Saturday, October 30, 2010

Managers engaged in Jinja

Taught a one-day workshop in Jinja (90 minutes east of Kampala) on Friday for radio station managers. They were a very interesting group, and seemed to really embrace my message--that they can use their radio stations as tools for peace this election season. They promised to follow through and train their staffs on peace journalism and responsible electoral reporting. After the seminar, managers from several stations even offered us free time on the air to spread our message.

Feast or famine in Uganda; or, For God's Sake, no more matooke

From the Parkville Luminary

Note: Please do not share this column with my wife or mother. Thank you.

KAMPALA, UGANDA—The phrase “feast or famine” was clearly written to describe my stay in Uganda. When I’m in Kampala, I feast, and when I’m on the road, which is about half the time, I starve.

Thus far, it looks like famine is winning the battle. I’ve lost 20-25 pounds since late June. However, I had gained 15 pounds of “going-away-party-blubber” at numerous parties in Parkville and environs the last month before my departure for Uganda. Many of these parties featured barbeque, so it’s no wonder I packed on the pounds. Thus, some of the weight loss was welcome.

The fat has all come off when I am teaching seminars away from my home in Kampala. For my Ugandan friends and colleagues: it’s not that anything is wrong with Ugandan food. Honestly, it’s all pretty good. The typical buffet spread at the hotels where we stay always features matooke, a plantain cousin steamed in its own leaves. (Photo left--Kids--indeed, all Ugandans--adore matooke. Photo courtesy some guy on the web.) The hotel buffets also always include cassava (a starchy potato-like vegetable), plain rice, beans, and two or three meat dishes, and stews mostly made with chicken, beef, or goat. I don’t eat the meat because I don’t like meat much anyway, and also because, particularly outside Kampala, meat storage and refrigeration can be problematic. Sometimes they’ll cook greens, and these are quite tasty. There is never any bread, rolls, or butter. Bananas are usually served, and pineapple if you’re lucky. (Uganda is to pineapple what Kansas City is to barbeque or the Champagne region of France is to sparkling wine). There is never dessert, except for fruit, which my 13-year old son would tell you emphatically is most certainly not dessert.

The problem isn’t really what is served but is instead the lack of variety. The same, exact, identical, carbon-copy, duplicate, interchangeable, matching, spitting-image, redundant meal is offered up for lunch and dinner on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday. Do the math—10 meals, 10 identical menus. Not only this, but the same buffet meal is served at all hotels in all locations throughout Uganda, or at least every place I’ve been thus far. Thus, Monday dinner in Mbale is interchangeable with Thursday’s lunch in Soroti.

Trust me, by Tuesday’s dinner, you’re begging for mercy, dramatically crawling on the ground and groveling for anything that isn’t matooke or greens or white rice. In fact, I’ve stopped eating the dinner buffet altogether, opting instead to order off of the “menu”. I use the quotation marks because these aren’t menus in any real sense. They are instead wish lists of food that they might have had in 1987 or would like to offer at some point in the future. The cold reality is that up-country restaurants seldom have anything that isn’t on the buffet. At our hotel in Gulu, for example, I pleaded for some simple sliced avocados, which are delicious here. No luck. Although one hour before dinner I saw 43,472,098 avocados two miles away in Gulu’s market, this hotel was an avocado-free zone. I tried the next night and got the same result.

At our hotel in Soroti, I begged for pizza, which was on the menu. One night, I was told that the guy who makes the pizzas wasn’t working that day. Two days later, I tried again, only to be told that although the pizza guy was in the house, the kitchen had no cheese. Another recurring problem is the glacially slow service. On four different occasions, I have ordered food, waited in vain for over an hour for its arrival, then, overtaken by fatigue and impatience, given up and left. The result—when I’m on the road, I skip lots of meals.

At home in Kampala, I feast. Kampala sports some excellent restaurants, and not just “excellent for Uganda” eateries. There are a couple of great pizza places, one of which has killer homemade brownies. There’s a world class Thai restaurant which features the best tom yum soup on the planet. Kampala has multiple places to get good, fresh fish, usually tilapia. One of my favorite places has delicious pancakes and waffles for brunch, and great Thai and Indian dishes for dinner. In fact, this same place, Café Javas, serves a great burrito with homemade, authentic guacamole and terrific refried beans.

