kampala street arts festival

I spent Sunday afternoon selling juice and sandwiches to passersby at the first ever Kampala Street Arts Festival. Organized by Peter Otim, who sells his paintings, batiks and sculpture in his gallery on Bukoto Street, the festival filled the street with local artists, musicians, restaurateurs and those who came to admire their work.

BBC's Sarah Grainger compiled a photo essay that shows participants making art out of the city's ubiquitous potholes, and I was able to get a few shots of Breakdance Project Uganda and Sylvester & Abramz, who performed at the event.

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jackfruit of the week: 2007.05.29

Writing for the Daily Monitor, Lucy Hannan has a chilling account of life inside a Lord's Resistance Army camp in the DRC: "Unlike former abductees who have horrific tales of escape and fear, or children who have been murdered and tortured in the bush, these are the kids who will kill for the mystical, militarised cult."

Country Boyi wonders what would happen if Ugandans blogged in local languages. All of the Ugandan blogs I've found so far have been in English — why is that? Is there a whole sector of the blogren I'm missing?

Owera responds to recent controversy over whether or not bloggers are afforded the same legal protection as journalists: "I am not a journalist. I am a blogger. I blog. I run an online diary. Period." (Particularly interesting is the AP article he quotes, in which a blogger is defined as "some hack who offers half-baked commentary on the news of the day.")

The news is already out, but I'm taking over from Josh as the Global Voices Uganda Author. My first post, "Self-reflection and the search for meaning in the Ugandan blogosphere," was published on May 17, and you can keep track of my biweekly blogren roundups here.

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why Idi Amin is (not) the greatest Ugandan

Dennis Matanda recently engaged in a search for heroes and came to the conclusion that Idi Amin is the greatest Ugandan.

To me, this is kind of like saying George W. Bush is the greatest American: resolve and dedication to a cause, no matter who dies. He promises a Part II, which I await eagerly, but I can't hold in my skepticism regarding his ten points that "prove" Idi's greatness. Here's my rebuttal:

i) He was able to build the International Conference Center from Government Resources
Okay, this isn't exactly a strong start (on my part) because I don't know enough about the International Conference Center. Has it been used much since then? Has it brought in a lot of International Conferences? (Knowing my luck, this is probably the reason CHOGM is being held in Uganda.) But moving on:

ii) He had the balls to make unpopular decisions in terms of the Indians in 1972
This, as I understand, was a fantastic move for Uganda's economy.

iii) He gave Uganda a bad name in the International Press
Which is exactly what this country needed — bad press.

iv) He went against Israel and lost [French Jet - Hijacked Passengers]
And more bad press.

v) He made the Scottish Skirt Look Good!
Not as good as Ewan Macgregor.

vi) He did not eat any of his kids
I'd venture a guess that this goes for the vast majority of humankind.

vii) He took French TV around his country on a tourism drive
This is cool, and something I didn't know, but I think it qualifies Amin more for the "random trivia" category of hero than the "all time greatest" category.

viii) Yoweri Museveni, about 20 years later, did exactly the same thing
I fail to see the logic here.

ix) He did not actually kill over 500,000 Ugandans in those 8 years
ix) Maybe not 500,000. But a bunch. Enough that I wouldn't put him in charge of my country, or in the same room as any of my family members, friends, coworkers or chance acquaintances. Or the guy who served me coffee this morning. Or my boda driver. Or...you know...anyone.

x) He was the star of the film: The Last King of Scotland
Really? 'Cause I totally thought that was Forest Whitaker.

As always, I admire your willingness — nay, your unwavering, stubborn resolve — to play the devil's advocate in the Ugandan blogosphere. But wow, man...curious to see where you end up with this.

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traveling with momma

My mom is a children's ministries pastor in the States, which is something I know but not something I expected the average Ugandan citizen to know. Hence my surprise when a taxi conductor in Bweyale began the following, unprompted theological discussion with her:

Taxi Conductor: Do you fear God?

My Mom: Umm...yes, I fear God.

TC: (look of shock) You fear God?

MM: (wondering how deeply she should go in her explanation of her faith) Well, I'm not afraid of him. It's more—

TC: (shoves two goats under her seat)

MM: Oh. Goats.

