uganda bloggers happy hour

The first Uganda Bloggers Happy Hour will take place on Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 6:30 PM at Mateo's (above Nando's on Kampala Road, K'la). Bring your wit, your feistiness, your eloquence and your humor and meet up with the myriad of voices, minds and opinions that make up the Ugandan blogosphere.

Friends, readers and the blog-curious are welcome, as is anyone willing to debate the faults and merits of Aga Khan or Jay-Z. We hope this happy hour will serve as a springboard from which the Uganda blogging community can trade ideas, stories and opinions and continue to grow. We look forward to seeing you there!

(Out of the Uganda blogger loop? Check out the Global Voices Uganda page or the links to the right.)

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The bungling of Bujagali

On Tuesday the New Vision reported that Bujagali Energy finished their environmental feasibility study for the construction of a new dam at Bujagali Falls.

The proposed dam — a $530 million collaboration between the Sithe Global LLC (based in the U.S.) and Industrial Promotion Services (based in Kenya and owned by Aga Khan) — is an attempt to ease Uganda's energy crisis. Estimates made in 2005 by Power Technology, a web site that aggregates power industry data, claim that, if construction goes as planned, Uganda's electricity supply would exceed demand for the first time in years.

Though Uganda's electricity deficit has been called "the single greatest obstacle to the country's economic growth," many local and international groups have raised concerns as to whether the dam is the best choice for development. An independent study conducted by the Prayas Energy Group of India found that the project would cost the nation up to $132 million annually — money that the government has considered taking from the World Bank (which agreed, then refused to sponsor the project), from an infrastructure development bond and from the National Social Security Fund. All of these options would place an enormous strain upon the citizens of Uganda, miring the country even deeper in debt.

Furthermore, official discourse on the dam has thus far ignored the losses Uganda would sustain as a result of the project. The National Association of Professional Environmentalists released a list of major concerns, including the submersion of both the falls and the surrounding islands (which would cost $675,000 annually in lost agricultural revenue), the extinction of several rare species of plants and birds, and the extirpation of regional tourism. Tourism is Uganda's second-largest industry after coffee, and sightseeing and whitewater rafting at Bujagali contribute between $600,000 and $1 million to this every year.

Despite the dam's excessive costs, the government is charging on towards its completion, actively working to lessen the falls' international attraction. In 2000 Uganda refused to host the Camel Whitewater Challenge, a rafting competition that would have brought over 1000 participants and spectators to the country for two weeks and cemented the nation as a leading adventure tourism destination. Writing for the International Rivers Network, an organization that opposes the dam, Stephen Linaweaver claims, "Tony Hansen, the CWWC Director, was specifically told by a Ugandan government official that Uganda would not host the Challenge because it did not want to broadcast the popularity and success of rafting or the beauty of Bujagali Falls, for fear that it would spread opposition to the Bujagali Falls Dam."

The government's handling of this project is appalling. The drive to proceed with the dam in the face of so many clear counterindicators to its success rings eerily of the October declaration that all IDP camps would be closed by the end of the year: it's a flashy, economically dangerous move that has the potential to harm not only those who live and work near Bujagali but the wellbeing of the country as a whole.

Aga Khan, I'm disappointed in you.

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Merry Christmas from the Internets

AfriGadget is proof that the Internet celebrates holidays (if it didn't, why would it be giving me such great presents?). This delightfully, inspirationally geeky blog is a bit Gizmodo, a bit MAKE — a chronicle of "African ingenuity" that's a pleasant jumble of everything from battery-operated podcast broadcasters to trendy USB flash drive covers.

One of my favorite gadgets, though, is the PlayPump. No, it's not anything like that. It's a merry-go-round that pulls water from the ground, stores it in a tank, and makes it easily available from a tap. It's brilliant.

I was happy to learn that USAID supports PlayPumps — compared with this debacle, it's a rather impressive endeavor. I was even happier to learn that one of the lead fundraisers for the project is none other than my boy Jay-Z. This kid is everywhere.

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would you like fries with that?

Last night my roommate and I indulged in a number of vices: cheese, cigarettes, beer. A couple of hours later, sitting on the balcony, I blurted out a tipsy confession:

I really want meat right now.

This statement may not be shocking, but it runs contrary to the more than third of my life I've spent as a vegetarian.

