Thursday, November 19, 2009

Some cultural ramblings

Soooo I try to think of myself as a wonderfully culturally relative cultural relativist... but then I find myself yelling some expletive-ridden diatribe at Kate's windshield on the subject of Ugandans universally driving like assholes. And hey - it's those little cultural "differences" that really make the experience all the more interesting, right? Right. Onward (this is going to be a rambler):

Food, revisited.

I've found myself thinking about Ugandan food a lot lately. This will not surprise most of you, since I tend to think about food a lot in general, but seriously, food here is worth thinking about. So, as a refresher to those who weren't paying attention, food in Uganda goes like this:

Dish 1: Starch.
Consisting of any variety of: matoke (boiled green banana pulp), posho (kinda like white polenta, as flavorful as I imagine cloud would be), white rice, boiled sweet potato, boiled cassava, boiled potato, steamed millet.

Sometimes on Side of Dish 1: little bit of collard greens sorta stuff, little bit of cabbage salad.

Dish 2: "Sauce"
Chicken stew, beef (read: gristle) stew, beef (gristle) in g-nut sauce (somehow they make a sauce out of peanuts that doesn't taste like peanut-butter... wierd), fish stew, smoked fish in g-nut sauce, beans in a kinda-stew, "cow-peas" (I think they're garbanzo beans) in a kinda-stew

Now. I realize this sounds like a pretty good variety of options. But A) all of the Dish 1 items are near-flavorless (even the sweet potatoes here are much less sweet than in the States), B) none of the Dish 2 items are flavorful enough to overtake the near-flavorlessness of the Dish 1 items, C) "chili sauce" (I think it's 1 part ketchup, 1 part sweet-and-sour sauce and 1 part generic hot-sauce) is not always available and D) these items are available at EVERY RESTAURANT.

This last point is the one I would like to belabor.

Thinking about it, I have never experienced a culture with such universalized food tastes. I mean... everywhere you go you have the same limited options. And everyone is fine with this! Even salt is rarely available. It's honestly impressive. The food is incredibly mild, and incredibly standard. A lot of restaurants don't even bother with menus (which is good because even when they do have menus they're usually out of half of the items on the menu)... you can pretty much just walk in and say "I'll have matoke and fish" and you can be damn-near certain of what you'll get.

In my (limited) observation, food does not seem to carry as heavy a social weight here as it does in many other places in the world - it serves more as fuel. Along this line, eating is less of a social activity. Ugandans tend to wolf down (a phenomenal amount of) food and return to what they're doing. Of course there are plenty of exceptions to this "rule", but it's noteworthy for how different it is to most other places I've been in the world.

Brazilians, for example, do tend to eat grilled meat about 9 days a week, but the act of grilling is a very social activity - everyone hanging out around a grill and occasionally cutting bits of (very flavorful) meat to pass around.

In Laos, food was veeeery communal. Groups will sit together around a heap of meat and veggies, bowls of spiced sauces and a bit basket of sticky rice. The makeup of this heap varies a decent amount, and everyone just grabs a handful of rice and dips/rolls/sticks it with ingredients and goes to town (I miss Lao food...).

In Vietnam, Pho is damn near omnipresent, but it's hugely flavorful and has about 1.2 million ingredients, which vary depending on the restaurant (or, in my case, the street-stall) serving it.

Just an interesting little way Ugandans are different. Having said all this, I'm actually developing quite a taste for Ugandan food. My standard order is "all food but no posho" with smoked fish in g-nut sauce, cow-peas or beans. And looooooots of chili sauce.

Also, there's a good variety of snack kinda things: french fries, samosas, every shape of fried dough you can imagine, chapati (Indian-style pancakey thingies), pancakey-thingies, peanuts ("ground-nuts"), corn-nuts, roasted corn (consistency of beef jerkey), street-side-grilled ? meat, "rolex" (oh rolex... basically an omelette with cabbage and tomato, rolled in a chapati - tastes as good as you'd imagine and feels like a slab of concrete in the stomach).

Wow I lack the power of succinctness. Okay, just a couple other cultural observations then I'll decide whether to take a bucket-shower or just be dirty and grumpy.

Secondly: Ugandan speech.

A pretty huge proportion of Ugandans speak English. Granted my perception is skewed by the fact that I live in an urban center, but it's pretty impressive. Having said that, they have some interesting speech mannerisms.

