Saturday, March 31, 2007

Lonely Hearts

Lonely hearts columns here are a hoot. They are in most of the daily papers and are abundant in the Sundays. My favourite was;

“Unemployed HIV positive taxi driver seeks white woman for love and financial assistance.”

Endearingly honest but I can’t imagine he was inundated with replies.

The reality here is that a relationship with a mzungu is a passport to wealth. Being middle aged (and therefore fairly obviously past providing anyone with the mzungu baby they so strongly desire) I’m relatively protected, except for the questions about whether I have a sister they might be able to marry. Most of my female friends here are much younger and are pestered terribly. Offers of marriage are plentiful, even for those already wed, “It’s OK, I can be your African husband”. Petra has clocked up the most proposals (and propositions) of anyone I’ve ever met. She has lost count, but literally dozens, and she tells me thirty good ones, including two brothers who told her they were happy to share. The best prospect offered 300 cows for her hand in marriage, although she never saw the colour of his money…..(Petra is in the picture... Murchison Falls in the background.)

Monday, March 12, 2007

Jack and Jill went up the what?

We are all a product of our personal and cultural histories and our education. Uganda has had a very troubled history and is still in considerable difficulty politically, (the judges are currently on strike after outrageous judicial interference by the President). A large chunk of the population has no access to clean water, education or health care and don’t know where the food or fuel to cook it will come from for today’s meal. So it’s really not surprising that it seems hard for Ugandans to think further than today.

The education system contributes to the problem, effectively stifling any initiative shown by pupils. Class sizes are huge, often over 100. Textbooks and materials are scarce so lessons are taught by rote. The teacher will as a question and the class will answer together. Jack and Jill went up the what? Jack and Jill went up the hill. To fetch a pail of what? To fetch a pail of water. And so on. This phrasing is almost universal in Ugandan language, with people asking and then answering their own questions. And then I went to the what? I went to the hospital. To have a what? To have a blood test….Confusing for the newcomer to the country and very stunting for the developing mind. A teacher friend here was sitting in on a class recently when a teacher asked a question. A child put his hand up to answer and started his answer with “I think…”. The teacher stopped him, saying “I don’t want to know what you think; I want you to repeat what I just told you.”

Last week at my clinic I requested a blood slide to see if the child had malaria. The lab technician is a bright, graduate lab technologist who seems full of ideas and enthusiasm. He told me he couldn’t do the test as the power was off so his microscope wouldn’t work. The clinic has an inverter and batteries to store electricity when it’s on for use when it’s off. I asked about the inverter. He said it didn’t seem to be working. I asked why not. He said he didn’t know, but the battery was flat. I asked if he’d called someone to fix it. He said he didn’t have their number. I asked him if he could get it. He said OK. I asked him if he’d moved the reagents into the gas fridge so they wouldn’t get spoilt. He said no.

I can’t see any of this changing here until there is genuine democracy, food security and an education system that values and rewards initiative and creativity….


Wangye is the second most common word I hear after “Hey, muzungu!”. And after 6 months I’m still not entirely sure what it means. Literally, it translates as “my/mine”, as in “my child(omwana wangye)”. But it seems to be a multipurpose word, used as pardon? or hello?(answering a telephone) or yes or I accept(as in “I accept what you say, don’t necessarily agree with you, don’t have any intention of doing whatever it is you have suggested but am far too polite to tell you any of this.”) One little word. Wangye.

There is also the “Ugandan shrug”. No, it’s not a dance. It’s a barely perceptible lift of the eyebrows. At first I mistook it for a restrained version of the “UK shrug” (exaggerated exasperation and huff accompanied by a bilateral eyebrow lift). But it’s not. It’s “wangye”. After an intense period of bartering over 2 large plastic buckets and 2 even larger plastic bowls (for the clinic – don’t ask) we settled on 21,000Ush. I paid the money and staggered away with my wares, only then realising that I had sealed the deal with a Ugandan shrug.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

These are a few of my favourite things….

Things I brought to Uganda and have never needed;
Seeds – we’ve moved so often they wouldn’t have a chance to germinate.
Drugs (one large carrier bag full) – there’s a drug shop on every street corner where you can buy anything you might possibly need without a prescription for less than 30p.
A years supply of tampons – you can buy them in Kampala (if not anywhere else)
3 warm jumpers and a pair of fleece gloves – what was I thinking?
VSO participatory methods handbook – ditto.
A sharp knife – obviously, these are available. This is Uganda home of the overused panga.
Things I wouldn’t be without;
The laptop - which provides hours of entertainment and information (and frustration when connection speeds are dire) for both of us.

My pillow – I’m a sad, middle aged woman and I love my pillow. I even took it up Mount Elgon (carried by a porter of course).
My tin opener – being a leftie I find it hard to get things like this to work and we like the occasional tuna mayo on toast.
My head torch – it’s an ‘off day’ (power sharing) so I’m writing this by torchlight.
Sara’s lovely flip flops – I wear them all day, every day, except when I’m in bed (Sara -thank you, thank you).
Gel roller ball pens – they write so well (forget computer held records here) and are useful currency when stuck. Most common compliment I receive – you have beautiful pens.
Medicine in Africa – weight 5kg, brought in as hand luggage, pretending it was light. Worth every gram.
Thing I wish I’d known I’d need;
Teabags – why did I think a tea producing nation would be able to make a decent cuppa?
More gel roller pens – see above (stock running low).
A second laptop – we fight. There’s not a lot to do in the evenings.
More than 2 CD’s – our car has a plug in CD player and if I hold it at the right angle we don't miss a beat as we negotiate the potholes.