Was that a dream?

Hello World,

It’s been quite some time since I’ve had a chance to update—internet time has been hard to come by.  I just got back from a week-long trip away from Kampala with the program.  We went to western Uganda, visited a refugee settlement, a Millennium Village (part of a project to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals, which include cutting extreme poverty in half by 2020), then we crossed the border into Rwanda.  We spent a total of about 50 hours in Rwanda, and I have to say it may have been the strangest 50 hours of my life.  This post will largely concern that, and I’ll update you on the other adventures later (I hope).

So our objectives in journeying to Rwanda were to see the interplay of Rwanda with Uganda’s development, and to see the effects of genocide on development.  Our journey began in Mbarara, a small city in western Uganda.    We crossed the equator (first time in my life!), which apparently is the dividing line between toilets that flush in a clockwise motion and those that flush counterclockwise.  Supposedly if you flush a toilet directly on the equator, the water will go straight down, without any circular motion.  At least that’s what the signs said…we weren’t able to test it out.

Anyway, by the time we had all acquired a new stamp in our passports, it was apparent that Rwanda was different from Uganda.  As I’ve mentioned, Uganda is a little disorganized, lacking in infrastructure, somewhat run-down, and constantly in motion.  Rwanda is neat, tidy, well-planned, and calm.  It’s also breathtakingly beautiful, with rolling hills that are covered in bright green grass, trees, and shrubbery.  As we drove down its smooth paved roads that first day, with the sun shining through the clouds and illuminating trees glistening with freshly-fallen rain, I almost forgot that the country had seen so much violence so recently.

That night, we stayed in a hotel/country club (strange combination? I thought so) in Kigali, the capital city.  We had one lecture during the evening, and got a crash course in Rwandan cell phone culture when one of our lecturers answered his cell phone during the panel discussion, but tried to hide it by putting his hand over his face.  It was all we could do to keep from bursting into laughter, but the other lecturer was speaking about reconciliation after genocide, so it was really not appropriate.

After the lecture and a dinner of Rwandan food (actually pretty similar to Ugandan food), some friends and I set out to explore the city.  We found ourselves in a nearby pub where about 100 people were gathered to watch football [soccer].  When we entered the pub, everyone turned to stare at us, and we were immediately ushered into a semi separate room.  We actually wanted to watch the game, but there was no TV in our room, so we spent awhile debating whether it would be crossing a cultural boundary to do so (we were all women, and the football-watchers were all men).  We eventually decided it was worth asking, so we tried valiantly to ask the waitress (who spoke no English) in French whether it was ok to move into the other room.  After several failed attempts at communication, we figured out that she did not in fact speak French, though she had greeted us in French.  Long story short, she found someone who spoke English and we asked him, and he said it was fine for us to watch the game, so we did, and it was a lot of fun.  Manchester United took the lead from Italy while we were there, and everyone was very excited.  We didn’t stay for the whole game, but I heard that Manchester won.

The next morning, we woke up bright and early to visit the main genocide memorial in Kigali.  The memorial is large and includes mass graves for hundreds of thousands of people, well-groomed gardens with pathways and benches for reflecting, and a museum, where we spent the bulk of our time.  The museum is an organized series of rooms that provides information about the genocide in excruciating detail, complete with pictures and videos.  It took a long time to go through the museum, and nearly all of us were in tears by the end.  It was hard to read about all the events, warning signs, and building animosity that led up to the genocide, then see skulls and pictures of those who were killed, as well as statements from international leaders of the time talking about how they could have intervened and saved lives but didn’t.  But the worst part for me was the very end, where after experiencing room after room of depressing pictures and dim light, we entered into a bright yellow room that reminded me of the way a family might decorate a room for an expected baby.  For this room, and the rooms that were attached to it, families of children who were killed in the genocide had donated their last pictures of their children, which were then enlarged to be poster-sized and hung throughout the exhibit.  Beneath each picture was a short bio about the child, stating their name, age, a few things about them (such as favorite food, toy, etc), and cause of death.  It’s really difficult to read about children who were 1, 2, 3 years old, loved milk, dolls, playing hide and seek, and were smashed against walls or hacked to death by a machete in their mothers’ arms without losing one’s composure.

The museum affected me a lot, and when I exited onto the large patio outside, which I previously thought had a beautiful view of Kigali, the city had lost all its beauty in my eyes.  It’s really hard to imagine that sort of violence happening there, since the city is now so orderly and calm, but that almost made it more ghostly.

