencies in the Great Lakes region, was allegedly bludgeoned to death by his lover in Namuwongo, in one of the strangest stories I’ve heard in awhile.  Andrew Mwenda had a great take on it. Whether Lydia Draru, his 28-year-old lover, really killed this top general, I have no idea…

Continue reading


Three cheers for new media projects in the Sunshine Continent

Does this mean I won't need a good novel when I am surfing in Kampala?

I’m really excited about all the African new media sites I keep stumbling upon, from projects to blogs to new tools, or combos of all three.  Everything from open street maps that map Kenyan slums to Google Earth workshops in Kampala.  As I get ready to launch my own site (it’s not up yet) on November 30th (12 days and counting) with Emmanuel, I can’t help but be inspired by the exciting things I keep finding on the web.  I thought I would share with you things that are related to Africa and new media that I enjoy on the web…

1) I really like White African, a site that has introduced me to a lot of exciting new stuff on the web.  It’s run by Erik Hersman, who grew up in Kenya and the Sudan, and lives in the U.S. now with three daughters.  He has a personal blog, White African, and AfriGadget, which is about micro-entrepreneurs and tech ingenuity on the continent.  He consults for Ushaidi, which crowdsources crisis information, and his site is full of interesting links and info, to everything from African iphone games to Appfrica and remitting money through cell phones.  He tweets here (I’m addicted to Twitter these days– trying to say interesting things out, without being a twit! but I still like facebook status updates better).  Whenever I need inspiration, I check out his blog, or see what Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis are writing about.

2) Stop Stock-outs.  This is a project from Ushaidi that I think is pretty neat, using online maps.  The maps show stock-outs of essential medicines in Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia collected via SMS during the pill check week. Use the zoom scroller on the left side of the map to have a closer look and move the map around by clicking and dragging. Selecting a red “hotspot” will show you more detail. Larger dots represent a greater number of stock-outs.

3) Appfrica.net. Whoa, now this site blows my mind! I love apps (applications for google, facebook, iphones, blackberries, etc.), so this site was a must-visit for me.  So yum- Appfrica Labs! (This is coming from a girl who salivates over whatever Google comes out with next, especially if it’s related to Gmail.)  Also, yay– the CEO of Appfrica Labs live in Kampala! Check out Appfrica’s state of infotech, which has some really great graphics.

Underseas cables around the continent

Appfrica is how I learned about OpenStreetMaps mapping slum neighborhoods in Kenya.  I am working on a story right now that has about 3-4 graphs on Kibera, so this is pretty exciting.

Twelve young residents of Kibera will first be trained on current mapping techniques during a two-day workshop. Individuals from the growing Nairobi technology scene will help train and network with the larger community. The group will then map all of Kibera over a two-week period in mid-November and share the results through OpenStreetMap, joining a growing global community of tech-savvy grassroots mapmakers. “The project will provide open-source data that will help illustrate the living conditions in Kibera. Without basic knowledge of the geography of Kibera it is impossible to have an informed discussion on how to improve the lives of residents of Kibera,” said Mikel Maron.

Check out:

-Google Earth workshops that happened in Kampala and Nairobi

-Pricing web development services in an African market

-Google Trader

Must. Reboot. Me.

So many confusing and exciting things have been happening recently, as I settle back into New York, trying to get back into my groove.  Part of me misses Uganda tremendously, while the other part of me is a bit infatuated with her beloved city. Sometimes my two worlds seem so different that it feels like the two might rupture, while other times these two continents that make up my heart (Africa, North America) seem more connected than ever.  Going through documents from the Population Council today, I was struck by a photo of a stand in a slum in Kibera that looked just like the countless stands I visited in Kampala.  One silly memory I have is a late Thursday night when I went to the stand by New Vision to buy airtime or a snack, I can’t remember.  I managed to drop my wallet into a crevice in the stand, spilling my cash, local and foreign atm cards, work ID, everything.  I nearly burst into tears, and the ladies who ran the stand found a stick.  We kept trying to push my wallet out of the crevice inside the stand, but things just got worse- coins, paper bills, everything was getting more and wedged in.  The lady went inside and began hitting my wallet with the stick, and somehow managed to lift everything outside, except for a few coins that are probably still there.