Despite the gorging in Kampala, the pounds continue to drop off. I’m doing my best to compensate by consuming chocolate, potato chips, and beer, and taking those delicious brownies with me on the road. It’s quite a chore, I know, but I’ll manage somehow.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Uganda launches 2011 presidential campaigns

The 2011 Ugandan presidential campaign officially kicked off on Monday as aspirants (as they’re called here) presented themselves for nomination—a process by which their candidacy is given an official stamp of approval. The leading candidates are the incumbent Yoweri Museveni and key challengers Kizza Besigye and Norbert Mao. Following the nomination ceremony, President Museveni’s party, NRM, held a loud, eight hour (!) rally featuring thousands of boisterous supporters at the Kololo Air Strip. I can testify to the loud part, since the rally site is one block from my apartment. I strolled around the perimeter of the celebration, and enjoyed the spectacle—throngs of yellow-shirted NRM enthusiasts, animated (often, shouting) speakers, presidential promises of fighting corruption, lots of music, and vendors selling sweet bananas from baskets perched upon their heads. The presidential/parliamentary elections are Feb. 18, 2011. (Photo: Guardian, UK).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Outstanding seminar in Lira

Just finished an excellent week in Lira, in north-central Uganda. The 20 seminar participants, radio journalists and announcers, worked hard, and really took to heart the lessons that we were teaching. One intriguing exercise I had them do was "man on the street" interviews. Residents were asked to say something positive about the candidate they're not voting for. (Like asking Republicans to say something nice about Obama, or Dems to praise McCain). The soundbites they brought back were very interesting. (Click here to see photo album from the Lira seminar.)

Feeding a culture of dependency?

From the Parkville Luminary

KAMPALA, UGANDA—In every city we travel to teach peace journalism, we convene a meeting of citizens interested in working for peaceful elections in Uganda in 2011. As our organizer Gloria reports, upon being asked to attend the peace meeting, the invitees’ first question is invariably, “How much will I be paid?”

This infuriates Gloria who, like me, believes that one shouldn’t have to pay people to make their community a better, more peaceful place. Yet, the culture of donor dependency is so ingrained here that asking for payments or handouts from non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) has become second nature for many sub-Saharan Africans.

In Uganda, it is not at all unusual for NGO’s to hold professional seminars and pay the attendees a “sitting allowance” to show up at the workshop. This is not a typo: NGO’s conduct the seminars and pay Ugandans to attend. Many reporters have told me that they have been paid to sit in on other journalism seminars, and that making sitting allowance payments is a common practice, though there were no obtainable statistics on this phenomenon.

I find this practice abhorrent, and refuse to pay even one shilling ($1=2259 shillings) to those attending my workshops. I feel like the attendees are already getting a university-quality course for free at the expense of the American taxpayer. (My program here is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy-Kampala and the U.S. Agency for International Development). We do reimburse our attendees for legitimate transportation expenses, but nothing in excess of those actual expenses.

Indeed, this constant badgering for sitting allowances and “facilitation” (cash payments that usually far exceed actual transportation expenses) is part of what academics call a culture of dependency here in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a culture that many argue is debilitating.

About $50 billion in international assistance goes to Africa each year. However, “over the past 60 years at least $1 trillion of development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Yet real per-capita income today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population -- over 350 million people -- live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades.” (Wall Street Journal, 3-21-09).

Countries like Uganda are alarmingly dependent on international aid as part of their federal budgets. In fact, 27% of Uganda’s current budget comes from international donors—down slightly from the previous year. (New Vision-Uganda, 6-9-10).

This dependency upon donors has a corrosive effect on African governments and societies, leaving them corrupt, debt-laden and thus less attractive to investors. Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya writes that “disempowerment…is perhaps the most unrecognized problem in Africa today… To the disempowered, it seems much easier or even more acceptable to leave one's life in the hands of third parties (governments, aid agencies, and even God) than to try to alleviate one's circumstances through one's own effort.…I have found it to be as substantial a bottleneck to development in Africa as inadequate infrastructure or bad governance, and it has added an extra weight to the work of those who want to enable individuals and communities to better their circumstances. The corruption and graft that have tainted so much of Africa's leadership in the post-independence period are well-known; the misappropriation of funds, outright theft, incompetence, and cronyism that have characterized too many African governments for decades have been often catalogued. What perhaps is less well understood is how, because of a failure of leadership at the top of the social tree, the culture of corruption - and dependency - has too often eaten its way down to the roots.” ( , May, 2009).