Ugandans in general speak very quietly. Someone just pointed out to me the other day that it seems to be a respect/status issue, and as I reflect, I think I agree. The bank managers I met with last week tended to speak louder, and the students I've been speaking with in focus group discussions this week tend to be very quiet. It's actually pretty frustrating in a focus group discussion type of setting... it's difficult enough to hear when you're in a group in an open-air classroom, but when the kids are pretty much whispering (and have an accent that isn't too thick but still a bit unfamiliar), it makes carrying on an active discussion nigh on impossible. I say "what" a lot. Fortunately I just learned the Luganda for "what" (it sounds something like "oranji").

Did you ever have a teacher who would end sentences with "what?" and expect you to fill in the "what"-blank? For instance: "This is the what?" "the clavicle!" "Daniel is what?" "awesome!". Ugandans use this all. the. time. I think it falls somewhere between being a space-filler (akin to Americans' firey passion for "like") and a rhetorical device to ensure the listener is paying attention. But they have taken it too far. I was meeting with a woman the other day who I swear said it every other sentence. I understand if you're lecturing to a group of students and want to make sure they're paying attention, but damnit I KNOW you're gonna end "I want to eat what?" with "lunch" so just say it! And what's more a lot of times people won't actually leave a pause for the person to actually fill the word in, so it becomes "I'm going to what? Poop." as if it were a continuous thought.
Okay, that's enough, Daniel.

I hope you all have a nice what? Day. I miss you what? all. I think I'm going to what? see if the water's back on so I can take a what? shower and what? rinse the what? dirt what? off of what? myself.

Hey by the way, I'm coming home soon! Yeah yeah, I've only been here a couple months, but what can I say? I actually really do miss you all. I haven't hammered out the details yet, but I'll be flying home sometime between December 16th and the 20th and flying back sometime between January 8th and the 10th. Also Dave and I are gonna be in the Bay Area from the 27th to the 1st. Let me know when I can see you all!

And now for some totally irrelevant pictures:

A truck... advertising rice or something... with mediocre singers aboard... oooookayyyy

Jinja Road (I think) from the pedestrian overpass

Nakawa market from above. The dangly things are sneakers.
Almost all the clothing you can find in Uganda is second-hand (ever wonder what Salvation Army does with the clothes they can't sell in their stores?).

And I wonder why the power goes out so frequently...

These creepy suckers are everywhere. At least everywhere that garbage is.

Kosher Jews beware!

Uganda is pretty.

Uganda is still pretty.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Visiting "the field"

I find it funny how the term "the field" gets bandied about. When I was sitting in my comfy chair in my apartment in Berkeley, anywhere outside the US felt like "the field". When I'm sitting in my less-comfy chair in my office in Kampala, being a couple hours due East in a microfinance bank branch in Iganga seems like it's out in "the field". When I'm sitting in that branch in Iganga, "the field" consists of the markets in surrounding villages.

[I could launch into a tirade on how the field (heh...) of international development in general, and Africa specifically, basically has its own language... but I won't.]

I've spent the past couple days doing "field" visits for one of my projects (SaveMoRe, for those of you who are following): visiting the FINCA (microfinance bank) branches where the project will be taking place. Yep, that's right, Daniel's taking work trips. And what's more, Daniel has to pretend like he knows what the hell he's talking about. Daniel's a big boy now.

Monday morning, bright and early and in accordance with the plan by my colleague who I'm conducting these field visits with, I arrived at the street corner near the office at 7:20 (shudder). Aaaaand I proceeded to stand there until he arrived at 8:20. In all fairness, he was coming from Entebbe (which should be about 40 minutes away) and apparently there was massive construction on the road.
Aaaanyway. Away we drove, through Jinja, to Kamuli (North of Jinja an hour or so) on the pot-holiest speed-bumpiest road I think I have EVER seen.

A digression: this country is speed-bump obsessed. And we're not talking American, yellow-stripey-painted, singular little "sleeping policemen". They have VARIETIES here. You've got your standard American-style single medium-sized bumps. Then you've got your standard speedbump about 8.5 months pregnant. Then imagine that pregnant speedbump had triplets: three little speedbumps RIGHT in a row. Now mix all three of these varieties up and apply them on one-lane roads with no marking and no signage and no streetlights (if you are unlucky enough to be driving at night). And then add potholes the size of small lakes (see prior post) and you've got yourself a recipe for completely dismantling your car's suspension (and your passenger's spine) WHILE you drive!

And Americans think they need SUVs... HAH.

Oh yeah! And don't forget to add matatu (taxi-van) drivers who decide it's a good idea to pass you while you pass a semi-truck on a one-lane-each-way road when another semi-truck is approaching in the opposite direction!
Suffice it to say I'm glad I wasn't driving. Sorry, Julius!