Looking at this memo at my desk in New York, I saw the stand and smiled.  How many women in stands like the one pictured did I buy airtimes, bottles of mineral water, hardboiled eggs, mandazi, and chapatis from? On Sundays, the stand near New Vision would close, and I would walk to Hot Loaf for snacks instead, a bakery in Kampala.  But nearly everyday, I went to that stand to top up my phone, and fill my shrinking stomach (losing weight from stress).

When I hang out with my Ugandan friends in America, or when I would hang out with American friends in Kampala, it would initially cause me ‘cognitive dissonance’ as Igor and I called it, but then would begin to feel really good.  Sometimes I just long to pull everyone into my room in New York (granted it’s small) that’s been a part of my life in both parts of the world.. or just have them all to one wickedly diverse dinner party.  My relatives from California and Utah… my parents and stepmom from Long Island… my friends from Sarah Lawrence and the j-school… my homestay family, and all my friends from New Vision that got so deep into my heart and under my skin.

Things feel so uncertain (when will my reporting go well? will my business succeed? will I be okay?) that sometimes it works against me.  I need to be working harder than ever, but sometimes I feel too scared to get out of bed and make calls, create content for the site, report.  Eventually I take a deep breath and do it, but this fear inside me of failure sometimes feels so paralyzing.

My former professor Fred Kaufman told me to find a strong female journalist that I like and copy her graphs, line by line, in caps in a notebook.  Eventually, he said, the confidence and strength will come.

What kills me is that I meet people who I know i should be able to have a real conversation with, and I am sometimes too scared or shy to use the strengths I know I have.  At this event I was at tonight, I should have gone up to Nicholas Kristof and introduced myself (why not?) or asked him a question, but instead i felt overwhelmed with shyness, even though I know my experiences could add value to a conversation with him.  I feel similarly whenever I talk to people I admire, or people more powerful/experienced/in a higher position than me.  For instance, if I didn’t feel so nervous or tongue-tied, I am sure I could have amazing conversations with my editor-in-chief (an incredible, knowledgeable woman who has done so much for me and taught me a great deal) about so many subjects, but I feel so small and tiny that I can barely work up the nerve.    Or my other editors– again, I feel so shy that I can’t have the conversations I need to have, whether it be about gender or journalism or politics or all three.

Some mornings, I am just so afraid of messing up, that I do mess up!

I force myself to reboot, and think– well, maybe November 3rd wasn’t so great, but November 4th is another opportunity to try again.


Photo 86

Reboot your friend/journalist/daughter/roommate/colleague.



A New Life in an Old Place… Home

It’s funny, but all Ugandans seem to have this one phrase memorized. “East or West, home is best.” At so many different times, Ugandans from all walks of life have told me that.  In fact, my Ugandan mom tellls me that all the time.  I never knew what to make of that– was it a not-so-subtle hint for me to go home? Or, were they just right? Is home really the best? Americans always say “you can never go home again.” But that may not be accurate…

Thousands of miles away from Kampala, I’m in Brooklyn, an hour’s drive from my childhood home.  I’d still have to hop on a plane to visit my birthplace, but I grew up in New York.  So who is right– Ugandans? Or can you never go home again?

Well, my Ugandan friends and family weren’t kidding.  You can go home again, and it’s fantastic.  Uganda is my home in reverse, and where much of my heart lies, but there is no place that seems to fit me as well as New York.  The first few weeks I was here, I would just look around and burst into tears. Not because I was sad, but because I felt ecstatic.

All those small things that I missed while I was away are here… seeing my parents on the weekend (a train ride away on the LIRR), buying coffee at bodegas, my editors at Women’s eNews (I just feel good stepping into their office! What a fantastic place!), and of course, the subway! After being jostled and smacked around Kampala in the city’s taxis (their word for buses, or public transport), the MTA seems almost delightful.  And of course– the Gray Lady on my doorstep! Nothing like reading the newspaper on the train to feel like home.

