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

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Safari Part 1

Back to civilization! Thank you Mom and Dad for an AWESOME time on Safari. I’ve just arrived back in Kampala after 4 days of adventure and wide-eyed wonder at human, animal, and natural beauty in the western Ugandan countryside and wilderness, bringing back some pineapples and bananas for my Yale friends here and some memories to last a lifetime. My excursion may be worthy of a couple posts, but I’ll start with a chronology of where I went and what I did.

I got up early on Wednesday, packed one small backpack with everything I thought I needed (Mom the flashlight turned out to be a lifesaver! figuratively). My driver and guide, Mr. David, picked me up at the hotel in the Pearl of Africa, Inc., safari van, and we shot out of Kampala, just missing morning rush hour (which lasts from 8am-3pm. Evening rush hour starts at noon). We drove about 4-5 hours on the bewildering highways of rural Uganda. The national highway system is characterized by the most schizophrenic planning I’ve ever encountered. Several miles of immaculate asphalt will often be sandwiched between two entirely unpaved stretches of the same road. Unmarked speed bumps, bulging drainage pipes, and accidental piles of dirt provide constant surprises. You begin to prefer dirt or gravel surfaces to paved ones, unless the latter are brand new, because the older, crumbling asphalt has more of Uganda’s national product, potholes. In fact, “highway” is really too strong a word for the two-lane road with no lights, no signs, no guardrails, no shoulder, and no telling how many goats crossing at a given moment. No matter how remote or urban the setting for the highway, you are always certain to have one of these banana-cycle guys along the side.

Local driving etiquette is an experience in itself. Because the potholes, banana guys, ladies with enormous objects balanced on their heads, and goats cluster nearer to the sides of the road—and since there are no lane markers anyway—drivers tend to stay right in the middle of the road. This results in an exhilarating game of “chicken” virtually every single time two cars come from opposite directions: each driver, attempting to spare his suspension as long as possible from the beating it will take from the potholes in his actual lane, stays in the center of the road on a collision course with the other driver until the very last moment, at which point both drivers

suddenly veer into their respective lanes to avoid catastrophe. It has been easier to learn some basic Luganda phrases than to figure out the complex language Ugandans have developed for using turn signals. Depending on the situation and I think the weather, turn signals may communicate “Do not pass me!” ; “Please do not hit me” ; “Watch out because at this speed I have no control of the car” ; “Go ahead and pass me already!” ; and, very rarely, “I am about to turn.” The horn is used at all times for any reason, but especially to tell pedestrians you do not feel like slowing down for anything.

Below, a typical Ugandan highway, complete with obstacles

Finally I reached Kibale National Forest, home to one of the greatest concentrations of monkeys and chimpanzees in the world. I checked in at the nice Kibale Primate Lodge and went on a hike in the Bigodi Swamp. The local tribe has come up with a pretty cool business model for their swamp, which is ringed by a 3-mile hiking trail. Apparently they protect the monkeys inside from hunting and deforestation, provide guides for tours, and then use the funds generated for community enterprises like schools and irrigation. Led by my trusty guide Ivan, I saw a ton of swamp creatures, including baboons, colobus monkeys, and many other of our playful distant relatives with obscure names I can’t recollect.

That night Mr. David and I were treated to a lovely dinner at the Primate Lodge served by terrified waiters who acted as if they had just been dragged out of the forest and made to wear clothes and live in buildings and serve food to people. The next morning, I joined in with a few Danes and Germans to track chimpanzees in the Kibale Forest itself (a big step up from the rather undignified swamp). This experience was one of the highlights of my trip. No more than ten minutes could have passed after driving up to the edge of the forest and stepping out to begin tracking when we heard a cacophony of wild screeching and hollering from within the dark, impenetrable-looking jungle. Our park ranger guide Johnson pricked up his ears and immediately plunged into the pathless forest, shouting, “Follow me!” as branches and vines closed behind him. We swiftly and quietly pursued the outlandish noises, which sounded something like a series of brutal murders with a laugh track, until we were surrounded by hoots and shrieks above and all around us. Suddenly, we spotted our first chimp, which Johnson—who had been working with this chimp community of 50+ individuals for over a decade to accustom them to seeing humans—excitedly informed us was the “bodyguard” to the alpha male. Indeed, this figure was on the ground looking warily on all sides, including at us with particular suspicion, and occasionally pounding loudly on the hollow trunk of the banyan tree to showcase his strength and aggression.

