uganda bloggers happy hour

The first Uganda Bloggers Happy Hour will take place on Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 6:30 PM at Mateo’s (above Nando’s on Kampala Road, K’la). Bring your wit, your feistiness, your eloquence and your humor and meet up with the myriad of voices, minds and opinions that make up the Ugandan blogosphere.

Friends, readers and the blog-curious are welcome, as is anyone willing to debate the faults and merits of Aga Khan or Jay-Z. We hope this happy hour will serve as a springboard from which the Uganda blogging community can trade ideas, stories and opinions and continue to grow. We look forward to seeing you there!

(Out of the Uganda blogger loop? Check out the Global Voices Uganda page or the links to the right.)

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would you like fries with that?

Last night my roommate and I indulged in a number of vices: cheese, cigarettes, beer. A couple of hours later, sitting on the balcony, I blurted out a tipsy confession:

I really want meat right now.

This statement may not be shocking, but it runs contrary to the more than third of my life I’ve spent as a vegetarian.

I try to dissect the craving — it’s salt, I decide. I just need salt.

We decide to run across the street and split a plate of chips. On our way, we’re accosted by a friendly Ugandan who offers us “special chicken.” We pass him by, get our chips, and head home. We meet him again.

“Hello, madame! Hello! You want special chicken?”

He’s very insistant, and we’re very…err…persuadable. “Might as well put all possible toxins in our body at once,” Roommate says. I shrug. What’s one piece of chicken? And what makes it so special? We rummage in our pockets for cash, and Roommate comes up with a dollar.

“Fine. I’ll give you one American dollar for one piece of special chicken.” We look at each other and giggle at the lengths to which a street vendor will go to make a late-night sale.

Rather than go back to his grill to make the chicken, though, this particular street vendor disappears into a little shack in the parking lot. He comes back chickenless, and we wonder if he’s going to demand money that’s actually worth something here.

Instead, he presses a small, white, cylindrical object into Roommate’s hand. “Special chicken,” he repeats in a whisper.

Oh holy mother of God.

Roommate and I stare at the joint — for that is what it is, unmistakably — in horrified amusement.

“Special chicken,” I say again.

“Special chicken,” Roommate agrees.

The vendor — dealer? — nods his head enthusiastically. “Special chicken!” he crows.


A question for the Ministry of Works, Housing and Communications

Q: How many Ugandans does it take to get a matatu (shared minivan taxi) from Kampala to Entebbe?

A: Two to maneuver your friend’s suitcase into the front seat; another to charge her 225% of the fare because she’s bringing luggage (I’m sorry, isn’t everyone else?); three to load the back of the vehicle with bags of grain and sacks of live chickens; two to strap foam mattresses to the top; one to yell at those strapping mattresses to the top about the way in which they’re strapping mattresses to the top; six to get in, properly position (read: cram into every available nook and cranny) their baggage, get settled, then change their minds, extract their belongings and leave; one to roll his eyes at the six indecisive ones; two to press water, biscuits, handkerchiefs, newspapers and other assorted, unwanted goods on the passengers; one to beg for money as you finally roll out of the taxi park; one to run over a roadside plasticware stand two blocks from the taxi park; and three to re-pack the grain and (possibly no longer live) chickens when the back comes open after running over the plastics.

A friend and I have joked about a Frequent Matatu Rider Program. I would totally cash in my kilometers for a conductor who would adhere to the little sign painted on the side of every van that reads, “Licenced to carry 14 passengers” instead of cramming 23 people and their assorted poultry into one vehicle. A guarantee that you’ll never have to sit on the crack between the bench and the fold-down seat? What about a VIP lounge at the taxi park? Front door pick-up service? Air conditioning? Waragi-and-tonics on trips longer than thirty minutes?

The program could take its cue from KLM’s Flying Blue. I can see it now:

Riding Dirty

Do you think the government could get Jay-Z (as long as he’s on his charity kick) to convince Chamillionaire to let them his track as a theme song?

Behold, behold: the NGO spectacle

I met an American undergraduate a few weeks ago who was writing his senior thesis on the “NGO circus” in Uganda.

His point (I think — it was hard to get past his carefully cultivated skepticism and the unlit cigar he carried around in his mouth like an über-cool oral security blanket) was that the proliferation of NGOs in Uganda in the last 20 years has made it more, not less, difficult for the country to develop. He focused on international organizations, but I see the same thing happening at the local level.