The best part is that the next time I am in East Africa, I’ll feel just as good! I’ll trade in my cereal for rolex, a cup of wine for a tot of banana gin, and the NYT for some of my favorite Ugandan reporters.  Whether I am heading home or to Uganda, I feel like I am going home either way.  No matter the direction, I feel so safe and loved.  Blessed, in every sense.

And it all feels very Wizard & Oz to me.  “Now Dorothy, you knew how to get home, all along…” My life is intertwined with Uganda, my other home.  But for this moment in time, I am clicking my heels three times…

Royalty Free
The City of My Dreams: Home
vincent and becky
Vincent Kasozi and me, in my last day at New Vision

Life in New York  has been full of all sorts of pleasant surprises and moments.  I am doing a bunch of interesting things… first, I’ve been working on a website for the Ugandan diaspora (we go live on Nov. 30!) with the support of CUNY and the Ugandan Association of New York (UGAANY), and my fantastic business partner, Emmanuel.

Emmanuel and I have started a web company called Africa Connections, which finances independent journalism in our readers’ home countries through diaspora services.  We are starting off with Uganda as a model group for our project, which makes sense, given our backgrounds.  I’ve been to Uganda four times, most recently writing for New Vision, but for a variety of adventures/endeavors over the years, such as a four-month study abroad program in college, where I lived with an urban and rural host family in Kampala and Busia (an agricultural town on the Ugandan/Kenyan border).

Emmanuel is a Ugandan who seems to have lived my life in reverse.  He grew up in Busia, which is how we connected– I wrote a travel piece for New Vision about my time spent in eastern Uganda, and he was able to find my e-mail through this blog.  For college, he moved to Kampala, and studied at the same university where I did for study abroad.  (FYI: I was reading the Ugandan news today, and apparently Makerere University, one of the best on the African continent, can’t pay their light bill!)He did the social sciences (I did too, with a bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence, and a concentration in Africana studies), then moved to NYC for a CUNY program, and lived at -yes- Ihouse!!

Valentine’s Day at Ihouse: Min, Jackie and me

I also stayed at International House (its full name), a fantastic grad dorm where a thousand students from 100 different countries (Really!) live together for up to three years.  (I did one year there, at their historic building in Morningside Heights, for fall 2007-spring 2008.)  He went back to Uganda, then came back to study web design at John Hopkin’s University, and is now doing an MBA at the University of Maryland.

We became friends when I was in Uganda through one of my potent addictions: gmail! (Coffee and gmail run my life.  Or do I run them? It’s a toss-up.) While I battled homesickness and work stress (writing for a Ugandan daily was like boot camp, except for the fact that staff served us ginger tea every 2-3 hours), Emmanuel would encourage me, laugh at the way Ugandan sub-editors would ‘Ugandanize’ my copy and writing style, and generally cheer me on.  We met up in Baltimore where he lives, and decided to go into business together.

So, look out for our website on Nov. 30. ! It will go live at http://www.ugandansabroad.org.  Ugandans Abroad (the parent companyis AfricaConnections) will feature a ton of content (most written by me!), bloggers, video, loads of thoughtful news aggregation so you can get your latest Ugandafix, and helpful diaspora services.  These include a store to get Ugandan products, a wire transfer service cheaper than Western Union and Money Gram to send cash to Kampala, and a delivery service to sends gifts to relatives in Uganda using pay pal.

You can follow us on twitter and facebook, and this will help me stay in touch with you (the audience that lifted me up when I was abroad).  Friend UgandansAbroad, or check out some of our twitter feeds at: BugandaKingdom (latest tweets about Buganda), HealthyUganda (latest health news, such as the recent plague threat in Nebbi, and a cancer that interacts with malaria, killing Ugandan kids), and UgandaBusiness.

Suggestions and ideas? Let me know.  E-mail me at rebecca.jane.harshbarger@gmail.com.