After posing proudly for a few Kodak moments, the bodyguard whistled that the coast was clear, and the alpha male emerged with a swagger. The rangers have named him “Mobutu” after the late dictator of Zaire in light of his tyrannical behavior to his underlings and especially the women of this chimp clan. Johnson suspected he was due for a coup attempt, as happens occasionally in chimpanzee communities, probably by a member of his five-chimp “Cabinet” of almost-alpha males. After winning the respect of the despot, we sort of earned the good graces of the community and were treated for the next 3 and a half hours to a staggering number of swinging, scampering, jumping and hollering chimpanzees as we traipsed through the jungle, which did have some trails carved out by elusive and destructive forest elephants (which we did not see). At one point a group of chimp “warriors” cornered a family of colobus monkeys, which chimpanzees apparently eat with great zest. The entire chimp community rose up in joyful shrieks as the news spread. From my guide, later supplemented by some research of my own, I learned that chimps do indeed hunt and eat meat, as well as going to war against other chimp communities (see, this does have something to do with my research project). Unfortunately the jungle was so dark and my camera lens so affordable that I didn’t really get many good pictures, but I’ll put up a few of what I’ve got.

Oh no they are closing the “business center” here for the night. Well, much, much more on my safari tomorrow! Love to all.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

So this is my third night in Uganda already—I’ll try to recap what I’ve been up to since I left Germany. After an uproarious 4am taxi ride Sunday morning to the Stuttgart airport, featuring a wild-eyed German aging-hippie driver with a penchant for X-rated jokes, I flew into Amsterdam to catch my connection to Entebbe, the site of the main airport for Uganda some ways outside the capital, Kampala. For some reason, unlike for virtually every other flight I could see, Amsterdam airport did not provide a normal gate with rows of seats for the flight to Uganda. Instead the several hundred passengers had to queue up for about two hours and go through yet another x-ray security checkpoint—again, unique to the Uganda flight. This puzzling circumstance, which I suppose was the Dutch way of easing

us gradually into the Third World experience, gave me the chance to meet some of the other folks on the flight. They looked to be about half Ugandans, a third Americans, and the remainder Brits, Aussies, South Africans, and the like. A large number of the Americans were missionaries armed with cheery smiles and very modest clothing. I befriended a group of large-animal veterinary students from North Dakota, several of whom had never left the upper Midwest before, who were embarking on a five-week trip roaming around Uganda ministering to livestock and wild animals alike as training for treating the steer and horses back home. On the plane I sat next to Monika, a charming German woman a couple years my senior who had been through Johns Hopkins SAIS, speaks seven languages, and now works at a German development company in Uganda’s extremely remote northeastern Karamojong region, where my guidebook says human child sacrifice is still common. We had a really enjoyable flight together, although she was bummed at missing the big AC/DC concert in Stuttgart that night, which the rest of her family was jubilantly attending. The best part of the flight for me may have been gaping out the window like a little kid at the empty vastness of the Sahara desert, which morphed rapidly into the equally unfathomable denseness of the South Sudanese jungle—which though night had fallen was totally bereft of electrical light. Heart of darkness for real.

Arriving in Entebbe, right smack on the Equator, I was instantly struck by the humidity, though it was a cool night. I tagged along with Monika and her Indo-British colleague Saliyah as her exuberant Ugandan personal driver Max met us outside the terminal and whisked us away to Kampala. The drive was a surreal thirty-five minutes along an airport access road that seemed unbelievably crowded for 10pm on a Sunday night. While we sang along to music videos blaring the best of the 1980s pop charts on the two TVs in our car (think James Brown “Living in America”), Max singing along loudest of all, we weaved in and out of a steady stream of cars, trucks, minibuses, bicycles, motorbikes, and pedestrians—all much slower than Max, who by virtue of carrying passengers was on a Blues Brothers-esque mission from God. The disorientation caused by our erratic maneuvers, thrillingly high speed, and the constant horn honking all around us was compounded by the fact that Ugandans, as British colonials until 1962, drive on the left. If I were in charge of a country, this is how people would drive! We passed by hundreds of people on our ride in, all sort of strolling or loitering on the side of the road with, it seemed, nothing in particular to do—but what really struck me was the dusty, smoggy air outside and the dilapidated shacks that lined the route, which smacked of really grinding poverty, more striking even than what I’d seen in the slums of Oaxaca or Istanbul. Finally we reached Kampala, and after gleaning many helpful tips about getting around the city from the old hands Monika and Saliyah, I arrived at the Golf Course Hotel and crashed almost immediately.

