(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Northern Uganda - Part 1

On Sunday a group of those who were here the last week were off to northern Uganda to visit our organization’s post-conflict activities. After a very full week of meetings, it was good to get out of the hotel and get to the field. The drawback, I suppose, was that we were in for a lot of time in a Land Cruiser. This is part one of a two-part report on the trip.
The Drive North
We left around 9am heading north through Kampala. The villages and countryside looked quite similar to rural northwest Tanzania where I worked about 6 years ago. One big difference is that this road is paved and there is quite a bit more development. In fact I was able to work for about 3 hours on my computer by way of a USB modem tapping into cell service. It is interesting how quickly parts of the world are developing and others are living much as they did centuries ago. The ubiquitous cell phone is changing that to some extent as we were to learn about on the trip but it’s not uncommon to have a basic phone and still live in abject poverty.
the Trust Jesus Saloon

The road was mostly flat with occasional gradual hills. After about 4 hours of driving we stopped to change vehicles. We met a vehicle from the program in the north in front of the Trust Jesus Saloon. In case you think you can pop in for a few beers and a Bible study, you should know that it is a hair salon.  
changing vehicles
Then we continued further north and then alongside Kabarega or Murchison Falls National Park (apparently goes by either name). Supposedly the park as all kinds of wild life but since we were just skirting the outside, we only saw some baboons hanging out by the roadside. Idi Amin’s troops (see Last King of Scotland or the next blog if you’re vague about who that is) wiped out many of the animals but it has recovered impressively. The park is bisected by the beautiful Victoria Nile River which we crossed on the way. Uganda is almost entirely within the Nile Basin.

the Victoria Nile River
Eventually we hit Gulu, the second largest city in Uganda. It looked like an interesting place and I would have liked to explore it further but we needed to trudge on. It is the main city of the north which has had a history of being disregarded. The British colonialists contributed to this by focusing their efforts more in the south. The situation was compounded by the LRA war which was entirely fought north of the Victoria Nile and provided more reason for neglect. It was no surprise that this was where we lost our pavement. And we still had a couple more bumpy hours ahead of us.
the Bomah Hotel in Kitgum

We finally arrived in Kitgum. This is where we would spend the next two nights. We checked into the Bomah Hotel, a decent place that even had a swimming pool. After the long, sweaty, dusty drive, I took no time checking in, throwing on some trunks and diving in. The pool was small and a bit dirty but I wasn’t picky at this point. A massive thunderstorm was brewing on the horizon and I wanted to take advantage of the time I had before the rain would hit. It was actually a pretty nice moment. Here I was way in the middle of nowhere in northern Uganda having a drink, soaking in the cool water, listening to the rumble of thunder and from time to time watching the Chelsea/Liverpool match on a satellite TV above the bar.
And then the rain hit. It was the kind of storm unknown to people who have never witnessed a true tropical rain. As it gained in intensity, one by one the luxuries disappeared. First it was the satellite TV. The dozen or so Ugandans who had gathered to watch the big match initially continued to sit facing the blank screen, likely in the futile hope that the game would return. Then the satellite internet went out. My connection with the outside world was slipping away. Then cell phone service went out. Fortunately I had already checked in with my wife in child worlds away in Bujumbura. Finally, the electricity disappeared to make the outages complete.
I closed my laptop, covered myself the best I could and made my way to my colleagues in the restaurant, guided by the dim light provided by my cell phone. Fortunately kitchens in Africa tend not to be dependent on a lot of technology and soon I would have some curry chicken and a tepid Nile Special beer. It was then off for a good night’s sleep in preparation for another day out on the bumpy, potentially muddy, roads.

Monday, April 15, 2013



I’m currently in Entebbe. Strangely enough it’s my first time to Uganda. I have several friends here and it is very close but I had never made the trip. This time was unavoidable. We have our regional meetings this week and though our region does not include Uganda, it is a generally central location for the various directors to gather – with the exception of the loads of people coming from New York.
I’m staying at a decent hotel on the north shore of Lake Victoria. Similar to other places I’ve stayed in East Africa, everything possible has been done to prevent guests from enjoying a view. Arriving late last night I assumed that my room on the non-lake side of the hotel was rather unfortunate. However I’m finding that not only has the lake view been strategically blocked by trees, there is a lakeside night club pumping music late into the night. In the end, it appears that my view of the parking lot and adjacent dumpsters will be a better option.

The facility is quite expansive. There is a grand entrance and a large atrium area. It would be more impressive to arrive by day since the hotel doesn’t seem to understand the concept of warm lighting. The main hall is filled with white, energy-saver lights that suck the color out of everything. When we arrived it made all of the weary travelers from NY look all the more weary.

The room is nice-ish. I’ve had no water at least once. Currently what is coming out of the tap looks more like dark tea. Burundi is a poor country but rarely do we get brown water. 

We’ve only had a day of meetings but already it has been quite interesting. We had a two-hour briefing on security. Sub-Saharan Africa is a rough neighborhood in which to work and this discussion did nothing to encourage me about the direction things are going. While most of the conversation was around the Sahel, Central African Republic, Mali, Niger, Somalia and so forth, there’s no question that the situation in the Congo and potentially in Burundi (with the build up to the elections beginning) give us much to be concerned about. We are all the security focal points for our programs and we are responsible for the well-being of our staff. Tough situations arise from time to time, the most recent being our program in CAR in which we recently evacuated staff. Rebels beat up a few of our staff, looted the office and the program has been shut down until further notice. It’s a nightmare scenario but it happens in this line of work.  

Now, at the end of day one, I’m back in the room. Turned on Al Jazeera to find out that a couple of explosions happened near the finish of the Boston Marathon. Not sure what the cause is yet. I suppose danger can find you anywhere.