Sunday, August 31, 2008

Rainbows and Sun-Thunderstorms

The weather in Kampala is SO strange. Today I woke up to a bright, sunny, and blazingly hot Sunday. I walked down to the coffee shop for brunch and was soaked in sweat by the time I got there. Then I went to run some errands and when leaving realized that it was still sunny and hot, but also drizzling. I hopped on the back of a boda and was headed home and it started POURING down rain and thundering, all while still bright and sunny. So now I was soaked both from sweat and rain—which was a strange combination as sweat is sort of sticky and rain tends to be cool and refreshing. While I’ve experienced short “sun-showers” in the states, I’ve never seen anything like this—a full-on thunderstorm on a sunny day. The good news is that when I reached Naguru Hill, my half-sticky/half-refreshed self was rewarded with a lovely view of a full rainbow arching over the Eastern suburbs of Kampala.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Friday Night and Naguru’s Jumping

I LOVE my neighborhood, especially on Friday night. For whatever reason, Friday brings out the entire spectrum of humanity in Naguru. As I wind down the hill away from the high compound walls covered in an urban jungle of barbed wire and multicolored Frangipani, I enter a different Naguru—one that more closely resembles village life. Storefronts and kiosks blare loud African music in an effort to advertise their wares. Children play soccer as seriously as if they were in a World Cup final, pausing only to yell the obligatory “mzungu!” as I pass. Goats and long-horned cattle graze their way to wherever it is they spend the night. Gospel music and clapping pours out of church windows and the call to prayer echoes off the walls from a loudspeaker on the local mosque. A rhythmic click-click-click of a jump rope ricochets from inside the East Coast Boxing Club and the collective cheers and boos of young Ugandans celebrating the weekend and supporting their favorite team rises up from the Kampala Rugby Club at the base of the hill. Boda drivers look expectantly at me but go back to their patient waiting after a simple head nod indicating I intend to walk. Friday night in Naguru brings out the community and in a simple way, my evening stroll makes me feel like a little part of that community.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Art of Tucking Myself In

As you may have seen in my apartment photos, I sleep under a mosquito net. I’m pretty sure this is more form than function as Kampala isn’t a particularly malarial zone. But I enjoy the net—partly for the ambiance, but also because I feel all snuggly and tucked in once I’m safely inside for the night.

However, getting tucked in for the night is not an easy process. It requires getting into the bed and then going around and tucking the net into the bedframe piece by piece. And inevitably I forget some integral part of my going-to-bed routine—brushing my teeth, locking my door, setting my alarm clock, pulling the curtains, turning the light off on one particularly memorable occasion—all of which require me to untuck, get out from under the net, do whatever task is required, and then retuck. This adds a solid five minutes to the process, and I’d say I do it about three times per night on average.

However, despite the constant annoyance of getting in and out of bed three times a night, I continue to go through the routine. That was up until last night when I noticed that my net that keeps me safe and secure from all the little Ugandan critters has two fairly massive holes, approximately the size of a quarter and a nickel respectively, rendering the net and my entire bedtime process completely useless. So basically if you add up the two weeks I’ve lived in this apartment and multiply that by an average of fifteen minutes a night—that’s um… well… HOURS of time that I’ll never get back for no mosquito protection whatsoever. Oh well, off to buy a new net…

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Caffeine Addiction Rears its Ugly Head

If I have one vice in my life, it’s Diet Dr. Pepper. I’m pretty sure it’s replaced my blood and is currently surging through my veins and keeping me alive. Or at least it was before I moved to Uganda… the land of no Diet Dr. Pepper. Anywhere.

Obviously I knew this before I came, and came anyway. So perhaps vice is too strong a word. But in the full knowledge that I was moving to a place thousands of miles away from the closest can of that sweet nectar of the gods, I decided that this would be a good time to try to cut down drastically on my soda intake. So while I enjoy an ice cold orange Fanta every once in awhile, I’ve pretty much stayed away from soda since I’ve been here.

One small problem with this plan… Apparently my years of DDP consumption have led to a teensy-weensy, itty-bitty, minor (ok, ALL CONSUMING) caffeine addiction. But hey, here I am in a country famous for its delicious organic coffee! This shouldn’t be a problem at all, right? Wrong.