I try to dissect the craving — it's salt, I decide. I just need salt.

We decide to run across the street and split a plate of chips. On our way, we're accosted by a friendly Ugandan who offers us "special chicken." We pass him by, get our chips, and head home. We meet him again.

"Hello, madame! Hello! You want special chicken?"

He's very insistant, and we're very...err...persuadable. "Might as well put all possible toxins in our body at once," Roommate says. I shrug. What's one piece of chicken? And what makes it so special? We rummage in our pockets for cash, and Roommate comes up with a dollar.

"Fine. I'll give you one American dollar for one piece of special chicken." We look at each other and giggle at the lengths to which a street vendor will go to make a late-night sale.

Rather than go back to his grill to make the chicken, though, this particular street vendor disappears into a little shack in the parking lot. He comes back chickenless, and we wonder if he's going to demand money that's actually worth something here.

Instead, he presses a small, white, cylindrical object into Roommate's hand. "Special chicken," he repeats in a whisper.

Oh holy mother of God.

Roommate and I stare at the joint — for that is what it is, unmistakably — in horrified amusement.

"Special chicken," I say again.

"Special chicken," Roommate agrees.

The vendor — dealer? — nods his head enthusiastically. "Special chicken!" he crows.


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oh, jay

Though I pretend to write about politics, conflict and economic development, I know what really draws people to Jackfruity: Aga Khan and Jay-Z. It's been a while since I last touched on the Hov, and it turns out there's a lot I've been missing.

I'm reserving musical judgement on Jay's new album until I can sit down and listen to the whole thing, start to finish, but the buzz in the blogosphere caught my attention. Turns out there's a bit of controversy about Kingdom Come. Jody Rosen at Slate rips him a new one:

The Brooklyn street hustler shtick is anachronistic, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous songs pay diminishing returns: How many more times can he keep a straight face, rapping about his fancy vacations and his famous girlfriend's "Birkin bags"?
My boy Jack, on the other hand, sticks up for Jay, comparing Kingdom Come to Outkast's Idlewild:

In hip hop, much like political debates, how you perform relative to what is expected of you is actually more important than your performance compared to your competitors.
I'm bothered by how much people are seeming to savor hating on Jay. They were the same way with Outkast. Why are we so quick to trash our heroes?

Geoff Dabelko at Gristmill isn't. His recent piece on the champagne-boycotting, Maasai-loving hip-hop artist idolizes Jay as a sensitive philanthropist. Quoting Peter Gleick, "one of the world's leading water experts," Geoff writes:

Jay-Z underwent a real transition in his understanding of the nature of African water challenges during his recent tour. The documentary that MTV is releasing shows his growing understanding and appreciation of water problems, and reflects in a genuine way his emotional responses to those problems. If only all of our cultural celebrities and icons were so engaged!
I took a closer look to see if I could catch a glimpse of this in the lyrics of Kingdom Come. This is what I found:

What you call money, I pay more in taxes
I got crowned king down in Africa
Out in Niger’, do you have any idea?
Sold out shows, albums his whole career
Jo-burg, Dublin, Tanzania
Lunch with Mandella, dinner with Cavalli
Still got time to get water out to everybody

The emotional response I'm sensing here is less, "I feel compelled to help these people" and more, "Ain't I the shit? Hey, who wants to go put on one of those red kimono things and take pictures? Yo B. B! Get me a bottle of Dom from the fridge, baby."


secret heart

I have a confession to make: for a brief period (just a little bit, just a very, very little while) I was attracted to Robert Kaplan.

I know, I know. He's pessimistic. He's a little cocky. And there's that whole Balkan War thing.

Still. There's just something about him — he believes so strongly that he's the final authority on everything from Slovenia to Somalia that you start to believe it, too. He's a well-travelled, well-paid journalist. Not only that, he's an author. Of books. About other countries. Hot. He also makes some good points, especially about U.S. stupidity concerning rebel movements in Eritrea and about Henry Kissinger. And let's face it: all that talk about the imminent collapse of the world as we know it just makes you want to snuggle up close to someone who looks like he knew what was going to happen all along.

