those petty thieves, they can be vicious

Last week someone broke into one of the organizations I work for and stole some random things. I don't know what the total damage was, but the office doesn't look any worse for the wear, and the attack doesn't seem to have been specifically targeted at us.

This morning, one of the staff knocked on my door and handed me an empty jar of peanut butter.

"Someone broke in last week," he informed me. I thanked him for the news, wondering why I was holding an empty jar of peanut butter.

I only wondered a little bit, though, as this man spends nine hours every weekday doing things like cutting the tops off of coffee filters, endlessly rearranging the two newspapers we keep on the front table (Daily Monitor on top. No, New Vision. No, Daily Monitor.) and painstakingly washing and drying all of the clean dishes in the kitchen.

"I thought they may have poisoned the food, so I threw it all out," he explained. Oh. Right.

"But I saved your jar for you."

And then I knew why they hired him: his overwhelmingly thoughtful concern for our safety (I could have died after eating that peanut butter!) plus his immense respect for our personal property (who knows what I would have done without that jar?) make him a truly invaluable employee.

P.S. To the ten people who visited Jackfruity yesterday searching for information about Aga Khan, welcome! Come in and make yourself at home.

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government gambling with the lives of IDPs

Coming into Kampala this morning, I saw on one of the ubiquitous Daily Monitor signposts that the government is shutting down all IDP camps by the end of the year, making their inhabitants return home. Ugandan Minister of Relief and Disaster Preparedness Tarsis Kabwegyere claims that the dismantlement of the overcrowded camps will improve the plight of nearly 2 million Internally Displaced Persons who currently face extreme shortages of food and water and exceedingly high rates of cholera, AIDS and malaria. Kabwegyere also threatened anyone who would try to delay the process.

The government claims that it is prepared to help IDPs return to their homes, but residents of camps in both Lira and Teso have expressed serious concerns that the pledged resettlement packages may come too late or not at all. The challenge of resettlement is an enormous one — people who have been away from their homes for two decades need homes, agricultural supplies, schools, boreholes and medical facilities in addition to counseling and reintegration assistance.

Disputes over land are sure to arise — after 20 years, familiar landmarks separating properties have changed, and some returnees are bound to lay claim to land that is not theirs in the general confusion of the process. The issue of security has also yet to be resolved. The LRA conflict is one of 22 armed rebellions that have taken place in the country in the last 20 years. Sending IDPs home without providing protection — especially in northeastern Uganda, where the United Nations estimates that 40,000 guns are circulating — is no better than originally herding them into camps where they have been victim to LRA attacks.

The government's showy closing of the IDP camps as proof that northern Uganda is finally safe is a dangerous move, with the potential to further damage the lives of millions of conflict-affected people. Though LRA attacks have dramatically reduced since the beginning of the peace talks in Juba, a better system for resettlement needs to be firmly in place before IDPs are forced to return.

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National Novel Writing Month

I've been out of commission this past week, enjoying the outlying edges of Uganda. Sipi Falls. I highly recommend it.

I'm back and looking forward to honing my writing skills by participating in National Novel Writing Month. Fifty thousand words in thirty days, mostly composed by candlelight during my long, lonely nights in the bush. I'm still not sure what I'll write about, but I have a hunch it will involve Aga Khan. Jay-Z should also feature heavily.

Want to join me? Go to and sign up. Then go to my page and be my buddy so we can poke and prod each other to the finish line.

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romance in k'la city

After six weeks in Kampala, I’ve come to the conclusion that those involved in public transportation – namely boda drivers and matatu conductors – learn basic English questions in the following order:

1. You, where are you going?
2. Muzungu, how are you?
3. Do you have a boyfriend?
4. What’s your phone number?

This phenomenon often extends beyond drivers and conductors to other passengers, who frequently inquire about your marital status before even learning your name. These men have no shame – even if your hair is a mess and your eyes are bloodshot and you’re stumbling through the taxi park at six in the morning, they still see something desirable in you and give it their best shot. It both appeals to your vanity and disgusts you. If you happen to be a single white woman in Kampala, it also leads to the creation of a wide variety of excuses to avoid sharing any actual personal information with them, which can range from “I’m sorry, I seem to have forgotten my own number,” to “Yes, my husband is a professional Norwegian lumberjack, and we raise pit bulls together with our three lovely children” — both of which have come in handy.

