5 Sketches of Life in Uganda

My latest Global Voices piece, available here. I think posts that help us understand what life is like in other countries is what Global Voices is uniquely useful for.

Here are some sketches that detail the contradictions, complexities and beauty of daily life in Uganda.

In Apac, two women go in search of vegetarian food:

Thus it began: the most epic search for food I have ever experienced. We didn’t ask for much: beans, rice, maybe chapatti — something simple and easy, common Ugandan staple food. Our quest took us all over town, onto two bicycles and to six different restaurants, all of which were staffed by women who told us the exact same thing:

Smoked meat. Fresh meat. No beans. No rice. No chapatti.”

It was an anti-vegetarian conspiracy, developed and manned by a gang of sisters who ran Apac’s food distribution behind the backs of the LC5. An entire city — a district seat, no less — and no beans to be found. Rebecca and I sat in our hotel room for a minute, wondering what we would do.

In Kampala, Glenna Gordon explains the contradictions that exist at Cafe Pap, the swankest coffee shop in town:

I sat with Ali, a stranger to me, at our dirty Café Pap table because it had the only open spot at a smoking table at the crowded cafe. Pap, which sits just below Kampala’s Parliament and just above the main thoroughfare, is Uganda’s version of Starbucks, only with even more mediocre food and an even more stratified social milieu. Mbu, this is Uganda, where the average family lives on less than a dollar a day, and a cappuccino at Café Pap costs two days’ income. There are 28 million people in Uganda, 1.2 million in Kampala, and about 20 people at Café Pap at any given lunch hour.

Click here to read more.

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Wednesday Links 4.25.07

In Brooklyn, one of my favorite people, Meg Rorison, is also one of my favorite photographers.

In Cambridge, John Palfrey and Rob Faris of Open Net Initiative give a talk. I'm told this is the project I'll be working on when I start next week at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

In Harare, the Economist online news editor explores a difficult place.


Of Spring Time and Hip Hop in Kampala

Thank you for enduring last week's pause, where I suspended all blogging in honor of the first hesitant, then rapturous, emergence of spring, the Bacchic delight of the first warm Saturday evening and a Sunday afternoon spent playing home run derby on the local softball field followed a more spectacular derby as the Red Sox swept the Yankees in front of an elated crowd at Fenway Park. Back to the action.

For those of you in Kampala, there is an upcoming event that is not to be missed. If community development is about taking responsibility, then Abramz is one of the most prolific young organizers in Uganda. I'll never forget the performance of Abramz and his crew that I saw at Makerere University Business School in January. Through his hip-hop classes in northern Uganda and throughout the country, he can inspire in situations others deem without hope.

BREAKDANCE PROJECT UGANDA presents "HOPHOP FOR A CAUSE" on 6th May @ Sharing Youth Centre, Nsambya. The festival aims to show people the positive role that hip hop plays in Ugandan societies plus encouraging all the youth & children to participate in community work. It will feature breakdancers & hiphop artists (youths & disadvantaged children) from Gulu (H.E.A.L.S),Kampala & other areas of Uganda. RAP PERFORMANCES BY: Sylvester & Abramz Lyrical.G Swamp Kamp DE.P.P.I Static, From Belgium And many more.........

VENUE: Sharing Youth Centre, Nsambya

TIME : 2PM -6:30PM

DATE : 6th MAY 2007.

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The Dark Side of Mobilization

Today is one of those days I wish I was back in Kampala so I could cover the Mabira Forest Controversy first hand. To recap, the Government wants to hand over one of the nation's most prominent tropical forest to Kakira Sugar Works, a subsidiary of a huge Asian-owned conglomerate. This week, a massive, grassroots environmental campaign was launched (mostly through SMS campaign) to block the deal.

Last week, we wondered what the results of such a massive mobilization would be. Western observers may be saddened that the results may be far from positive, and even catastrophic. A peaceful protest march in Kampala gave way to anti-Asian riots which resulted in three deaths, including one Asian who was stoned to deal in the streets. The riots, as often is the case in mayhem below Kampala road, had nothing to do with the original cause of the protest. Baz put it cynically, yet probably accurately: "Envy has turned into racism, which has turned into murder."

On the positive side, a coalition of concern environmentalists presented a petition to the Parliament to halt the proposed land give away. We will have to wait and see what happens next.

Note to Uganda bloggers:

Jackfruity has malaria, but I bet we can cure her by leaving get well soon comments on her blog.