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GVO: Self reflection and the search for meaning in the Ugandan Blogosphere

My first piece is up at Global Voices Online:

The Ugandan bloggers are having an existential crisis of sorts. The self-examination among the Blogren, as they’ve started calling each other, began in January when several bloggers objected to the establishment of Uganda Bloggers Happy Hour and the Uganda Best of Blog awards.

Read more»

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in need of an explanation

Wednesday, 16 May 2007, approximately 3:00 PM, heading north on Yusuf Lule Boulevard, Kampala, Uganda: I see a man riding a boda-boda, carrying a pair of snow skis.

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the blogren

Even when I disagree with the 27th Comrade, I still can't help but admire him. This time it's because of The Blogren — the term he coined to refer to Ugandan bloggers.

The Danish blogumentary filmmakers who were here last month assembled an "anthropological study" of The Blogren — an examination of who they are, what they write about and how they interact with one another. They describe blogren(s) as "young, sexy, cool, intelligent...[and] opinionated." These are part of a string of adjectives that have been used in connection with Ugandan bloggers — Lovely Amphibian likes funny, witty and neurotic. Pernille prefers caring, schizophrenic, spiced up, courageous and honest, and I've used lovely, thoughtful, hilarious, raw and titilating.

Lately, though, I've been wondering about nouns. When I was designing the Uganda Best of Blogs, I struggled with how to categorize the many, many people who could be considered Ugandan bloggers. For the purpose of their documentary, the Danes were focusing on Ugandans who blog from Uganda. This is the most narrow definition, but there are also non-Ugandans who blog from Uganda and both Ugandans and non-Ugandans who blog from elsewhere. Do you include expats whose blogs are of the "Hi Mom, I made it and I'm alive, don't worry" variety? Or Ugandan residents who blog only about their daily lives? What about Ugandan expats who write more about where they live in now than about their own country?

Frustrated about the way bloggers responded to the Mabira riots, Owera defines a Ugandan blogger as "a blogger keeping a journal [about] the situation and events [in] Uganda and not necessarily a Ugandan native blogging." This would exclude most Ugandan expats, a lot of the younger bloggers and some members of the Makerere School, but would include blogs like I Left Copenhagen for Uganda, In an African Minute, Uganda-CAN and Jackfruity.

The Danes write that "an unknown number [of Ugandan bloggers] is considered blogrens," and the creator of the term has yet to weigh in on the subject, but I prefer a definition that falls somewhere between the focus of the documentary and what Owera has to say. I believe the Ugandan blogosphere should include non-Ugandans and Ugandan emigrants/expats who blog heavily about the country — not just because that's what I do, but also because these authors can provide new, outside perspective on Ugandan issues and events. I also believe that Ugandan residents who blog about their daily lives play an important role — their accounts of school, family life, dates and pop music, while not as politically charged as some of the other blogs, give the Ugandan blogosphere depth and nuance. It's this group — Uganda-focused and Ugandan-resident bloggers — that I mean when I say The Blogren.

Tangenitally related is the 27th Comrade's manifesto on the function of Ugandan bloggers: "Uganda is not one of them countries where bloggers are dissidents...." Definitely worth a read.


World Telecommunication and Information Society Day Symposium

If you have Thursday morning free, check out the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day Symposium:
The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology in collaboration with the Uganda Communications Commission and the Civil Society Organisations invites the public to a half day symposium under the theme "Achieving MDGs, the contribution of ICTs; Public-Private Partnerships and between the Civil Society and Government" at Hotel Africana on Thursday, May 17, 2007 starting at 9:00 AM.
The symposium will focus on educating the public about telecommunications in Uganda, identifying solutions to the challenges facing Uganda's telecommunications, and (this is where I get excited) promoting awareness of ICTs as tools for economic and social development.

For more information, contact the Uganda Communications Commission, 12th floor Communications House, 0312339000 or 0414339000, ucc@ucc.co.ug.


disaster preparedness

I first remember hearing about it after Columbine — suddenly high schools were locking doors, installing metal detectors and running emergency drills that involved organized cringing in corners, under desks and behind teachers who bravely assured us that it was all "just in case." Then came weapons of mass destruction, September 11 and Katrina. Everyone, from parents to pundits, was talking about it: disaster preparedness. Being ready for something you're not sure will ever happen, preparing for the what-ifs. Attempting to manage the, by definition, unmanageable.