Living in Kampala as a white female requires a certain amount of humor and resilience to deal with the constant barrage of redundant pick-up lines. And then there are the times you fail, your mind falters and all excuses desert you, and you’re left having given your phone number to a blue-helmeted boda driver named Edward who will call you every thirty minutes between 6:30 AM and 8:00 PM for the next three weeks.

Edward and I spent a miserable 90 minutes on a boda one drizzly Tuesday morning in a sorely misguided attempt to return to my village from southeastern Kampala. Despite my frantic arm-waving and my emphatic commands to “Stop. This is Bad. We turn around. We go back,” Edward sojourned on to Kawempe, a good 10 km from where I live. When we finally reached my home, he was so apologetic that he knocked 2000 shillings off the price and offered to give me a ride whenever I needed it. Finding a boda willing to take you cross-town and then some for a reasonable price at 6:00 AM can be a challenge, so I accepted and we exchanged numbers. Mistake number one.

Though I’d done my best to explain to him when I needed rides, he began calling me just a few short hours after dropping me off to ask if I could use his services. I answered the first time he called out of curiousity (perhaps I’d left something on his bike?), and the second out of pity and mild frustration (“Thank you, I’m sorry you don’t have any other riders, but I’m not going anywhere at the moment.”). Mistakes numbers two and three.

Though I stopped picking up, Edward kept calling, and the situation grew so dire that I began keeping my phone constantly on silent. Rather than daunting his persistence, my refusal to acknowledge his attentions seemed to increase his determination to reach me. He began sending text messages of the sort that only romance-stricken boda drivers can send: “U wher r u I havnt seen u in so long plz call Edward” and “Hopping u r not sick want 2 see u call me plz.”

The messages eventually slowed and then, one blissful day, stopped entirely, and Edward faded from my consciousness until a couple of days ago, when I made the mistake of picking up another boda from the same stage. Immediately after hopping on the bike, I noticed Edward hunched sulkily over his handlebars, staring at the two of us. As we pulled away, he straightened up and yelled, as only boda drivers can, “MUZUNGU WHY YOU NOT LOVE ME?”

I’m sorry, Edward. My heart already belongs to a Norwegian lumberjack.

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plastic beads as birth control? how Janet missed the mark

Last week Ugandan First Lady Janet Museveni introduced a system of birth control called Moon Beads. Designed to help women track their menstrual cycles and, by doing so, avoid sex when fertile, the beads are part of a five-year family planning program sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development. Museveni encourages women to “work selflessly” to use the beads.

The Ugandan birth control system desperately needs a revision. Uganda is currently the fastest-growing country in the world, with a population that could exceed that of Russia or Japan by 2050. This population explosion threatens to permanently mire the nation in poverty, increasing conflicts over land and resources in an already unstable environment. One half of all pregnancies in Uganda are unintended, and one in four results in an abortion — almost twice the abortion rate in East Africa as a whole.

Over one third of all women have expressed their desire for contraception, but only one in five married women actually has access to it. Oral contraceptives cost approximately 8 cents per month — a price affordable for much of the Uganda population — but clinics are few and generally inaccessible, making this option unavailable to most women. Condoms are theoretically free — to men only — in clinics, but they are often poorly stored, causing them to expire before they can be distributed. In 2004 the government recalled all free health clinic condoms, citing concerns about their quality. The condoms were checked and determined to be fine, but the government did not redistribute them, causing a shortage that has raised prices for the remaining stock to nearly 20 cents per condom.