I have seen and experienced the disempowerment that Maathai discusses both in individuals and in institutions. I can only hope that the work that we are doing, well-intentioned though it may be, isn’t contributing to this cycle of dependency.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Party poopers in Lira

I'm staying at the Gracious Palace hotel in Lira. I am not making up this name. Posted on the wall here is a list of contraband. Specifically, the sign says that it is prohibited to house "primate babies" in your room. I wonder if that includes humans? Also prohibited are, and I quote, "all power tools, eg. generators, drills, vibrators, etc." So much for the wild party I had planned...

Great seminar here--one of the best--thanks to the engaged, inquisitive journalists who are attending.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Famine predicted for Uganda in 2011

More than half of Uganda’s 31 million people face severe food shortages by February 2011 because of an expected drought, Parliament said in a statement on Friday, citing the minister for disaster preparedness, Tarsis Kabwegyere. The current rains, the statement said, will be followed by an “unusual period of drought and severe water shortage” that will spread famine and kill livestock in many parts of East Africa. --New York Times, 10-16-2010.

Rhino sanctuary frightens (briefly), fascinates

From the Parkville Luminary

ZIWA RHINO SANCTUARY, CENTRAL UGANDA—The terror lasted only a few seconds. I clumsily stepped onto a twig or perhaps on a dry bush, and made just enough noise to startle a two-ton rhino lounging about 20 yards from where we stood. The rhino sprang to its feet in what seemed like a millisecond, and took one menacing step towards us. I somehow managed to maintain control of my bodily fluids.

The safety rules they give you here at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary (click here for photo album) say that the best thing to do if charged is to “move near a tree and climb”. This is undoubtedly good advice. Nonetheless, at that moment, my mind was hijacked by my most basic instincts, something like “fight or flight”. Fighting was never an option. If that rhino had taken one more step towards us, I would have high-tailed it out of there so fast that, cartoon-style, I would have laid down skid marks (the kind left by tires) and ran out of my clothes.

Fortunately, our guide/ranger kept cool, and said some soothing words to the rhino. It worked, and you could literally see the rhino relax. We took somewhat longer to cool down as we laughed nervously about the incident, which had taken no more than 10 seconds.

The rest of the hour that we spent tracking the nine rhinos who live here at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was great, and fortunately, non skid mark (the other kind) inducing. These rhinos are semi-habituated, and you can get within about 20 yards of them provided you move slowly, talk softly, and don’t startle them (oops).

Rhinos used to be abundant in Uganda, but were unfortunately victimized by hunting, poaching, and habitat loss. By the 1960’s, there were just 400 black rhinos and 300 white rhinos left in Uganda. Civil unrest in the 1970’s during the Idi Amin regime made poaching much easier, and thus rhinos here were decimated. The last wild rhino in Uganda was spotted in 1983.

The 70-square kilometer Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was established in 2004, and was populated with rhinos from Kenya and from Disney Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida. There are nine white rhinos here now, including three babies, one of which is named Obama. The dominant male here weighs 2.5 tons, and can run 25 m.p.h. Once a viable population of 30 rhinos has been bred, plans call for the animals to be released into their original habitat, probably nearby Murchison Falls National Park.

Interestingly, an armed ranger tracks each rhino 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, noting their behavior patterns and providing a deterrent to would-be poachers seeking rhino horn, which is prized in some cultures as a supposed aphrodisiac. Imagine what it would be like to be one of these rhino tracking rangers, and basically spend your life with these animals. While a rhino’s company is undoubtedly preferable to the company of some people, nonetheless the monotony would have to eat away at you.

The Ziwa Sanctuary is doing some excellent conservation work, and is deserving of not only a visit (it really is fun), but your support. To learn more, go to: .