But. I also nurture a deep-rooted love and respect for Tom Bissell, another journalist-come-travel writer whose raw, unapologetic — yet still humorous and tender — portrayals of the former Soviet Unionhave sometimes taught me more about Russia than actually living there — an affirmation of things I have seen and thought and wondered but was too afraid or unsure of to put into words.

Bissell is like the mysterious older brother of your best friend — the one who graduated with a liberal arts degree and then joined the Peace Corps. He came back with giardia and uncut hair and a tan that was half sun and half dirt, carrying a thick, worn, dusty journal full of (articulate, beautiful, introspective) insights based on late nights listening to the tales of old men's lives and conversations about everything from lemons to lynchings with street vendors and taxi drivers and other people whose stories never get told. Kaplan is like the econ professor you had in college who projected an irresistible aura of educated, hard-earned arrogance and condescension from behind his podium — the one you hated but still worked endlessly to please because he had eighty thousand degrees from Harvard, knew everything and was always, unfailingly, maddeningly right.

I mentioned earlier that books are worth their weight in gold here. After a friend loaned me The Coming Anarchy,a collection of Kaplan's essays on American foreign policy, I wrote frantically to friends and family and begged for almost everything he's written. And then, to stave off the literary cravings, I went online and rummaged around the Virginia Quarterly Review for articles to tide me over until the packages arrived.

Bissell had a piece up. A long piece. A long piece about Robert Kaplan. A long, scathing piece about Robert Kaplan, in which Bissell describes him as, to paraphrase mildly, a no-talent ass clown.

Kaplan's other critics have pointed out his unwavering pessimism and his tendency to ignore individual responsibility in favor of the overwhelming, inevitable forces of history, ethnicity and religion. Bissell was a little more frank. "Kaplan... is an incompetent thinker and a miserable writer," he states directly. "The damage he has done to literature [is] unforgivable."

Peace Corps boy just dissed the prof, hardcore, and I'm finding the lectures a little harder to listen to than I did before.


i was going to write about karamoja...

...but Samuel Olara did an amazing job over at the Sub-Saharan African Round Table.

An excellent short history of the Karamojong people in the twentieth century can be found in this interview with Dr. Sandra Gray, an anthropologist who works in the region. The interview ends with the question, "Do these people have any political support within their own country?" Dr. Gray's answer:

Everybody hates pastoralists. They're among the last groups in the world it's still politically OK to trash. They're derided for letting their sheep and goats and zebu overgraze the land and turn it into desert.

That's a lie. They did just fine for centuries.

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A question for the Ministry of Works, Housing and Communications

Q: How many Ugandans does it take to get a matatu (shared minivan taxi) from Kampala to Entebbe?

A: Two to maneuver your friend's suitcase into the front seat; another to charge her 225% of the fare because she's bringing luggage (I'm sorry, isn't everyone else?); three to load the back of the vehicle with bags of grain and sacks of live chickens; two to strap foam mattresses to the top; one to yell at those strapping mattresses to the top about the way in which they're strapping mattresses to the top; six to get in, properly position (read: cram into every available nook and cranny) their baggage, get settled, then change their minds, extract their belongings and leave; one to roll his eyes at the six indecisive ones; two to press water, biscuits, handkerchiefs, newspapers and other assorted, unwanted goods on the passengers; one to beg for money as you finally roll out of the taxi park; one to run over a roadside plasticware stand two blocks from the taxi park; and three to re-pack the grain and (possibly no longer live) chickens when the back comes open after running over the plastics.

A friend and I have joked about a Frequent Matatu Rider Program. I would totally cash in my kilometers for a conductor who would adhere to the little sign painted on the side of every van that reads, "Licenced to carry 14 passengers" instead of cramming 23 people and their assorted poultry into one vehicle. A guarantee that you'll never have to sit on the crack between the bench and the fold-down seat? What about a VIP lounge at the taxi park? Front door pick-up service? Air conditioning? Waragi-and-tonics on trips longer than thirty minutes?

The program could take its cue from KLM's Flying Blue. I can see it now:

Riding Dirty

Do you think the government could get Jay-Z (as long as he's on his charity kick) to convince Chamillionaire to let them his track as a theme song?

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Behold, behold: the NGO spectacle

I met an American undergraduate a few weeks ago who was writing his senior thesis on the "NGO circus" in Uganda.