Yesterday's Daily Monitor headline announced that Ugandan Police Chief Kale Kayihura has asked for 8.8 billion shillings to buy anti-riot equipment to "subdue crowds effectively" over the next year. Some, like the Minister of State for Internal Affairs, might hold this up as an exemplary instance of disaster preparedness. Kayihura wants to buy 4000 arms, 1000 pistols, teargas and batons, a request that "seems to be out of the realization that there could be a lot of violence."

Well, yeah. Last month's highly-publicized Mabira riots are enough to make anyone responsible for ensuring civil order nervous. Still, I would argue that most of the clashes between police and public have been caused by trigger-happy armed officials attacking generally nonviolent demonstrators, rather than by angry mobs.

Case(s) in point: a peaceful protest at Gulu University, Besigye's release from Luzira prison (and most FDC rallies), any public appearance of the Black Mambas, and my favorite, the Democratic Party gathering that never happened — where police spent a night hiding in a nearby village with tear gas, ready to "subdue" a crowd that never materialized.

A stitch in time saves nine, and all that, but the balance sheet here suggests that the best course of action for a government worried about violent protests might be twofold: first, to reign in a police force whose use of teargas and batons has proven overeager at its most mild, and second, to address the legitimate concerns of the protesters rather than spending $5 million to "effectively subdue" its citizens.

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may UBHH

uganda bloggers happy hourThe May Uganda Bloggers Happy Hour is coming up next week: Thursday, May 17, 6:30 PM at Mateo's* on Kampala Road. Mark your calendars, enter it into your Blackberries and set your cell phone reminders.

In describing UBHH to the non-initiated, I've realized that "we hang out and talk" is perhaps not the most alluring way to portray who we are and what we do. This, in combination with suggestions from several UBHH regulars that we make things a little more formal, has led me to designate May as Generic Blog Question Month. I'm curious to what goes on in the Ugandan blogosphere besides posting and commenting.

Some things to think about:
  • What blogs do you read regularly?
  • What's most likely to make you return to a blog (pictures, design, writing, a personal connection to the author)?
  • Do you use blogs more as a source of information about specific topics — politics, current events, pop culture, Turkish cooking — or as a way to stay in touch with your friends and family?
Get ready — I plan to go discussion-facilitator-mode on you guys, partly so that I can tell other people that we talk about specific things, but mostly because I just want to know. Who's reading an awesome Estonian knitting blog or gets all of their political news from a handful of bloggers? Come on, spill: what intriguing, sparkly blogtreasures are you hiding?

Also, depending on how tired they are after 36 hours of travel, there's a chance I'll be bringing two very special guests with me: my mom and my aunt, who are jointly responsible for my current knowledge of English grammar, how to format a term paper and what happens when you jam a finger covered in Vick's Vapo-Rub up someone's nose.

*Sorry for the earlier confusion — I'm terrible with dates.

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the appropriate apparatus for the activity

My father, in addition to being our family's designated Finder of Lost Objects, is also a master of logical sayings. These range from "that'll feel better when it stops hurting" (when I injure myself) to "you make a better door than a window" (when I stand in front of the television) to "you just don't have the right tool for the job."

This last invariably follows a complaint that I can't open a jar (square rubbery thing) or hang up a picture (special hooks) or wow my third grade classmates on Special Hat Day (foil-covered baseball cap with blinking LED lights — Dad never fails), and it is the first thing I thought of when I saw this guy:

I'm not sure of his job title, but I would imagine it to be something like "Professional Sharpener of Sharp Objects That Could Be Sharper Using a Splendid and Astounding Multipurpose Mode of Transportation-Slash-Sharpening Device." Only, you know, in Langi/Luo, because he lives in Apac.

He would so be on my dad's good side.

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your devoted fan

I'm feeling guilty. Martin Ssempa comments on my blog and gets an eleven-paragraph response, but Tom Bissell and Michael Maren get nothing.

It's not that I don't nurture a vast writercrush on admire you both. It's more...well, what do you say to someone you idolize think highly of?