Friday, October 15, 2010

Straddling the equator

Just returned from Kasese in western Uganda.
(Click here for photo album of scenery). On the way, we passed over the equator--an irresistable photo opportunity. I am pictured with friends and project assistants Gloria (left) and Jackie.
Seminars in Kasese for journalists and in Mbarara for radio station managers went well. Next week: five day seminar in Lira.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

My visit to Parkville, Missouri USA

I was honored to be guest speaker (via Skype) at the Friday, Oct. 8 meeting of the Parkville Rotary Club. I discussed my work here in Uganda, and the Rotary's support of a school lunch project in northwestern Uganda. It was great fun, and made me a bit homesick. Much more on this next week.

Northern Ugandans tightly embrace peace

From the Parkville Luminary

GULU, NORTHERN UGANDA—Here in Gulu, they’re very serious about peace. Of course, this is understandable since a bloody, 20-year long civil war centered here in northern Uganda ended just a couple of years ago.

It’s hard to see much war damage these days to infrastructure in Gulu (pictured), but sadly, it’s easier to notice the human damage—people walking on crutches, or scooting around in make-shift wheelchairs. Some are land mine victims, while others were wounded in combat. In casual conversations, it’s not uncommon to hear Northern Ugandans pine for their loved ones lost in the war.

This peace hungry area is indeed fertile ground for anti-violence messages. Capitalizing on this, our peace journalism project planted some seeds last July when we called together community leaders in Gulu to form what we call a peace club. These clubs are meant to complement our effort to train radio announcers and journalists about peace and electoral journalism. In each city where we’ve trained journalists (10 so far), we’ve convened a late afternoon peace club organizational meeting with about 20 invitees—church people, Rotary Club members, the leaders of youth and women’s organizations, etc. At the meetings, these civic activists learn about our peace journalism project while they organize themselves to support and encourage radio stations and journalists to practice peaceful election coverage.

Around election time, the Uganda peace clubs will also monitor radio stations in their area, using a rubric developed by my peace journalism class that met last spring at Park University. Data collected, some of it using SMS messaging, will be used to confront and correct “hate radio” purveyors, those who incite violence in their communities. The info the peace clubs collect will also be used to gauge the efficacy of the peace journalism project.

At the Peace Club organizational meeting in Gulu in July, the enthusiasm for the concept, and the citizens’ desire to work against election violence, was palpable. We could tell we had a great group.

Between July and October, the club created a motto (“Peaceful Elections for a Peaceful Uganda”) and a lengthy, detailed constitution. They also elected leaders, and planned the launch ceremony held last week.

About 35 people gathered for the club’s launch ceremony at the Diamond Hotel in Gulu on Oct. 5. (For photo album of the launch ceremony, click here.)The attendees were young and old, and included politicians and religions leaders. When a local Imam (Muslim religious leader) recited a prayer quoting Jesus (“Those who promote peace are the children of God”), I knew we would have an eventful few hours.

The most colorful and inspirational speaker was Gulu Peace Club Chairman A.K. Banya (pictured), a retired civil servant. (“I was a chief accountant, not a thief account,” he joked, mocking the rampant corruption in Uganda).

Banya said that the new peace club is “a baby born in our midst, and we embrace it wholeheartedly.” He continued, “Peace is an important asset in our community. Forming this peace club will help ensure that there will be no violence. We must sensitize the community and ourselves. We should continue to enjoy the peace now prevailing…We need a vibrant organization to sensitize the community, so that the peace that we’ve been craving for two decades (during the civil war) won’t be lost.”

Banya didn’t mince any words about the need to advocate for peace. “Formation of the peace club is imperative,” he observed. “Violence and danger is imminent unless we act. I ordain you as apostles of peace. Let’s spread the message.” He said spreading peace is like sending ripples through a pond. “We will stop only when the entirety of Uganda is peaceful,” Banya promised.

It was deeply gratifying to see the seeds we planted in July blossom so boldly in October. I’m not sure if the peace club concept will catch on in other places like it has in Gulu, but if it does, and if journalists do their part by practicing responsible, peaceful reporting, Uganda can’t help but have violence-free elections.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Verbose in Gulu; Amazed at Ziwa Sanctuary

Just returned from outstanding trip to Gulu, one of my favorite Ugandan towns. Got to preach peace journalism on Mega-FM. Third parties reported that I was actually coherent. Also got to help launch the Gulu Peace Club--a group of citizens dedicated to preventing election violence. More on this later. Finally, visited the fascinating Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in north-central Uganda. Click here for video. I was surprised how close we could get--about 20 yards. Really, really cool.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lake Bunyonyi: As spectacular as it is deserted

Recently returned from Lake Bunyonyi in southwestern Uganda. (Click here for photo album). I wasn't surprised at its beauty, but I was surprised at how isloated and deserted it seemed. A lake this beautiful anywhere in America would be swarming with vacationers.