While Uganda does produce some of the finest coffee in the world, Ugandans don’t drink it. Tea is everywhere, but coffee is pretty much strictly an export cash crop. And while one can find all sorts of fancy coffee drinks at Kampala’s fancy expat places (see above for the lovely spread at Cafe Pap), you can expect those to set you back $3-4 dollars a pop. So here are my options: a) invest in a coffee maker which are currently selling at about $50 at Game (the South African walmart) and make my own darn coffee; b) resign myself to the poor coffee imitation—Nescafe; c) just suck it up and pay for the coffee at the restaurants (student loans be damned!); or d) give up caffeine altogether and wean myself off the stuff slowly and painfully (if this option is taken I apologize now to anyone who has to be around me for the next few months).

Any advice is appreciated. I’ll keep you informed of my decision, though it might be obvious based on my state of mind over the next couple of months…

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Pictures from Uganda... finally

I've uploaded a few pictures from my apartment, neighborhood, field visits, and birthday. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pictures and Posting

Pictures are coming soon, I PROMISE. The problem is I don’t have internet at home or my office yet so my online time is limited to internet cafes with really slow connection speeds. And uploading pictures takes forever on a slow connection and I just don’t have time to sit around and twiddle my thumbs while the pictures load. But I should be getting internet at home and at work in the next week or so, so I promise I will provide pics soon!

Also, for those of you stalking…erm, reading… my blog regularly, you might have noticed that I’m posting a lot of posts at once. Again, due to my infrequent internet usage, I’m forced to write the blogs and then post them all at once when I’m at a cafĂ©. I’ve put the dates that the posts were written in parenthesis after the title, so that should help sort out when things were written. Anyway, I apologize for the onslaught of posts all at once—I hope to even them out a little more once I have more regular internet access.

Learning How to Cook (8-20-08)

It has become painfully obvious to me that I’m going to have to learn to cook. My friend who lives in Kampala kept warning me about how expensive everything was but I didn’t believe her. Until I got here. Food is SUPER expensive*—particularly places catering to expats like myself. I’m guessing it has something to do with the fact that Uganda is a landlocked country with a less-than-reliable rail system so everything essentially has to come in via truck from Kenya. With fuel prices what they are (you think you pay a lot for gas—Ugandans pay almost 3,000 shillings a liter, or about $7.50 per gallon!), that translates to everything being uber pricey. And while local food is not too expensive and pretty tasty, it’s loaded with starches and lacking in vegetables, so it’s not something I can eat three times a day every day. So clearly eating out is going to have to be a luxury and not the norm.

Anyway, I’ve always thought of myself as someone who can get by when it comes to cooking. I mean, I’ve never fancied myself as Martha Stewart, but when push comes to shove, I can make a delicious meal. I just don’t choose to do it that often.

Yeah, well, that was in the states. Cooking here is a completely different matter. First off, it’s hard/expensive to get things that are canned or even slightly prepared. So that means all of those nights I “cooked” a veggie burger or “made” a pizza, I wasn’t cooking at all! I was taking various prepared ingredients and putting them together to make a meal. Here when I want to have pasta I can’t just cook the pasta and open up a can of Paul Newman sauce—I have to actually MAKE the sauce. Or spend $12 on Ragu. Um, no…

Additionally I have no oven. I have a gas stove, but no way to bake anything. I think I’m going to invest in a toaster oven so that I can have toast and do some baking-lite, but it’s not an oven. So this presents an additional challenge.

The good news is I have access to some of the cheapest, freshest, organic, and delicious veggies and fruits in the world. And I can get most any spice fresh from the market. I just have to learn to use them properly. So far I’ve made a delicious veggie omelet, some AMAZING guacamole (though without tortilla chips, the guac loses some of its excitement), and the aforementioned pasta sauce. And I’ve eaten TONS of passion fruit, pineapple, mangos, and watermelon, which require no preparation at all!

Anyway, I have confidence in my abilities. I actually look forward to this challenge and think it will be good for me to be forced to learn to cook. A little bit like learning to swim by getting thrown in the deep end of the pool… But, that being said, if anyone has any simple, delicious recipes that don’t require prepared ingredients or an oven, please pass them on!

* Please note that my standards of cost have gone down a bit, so it’s nothing like living in NYC, just way more expensive than other African countries I’ve lived/traveled in, so don’t let that scare you when planning your visit! Have I mentioned I want people to visit? :)

I wonder what Courtney is up to… (8-18-08)