I could say, I guess, that the mid-airmail disappearance of Chasing the Sea, a gift from a like-minded friend in the States, hurled me into a week of literary despair, during which I read nothing but John Grisham novels and rarely brushed my hair. I could mention that I've been pushing The Road to Hell onto all of my friends and coworkers, as well as several strangers, as required reading. I might even reveal that your comments provoked several exclamation-point-riddled e-mails home and at least one change in Facebook status (Rebekah is...beside herself).

But that would ruin the elegant, mature, worldly self-image I've so painstakingly constructed, in which all my interactions with celebrities consist of witty remarks (on my part), offers of book deals (on theirs) and frequent consumption of designer sushi (mutual).

Lacking all of the above, I'm just going to say wow, and promise that if you ever happen to visit Lawrence, Kansas, I will a) place myself at your disposal as a tour guide, personal shopper, and/or dinner companion and b) try my best to keep the volume of my screams of excitement at a level that's more "strangled" than "raucous."

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decoding NGO-speak

As I was putting together my Hiphop for a Cause review on Monday, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was, despite my best efforts and enthusiastic use of words like "brilliant" and "cool," a bit...dreary. Limp. Uninspiring, even.

Part of this is undoubtedly due to my complete lack of meaningful knowledge concerning hiphop, breakdancing and the art of writing about such things, but I don't think it's all my fault. Take, for example, this paragraph:

Breakdance Project Uganda was founded by Ugandan hiphop artist Abramz several years ago to empower street kids, formerly abducted child soldiers and other disadvantaged children throughout Uganda using hiphop and breakdance. BPU offers free breakdancing classes to these children, giving them a positive means of expressing themselves and encouraging them to become future BPU teachers.
I'd wager a fistful of shillings that 98% of all developing-nation NGO mission statements sound vaguely similar. Replace "disadvantaged children" with "widows" or "the unemployed" and "hiphop" with "well-digging" or "brownie-baking," and you have what is meant to be a rousing, passionate declaration of How To Change Lives. But what does it mean? Empower them to do what? Express what, exactly? For a statement that's supposed to save the world, it's pretty bland.

I propose we get rid of the vapid euphemisms and talk about what these NGOs really do. Striving to give people "something constructive" to do means attempting to distract them from destructive alternatives — violence, drugs, prostitution, lethargy. Providing "outlets for expression" means letting them blow off anger, frustration, sadness or sheer boredom without robbing, assaulting or seducing the next person they see.

Bowing to a politically correct notion of what they Can and Cannot say neutralizes the immense value of these organizations. I understand that labeling their clients as potential bullies, welfare cases or criminals may come off as patronizing and imperialistic, which isn't great for business. At the same time, they wouldn't exist in a perfect world, and shrowding their goals in drab, dispassionate NGO-speak makes them seem like nothing more than part of the nonprofit bandwagon, with a clip-art logo and a cookie-cutter mission statement. There has to be a better way.

I'm not talking about late-night television appeals to lift child mothers out of poverty with only 10 cents a day or histrionic threats that a teenage gang will take over the inner city unless someone donates a new arts center. I'm talking about stripping off a little of the sugarcoating, employing a little more precision in their vocabulary, revealing a little of the rawness that exists in their spheres of influence without giving in to a showy, maudlin kind of despair.

Breakdance Project Uganda teaches street kids how to breakdance so they have a way to prove their social superiority that doesn't include beating the shit out of each other. To their credit, this is basically how they introduced the first breakdance battle on Sunday: "these kids used to fight, but now they dance."

I should have just said that.

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hiphop makes me happy

Last night I left the house (goodbye, Scrubs, I'll miss you so) and went to the Sharing Youth Center in Nsambya for Breakdance Project Uganda's Hiphop For a Cause show.

I say this as only a white girl from the midwest can: How. Cool.

Breakdance Project Uganda was founded by Ugandan hiphop artist Abramz several years ago to empower street kids, formerly abducted child soldiers and other disadvantaged children throughout Uganda using hiphop and breakdance. BPU offers free breakdancing classes to these children, giving them a positive means of expressing themselves and encouraging them to become future BPU teachers.

