Saturday, July 31, 2010

Random reflections and observations I forgot to include:
  • In Southern Uganda I passed several monuments commemorating the deaths of PLO fighters there in the late 1970s. That's right, Palestinian Liberation Organization--in the heart of Africa. Apparently, when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin realized his 1978 invasion of Tanzania had gone awry, he called on his friend Muammar Gaddafi, dictator of Libya, for help in defending Uganda against the Tanzanian counterattack. Gaddafi, then a proud sponsor of all sorts of terrorist groups, was happy to send down a few thousand Palestinian irregulars and Libyan soldiers to help keep Amin in power. The Tanzanians swiftly crushed them (and many of the nicer town centers of southern Uganda and Kampala) as they ended Amin's reign of terror.
  • The cheap cell phone I bought in Kenya for local calls included a feature that pointed the way to Mecca and sounded a "prayer alarm" 5 times a day.
  • I stepped on a sea urchin in the Indian Ocean and had to remove 7 spines from my foot with a sewing needle. Ouch.
  • One night in Mombasa, Wossen (my Yale friend) and I returned to our homestay family's apartment for our regular home-made dinner. When we arrived, we found to our astonishment that the family was sitting silently in front of the TV with blank, distant expressions frozen on their faces. There was no dinner on the table and no appetizing smells wafting from the kitchen. Arfan, the head of the household, got up slowly and took us aside, saying, "I'm sorry boys, but my wife is just not up to cooking dinner tonight-- you'll have to fix yourselves your own meals." Wossen and I looked at each other and began frying some eggs and heating up some leftovers; we ended up cooking for the whole family, who continued to act curiously mute and inert. Later, Arfan explained to us that the whole family had been driving through downtown Mombasa when someone had strolled up to the car in front of them and murdered the driver and passengers in broad daylight with an AK-47 assault rifle, then got into another car and sped away. Though we had become used to Arfan's rather tall tales by this point, the ashen faces of the rest of the family confirmed his story. The next day the newspapers reported the assassination of an intelligence official on a Mombasa street.
  • A taxi driver of mine in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, drove really erratically for the first minute or so of the trip while he prepared his khat for the ride. He patiently stripped leaves off the stems and, once he had accumulated a sizable pile in his lap, he unceremoniously stuffed them in his mouth. Instantly, he became soothed and focused, and a much better driver. (Khat is a leafy plant that is virtually a way of life for many in the Horn of Africa and especially, I'm told, across the Straits in Yemen and Arabia.)
  • My flight from Addis Ababa to Amsterdam was filled with Americans adopting babies from Ethiopia. Touching in a way, but kind of a weird vibe. Also, a lot of crying on the plane.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Where I stayed pics

Here for comparison are pictures of the places I stayed during my trip!

My capacious suite in Stuttgart, Germany. Note that I'm standing in the doorway:

The Golf Course Hotel in Kampala, Uganda:

The Kibale Primate Lodge in western Uganda:

Saint Bakhita House, the compound of the Sudanese Bishop in Nairobi, Kenya:

The cozy living room of the Khan household in Mombasa, Kenya. From left, Yunus (Yale grad student and cousin of our host), Wossen (Yale undergrad), and Lena, the wife of my host.

The view from my balcony at the Bole Rock Hotel in Addis Ababa:

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ethiopia pics

Here are some long awaited pictures from Ethiopia!

Mt Kilimanjaro from the plane:
One of many Lion of Judah statues in downtown Addis Ababa - it symbolizes the lineage of Ethiopia's emperors from King Solomon of the Bible

The massive tomb of Haile Selassie I (aka Ras Tafari), the last Emperor of Ethiopia. This picture was taken in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in downtown Addis. The vibrant colors were a complete surprise to me; without my camera's flash, the crypt was almost pitch black:
Kids playing soccer outside the Derg Monument, a massive reminder of Ethiopia's painful 1970s Communist dictatorship, which overthrew Haile Selassie and butchered a quarter-million people.
Shepherd boys cracking their whips high above Addis (seen in the background)

A rainbow arcs over an Addis Ababa slum, which abuts a brand new highway built by the Chinese

Worshipers pack the plaza outside St George Cathedral on a rainy Wednesday

The Oxford Computer Technology center and its state-of-the-art dirt road and corrugated tin siding

Great billboard in downtown Addis: showing a tribal warrior with spear and a barebreasted woman with a huge lip ring working on a computer, it reads "communication for the Ethiopian market"

Peasants load up their donkeys with firewood and I think leaves to sell in Addis Ababa's markets

