Mzungu's Travels

At the end of October, 2013 I will be traveling to Eastern Uganda to shoot some video of health  and education programs in the Kapchorwa Region.  I've set up this page to be a blog and a running account of my adventures and misadventures.

I'm sure you've heard other stories from Americans who have traveled to developing countries to spend a week or so on some important volunteer project.  And while those are important, as I see it there is an important distinction between this journey and every one else's project.  We're talking about me.


When Security makes you Insecure

November 1

"Is that camera?"

I nodded. The woman in the crisp uniform and beret looked at me sternly. Behind her stood several officers holding AK47s. "Where you taking?" I had no idea what she was asking, so she repeated the question more loudly. "Where you taking?"
I just looked at her stupidly. Did she want to know where I was going, or what pictures I was taking. There are about 47 languages spoken in Uganda. While English is the only universal, meaning that everybody in this country speaks English poorly. Few as poorly as this woman.

My brother attempted to answer her and she ordered us all to get out of the car. Jonathan, Tito and I were scanned with metal detectors by a small team of men in fatigues who then searched the car. In front of us a 19 year old touched his rifle tightly. It was pointed at the ground but could be aimed at me in seconds. Once they determined we were not hardened criminals we were allowed to pass. But this is not a random check point or the edge of some high security government installation. This is what you go through to get into a grocery store.

They've had such security for quite a while, but of course things have greatly intensified since September's shootings at the Westgate Mall in Kenya. Nairobi is about 350 miles away, but this was the same type of shopping center and the same chain of store, so you can't blame them for being careful.

We have repeated the ritual perhaps eight times since then, and people just accept it as part of the hassle of living in the modern society. It's actually not a very good check, I can spot a lot of ways around it, so even with the dogs and teams of young people in fatigues it's still mostly security theater.

My real concern is, will such security theater be coming soon to a shopping center near you?
 — in Kampala, Uganda.


The Dark Side of the Moon

November 3

Nobody told me I was going to scream.

 We all know the science.  The moon goes around the earth about every 28 days; the earth revolves every 24 hours and moves around the sun once every 365 days.  Every so often everything lines up so that as the moon passes in front of the sun things get really dark.  Yes, and when two people are romantically interested in one another it can cause an increased heart rate.  Saying that things get really dark during an eclipse is missing all of the magic.

 At least in this case, the path of totality is only about 15 miles wide.  Across a broad region of Africa and the Atlantic plus a tiny portion of North America you could see a slight change in brightness and with the right equipment a sizable chunk appears to have been bitten out of the sun.  Really cool, but not the same thing.We loaded seven people into a Land Cruiser and set off on an adventure; 150 Miles across truly terrible roads for no reason other than to look at the sun.  I'm not entirely sure what we expected to see.  We've all seen pictures of an eclipse; there's this big black spot where the sun used to be.  This would probably be just like the pictures, but at least I would be able to sound impressive at parties, "Ah yes, this reminds me of the time I was in Eastern Africa watching a total solar eclipse.

 ""This crab dip reminds you of watching a solar eclipse?"

 "Yes, it's been sitting out in the sun too long."

 Nobody told me I was going to scream.

 In the middle ages there are accounts of people going into a mad panic during a solar eclipse.  If you don't know what's going on, having the sun go out can ruin your whole day.  Nobody around here thought the sun was going out, but many did not entirely understand the physics.  In one city tens of thousands of visitors and dignitaries gathered in bleachers.  We chose another city along the path where the traffic was better and the roads were worse.Around 4:00 in the afternoon things began to happen.  The sun was not as intense, and there was a slight orange glow to the sky.  This is when my brother suggested we stop for lunch.  We're working with a Christian organization, so it really would not have been appropriate for me to say the words that occurred to me.

 We compromised by stopping at a grocery store for some lukewarm pizza and ice cream.  Important note: Two Tone ice cream bars are MUCH better when the outside is mango juice instead of orange, (even if they are lukewarm.)  Needing a good open space, we went to the Gulu Airport.  In Uganda it is against the law to photograph any government facilities or activities.  It's kind of a silly rule now that so many people have cell phones, but it's their country and their rules. This was a special occasion and we were told we were welcome as long as we only pointed cameras in a certain direction.  I don't think they wanted anyone to see the Colonel's pot belly.