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The Global Soul vs. The Local Soul

I read with interest Ethan Zuckerman's recent piece 'The Moving Circus, the Post-National, the Global Soul and the Xenophile.' I agree with Ethan's central point that "the future, in a very literal sense, belongs to the post-national, the Global Souls, the economic migrants. They're the best placed to create solutions to global problems, to invent new products for global markets, to build bridges and understanding between different nations."

I have been an advocate for the Global Soul since 2002 when I helped host the first annual 'Interdependence Day' at the University of Maryland. However, I have always found the Global Soul to be an incomplete concept. To understand this, I want to look at a concept that I will call, for expedience sake, the Local Soul.

The Local Soul is someone who devotes their public life to a local community, a place they can touch or feel. Local Souls can be teachers or, in my mother's case, a county government employee in an emergency social service that helps poor people who are facing eviction or improper treatment from their landlords. My mother told me an anecdote this weekend that I think illustrates the value of being a Local Soul.

My mother spoke of a 31-year-old woman with two jobs and several serious health problems who came into her office for housing support because this woman's mother, who was her main source of economic support, had recently passed away. This woman had nowhere to turn and was facing homelessness. My mother, along with several associates, sat her down and advised the woman how to navigate the tricky local government bureaucracy to give her support in her job training, housing and medical treatment. Afterwards, they hugged emotionally, because this woman had realized that these caring people had given her another chance.

This is to say that what the Global Soul misses is both sentimental and pragmatic. The pragmatic challenge is that in the abstract sense, eliminating suffering faces the same barriers everywhere. However, in real terms of making peoples lives better, one has to deeply understand the local environment. Secondly, the Global Soul lacks a sense of what German
sociologist Albert Tonybee called gemeinschaft, a sense of community defined by its strong bonds and kinship (contra gesellschaft, or society, which connotes simply co-existence). Technology can mitigate the effects of this sentiment, but I don't believe it can eliminate the sentiment completely.

However, what Ethan is saying when he talks of zenophilia, is that being a Local Soul is no longer enough. We know that our (local) way is not the only way, and for personal and creative reasons it is necessary to reach beyond the bounds of the Local Soul. This is absolutely true, and perhaps what has attracted me to the Global Soul from the start. How do we balance this tension?

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Uganda: Blog Awards, Digital Activism and More

From my latest Global Voices post, available here.

Ugandan bloggers have responded forcefully to the story that the Ugandan cabinet was considering giving away 7,100 hectares of Mabira Forest to private investor to turn into a sugarcane plantation. Mabira Forest is prominently located on the Kampala-Jinja Road and is Uganda’s largest tropical forest. I Have Left Copenhagen for Uganda reports that a boycott of Lugozi Sugar, a brand owned by the company intent on developing Mabira Forest, is being promoted via text message:

Congratulations to the Ugandan civil society for reacting! This is a fine example of a non-violent action, which in no time has created massive attention among the population, not just on individual basis, but also institutions and organisations are reacting. And not just within Uganda, it is going global. Campaign-wise this is a very interesting tool; any person with a mobile and airtime can participate.

However, no one said it should be easy; Police Spokesman Asan Kasingye is now hunting the originators of the text messages encouraging the sugar-boycott. He states that this kind of boycott is economic sabotage, claiming probably rightfully, it is illegal in the country. He is prepared to carry out arrests. In my opinion this man’s reaction is proving that the campaign is working! Guess the Uganda goverment is to learn about modern non-violent campaigning methods…(hopefully before it runs out out teargas).

In his post titled, “Battle to halt Mabira Forest giveaway taken to cyberspace,” Abubaker Basajjabaka shows the effectiveness of the SMS campaign:

With government playing hide and seek, on top of giving contradictory statements about the whole saga, environmentalists took their fight to FM Radio Stations, dgroups and have also resorted to using Short Message Services (SMS) to caution Ugandans to stop buying Lugazi Sugar if their desire to grab part of Mabira Forest is not dropped.

SMS have particularly been effective. Over the weekend, packets of Lugazi Sugar have been piling up in supermarkets besides some business owners withdrawing them from their stalls. Environmentalists have been arguing that apportioning part of Mabira Forest would bring more adverse effects than the sugar shortage. Opposition politicians have also picked up the slack and are busy de-campaigning government for seer lack of concern if they granted a deal like that.

Rainforest Blog calls for action to stop “Great Ugandan Mabira Rainforest Give-Away”:

Let the Ugandan Parliament know rainforests and their ecological services including water, climate and biodiversity are more important than sugar which can be grown elsewhere. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni continues to pursue legally dubious plans to destroy large areas of Uganda’s last important intact and protected rainforests. Some one-third of Mabira Forest Reserve [search], about 7,000 hectares of an area which has been protected since 1932, will lose its protection for sugar cane production by the Mehta Group.