Camel Ride

In Mombasa!
Directed by: Wossen Ayele
Produced by: Wossen Ayele
Cameraman: Wossen Ayele

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Terrorist attack

Looks like I got out of Kampala just in time:

I've been in touch with the friends I made in Kampala and they're okay. This tragedy reinforces how relevant my research is to world events. I discussed Uganda's military presence in Somalia many times with defense officials over the past month-- many predicted that Uganda could become a focal point for terrorism. I was skeptical at the time, and very sad to see their predictions proved correct. Please pray for the victims and for justice for the perpetrators.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Mombasa pics 1

I'm back home! but unfortunately still feeling some of the intestinal effects of Ethiopian food sanitization practices. Hopefully I'll be up to speed in a couple days. Until then, here's some Mombasa pics

Rainbow over the Mombasa harbor:
Some scenes near old town:

I stumbled on this impromptu landfill in a parking lot in downtown Mombasa and after a while noticed a guy sifting through the trash despite the unbearable stench:

More coming.....

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ethiopia Part 1

Blogging has been slow lately, since while internet cafes abound here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, there usually isn’t actual internet available in most of them. What with slow connections, electricity blackouts, and medieval computers, it’s been a struggle to get online just to find where I need to be for my research, much less upload pictures. Also, apparently neither my hotel nor the nearby cafes pay their bills on time so when the first of the month comes around what internet there is gets cut off. Or maybe Ethiopia’s national internet-telecom monopoly just gets cranky from time to time.

Anyway, this is my last full day in Africa and my trip has been incredible. Mombasa was a ton of fun and doesn’t need much more description, mostly involved exploring Mombasa, hanging out at the beach with Wossen, Zach, and other Yale kids, and hearing increasingly wild stories and political theories from my host Arfan. When I get back to the land of freedom and real ketchup on July 4 I’ll upload some of the pictures I took. For now I’ll try to run through what I’ve been up to in Ethiopia.

After a warm good-bye from Arfan’s household, I got on my turbo-prop plane headed for Addis Ababa. The plane was mostly empty, and of the few passengers almost all were transferring to Dubai or Europe. This brought to mind the stern warning of the Ethiopian expat mother who sat next to me on my initial flight from DC back on June 8: “Don’t go to Ethiopia!” I arrived at twilight and made my way to the Bole Rock Hotel in the up-and-coming Bole neighborhood of sprawling southeast Addis. I had booked a room there that same day at the recommendation of a Yale classmate who had stayed there recently. (I later noticed with interest and amusement that the documents saved on the guest computer were all drafts of blog posts written by the Yale students who had been there in May on a Reach-Out trip). The neighborhood is experiencing a massive construction boom; my hotel, on a still unpaved road off the main avenue is comically surrounded on every single side by a noisy construction site, each featuring the most primitive and dangerous-looking scaffolding I’ve ever seen. If the simple lashed-together logs weren’t leaning precariously on modern reinforced-concrete office high-rises, I would have guessed they were building Egyptian pyramids. The atmosphere inside the Bole Rock is similarly lively and cacophonous. The hotel includes a popular restaurant/sports bar that doubles as a dance hall on weekends. My room is right above the enormous and packed hotel gym, which pumps American club hits (Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Night…) on a loop during its round-the-clock aerobics classes.

My first day, I explored Addis by foot, seeing such attractions as the bewildering, dirty, exciting Mercato (market) neighborhood/slum, where people aggressively tried to sell me everything from sheet metal to donkeys to a shoe shine (I was wearing flip-flops); the grand Orthodox cathedrals of St George (the patron saint of Ethiopia) and Holy Trinity, which houses the tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie (of Rastafarian fame); and the Museum of the Martyrs of the Red Terror, commemorating Ethiopia’s ill-advised flirtation with Soviet-style Communism in the 80s. I elicited laughter from one street corner full of people when I left a café carrying a half-finished Coke bottle. Somebody about my age grabbed me and determinedly tried to get me to return to the café for some reason that I could not discern from his excited Amharic (the local language). Thinking it was some scam like those I encountered in Mombasa, I kept walking, getting increasingly annoyed at the similarly exasperated dude tugging at my arm. Finally, to my intense embarrassment and everyone else’s equally intense amusement, a local passerby explained in English that the price of the Coke did not include the bottle, and it would be the right thing to do to return it.

