Sunday, April 26, 2009

Precisely Where I Am

From a letter to a friend in New York City:

"I live on the outskirts of a small town of about forty thousand with my only other American counterpart Julia, 24, from Indianapolis, recent graduate of a master's program at Thunderbird School for International Affairs and Management in Phoenix. Also with us are two house girls that cook, clean, do laundry. Sarah is 21 and working here as she waits to see if she will be able to start BA studies in August. She is the niece of Ewalu Michael (people introduce themselves with surname first here), VEF Uganda Country Director and owner of the land and guesthouse here. The other is Shilla, 25 recent college graduate in search of a job. As you know it's one of the problems here in Africa that college and graduate-level educated people are hard-pressed to find jobs here so often the talent goes untapped or goes elsewhere. If Western NGOs employed more Africans like they should then that would provide a significant boost for employment. Western NGOs are everywhere. Their signs line paved or dirt roadsides in any town of significant size in Uganda with the density of well-developed commerical strip areas in the U.S.

The poverty rate is 51% in the district, the town being the seat of it. Districts used to be named after the dominant tribe of the area, but in efforts to reduce tribalism, districts were renamed after the major town within it. The house/office in which I live is a permanent structure but almost all neighbors live in mud huts. Check Google Earth at coordinates (1°43'25.04"N, 33°36'14.62"E) and you'll find where I am living. Now there is an open-air hall to the left of that structure and a guesthouse to the right creating a three-sided enclosed space. This area was a large camp of IDPs because of the LRA that is now broken up as things stabilize and people return home or buy land. Zoom out and/or pan east and you'll see the airstrip - second longest in Uganda thus the target of an LRA attack in 2005 who wanted to secure it as a place for delivery of supplies. "Gunshots was the music of the area" at that time said my colleague and closest male friend here, Assistant Country Director Erongot Charles. Due south of the airstrip you should notice a big rock on the edge of the central town area. This is Soroti Rock, one volcanic plug of many that dot the Ugandan eastern plain.

In town all grocery stores are owned by Indians. They are trickling back into Uganda after being expelled by Idi Amin in the mid-70's. Storefronts are painted in bright colors and with logos and slogans as advertisements for major companies - Zain (pink), MTN (yellow), Coca-Cola (red), Eurofoam (white) and various other smaller companies. In most places the trash is serious but sweeping is more consistent here. But dip into an alley that will lead you to the space between storebacks or where people live in small apartments and you will find the piles of trash that are mostly burned. Compost and plastics alike are burned as goats pick from it. I have written composting into the conservation curriculum that we will be using and am demonstrating it to my colleagues. I think it could be a major way to increase and maintain soil fertility in Africa though the tropical climate presents some challenges.


You are always welcome here of course. It's a nice place to get in touch with your food sources i.e. slaughter chickens and other practical yet fun activities that make you feel a little more human and a little more manly at the same time. And there is something exciting about all the history and current state of affairs here. The history makes the culture rich and humbling as an outsider from an individualistic society who hasn't experienced such high levels of social integration. And despite continued suffering there is a hope here that things are on their way up in a more stable way, a way in which things are less likely to fall apart. The empowering nature of cell phones are a part of this Zeitgeist. . . ."

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