To Kamuli, from the car window:
to Kamuli

(click the picture to go to the album)

Okay okay, anyway, back to the matter at hand: field-visits. Sooo we arrived at the Kamuli FINCA branch and had an interesting couple-hour chat with the good folks there. Following this (okay, following lunch... which cost all of US$4 for 2 people!) we ventured into the nearby market to informally interview people about their savings behavior and opinions of banks.

After a couple of hours in the market, we hit the road again. Since we would be going to Iganga, east of Jinja, the next morning, it didn't make sense to go all the way back to Kampala. Instead we spent the night in Jinja. Julius knew of a place called the Busoga Trust Guesthouse which a friend of his started and whose profits go to the Busoga Trust charity. Though the rooms were Spartan, the building itself and gardens were remarkably idyllic (and the shower actually had REAL water pressure... and was high enough that I didn't have to squat to get my hair wet! Marvelous!):

Busoga Trust guesthouse, Jinja

Sitting on the porch overlooking the garden made the process of writing up the day's notes much less odious.

Nine hours of sleep later (I guess field visits make me sleepy!), we were on the road again. Actually that's a lie. Julius had a meeting in the morning in Jinja, so I sat in the car for an hour or so and did some work (love mobile internet!) while he met. And theeeen we hit the road. Fortunately for my spine, Julius' sanity and the car's suspension, the road to Iganga is FAR less bump-hole-y. Another branch meeting (I definitely faked it much better the second time through), and more adventures in tell-us-why-you-think-banks-suck land.

To Iganga, then back to Kampala:
to Iganga

Today we visited a branch in one of the outer districts of Kampala. Just to mix it up, we talked our way around the market before our meeting at the branch office. Some funny moments:

-We had to talk to the market chairman to get his OK on us doing research in his market. When he found out I was American he asked me "how is our son Obama doing?"

-When I introduced myself to a woman we were interviewing, she decided that Daniel Katz wasn't Ugandan enough... so she renamed me Bukenya Daniel (Ugandans usually put their family name before their given name). Also, Bukenya is most known as the name of the current vice president.

-I'm not sure how this happened, but after talking to the above lady, suddenly EVERYONE within a 20-stall radius knew my name. It's hard to maintain a professional/scholastic demeanor when everyone around you is in turn yelling "Daniel! Hey Daniel! Come here Daniel!" and giggling. Julius laughing didn't help either.

-When we told one guy we were students (a little white lie doesn't hurt, right?), he went on a long (completely irrelevant) tirade about how important it is that we study hard. Then when we walked away the guy said something to someone near him. Julius started laughing and translated: "See! I didn't even go to school and the mzungu wanted to talk to ME!" If only he knew that most of the time he was talking (in Luganda) I was daydreaming about what I was going to have for lunch.

-In the hunt for our last interview we apparently accidentally wandered into a different market. As such, we were directed to speak with the chairman of that market, who also owned a stall. I figured he'd be interesting to interview... until he proceeded to verbally vomit for 15 minutes straight with a wandering diatribe about the woes of Ugandan market vendors. I made an honest attempt to get him back on topic a couple times... then gave up and told him he'd been very helpful. Julius informed me he'd "switched off" about 5 minutes in. Much smarter than me.

Tomorrow we visit our last branch in another district of Kampala: Kawempe. Okay maybe it would have made sense to wait to do this post until I'd finished the visits... but I felt like writing it now. So there. If anything hiiiiilarious happens tomorrow, I'll be sure to report back!

The whole experience of doing these field interviews was fascinating. I was amazed at how willing people were to talk about what could be a pretty sensitive topic with a couple of complete strangers (one of whom MIGHT have been a foreigner). I found myself ruminating a good deal on the bigger picture of what I was doing. At some times this took the form of "MAN! Look at ME! I'm doing stuff! In Uganda! Hah!", and at others it was more of a wandering exploration of the big idea of research-based development in general. It's a big topic that I don't have the energy for right now (but I'm working on a great simile of all the white United Nations SUVs being like white blood cells or something), but there's a lot to argue about how development is done.

Supposedly I'm here to help people, and what's more, IPA's mission is to help the people who want to help people to help those people better. But when someone is helping me and giving me personal information, and then asks for my advice about where to get a good account... and I can't give them that advice because it would be contaminating the research population (well, and 'cause I have NO idea what I'd tell them anyway), it feels a little... cheap I guess. I don't have any solutions, but I just figured I'd share the thought. I suppose the best thing to do is to take a step back and remember that what I'm doing is going to help in the long-run.

Welp. To bed and then back to figuring out how to fight the good fight tomorrow! Good night, all. Or good morning. Or whatever.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Go to Uganda! Feel like a rockstar!