It was mostly nice out during my walk, with only three half-hour afternoon deluges that came and went with no warning to dampen my day. Such is the rainy season in Addis, where the rains get heavier and heavier as the summer goes on until by August every day is a steady stream of precipitation. As the streets here already flood alarmingly at every downpour, I cringe at the thought of what they’ll be like at the end of summer. Keeping the rainy seasons straight in all the places I’ve visited is very confusing since they’re all at different altitudes and distances from the Indian Ocean monsoon winds. Addis Ababa, at 8000 feet above sea level, is the highest capital in Africa (I think).

I concluded the day with a delicious dinner of tibs, the national dish. I have fallen in love with the cuisine—piles of spicy meat and bread with no utensils or vegetables to get in the way. Like almost everything else in the city, it was startlingly cheap. Indeed, I’ve been getting terrific steak and veal dinners at my hotel for a little over two bucks a pop. My pro-quality street-kid shoe shine yesterday set me back about 20 American cents, and a mini-bus taxi across town is something like 7 cents. Unfortunately, as virtually the only Faranj (whitey) to be seen outside the fortress-like Western embassies or NGOs, I am accosted constantly by Addis’ staggering population of hawkers and tragic beggars—little kids selling gum, bootleg DVD peddlers, sad-eyed mothers with infants in arm, and one heart-rending maimed or blinded guy after the other. I am scared to give out money to all but the most crippled beggars here because once money comes out the street kids swarm. I’ve taken to buying really cheap Yemeni cookies and giving them away to beggar-kids in lieu of cash; the kids instantly light up and I don’t feel like a totally callous jerk

I can see out the window here that the latest downpour has stopped, so I’m going to leave off here for now. More to come soon, and lots of pictures when I get back to the States!

Saturday, June 26, 2010


After a warm welcome at the airport by Wossen and Zach, I'm here in Mombasa, and this city is for sure the most chaotic, lively, and bewildering of my trip so far. Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya, and the center of Muslim and Swahili cuture on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast. Like the KiSwahili language that people here speak, the place features an eclectic mix of influences from the African, Arab, Portuguese, Indian, and British migrants, traders, and rulers that have wrestled for control of the magnificent double-harbor here. With millions of people packed in decidedly third world conditions onto a small island lying immediately off the coast, the city is confusing and fascinating.

I'm staying with my good friend Wossen at the apartment of the cousin of a Yale grad student who will be arriving in town tomorrow to help Wossen and Zach on their research project. Our gracious and hilarious host, Arfan, is a native Kenyan of Afghan-Pashtun origin, around 35 years old. Like nearly all the people I've encountered on my travels here, he is quite a character. His white collar job at one of Mombasa's many dazzling beach resorts allows him to provide for his new Pakistani bride, who I think is younger than me and speaks virtually no English or KiSwahili, and several other sisters, uncles, nephews, and nieces who keep popping in from time to time. An African maid comes every day and does all the housework and shopping.

Arfan is an exuberant guy and quite happy, it seems, to have some male company at home. Already the khat-chewing patriarch treats me and Wossen like old buddies, regaling us with wild stories of his often incarcerated friends and acquaintances, and keeping us informed on his various experiences in Islamic sharia divorce court with his myriad ex-wives. He and his family are sometimes strict Muslims, as evinced today when we got a ride into town with his uncle: I sat next to Arfan's wife, who was dressed in full all-black ninja-costume gear with only her heavily make-upped eyes showing through a little slit. Other times, however, she goes out without so much as a head covering, and Arfan certainly has no problem with us seeing her in normal indoor clothes (Pashtun tribal dress) in his own home. Some of Arfan's more tawdry stories, his conspicuous absence from mosque on Friday, and his constant complaints about the violence of Muslim jihadis--the Somali extremists who kill their countrymen for watching "un-Islamic" World Cup games are a particular source of ire--further reveal he is not a Wahhabi. He is, however--like most Muslims around these parts, I suspect--very vocal about certain conspiracy theories about America, Israel, and the Jews, including the real reason for the invasion of Afghanistan and who ultimately directs the US economy. Still, living with Arfan has mostly been great, as we get most of our meals there and often are able to hitch rides around town (though we did have to go shopping ourselves to buy some toilet paper, which is apparently not popular among Mombasans).