As we were all still recovering from the memorial, we were treated to the best lunch I’ve had since arriving here–complete with tons of veggies and some mzungu food, like pasta.  Then we headed to our next site visit: the prison in Kigali where many of the perpetrators of the genocide were/are held.  We knew it was going to be difficult to transition into the prison visit while we were still thinking about the victims from the memorial, but we were pretty unprepared for what happened next.

When we entered the prison, we heard music playing and we were led into an auditorium-type area, where the prisoners were gathering.  We were led onto a stage, where there were chairs set out for us in several rows.  There was a small band that was playing music, and we took our seats.  The director of the prison addressed us and said the prisoners had some entertainment prepared for us, so we sat and watched while the band played, a choir sang, and the dance troupe performed–all with about 600 other prisoners looking on from the other side.  I will never forget sitting on the stage, wondering what the heck was going on, looking out onto a sea of orange and pink (prisoners awaiting trial wear orange uniforms, and those who have already been sentenced wear pink), while I watched traditional Rwandan dance for the first time.  Then they started asking us to join them in the dancing, and since there was really no other option, we did.  We were still wondering what in the world was going on, but our month in Uganda had taught us that going with the flow is critical in such situations.  And that’s how I ended up spending the afternoon dancing with prisoners in Rwanda.

After we finished dancing, we did in fact meet with some administrators of the prison and have a more conventional lecture/question-asking session, which was interesting in a different way than the “entertainment” was.  After we had politely declined the invitation from the prisoners to spend the entire evening with them, we went to visit the market.  As we were getting briefed outside our busses in the parking lot of the market, we spotted Clive Owen walking right by us!  A murmur went around and we all concurred that it was indeed the celebrity we knew from movies that was crossing a parking lot in Rwanda.

As soon as we got back from the market, I was picked up by one of my host sisters who lives in Kigali (I had met her a few days prior to that when she was visiting us in Kampala and we had arranged to meet up while I was in Rwanda).  She brought me to her house and I met her one-year old baby, who had never seen a white person before and was alternately fascinated by and terrified of me.  It was really funny.  I also met her husband, with whom I conversed for long enough for him to tell me that “Cows, women, and children” were status indicators in Africa, and that the more a man had of all of those three things, the wealthier he was.  He said the ability to have multiple wives was “the best thing about Africa.”  I’m sure all the feminist thinking people reading this will love that one.

The next day we visited more genocide memorials–two churches where people had taken refuge and then been ambushed and murdered.  We saw the victims’ clothes hanging on the pews, blood smeared on walls, skulls lined up on a shelf where you could reach out and touch them (not that anyone did), and mass graves that people could walk down inside, like a tomb.  Needless to say, it was pretty depressing.

But the funny thing is, as we were leaving one of the churches, who do you think we bumped into?  That’s right, Clive Owen again!  I was already on the bus by the time he appeared, but he apparently just stuck out his hand and said “Hi, I’m Clive” to a few of the people in the group.  He was touring the memorials with someone who manages their upkeep/might fund them…the details were a little unclear, but we just thought it was really strange that we would bump into him in Africa–twice!

That essentially concludes the most interesting parts of the Rwanda adventure. This is way too long now, but thanks for reading if you made it all the way through.  I’ll try to blog again soon. Peace! ~Christina

Is there food?

Many of you have asked me about food here, and I think it deserves a little blog space, because it’s actually fairly interesting, and also important in Ugandan culture.  Let me start by saying that they have amazing fruit (especially mangoes and pineapple) here. It’s quite delicious. They have an abundance of bananas (they’re smaller than ours, I assume because they aren’t treated with growth hormones like ours are), and they also have these really tiny bananas, called sweet bananas.  The sweet bananas aren’t too much different than regular bananas by themselves, but they can be made into an extremely tasty juice.  It kind of looks like banana bread batter, but it tastes SO GOOD.  That’s probably one of my favorite things to eat here so far.

However, fruit is not one of the staples of the Ugandan diet.  It’s a supplement, that one usually eats at breakfast.  The rest of the diet is made up almost entirely of different types of starches.  The most traditional/common Ugandan staple is called matooke (pronounced mah-TOH-kay); it is made of mashed plantain, has a texture much like mashed potatoes but slightly more chewy, and has little to no taste, depending on who makes it.  It is often served along with other Ugandan staples, like rice, potatoes, beans, chicken or beef, and g-nut sauce (a purplish sauce made from g-nuts…I’m still a little unsure about what g-nuts are, but I’ve found that the sauce is essential for adding flavor to a lot of Ugandan food).  Sometimes there are multiple types of potatoes, and when I’m not lucky, a dish called posho.  Posho is the other traditional Ugandan staple, besides matooke.  It’s white, and has a texture much like somewhat stale marshmallow paste. I find it to be mostly tasteless, with a bad aftertaste.  Apparentlyit’s made from millet flour, water, and possibly milk.  I haven’t seen it made yet, because my family doesn’t really like posho (thankfully).