 My next challenge was how to photograph the sun.  It sounds like it should be really simple, you point a camera in the right direction, and there it is.  Okay, now try to focus.  Actually, the sun is rather small in the sky.  When you look toward it, the main thing you see is glare, a lot of glare.  I slipped the filters into the camera and stopped down the lens and still all I could see was glare.  I made a few adjustments did some tweaks and then it got really dark.  Not the sky, just the image in the viewfinder.  I couldn't see anything, and couldn't figure out where to point the lens.

 The actual disc of the sun takes up about the same portion of the sky as the full moon - seems obvious now, duh, that's why you get an eclipse.  When you stop down a camera lens that far you lose some sharpness, and this is why my pictures don't have the same detail as they would if I had spent the money on a special solar filter.  After several minutes I managed to find the sun and center it in the frame. About a third of it was already covered by the moon.  So I waited and watched.  Some of the tough looking soldiers came over to look through the viewfinder.  They acted unimpressed, but I could tell they liked it.  And then I noticed that the sun was no longer visible in the viewfinder.  Oh yeah, the earth is turning, and when you zoom in this far it doesn't take long for the sun to go out of the shot.

 I adjusted and continued to wait.  Even when the sun is 90% obscured you can't really see the effect with the naked eye.  The glare, not to mention the danger, is too great.  The sky is darker, but it's certainly much more than 10% of it's usual brightness.Even in a partial eclipse, you notice the double shadow.  Normally sunlight comes from a perfect circle.  During an eclipse it is more of a crescent shape.  Your main shadow looks fuzzy around the edges instead of the crisp defined silhouette we normally expect.  When you hold up your hand and extend the fingers it looks like there are ten on each hand, no wait eight, or is it six.  One finger's shadow sort of blends into the next and you can't really tell how many there are.

 The next part happened all of a sudden.  One minute everything is pretty close to normal and then the world is about to end.  The light turns brown.  Not gray, not a softer shade of normal, we are talking UPS truck brown.  The sky feels heavy, like the air has been replaced by a layer of chocolate pudding which pushes down on your shoulders.  It feels strangely cold.  There is a gust of wind and the off color trees began to sway.  I turned and looked directly into the sun.

 That's when I screamed.  I would have been embarrassed, but everyone else was screaming too. Where the sun was supposed to be there was a giant, perfectly round, black dot floating in a sky that was an absolutely elegant shade of bluish gray. There was a bright shimmering ring around the black dot.  Then the ring went away.  My heart apparently wanted to see too, because it made a very serious effort to climb out my throat for a better look.

 One of the worst things a person can say when describing an event is, "Well, you had to be there."  Unfortunately, in this case it is true.  Part of that is because it's not just about seeing the eclipse; it's about the way everything around you changes.  It's also about the waiting, the anticipation and the unexpected. A video will never do it justice because it's not just the sun, it's the whole sky.  I might have gotten some better video if I had known what to expect and had continuously monitored the exposure level - but then I wouldn't have been able to see the show.

 I will not deny that I was incredibly lucky to have this experience.  If you ever have an opportunity to see a total eclipse it is important to tell your co-workers that it's no big deal and probably looks just like the pictures.  This is so they will stay at work and you will be able to call in sick.  If you get caught, it's easier to get another job than to find another eclipse.  

 But I warn you, you're going to scream.


Arab Culture - And I don't mean yougurt

October 30th  

So, I'm sitting beside some pine trees, browsing the internet while a nearby waterfall makes soft gurgling noises.  Obviously, I'm at the Eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula.At the Dubai clock tower. All the water in the fountain is desalinated odean.

In this case I'm at the airport in Dubai and this is one of their smaller waterfalls.  The one by the elevators is 30 feet high.  But I'm not going back there to get a picture because it's on the other side of Duty Free Hell.  The airline requires you to arrive at the airport 90 minutes before your flight and I'm convinced the reasons have more to do with commerce than security.

I'm only in town for 14 hours between flights, but of course that's enough time to do some exploring.  Dubai is a city of two and a half million people of whom only 17% are locals.  The rest are mostly Asian.  You encounter the Emiratis (as the locals are known) in a few offical capacities, but most of the people a tourist is likely to meet are Indian.  There are a surprising number of women in offical capacities, including police officers who wear an odd looking police cap with a built in head scarf.  

