Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ugandans for Obama

Two friends- a Ugandan and a Kenyan- show off their Obama pride

Last night I attended an “Absentee Voters for Change” party. A friend of mine somehow became the Americans Living Abroad for Obama Country Coordinator for Uganda and as part of her duties, threw a party to make sure Americans living in Uganda knew how to submit their absentee ballots on time, etc. As an added bonus, she had wrangled up some footage from Friday night’s debate (as well as some random Daily Show, Colbert Report, and SNL clips—because obviously that’s our preferred news medium anyway…) So it was a fun night.

But Americans aren’t the only ones in Uganda who are interested in this election. While we were in the majority at last night’s festivities, there were also Ugandans, Kenyans, Brits, French, South Africans, and Rwandese. And while this was admittedly at an event that attracts those who are politically minded, Obamania is taking over Uganda. Everywhere I go people are sporting Obama t-shirts, baseball caps, and bumper stickers. I think partly Ugandans like Obama because of his East African roots, but I also think that as a general rule, most people from other parts of the world know more about us than we do about them. And they understand that in the world we live in today, politics are global and affect more than just the citizens of one country.

So while I am living outside of the country, fear not, I am still going to be politically active for the causes I believe in!

Comfortable and Memorable Accommodation for Exectutives!

One of my favorite things to do when I travel (even in the states) is collect funny signs. Sometimes they are funny because of translation issues, and other times they are just funny. I saw a priceless one the other day and unfortunately didn’t have my camera with me, but I need to share anyway. The sign read: “The Ghetto Guesthouse: for comfortable, memorable, and executive accommodation.” So for those of you who are planning to visit, guess where you’re staying…

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Some Days Are Less Fun Than Others…

…And I had one of those days on Monday. It all started with a long day at the office. And ended with me squealing like a schoolgirl in front of Flora—my landlord—and her two small grandchildren, my housegirl Jackie, the askari (night security guard for the complex), and some random dinner guests of Flora. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

One of the slightly annoying things about living in a different time zone from your coworkers and superiors is oddly-timed conference calls. On Monday I had one at 8pm, which on most days finds me eating dinner and relaxing in the comfort of my home. But that day I had a lot of work to do so I decided to just stay at the office and take the call there. One small problem—my office has TERRIBLE cell phone reception. So compound that with someone calling from roughly 6,000 miles away, you basically have a connection that sounds like you are talking through a towel in a wind tunnel on top of a mountain (i.e., bad connection). So after taking the call, I quickly realized that this wasn’t going to work. Fortunately, I have pretty good phone reception at home so I asked my colleague to call me back in 15 minutes, hopped on a boda, and headed home.

Unfortunately boda drivers don’t always make the smartest decisions. And on this day when I was in a huge hurry, my driver decided to risk taking me home with an apparently empty tank. And seriously, I probably live 2 miles tops from my office, so he must have been running on fumes when he picked me up. But I was unaware of his poor decision until about halfway up the GINORMOUS hill to my house when the boda sputtered a few times and died. “Fuel is finished,” my astute driver stated matter-of-factly as I scowled at him. Ugh! Oh well, I thought to myself, another boda will come along shortly. Normally this is the case, but on this day the cosmos were aligned against me and there was apparently no boda within a 200 mile radius (ok, so perhaps I’m exaggerating, but this is how it seemed at the time). So I had no choice but to run the approximate mile home. With my computer, motorcycle helmet, and other heavy accoutrements. Straight uphill. In the rapidly approaching dark.

By the time I huffed and puffed up the hill, cursing the whole way, I was breathless and tired. Exactly how you want to sound on a conference call, right? Oh, just wait… I ran into my adorable and sparklingly clean apartment (just don’t judge based on the forthcoming event) and ran towards the bathroom so I could splash some water on my face. And as I neared the sink, my bare toe brushed against something crunchy and crawly. I looked down in horror and saw the LARGEST. COCKROACH. OF. MY. LIFE. And horror of horrors, it was thisclose to my foot. ICK! Now I am by no means a girly girl when it comes to bugs and such, and I can handle a lot of things. But cockroaches are not one of those things. In fact, they are pretty much my biggest nightmare. And this one was seriously the size of a small turtle.

Now, under normal circumstances, I might freak out a little bit, but then collect myself and do something about the offending creature. But after my anger at my boda driver and my sprint up Mount Naguru, I was anything but normal. So I did what any irrational person would do in this situation. I flipped out. I ran into the yard with my arms flapping above my head and my voice eight octaves higher than normal. And was greeted by all the people mentioned in the first paragraph who were busy going about their Monday evening business when rudely interrupted by a crazed mzungu. “My… bathroom… big… BIG… bug… please… help!” was all I could manage. Jackie—my ever intrepid housegirl—took one look at my blood-drained face and burst out laughing. Then she followed me into the apartment where the bug was nowhere to be found. I scanned the room and realized that the last place the bug had been seen was next to a giant pile of my freshly cleaned laundry that I hadn’t put away that morning (that’ll teach me). Then Jackie—trying to be helpful—said “don’t worry, they won’t hurt you! The only time they are really scary is when they fly into your hair!” FLY? The cockroaches here fly? As I’m processing this dreadful piece of information, the phone rings—my conference call! I promptly burst into tears.