I woke up the next day (Monday) at 1pm, having caught up on some sorely needed sleep. I was able to get my first look at the hotel and environs. The place is pretty sweet. Complete with an Olympic-size pool, helipad, twelfth-story revolving restaurant-tower, immediate access to the Kampala Golf Club, and a complimentary bott

le of water, I figure it’s not a bad way to get acclimated to a new and sometimes bewildering part of the world. Some idiosyncrasies exist, including my huge, gorgeous bathroom where nothing works exactly right, and the state of the art business center where internet only connects about a third of the time. So Monday afternoon I ventured out into downtown Kampala to get some breakfast (which I had slept through) and some internet access to send some emails (since the hotel’s was down and my blackberry was not cooperating either). Kampala, which derives from the word “impala,” the local Luganda-language word for “full-size Chevy sedan,” is a frenetic, chaotic city of palm trees, red dust, high-rises, shacks, and lots and lots of motorbikes and cars driving fast, unpredictably, and seemingly with intent to kill or at least maim anything that gets in the way. I walked past the lively but orderly government buildings and settled on Mateo’s Pizza, where I got a delicious cheese pizza and a coke. This made me the only person eating anything in the packed restaurant—everyone else had his undivided attention on the Denmark-Netherlands soccer game, which featured a humiliating own-goal by the Danish defender. Eventually, I tried several internet cafes before finding one that didn’t black out right as I was trying to send an important email to the US Embassy in Kampala.

Mission accomplished, I returned to the hotel and headed over to the gym down the block in a shopping mall, free to all Golf Course Hotel guests. I was not there 10 minutes before I heard the guy behind me exclaim, “There’s no way this is 20 pounds!” whereupon I turned around and explained to the ignorant American how to convert from kilograms. Abraar (the other American) and I began to start up an awkward guys-in-the-gym conversation which immediately turned a lot more exciting when it became clear that we are both currently in the same year at Yale. In fact, half of the other patrons of the gym at the moment were Yale stud

ents, and the Bulldogs in Kampala program of 10 Yale undergraduates, it turns out, is housed only a couple blocks away. This revelation completely blew my mind. We exchanged numbers and agreed to get together that night to watch some soccer at the Yale group’s favorite Ugandan-Irish pub, Bubbles O’Leary’s. In the meantime, I prepped for my Tuesday meetings with AFRICOM officials over dinner at the hotel (A full steak dinner with a chocolate milkshake for 21,000 Ugandan Shillings—the equivalent of less than $10 American). Then I headed out to Bubbles to meet most of the rest of the Yale kids, a personable and very friendly bunch. We had a good time rooting for Italy as they recounted to me their experiences and lessons learned over their past two weeks in Uganda.

I had a sleepless night, probably from getting up so late the day before, and only managed 3 hours of sleep before my meetings at the US Embassy today (Tuesday). One cup of strong, terrible Ugandan coffee got me good to go and I headed over to the American mission. I had something of a scare when my cab driver abandoned the simple but crowded route to the Embassy and instead took me through an unbelievably impoverished part of town that did not have paved roads (nor much in the way of roads at all) and looked like the Bring Out Your Dead scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Interestingly, that part of town is where the Ugandan Police Headquarters is located—tellingly symptomatic, perhaps, of their complete inefficacy and total lack of trust among the population here. My meetings with defense officers at the Embassy were immeasurably productive and have gotten me really excited about this research project.

Returning back by motorbike-taxi (or “boda-boda” in the local parlance—about 90 cents per ride) to avoid the zany maneuvers of the cab drivers, I must have made a strange sight as a white kid dressed in suit in tie among throngs of casually-dressed locals using the same mode of transport. I got back to the hotel, jumped in the pool, headed to the gym for a little, and then went off to grab dinner with the whole Yale group at Mamba’s Point, a cool outdoor pizza place with a thatched-roof canopy. Afterwards, we headed back to Bubbles to watch North Korea attempt to play soccer while the Chinese citizens hired by the North Korean government to dress as North Koreans and root for the People’s Democratic Republic (for fear of actual North Koreans defecting) cheered desultorily as Brazil gave them a thumping.,241154

I leave early tomorrow for a Safari in the Queen Elizabeth II National Park in western Uganda, so blogging will be a little slow until I return on Saturday. Thanks for reading and I promise to come back with some cool pictures! Here’s some for now.

