Highlight Reel

As of this Wednesday we’ll have been in Uganda for a whole month! Or 29 days to be exact.* So I figure it’s about time to take off my social justice hat for a minute and fill you all in on what we’ve actually been up to. I’ve already mentioned a few things like meetings and trips to the market, but here’s what I’ve left out:

TEDx Nakasero Women
Two weekends ago we were invited to TEDx Nakasero Women. A few days beforehand I’d been talking to one of the facilitators at the conference we were at, and he mentioned that he was one of the organizers. Excited that I had some TEDx organizing experience myself, he eagerly invited us to the event.

The event was held in the Uganda National Cultural Centre, in a cool space on the second floor full of pillars and staircases. The theme of the conference was ‘momentum’, so all of the talks were loosely connected to that topic. The speakers ranged from the Editor in Chief of a local newspaper, to a South Sudanese refugee, to a former Director of the UN-FAO in China, Mongolia, and South Korea. And all but one speaker were women. Of course as is always the case some talks were better than others, but the overall message was inspiring, and we left satiated.

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The Airtel Africa Mashariki Half Marathon
Before you ask, no, we did not run the half marathon. Not a chance in hell. What we did do was the 10k. At 5am last Sunday Shelby, Jeremy, and I were lacing up our running shoes and rubbing our eyes as we stumbled outside to wait for our friend to pick us up. When the gun to start the race went off – over an hour late – the sun was just peaking over the horizon, and the three of us and about a hundred Ugandan, Kenyan, and Rwandan runners took off.

Now, before last Sunday I’d never run 10k consecutively in my life. My running career ended after winning a few first place medals for 400 and 800 meter races in sixth grade (might as well stop while you’re ahead right?). But recently, anytime I’ve tried to run for even twenty minutes I’ve gotten bored well before the allocated time is up. So the thought of doing 10km was daunting to say the least. Especially with no training, and in the Kampala heat.

Luckily for me, I had my own personal motivator/coach/cross country runner there to spur me along. For the first half every time I got a stitch or wanted to walk after a hill Shelby would jog beside me and make sure I started running again before a minute had passed. Even when she saw someone she didn’t know walking she would cheer them on until they started running again. With her help, by about 3km in I had found my stride. Aside from the last kilometer (which all seemed to be uphill) the rest of the race was kind of enjoyable! At least now I can say I’ve done it.

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A day at the beach
This past Wednesday was a public holiday called Ugandan Martyr’s Day. As we’d been warned against going to the Martyr’s shrine just outside the city, we opted instead to take a trip to the beach! Such a Canadian thing to do right? But as it turns out, Ugandan’s love the beach too (although their beaches are on the lake, not the ocean). In fact I think they do beach days better than we do at home: as we lay on the sand, respectfully keeping to ourselves, all the other beach goers were in the water dancing and playing together. There was even a makeshift game of tug of war at one point! It was amazing to see people who didn’t know each other from a hole in the ground happily hanging out as if they were one big family. It was like all the social conventions broke down: couples were cuddling, people were drinking beer, and women were even wearing bikinis (although not the string ones we’re used to in Canada). It was like a spontaneous, all ages beach party. It just goes to show that sometimes all you need is snacks, sand, and sunshine.

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Because the beach was right next to the airport, there was even an old abandoned airplane! Apparently it had been there since Idi Amin’s time.

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A trip to the nail salon
Some of the women here have the most amazing nails. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but you’d notice it too if the lady giving you change at the grocery store had bright blue talons, or the woman sitting across from you at a meeting had gold toes. So when Shelby’s co-worker told us about a local salon, we eagerly decided to give it a go. And as usual, something as simple as getting our nails done become a full day Kampala experience. To try to paint you the best picture I can, given the thousands of miles between you and Kampala, I’ll start from the beginning.

Step one: getting there. We waited for our boda driver to come for over an hour. True, we should have given him more notice, but by the time he arrived we were cranky – I guess we’re still getting used to Africa time. When we saw his huge smile though we quickly got over our frustrations and hopped on.