So here's what I learned: if you ever want to feel like you're serious hot stuff... visit an Ugandan highschool as a mzungu.

You all remember who Straight Talk Foundation is, right? Because you actually made it through that obnoxiously dense "Why is Daniel in Uganda" post, right? Riiiiiiight. So STF's real gig is promoting health in adolescents (we're just using their clubs for our own financial-education ends). They do this in a variety of ways: monthly newspapers, radio programs and on-call visits, to name a few. For the project I'm working on with them, I need to get an idea of what STF actually does and what the clubs actually look like.

Sooooo a couple Fridays ago, I was invited along with some of the STF staffers for an on-call visit to a highschool on the outskirts of Kampala. For these "on-call" visits, a member of a club contacts STF and asks them to basically come do a presentation for the school (or just for the club, if it's an out-of-school club). "Cool!" I thought "I'll get to sit down and chat with some club members and learn about what they do and how to make our little financial education intervention work!". Well... not so much. But more on that in a moment.

We arrived at the school and were greeted by the headmaster. The school itself was... sobering. I would have liked to take pictures to share, but I decided that being young whitey in the middle of a school in the middle of the school-day taking pictures miiiiight seem a little bit exploitative/insulting. So you'll all just have to share in my mental images. See them? Think reeeeeally hard - I'm sending them your way.
Honestly it's kind of hard to describe in any concrete terms. Just imagine, well, a really really run-down school. If it's indicative of anything, the "urinal" was essentially a gutter running along one wall of the "bathroom" with little walls separating spaces.

The headmaster ushered us into the assembly room and called all the kids in the school to file in. After an extended introductory thank-you-for-coming speech (Ugandans value politeness almost to a fault) and a lively we-love-our-school song (Ugandans seem to love making songs for everything), the headmaster asked us to introduce ourselves. Our little posse consisted of 5 STF staffers and myself. They introduced themselves one by one (Ugandan school-kids do that strange all-somehow-know-to-say-the-exact-same-thing-at-the-exact-same-time-in-the-exact-same-tone-in-response-to-adults-saying-things thing just like Amreican students!) - greeting the kids, saying their name and what they did. Each one got a polite bit of applause/thank-you, and then (dim the lights, cue the suspenseful music) MZUNGU DANIEL!

Seriously. All I did was say "I'm Daniel. I'm from Innovations for Poverty Action and I'm just here to listen and watch." and the place ERUPTED. I mean, we're talking Justin Timberlake walking into an all-girls boarding school. We're talking Leonardo Dicaprio immediately post-Titanic at my elementary school. We're talking The Indigo Girls anywhere in the Bay Area.

MADNESS. It was a solid 3 minutes of continuous cheering. To the point that the headmaster tried and failed to get everyone to shut up, and just had to wait for the tide of mzungu Daniel-inspired hysterics to run their course.

I have arrived.

So THAT was the biggest ego-boost I've had in a little while (just a little while, though). The rest of the visit was pretty entertaining, if not terribly helpful for my goal of learning more about Ugandan adolescents' financial needs. Turns out that teenagers in Uganda want to talk about the EXACT same thing that teenagers in America want to talk about: sex. And genitalia. And sex. And reproductive health. And sex. And relationships. And sex.

The group was broken into older and younger, and the older group into boys and girls. Each group was facilitated by an STF staffer, who had the students write anonymous questions on papers and pass them up. I rotated around among the three groups and, while maintaining my blank observer exterior, found myself giggling internally quite a bit for how much the whole deal resembled 8th grade health class.

I did come away with a good amount of respect for what STF does. They very much focused their approach on minimizing STD risk (particularly AIDS), unplanned pregnancy and unhealthy relationships. I was glad to hear that their approach is, well, realistic: rather than preaching all abstinence all the time, they acknowledged that some of the students are sexually active and focused on making sure that they were at least equipped with the knowledge to be healthily so. Kudos, STF.

This week I will actually be doing some more traveling around in preparation for my other project. Unfortunately, I don't think I can expect the same sort of uproarious welcome from microfinance bank staff... but who knows?
Tomorrow to Kamuli (a couple hours east of Kampala), spending the night in Jinja, then to Iganga (I think about an hour north of Jinja) Tuesday, then Kireka and Kawempe on Wednesday and Thursday (both on the outskirts of Kampala). Should be interesting! Daniel gets to wake up tomorrow and put on his big boy pants and pretend like he knows what the hell he's doing. Stay tuned!

