Monthly Archives: April 2010

Thing ones and thing twos.

Just a few simple questions that I am mulling over when I should be asleep.

  1. How is it possible for someone to steal a laptop and not feel even a little bit bad? Does poverty just simply eradicate the guilt most people would feel upon taking something that doesn’t belong to them?
  2. How do you tell a parent that their child is just not very bright and actually quite vacant? I know it is so much easier to just blame the school, and I know you think your child is a perfect 12 year old genius and I do realize that the bad marks can’t possibly be her fault.
  3. How did someone find my blog by typing in kill chicken? And more importantly why are so many people searching for Kill Chicken so often?
  4. How can passion fruit taste so divine but look like frog spawn?
  5. Why is it that after making an announcement 3 times, people still don’t do what I had announced?
  6. Why doesn’t everyone back up their computer?
  7. How can some people be so immune to bad smells while others gag?
  8. How did Africa end up being the gigantic rubbish bin of the world? Please believe me when I tell you that what ends up here is what no one wanted to buy in the West.
  9. What do bed bugs look like and how do they get into bed?
  10. The auto focus is not working on my camera. How do I know if it is the lens or the camera? How can this situation be attended to over here?

The mind boggles.

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Into the dark depths of Owino market

Well I finally did it. I went to Owino, the largest market in Uganda. It is a weaving, postulating maze of stalls selling all manner of objects from paper clips, to shoes, wedding dresses to suits, chickens to belts and dried fish to hats. It is where the majority of clothes from Western charity shops end up together with some seconds and the left overs that never sold in Winners. Some people love it and treat going there as an extreme sport, equipping themselves for a trip into murky hell, coming out for air only  when bags are stuffed with “finds” that will be washed and worn or taken to the tailor to be reworked. There are others that stay away as if from the plague saying they “hate that place” and “I’ll never go back in there.” Either way it draws a reaction when you say that a trip is planned. Everyone comes out with some advice. It seems the best tips are these:

  • Go early on a Sunday morning when it less crowded as many people are at church.
  • Wear closed shoes as it is muddy and dirty.
  • Carry your phone and money in jeans pockets, no handbags allowed.
  • Take an empty backpack and a water bottle.
  • No jewelry allowed.
  • Get ready to be accosted, shouted out and even mauled.

When four white chicks enter the maze they stick out like sore thumbs and the excitement level in the stalls raises just a friction as they realize a big sale might be imminent. Luckily I went with a pro who knew where to park and where to enter and most importantly where to go. If I had gone alone I would most certainly have got lost and might still be there now, trying to claw myself out under mountains of old shoes.

As I entered, with some trepidation, not being entirely clear what I would find, the smell hit me first. It was a heady cocktail of dried fish, peanut butter, old clothes, cooking and body odour. There were many nut stalls grinding  ground nuts into thick pastes ranging in colour from anemic red to mustard brown. As we entered one small covered path we saw hundreds of shoes, some piled high, some laid out, and behind each mini stall sat a man scrubbing the shoes, trying to make them look new again. In another corner were piles of bras, bathing suits and in another a small hill of children’s clothes. Few of these items were new; I kept expecting to see some item I had dropped off at Goodwill or Oxfam some years ago. These clothes arrive in huge grey plastic sack and are unceremoniously tipped onto either a tarpaulin or a table. Some are torn but some are in decent condition. I saw French Connection dresses and Marks and Spencer’s suits but the highlight of the morning was the “dress man”. Thanks to him I have now found out where bridesmaid’s dresses go to die. One after another we pulled out a frightening mixture of tuille, frill and pastel. A few times we even found a few classic ‘mother of the bride’ dresses; items worn once, well intentionally and then stuffed into the back of a closet never to be seen again, ‘till now. We looked at these dresses with a mixture of shock and laughter. It was an education in bad taste and I will forever wonder how, if she is your best friend, you could ever have forced her to wear that.

In the end we each came out with one or two pieces, some for a laugh and one or two things we might actually wear. I, however, believe I won the treasure hunt having found these fabulous red shoes! What a find!

