Liz In Uganda


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14th Jan 31st Jan

14th January 2009

Happy New Year!

Are there any geeks out there who can offer me advice on anti-virus precautions? It started with a virus that not only wasn't recognised by our anti-virus software but actually stopped it working. Then it started eating MS Office... We've trundled PCs up to the internet cafe for cleaning with varying degrees of success. One came back with far worse virus than it went with. The weak link is our network server because free anti-virus software won't run on NT Server. Eventually I paid for a package over the internet, but not very sustainable as credit/debit cards are virtually unknown here.
It will happen again - everyone here has flash sticks but few have internet at home, so we all move around our offices and internet cafes spreading virus. Internet cafes are pretty poor at keeping anti-virus up to date or running it regularly - disaster is inevitable. What Africa needs is free antivirus that can be set to run automatically, including any external media, and can be updated easily without a 24/7 internet connection - mmm.

MVRC students graduated in December. Usually we provide a meal for students, guests and parents but this year we could only afford cakes and soft drinks. That is, until an ex-student offered to provide food. He knew how important a meal is to these occasions, so thank you Rogers. We also managed to find enough money to give each student a basic pack of tools to start up in business themselves, also very important. This year I videoed the event, I'm no threat to Hollywood but it's good enough.
Today we went to Masaka District Council to present our budget for the coming year. Unfortunately we'd been given the wrong date, it happened yesterday! However, the meeting had seen our paper and agreed wholeheartedly to recruit three new Trainers for our vacant workshops. They also appreciated our argument that we are still getting the same grant as we had in 2000 when, to keep in line with prices, it should be doubled. Ah, but, there is no money! Hey ho. In the last 6 months we've only received grant for 3 months so we're owed a lot. We took advantage of being at the office to see the Chief Finance Officer who agreed an immediate release of one month's funding. My role in this is just to be there as most people here are in awe of the mzungu....

Our next steps are to recruit students for the next academic year and for this we need a vehicle. We visit each of the 23 sub-counties in Masaka, following up referrals from councilors and others. We meet potential students in their homes so we have an opportunity to talk to their parents/guardians about what we do at MVRC. We can also verify that the student is genuine! But, the MVRC pick-up is 10 years old and it shows. Lack of funds means that servicing and repairs have been skipped and it hasn't started without a push/roll for months. When the engine started juddering we decided we really had to have it serviced and repaired before driving to all 23 sub-counties in Masaka. As I write it's still in the garage ....

MVRC business plan is moving slowly. Our refurbished reception area looks good and publicity was distributed widely but we don't have any bookings yet. By the way, we printed the fabric for the chair covers (and made them) and designed and made the reception desk - hope you're impressed. We've also made scarves for school students, T-shirts for an NGO and are currently printing fabric for another NGO. This is a good start but we need much, much more.

I spent Xmas in Masaka with Anne and her family. Megan, age 5, was in seventh heaven, because Santa had left snowy footprints across the floor (amazing what you can do with a little flour!) It was a really fun family Christmas until the water stopped. Believe me it is no fun to have no water in a house with flush toilets with a 5 year old and a 9 month old. Ah, said the landlord, we have stopped pumping and the man with the key has gone to his village. We left for Kampala and a shower!

Anne and I spent New Year in Kidepo National Park in the far north east of Uganda, on the border with Sudan and Kenya. The park had been closed for a while because of all the civil unrest but recently the lodge has been rebuilt as a luxury resort. It is dangerous to drive there so we flew in a little 16 seater plane with the other guests. The land is very different, rolling savannah as far as the eye can see and wild animals everywhere including very close to the lodge. There are no other towns or facilities nearby, everything has to be flown in, so for 5 days we sixteen guests lived as a family ably parented by Michael and Rebecca, the management team. The bandas were luxurious with an optional outside bath to gaze at the stars, two huge beds, sitting area and a verandah to die for, I could have sat there all day.
Every day we were offered game drives or walks and I went on most of them. We saw lots of elephants, giraffes, zebra, water buck, hartebeest, jackals, ostrich and much more. Only three of us went on the trip to a local village. I think we all expected tourist gimmicks but it was not like that at all. We were escorted by Augustine who comes from the village, shown round and introduced to his family. It was new year's day so there was a lot of dancing and celebrating, despite our presence! Many people wanted to be photographed and we were mobbed by posing villagers. Both Augustine and a young man who was helping me ran to get their babies for a photo! I was interested in any differences between this area and Masaka, and there were many. Their homes are traditional round bandas with grass roof, unlike Masaka where they are usually rectangular with corrugated iron roofs. They also decorate the walls, which is not done here. They don't use charcoal stoves, just 3 stones round a wood fire. No latrines either, just a walk into the bush. The people of this village cultivate land and keep a few chickens but no goats, I'm not sure why, and no cows because the Karamajong would steal them. Life is very, very simple and I do admire people like Augustine who studied well, left the village to go to University and ultimately work in a luxurious resort. How many worlds apart is that?

