The meaning of Uganda’s walk to work protests

Iwaya says it better than anyone:

W-2-W is not about Dr. Besigye though the government propaganda machine has worked its damn hardest to try and reduce it to the person of Besigye. It is about the appalling economic situation Ugandans find themselves in today led by an unresponsive government that folds its hands and declares, “There’s nothing we can do,” to alleviate your suffering, but you have got to keep paying those taxes on time. W-2-W is about many Ugandans finding, those who have jobs, that pretty soon those jobs will have no meaning because they can barely afford the transport costs from home to the place of work, fuel prices so high, to work will be like earning money that never settles in your wallet, you are working for your transport costs, your food costs, rent—and you have nothing left for yourself. W-2-W demonstrations are all about the things that have been going wrong with Uganda since Ugandans first had self rule, decided to keep the faith in leader after leader because each leader promised there would be a change and now we find ourselves in worse straits than we were 50 years ago and suddenly we are all realising an important truth, “Politics is too important to be left to the politicians.” We have all got to get involved and struggle for a change towards where we wish Uganda to be headed.

You should read his entire post: The Walk to Work demonstrations, to me

Tracking Kenya’s Development Budget

I woke up early last Monday morning to interview Philip Thigo of the Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool for the Technology for Transparency Network. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun asking someone questions.

I woke up early last Monday morning to interview Philip Thigo of the Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool for the Technology for Transparency Network. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun asking someone questions.

If you listen to the podcast, you’ll hear faint sounds of Nairobi in the background: horns honking, people walking around. As Philip chatted candidly with me about the successes and struggles of encouraging greater transparency in Kenya’s national budget, I imagined him in his office, the door propped open, curtains blowing in the breeze.

Can you tell that living in New York has made me a bit desperate for sunshine and perhaps a return trip to Kampala?

Anyway, the noise makes for an interview that sounds less than studio-produced, but it also makes me happy. The sounds of life in east Africa, Philip’s laughter and his enthusiasm for his work all combined to create an awesome interview experience, and I highly recommend that you read the full case study and listen to the podcast.

jetlag and misconceptions

On a flight this morning from New York to Chicago, I was seated next to a couple heading to visit their son. It was snowing, and I mentioned that I hadn’t yet seen snow in New York this winter because I’d been traveling so much. They asked where I was coming from, and when I told them I’d just been in Uganda, the man laughed and said, “You must be hungry.”

I didn’t know how to tell him that I’d eaten better in Kampala than I do in New York — Greek salads, macaroni and cheese, malai kofta, apple pie. I didn’t know how to erase this image of Africa he seemed to have, where people scramble for the few grains of rice that drop off a passing World Food Program truck or where babies bathe, if they bathe, in bracken water collected in a filthy ditch.

It’s not that he’s entirely wrong, which I think is why I have trouble describing Uganda to someone who’s never been there. Parts of the country, those scarred by conflict or disease, provide perfect footage for World Vision’s sponsor-a-child commercials: children sitting naked in the dust, huge families crammed into too-small huts, sons lost to war and daughters to malaria.

Kampala skyline, via peprice on Flickr

Homeless woman in New York, via dgphilli on Flickr

At the same time, Kampala is a bustling city, constantly under construction, where you can procure everything from a new Land Rover to a margarita. I am frustrated that people cannot seem to hold both these images in their minds, the same way that they somehow reconcile urban homelessness with Trump Towers and the Chrysler Building.

Even those who have seen both sides of Africa struggle with this, with how to present the realities of extreme poverty and shiny new Mexican restaurants without either feeding stereotypes or wrongly glossing over the problems that do exist. Life in much of Africa is still a struggle for existence, a struggle against hunger and sickness and violence. The same thing can be said of much of America: though civil wars may not regularly threaten our society, gang wars do (Rev told me this week that he’s afraid I’ll die in a drive-by shooting), as do food shortages and a lack of affordable medical care. In both cases, though, glittering skyscrapers and fancy hotels make up a regular part of the landscape. So why is one dichotomy so much more acceptable than they other?

I wish I had known how to explain this to this couple. I’m not sure how much good it would have done, though — as we were getting off the plane, they started harassing an elderly man who was having trouble getting out of his seat, blaming him for holding up the line. “Old people should stay home,” the woman muttered to her husband. It is perhaps not the best sign of my character that, in my exhausted, jetlagged state, I seriously considered kicking both of them.

jackfruit of the week (10.15.08): blog action day 2008

Midterms are kicking in this week, and I’m trying to juggle six classes, SIPA’s blog, Bayit life (including a three-hour dinner in our sukkah yesterday), research responsibilities and some other stuff I’ve probably forgotten. Among the fifteen tips my econ professor gave us for taking the midterm:

What to do if you freeze. I hope it does not happen, but rarely it happens. Let me know (I will be around). Leave the classroom for 5 minutes instead of staring aimlessly at the exam paper for 30 minutes. The bright side of freezing is that it happens only once. I have never had a student who froze twice.

Good to know there’s a bright side of freezing during a three-hour test. In other, less panic-attack inducing news, today is Blog Action Day, an annual event geared toward getting bloggers around the world to focus for one day on a topic of global importance. This year’s topic is poverty, and everyone from TechCrunch to my mom and dad has gotten in on the action.

Much of what I do at Columbia on a daily basis involves poverty, whether the discussion revolves around human rights or global imbalances or gender. A favorite topic of students and professors alike is microfinance, a system that involves giving loans to those with little or no credit, often to help them start or maintain a business. Loans can be given by institutions that specialize in providing financial services to the poor, by regular banks, or by you through organizations like Kiva, which matches prospective lenders to entrepreneurs around the world and lets both parties share information and track progress online. Another hot topic is fair trade, a movement to ensure that workers in the developing world — like coffee farmers and artisans — are given a fair price for the goods they produce.

In northern Uganda, an organization my friend Halle started is using fair trade to boost available job opportunities for women in northern Uganda. Called One Mango Tree, the organization works with women tailors in Gulu and two nearby displaced persons camps, marketing and selling their products in the United States and online. The women are trained by existing tailors and paid fairly for their work, and OMT uses part of the profits to equip them with bicycles and send their children to school.

I’m a huge fan of the work OMT is doing, as well as a proud owner of several of their initial product prototypes, including an early version of the original and the yoga mat bag. If you’re looking for a way to help tackle poverty, why not do it by partnering with some amazing, talented women? Check out One Mango Tree for more about their history, goals and products.