Saturday, March 7, 2009

Fortress America

East Africa is a great place to meet interesting Americans. Whether they are on holiday or working, they usually have interesting perspectives and stories to tell. They also tend to be more educated about Canada than Rick Mercer would have you believe.  

I was thinking back to Christmas eve, 2003 which I spent in Zanzibar, Tanzania. That night, I had a heated conversation with some Americans about the next president of the United States. As I recall, we agreed that it would be Hilary Clinton, but disagreed about whether she would be successful in 2004 or 2008. 

The American President has been a popular topic of conversation between myself, the Ugandans, and Americans that I've met lately. Discussing the inauguration a few days after my arrival, a Ugandan man asked an American friend, "Why is it that you don't have rebels in your your country? I think it must be that you don't have any jungles. The rebels would have nowhere to hide!" 

Next door to where I stay is the American embassy, or as I like to call it, Fortress America. Following the 1998 bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the US instituted new security requirements for its overseas missions. In many cases, this resulted in the construction of brand new embassies, and Kampala was no exception. Occupying several acres of land, Fortress America is a multi-structure complex surrounded by 10' concrete walls and dozens of armed guards. None of the other embassies in Kampala can compare to this place.

Despite its outward security, fear seems to radiate from the Fortress. I managed to get a photo of one of the signs posted along the perimeter, "no photography, no stopping, no parking." If one had a telephoto lens, the most ideal place from which to illegally photograph the embassy is Kibuli, Kampala's largest Muslim neighborhood. I wonder how the the residents of Kibuli feel about having Fortress America occupying the hill in their back yard. 

I feel sorry that the Americans have had to make such big changes in order to feel secure in their foreign missions. Once fences, concrete blocks, and "no photography" signs have been erected, it's hard to take them back down again, even with a new president in the White House.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Leave me alone or I'll call my father

I don't wear much jewelry, but the few pieces I do have are very special to me. In 2003 I purchased a hammered silver ring from What on Earth in Fredericton. Its intended purpose was to serve as a "wedding ring" while I was in Rwanda. Someone had recommended this strategy to me and my Canadian traveling companions as an easy way to avoid harassment from men. It turns out that I never really felt comfortable with this and so ended up wearing it on my left middle finger, where it was a better fit. In a pinch I would call it into use saying that, "in my culture," we wear our wedding bands on the middle finger.

This is only the ring's second trip to Africa as I lost it for a period of time. But, as I was traveling with a man in 2007 it was less of a necessity. I was happy to find the ring and since then have worn it every day. People in Uganda often ask me about it. To the hospital staff I confess that I can move it over to my ring finger, "in case of emergency."

I tend to still be a bit naive about my interactions with Ugandan men. Generally I give them the benefit of the doubt when they ask me if I'm married. Over the course of the last week, I've found myself regretting this honesty and reconsidering the placement of my silver ring.

One of the doctors at the hospital invited me out to dinner after a long day at work last week. Seeing as there was a group of us, and as I had not had anything but mashed bananas, rice, and stewed beef all week I gladly accepted. However over the course of the following few days it became clear that I had made a grievous tactical error. Dr. P started calling incessantly and sending text messages referring to me as, "baby" and, "sweetheart." I confronted him about this, telling him that I was neither available nor interested and that his behavior was professionally inappropriate. Despite feeling satisfied that I had made myself clear, the text messages continued and I wondered whether the ring strategy would have made any difference.

This is just one example of the "interest" bordering on harassment that Uganda men pay me on a daily basis. I think their interest going beyond beauty or physical appeal. There is something about white women that they find inherently attractive. Whether it is a result of their exposure to western culture through Hollywood film, music, music videos, and magazines, I'm not sure. But, I often have the feeling that they see no difference between me and Britney Spears. To date, three Ugandans have told me that I look like Drew Barrymore. Moreover, it's my impression that the same goes for Muzungu men. After telling a colleague that I have two unmarried brothers she became very interested and confessed that she had, "always dreamed" that she would marry a white man. These desires may simply be linked to the desire for a ticket to the good life, but I sense that there is a more complicated explanation.