His point (I think — it was hard to get past his carefully cultivated skepticism and the unlit cigar he carried around in his mouth like an über-cool oral security blanket) was that the proliferation of NGOs in Uganda in the last 20 years has made it more, not less, difficult for the country to develop. He focused on international organizations, but I see the same thing happening at the local level.

I spent last week in Gulu talking to several Ugandan non-profit and community-based groups about their projects. I hoped to learn about national reconciliation from the grassroots level and to come home more informed about what needs to happen in the north for peace to become a reality. Instead, I found myself wading through a swamp of catchy development terminology that didn't seem to make any more sense to the people I met with than it did to me.

The project leaders talked animatedly to me about microfinance and community mobilization and adult literacy programs. They all wanted to address every single problem in northern Uganda, from HIV to education to arts and sports to cultural renewal to child soldiers to agriculture. One group had a total of three volunteers but was working on eight separate multi-year, multi-district proposals, each covering a multiple aspects of rebuilding. The proposals were full of attractive phrases and energetic language, but after spending an hour with the director, I could tell he had no understanding of the economic theory, organizational principles or sheer manpower required to turn his projects into realities.

Those I spoke with clung to their CBOs and PRSPs and QUIPs as if the very letters would save them. Some seemed to think that creating a successful income-generating activity was as easy as saying "IGA." It truly was a circus — the directors spouting acronyms like desperate ringmasters while their projects flopped around like mistreated, malnourished performance animals.

Uganda doesn't need another project proposal from another would-be community leader with an over-inflated vocabulary and no training to back it up. These people are well-meaning, but as influenced as they are by the development industry talk in Uganda, their Big Ideas are just as much top-down (as opposed to local-level) as international initiatives. A thousand times better would be an organization that actually consulted the people around it to find out what they need and how best to achieve it, rather than succumbing to the Ringling-Bros.-esque attraction of development novelty acts.

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PEPFAR contributing to spread of AIDS

The Washington Post recently reported that the AIDS rate is rising in Uganda. Peter Piot, director of UNAIDS, attributes the increase (from 5.6 to 6.5 percent in rural men and from 6.9 to 8.8 percent in rural women) to "a period of 'decreased credibility' of condoms, the consequence of messages by some fundamentalist groups, a run of defective condoms and then a shortage of condoms."

This article comes on the heels of the Global Fund's rejection of a Ugandan grant proposal for $111 million to fight HIV/AIDS. Corruption and poor management ripple throughout Uganda's handling of its HIV/AIDS programs — the last two years have been a recurring pattern of fraud, lies and incompetence. What concerns me even more, however, is the United States' ineffectual response to a disease that is threatening to engulf the nation yet again.

A full thirty-three percent of the money USAID spends on HIV prevention goes towards abstinence. In 2004, the number of condoms provided by USAID's PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) dropped by 60 percent, a decrease which coincided with the Ugandan government's confiscation of all free health-center condoms due to concerns about their quality; the condoms were tested and proven to be perfectly usable but were never re-released. These two events triggered a shortage of condoms in the country and widespread doubt of their effectiveness from which Uganda has not yet recovered.

The U.S. attitude towards condoms is frightening. In an April 2005 meeting of the International Committee of the House of Representatives to review the U.S. response to the global AIDS crisis, Ted Poe (R-TX) called them the "least effective, least popular method of birth control." The truth is that condoms are up to 25% more effective than natural family planning (the method USAID is pushing with Janet Museveni).

Still, USAID is increasingly funding abstinence-only programs to the detriment of more comprehensive, more effective organizations: in November 2004, PEPFAR overrode the recommendations of their Technical Review Committee and funded an organization deemed unsuitable for grant money. The pro-abstinence organization, Children's Aid Fund, has close ties to both the Bush administration and to Janet Museveni, which was seen as justification enough to fund their program. Furthermore, the U.S. has been steadily decreasing the amount of money it gives to international organizations that provide reproductive health services — in 2002, the government withdrew over $36 million from the World Health Organization and the UN Population Fund.

AIDS is making a comeback in Uganda, and U.S. efforts are doing little to stop it. USAID needs to get their act together and start providing factual, practical information about STDs, STD prevention and reproductive health instead of funding misguided projects that skirt the issues at hand.

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