Cultural differences between Africa and the west are well known but can be tricky to live with, particularly when it comes to money. I've just read a book called "African Friends and Money Matters" by David Maranz, an ethnographer. (Pub SIL www.ethnologue.com) He makes 90 observations about money and personal issues, every one of which I recognise. He says that village life and cohesion is dependent on solidarity and meeting immediate needs. If I need something today and you have it, I ask you for it and you must give it because my need is greater than yours. Of course, tomorrow you may demand something from me, it all hinges on meeting immediate needs. This leaves little scope for planning for the future or saving in any way. Maranz says people in employment may spend their salary immediately on anything just to stop others demanding it from them. In Ntungamo I kept money back as savings for both Glory and Moses to preserve their income from the family. Renegades who demand more than they give may ultimately be isolated or even banished from the village - this is the worst possible punishment. Without the solidarity of the village even survival is difficult. The downside is that to keep villagers at the same level any unusual or ambitious behavior can be stamped on, hence my admiration for people like Augustine.
There is also a spiritual dimension. Africans are very generous and believe that by giving you gain points in 'heaven'. Goods are priced according to the buyers wealth - cheap for the poorest through to expensive for the richest. The seller believes they are doing you a favour by demanding a high price and so giving you the opportunity to gain more heavenly points. This goes some way to explaining the African tendency to refuse to sell to me for a local price. Indeed, the seller holds all the cards and the customer is not king.
Difficulties arise when village practice comes to town and into a western style culture. If you know me, or even pass me in the street, I am comparatively rich and your immediate needs are greater than mine so of course it's OK to demand money from me. In the village no-one keeps accounts of who has had what from whom, that would be very rude, so why do we have to do precise accountability? Indeed, if an NGO has given my organisation funds the money is now mine to spend as I wish, including meeting my own personal needs - we call this embezzlement in the west but it is not always seen that way here. Indeed people find it difficult to appreciate that if they are given funds for a specific project they must do that project and nothing else (Maranz quotes an African NGO who were so incensed by this they sent the money back!)
This book has really helped me to put in context the day to day challenges of understanding life here and I heartily recommend it. On the other hand it has also confirmed my view that western style capitalism may not be the solution Africa is looking for.

PS Coco is now living very happily with Apollo, Betty and Phillip (age 12 months). She went to Mbarara for Xmas and returns this weekend. I'm looking forward to seeing her again!

31st January

I spent Tuesday waiting. Masaka District had put our monthly grant onto our account and the CAO (Chief Administrative Officer) had authorised our expenditure. All we needed to do was collect the cheque, get it signed by the right District authorities, take it to the bank and cash it. First we waited for the rain to stop as no-one moves during rain. Then we waited at the District offices for the staff to turn up. We went on to wait for a meeting to end, wait for the next man to appear and by then it was lunch time. We returned to be soundly put in our place by a 'big man' who would not be rushed. Oh my! (Apollo's only comment was to thank me for coming, otherwise it could have taken two weeks.) It was after 3.00 before we got to the bank. We queued until 4.20, in that time they dealt with about 15 customers so not a fast service. We sighed with relief when our turn came, we had a meeting back at the centre at 3.30, but it was short lived. Despite being signed by 2 senior council officials the bank queried the signatures. It was 5.45 before we finally got our money - and we missed our meeting.
Banks can be tricky. A colleague went to withdraw money in Barclays, Kampala. He had the temerity to complain gently to the Teller about the long wait. In response the Teller slowed down then queried his signature. Irritated, he offered to sign again and pointed out that it was his money he wanted, not the bank's. The Teller called security and had him hauled off the premises. He got his money in the end and had the satisfaction of writing an article for the "Daily Monitor" which certainly stirred things up.

For the third time in as many months I have no water. My landlord is the nearby Muteesa I Royal University, and their water pump keeps breaking down. This area is quite wealthy so there aren't any standpipes, the nearest is about a kilometre away - I can barely carry a full jerry can across the kitchen! Apollo, bless him, is fetching water for me. But I learn a thing or two, for example, it takes half a jerry can to flush the loo so I don't do that too often. I'm still not sure how to get enough water here for the maid to clean but it has to be done. She's missed one clean and already the dust is thick and insects are appearing. I am in awe of the vast majority of Ugandans who have to carry all their water every day.
The good news is that a new pump is being fitted - I just hope it is soon.

Coco is in great shape! She's grown rapidly and must be three times the size she was when we found her. She recognised me immediately and I was treated to much licking, biting and general affection. She still speaks English and responds to 'out!' and 'down!' - she's going to be a great watchdog for Apollo and family.

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