As we were leaving we got trapped by a large truck trying to enter the market. I can’t imagine what he had in his mind, since there is no where that a truck could feasibly go. As he tried to get out of his predicament people were scrabbling to get their clothes, shoes and carrots out of the way of his large wheels and we couldn’t get around the front nor the back of the truck. We just had to wait while people stared at us and laughed at our frustration. After all, what was the big rush? When Trooper was touched on her arm by a man I yelled at him to get off. “But she is so pretty, so soft!” he replied, once again rubbing his hands over her arm. I was hot, sticky, tired and in dire need of a shower. Two and a half hours had been enough.

Will I go back? Maybe, it is a treasure trove of dressing up clothes and a fantastic place to scour for drama costumes, but it won’t be too soon. I have had enough Owino for the time being.

Plus did I mention I have a sort of second hand clothes phobia? I do, something to do with the person’s spirit staying in the clothes. I know, crazy. But that is another story.

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Little Davies and a tale of two worlds.

Little Davies came to spend the day with us today, he is the son of our house keeper and occasionally accompanies her to work. He is a sweet 5 year old boy and the only time he has ever seen a computer, a Nintendo DS or a TV is when he comes over to our house. He lives in a one room tiny house with no electricity, flushing toilet or running water. They pay 7000 USH in rent, that is $3.50 a month. He goes to a school with two teachers and 100 students in a class and today he brought his school reports and work books to show us. The work sheets were where he needed to fill in the correct word,” God is our Creator, Satan is bad, God gave me eyes, I need to bring a Broom to school.”

He learns by rote, copying over and over the same words, the same lines until he has it just right. If he disobeys he gets hit with a stick. Consequently or despite this, he is a well behaved little boy and has a wonderful happy smile. He loves to come over and see us, to flush our toilet and share our Lays crisps and watch a movie on the DVD. He also likes to draw with our coloured pens. Today for his belated birthday present I gave him a huge pack of pens, a thick pad of paper and some blue-tack so he could put his pictures on the wall.

The disparity in our lives could make us feel very uncomfortable but the longer one spends here and sooner we realize that there are certain facts about life that cannot be changed. Guilt has no place here, by the fortune of the colour of my skin I was born a white girl in South Africa and he was born black and poor in Uganda. Yet white man’s guilt exists and it tends to rear its ugly head, more in the impressions people have of us rather than in any misfortune of circumstance or birth.

While Davies was playing in our house, a woman came to my door and asked me for money. She said she needed school fees. True or not, this is a standard line, the truth is in the reasoning that because I am white I am going to help everyone. I told her that I am not a rich mzungu, I am teacher and I cannot help everyone who comes to my door. Being white in Africa leads to a strange mixture of guilt and anger that any one would presume that they can ask us for help merely because of the colour of our skin.

As complicated as this whole business is, in the end it comes down to a happy little boy hopping around our house playing hide and seek with Princess. It is hard not to feel uncomfortable when he leaves to go home to his little shack but the longer I live here the less uncomfortable I feel. This is just the way it is and a smile and a packet of coloured pens can go a long way.

White means rich and white means Aid. (Why help yourself if there is an aid agency around the corner to prop you up?) It is a very complicated situation and one that leads to much head scratching.

In other big observations this week:

Nobody owns anything. Ownership is a foreign concept and one that can lead down the slippery slope towards theft. Most people I know have been robbed, whether on the street, in their car, at home or by a housekeeper. Everyday week a new story comes out of someone who had a necklace ripped off their neck while driving with an open window or a family who was robbed while sleeping, mists of chloroform sprayed around each room to stop anyone awaking. One teacher this week was pulled from her car, punched in the face and had her bag pulled off her arm. The justification is that if you have more than me I can just take what is yours. Life is unfair and unequal so the balance should be readdressed, however illegally. Morals don’t stand tall when one person is driving a car that could feed an entire family for a life time.

We didn’t buy Davies the football that he wants more than anything because it will break his heart when it is stolen from him.

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Filed under Kampala, observations, When the rose tint fades

facebook is weird

Facebook is weird. I know what an old school friend, someone I haven’t seen for 20 years had for breakfast and I have seen the wedding photos of an old work colleague that I imagined I would never see again. I have been sent a friend suggestion that makes me laugh. She was the girl who bullied me at school a life time ago. Do I want to be her friend? Just to know what she is doing somewhere out there in middle America? More importantly do I want her to know what I am doing?