Riots After Kabaka Blocked from Visiting Kayunga


Hi everybody.  This is your favorite munnamawulire (journalist), checking in with you from Uganda.   Yesterday and today have been pure chaos in Kampala.  Yesterday and today, riots killed as many as ten people, including a teenage boy, and the city was a mess of tear gas and bullets as the Ugandan military and police tried to quell the rioters

New Vision

New Vision

Yesterday’s riots began after an advance team for the Kabaka, the king of the Buganda kingdom, was blocked from entering Kayunga district.  The Ugandan government feared the visit would incite violence because the Banyala say they have seceded from the Buganda kingdom, and see the Kabaka’s visit as an affront.  President Museveni said the Kabaka cannot visit Kayunga unless Mengo officials, Banyala leaders opposing the visit, and the Internal Affairs minister meet.

The riots eventually spread to seven Kampala suburbs, with mobs angry that the Kabaka was blocked from visiting Kayunga, which is an area in central Uganda.  Five radio stations, including CBS, have been taken off the air/suspended for allegedly inciting violence.  You know my thoughts about CBS after they began inciting violence against the NV company & its reporters after our controversial Bulange story

I write features stories for Saturday Vision so I wasn’t affected, just working on some health and business stories, but the news desk and photo team were on the front lines, making our paper proud with their bravery and teamwork.  One of my friends taking photographs showed me two bullets he picked up lying on the ground.  I’ve been safe and sound, though, as a features reporter, and will probably spend the weekend most indoors, since public transport in the main part of town is blocked off, as are many of the streets.

I’ve been relying on facebook to get news updates from my friends scattered all over Kampala, posting the latest thing they’ve seen or heard on their facebook status pages.

According to New Vision, 64 people are currently being held by the police for taking part in the riots.  Also, some rioters have begun attacking Indian merchants, using it as an opportunity to loot their stores.

The President of the Ugandan Ghetto

Bobi Wine, one of Uganda's top artists, self-proclaimed president of the Ghetto

Bobi Wine, one of Uganda's top artists, self-proclaimed president of the Ghetto


Interviewing the president of the ghetto is no easy task.  Although I arrived at Bobi Wine’s office around 11 am, I didn’t leave until 5 pm.  When I finished, I was so worn out I needed 2 cups of coffee to get back to office.  I had little expectations of the man before I went to see him—though he said he was a man of the people, I had an open mind.  His actions would show me, rather than his words.  I came by boda to his office, which were a few rooms in an incomplete, under-construction building in Bukoto. Waiting for him, surrounded by dusty buildings, people living on what looked like less than a dollar a day, I saw a shiny black Ford Mustang drive up very quickly.  Inside, was the president of the Ghetto.  

Ford Mustang

Ford Mustang

Wine wore a large black studded cowboy hat, a black shirt with a white one underneath, black pants, a huge belt with a silver star, and large silver rings.  He wore a huge metallic ring that looked like a small boulder on his pinky finger.  His hair was dreaded, and there was a large black chain that hung from his belt, dangling off his hips.  I didn’t know that I would have to wait for an interview from him for almost 90 minutes.  I was led with another reporter from Sunday Vision, Moses Opobo, to plastic black chairs outside his studio to watch Pink and Mariah Carey videos.  Bobi Wine chatted with a reporter from the Red Pepper for over an hour, and then two men from his village in Mpigi came with a proposal to ask him for money.  Young kids, who looked like they belonged in primary school, walked around his office in metallic hip-hop gear.

The problem with getting an interview with Bobi Wine is that his mind can drift within ten seconds—one minute he might be reliving a moment from his time in exile as a child in Tanzania, the next minute he is thinking about ghetto youth who use ganja.  Eventually, Opobo just wandered into his office, and Wine remembered that we were there.  Come on in, he said.

Bobi Wine’s favorite president Wine’s office was tiny and plain, but decorated with some mementos.  On his black desk was a snow globe of Dubai, a small flag of the Buganda kingdom, and the Ugandan flag.  A huge painting of him, his son Solomon Kampala, and his wife Barbie hung on the wall, with a medium photograph of Ida Amin tucked inside, though he had no photo of President Museveni.  Stickers for the Ghetto Republic decorated his door and refrigerator. The interview was not easy. 