Because opposite sex friendships with Ugandans have been nearly impossible to achieve, I've truly appreciated the companionship of my female collegues and that of that of the priests at CANLET. The priests make a great date and are even gracious enough to always invite along another female companion (often one of their sisters) when we've been exploring Kampala's nightlife.

My female colleagues have been an excellent source of support and have provided some helpful advice. I shared a text message from a male colleague, (a different one) with one of the female interns who confirmed that it would not be socially acceptable by Ugandan standards. "Some of those guys can be very cheeky! You just need to tell them to leave you alone or else your father will be coming to Kampala." While I haven't had to employ this strategy yet, I love the idea. I have a picture of my Dad and brothers with me and I'm just waiting for the moment when I can pull them out of my pocket.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Modern Man of Uganda

Ugandan women who give birth at Nysambya hospital are encouraged to have an attendant with them for the labour and delivery process. Usually this person is a mother, sister, aunt, or friend. There is no rule or policy that prevents the attendant from being a man, but from what I gather, this simply isn't "done." Husbands occasionally accompany their wives to the hospital, and I've even seen one or two skulk around outside of the unit, waiting for news from within.

Peter is a Ugandan man who works as the country director for an NGO dealing in rural development. He and his wife are expecting their first child in April and rarely have I seen a man so excited about becoming a father. This evening he told me that he wakes up at 5:30am so that he can make his wife breakfast. She has been tired lately and is still working long hours as the assistant manager of a bank. Peter asked me several questions about things he had read in his wife's "pregnancy book."

I mentioned to him that the absence of men from the delivery room is one of the most noticeable differences that I've observed on the labour ward. I explained that in Canada, it is often customary for the father of the baby to cut the umbilical cord at birth. Peter exclaimed, "That is what I want to do!" He had seen this in a movie and was happy to know that it really does happen. I was surprised, and the other men sitting with us at the table reacted with a combination of fear, disgust, and disbelief.

Peter went on to tell me that he has only missed 2 of his wife's many doctor's appointments and that he wished their doctor had a device that allowed him to hear the baby's heartbeat. (As I've mentioned previously, fetal dopplers do not exist around here).

I'm sorry that I won't be here when the big day comes in April. I hope that when it does, the doctor or midwife at the delivery will recognize Peter for the modern Ugandan man that he is, and give him a chance to cut the cord.

Monday, February 16, 2009


There are over thirty languages spoken in Uganda and many more dialects on top of that. The official language is English, but the most widely spoken is Luganda. It's the language of the Buganda tribe who are located predominantly in central Uganda.

Contrary to what I had read from several sources, very few people here speak Swahili. I came prepared with a small Swahili vocabulary under my belt and a pocket phrasebook, but quickly found that I had no use for them. Apparently, when Idi Amin was in power, he forced the Swahili language on people and attempted to make it the official language. As one of my colleagues explained, "Swahili brings back painful memories for many Ugandans."

So, I've tried to quickly acquire a bit of Luganda. The first work that I learned wasn't hello, goodbye, or thank you. It's the word that I've heard spoken more frequently and with more force than any other. "Sindicat!" The midwives and nurses would yell at women in the second stage of labour, "Sindicat!" I didn't have to ask for a translation that first afternoon on the labour ward. Sindicat means push.

Over dinner, I told some of the priests at CANLET about learning my first Luganda word. They found this hilarious. But in seriousness, one of them said, "When those women hear you saying that in their language, I know it gives them great strength to push." I'm not so sure about that, but I've certainly sensed a lot of surprise and appreciation for the little Luganda that I have learned and practiced thus far.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

On African Time

On Valentine's Day I attended a wedding in Kampala. The marrying couple were friends of some people here at CANLET. Fr. Noah, one of the priests in residence, was performing the ceremony so he insisted that I attend.