Pictures by Day 7

I want to write a long post about my adventures in Uganda but I'm about to meet some people for dinner (more on that later) so for now I'll just upload some pictures I took in Germany. I haven't been very trigger happy with the camera but here's what I've got so far:

downtown Stuttgart, the Schlossgarten, and the BierBike

Below, at Kelley Barracks

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Last day in Germany-- If you're still reading by the third post you're either my mother or just exceptionally awesome. The past two days have been tremendous. Yesterday (Friday) I got up early and headed across town to Kelley Barracks for a full day (9:30-5) of meetings with US Africa Command officials. It was a very productive day, with some surprises including an unannounced meeting with the AFRICOM Chaplain, an interesting and thoughtful man with a lot to say about the US Government's phobia towards religious issues and the Saudi regime's support for radical Wahhabism around the world. My biggest success of the day was in bringing a satchel of strudels and other various pastries to the appreciative folks on base. Africa Command was a personable bunch, and celebrated the weekend with an open bar at the Kelley Barracks Club, which I obligingly joined in. Returning home to Bad-Cannstatt I relaxed with a run followed by some Dostoevsky and more beers at a biergarten on the lovely Nacker River.

Today, Saturday, was glorious-- I got up at one, went to the Schlossgarten (Castle Garden) in downtown Stuttgart and hung out in the sun the whole afternoon reading up on Uganda and chatting with random people. At one point I hopped on a "BierBike," an absurd vehicle seating about 16 that featured a rectangular bar on wheels surrounded by barstools with bicycle pedals attached. The jovial gang seated on the periphery of the vehicle merrily pedalling welcomed me with enthusiasm as they celebrated the upcoming marriage of Patsy, the guy I was sitting next to. I rode around Stuttgart with them for a while, learning a couple German drinking songs along the way. In between goodnaturedly heckling and catcalling every woman we passed, the pedallers managed to explain in halting English that the celebration would culminate tomorrow with the long-awaited AC/DC concert, for which they were very excited.

Eventually I detached myself from the revelers and headed back to the neighborhood of my hostel, where I went for a jog. I didn't go far, however, as a pickup game began at a basketball court on my route. I played for about an hour with some German kids, half of them immigrants, and talked NBA while we caught our breath in between games. For some reason there was no love for Dirk Nowitzki, which really surprised me .

Wary of the time, I ran back to the hostel, changed, and headed downtown again to redezvous with a group of travelling Virginia Tech landscape architecture students I had met earlier, to watch the USA-England game on the big screen at a raucous biergarten. We agreed that, given that one couldn't attend the game itself, the Germans had perfected the way to watch sports-- in a big, noisy, outdoor hall with lots of bratwurst and beer. Despite a second-half meltdown, it was enthralling to see the underdog Americans come away with a tie, curing me of my soccer apathy (as the World Cup unfailingly does every fourth year). There is something so fascinating about the nationalist passions stirred by soccer in such a wishy-washy, self-deprecatingly multicultural place as modern day Europe-- its as if the wars that once convulsed the continent have been replaced by a neatly refereed rivalry between 22 men with a ball.

I better get back to the room and pack-- my plane leaves before sunrise and I have a taxi coming in less than 5 hours to take me to the Flughafen for the next leg of my voyage-- to Uganda. I have had a good time in Germany despite the short duration, my primary focus on my meetings, and my complete inattention to learning any German whatsoever. My biggest regret, though, is that I have yet to meet anyone named Günther. I also must owe the Stuttgart Metro system about $40, since no one could tell me how on earth I was supposed to pay for it.

Next post from Africa! Hopefully there I'll be able to post some of the pictures I've taken, unlike in the internet cafes here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hi there! I had a nice relaxing day today recovering from jet lag, beginning with a delicious breakfast of eggs and liverwurst at the guesthouse. I went downtown for most of the day. After walking by the modern area of chic designer stores immediately surrounding the central train station, I was pleasantly surprised to find an oldish looking part of town called Schlossplatz or Schlossgarten or something. Commodious squares and plazas, each overlooked by a stately-looking building and ornamented with a fountain or stoic-faced statue, were linked by little brick streets all named after the Germans I was supposed to have read in Directed Studies. Gone were the colorful headscarves that dot my working class neighborhood in North Stuttgart; here were the schnitzel eating, accordion playing Germans you learn about at the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyworld. Each plaza had a different theme for the bustling activity within, whether selling fresh produce, flowers, or just bands playing covers of American rock songs. Germans love their mediocre American music. I have talked to several people who were extremely enthusiastic about the upcoming AC/DC concert taking place on Sunday in the big soccer stadium; unfortunately I'll have to miss that cultural treat as I'm leaving for Uganda that day. I am sorry to be missing Germany's first World Cup game which is also Sunday-- everyone here is in a state of epileptic fit about it. My hostelier excitedly suggested I stop by an "insane" pregame starting at 2pm today at a sports bar somewhere downtown for the Mexico-South Africa game, which didnt start til 4. I actually tried to go but got lost amid the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe streets and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz avenues and so forth. Back in the plazas I checked out a big handsome Romanesque cathedral, which today services the Evangelical Church in Germany, a conglomeration of mostly Lutheran and Reformed denominations and theological umbrella group for 30% of Germans. Inside this particular church there were substantially fewer than 30% of Germans though there was a service starting, but that's probably because it was a Thursday afternoon.