The best example I can think of to describe being on a boda is to compare it the a ride at an amusement park. For most of it it’s fun – the wind whipping through your hair, the world flashing by – but there are also those moments when you’re hanging on for dear life and trying to calculate the odds of you making it to your destination in one piece. Throw in several hundred other bodas and imagine yourself in the busiest part of town and you’ve pretty much got our ride to the nail salon. At one point I even had to get off in the middle of a traffic jam and hop on another boda, since two riders on one boda is frowned upon.

Eventually we arrived at the mall with the nail salon which is located in the heart of Kampala. Our boda driver gave us a lecture about keeping our valuables close and calling him before we left the mall so he could pick us up. In most places a lecture like this would seem overbearing, but in this case it was comforting. He waited until the man from the nail salon came to find us before he drove off, which we were very grateful for.

The man took us into the depths of the ramshackle mall and into his cramped little salon. When we arrived there must have been ten people in the space of a large bathroom, including two babies, several staff members, and a bride and her bridesmaids. We plunked ourselves down and began what turned out to be another hour long wait before someone was free to start on our nails. We didn’t mind though; we were transfixed by the amazing hairstyles being fashioned into the women’s hair, and the effortless combination of Luganda and English being spoken by the staff. Every now and then vendors would come into the salon peddling peanuts, hair accessories, or shoes. At one point one of the other customers even had lunch delivered from a nearby restaurant. It was pretty wild – by the time our nails were dry we’d had a fully immersive cultural experience.

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A night out in Kampala
I know when you read the words ‘night out’ you instantly think of clubs, short skirts and bad decisions. But don’t worry, Saturday’s night out included none of those things:** just a few beers, some new friends, and Indian food. Our co-workers took us to a beautiful outdoor restaurant where we were soon joined by their friends from other Kampala-based NGOs. After a delicious meal and good conversation we headed to a second bar, aptly named Fuego after the fire pits scattered amongst the tables. We stayed there chatting and sipping beers until about 1:30am, when we crammed a few too many people into the vehicles and the designated drivers drove us home. By the time we got home I was exhausted, but it was a well needed night to rewind and chat after a long week at work.

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A visit to Gadaffi Mosque
On Sunday afternoon, after a chill morning catching up on work at home, we decided to check out Gadaffi Mosque. It’s a huge structure about a thirty minute walk from our apartment, and the view from the top of the tower is supposed to be one of the best in Kampala. And it definitely was. After being draped in veils and climbing a few hundred stairs, we could see the whole city laid out below us, going for miles in each direction. What a view!

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Next the guide took us into the main prayer room of the mosque itself. It was a huge room with arched ceilings and an elaborate carpet covering the floor. We sat in there for about half an hour listening to him recount the history of the mosque. When he sang the prayers inscribed on the walls of the room the acoustics carried his voice into every corner. It was a pretty surreal experience.

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**Except maybe the bad decision to sit too close to the singer at the restaurant. He was horrible.
*I only know that because I’ve been taking malaria pills every day since two days before I left. They come in packs of 12, and right now I’ve finished two packs, plus 5 pills. So (12×2) +5+2-2 = 29. I like simple math.

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Why did the Canadians cross the road?

May 21st, 2015

Put on your party hats and blow up the balloons folks, because yesterday was our one week-aversary of arriving in Uganda! I can say with complete confidence that the Rachel who got off the plane a week ago is not the same girl as the Rachel writing this blog post now. It feels like we’ve been here for months, but that can probably be attributed to the fact that we’ve done so much, and the learning curve has been so steep. Boy, has it been steep. I’d like to think that it will become more of a gentle uphill slope the longer we’re here – you know, the kind that gets you a little short of breathe by the end, but you never quite break a sweat. However, I’m sure that goal is still a long way off since Jeremy, Shelby and I still have a lot of learning to do. But for now I’d like to celebrate this small milestone by sharing seven things we’ve accomplished in the last seven days:

1. We found and moved into an apartment.
Unlike in Canada where these things can take months, in the span of a week we went from tourists living in a guesthouse to rent-paying tenants of a lovely apartment in a neighborhood called Mengo. Check out my last post for pictures of our new digs!

