We’re not in Kansas anymore.
We left Kampala for the town of Mukono with Leslie Weighill, founder of The Real Uganda on Tuesday morning. Here, it’s impossible to get lost, as instructions to an outsider would be overwhelmingly simple: stay on the paved road, for it’s the only one.
Infrastructure would be a strong word for what exists in Uganda, at least outside of the major hubs and tourist areas. The road we’re on is known as the Jinja Road, which connects the hubs of Kampala and Jinja, near the source of the Nile. The road is full of trucks carrying crops to market like matooke (plantains), “taxis” in the form of a VW bus equivalent, and boda bodas*. If I thought my throat was dry and choked up on the way from the airport to Kampala, boy was I in for a rude awakening. As someone used to breathing relatively clean air, you feel as if you’re breathing straight out of a tail pipe.
*boda boda: a small motorcycle that is the main means of individual transportation. Aside from commuting in and out with luggage, this is how we get around.
Once off the paved road (remember, there’s only one..), the ride gets a little bumpy and tricky to navigate. Boda bodas, taxis, tractors and big rigs alike all do an elegant dance to avoid accidents (though I personally believe they award themselves points for close calls..); and individual vehicles bob and weave around the divots, bumps, puddles and even temporary streams after an abnormally long period of rain. Generally speaking, the larger vehicle has the right of way, so as a pedestrian, you’re low man on the totem pole, and best be careful!
Leslie lives in a 3 bedroom compound in the town of Mukono. The toilets still flush and the power is still on, but it already feels like a different world.
You sleep protected by a mosquito net.
You don’t eat food that isn’t hot.
You don’t drink water that isn’t bottled or boiled.
The ability to eat a variety of foodstuffs is completely dependent on what’s in season (more on this later).
There’s no AC (it’s hot).
You wear ratty clothes on purpose because it’s dirty*.
*According to Leslie, it’s easy to come to Africa and take a picture of a disheveled looking African child with dirty, worn out clothes and no shoes. This is the image that comes to the mind of most Westerners when they think of Africa. This however is a gross misrepresentation. While living conditions are indeed harsh and certainly difficult, every child has their Sunday best. Every child has shoes. They don’t wear them around because A) they’re tougher than we are (my words) and B) its dirty.
We spend the afternoon settling in, getting set up on a local data plan (~$26 for 5GB which doubled to 10GB with promotion), buying snacks and peanut butter (for extra calories) and discussing the program, and by the time we all get fed up being serious we spend the remaining hours playing games with Lucas (her son) and EJ (who belongs to Esther, who also lives in the compound).
On to Lugazi
The next morning, we’re met by Robert and Vivian, who together run Lugacraft Uganda and are to be our hosts for the next 2 weeks. They live in a town called Lugazi, which is the next major town on the Jinja Road. I should note that at this time, I’m beginning to have an upset stomach, which lasted for the better part of 3 days*.
*Symptoms included lots of stomach pain, nearly no appetite, very unpleasant and acidic burps and . Even the thought of food made me nauseous. We arrived at the decision that the culprit is the malaria medication (malarone), and making the mistake of taking it too late at night and not with food.
We arrive in the village of Namengo, in the southern portion of Lugazi, at Robert and Vivian’s home. The homes are tightly packed together, and even as I’m writing I can hear conversation-level chatter of the neighbors, local African music is playing (reminiscent of a Caribbean style), and life is just plugging right along. The village is a small community – but it’s exactly that: community.
By Western standards it is compact, but it has everything we need and there’s certainly nothing frilly taking up space. The name of the game is conservation. As we learn is the custom, we remove our shoes before entering the 2 bedroom abode (remember, it’s dirty outside!). The rooms have beds and a “shower room” where water is gravity fed through a spigot that is used for bathing and brushing teeth. The living room contains two chairs and a sofa, small tube-style tv, and a 4 tiered cart with mugs, bowls, plates and utensils. A coffee table that doubles as a dining room table takes up the remaining space. Vivian handles the cooking outside in what I would call a closet-sized kitchen, which contains a charcoal stove, a few pots and pans and some utensils. As is customary, I’ve saved the best for last: we go to the bathroom in a pit latrine. Literally: a giant pit covered by a concrete slab, with a 6 inch by 8 inch hole in which we do our business. By far the best technique is to throw caution to the wind and get your bottom as close to the ground as possible – minimizing the amount of aiming that has to take place is key!
Compared to some of the villages we’ve visited with Lugacraft, and even to many of the homes within this village, we live very well. During the day there’s the same garbage soap operas (albeit worse than at home as they’re voice-overs from Spanish), and at night we end up watching either BBC news or one of the local Ugandan stations or a soccer match when available. It’s kept very clean, and the small geckos whom I’ve learned to befriend help keep the bugs in check. As an American, by far the most challenging part is not having clean water on command, and that the electricity shuts off without warning every so often (I kid you not, the power just went out as I type) – all things which we view as basic commodities that are generally at our beck and call.
Vivian is a tremendous cook, and we eat to satiety 3 times a day. At each village or home we visit you can always count on our host rolling out the red carpet and feeding us steamed corn or matooke. Even people with very little are always more than gracious to us as guests.
From a nutrition standpoint, we’re at the mercy of what is available at the markets. The majority of food is very carb heavy and (in scope) relatively limited in nutrients. To be sure, the food is naturally organic and very nutrient-dense, but the point I’m making is that what is lacking is the wide variety we’re used to in the States. For comparison, on an average day in the US, I’d estimate I eat 4-5 different types of fruit, 4-5 types of grains or starchy carbs, and as many as 10-12 different types of vegetables – in varying amounts of course. Thus far in Uganda, I’m averaging 1 or 2 fruits per day, 3-4 starchy carbs (white rice, cassava, plantain, bread), and I’m lucky to get 2 types of vegetables.
In an environment where just about anything will grow if planted, you’d think this wouldn’t be an issue – but when you remember that the name of the game is sustaining life for the masses versus being able to worry about the breadth and variety of your nutrients, caloric energy must come first. As a Westerner, this is difficult to adjust to, and even harder to explain to locals.
It’s not possible to overstate how very little goes to waste. 3 days ago I threw the plastic top to my water bottle in the trash, and it’s still the only thing in there. If it’s compostable, it goes back to the ground. If it’s flammable, it gets used to start a fire. Conservation when resources are limited is the name of the game.
Everyone is in it together.
Tomorrow, it’s back to the farming villages. In my next post, I’ll talk about the day to day schedule, and share what it is we do at Lugacraft Uganda!