Thursday night I hung out with some members of the Yale KiSwahili class here. While the Yale professor in charge of the program stays in what my guidebook calls "hands down the most sumptuously luxurious hotel in Mombasa," the students I visited were living in nice but small apartments with no internet and, for the several early evening hours I was there, no electricity either. On Friday, while Zach and his fellow students headed north for a field trip to the seaside town of Malindi, Wossen and I made our own beach trip, taking a ferry and four mutatus south to Diani, an incredibly beautiful resort town. Mutatus are the funky privately run minibus-taxis that clog the streets here and offer you rides on set routes for the equivalent of about 25 cents. They are operated by two-man teams of a driver and "conductor" who yells the destination to passersby, lets the driver know when to stop to pick up or drop off someone, and collects the fare from passengers. Mutatus all look more or less exactly the same, differentiated only by the type of Reggae and Hip hop blaring from the speakers and the wacky phrases painted on the windows and sides (often the names of American movies, songs, or pro-wrestlers, or sometimes English Premier League soccer clubs or Oakland Raiders decals). Built to seat about 14, mutatus invariably have more than 20 people in them and are driven erratically at high speeds with a maximum of unnecessary horn honking. But they are so cheap, especially when compared to the three-wheeled "tuk-tuk" motor taxis, that it's worth it. Plus if you sit up front you can pick the music. The ferry ride back to reach Mombasa old town, which requires a fee for the several dozen cars and trucks and is free for the several thousand passengers on foot, was a cool experience; on the way back we saw the evening rush hour ferry leaving downtown Mombasa with every inch of surface--two storeys--packed with people returning home to the suburbs.

Diani beach, 12 miles south of the city, was spectacularly beautiful, featuring coconut trees, white powder sand, turquoise water, and a pleasantly hot tropical sun. I can't believe I forgot my camera; I'll have to go back Sunday or Monday to get some pictures. Wossen and I enjoyed lunch by the beach and a nice walk on the surf as we planned an offshore fishing trip, which may remain a pipe dream as Somali pirates command the seas not too far away. The only nuisances were the thought of painful sea urchins lurking beneath the waves, which kept us out of the water, and "beach boys," the local con-artists lurking around every turn.

Friday night, Wossen and I went into town to check out the nightlife, watching soccer, doing karaoke, and having a good time at a couple nightclubs before getting a little grossed out by the increasingly seedy nature of some of the establishments as the night went on. Today, Saturday, I've been helping Wossen out as we go around town to a variety of health clinics and open air events to get footage for his research project and film. We're being careful to avoid political rallies, such as the one in Nairobi last week where over a hundred people were injured by an unexplained bombing. Fortunately Mombasa seems pretty distant from most of the political debate surrounding the upcoming referendum on a new Constitution-- part of the power-sharing plan pushed by Kofi Annan and Condoleezza Rice in 2008 to alleviate the tribal resentments that led to murderous violence in the aftermath of that year's contested elections. The newly proposed constitution is almost universally recognized by Kenyans as generally a good one, but a heated debate revolves around several clauses, including one legalizing abortion in some limited cases and another enshrining sharia family courts for Muslims at the national level. Currently both these laws are already in place by statute, but like Americans fanatic about constitutional protections, most Kenyans are quite earnest about the implications of having stuff specifically outlined in the Constitution. However, I have heard whispers that some of the opposition to the proposed Constitution, led mostly by Christian churches (in a country that is 70% Christian, 30% Muslim), is being manipulated by the powerful families of former rulers and kleptocrats like Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, who fear that their vast acquisitions of land and property will be stripped from them. I don't really know all the dynamics here, and the Kenyans I've talked to about it probably don't know any better than I do.

One thing that all Kenyans I've talked to ARE united about is disgust at the rampant corruption that occurs from the national government down to the local police. I've already had two experiences driving, in Nairobi and Mombasa, where police have stopped us for no apparent reason other than to extract a bribe because of some insignificant technicality. My taxi was stopped on the way from the Bishop's compound to the Nairobi airport, and my driver instructed me to say in case I was asked that we were in a big corporation's company car--otherwise, according to the driver (later backed up by my guidebook), they would have confiscated the keys and I would have been unable to get my bags out of the trunk until I paid a hefty bribe ($50-$300). Apparently prostitutes here run a brisk business in collusion with the cops, whereby one will seduce a tipsy bar patron into indecent acts in a secluded but technically public place, and then immediately alert a policeman, who slams the unsuspecting rube with a massive bribe demand, which if unpaid results in a couple weeks in the inhuman pits that serve as African jails; marijuana peddlers practice a similar scheme on the beaches. This endemic corruption problem is dispiriting and embarrassing for Kenyans, each of whom is quick to describe a recent personal incident.