 Five years ago Alex and I visited Egypt, during the last days of the Mubarek regeime.   That was our first exposure to the Arabic culture. Cairo was noisy, chaotic and dirty.  Travel lanes were usually not marked on roads and were ignored anyway.  Stop signs were considered optional.  People drove old beat up cars steering with one hand while the other continuously beat out a staccatto rhythm on the horn.  Side streets were impromptu commercial districts with people offering merchandise or repair service from the curbs.  In Cairo you can get a transmission changed on a street corner.

Dubai is more like Las Vegas, without the naughty parts.  Okay, that doesn't leave a lot.   But it has the same, somewhat tacky "overbuilt because we can" sense about it.   Dubai is home to the Burj Kalifa, the tallest building in the world which dominates the harbor.  There are also underwater hotels, the largest shopping mall on the planet and an indoor ski resort.  I didn't see any of those - except the Burj Kalifa, it's kind of hard to miss.

What I did encounter was a society in every way different from Cairo.  There is a lot of traffic, but all the cars are new and everyone obeys the traffic laws meticulously.  In Egypt there were forty foot tall portraits of the president hanging on the sides of buildings; here there are small photos of the king inside most offices.  There is no litter or graffiti anywhere, but because we are in the desert there is a thin layer of sandy dust that forms on top of everything. 

 Arabic has become sort of the unofficial second language.  Asking someone if they speak English gets about the same "well duh" sort of reaction it would in PeoriaBack home, Americans have spent several years in a state of perpetual anxiety about the economy, the federal debt and housing prices.  Those problems aren't going away soon. But it's kind of refreshing to visit a place where those aren't really concerns. Dubai has an overwhelming sense of economic optimism.  In the last 20 years they have built hundreds of new high rise buildings.  Yet this country produces no oil;  it's economy is built entirely on banking, tourism and real estate.  I don't see how this can be sustained in the long run.  It's sort of like America in 1999 when we had that sense of a new economy that would keep growing and getting better forever. View from a Dubai metro station.

It might not last here either, but that's no reason not to enjoy a vibrant society.  Pessimists might be more accurate in the long run, but optimists are a lot more pleasant to be around.


Boda Bing Boda Boom

November 2nd

If you were looking for a place to build an inland city, you would probably choose Kampala.  Here at the base of a huge lake, nestled among the hills there is an inherent charm to the terrain that offers the potential for being ranked among the great cities of the world.  The elevation is about 4000 feet, so although it canbe very humid, the temperature rarely exceeds 80 degrees.  From a hilltop the panarama of the city and the lake in thie distance is breathtaking. But then, if you actually were looking for a place to build a city, I'd ask you to put a little more effort into the infrastructure.  - Oh, and it isn't just the view that affects your breath, it's also the air. 

 Most estimates say there are around a million and a half people in Kampala, but it's pretty near impossible to be precise.  At times it seems like there are a million and a half people in the road in front of you.  About 20% of the city streets are paved, the rest are narrow swatches of clay dirt.  When it is dry they there is a ubiquitous red dust which settles onto buildings, cars, and of course your lungs.  In public buildings you will see people continously dusting and mopping in a losing battle to control the dust.  When it rains the air clears out, but the streets turn into gloopy rivers of mud that stick to shoes, bumpers and just about anything else.

 There is a huge gap here between the 1% and the 99%.  There are some huge mansions here, although not that many in Kampala.  Many of the rich people prefer to escape thenoise and smoke and live in the smaller cities of Entebbe or Jinja. Along the sides of any maor street are hundreds of open air businesses.  In a small space a man welds metal gates, beside him are several furniture builders, small retailers cobblers and just about anything you can imagine.  On one street a man and his family build wooden coffins which they proudly display in their space between a bicycle repair shop and a vegetable stand.

 If you saw the movie "Hotel Rwanda," I should acknowledge that yes, there are places here that are that elegant.  But they are tucked away behind huge walls.  The entrance gates are guarded by machine gun totiing police and private security.   You will occasionally see land cruisers and escort vehicles zipping mzungus to and from these compounds.  It is entirely possible to visit Africa while seeing very little of it.