Though Mrs. Museveni’s plan recognizes the need for better family planning in Uganda, it is sorely misguided. The natural family planning method is intended for monogamous couples and requires the women to carefully observe her periods for three to six months before implementing the system (the Moon Beads are intended to be used immediately and do not account for varying menstrual cycles). Even then, the method is only 75-90% effective, as compared to 95-99% for oral contraceptives and 86-98% for condoms.

Furthermore, the reality is that over 25% of men and 13% of women in Uganda admit to having sex with more than one partner (this does not include rape statistics, which are especially high in the north). Moon Beads and other methods of natural family planning do nothing to prevent the spread of HIV and other STDs. What Uganda needs if it is to avoid unwanted pregnancies, further lower the prevalence of AIDS, curb its wild population growth and prevent the medical complications that over 80,000 women face each year as a result of abortions is not a string of colored beads but better access to both information about birth control methods and to the methods themselves. Instead of encouraging women to use a method that is often ineffective and can contribute to the spread of disease, Mrs. Museveni should campaign to open more clinics throughout the country and to make both condoms and oral contraceptives widely and easily available to women.

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the United Nations of this rap shit, at it again

While on his combination concert/water crisis awareness tour in Tanzania, Jay-Z found time to play a little dress-up with his girlfriend Beyoncé:

picture via My Africa

The rags-to-riches rapper claims, "I wanted to go to these [new places] to just tour and play music. Of course, I can't go to any place without touching the culture and seeing what's going on...I'm not a politician — I'm just a regular person with a heart."

A heart that compels you to dress up like the Maasai.


aga khan is watching you

Since my ill-advised and much-regretted visit to Didi's World, I've begun to notice the subtle omnipresence of Aga Khan in Kampala. This morning his kindly visage watched over me as I made my purchases in the local grocery store, and after lunch I saw an call for applications to the Karachi-based Aga Khan University in the New Vision. Now I'm sitting in the outdoor restaurant of his newest five-star hotel, the Serena, trying to unlock the mystery of this stately gentleman whose official portrait — swaddled in white, wearing a fez — is as prevalent as President Museveni's.

Preliminary research (read: Wikipedia) has informed me that the Aga Khan, formerly Prince Karim Khan, was born on December 13, 1936 to Shia playboy Prince Aly Khan and Joan Guinness, the ex-wife of Guiness brewing fortune heir Loel Guinness. His parents divorced when he was 13, and his father later remarried Great American Love Goddess Rita Hayworth. Sexual intrigues of his parents aside, who is the Aga Khan? What makes him tick? And, above all, why is his picture plastered in every other commercial establishment in Uganda?

At the tender age of 20, Aggie rose to the position of Imam in an unprecedented generational skip. In his will, the Aga Khan III (Aggie's grandfather) cited the discovery of atomic science as the main reason for choosing his successor. Why Aga Khan III chose young Aggie after taking such an interest in the upbringing of his son — even sending Prince Aly to Cairo brothels at the age of 18 to ensure that he attained a level of sexual prowess befitting the leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims — is beyond me, but the late Khan was not always known for his rationalism: his 1931 "If I Were a Dictator" speech proposed regular mandatory use for all world citizens of golf courses, tennis courts, cricket, football and hockey grounds as well as the recombination of African nations into five large states: Northwestern, Egypt, Sudan, Central and Southern (though "Natal, being so preponderatingly British, might be given the option to contract out").

Aggie seems to have overcome some of his family's eccentricities, though he shares his father's penchant for beautiful women. In 1969 he married British supermodel Sarah Frances Croker-Poole, whose main claim to fame is the couple's $78 million divorce 25 years later. He also owns the largest horsebreeding establishment in France, the intriguingly titled Aga Khan Studs, whose prize stallion Shergar the Wonder-Horse was kidnapped in 1983 by suspected members of the IRA (Aggie refused to pay the demanded £2m ransom, and the horse and his abductors were never found).