The rest of the day Wossen and I will probably see some tourist attractions in Mombasa old town or maybe try another beach. More soon!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Uganda Reflections; Nairobi

I’ve remarked earlier on how intensely devout I found Ugandans to be. In Kampala and the countryside alike, religious expression runs rampant, exuberant in its freedom (in deliberate contrast, I bet, to the repressive Idi Amin years). Everywhere you look there are visible signs of faith. Muslim girls wear colorful headscarves, Muslim men wear the distinctive brimless kufi hat, Christians wear the cross or crucifix. Village grocery stores are nearly all named something like “Divine Grace Supermarket” or “God’s Love Grocery.” Mini-bus taxis, which crowd the city streets and routinely pack 24 passengers in vehicles designed for 11, almost always have slogans writ large on their windshields, like “The Lord Is Able,” “I Love Jesus,” or “Allah Is Good.” People often paint similar mottoes on their houses or above their doorways. One of the most evocative that I saw was in an impoverished hill town near the Congolese border, where the black lettering on a humble hut pleaded “Emmanuel, Come to Kichwamba.”

Truly, organized religion has exploded in Uganda over the past 100 or so years, in a dazzling success for the missionary movement. What was not long ago a thoroughly pagan society is now 85% Christian (half Catholic, half Protestant, including lots of Pentecostals and evangelicals) and 10% Muslim, out of a total population of 32 million. (These groups seem pretty well spread out and not concentrated in certain tribes; interfaith relations appear just as unproblematic as in the States) Churches are everywhere, many named after Vatican-approved Ugandan saints, and when there is service going on they are invariably packed to bursting. I tried to go to midday Sunday Mass at the church near Parliament, which serves mainly well-to-do Ugandans, and found that the congregation had spilled not only out of the doors but into the courtyard and down the block, where a P.A. loudspeaker was set up for their benefit. I came back again at 5, making sure to show up early, and by the time Mass had started there was a standing-room-only crowd. The rafters shook as the well-heeled congregation danced in the pews, belted out the hymns , and enthusiastically applauded the Consecration during a regular, English-language service that because of all the singing and a long, spirited homily (punctuated by more singing) lasted a full two hours. It felt like half an hour to me, the only mzungu (whitey) in the room.

When every time one gets on a Ugandan road and encounters another driver he has a near-death experience, it is no wonder that one’s thoughts turn quickly to the afterlife. Jokes aside there really was something I found about Uganda that constantly directed me to reflect on God on His goodness. Part of it was the lush and tropical landscape, where with only the most miserable resources and tools people could coax beautiful, verdant gardens out of the swampy wilderness. Part of it was the demeanor of the people themselves, who despite grinding poverty and hard lives seemed eternally optimistic, with big families and bigger smiles. Part was the history I had been learning, of the emotional struggle against cruel dictatorship that had finally succeeded. Part, I suspect, might be that so much seemed to mirror the premodern pastoral and agrarian setting of the Bible. The pre-teen goatherd I met making do with a rock for a hackysack while I was on a swamp-hike looking for baboons could have been young David practicing with his sling. One of the many farmers whose plots of wild-looking corn grew right up to the dirt “highway” could have been the sower in Jesus’ parable who tossed his seeds indiscriminately on field and road and rocks. The complicated tribal politics and occasional lapses from belief not into European-style atheism but into Old Testament idolatry, witchcraft, and human sacrifice ( evoke a world that our technological society sometimes seems increasingly alienated from.

There are few times when I’ve felt closer to God than I did while lying awake in the cool night while villagers on the mountainside far below my safari lodge banged pots and sang songs to scare marauding elephants away from their crops. Not many experiences I’ve had compare to the divinely beautiful moment on a safari cruise in Lake Edward, when, with the low sun streaming through the clouds, my craft was joined by dozens of little boats from the fishing village we passed—casting nets not much different than the ones Peter used in Galilee—as flocks of strange birds skimmed the lake’s surface and elephants and buffalo came to the water’s edge to drink with the splashing hippos. I haven’t often had to hold back tears of joy as I did while joining with hundreds of strangers in expressing my love for God and life and everything in it during that beautiful church service in Kampala last Sunday. I’ve come away from Uganda feeling that for all its malaria, corruption, and poor road safety record, it is truly blessed among God’s creation.

