Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Going Bananas

So tomorrow is my last full day on the road. After almost two months and 28000+ frequently flyer miles, I am headed home - provided that I make the three connections between Uganda and Washington and manage not to get quarantined in Europe. I have to say, it’s about time.

I don’t have much to report, but I wanted to post a couple of photos from the field work I did this week, so I am going to ramble on for a few paragraphs anyway. I went with the teams out to Bushenyi in western Uganda, near the Rwandan and Congolese borders. It is a beautiful part of both Uganda (and Africa in general), where dawn breaks over mist shrouded banana plantations stretching across the hills. That’s right – miles and miles of banana plantations. They sure do like bananas out in Bushenyi. For example, a typical culinary day in the life of my field work goes something like this:

Breakfast – eggs, toast and bananas
Mid morning snack – banana
Lunch – two bananas
Dinner – Steamed mashed bananas with beans and peanut sauce

That last one is not anywhere near as gross as it sounds, but after a few days, you really don’t look forward to meal times much anymore.

The other remarkable thing about this area is how unbelievably poor parts of it are. Not in the sense of the West African nothing-grows-and-then-we-starve model, but government service delivery is horrific. Because of the rain and the hills, the roads are total crap, and nothing and no one gets to these areas. The primary school was mostly thatch (swarmed over by hundreds of children in truly tragic hot pink uniforms) and the health clinic was the most depressing I have ever seen. It was a two room cement box, staffed by one (a nurse’s assistant that didn’t look old enough to shave), no electricity, no water (it was hauled up from a stream 3 miles downhill), no beds, almost no drugs, just nothing. There are so few supplies, women who give birth are required to bring their own cotton gauze and razor blades. And in a country where more than 5 percent of the adult population is HIV+ (as opposed to 0.006 percent in the US), the clinic has been out of gloves for over six months.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Escape to Chimp Island

So I didn’t exactly make it home to the United States last week. I even had plane tickets, and then at the last minute the boss sends me to Uganda. For three weeks. And now here I am, hanging out in Kampala, which is okay because I kinda like Kampala. I was an intern here and returned to do research for my master’s thesis, so I know the city a little. It is very different from laid-back coastal Dar es Salaam. Kampala is decidedly Central Africa, with its accompanying leafy hills, Congolese music, beans and bananas, and the sheer crush of humanity. I took a couple of pictures around the main bus station on a Friday afternoon. You can sort of tell how crowded it is, but it doesn’t do it true justice because it is impossible to stop and breathe, much less snap a photo, in the middle of it.

Kampala had changed a little since I was last here in 2007. There are more cars, cell server providers, laptop computers, ATMs and people. They have renamed all commercial establishments after the new American president. And the storks are gone.

I always liked the storks. They are maribu storks, over five feet tall and hideously ugly. They are born a mangy lot, but as a result of some unfathomable genetic compulsion, they pull out the feathers on their heads and necks. This doesn’t do much for them aesthetically. They used to everywhere in the capital, as ubiquitous as pigeons, but in the lead up to the Commonwealth meetings with Kampala hosted in last 2007, the government poisoned them all. Now there are only small packs of them remaining, which strut around with a slightly disconcerting post-apocalyptic menace about them. I take it as a great opportunity to practice with the new zoom lens.

I will spare you the details of the day-to-day work. I basically fill the days with trainings and meetings and revisions, punctuated with terror inducing rides sitting sidesaddle on the back of a motorbike taxi in a skirt and heels with my computer balanced on my lap. And eating beans and bananas. The staple starch here is mashed green bananas, which are usually served with some protein sauce, and a yellow banana for dessert. Since I don’t eat chicken or beef anymore, my life is filled with beans and bananas. Lots and lots of beans and bananas.

With the work load here being a little more manageable than in some places, I decided to take some time off on Saturday afternoon and Sunday to explore the city a bit. On Saturday I took in the downtown sites, including the Kasubi Tombs, where the bodies and/or jawbones of the local tribal kings are buried. And, notably, has the largest thatched structure in the world. I also saw the national museum, which included the requisite poorly taxidermed local wildlife and a fun section of Ugandan Olympic athletes. (The photos were obviously taken by media from other countries, as they showed Ugandan runners trailing far behind the Ethiopians and Kenyans, Ugandan boxers taking incredible shots to the head from Russians, etc…)

Then Sunday I decided to get out of town, birdwatch, check out some monkeys. I took a two hour local boat ride out to an island in Lake Victoria to visit the chimpanzee sanctuary. This was after having dinner with a primatologist the night before, all of whose stories ended with the phrase “and then the chimp ripped the guy’s face off.” Chimps are very aggressive creatures and apparently that is a common thing for them to do to a human. The sanctuary chimps seemed pretty mellow, clapping and carrying on to get the attention of the handlers to be thrown another orange or pumpkin. Plus they were behind a high voltage electric fence. Some of the birds were actually more aggressive – dive bombing anyone that walked too close to their nest. It made for some moments of hilarity when an unsuspecting human did it, but took on a bit more of a nature channel life-and-death struggle when a pair of three foot long monitor lizards went after the eggs. The bird’s attacks were unsuccessful, the lizards being just too big and scaly, but readers will be happy to know that they were chased off by the stampeding herd of camera toting tourists.