Though his horses and the whole overseeing the spiritual welfare of 15 million Muslims thing keep Aggie pretty busy, he still finds time for various other pursuits. His name graces the Aga Khan Development Network, which runs nearly 100 development projects in 26 countries and has a net worth of over $1 billion; he is also in charge of the most prestigious global architecture award, a network of five-star hotels throughout East Africa and Asia, two Canadian car dealerships and a world-record-breaking speedboat.

Some have questioned Aggie's handling of the undisclosed amount of money he receives from Ismaili tithers each year, though the global consensus seems to be that the Aga Khan Development Network is among the most respectable, most effective development agencies in the world.

As for Uganda and why Aggie's countenance smiles down upon me wherever I go, that question is still unanswered. I choose to view him as a benevolent Big Brother figure, trusting that whatever happens — whether I come up against a massive natural disaster or find myself in need of a $2500/night suite in Mombasa — the Aga Khan will be there for me, cheerfully helping me make the world a better place.


aga khan owes me one

After exhausting the locally available restaurant options and gorging ourselves on free wireless at the Speke Resort in Munyonyo, a friend and I decided to spend one afternoon of our three-day weekend (Happy Ugandan Independence Day!) at Didi's World, an amusement park in Kansanga.

From the outside, Didi's looks quite inviting, festooned with dual portraits of Mickey Mouse-as-Sherlock Holmes and Alvin and the Chipmunks. It's not until you pass through the metal gates that it begins to resemble less a great place to take the kids and more Funland, home of sleezy mobs and bloodthirsty carnies.

The entrance hall is decorated with the requisite photo of Museveni (no surprises there) and a picture of a white man swathed in regally sparkling robes (what?). Upon inquiry, my friend and I learned the man was none other than British citizen/Imam of the Shi'a Imami Ismaili Muslims/enthusiastic horsebreeder/philanthropic developer Aga Khan IV. Ah.

The man in the center almost vomited on us.
Question answered, we purchased our admission bracelets for 5000 shillings (approximately $2.75) and forged ahead. The inside of the park was where the Funland-ness started to truly shine through: the six or seven rides were all eerily silent, and the only other visitors were a group of south Asian men, one of whom sported a mesh shirt and alternated between leering at and coming dangerously close to vomiting on us.

Slightly daunted but still wanting to make the best of our afternoon excursion, we hurried onto a pirate ship before we lost our courage. The first couple of back-and-forth sways were manageable, but then the operator stopped the ship to let on Mesh Shirt Man and his companions. We did the awkward, "Hello, how are you, we're the only people here, isn't that somewhat odd, haha" nod and then tried our best to ignore each other for the rest of the ride.

This was unfortunately not to be, as Mesh Shirt Man began making uncomfortable faces each time his end of the ship swung into the air. By the fifteenth pass, he was clutching his stomach and grimacing fiercely, leaning over the metal restraining bar and arranging himself so that his vomit, should he vomit, would land right in our laps.

My increasingly nervous friend and I clutched our own restraining bar, scooting to opposite edges of the ship to give Mesh Shirt Man's vomit as wide a berth as possible. When the ride finally began to slow, we breathed a silent prayer of thanks and ran down the escape ramp to safety.

At this point, my traveling companion was ready to go. I was determined, however, to make full use of our entrance fee, and foolishly insisted that we go on one more ride: the relatively innocuous-looking MonoRail, a three-car train on a small round track in the middle of the park. He gallantly agreed to accompany me, and we ascended a flight of rickety stairs to enter our car. I deserve full blame for what happened next.

The second the rather lethargic operator closed the hatch, we realized that what I had hoped would be a pleasant, relaxing trip around the park was actually more akin to, say, a daytrip through the stage of hell reserved for Bored Idiot Expats Who Should Have Known Better Than to Spend an Afternoon at Didi's World. The hot, stuffy car circled around and around as we grew more and more claustrophobic. The tinted windows offered nothing more than a hazy view of the top of the restrooms, and the operator was oblivious to our polite requests to, after our first trip around, "Stop, please, we're finished," and then, after our third beastly revolution, "For god's sake, STOP! WE WANT OUT!"