Aaaaaand because every blog post should have a photo or two, Lisa and I on Halloween:

And the Nile: it's not just a river in Egypt... it's a river in Uganda too!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What to do... what to do...

You know, it’s funny. I keep putting off writing another post because I want to have some great insightful insight or adventurous adventure to report on. But I realized that, well, my life here really is pretty… normal. In an email from my brother, he asked how I was doing with the whole “culture shock” of living in such a different place. But it’s funny how little culture shock there’s been. I live in a comfortable apartment with a couple of Americans (though Hanna just moved out, to be replaced by Courtney on the 16th). On weekdays I go to work like most of you do, and spend most of the day getting frustrated by little things like most of you do, but I feel rewarded when things go well (rare though that may sometimes feel). So I think I’m going to try to change the way I think about this blog away from big themed posts and instead towards rambling stream-of-consciousness of Daniel’s Impressions of Uganda. We’ll see if this motivates me to post more.

First and foremost: my phone. I love this thing. Like, a lot. It’s called the Nokia Ka-torchi. Noooowww I’m not much of a phonephile, but this little sucker totally does it for me. To the point that friends here have suggested I contact Nokia about doing an ad campaign for them. See, in America (and, to be fair, most of the developed world), phone manufacturers’ thinking apparently went something like this:

Stereotypical Corporate Executive #1 “Hmm… so we’ve got this phone, and it works pretty well, but that’s not enough. What ELSE can we make it?”
Stereotypical Corporate Executive #2 “A TV remote!”
#1 “That’s dumb. Try again.”
#2 “A camera!”
#1 “That’s also dumb. Let’s do it. Then Matt Katz can take photos of really dumb license plates and send them to his brother.”
#2 “Done!”

I mean, sure, cameras on phones are great for, uh, taking pictures of inane things and sending them to one’s brother… but really? Couldn’t we find something more, I don’t know, useful?
Like a flashlight?
Seriously, this thing has a built-in flashlight on the top. Which is GREAT when you live somewhere that the power goes out ALL THE DAMN TIME. (Now if someone would only create a phone for a built-in shower for when the water goes out)

Somehow this is the only picture I could find (and I’m too lazy to take one right now):
Image Hosted by

But it doesn’t end there! This thing is water and pretty much baseball-pitch resistant. It’s got built in converters (weight, volume, length, the works). With a few keystrokes you can get updated currency exchange rates. It’s small and light. And it’s got (in my experience) about 6 days of battery life, with consistent use. And it’s CHEAP.
Sure it’s got a simple monochromatic LCD screen. Sure it ain’t too pretty. But who cares? After all the free-with-contract, pretending-to-be-flashy piece of crap phones I’ve had in the US… this is a welcome, welcome change. Well played, Nokia.

On a totally unrelated note, the other Saturday I decided to venture to Owino Market – one of the largest markets on the continent.


First of all, getting there was… an adventure. One of the more terrifying boda-boda (motorbike taxi) rides I’ve had yet:

Oh sure… we can fit through there.
I had to lift my leg over the hood of a parked car squeezing through this bit.

Why the sudden traffic-jam?

OH. Because there’s a pot-hole the size of a freaking LAKE.

Oh good! The first lake was so much fun, let’s ford another!


And then I found myself in the middle of stalls jammed so close together, full of people yelling “MZUNGU! MY FRIEND! BUY SHOES!” (or shirts, or cloth, or bananas, or slabs of beef, or chicken feed, or trucks, or truck parts, or coal, or whatever else could be handed to me in exchange for some cash money). It was a wee bit overwhelming. I wound up buying some thread (I planned on doing some patching to my jeans), a pair of shoes (I decided I wanted some pre-owned brown work shoes… the sole has since fallen off) and a plate of fries and avocado (all that the stall I stumbled into had to eat).

This one’s for my construction-engineer brother. That seems safe.

Just kinda thought this was cool.

I managed to get fantastically lost for a good couple hours amidst the stifling smells of the butchery-section and the cacophonous colors of the fabric section. I’m glad I saw it, and now that I know the face of the beast I can (hopefully) tackle it again and just be whelmed, rather than overwhelmed, the next time.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why am I here?

I'm a real boy!

and I don't mean that in the metaphysical, gazing-at-the-stars-around-a-campfire "what are we all here for?" kind of way.

I figure it's about time to actually explain what it is that brought me across a continent, an ocean and another continent: work.

Kenneth Dale Drive

This sucker’s going to be pretty dense. So as little rewards for your readership, I’m going to stick in mostly unrelated photos of the office and my daily back-of-a-motorbike-taxi commute.

The office. That's my desk on the right.