Wine has a warm, easy repertoire with Opobo, but with me, he seemed uneasy and skeptical of my motives.  We started off the interview with the basics- what was he up to? Wine said he was working on an album for next year, and trying to sensitize the police about treating youth who use ganja with respect.  “I support the use of ganja, but not the abuse,” said Wine seriously.  “I want to work on the relationship between the police and the community, and the criminalization of youth who use ganja.”  Wine said he was starting a foundation for ghetto youth, and working with Barbie on her campaign to promote healthy minds.        

We then began to talk about Wine’s upbringing.  “I have forty-three brothers and sisters,” he said.  “My father was the richest man in his county, and he had seven wives.”  Frowning, Wine then told me that his father was still producing at 69, and had a child that was younger than Wine’s kids.  I asked Wine if he planned to have more than three kids.  He looked at me in shock.  “I am a strong. African.  Man,” he said emphatically, pausing between words.  “If I still have wealth, of course I will have more children.”Wine told me that although his father was a very wealthy man, he lost everything when Obote 2 took over.  Under Amin, his dad prospered, but lost everything when the regimes switched. 

Bobi Wine's favorite president

“Do you know Idi Amin?” he asked, raising his hand to the photo of Amin he displayed in his office.  “She’s heard of him, she knows of him,” Opobo told him. “Idi Amin was the greatest president Uganda ever had,” he said, gesturing towards the photograph.  Wine said that his family went into exile in Tanzania before he was born, and kept returning to Uganda, then going back.  His mom raised him in Kamwokya, and he told me that he was still traumatized by the scars of his experiences there.

“I don’t hate poverty,” Wine said, as if the word hate was not strong enough.  “I.  Fear.  It.”  The words seemed to tremble in his mouth.  We then spoke about Wine’s death.  According to our Kamwokya leader, he died at the age of eleven years.  “I was reading Milton Obote’s writing, and he said it’s good to die a bit,” he said softly.  “So you live longer.  There was a time…when I never existed.  I died—in poverty.  I didn’t have slippers, breakfast or lunch.  I had no hope.” 

He told me that most kids in schools who are bright are the one with the best backgrounds—the children of prominent doctors or lawyers.  “I was the brightest kid in my school,” he said.  “God gave me brains.”  The bright kids stuck together, but Wine felt so much pain.  He had to stay around school late in the hopes of getting free food, while his friends “moved around in cars.”  Speaking about it, Wine shuddered, as if feeling that feeling of death again.

“It is better to be dead than to be poor,” said Wine emphatically.  “A dead man doesn’t have to beg.  A dead man can’t feel hunger.”  He told me then not only did he die in poverty, but he was resurrected in poverty, when he began to work to feed his sisters and family.  “I began to rise up through singing,” he said. 

We talked about his relationship with Bebe Cool and Chameleon.  Wine said he would have never built him and Barbie a mansion if it wasn’t for Chameleon’s teasing and boasting.  “You see, if I began teasing that small man, Chameleon, for his size, do you know what he would he do?” he said.  “He would begin eating a lot of food! Well, Chameleon kept teasing me about where I lived, so I had to build a huge mansion for me and Barbie.  Now I don’t know what to do with it.  Me, I’m comfortable with cheap things.  The food I like is cheap.  The cars I own? They are for Barbie, so that she, this daughter of a rich man, can have this image that she is married to a superstar.”

The interview was intense.  At times, Wine would get up and move around.  His face was filled with emotion.  Sometimes it would crumble in agony, and then he would begin laughing like a boy.  When he smiled, his grin seemed to take up half his face.  But mostly, his mood was dark.  His phone rang constantly; he took over twenty calls during the interview.  He offered me lunch, and a waitress came to the office to take our orders.  I tried to order chicken and posho, but the waitress then refused to take our orders and left his offices angrily.  Apparently, Wine had racked up a large bill at her small restaurant that they didn’t want to serve him and his crew anymore, before they cleared it.  He didn’t want to give her cash, so the waitress stormed off. 