On the flip side I have reconnected with an old school teacher, the most inspiring teacher I ever had, someone who impacts my teaching style every day. I have found a long lost friend that I searched ages for and now we will meet up this summer and exchange memories. I can read the evening plans of two of my old students, I even know what film they are planning on seeing tonight, but does it all really mean anything?  I now have these superficial connections to people that are not really in my life, albeit by a sliver through a computer screen. The people I really want to see, and hug and hold are not living in my white laptop, they are living in my mind, my past and hopefully my future.

Facebook has now overtaken google as the most viewed online search engine. To use a Trini term it is the ultimate “Maco” tool, meaning we can spy on one another and be misled that we know what we are all doing. It presents a warped truth, but one that satisfies some of our curious inclinations. Through Facebook I can see what my daughter’s status is and then berate her for spreading her private life throughout the cyber world. These are things I probably shouldn’t know and yet I keep logging in, coming back for more, looking, as I scroll through the names, for connections, knowledge of what people out there are doing today. It makes the world so small when in many other ways it just feels too big.

Those of us who live so far away, across oceans and continents, shops, markets and deserts, need to feel the world is small.

I just purchased my airline tickets to London this summer and judging by the price of those tickets the world is quite enormous. Instead of looking into my screen to hunt for shiny things and old friends I will have it laid out on a concrete pavement for my delectation and choice. For three weeks I will spend my days in London town, soaking up the culture, the dust, not from red pounded roads, but from smog and the frayed, chipped ancient paint from antique buildings. I will revel, spin and worship at the alter of the Great Shiny West.

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Questions asked and answered.

A reader of 3limes recently wrote to say she was planning a move to Kampala and would I kindly answer some questions. I thought I might share them with you too, since whether or not you are moving to Uganda you might like to know if I have a washing machine or how I deal with the question of Malaria and bottled water. So here we are:

1. We do not have a washing machine but everyone else has one! It drives me crazy. I want to get one but will wait ‘till we move this summer to a bigger place where the machine could fit inside. ( Shoe boxes do not have inside spots for washing machines so it would need to be outside and that is not secure.)  They are readily available however.

2. I do not take anti malaria pills and neither does anyone I know. However once we leave Kampala and go the the country we normally do take them. Everyone uses mosquito nets and incidents of Malaria do exist in Kampala but are quite rare. Testing kits are available and any time someone has a fever they just get a quick prick to determine if they have malaria. Preventative medication is at all pharmacies for when you need to stock up before safari trips.  Trooper recently woke up with a fever and we did a home rapid test. When it came back positive we whizzed her to the hospital and within four hours she was medicated and ready to go. She didn’t get the malaria here in Kampala but on an over night stay at a farm about 30km outside of town.

3.We only drink bottled water but we do boil tap water for pasta. Everything else is bottled and again is easy to get everywhere. Most people have water dispensers in their homes.

4.Does everyone treat us differently because we are white? Mostly. Everyone calls us Mzungu and everyone thinks we are rich. Honestly, it makes me crazy. Mostly I ignore it but on occasion I have pointed out that I am a teacher and therefore not rich. However, being white equals rich here and for the uneducated people there is no getting round it. I think you get a hard skin and we all try to get used to it. There is no getting away from the fact that we are the OTHER and we live in a totally different world. Remember, though that there is a growing middle class here and some people do live like us with TV and internet and trips abroad.

5.Photographing people is a tricky one. I always ask and if they ask for money I refuse to pay. Something changes in the photos when it has become a financial transaction. Often the problem is not about money but about trust; they don’t understand what we want to do with the photos and don’t appreciate being photographed like animals in a zoo. The last time I photographed in the market I made a point of taking prints to hand out the next weekend. They were most grateful and will now trust me in the future.

6.How have my children adapted to living in Africa? It was a tough start but they are more than happy and settled now. Both my girls ( 12 and 10) love school, have many friends and have taken up horse riding. They swim at the club a lot and, I believe, probably live a better life in some respects than back home in Canada. They had a hard time with all the poverty at first but kids are so resilient and they got used to it very quickly. They have both become quite tough! All the kids we know here are so happy and enjoy all the freedoms of life here, being outside, lots of sports all year round, often big houses with gardens. They only big disadvantage in a kids life is that it isn’t really possible, apart from a few neighborhoods, to take a bike out and ride around. They can’t just go for a walk either, although most kids don’t do that any where until they are older.

