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.