As I was in tears and completely off my rocker, I decided to ignore the phone. It seemed like a bad idea to talk to my boss while panting and crying, and there was still the issue of the missing cockroach in my clothes. She’ll call back, I told myself. And that’s exactly what happened. Jackie found the bug—under my shelving unit, thankfully not burrowed in my jeans—disposed of it, laughed at me a little more, and then patted me lovingly on the back. And little Nicholas (Flora’s grandson)—angel that he is—took my hand gently and told me in all his five-year-old wisdom that cockroaches frightened him as well. With that, I pulled myself together, dried my eyes, and managed to stop hyperventilating just as my phone rang again. I answered in my calmest voice and went on with my life. And today, when I arrived home to my lovely little apartment, Flora informed me that she would be fumigating tomorrow so that I “never had to be scared again.” I love this place, in spite of its giant flying bugs…

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I Think I'm Going To Be A Rugby Fan!

This weekend I attended a Women’s World Cup Rugby 7s qualifying tournament in Kampala consisting of the national teams from Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tunisia, and Cote d’ Ivoire. In between matches the local men’s rugby teams also played, meaning that there was a consistent stream of rugby for two straight days. I’ll be honest, I mostly went because I enjoy sitting outside watching sporting events (and many of the Ugandan rugby fans are a rowdy but fun group of South African expats that I enjoy hanging out with), but I ended up really enjoying the actual sport of rugby! And I got to witness the Ugandan women’s national team qualify for the World Cup which was very exciting (in spite of the fact that South Africa slaughtered them in the final…)
The Ugandan women's national rugby team celebrating their World Cup qualification

Now for the sake of full disclosure, I will tell you that my knowledge of rugby is limited. I know it’s sort of like football and sort of like soccer, that the South African men’s team are the current world champs, that rugby teams have funny (and not even remotely menacing) mascot nicknames like the “All Blacks” the “Springboks” or the “Wallabies,” that a South African rugby player named Percy Montgomery has great hair, and… well, yeah, that’s about it. And after an entire day of watching the sport, I can honestly say that I still don’t know much more than that. But I do know that it’s enjoyable to watch people run around kicking and tossing each other in the air and tackling one other and I plan to attend more games. These new exotic sports are fun—next weekend I’m taking on the exciting world of cricket!

Two Kampala men's teams-the Heathens and the Cobs (see, NOT menacing mascots!)- duke it out in between women's games.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Is There A Cat In My Apartment Or Is That Just The Larium?

Upon moving to Uganda, I went back and forth about what to do about malaria. Malaria prevention is a complicated issue because most Western doctors will tell you with no hesitation that if you live in a malaria zone, you should take malaria prophylaxis. And in their mind, Africa is a malaria zone—all of it. But that’s not giving you the full story in my opinion. There are certain areas in every country/region/city that are known to be more “malarial” than others, and there are other ways to protect yourself other than taking drugs. And the various options for malaria prophylaxis have a lot of side affects (physical AND mental), and taking any of them for a long period of time isn’t particularly good for your system. But then again, neither is getting malaria. So it’s sort of a toss up.

But for now, I’m taking larium and talking to other expats and doctors here (who see a lot more malaria than my friendly New York City doctor anyway!) to get a sense of my options for the longterm. And in the meantime, I have to admit that I’m getting a lot of amusement out of larium’s particularly interesting psychotropic side effects (or built-in bonuses, depending on how you look at it). Basically, in my case, these side effects manifest themselves in REALLY, REALLY vivid dreams. I’ve had these before (In Kenya I once woke up with my fully-laced hiking boots on in bed because I had dreamt that I was summiting Mt. Kenya), but here they’ve felt even more real. For example, last week I was dreaming (apparently) about a cat in my apartment. It kept meowing and I was getting really annoyed, so I got out of my bed and went looking for the thing at 4am. It took me about 15 minutes (and I have a SMALL apartment) to realize that there was no cat and I had dreamt it all. And in retrospect, OF COURSE there isn’t a cat in my apartment. But I really had to convince myself of this fact because the dream had felt SO real…

The next week (I notice that I usually have the really vivid dreams a day or two after taking the medicine), I dreamt that I went to take money out of the ATM and I had $7 in my bank account. I woke up the next morning in a panic and was in the process of looking up the international toll free numbers for Bank of America to call in and report a problem when I realized that it might have been a dream. (I think the fact that I don’t generally visit ATMs in the middle of the night is what finally tipped me off…) And sure enough, when I logged into my account, I had more than $7 (not much more, but that’s another issue altogether).