Nearby hippo and buffaloes

My spiritual mood has extended these past couple days in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, where I’ve been since Monday continuing my research. I’m staying at the compound of the Catholic Bishop of a large chunk of Sudan, including the home of the Dinka tribe of Washington Bullets great Manute Bol (R.I.P. Initially exiled here by the Islamic fundamentalist government of Sudan, the Bishop has decided to base here as a logistics hub in order to better coordinate all the needs of his massive diocese, which has been ravaged by war for decades and lacks the most basic infrastructure and governance. The Bishop, a close friend of my family through my mother’s work, is in the USA now raising money to build schools and hospitals, but I have been very well taken care of by his wonderfully kind and enthusiastic staff here. Every day at the small compound begins in the little chapel to Saint Josephine Bakhita, the first Sudanese woman to be canonized, with Mass led by Father Boffelli, the octogenarian Italian priest who lives across the hall from the room I’m staying in and spent 50 years as a missionary in Sudan. The compound features a leafy, well-maintained garden courtyard guarded by three enormous and playful German shepherds that love stealing my shoes while I’m wearing them. It’s a welcome respite from Nairobi (nicknamed Nairobbery for the large number of people that love stealing your car while you’re driving it), which as far as I’ve seen consists of a small, bustling downtown surrounded by sprawling, crime-ridden slums and some suburbs like the one I’m in that are nicer but not by that much. It’s a big contrast to Kampala, where when it came to violent crime the people seemed naïve and carefree by comparison. The US Embassy here is some ways outside the city center, and is probably the safest place on US sovereign territory worldwide as a result of measures designed to prevent another attack like the 1998 Al Qaida bombings. My meetings there and elsewhere in the city went great, but all in all I’m excited to be moving on tomorrow to Mombasa on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast, where I’ll have nothing to do except hang out with Yale kids including Zach and Wossen!

Next post, I’ll be on the beach and the Wizards will have drafted John Wall with their #1 pick!
Also go USA that Algeria game was awesome

Below, St. Josephine Bakhita

Monday, June 21, 2010

I’ve arrived in Nairobi already, but there are still some things I want to make sure I cover about Uganda before I move on to Kenya. Below I’ve reprinted in full an amazing article from yesterday’s edition of the Ugandan government-run New Vision newspaper, the most widely read daily paper in the country:

Kampala — President Yoweri Museveni has declared today a national repentance today. The main function will be held at Kololo Independence Grounds beginning from 9:00am to 5:00pm in the evening.
The decision to declare a national day of repentance, according to the organisers, was reached after several prophets approached the president with prophetic warnings of bloodshed, death of political and church leaders, famine, and many other calamities that would befall Uganda as the consequences of her evil deeds.
"These and other acts, which have been or are being committed, have not pleased God. We risk losing out on God's blessings for this nation if we choose to disobey Him," President Yoweri Museveni warned in a press statement.
"Accordingly, I have declared that on Sunday June 20, 2010, at 9:00am at Kololo Independence Ground, we shall gather together for a special day of prayer and repentance. This is so that together we may thank God and seek his mercy and forgiveness for this great and chosen nation," the president said.
According to a programme released by the planning committee chaired by Ethics minister Dr. James Nsaba Buturo, the list of sins Ugandans will repent of includes corruption, tribalism, Idolatry, Bloodshed, political injustices (election malpractices, violence, abuse of human rights), unholy priesthood, selfishness, pride, sexual perversion, witchcraft, ancestral worship among many others.
The President called on Ugandans who may not be able to come to Kololo to gather in convenient places within their locations to hold prayer and repentance services today on behalf of the nation.
Religious leaders from across denominations and political leaders from various political parties are expected to attend the service.
The Government has volunteered to transport seven people from each district to participate in the national repentance service. The theme of the service is, "Oh Uganda, humble yourself and return to God."
America became a blessed and prosperous country built on godly values after its former President Abraham Lincoln on March 30, 1863 appointed Thursday 30th April 1863 as a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer for the pardoning of their national sins.

I found this article fascinating on several levels. Before even considering the substance, I found the style to be curious, since, as it is basically the propaganda arm of the ruling NRM party, the paper’s stories on non-World Cup issues are more or less spoon fed by the President and his government (although considering the New York Times’ coverage of US politics in 2009 I’m not sure why this form of “journalism” seemed so foreign to me). But what the message reveals is really remarkable. First, the President’s act not only demonstrates how intensely devout nearly all Ugandans are (along with most other Africans), but also highlights the prominence of faith in the public sphere in a way that seems to go beyond even what happens in the still very religious USA of today. Secondly, I was astounded at the oddly placed reminder of the example set by America in the Civil War. I happen to agree that the USA is “a blessed and prosperous country built on godly values” but I never would have made the same connection to an obscure decree by Abraham Lincoln that I am sure no one in America today, even obsessive Civil War buffs like Chris Magoon, has ever heard of. What this offhand statement, almost added as an afterthought, reveals about the way Ugandans view America I don’t know that I can say for sure, but it strikes me as the beginning of a fascinating study into a mentality that I’m only beginning to appreciate. Thirdly, I was struck by the arresting similarities between the President’s message and my current reading during my trip, the Old Testament. The language used—“prophetic warnings, chosen nation”—and indeed the whole concept of national atonement in order to avoid incurring the wrath of God come straight from the Hebrew Bible. Truly, the condemnation of the specific evils of “idolatry…, unholy priesthood, selfishness, pride, sexual perversion, withcraft,” instantly conjures up the stern warnings of Moses, Samuel, and Elijah—which I had been immersed in the whole previous week.