All of this food is quite filling, and they tend to heap loads of it on one’s plate, so it’s often a challenge to finish the whole meal.  (Those of you who were worried I wasn’t going to have enough to eat here can breathe easily!)  It’s culturally important to eat everything, or almost everything, on one’s plate, but sometimes there are just too many carbs to fit in one stomach.  Before I came here, it had been quite awhile since I had experienced a situation in which I felt like I physically could not eat anymore, but here I have that problem at most dinners.

Oh I almost forgot!  The Ugandan version of bread is delicious.  It is called chipote (not Chipotle, though I keep associating the words and messing up the pronunciation—it’s supposed to be pronounced like “chip-pot-ee”), and it is somewhat like a mixture of Indian naan and a Mexican tortilla.  I really like it a lot, but it’s not available everywhere, and we never have it at home because it’s apparently difficult to make.  My host sister has promised to teach me how to make it some weekend though, so that’s exciting.

I said that chipote was the Ugandan version of bread, but I should probably mention that the bread we know is also available here.  Mostly it seems to be found at supermarkets, but there are also a few bakeries that make it fresh.  The discovery of supermarkets has been a wonderful thing for all of us.  When we started classes, we began having to fend for ourselves during lunch hour.  We have about an hour for lunch each day, and there are several restaurants within walking distance, but most of them serve the exact same food that we all eat with our families every night.  Also, in Ugandan restaurants, we have discovered that even though you are given a menu, ordering should go something like this: “Is there chipote?” And then they will tell you yes or no.  If there is not, then you proceed to ask if there is rice, or beans, etc.  Restaurants almost never have all of the food that they advertise on the menu  (but they always have matooke).

So it was very exciting when we discovered what we have termed “the mzungu shopping center.”  This plaza is about a five minute walk from the SIT headquarters, and has two supermarkets that both sell a variety of “mzungu food,” like peanut butter, American candy, cookies, and fresh vegetables.  There are also several restaurants that serve food that is not traditional Ugandan food, like smoothies, sandwiches, and pizza, but those are rather expensive.  At first I said “I didn’t come to Uganda to eat American food!” but I’ve come to welcome a little break from the Ugandan meals.  I invested in a loaf of bread and peanut butter and am thoroughly enjoying sandwiches for lunch now.  It also helps me eat more at dinner, which is always a good thing.  My host mom was so pleased yesterday when I ate everything on my plate.  And we all know it’s always good to have a happy mom in the house:)

That’s all for now. Best from Kampala!


Ossibye otyanno bassebo ne banyabbo (Good afternoon Gentlemen and Ladies),

Today we have class at Makerere University (the main university in Kampala), and THEY HAVE [FREE] WIRELESS INTERNET!  This is highly exciting.  Conveniently I had written a blog post at home earlier and now I am able to post it without missing the lecture.  The blogs aren’t keeping up with my life anymore, since there are interesting things to tell after each passing day, but such is life, eh?

So as I mentioned, I am now living with my homestay family and attending classes.  I guess you could say I am getting into the swing of Ugandan life.  It’s still going well, but is fairly exhausting.  My alarm goes off every morning at 6:00 (and this is usually after the rooster outside my window has been crowing for about an hour, but I’m getting better at sleeping through that. Yes, my host family keeps chickens. I guess they are a cheap source of eggs, because a lot of the families here do that.  I also suspect there may be fewer chickens in the yard as time goes on…).  Anyway, so I wake up at 6 and walk to the taxi stop with my aunt.  We ride downtown together, and then I transfer to another taxi and take that to the SIT headquarters (where we have class). I usually arrive at school between 8 and 9, depending on traffic, and our school day ends between 4 and 6, depending on the day.  Then I take 2 taxis again and arrive home between 7 and 8.  I shower, eat dinner/visit with my host family a little, then go to bed.  I think this is a fairly typical schedule for a Kampala resident.