The strip of plazas paralleled a beautiful long park that stretched for many city blocks. Filled with people young and old enjoying the sunshine and delicious cool breeze, it reminded me a lot of the Boston Common in summer, or maybe the National Mall if the grass didn't always shrivel into a parched brown by June. I hung out there for a long time, going over the briefing documents I had made for myself to prepare for my day of meetings tomorrow. At one point I got excited when I looked up and saw some people throwing around a football-- a real football, not the stultifying World Cup "futball" they all go wild about for some reason. I headed over to join in for a pass or two but was a little disappointed that the people weren't Americans like I assumed--they were German, and had absolutely no idea how to throw or catch a football.

Anyway its time to go back to the hostel to get prepped for tomorrow's visit to AFRICOM. On Saturday I have been mulling over a trip out of town, maybe to nearby Heidelberg, Frieburg, Munich, or in honor of my new idol (see below), maybe a visit to Strasbourg, France.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gutentag! I've arrived in Stuttgart, Germany, the medium sized, bustling capital of Baden-Wurttemburg state, and the unassuming Headquarters of United States Africa Command at Kelley Barracks. The town, which dates to medieval times, is not exactly a quaint European tourist attraction-- apparently over two thirds of the city was obliterated by Allied carpet bombing in the Second World War. Today the town seems to be known more for the sleek Mercedes-Benz and Porsche museums and the ubiquitous Dinkel Acker, the local beer that tastes rather better than Natty Ice. People here are friendly and very, very efficient. The Stuttgart subway, which seems amazingly extensive for the size of the city, runs on a precise schedule like Amtrak would if Amtrak ever showed up on time; food is served almost immediately; and in contrast to the long lines at Dulles and Amsterdam Airports I haven't seen anybody have to wait for anything here for more than a minute. The police appear to walk in orderly, predetermined routes that are strikingly reminiscent of the Nazi guards in The Great Escape.

Stuttgart is sort of the budget leg of my trip; accordingly I'm staying in a very, uh, economical guesthouse/hostel type place near the North Stuttgart neighborhood of Bad-Cannstat, which somebody at the cafe I dined at tonight proudly informed me is the oldest area of Stuttgart. The neighborhood is also about 80% non-German. Indeed, I've used more Turkish than German while here (thanks to Alpha Delta Pizza and its famous Wenzel I can confidently order a buffalo chicken sandwich in polite, friendly Turkish), and dusky Greeks and North Africans far outnumber the tall, blond Germans. The girls who operate my hostel are certainly tall and blonde, however, and help relieve the eerie feeling I get from the place, which looks something like this:

OK I'm completely exaggerating-- the guesthouse is well lit, spotlessly clean, and comfortably furnished. I have a single to myself with a skylight, and what they lack in amenities they make up for in cheerfulness and eagerness to help me plot out bus routes. Haven't really met anyone else at the guesthouse yet who shprikkens ze Englische besides one or two on the staff but I'm sure if I hang out in the biergarten outside I'll make some friends-- although by the looks of it they will most likely belong to the Euro version of a biker gang (a moto-scooter gang?).

I am scheduled to meet with various USAFRICOM officials at Kelley Barracks all day Friday, but I may try to go in for some more meetings tomorrow (Thursday). If I do end up having some free time I will probably head downtown to see the sights, if there are any sights. I have a feeling there isn't much of note in town when its not the annual August BierFest, although the suburban hillside vineyards visible from my fourth story hostel room look beautiful.

A note for Henry and Will-- I met two girls my age on the plane who were on their way to Israel and had both gone to Hebrew Academy in Rockville. I did a basketball scouting report and my preliminary conclusions show that Los Suns have nothing to worry about for that game.

I'm running out of time at this Internet Cafe, and my patience with this absurd German keyboard is running thin anyway. Everytime I want to type a comma it gives me "ö"

More soon!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The name of this blog is a wonderful phrase--it means no worries, for the rest of your days. Hopefully it will be enough to extricate myself from the various problems and mishaps I'm bound to have in East Africa, because it's the only Swahili I know. If anyone has any tips for travel/survival in Germany, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia, please feel free to leave a comment!