But the final reason for my curiosity was the notion that Uganda as a whole is in desperate need of immediate repentance. America in 1863 makes sense—we were in the midst of a brutal Civil War brought on by the iniquity of chattel slavery. But why now, in Uganda of all places? Uganda under Museveni since the 90s has enjoyed a serious of amazing successes: rebuilding its economy, civil society, and national coherence after the hellish years of the dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote; stemming the tide of AIDS; and becoming a stable nation on the way to democracy in the very troubled neighborhood of East-Central Africa. The list of crimes to atone for provided in the article indeed all characterize Uganda to some extent, but to me seemed more like a peculiar splicing of traditional sins of everyday people, like selfishness, pride, and idolatry, with a laundry list of unseemly government practices like “corruption” and “election malpractices,” which while certainly sordid have never struck me in the grand scheme of things as horrible evils that would incur divine wrath, with jargony, nebulous terms like “tribalism” also thrown into the mix. All in all, I saw no clear descent into iniquity relative to other countries nearby or even to Uganda’s own recent history. To my immense confusion, there was no obvious reason to hold this very grave and solemn event under the auspices of the President and all the country’s political and religious leaders.

Intrigued by this beguiling and rather bizarre-sounding event I decided to go myself to see what it was all about. After a pretty funny episode in which I refused to let go of my camera, which was not allowed in the event without a press pass, and—in the process of arguing with a variety of policemen, secret service officers, and military personnel—ended up meeting and befriending the Chief of Presidential Security, I made it to the service at Kololo, which featured a huge grass cargo airfield with giant white tents and thousands of lawn chairs set up. I showed up around midday as it was just getting into full swing. Though many chairs were still empty, there were already a good several thousand people there, and more kept trickling in while I sat and listened. President Museveni was indeed sitting up front, along with the Speaker of Parliament and many MPs, several members of the Supreme Court, and a dizzying array of Ugandan religious leaders from nearly every sect imaginable—except, of course, for the pagan proponents of the “idolatry” and “ancestral worship” that the event was designed to combat. In between spirited renditions of Christian hymns by various youth choirs, dozens of Catholic, mainline Protestant, Pentacostal, Orthodox, Muslim, and even Bahai and Hindu figureheads and pontiffs stood at the mic with their backs to the audience and raised fervent prayers for God’s mercy on sinful Uganda. The Catholic and Anglican (now Church of Uganda) bishops spoke eloquently of the blessings God has shown Uganda and of good Christians’ duty to quietly seek the path of righteousness to an attentive crowd who offered them polite applause. But when the heads of the born-again churches spoke, or rather roared, against the iniquity of Uganda, the veritable whore of Babylon, while waving Bibles in the air and pounding on the podium, the crowd went absolutely nuts, rising to its feet and bursting into rapturous applause every couple lines, especially the really harsh ones.

One thing that I noticed over time was how every single religious leader who came up prefaced his lamentation for Uganda with a prayer of thanksgiving for having a leader as good and wise as President Museveni. My growing suspicions after first seeing the news story in the Government paper were immediately confirmed; this was in essence a political stunt by Museveni and his NRM party to shore up his religious credentials, as well as pandering in a sense to the huge and politically active organized religious groups, and to showcase his concern about the corruption which plagues his government and to allay worries of election fraud—all this as part of the run-up to the big Presidential election next year, in which Museveni is expected to face his first real electoral challenge since becoming president in 1986. Suddenly, it all made sense—the seemingly odd timing for an impromptu day of repentance was really perfectly timed for the beginning of campaign season. The guys hawking NRM flags and Museveni pins that I had to wade through outside made it all even clearer.

However, on further contemplation I began to temper my initial skepticism. As I mentioned above and hope to write about in greater detail later, Ugandans are sincerely devout people who are relatively new to Christianity (and, in the case of one tenth of Ugandans, Islam) and take it really seriously. This event was genuinely popular and served to help address a dire need felt by Ugandans to stamp out the ills that hold back their country, which holds so much promise. On another note, many if not a huge majority of Ugandans actually do have profound gratitude and admiration for Museveni, who despite his corrupt underlings and worrying moves to control the press and harass opposition candidates in the last election and, some fear, this upcoming vote, has brought stable rule, prosperity, and real peace to a country plagued for so long by the nightmarish, Orwellian regime of Idi Amin and his KGB-esque State Research Bureau. Despite his lack of personal charisma, Museveni has manufactured a small cult of personality, based around his reputation for relatively responsible governance. Museveni seems to many Ugandans to be a veritable gift from God, and the President himself seems to not wish to discourage anyone from that sentiment.