I have this thing when I travel where I often find myself thinking, “if my friends/family happen to be wondering what I am doing at this exact moment, would they be able to picture this?” Generally the answer is no. Mostly because I usually think about this when I’m doing something truly outrageous or just out of the ordinary. But wouldn’t it be interesting to be able to think about someone and conjure up a little snapshot of what they are doing at that exact moment? In this vein, I’ve decided to give you, fair readers, just that—a moment in time of the life of Courtney in Uganda. My first one came tonight at 8:14 pm (1:14pm EST for those of you keeping track). I am in Kiboga (pronounced Chee-boga)—a rural town about two and a half hours north of Kampala. I am hot and covered in fine red dust after spending the entire day riding around on the back of a motorcycle with a UML loan officer (see yesterday’s post). I am eating fish and chips at a tiny little rural Ugandan restaurant/bar but the electricity is out so I’m having trouble eating and getting stuff all over me. A generator is humming annoyingly in my ear, but instead of lighting the place, it is being used to project the television, where some sort of Olympic sport loosely related to gymnastics is on which involves tiny Eastern European teenagers jumping on a trampoline and doing massive amounts of flips. All the Ugandans in the place are oddly enthralled by this “sport” and are cheering excessively. I’m convinced that Ugandan TV gets the stupid sports that no one else wants to watch and skips over the stuff people actually enjoy. Amy Grant’s early-nineties (late-eighties—how old am I?) hit “Baby, Baby” is playing on the loudspeaker and people are dancing. Apparently rural Uganda is where bad music goes to die. What a scene! Anyway, I know that this is a totally random post but I found the whole scene hilarious and felt the need to share. Probably just the dust getting to my head…

Motorcycles and Microfinance (8-17-08)

So I know I said that I don’t want this blog to focus on work, but it’s going to be hard to avoid as it is the reason I’m in Uganda and writing this blog in the first place. So sometimes it’ll come up… sorry.

That being said, so far work has been slow. I just arrived last week and spent the first week focusing on getting an apartment, a cell phone, and other necessities of being a real person in Uganda. I’ve also been helping my colleague Jillian who is currently collecting data for her project on incentives for customer repayment of microfinance loans. Basically this means I’ve been doing a lot of photocopying and filing. But I say this not to complain—actually it’s been great because it has allowed me to slowly figure out how the microfinance world in Uganda works before I get totally embedded in my own project. It has also meant that I’ve had an excuse to travel to some of the rural branches of UML (the financial institution who I’m working with) and ride around with loan officers to get a sense of the customers and their needs, specifically in terms of energy. However, this means that today I spent 6 hours on the back of a motorcycle on roads (I use the term roads loosely—in this case they are mostly glorified footpaths) trying to find customers. You need to understand that Uganda is not like the Western world where there are street signs or numbers, particularly in the rural areas. So to find these customers, the loan officers have to follow directions that—no joke—say things like “after ______ village turn right at ______ Road, take a left at the jackfruit tree, follow path to ______’s hut, veer left at _____’s coffee plants, follow path towards maize, ask for _____.” How these loan officers ever find anyone I’ll never know.

But again, I say this not to complain. As much as motorcycles aren’t my preferred method of transportation, as long as I have a safe driver, a helmet (and boy is my helmet rockin’—pictures to come!), and a long empty rural road, it’s a pretty great way of seeing the countryside. And Uganda—at least the parts I’ve been to so far—is really very lovely and I’m seeing parts that are completely inaccessible by car. Every once in awhile a cow wanders onto the path and the loan officer has to coax it off the road so we can pass, but all in all it’s an effective way to get around. And it has allowed me to ask many people in various trades about their energy consumption and needs, which will significantly benefit my project. So work is going well, and I’m looking forward to really diving into my research soon. I’ll keep you all updated!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Where I Live

I will post pictures soon, but in the meantime you can read about my apartment...

The first question everyone asked me when I told them I was moving to Uganda was “where are you going to live?” I think some people pictured mud huts while others saw colonial mansions. Well, I guess I live somewhere in the middle. I’m living on Balikudembe Lane (I LOVE the street name) in an area of Kampala called Naguru, which comprises the highest hill in Kampala. Correspondingly, there are some GINORMOUS houses and some more modest offerings, but overall it’s a nice place to live. I’m living in a compound (I know that sounds weird to Americans but it essentially just means a gated home with several small surrounding buildings) that belongs to a Ugandan woman named Flora. Flora is a mother of eight, a retired public servant (she worked for the Ministry of Local Government for many years), and one of the nicest people I have ever met. I liked her immediately and since then I have continued to warm to her as she has brought me fresh fruit and veggies, driven me to work on a particularly early morning, and asked me repeatedly if I’m remembering to take my malaria medicine. Basically she’s amazing, and I can’t wait to get to know her further. Living with Flora is her adorable and precocious eight-year-old granddaughter Marissa (and Dudu, Marissa’s omnipresent teddy bear) and occasionally Nicolas, a five-year-old grandson who stays over when his parents are traveling for work.