Kenneth Dale Drive from the other side

As I mentioned in my first post, I'm here with an organization called Innovations for Poverty Action ( So far my short response when folks have asked me what I do is “research on microfinance. Well… that’s not really entirely true.

Every year, billions of dollars are spent in the interest of “international development”. Thousands of NGOs, funds and foundations throw their energy, money and manpower at projects that they think and hope are going to make a difference in their cause of choice – be that alleviating poverty, promoting environmentally responsible agriculture, distributing medicine, purifying drinking water, or any one of a million other causes. That there are so many people willing to spend so much money in order to promote the wellbeing across national (and continental) lines is undoubtedly terrific.

The problem is no one knows whether all this stuff actually works.

The conference room. Oooo!

The view out my window

Thinking of it in terms of pharmaceuticals makes most sense. Imagine scientists in a drug company – intelligent, experienced scientists no doubt – decide that they are pretty sure a certain new chemical compound will significantly slow the brain cell death involved in Alzheimer’s. They come to this conclusion based on the effectiveness of similar chemicals in treating similar diseases, so it seems to make sense.

Could you imagine that pharmaceutical company, based solely on this logic, immediately undertaking mass production of this drug and disseminating it worldwide without ever actually testing it? Of course not! (for one thing I think the FDA might have something to say about it)
Before a drug ever hits mass markets, it’s tested rigorously through randomized medical trials – patients are recruited and some are randomly chosen to receive the drug and others do not. After a certain amount of time, the two groups are compared (the treatment group versus the control group) and the results are derived from any discernable differences between the groups. If the treatment group is found to be significantly better off than the control group, it can be assumed that this difference is purely due to the effects of the drug.

Hooray! MAKE THAT DRUG! But ONLY after the completion of this rigorous evaluation to ascertain that the drug a) actually works, b) doesn’t cause harm (or at least more harm than good) and c) works well enough to justify the costs of production and distribution.

Police-in-training march by the office singing marching songs.

A Subaru in its native element

So this makes perfect sense in medicine… but why are so many people in so many organizations around the world willing to spend so much time and money on what are effectively social medical treatments without ever actually finding out if they work? Or without determining what use of that time and money works best?

That thinking is what led a handful of Yale, Harvard and MIT professors to start IPA, Ideas 42 and the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, respectively. The idea is to rigorously test development programs BEFORE undergoing massive cost-intensive implementation – in order to make sure the program works and is designed for maximum effect. What we do, in the jargon, is to conduct “impact evaluations”.

This short presentation gives a great idea of what these organizations aim to do:

I was hired to essentially design and run two of these impact evaluations:

1. SaveMoRe: Savings Mobilization Research
(I named this one, and I’m quite impressed with my acronym)

The Foundation for Internatonal Community Assistance (FINCA) is an international microfinance institute. Basically this means that they have branches in developing countries around the world that work like small nonprofit banks – providing loans, savings accounts, credit or any one of a number of other financial products that are specifically targeted at benefiting the ultra-poor.

FINCA wanted to try out a couple new ways of enticing poor folks in Uganda and Ecuador to open savings accounts, so they approached IPA to work hand-in-hand with them in order to help them determine which incentives to try out and to find out which ones work best.

Enter Daniel.

(Okay, actually, enter Daniel’s boss to put up a job posting for a project associate to run this impact evaluation.)

We are still very much in the design phase for this project, but the idea so far is to do a two-phase evaluation.
First, we are going to find out whether making savings accounts free makes a significant difference in the number of accounts open. Currently the cost of opening an account with FINCA is 11000 Ugandan Shillings (UGX) – or about $6. On top of this there is a monthly maintenance fee of 1000UGX (about $0.60). Will eliminating this fee make people much more likely to open accounts? Let’s find out! And, what’s more, will people value free accounts? Will people with free accounts use them as much as people with paid accounts? Let’s find out!

The second part is to test a couple techniques for encouraging people to actively continue saving once they open account. To that end we are going to test the effects of personalized savings consultations (in which new clients are helped to define their savings goals) and automatic every-other-weekly text messages informing them of their account balance.

The plan is to start this project in January, and it will run for about 8 months before we collect our results. Wooo!

Good for you! You've made it this far! Here are some pretty pictures as a reward:

The normal view during my commute

The Hungry Caterpillar!!

2. Starting a Lifetime of Savings: Teaching the Practice of Savings to Ugandan Youth
We lovingly call this one SaLSa (yes, we’re hot on the partially-capital-letter-acronyms)

Thiiiiis is the big one. The budget is about 10 times the size of SaveMoRe, and whereas SaveMoRe is happening in four FINCA branches in and around Kampala, SaLSa’s going to be implemented at about 250 sites all over the country.