Daniel Kalinaki, a prominent journalist for the East African, weighs in on his personal blog:

In his book, Sowing the Mustard Seed, President Yoweri Museveni waxes lyrical about his life-long drive and ambition to liberate Ugandans politically and economically. The jury is still out on whether the political liberation, aka the ‘fundamental change’, is temporary or a mere papering over the cracks. Economic development, however, will certainly not come by pawning the family silver as giving away Mabira represents. To do so would be to see the forest for the trees, instead of seeing the trees for the forest.

Two other bloggers, Just Sayin and Only in Uganda, both write that concerns of economic development and environmental protection should be balanced.

There is an online petition to save the Mabira with over 9000 signatures.

Continue reading...

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Of Trains and Boston

I took the train to Boston this weekend to find housing for my big move to Boston at the end of April. I'm incredibly excited to be interning for the summer at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and then attending the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts for a two year masters program.

Since I suppose I'll be doing the Washington-Boston trip frequently, I want to clarify my stance as a die hard train rider. Maybe its the marathoner in me that prefers the 8 hour train ride to an equally priced 1 hour flight. I find trains to be a unique way to gratify my opposing needs of wanting to be constantly moving and to have a quiet place to read, write and think. The scenery is great. You get everything from the huge metropolis to the underdog mill town.

My housing mission was a success. I'll be moving into grad school digs in Cambridge near Porter Square. I'll be living with an adventurous Russian writer from a prominent Soviet dissident family who traveled around the world to write a poem and kindly offered me a place to stay if I was ever near his farm in eastern Estonia. I felt great running in Cambridge, up and down the Charles River, basking in the first hesitantly warm days of the New England Spring.

For now only a word about my upcoming years at Fletcher. Of the 49 countries represented at Fletcher in the incoming class, there is no one from Uganda. I'll do my best to represent.

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Off the Grid

"Howard Waldrop is not only admired and loved for his brilliant short stories, he is also deeply envied by a sizable percentage of the male population. Forty or more years ago, Waldrop simply decided to live a life where he could do what he most enjoyed -- write strange and original fiction, watch B-movies, listen to music, spend time with friends and do a whole lot of fishing. While the rest of us were busily sacrificing ourselves and our dreams to the bitch-goddess Success, Waldrop was sipping a beer and enjoying an old Fleischer Brothers Superman cartoon or standing happily in a cold river with a fly rod in his hand."
- Michel Dirda

I love running and cycling like Howard Waldrop loves fishing. Sitting at a coffee shop in Kampala with Colin, we decided that one day we would bicycle from Kampala to Capetown.

8 In An African Minute Adventures
A Malarial Mystery
In Praise of Hot Summer Nights and Seeing Your Name in Print
Running the Kampala Marathon
An Emerging Cameroonian Film Industry
Ah, Europe
These Bantu Jews
Rowing Lake Vic
Napkin Thoughts

My favorite inanimate object:


Storm Clouds in Uganda

My last Global Voices piece seems to have brought to light an interesting conversation of how seriously to take Museveni's recent excesses in suppressing opposition activity. On one hand are those who see storm clouds fast approaching on the horizon. James can see Uganda becoming the next Zimbabwe.

On the other end of the spectrum is 27th comrade, who worries little when Presidential storm troopers raid the High Court after opposition candidates have been let off bail. Sadly, this represents the attitude of a large portion of Ugandans, for whom state excess has become commonplace.

Unfortunately, by the standards of the continent, Museveni is a darling. He has not gone the way of Mugabe, bull dozing entire slums and eliminating entire opposition parties. Nor has Museveni gone the way of Ethiopia's Zenawi, who blatantly kills protesters on the street of Addis, spies excessively, and censors the Internet.

However, no nation in East Africa is beyond falling back into despotism, and Museveni's recent excesses should be treated as part of a slippery slope. International pressure, and to the extent that it is possible, domestic pressure, should continue to hold Museveni responsible for the excesses of his regime.

These recent government excesses are certainly not limited to any one area of the country. Sarah Grainger, is an piece of bold reporting for the BBC, corroborates over 200 interviews to report on Friday that government forces killed 66 children in the long forgotten and dangerous Karamojong region in north Eastern Uganda. The frightening thing about storm clouds is that it is difficult to tell how far away they are.

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