February 14th was the hottest day that I've spent in Uganda. It must have been 35 degrees. Fr. Noah wanted to be on time for the ceremony which started at 2pm. "Let us leave at 1:30," he said. This punctuality didn't surprise me. I've observed Ugandans to be quite punctual. Our morning meeting at the hospital usually starts at 8am sharp with no more latecomers than we tend to have at morning teaching rounds in Fredericton.

On the way to the church, Fr. Noach commented on the traffic, "It's a good thing that there is no jam today. I hate it when one of the couple arrives when the ceremony is already half over." I thought I had misunderstood.
"You mean that the wedding might start before either the bride or groom has arrived?"
"Yes, we have to keep things moving, because the church will be having weddings all day."
I tried to imagine the wedding ceremony going on with bride or groom conspicuously absent. This seemed like a policy that was instituted in harsh opposition to the practice of "African Time."

My experiences in Africa are full of examples of African time. Meetings start when everyone has arrived, buses leave whenever they are full, and pedestrians walk at a leisurely pace.

I was relieved to see that both the bride and groom were present when we arrived at Rubaga Cathedral. The beautiful domed structure had been built in the 1950s and was quite simple on the interior with small stained glass windows and a brick pillars. The wedding immediately preceding ours was finishing and the brides passed each other just inside the front doors.

Seated in the back row of the first section, I was surprised to see no more than 100 people in attendance. People had mentioned to me that most African weddings are large with several hundred guests. It wasn't until the end of the ceremony that I turned around and noticed that more than 75 percent of the guests had turned up late. The cathedral was nearly full! I realized then that African time was alive and well in Kampala.

The ceremony was performed in Luganda but it seemed pretty consistent with weddings at home. The bride wore white and the groomsmens' tuxedos matched the bridesmaids dresses. The church was decorated with a great deal of tulle and everything had a 1980's feel reminiscent of "The Wedding Singer."

The reception was held in a park near the centre of town. Strings of white lights and hung throughout the gardens and

The wedding party arrived about two hours behind schedule, so the speeches got underway quickly. Somehow, I had forgotten to expect many long speeches. When I was working in Rwanda and attended many conferences and ceremonies I got used to the number and length of speeches that went along with them. In addition to members of the wedding party, immediate and extended family, the bride and groom's employers gave their remarks.

Following speeches, there was a delicious buffet dinner and entertainment by traditional Ugandan dancers. As one of three white people in attendance at the reception, I knew I was in danger of being hauled onto the dance floor during the performance, so I tried not to make eye contact with any of the dancers.

There were more speeches before and after the cake was cut. My favorite part of the ceremony was when the bride and groom knelt before one and other in turn and fed each other cake. Then, they knelt before their parents and did the same.

By the time the dancing started it was already11:30. From start to finish, the wedding lasted twelve and a half hours. I enjoyed the whole thing immensely and now count it among one of my favorite Valentine's days.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Humble Abode

Believe it or not, when I arrived in Uganda, I didn't have a place to stay. That is to say, I hadn't settled on a hostel or made any reservations. The Lonely Planet Guide had some places that sounded good, but I didn't have a sense of whether they would be close to the hospital.

As luck would have it, my taxi driver from the Entebbe airport was knowledgable about the Nysambya neighbourhood. He told me that none the places on my shortlist were within walking distance and when I asked him if he knew of a hostel that would be convenient for a girl working at the hospital, he said, "Of course!" And so, he brought me to the Cardinal Nsubuga Leadership Training Centre (CANLET). When I hopped out of the taxi, Walter, the gatekeeper greeted me warmly and showed me into the reception desk. The centre turned out to be CARITAS run joint used to house students, seminarians, priests, nuns, and the occassional traveller. There are many people who live here permaneantly and others who are here attending workshops.

Carol the manager, showed me a few rooms to choose from. After my second night, I realized that my choice of a roadfacing room had been a poor one. The noise of barking dogs and honking mototaxis was endless. So, I was happily moved into slightly smaller, quieter digs. My current room is lovely and includes 2 beds, a desk, and a basin for washing clothes (or feet). The bathrooms here are dorm style, with shower stalls and flush toilets. It's very basic. Some mornings there is hot water, most mornings there is only cold, occassionally there has been none.