 But there is also a lot of stratification among the general population.  There are some pleasant single family homes on the outskirts of town.  A lawn and a couple of bedrooms, smaller than most American homes, but pleasant.  Home maintenance is a major challenge with all the dust and weeds.

Far more common are the little barrios which aren't much different from such places in any developing country.  Jumbles of high shacks built into one another to form large pockets of very high dennsity housing.  These are penetrated by dirt roads, sometimes not much more than a foot path.  Electricity is very expensive here, so many of these homes are lit by oil lamps, while others utilize free range electricity.  That's where you illegally tap into the overhead powerlines in order to run your electric stove.  These little neighborhoods are poor, dirty and ugly.  But the people that come out of them are fashionable and beautiful.  Appearances matter in this culture, particularly for women,  and you will see absolutely gorgeous young women wearing crisp dresses, and perfectly coifed hair walking from a hovel then sitting side saddle on the back of a motorcycle to go to work.

The motorcycle, or boda boda as it is known locally, is the most versatile and useful invention knwon to man.  Their prmary function is as a taxi. although they also function as pickup trucks family vehicles and wheelbarrows.  For a dollar or so you climb onto the back of the seat, state a destination and hold on for dear life.  While cars get stuck in serious traffic jams, a boda boda can zip between cars jump over curbs and take short cut through very narrow passageways.  There is no faster, or more dangerous, way to get around town.

The drivers are required to wear helmets, of course, but not the passengers.  Safety is important, but then so is fashion.


Guerrillas in the Midst 

Uganda, I am told, has more wild gorillas than the rest of the world combined.  I'm not going to see any of them.  I am going to the area in the northeast, around Mt. Elgon.  Mt. Elgon has the world's only known population of cave elephants.  I'm not going to see them either.   Historically Uganda has been home to a number of savage warlords, and fortunately, I'm also not likely to encounter any of them.

This is a country about the size of Oregon, and like Oregon it has many diverse regions beyond what usually comes to mind.  I'm going to be working with a group known as DCI, or Development Companions International.  This is a Christian organization, but most of their efforts have little to do with racking up more converts.  Christians are a substantially larger portion of the population in Uganda than in America.  DCI's efforts are more involved with that other stuff Jesus talked about - seems to me there was something in there about helping the poor.

And there is an interesting problem.  Uganda has gained some notoriety for laws against gays.  Though they've backed down somewhat, homosexual behavior remains criminal as it does in about half of Africa.  Several recent documentary films suggest that such attitudes are the result of American missionary groups, although I highly doubt it.  The laws have been on the books since the British occupation, and most people are quite capable of forming their own prejudices.  Technically, such acts still have a mandatory prison term in Virginia where I live, although the Supreme Court ruled enforcement of that law unconstitutional just ten years ago.

For my part, I tend to think that what somebody else does with their naughty bits really isn’t any of my business.  But there are those that argue working with a Christian group will lead to greater oppression by strengthening radical church groups and their agendas.  Some gay rights groups suggest spending any money in Uganda will only continue the oppression - what we need is a full scale embargo until they respect human rights.  Strangely, no one suggests cutting relations with Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan where the laws are much harsher.  I might mention that the Ugandan Parliament has a much higher percentage of women members than our own congress, but that's another issue.

A little less than a hundred years ago there was a similar argument between Winston Churchill and an American businessman named Herbert Hoover.  (This was several years before either man entered politics.)  The Soviet economy was failing. People were starving by the millions.  Churchill felt that the suffering and death were necessary to end the regime and to prevent the spread of Communism.  Hoover, a practicing Quaker, argued that it was our Christian duty to feed the hungry, clothe the poor and comfort the sick.  Politics could wait, the hungry could not.

Ultimately, the world listened to Hoover and America shipped huge quantities of food to Russia.  We don't know if the Soviet Union would have fallen sooner without the aid, but we do know that millions of people would have died almost immediately. Poster from PBS documentary on US Aid during Soviet Famine of 1921.

I’m afraid I have to side with Hoover on this one.  There are a lot of people in this world whose opinions I find deeply offensive.  I should do what I can to encourage respect and human rights. But my obligation as a human being comes first.  If I came upon a car accident and found someone bleeding to death I wouldn’t stop to ask his political affiliation.  We need to work to make a better world, but that starts by setting a good example.


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