The compound is made up of Flora’s home and four other apartments, including mine. Living in the other apartments are a couple (an Australian woman and a British man), a Canadian, an Ethiopian, and two Kenyans. Another American (according to Flora he is a Vermonter and is bringing cheese!) is moving into the final empty apartment in September. Also on the compound is Patrick—Flora’s driver and night security guard, Jackie—Flora’s housegirl, and Sarah—the housegirl for the other apartments including my own. It’s a little odd to me to have so much help—Sarah cleans my apartment biweekly and does my laundry—but I’ve been told by many that it is considered greedy to NOT employ people if you have the means to do so.

My apartment is adorable. It is a one-bedroom, simply furnished apartment that is fairly small, but perfect for just me. And I love that I have my own space to retreat to but that there are always people around if I want to socialize. Additonally, Naguru is turning out to be an excellent location. I’m a fifteen minute walk from Nakawa, a major market; a twenty minute walk from Lugogo, a Western-oriented shopping center with banks, a supermarket, a huge South African discount store similar to Walmart, art galleries, and an amazing coffee shop; and a short ride or a forty minute walk (when I’m feeling motivated) to my office.

So basically I’m loving my living environment. I think it will perfectly suit my needs. Oh, and there’s plenty of room for visitors! (hint, hint, hint…)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Brief Indian Detour

So not long after I accepted my job in Uganda, I received word that I’d need to attend a week-long training course in India beforehand. I know, my life is tough (sob)… I’ve never been to India, and while it hasn’t ever been on the top of my list of travel destinations, it has always been a place that intrigues me, mostly because I know so little about it. And I’ll be the first to admit, I just spent 10 days there, and I still know nothing about it, so please take this posting with a very large portion of salt.

The first thing I realized upon looking into my trip is how big the country is. My training was in Mahabalipurum, a beach resort town on the Bay of Bengal about 2 hours from Chennai. This is nowhere near the Himalayas, the Taj Mahal, Goa, or anything else I would have liked to see. However, to get to Mahabalipurum, one must fly through Chennai, which as far as I can tell is somewhat like the Des Moines of India (sorry Iowans, I’m sure Des Moines is lovely…). I don’t mean this to sound negative—in fact Chennai is very cool and I met some very nice people and went to some great restaurants, bars, and shops—but everything closes at 11. Like the whole town shuts down except the airport, which is oddly bustling at 4am…

ANYWAY, after gorging myself on dosas and South Indian thalis, riding around in auto-riskshaws (a genius mode of transport in my opinion), and shopping myself silly in Chennai, I got on a bus with my colleagues from ideas42, IFMR, CIFD, and SEFC (ah, the world of development and its obsession with acronyms—don’t ask me what those all mean because I have no clue) to Mahabalipurum where I was to be trained in the glory that is randomized evaluation and its day-to-day implementation in the field. And boy was I trained! I learned all this stuff in grad school, but when the reality set in that in 10 short days I was going to be let loose in the world to essentially run my own evaluation of energy financing in Uganda, you better believe I tried to take it all in. So through the seminars and the field portion of the training where we interviewed business owners about access to start-up capital for SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) in Mahabalipurum, I tried to get the most out of everything. The training was also valuable because it allowed me to interact with people from all over the world who are working all over the world on these same issues. Some of them were just starting and knew less than me, and others had been working on this on the ground for many years. Also, just a personal opinion, young development workers are some of the brightest and most fun people I know, so the socializing was also great (particularly the dinner/dance party on the beach and the swim in the monsoon rains). And now as an added bonus I have people to visit in Chile, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Cambodia, and all over India!

Outside of the training, Mahabalipurum was an extremely interesting place to visit. The town is home to a vibrant community of stone carvers who export their art all over the world. It’s amazing, you literally can hear the chisels in the air all day throughout the town. And they make some of the most amazing pieces of art I’ve ever seen. Had I not been moving to Uganda and already having trouble with space and weight from my bags, I definitely would have come home with a bagful.

Additionally, Mahabalipurum is a UNESCO (there I go again with the acronyms) World Heritage Site as it houses rock-carved temples, caves, sanctuaries, and large reliefs from the 8th Century. The temples were really something, though my favorite site was Krishna’s Butter Ball (apparently Krishna had a thing for butter), a giant naturally round rock that sits precariously perched on a hillside near the temples. According to the man who sold me several coconuts, Mahabalipurum is also known for its excellent coconut water which has healing powers (I think he noticed my sinus/cold issues). It was delicious but I’m not sure it helped the illness at all.