There is an internet "cafe" attached to the hostel (at the moment I'm sitting in front of a computer, but writing this blog into my notebook as the electricity just went out without warning. The internet connection is reminicent of 1996. That's life here.

I feel lucky to have stumbled upon this place. Becuase I'm a longer term guest, they gave me a break on the rate (30,000 shillings or about $15 a night, including breakfast.) Breakfast consists of tea, bread, a hard boiled egg, and a slice of pineapple or banana. For dinner we usually have mashed banana, rice, and some sort of meat with sauce. The banana mash is growing on me and the rest is pretty tastey.

A small outdoor bar provides a spot to have a drink and hang out with the priests or other travellers. Most of the travellers have not been Muzungus although there have been a few. Cilas, a Sudanese refugee now living in Australia passed through a few days ago. He told me that it had been his first trip home to Sudan in ten years. Beatrice, a medical student from the Demogratic Repulic of the Congo was on her way back to school in St. Petersburg. She said that the road home had been dangerous, but she was well protected by the machine gun mounted on the roof of her vehicle.

The walk to work only takes about ten minutes in the morning. lus, there are several schools located along the way. My comings and goings provide much entertainment for the kids. "Muzungu! How are you!"It's a pretty fun way to start the day.

So, it's a humble abode, but all that I require. The built-in circle of friends is a terrific bonus.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


From open sewers to beautiful flowering hedges, mangy stray dogs that sleep on sidewalks and magnificent cranes that nest in the trees of the public parks, there is good and bad to Kampala.

There are also people in every direction: well dressed business people, school children in uniform, women with babies on their backs, beggars with limbs missing, boda boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers, and people selling everything from toothbrushes to bibles on the sidewalks. With a population of 1.2 million, you certainly feel the density and stress on the city's infrastructure. It's generally loud, dirty, and congested. Traffic jams are are constant sight and horns blare everywhere you go.

Many of these people greet me when they see me coming. Today I've heard the following:
"Muzungu!(white person) Muzungu! How are you?"
"Where are you going?"
"From which country are you from?"
"Give me 500!(shillings)"
"Give me 1000!"
"You look so cute."
However, they are generally friendly and helpful. I've asked several people for directions and they generally go out of their way to assist me. I'm constantly being approached by people asking if I will, "be their friend." They try to give me their cell phone number and want to know when I'll be calling them. Today on my way to the Internet cafe, a bicycle taxi driver asked me where I was going and when I said that I didn't need a lift he said, "I love you." I'm never sure how to take those kind of compliments.

I was stuck in a traffic jam while I rode in a taxi bus this week. We sat for 30minutes without moving. The exhaust fumes can be overpowering at times. Taxi buses are 14 passenger vans that run a type of public transportation system. There is a driver and a caller- "Nysambya! Nysambya!" they call as they drive from the centre of town towards my neighbourhood looking for more passengers. In Rwanda we called these buses, "Matatus" and in Tanzania they're called, "Dala Dalas." It costs about 25 cents to ride the bus from the downtown taxi park to my neighbourhood.

An alternate form of transportation is the bodaboda. These are a fast way to get around and they will take you directly to your destination as they are often able to weave through the traffic jams. It's fun and pretty thrilling, but with no helmet and riding side saddle on the back (because usually I'm wearing a skirt) I know it's more risk than I ought to be taking. I've limited myself to two rides so far.

Kampala is safe. There are plenty of visible police and security guards. The hostel where I stay has a guard on 24 hour duty. Some of the people I've met have cautioned me to be careful with my purse, money, passport etc, but they also mention that I shouldn't be worried. "Kampala is not like Nairobi," I've heard this several times. I haven't heard any stories from the hospital about patients coming in with trauma as a result of violence or shootings.

I often find myself comparing Kampala to Kigali and I have to say that there are things that I miss about the Rwandan capital, but the more I get to know my way around Kampala, the more I like it. There is even a movie theatre and I see that some of the Christmas blockbusters are opening this week.