We stumbled out of Didi's World an unpleasant shade of pale green under our sunburned skin, desperately in need of water and vowing never again to visit an amusement park. Next weekend I'm staying in the village.


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breaking news: Ugandan sportswriters rambling, histrionic

In their October 7 Daily Monitor article on the Ugandan cricket team's disappointing performance in Kenya last week, Hussein Bogere and Innocent Ndawula manage to use all of the following phrases:
  • the angel of death who plucks out the heart of our loved ones
  • Uganda's batting problems stand out like spilled gravy on a white sheet
  • wake up and smell the coffee
  • media hullabaloo
  • cricket Czars
  • for heavens' sake
  • cry the beloved country
And they say Uganda has no literary culture.


Jay-Z really gets around these days

First he boycotts Cristal, now he's working with MTV and the UN on the global water crisis. Is there anything liquid-related that the self-proclaimed "United Nations of this rap shit" can't do?

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helping women succeed: the legalization of prostitution in Uganda

Following Ugandan Parliament Deputy Speaker Rebecca Kadaga's announcement in August that Uganda is considering legalizing prostitution, last week a group of sex workers increased the pressure on Parliament by petitioning to have their profession legally recognized. Students at Makerere University immediately responded with a counter-petition opposing the legalization of prostitution on the grounds that it would "corrupt moral and cultural values."

Writing for the Rwandan New Times, Henry Lule claims that in addition to corrupting Ugandan society, the legalization of prostitution would encourage homosexuality, discourage population growth and lead to the legalization of "sex no matter what age."

Those advocating for the legalization of prostitution argue that current laws do little to prevent prostitution and that establishing a system of regulation would serve to protect both sex workers and their clients. Legally recognizing prostitution would give sex workers who currently lack legal protections a recourse in case of rape or abuse (1) and pave the way for increased social services for these women; mandated health checkups and condom use would help prevent the spread of HIV and other STDs.

Though many women are forced into prostitution by extreme poverty (often caused by violent conflict and/or displacement), the truth is that for many women sex work is simply the most economically and socially viable career choice. Compared to most other jobs available to women, prostitution is lucrative, and working hours are conducive to caring for children.

Legalizing sex work does not equate to legalizing the exploitation of children or to expressing approval of unprotected sex or the spread of STDs. Rather, making prostitution a legal career would improve the status of sex workers in Uganda and help prevent disease. Instead of punishing women who often have few other economic options, the Government of Uganda should establish protections for them and enable them to live as securely and healthily as possible while working towards a future that provides more career choices for women.

(1) Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. "Prostitution."

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traditional justice

BBC's Barney Afako published an article in last Friday's Focus on Africa about traditional Acholi reconciliation rituals, acknowledging the potential of these ceremonies to help restore peace in northern Uganda. Acholi culture shuns revenge in favor of problem-solving and peace-making, and many reconciliation rituals exist to help restore harmony in the community. The most well-known of these is mato oput, which involves sharing a bitter drink made from the leaves of the oput tree with your former enemy and pledging to leave all bitterness in the past. Afako ends the article with the hope that mato oput and other rituals can be used to create peace in northern Uganda.

What BBC neglects to mention is that other communities and cultures besides the Acholi have been destroyed by the decades-long conflict between the Government of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army. As Katy Glassborow points out in her SperoNews article, "Peace versus justice in Uganda", the Lango, Teso and Madi communities have also experienced a horrifying range of atrocities over the last 20 years. These cultures treat justice much differently from the Acholi, with punishment for wrongdoings ranging from exile to death.

A comprehensive peace proposal for Uganda must take all those affected by the war into account, paying attention to the wide variety of cultures in northern Uganda. More work should be done on traditional justice in the Lango, Teso and Madi communities in order to develop a viable plan for national reconciliation.

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