This one was also IPA’s own baby. IPA applied for and won a grant from the Financial Education Fund to conduct this study on the effectiveness of financial education to youth. The need for this project comes from the intersection of two critical and defining concerns of the Ugandan population: the fact that fifty percent of Ugandans are below 18 years of age and that the country’s current savings rate is exceptionally low, even judging by Sub-Saharan African standards. So let’s see if we can get those kids saving early! Woohoo! Get excited!

Enter Daniel. Again.

(Photo break!)

For this sucker we’re again working with FINCA, as well as an organization called the Straight Talk Foundation. STF has a network of youth clubs allllll over the country, and has a really good reputation with the youth of Uganda. So we are going to tap into that network of clubs in order to test two things: financial literacy training, and youth group bank accounts. We are I am hard at work trying to figure out how the heck to best teach kids to save money, though I’ll be getting some help from Freedom from Hunger on the development of a curriculum.

Oh yeah, and I have to figure out how FINCA should design a bank account that kids in youth groups would like and use.

Do I sound like I’m in over my head yet? No? Well how about when I remind you that this project is to be conducted in 250 clubs all around a country in which about 35 different languages are spoken. Oh, and this one is ALSO set to start in January. 2010 is going to start off with a bang for Daniel. New Year’s resolution? Don’t lose my damn mind.
This sucker’s supposed to run until about May of 2011

So those are my babies. I spent 4.5 years studying psychology and political science in order to land myself a job trying to figure out how the hell to design savings accounts. Hah!

Seriously, though. The amount I’m learning is incredible – I’ve basically spend the past couple weeks self-administering a master’s level education in behavioral economics and research design. Awesome. And scary. And awesome. It’s a hell of a lot of work already (and I know it’s only just starting), but already the moments of epiphany have been numerous thrilling – the moments of figuring out how to solve a potentially damning hang-up in our design (such as setting up an IPA call center and having FINCA marketers call the center in order to find out which treatment group a new client is randomly assigned to – that was one of my best brain-children so far!).

Ok, I’m sorry this one has been so dense. I’ll try to make my next post as inane as possible in order to make up for it!

Aaaand some more photos:

One of my favorite buildings.

Space-man Daniel, signing off.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Some tidbits of the every-day

I figure it's about time to offer some information on every day life from a gringo (whoops, "mzungu") in Kampala. This is going to be a rambler.

First of all, this is my flat:

I did a little video tour, but I'm not having any luck uploading it. Hopefully the internet will have a better day soon!

Secondly: language. No, I don't know how to speak with clicks yet. In fact I'm pretty sure there aren't even any languages in Uganda that involve clicking. Bummer.

Almost everyone I've interacted with so far in Kampala speaks some amount of English. Most of them are fluent enough to make usual conversation pretty easy. I don't even have to be Typical American Tourist and make myself understood by yelling really really slowly!
Seriously, though, it makes adjusting much easier when I'm not battling the language barrier and therefore feeling like a total moron every five minutes.

The most common indigenous language in Kampala is Luganda. Luganda is the language of Buganda - the largest of the handful of kingdoms that still exist as traditional divisions in Uganda. Yes, "Uganda" comes from "Buganda". Other than Luganda, however, there are about 35 other indigenous languages spoken all over Uganda. It gets confusing quickly. Imagine how much fun I'm going to have in a couple months when I'm traveling all over the country visiting survey sites for work? I'm going to need a different interpreter every 5 minutes. Or one interpreter who speaks 30 languages. Woo!

I really enjoy Ugandan accented English. It has a very precise and proper (maybe British influence?) sound to it. It helps that people, in general, are very polite when they speak. Almost every interaction, no matter how trivial, begins with "Hello. How are you? I am fine" or something along those lines. It makes buying bananas feel so much more formal.

There are some funny little nuances to Ugandan English. For instance, the most common farewell is "nice time"... waaaaaay easier than saying "HAVE A nice time". Similarly people will say "nice night" or "nice weekend". Ugandans also will say "pick" and "drop" rather than "pick up" and "drop off". You know what? Maybe they're on to something... they speak so much more efficiently!
A particular favorite cultural language tendency is Ugandans' love of the word "sorry" (generally pronounced "soddy") - to be used in damn near any context. I dropped a brick on your foot? Soddy! You tripped in a pothole? Soddy! I almost t-boned you with my motorbike even though your walking on the sidewalk? Soddy! You sneezed? Soddy! All the food in your refrigerator went bad because you haven't had electricity for 24 hours even though the power company (apparently) charges the 2nd highest rate for electricity in the world? Soddy!