After Mahabalipurum, I headed back to Chennai for a day to again shop, cruise in auto-rickshaws, and fatten up on dosas and every paneer (cheese) dish in sight. After a long day, it was time to board yet another plane, this time for my new home in Uganda. And this time I got the pleasant surprise of being upgraded to business class on Emirates due to a seating mix-up which my friend Jillian so wisely complained about. The upgrade would have been fantastic except I literally sat down and passed out only to sleep the entire way to Dubai, missing all of the business class perks. Oh well, I guess the fully reclining chair and footrest was joy enough after such a fulfilling and fun stopover in India.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

India Pictures!

Sorry, I know I'm getting out of order here, but I just haven't had time to write about India yet. But I will soon--I PROMISE. In the meantime, check out my pictures at

A Little Slice (Literally) of Home in Uganda

When my friend/colleague/fellow New Yorker suggested we have lunch at the New York Kitchen today, I was skeptical. Pizza and bagels and cheesecake in Uganda? Um, gross… But I was pleasantly surprised! The pizza was delicious and fairly authentic. And you could order it by slice! I had a bite of my friend’s bagel (with cream cheese, tomato, and avocado—an excellent combination in my opinion) and it was also great! The only drawback was the location—they have outdoor seating (a must for any NYC institution…), but “outdoors” is defined as “in a parking garage at the Garden City Mall.” Oh well, as the Rolling Stones put it so well, you can’t always get what you want. But hey, I guess inhaling gas fumes while you eat is sort of a New York experience…

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Cosmic Significance of the “Box of Hate”

I wrote this on August 2, somewhere over the Atlantic, but am posting from Chennai, India. Will update on India soon!

For those of you who know my family, you know that I come from a long and distinguished line of smarty pants. Note that in this instance, I am defining “smart” as “capable of regurgitating mostly useless and random facts on a moments notice in a high-stress, family game-night setting.” A bit of a difference in this and actual intelligence I realize, but just go with it for a minute…

Due to this genetic prowess in trivia, we have long had a tradition of hypercompetitive games of Trivial Pursuit. I realize that this sounds like a nice, healthy way of family bonding, but trust me—it’s NOT. Let me lay out a typical scenario for you—picture my Dad routinely kicking everyone’s butts while my Mom and sister put up a valiant fight and battle over a highly respectable second-place finish. And then there’s me. I’ve always had a knack for trivia, but when it comes to playing with my family, I’m most definitely the black sheep—no match for my clever elders. And as the youngest, I’ve gotten the “petulant child” act down to a true art form. But while I am not the best loser, we should also note that my family is not made of particularly graceful winners either. Thus our well-intentioned family game nights generally turn into a perfect storm of competitiveness run amok and end in tragedy when I’ve decided I’ve had enough of losing spectacularly and respond as all youngest children do from time to time—by running out of the room in tears. And thus the game of Trivial Pursuit has become forever known by the Babcock family as “The Box of Hate.”

As one of my last nights to spend with my parents, I suggested we stay in and pull out my favorite game (and yes, I realize that the classification of this constant misery-maker as my favorite game suggests I probably have some deep-seated emotional issues). Against their better judgments, my parents warily gave into my desire to play and resigned themselves to the fact that the evening could end very, very badly.

But something changed. The universe shifted to my side and the cosmos were aligned—or I got lucky, whatever. But I WON! W-O-N! To understand the significance of this moment in Babcock family lore, you should know that my Dad has NEVER lost a game. NEVER. I’m not exaggerating. We used to make him not only get all the pies, but also answer an entire card to win. And he did it! Routinely and without fail. Every once in awhile my sister or Mom would put on a gallant effort and get close to winning, but no one actually ever beat him. I mean NEVER.

So perhaps I’m attributing too much to what was likely a spectacular stroke of sheer luck (for the sake of full disclosure I did win on a fairly ridiculous question about Grey Poupon, America’s favorite Dijon mustard). But nevertheless, I see a cosmic significance to this moment. It was like the universe was telling everyone in my family that I am finally an adult—an equal—in our family of trivia giants. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, as I was just about to embark on this whole new level of self-reliance and independence on the other side of the world from my family. I know this sounds odd, but I think it provided my parents with a great deal of comfort and parental pride, after the initial shock of what had just occurred—a come-from-behind win from the perennial loser—settled in. So while it was probably just a lucky blip, I take what I can get, and I intend to tuck that magnificent moment away and pull it out when I need to tap into my confidence reserves. Because if I can win a game of “The Box of Hate” against my family, I can do ANYTHING! Bring it on world…