I have a lot of respect for the Ugandan people who do this every day, every week, every month, for years.  And then I am really curious to see what life is like in the more rural areas, because city life is supposed to be “easier,” and I would not characterize it as easy.  The problem is that Kampala has a massive infrastructure problem.  There are too few roads that are too narrow to accommodate the number of vehicles that drive on them.  They also are covered with the biggest potholes I have ever seen (one of my teachers told us that sometimes people will plant trees in the potholes as a way of making fun of the government!), and in some instances, there are just sections of road missing, which obviously slows things down.  I have yet to experience a drive in which we do not hit at least one bumper-to-bumper traffic jam.  Sometimes the traffic does not move at all for 40 minutes.  Because of the traffic, nearly everyone in Kampala has a commute of 1-2 hours each way to work or school.  Though I can’t tell how far my house is from school, I suspect that it would only take about 30 minutes to drive there with no traffic.  But I still have to leave 2 hours before class starts to arrive on time.  It’s a little ridiculous.  At times I just want to laugh out loud about how absurd the transportation system is, but you all won’t be able to fully appreciate the absurdity until I tell you about the taxis.

Now when I first heard that taxis were the most common form of transportation here, I thought that was pretty strange, and possibly untrue.  But it is indeed true.  It’s just that taxis are quite different here than the taxis in the U.S..  They seem to me like sort of a combination of busses and cabs.  They are blue and white vans that can seat up to 14 people, plus the driver and the conductor, but sometimes they cram up to 16 or 17 people in.  Certain taxis go to certain places, but they stop to drop people off/pick people up as they go.

There are some designated taxi stops, called “stages,” but you can get on or off a taxi anywhere (if there isn’t a shoulder in which to pull over, the driver will pull up onto the curb or grass).  Before you get on the taxi, you have to ask the conductor if it is going where you need to go, and how much it will cost (to avoid getting a mzungu price later).  Then you are sort of at the mercy of the conductor/driver.  Sometimes they say they are going where you need to go and they actually aren’t, and sometimes they decide that the taxi is stopping a few blocks from where they said it was going.  So that’s always interesting, haha.

Then there are two “taxi parks,” where hundreds of taxis are parked at any time.  They are divided by the destinations of the taxis; and you have to weave between all the taxis, crowds of people, and hawkers who are selling everything from belts to cell phone minutes to candy to find the right taxi.  The trick is to find a taxi that is almost full (11 or 12 people in it already) so you don’t have to sit in the hot taxi while it fills up.  Also desirable is a seat by the window, so you have control over opening it and getting a breeze flowing through the taxi while you’re driving.  A taxi ride costs between 500 and 1000 shillings, which equates to about $.25-$.50.  It’s a very reasonable price, but as perhaps you can tell, it’s also not the most pleasant experience.

That said, I don’t mind them that much.  It’s an interesting cultural experience, and it is seriously amusing sometimes.  I could write a lot more about taxis, but I’m running out of computer battery, and the power is out at the university, so I can’t charge it (I’m getting used to power outages now, because they happen fairly frequently).

Hope all is well in the States! ~CMK

Quick check-in

Greetings all,

It has been awhile since my last post; now that I’ve moved in with my homestay family and we have started classes, there is less time available for hanging out at internet cafes.  Both SIT and my homestay are saying that they are getting internet soon, but such wheels turn slowly in Uganda.

As always, I have so much to write about, and so little time to do it.  As I mentioned, since my last post I have moved from the hotel where we spent the first week to a home with my Ugandan “family.”  It has been an interesting few days; in some ways you miss so many of the cultural differences when you are living in a hotel with a bunch of Americans.  My homestay family has been very nice and welcoming so far.  The parents call me “my daughter,” and my host sister has really taken me under her wing to make sure I am OK here.  The family has hosted 4 SIT students before me, so they are used to the process.

The house is pretty nice, by Ugandan standards, and I think the family is one of the more upper-class host families.  Many of my peers are living in houses without running water or toilets, while my host family has both.  They have a shower, but it only uses cold water, so my host sister has been helping me prepare warm bucket showers.  These entail heating water on the stove, then mixing it with a larger bucket of cold water, then using a smaller bucket to get yourself wet and rinse the soap off.  I think a successful bucket shower is an acquired skill…

All the same, I feel lucky to have a great host family and relatively comfortable living conditions.  Obviously I wasn’t expecting luxury when I came to Uganda, so I’m not disappointed. We also have a dog and a cat, which is a nice touch of home. Time is out, and this is much shorter than I would like, but I’ll write again soon. Peace!