I spent last week in Gulu talking to several Ugandan non-profit and community-based groups about their projects. I hoped to learn about national reconciliation from the grassroots level and to come home more informed about what needs to happen in the north for peace to become a reality. Instead, I found myself wading through a swamp of catchy development terminology that didn’t seem to make any more sense to the people I met with than it did to me.

The project leaders talked animatedly to me about microfinance and community mobilization and adult literacy programs. They all wanted to address every single problem in northern Uganda, from HIV to education to arts and sports to cultural renewal to child soldiers to agriculture. One group had a total of three volunteers but was working on eight separate multi-year, multi-district proposals, each covering a multiple aspects of rebuilding. The proposals were full of attractive phrases and energetic language, but after spending an hour with the director, I could tell he had no understanding of the economic theory, organizational principles or sheer manpower required to turn his projects into realities.

Those I spoke with clung to their CBOs and PRSPs and QUIPs as if the very letters would save them. Some seemed to think that creating a successful income-generating activity was as easy as saying “IGA.” It truly was a circus — the directors spouting acronyms like desperate ringmasters while their projects flopped around like mistreated, malnourished performance animals.

Uganda doesn’t need another project proposal from another would-be community leader with an over-inflated vocabulary and no training to back it up. These people are well-meaning, but as influenced as they are by the development industry talk in Uganda, their Big Ideas are just as much top-down (as opposed to local-level) as international initiatives. A thousand times better would be an organization that actually consulted the people around it to find out what they need and how best to achieve it, rather than succumbing to the Ringling-Bros.-esque attraction of development novelty acts.

Cavities and broken records: Africa’s lack of self-confidence

I quit my job this week (not the one with the peanut butter life saver — no worries, my life is still in good hands). I left for several reasons, but the last straw was a conversation that went something like this:

Me: You can’t rely solely on international volunteers to make this work. You need to recruit Ugandan volunteers as well, or even more heavily.

Director: But Ugandan volunteers are not as good as international volunteers.

Me: Why not? None of the international volunteers here right now have teaching degrees, but you’ve turned down three Ugandans who wanted to work here who all have teaching experience.

Director: But Ugandan volunteers are not as good as international volunteers.
His monomaniacal, unsubstantiated claim that the qualified Ugandans who have been clamoring to work for the organization are “not as good” as inexperienced college students from the U.S. was, shall we say, mildly unsettling. Earlier this month, Angelo Izama wrote on the sub-Saharan African roundtable about what he calls modern shamba boys. He laments what he considers to be the prevailing attitude among Africans, and especially African leaders, that they are inferior to the West:

“The shamba boy mentality is built on a conspiracy of history and circumstances that make it acceptable for our leaders to play second fiddle to their white masters and others whiter than them including Asians and Chinese nowadays. This complacency replaces their responsibility to become their own masters….”
Wendy Glauser also claims that “many Africans embrace a collective inferiority complex. Their governments are backward, corrupt and care only about power. Their people are tribalist, selfish, war-loving. This perception, like Canada‚Äôs public perception of itself, is one-sided and simple-minded, devoid of the complex current and historical international forces that determine the behaviour of a society and its government.”

Vividly illustrating the claims of these two authors is Dennis Matanda, who states that “Africans are not inferior to whites” but also writes that “Africa is not a cursed continent and neither is it ravaged by disease and poverty. The poverty you have is at the top [in the heads of the leaders so to speak] and the only rampant diseases are dental ones where the leaders have large holes in the back of their teeth.” He goes on to say that all African leaders are “mad” and that Africans are, as a whole, “lazy.”

Izama argues that the only way out of this attitude is for Africans to take charge of their own problems — “to find that desire to stop serving others and begin serving ourselves.” Glauser seconds this opinion, suggesting more indigenous lobbies and better African investigative journalism. Matanda offers no solution.

My two cents? The impending failure of the organization I just left is directly proportional to its leader’s reliance upon Western volunteers to swoop down and save it. I would argue that the persistence of many “African problems” is related to a belief that, eventually, donor money or foreign troops will come. This belief in the supremacy of Western aid, I think, makes many Africans less likely to take the steps needed to pull themselves out of poverty, disease and war. It’s an endless, self-perpetuating cycle of dependency: I want the West to save me, so I do nothing. I do nothing, so the West sends help. The West sends help, so I believe I am incapable of solving my own problems. I believe I am incapable of solving my own problems, so I want the West to save me.

Breaking out of this cycle is possibly the single most difficult challenge Africa faces today. Unfortunately for those of us who work in the realm of “humanitarian aid,” there’s not much we can do to help (kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?) except stand by and encourage those we meet to take charge of their own futures.