On Independence Day, Assassinated Goats, Religion, and Potholes

From the Parkville Luminary

Time to tie up some loose ends, clean out the attic, and, apparently, trot out the clichés as we open up the “I want to mention it but it’s not enough for a full, long column” file.

UGANDAN INDEPENDENCE DAY—Ugandans are celebrating the country’s 48th birthday on Oct. 9 with the usual speeches, parties, and so on. Not to rain on their parade (another cliché!), but given Uganda’s intractable problems, there must be many mixed feelings this Independence Day. Life expectancy here is 53 years, and the fertility rate (7 children per woman) is the world’s second highest. (CIA World Factbook). Corruption is rampant, and the health and education systems are crippled. Uganda is in the cross hairs of Somali terrorists, who killed 80 in July bombings in Kampala. Despite the misery, I believe Uganda has a world of potential, beginning with a cadre of educated, motivated young people. Maybe this potential is reason enough to celebrate on October 9th.

PEACE JOURNALISM SEMINARS BY THE NUMBERS—Through Oct. 8, I have taught nine peace and electoral journalism seminars in Uganda. So far, 150 radio journalists and announcers and 22 radio owners/managers have been trained on how to report in a way that discourages violence and encourages reconciliation and cooperation. We have traveled 2,455 miles going to and from these first nine seminars.

BLOGGING BY THE NUMBERS—One of the most interesting facets of my tour in Uganda has been working on and monitoring this blog about my experiences. What’s most fascinating is who is reading the blog (822 total last month). More than half of you are from the U.S. and Uganda. However, the rest live in (in order) Russia, the Netherlands, Finland, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Australia, Switzerland, and Spain. Why would a Finn or Saudi or Korean visit my site? How did they even find this blog? (If you're from one of these countries, please email me and share how you discovered this site). Maybe this modest blog is just further evidence that the Internet is bringing the world together in ways that we could never anticipate—like Thomas Friedman’s flat world.

GOAT ASSASSINATION—Police in Kabale, Uganda recently arrested a man who allegedly killed his neighbor’s goat. The reason for the goat-icide? His neighbor defeated the suspect’s wife in a political party primary. (Daily Monitor, Oct. 1). I’m recommending a Warren Commission-style investigation. I doubt there’s any video of the assassination, which is too baaaaad. (Sorry--I couldn't resist).

RELIGION IN U.S. AND UGANDA—The most fascinating news story of the last two weeks was undoubtedly the Pew survey that showed how ignorant many Americans are about religion. An interesting tidbit coming out of the survey was the fact that atheists and agnostics scored the highest on the survey of religious knowledge. You have to admire this gloating, inflammatory quote from an atheist leader about the survey. “I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” said Dan Silverman, president of American Atheists. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.” (NY Times, Sept. 28) Talk about throwing a buzzing hornet’s nest into a crowded church!

Here in Uganda, I haven’t been able to find the results of any survey on religious knowledge, but I’d bet that there are similar gaps. Uganda is a deeply religious country. Only 1% of Ugandans (according to the 2002 census) answered “none” when asked to name their religion. I have yet to meet a Ugandan atheist or agnostic, or at least someone who would admit it. 85% of Ugandans identify themselves as Christians, while 12% are Muslims. In a 2002 Pew survey, 85% of Ugandans said that religion plays a very important role in their lives, about the same number as in Kenya and South Africa.

UGANDAN JOKE—First, the set up: Kampala’s roads are awful, and filled with wide, deep potholes (craters?). Unless you want to destroy your car, you have to constantly zigzag around these obstacles. Observing the traffic weave all around the road is like watching a slalom race in skiing. Now, the joke--Q: How can you tell if a Kampala driver is drunk? A: If he is driving in a straight line.