I also love that when little children see me (or any other non-Ugandan), they instinctively yell "MZUNGU BYYYEEEEEEE" which apparently translates to "HIIIII WHITEYYYY!" Hah!

Now on to food. I'm afraid to say the local food doesn't really knock my socks off. It's by no means bad! And I think it's probably pretty healthy... it's just kinda bland. Basically the way it works is this: you get a big plate piled high with starches, another dish with some sort of meat, usually some pinto beans on one or the other dish and if you're lucky you may also get some sort of greens - be they a coleslaw-y salad or something along the lines of collard greens [thank you mom for the well-meaning email about "collard" greens not wearing shirts nor committing crimes, and therefore not, in fact, being "collared" greens... aaaaaand making me feel like a moron]. And if you're REALLY lucky there will be chili sauce with which to douse it all (and clean out your insides). Oh! And sometimes there's g-nut sauce, too. "g-nut" is how the cool kids say "ground nut". "ground nuts" are, well, peanuts. G-nut sauce is therefore close enough to peanut butter to thrill my pants off.

The plate-o-carbs options that I've discovered so far are: matoke (green bananas boiled into a pulpy mass), sweet potato, pumpkin, brown rice, cassava, white rice, phenomenally tasteless polenta-like stuff and french fries. Also that list is in the order of my preference at the moment (high to low).

The meat options are usually super-sketchy beef, slightly less-sketchy chicken and least-sketchy fish. I usually choose fish. I'm pretty sure the most common kind is Nile perch in a stew. Dip a forkful of carb-of-choice into stew, spear piece of meat, insert in mouth. Seriously, it's not bad, it's just... kinda... there. I could see myself averaging 1 local meal every other day without getting too burnt out.
The real up side is that a meal at a local-food restaurant usually runs between 3000 and 4000 Ugandan Shillings (UGX), or about $1.75 - $2.25. For a SERIOUS amount of grub.
Kampala does also have a pretty vibrant foreign-food scene - so far I've had Italian, Thai and Indian, all of which have been dang tasty.

Rice, beans, matoke; chicken & beans; chili sauce

Fish stew; matoke, sweet potato, beans, greans

This is, however, a GOOD place to be a tropical-fruit lover. I just got back from the Bugolobi Trading Center (the local marketplace), where I bought 2 mangos, an avocado and a bunch of those super-sweet little golden bananas for... $2.00 (also the pineapple I bought the other day was about $1). VICTORY! The only real tragedy is the lack of tortilla chips with which to eat aforementioned avocado. Kate, however, is working on this.

How is Kate trying to solve Kampala's tortillalessness, you may ask? Well... it just so happens that I lucked out and am living with a woman whose job is (among other things) to work with students at Makerere University's Food Science and Technology institute. What exactly is Food Science in Technology? It is the Science and Technology of making FOOD! Better food! These students work in groups with Ugandan farmers to "add value" to their products. For instance, if a farmer grows pineapples, he can sell those pineapples for, say 1000UGX, and he has to sell them relatively quickly before they go bad. If, however, he has the know-how and required technology, he can dry and package this pineapple, then store it for much longer and sell it for much more (packets of probably 1/5 of a pineapple go for 500UGX). It's a pretty cool project, and the students are coming up with pretty brilliant products. Kate, however, being the exploitative mzungu that she is (joking), is on a one-woman mission to get one of her students to figure out how to make tortillas (and thereby tortilla chips) with local ingredients. Joseph, one of her students, is hard at work. We wait with bated breath.

Some of the awesome products Kate's students are producing (and thereby stocking our cabinets with) are:
Peanut butter! (actually includes peanuts and sesame seeds... delicious)
"Nutri-nut": chocolate peanut butter!
Mango garlic sauce (we marinaded chicken breasts in this stuff and grilled it... WOW)
Mango chutney
"Zeeba Multi Grain Bar": super-crunchy nut-and-seed bar (this has been breakfast a few times)
Garlic & Chili Sauce (as I've been typing this I took down half an avocado with salt and this sauce on it)

They're all amazingly delicious. And cheap! And sustainable! Woohoo!

Needless to say, I lucked out and am living with a couple of serious gourmands. Life is tough.

The other day we got a bit carried away and breaded&fried everything we could. Including okra. Mmmm....

Epicurious Kate makes meatballs from scratch for spaghetti last night! Which means leftover meatball subs tonight! Woohoo!

In other news, click this for some photos from my walk to Bugolobi Trading Center today:
Images of daily life