I was asked to write an article for a friend about my time working in Uganda. It is a bit of a day in the life of piece, that probably all didn’t happen on the same day but gives you a really good idea of how my days would go. Check the article below:
Uganda: Pearl of Africa
I woke to the sound of my alarm beeping. Outside, children were playing and their mother tilled her makeshift garden. For a moment I thought I was still in Canada, but as I opened my eyes the mosquito net dragged me back to reality. I had been living in Uganda 3 months now and finally starting to feel somewhat comfortable. As I rolled out of bed my roommate Ali was just getting out of the shower. “How cold is the water this morning?” I asked, “Cold” Ali replied as he hurried to his room. I really didn’t need to ask. It was the rainy season and had rained twice last night, cooling everything down, including our water tank outside. After suffering through an ice shower I quickly put on my cleanest pair of khakis and polo shirt. I shined my black shoes, which in minutes of leaving home would be coated again in bright red dust.
We left our compound for work, greeting our neighbor in the field with a, “Gyebale, Nyabo.” She chuckled at our attempt at Luganda and humored us with a reply, “Kale Ssebo.” We continued down the dirt road that connected our house with one of the five major roads into and out of Kampala. Like clockwork the kids of the neighborhood spotted us and ran out to sing and dance and point at the two strange Westerners. I thought the novelty would have worn off after three months, but every morning they came singing and dancing “It’s a Muzungu, It’s a Muzungu!”
We found a matatu ready and waiting for us at the bottom of the hill. The matatu is the most common form of transportation in East Africa. Like most vehicles in the region, the matatu is a Toyota, generally white, and seats 14 people plus the driver and his conductor. The conductors job is to collect the fairs and entice people to ride in his matatu. On this morning the conductor was extra vocal. “Kampala, Kampala, Kampala!” he shouted, “Muzungu we go to Kampala?” he called to us. We tapped our fingers in the air to signal to him yes. We boarded the matatu to the usual stares of disbelief from the other passengers, their eyes asking,“Why are these foreigners not driving in their Land Rovers?”
The ride into the city took about 25 minutes, largely due to the congestion caused by having so few paved roads into the capital. Ali and I made our way to the office, on the second floor of a two storied commercial building. I think we were only such workplace in the entire complex, as most units were used for shops or restaurants. Our office was actually two spaces converted into one by placing a door between the two. Both sides of the office were quite small and very stuffy. With 6-8 people and 9 running computers, things got very hot quickly, making the sweltering afternoons even harder to bear.
Today we entered and greeted our co-workers, then quickly settled into our plastic patio furniture desks and started preparing for an upcoming training session. The following week we were visiting the neighboring town of Jinja to conduct a week long training with teachers and students in the use of Linux, and I really needed to refine the course we would be giving. After an hour of work we broke for a visit to the hairdresser next door, as he had just made a fruit salad and asked if we wanted some. I never once passed on the delicious fruit salads offered from the hair salon. At a mere 60 cents, these fruit salads constituted my breakfast. Today was a rare treat as in addition to the pineapple, mango, papaya and watermelon there was also a few slices of sugarcane.
A little after noon I went with a few co-workers to a tiny little restaurant (if you can call it that), located between a building and a wall, with a scrap metal overhead for when it rained. To get into the place you needed to squeeze in between the wall and the building which eventually opened up a little — enough to place a small table and a few pots for cooking. Everyone would sit and eat around the same table that would sometimes accommodate up to 12 or more people. Beside the table were several big pots where the ladies would make the food. I was terrified the first time I had experienced this place, where the hell were my co-workers taking me? But then I tried the food, and it blew me away. My favorite dish was Matoke (steamed mash plantain), beef stew and a peanut sauce. While the yellowish-purple color and strange texture may not sound appealing, I found it was absolutely delicious, and at a little over a dollar for the full meal, price was definitely right.
The afternoon brought tropical downpours. For the better part of two hours the city was soaked under a blanket of rain, then just as quickly the rain disappeared and the sky opened up to the beaming sun. If you are ever in the streets when such a downpour occurs, the only thing you can do is find yourself a shop or an overhang to hide under until it passes. (Otherwise you can look forward to drenched clothes).