So while my larium side effects have been mild and sort of entertaining, on a serious note, there are some REALLY dangerous side effects of taking larium, particularly if you have history with depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc. So while I’ve made light of some of these issues, if you are looking into malaria prophylaxis (for a short or extended period of time), please talk to your doctor and do your research, as I am no expert…

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Learning to Speak Ugandan

Whenever I’m in another country, I always feel like a jerk because of my lack of language skills. Luckily, while there are over thirty indigenous languages in Uganda (none of which are actually called Ugandan, so sorry if that confused anyone—I was just trying to be cute…), English is the official language and in Kampala most everyone speaks it fluently. Most everyone also knows some basic Swahili which is my one savior from being completely mono-lingual. But it isn’t widely spoken here as it is in Kenya and Tanzania. However, Luganda, which is the language of the Buganda people who are from the Kampala region, is also a sort of a lingua franca for the country so I have big plans to start learning Luganda soon. Or at least learn more than my current vocabulary which consists of webale nyo (thank you very much) and tugende (direct translation means “we go” but it is the universal signal to a boda driver that “yes, I am securely on the back of your motorcycle and you may now feel free to rev your engine and drive away into the sunset.”)

But aside from the actual technical language skills, there are a lot of phrases that are unique to Uganda (though actually many of them are probably just British English as opposed to American English). So there is an adjustment to how I speak or say things, even though I’m still speaking in English. For example, some of my favorite things are pronouncing the letter “z” as “zed.” For some reason I get an inordinate amount of pleasure saying the phrase “a to zed.” I also enjoy the Ugandan way of expressing that they will pick something up, which is “pick it” or “pick you” leaving out the word “up.” For example, if I am telling someone that I will get them at 7, I would say “I will pick you at 7.” I love it! There are also some interesting pronunciation differences like the letter “k.” While most Americans would pronounce the Rwandan capital Kigali exactly as it is spelled, in Uganda, it is pronounced Chee-gali. This confused me when I first arrived as I was traveling to a village called Kiboga and I kept trying to spell it “Chiboga” as it is pronounced, which wasn’t in my guidebook. Oddly, I’ve never heard anyone pronounce Kampala as “Champala”, so I’m not sure how you know when it is the “k” sound and when it is the “ch” sound. Something to figure out…

Anyway, languages are always fascinating to me, so I’m sure you’ll hear much about my trials and tribulations learning to speak Luganda as well as perfecting my Ugandan English. Hopefully I’ll “pick it” quickly!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Fabulous Hats and Racing Goats

This past weekend I attended “East Africa’s premier social occasion”—the Royal Ascot Goat Races 2008. The event, which is also held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, is a charity fundraiser that brings together Kampala society and most of the expat community for food, drink, entertainment, fireworks, and goat racing! But here’s the thing about goat racing—goats don’t seem to really be driven to race against one another. Instead they stand in a clump and graze, but undeterred by this fact, the organizers have set up an ingenious moving wall-on-wheels that is pushed behind the goats so that they move and “race” one another.

The event itself was a lot of fun. Many of Kampala’s large companies sponsor the events and have tents where the food and drinks are flowing. While the dress code isn’t quite as strict as its British namesake—the Royal Ascot horse races—people dress up and many wear hats. But because we are in Kampala and not at a stuffy English society event, people have fun with their outfits—many coming in fancy costumes and outrageous homemade hats.

While I’m not a gambler, I felt the need to place a small bet (1,500 Uganda shillings—slightly less than $1) on my favorite goat whose name humorously referenced my country’s current president and his upcoming departure from the White House. Unfortunately my goat didn’t win, but he did come in a respectable fourth place (and with four months left of the Bush presidency, this seemed somewhat appropriate…). So while I came home with slightly less money than I left with, I felt good about supporting a political cause that I believe in (i.e. Bush leaving office) as well as reputable charity organizations in Uganda. It was also a lovely day, and the races were held at the beautiful Speke Resort in Munyonyo on Lake Victoria just outside Kampala. Overall, a fun time was had by all!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Courtney the Dane

No matter where I go, Ugandans are constantly asking me where I am from. My favorite response to this question is “how do you know I’m not Ugandan?” which always gets a laugh. But after that, people always guess. And nine times out of ten, people have guessed that I was Danish. Danish? Really? As far as I know I don’t have any Danish blood in me. However, I do think Copenhagen is one of the best cities in Europe, I did LOVE the book Number the Stars as a child, we have some Danish family friends who I wish were blood relatives, and the Danish word for itinerary (fartplan) has always made me giggle uncontrollably. Maybe there is something to this Danish thing! Mom, Dad, is there any Danish in me?