Any other questions? Burning queries? Ask away…I don’t mind one bit.

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Three tourists came into a bar… or a cafe…

At coffee the other day, on my last day off, always a bittersweet day, I had to laugh. The cafe was full of tourists. Tourists here fall into three categories.

First we have the young and intrepid. Generally tall, fit and almost always handsome and attractive with that glow of youth and expectation, they all dress the same. The travelers garb here is aglow with African print, in the fabric of their bags, the beads of their flip flops, the headbands that hold back their hair. There are tattoos, baggy trousers with too many pockets or soft skirts purchased in a market soon after their arrival. The jewelry was bought then too, with the excitement of a new purchase in a foreign and new land. They all look brave and weathered as if they already bungee jumped and done all of the rapids. Now they are bargain hunting for the next adventure and they are off to see it, find it all.

Next are the earnest and fresh faced missionaries. These young couples have come with some connection to a church and are planning to stay awhile and volunteer. They are almost always blond, the men often sport beards and they wear no jolly prints of jewelry.   They might be in Kampala to get supplies or perhaps they are on their way up country but they have the look of people on a mission. Literally.

Then there are the middle aged do gooders. These people, often from the middle of Canada or Kansas have retired and want to go on an adventure. Combined with a stint at an orphanage or school, they have come dressed for the part. I imagine when they were packing what must have gone through their minds. “ Shall I bring the denim skirt or the kakhi? Perhaps both.” “I am not sure I can find trousers with elasticated waists over there so I’ll bring 4 or 5 pairs, just in case.” Yesterday took the cake, and the cherry pie. The woman who walked into the cafe was dressed entirely in denim, top to toe, the soft overly washed kind, and slung over her shoulders was a giant fish. Yes. This woman had a bag in the shape and colourful splendour of a super sized Nemo. Behind her, she had a friend who carried an enormous Disney Land bag. It could not have looked better coming off a Carnival Cruise ship in Miami.

Of course, they took a table right next to the young travelers, blond, Danish and dressed in beaded flip flops. sliver bangles and the ubiquitous African print head band. Perfect.

Am I terribly cruel? Hope not.

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A gentle landing.

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel coming back to my little shoe box house after being submerged in the luxury of Lamu. It is a pretty little shoe box and it is home, but still, I expected the fall back to reality to be swift, hard and bumpy.  Today I awoke and was stunned by the light carving through my curtains, a light soft, yet with an early morning equatorial glare that made me part the curtains and look outside. The hill in front of our house looked beautiful. Sometimes it looks dirty and muggy, today it looked sharp as if it were viewed through cut glass. The sky, so enormous and nearly blue beckoned a new day.

A sleepy Princess and Trooper tied their laces in silence, cross to be pulled from their beds and dragged back to school.

On the way to school I saw two parents who were handing their three young children to a Boda driver. He would be delivering them to school, one in front and the smallest ones behind. Little backpacks were squeezed between them and they barely teetered as they raised tiny hands to wave goodbye.

The school smelled sweet today. A fragrance was caught in the warm wind and each time I had to walk to the photocopy room I caught a whiff of something heavy and floral, very tropical and sweet.

The first day back is always a bit painful. At the time that I would just be opening one eyelid on a holiday morning, I have already taught two classes of bored and yawning teens. Yet they didn’t knock my mood. Tonight I write this by candle light, of course there is no power and my wine is getting warm, but still I feel light inside.

It hasn’t been a rough landing. Lamu, the sea, the warm still wind is still there, when I walk, talk, wake. I have no idea how long this wave will last before I get tossed onto that bridge of muddy frustration but I hope it lasts awhile. I needed to breathe the sea air, to laugh with my sister, to surround my self with beauty. Like a tender drug these things tend to ware off; when it does I will be on the next plane out. Since arriving here 8 months ago I have seen that the key to my survival here is frequent trips away. Those taken by the sea are simply sweeter.

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