Later we were visited by some school kids on their way home. They spotted me and my gleaming white skin before and were intrigued. I found the group very cute at first, so inquisitive about everything from how a computer works to what my skin felt like. However I soon realized it was a big mistake befriending these kids. Two of them were actually OK, however the leader of the group was a total trouble maker. He would come into the office and start turning off computers, clicking mouses, mashing on keyboards, and other troublesome stuff. Luckily Meddie knew how to handle these kids and when they were busy harassing me he would often step in and throw them out of our office.
A little after 5pm Ali and me called it quits for the day. Early on in our internship we had decided that we couldn’t handle the office hours the others were doing. They would often work 12-14 hour days. Not that we didn’t want to help out as much as we could, but we quickly realized that we would easily burn out. The staff fully understood and supported our decision after we explained to them our reasons. We found that by being very open with our employer and coworkers we were able to develop an excellent working relationship as well as very meaningful friendships.
After leaving work Ali headed off to Mosque for evening prayers while I went to a nearby pub called TLC to meet my friends (and fellow Canadian expatriates) Charles and Murad. Charles had recently arrived in Uganda a few weeks earlier and through the Netcorps secretariat was able to get into contact with me. Charles was doing tech work as a Netcorps intern and was sent via the NGO Human Rights Internet (HRI) while Ali, Murad and myself were also Netcorps Interns, sent via Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). Each NGO had its own unique way of handling volunteers abroad. HRI being a smaller NGO simply gave you a sum of money after your internship had been accepted and expected you to handle the planning of your trip yourself. VSO on the other hand offered a very structured approach. Almost everything regarding our internship with VSO was taken care of, from pre-departure training, flights, in-country training (where we learned basic language and cultural skills), accommodations and some wonderful local staff to rely on.
When we arrived at TLC we got ourselves some drinks and ordered some Nyama Choma for dinner, (basically barbeque marinated meat over a charcoal stove). In Uganda you would find Nyama Choma at almost any bar or pub, as well as people with their stoves selling it on the side of the road. The most famous place to order this delicacy is located in Nairobi at a restaurant called Carnivores. It offers all you can eat Nyama Choma of many different types of game meat, perfect for any meat lover.
After settling at TLC we discussed some of the problems we were having in the country. I found it healthy for me to unwind every so often with friends who could relate to my frustrations. It really made living in Uganda a lot easier and helped me get through some of the rougher times. Tonight the topic of conversation surrounded the matatu drivers who would try to overcharge us because we were foreigners. In the past, I had dealt with drivers who I refused to pay the amount they requested since I knew the actual cost. Usually after I told them in the local dialect that I knew the proper price they would accept my payment. The funny part was that I found myself getting worked up over them trying to rip me off and all they were overcharging me was roughly 10 cents. When it came down to it I guess it was more the principal that I should be treated like everyone else regardless of my skin color or nationality.
We left TLC around 7pm just as the sun was setting. Since Uganda is located on the equator the sun rises and falls roughly at 7am and 7pm. I walked with Murad down to the taxi park where we would part way, each taking a serperate matatus home. I’m always extra careful around the taxi parks as there are so many coming and going it’s a prime location for robbery. We noticed a few homeless people crawling on their hands and knees in and out of the dumpsters. The first time I had seen these cripples I was a bit fearful, as they looked like something out of a scary movie. However now I was just saddened whenever I see them, as they were living such a terrible life of poverty. The huge contrast between rich and poor in many developing nations was something I seriously had to come to grips with. There was almost no middle class — you were either very well off, or just doing your best to survive.
I reached my neighbourhood and had to walk the rest of the way up the hill. I approached a few young girls carrying big yellow jerry cans full of water, recognizing the kids as my neighbors and offered to help them carry the jugs up the hill. I couldn’t believe how heavy these jugs were and that these 7 or 8 year old girls were able to lift them. It made me realize how lucky I was to have running water in my place.
I arrived home to find the lady from the morning just leaving her field. I greeted her again in Luganda before heading inside my home. My roommate Ali had made it back from evening prayers and we chatted a bit before our power went out. This happened quite regularly, and we had gotten used to evenings by candle light. However I always took the power outage as a good sign to retire to bed, and tonight would be no different.
Another day as a volunteer in Uganda was over. I was really starting to feel at home in Uganda and every day I tried to enjoy as much as I could. After all it’s not everyday you get an opportunity to not only observe a new culture but to actual live and take part in it.