I have to get to work now to prepare for my meetings in Nairobi, but stay tuned for more!

Although I went on safari primarily to see some cool animals, the best part in retrospect may have been getting a glimpse of life in rural Uganda. Outside of the slums and modern downtown of Kampala, Ugandans are a hardscrabble agrarian people, forging a still-primitive but prosperous-looking civilization in the beautiful green hills and jungles. I was amazed as I drove through the countryside just how well cultivated the land was, full of all sorts of crops, especially the ubiquitous green bananas meant for cooking, as well as corn, coffee, tea, watermelon, pineapple, potato, yams, and much more. Cattle, goats, chickens, pigs, and the occasional sheep roam about absolutely everywhere, including on the roads and airfields. Enjoying a year-long equatorial growing season, the Ugandan landscape is so green and the soil so fertile it looks like if you thrust a stick in the ground it would start growing. Indeed, that’s exactly what does happen, as most Ugandan farmers don’t even bother with seeds, but instead just break off branches from banana trees and other plants and graft them into the soil to start new plants. Tiny family farms were everywhere, along with large scale tea plantations manned by hundreds of harvesters; all work for every crop was done by hand, with almost no modern farm machines.

below, a tea plantation and a lake being "mined" for salt by villagers.

below, a cornfield by a makeshift hut for cooking lunch while out in the fields

Certain modern implements do abound even in the most remote areas, however. Absolutely everyone has a cell phone, and many if not most of the homes and shops in the small market towns that line the roads serve as giant billboards for competing mobile telecom companies—it seems that paint is prohibitively expensive outside the major cities, so companies strike deals offering to paint your house for free as long as they can include a garish advertisement for their products. Judging by the way everyone makes impromptu repairs on their beat-up bicycles, motorcycles, and much rarer automobiles, the average Ugandan male is a highly qualified mechanic, welder, and electrician.

This rural way of life is bucolic and romantic in one sense, but it is extremely hard for men, women, and children. The women I saw in their late teens and early twenties were stunningly beautiful and smiling, while those any older than that looked sort of gaunt and tired, with coarse hands and drawn, stoic faces. Girls begin training their neck muscles at an early age to balance objects on their heads while walking long distances, eventually gaining the ability to carry with ease all manner of improbably huge or oddly shaped items, up to as much as 150 pounds, including giant bunches of bananas, steamer trunks, and 6-foot long farm tools. Unlike in stylish Kampala, the women all had boyish looking trims instead of fancy hairstyles—I don’t think they have time with all the farmwork and housework for taking care of braids. Older children often do a lot of farm work; based on the youth of many of the people I saw in the farms I can’t imagine there is much schooling past the early teen years. Little children are everywhere (and no wonder, since the average Ugandan woman has almost 7 of them in her lifetime). Especially up in the hills, where there are few cars, the uniformed schoolchildren lining the roads on their way home from school acted like it was Christmas every time I appeared around a bend in my big safari van. As I drew nearer they would begin waving furiously and jubilantly shouting “Muzungu!” (“whitey!”) and “how-are-you?”—the one English phrase drilled into their heads and spoken in a melodic sing-song African accent. (English is the only official language of Uganda but only the well-educated and some of those in the tourism industry speak it beyond a couple key phrases. Often I would reply to a little kid with the proper response, “I-am-fine, how-are-you?” only to be met with a blank stare because the kid had no clue what to do next.) Every time I passed a throng of smiling, happy kids—pretty much every 5 or 10 minutes in some parts—I wished I had a huge sack of candy to throw out.

I’m out of time for now—I have a plane to catch to Nairobi. Next post from Kenya!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Safari Part 2

Some pics from my Safari:

Warthogs and some Mongooses, which are astoundingly loud
Below, look at the horns on the Uganda kob and the waterbuck
A herd of elephants pops out of a bush about ten feet in front of me

The view from a boat cruise of Lake Edward, the smallest of the Great Lakes of Africa

Two fish eagles scour Lake Edward for prey. One of them swoops down and snatches a heron bigger than himself
Not always easy to know where to look
In the far background you can see Mt Stanley of the Ruwenzori Mountains--almost 17,000 ft