2. We started work.
On Monday I started work at the Food Rights Alliance here in Kampala. I’ll save the details of the internship for my next post, but so far I’m loving it! Stay tuned for more info.

3. I rode a boda boda and didn’t die.
Boda bodas are a cross between a motorcycle and a scooter. They are Kampala’s cheapest and fastest form of public transport because they can zip in and out of the city’s unbelievably congested traffic. Unfortunately, they are also notoriously dangerous. Everyone who has been here told us that if we had to ride them we should buy our own helmets and only ride with drivers who we know so that they will drive slowly and safely. So of course for my first ride I did none of those things. It was yesterday, and we were running late for an early morning meeting so we didn’t have time to call our reliable driver. And because we were late we also didn’t have our helmets. So when I hopped on the back of a rundown old boda with a driver I didn’t know and my hair whipping in the wind I felt like I was inviting my own death. But despite this, I couldn’t help but love it! The wind felt so good and it was exciting to zoom between cars as they idled in traffic. After four more rides in the last twenty four hours I think it’s safe to say that it’s my new favorite form of transit. But don’t worry mom, dad, and anyone reading this from the QES II program, from now on I’ll stick to the rules.

4. We became experts in pest control.
In our excitement to move in we failed to realize that we are not the only tenants in this three bedroom apartment. We also share the space with beetles, cockroaches, fruit flies, an army of ants (RIP), and even a gecko. As I should have known from living in Singapore, these critters are just part of the package when you live in the tropics. And unluckily for me, the ones here also seem to have good taste. When I drew first pick of all the bedrooms I didn’t realize that the largest one came with the caveat of a cockroach the size of a lime crawling through my toiletries, and a gecko living behind my toilet (I named him Gordon). We effectively exterminated the cockroach, but there are sure to be more. I guess if we have to live with them maybe we can convince them to cover part of the rent?

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5. I successfully accessed my money in time to pay said rent.
By no fault of my own, for the past four days I’ve been unable to access my money. No matter how many ATMs I went to, phone calls I made to my bank, or panicked emails I sent to my mom, I had no success until yesterday evening. One of the other scholars had the same problem. Finally, last night we were able to take money out in time to pay our disgruntled landlord. Although it seems trivial now, at the time it was terrifying to have no way to access my money and no one on this continent who could help.

6. I started learning how to speak Luganda.
Although the official language of Uganda is English, there are hundreds of other languages and dialects spoken across the country. Here in Kampala the most common of these is called Luganda. Today a few of our co-workers started teaching Jeremy and I their native tongue. And just in case you ever have use for it, you my dear blog readers (hi mom) can learn too! Here’s what I know so far:

Yee = Yes
Nedde = No
Osivyeotya = Good afternoon
Wasuze otya = Good morning
Olagawa = Where are you going?
Obeere bulungi = Goodbye
Gwe ani = Who are you?
Nze = I am

7. We learned how to cross the road.
Sounds too simple to be on this list right? Wrong. Here in Kampala there are no lanes, no stop signs, no traffic lights, and no crosswalks. Occasionally a traffic police officer will stand bravely in the middle of a busy intersection and direct traffic, but other than that it’s a free for all. Bodas and cars zoom past each other with only a hair’s width of space between them. Any pedestrian wishing to cross has to take their life into their hands to do so. But in our case our hands are already full since Shelby, Jeremy and I instinctively grab on to each other every time we risk a crossing. Although we’re getting better, I’m not ashamed to say that I’ll need the handholding support for the foreseeable future. Like the chicken in the tired old joke, we really are crossing the road just to get to the other side.