My stomach growling, I went to use the bathroom before I ventured to Bukoto on a food expedition.  There was a pool of urine on the floor, and the bathroom had a bad scent. I chatted for a bit with Wine before leaving, but it was clear his mood was terrible.  He invited me to the beach the next day, but everything I said seemed foul to him, judging by his expression. 

“Have you met Barack Obama?” he asked me, and I shook my head.  “What about Arnold Schwarzenegger?” “No,” I said.  “I haven’t met the governor of California.  America has 300 million people.” 

Shocked, his eyebrows furrowing, Wine asked me if I had ever seen Chris Rock.  “No,” I said.  “I could probably pay a $50 entrance fee and go to one of his shows, but I’d rather just download them onto my laptop, and watch from there.”

“You live in America,” Wine said, as if I was a four-year-old child.  “And you’ve never met Obama, Schwarzenegger, or Chris Rock?” Annoyed that Wine seemed to think the U.S. was a place where you could walk your dog and stumble upon Will Smith (there are eight million people who live in New York City alone), I changed the subject and asked him when he would visit me there, since I was heading back to New York soon.

“I go to New York all the time,” he said.  “I like being anonymous.  In Uganda, everyone knows who I am, but no one in New York, except the Ugandans there, who make too big a deal out of me.”

“Do you visit the parks or museums?” I asked.  “See our culture?”

“No,” he said snarkily.  “I like to shop there.  When I want to go shopping, I fly to New York.”  He then asked me how long I had been with New Vision, and in Uganda.  I told him I originally came to Uganda in 2007 as a student, and he cut me off with disgust.

“So you’re here illegally?” he asked me snottily, and then looked away.

Feeling irritated, I went to get some lunch next to his office with the reporter, relying on our own cash, and then said goodbye to the ghetto president.  His mood seemed warmer, and I could hear him laughing as he watched music videos on TV.  He invited me to his beach, One Love, the following day, and I caught a taxi back to town.  Although I had grown to adore Wine’s music, which seemed to capture the literal heart of Kampala, the man himself seemed emotional and troubled.


ugandan kids 

1.   Why don’t girls have hair? When I first came to Uganda, it seemed at first that it was a country filled with many, many boy children.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that most girls shaved their heads before classes began, for uniformity and neatness.  When I was in primary school, my mom showed her delight in having a daughter by making me grow my hair so long that I could sit on it.  It wasn’t until my parents separated that I finally felt the sweet pleasure of having short hair, the feeling of a cool breeze on my neck. 

In eighth grade, or S2 as it’s known here, hair was a huge deal.  It could make or break you.  All teen girls obsessed over their hair.  It took up a lot of time.  In the morning, before classes started, girls would flock to the bathrooms armed with large paddle brushes and combs, determined to get perfect, shiny locks.  A trip to the hair dresser could determine your social future. 

When I was thirteen, I hated my hair much more than I hated geometry and chemistry, my least favorite school units.  It was incredibly oily, weak, and limp—so limp, it could barely stay up in a ponytail or bun.  Thinking about the sad state of my hair took up most of my thirteen-year-old brain cells.  When I wasn’t thinking about it, I agonized over my jeans (too short for my constantly growing legs) and tops.  After I went to Uganda the first time, I showed my friend Dorothy (who I met in S2) pictures of my Ugandan sisters, and we reflected on what a big deal hair was growing up.  Maybe Ugandan schools have it right—shave your heads, and use your brain cells for something useful… like geometry, for starters.

