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.