Mosa Courts, Kampala

Mosa Courts, Kampala

2.  Where do people get their money? This really confounds me.  In the U.S., people’s source of money is usually obvious.  It’s their salary!  The expansive houses, luxury cars, and posh vacations usually belong to people who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year at their (formal) jobs.  People with small salaries usually have tiny houses or rooms that they rent, and stay at home during leave.  Of course, salary doesn’t necessarily mean prestige in the U.S.  Some of my friends with prestigious jobs in the arts make little money, while a friend I know that works as a security guard and bouncer at a trendy club makes $90,000 a year, or sh180million shillings.  But people’s material wealth usually lines up with their salaries.  In Uganda, it’s a different story.  Someone will have a tiny salary, but a large car worth millions of shillings, and a huge house.  Others with salaries that seem to indicate they should be eating rolex own large amounts of land outside of Kampala.  Since credit is practically nonexistent in Uganda, compared to the debt-friendly U.S., I’m forced to realize that the same people with tiny salaries probably paid for their houses with cash.  Cash? Not credit! Where does their money come from, I often wonder.  What they own is much larger than their salary after taxes.  Of course, what I always want to say is—what on Earth are you doing after 5 pm? Clearly, harvesting some cash.

Bye Mzungu!

3.  Why do children say bye, rather than hello? Any friend who has the misfortune of walking with me anywhere in Uganda is used to hearing this greeting: bye-iii, Mzungu! Bye-iii! Although Uganda may sometimes be divided over land and other issues, at least its children everywhere seem to be in total solidarity on how to greet foreigners.  As soon as you start to feel comfortable in Uganda, like it could be your home, there is always a loud group of kids all too eager to wish you goodbye. 

Which leads me to wonder, why don’t they say hi? At first, I tried to start a “Hello trend.”  Walking home, I would realize I had been spotted, and hear kids already making their goodbyes to me.  But I’m not leaving, I would complain in my head.  “Hello! Hello!” I would respond.  Eventually, I gave up.  Goodbye, it will have to be.

In My Culture, Being Thin Means Beauty & Wealth

In My Culture, Being Thin Means Beauty & Wealth

4.  How can you tell me I look fat? In the U.S., where a lot of our fruits and vegetables are imported, good nutrition and a slim, even malnourished body is associated with wealth.  Fans of Desperate Housewives, a series popular in video libraries here, might recall how one housewife fought to have the prestige of being a size “zero,” even during her pregnancy.  In America, it seems to be that the more money you have, the skinnier you become.  Some of the wealthiest women in the U.S. are the tiniest, like Paris Hilton.  Top-grossing supermodels seem to live on cigarettes and black coffee.  It seems that those overweight in the U.S. are perceived as depressed (as if you stay at home in your free time, weeping over a carton of ice cream) or poor (you can only afford to eat at McDonald’s and Burger King).  These are crude stereotypes, but perceptions stick.  After all, going to the gym, having a trainer, and purchasing pricey, organic fruits and vegetables requires quite a few dollars.  In fact, in some low-income neighborhoods in the U.S., it can be almost impossible to find anything resembling a mango or greens.  Living in Uganda gives me a large amount of cultural dissonance.  When I came back to the country in March, many of my colleagues greeted me warmly with cries of, “Becky, you’re grown fat! You’ve put on a lot of weight in your stomach.”  Instantly, I recoiled, wanting to run to the nearest bathroom to cry.  Although I knew it was a cultural difference, my gut reaction was—how can you be so heartless and rude? I would gulp two or three times, as if to swallow my hurt.  Luckily, I know that when I go home, I’ll be greeted with the sweet sounds of “Becky, you look so skinny!” My friends will grab me and compliment my skinny arms or waist, even if my weight is relatively the same as when I left.  This, in my land, means that I look good!


5.  Why are NGOs seen as business ventures? In the U.S., working for a nonprofit or NGO is something you do as a financial sacrifice.  Hence, perhaps, the name “nonprofit.”  Although not always the case, such as a career is perceived to require a lot of time, commitment, and financial austerity.  In Uganda, this is not true.  NGOs are a business, a source of foreign exchange.  Those I know working for NGOs in Kampala or upcountry are perceived as lucky, wealthy, “making good money.”  It’s a complete reversal of how nonprofits are viewed in the U.S., where people will often have to take on a second or third job to survive in their NGO work.  But in Uganda, the word on the street is that nonprofits are really for-profits.