The Hiphop For a Cause performers ranged from Lyrical G, the hiphop winner of the 2006 Pearl of Africa Music awards, to a group of children from HEALS, an afterschool program in Gulu, to kids from the Kingship Orphanage in Kampala who had been training with LA-based hiphop choreographer Jessica Dexter.

Over 100 people attended the show, all proceeds from which will go into further Breakdance Project Uganda programming.

Abramz and his crew of mouthwateringly talented dancers offer classes at the Sharing Youth Center every Monday and Wednesday from around 5:00 to 9:00 PM. Classes are free and open to anyone who wants to learn.

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oh, martin

I have to admit that I'm a little surprised you a) found and b) commented on my blog. I'm flattered, to be absolutely honest. I would say that I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, but, with all due respect, I abhor the way you've gone about "educating" Makerere University students about HIV/AIDS, and I'd be remiss if I didn't say why.

I agree with you on one thing: abstinence is the only guaranteed way to prevent the transmission of HIV.

Here's the problem, Martin. People are having sex. Lots of people. Lots of people who have been taught that abstinence is the only way to protect themselves. But guess what? They're still having sex, and I think it's horrifically irresponsible of us to tell them that, since they denied themselves the first level of protection, we're giving up on them.

Abstinence-only education has been proven ineffective in reducing the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among young people. It's simple, really: they've never been taught about safe sex.

You'd probably say that the only "safe" sex is no sex, but I don't want to argue semantics. The transmission rate of HIV is seven times less when using a condom. That sounds a lot safer to me. Also, you might want to check out Columbia University professor Maria Wawer's study of 10,000 people in Rakai, where she found that the decrease in HIV prevalence was due to an increase in condom use, not in abstinence.

So let's talk about Engabu. In 2004 some consumers notice that these condoms smell bad. The government sends some to Sweden for testing, where they fail the "freedom from holes" and "smell" tests (I couldn't find anything substantiating your claim of breakage). All Engabu condoms are recalled, but further testing shows that the rest pass the hole test, and only one batch fails the odor test.

Instead of re-releasing the good condoms alongside an aggressive confidence-building and education campaign, the government decides to hold on to them all, as well as instituting a policy that requires all imported condoms to undergo an additional round of quality testing before distribution and passing heavy taxes on all non-donated condoms. NGOs can't distribute free condoms anymore, and costs rise to anywhere between 300% and 1000% of what they were in 2003, effectively pricing most Ugandans out of safe sex.

On top of all this, Janet Museveni decides now is a good time to bash the overall effectiveness of condoms, regardless of brand. This is where you come in, Martin — you somehow get your hands on a bunch of recalled condoms and decide to torch them on campus, which I'm sure does wonders for public morale. Think back — are you absolutely sure you talked smack only on Engabu, or could any of your actions have been construed by impressionable young bystanders as a condemnation of all condoms as a whole?

Meanwhile, Uganda's holding on to 34 million good condoms and citing distrust of the Engabu brand and of condoms in general as their reason for not distributing them. Health and development experts have cited a "concerted effort to undermine public confidence in condoms...led, for example, by the First Lady of Uganda, Janet Museveni...and by organizations such as the Makerere Community Church, led by Martin Ssempa" as the major cause of the recent increase in Uganda's HIV rate.

So you tell me, Martin. Was setting fire to those condoms, spoiled or not, really the best course of action if you truly care about the young people of Uganda (two-thirds of whom are sexually active)? I know the Bush administration's current policies — such as spending a whopping 56% of their funds for prevention of sexual transmission of HIV in Uganda on abstinence-only education — make what you do pretty attractive financially, but since PEPFAR started throwing money around here, the HIV rate's been going up.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

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gulu rebuilding through wine and cheese

In Shadow of the Sun, his literary montage of more than 40 years as a reporter in post-independence Africa, Ryszard Kapuscinski writes of the incredible ability of people in violent areas to continue with their daily lives as if war were nothing more than a mild natural disaster. I am amazed by the resilience of many of the Ugandans I have met, both those who have been affected by one or more of the many armed conflicts this country has seen since independence and those whose lives have been touched by other, less violent tragedies: the death of a parent, HIV, extreme poverty.

The people I know have carried on through things I think would have destroyed me, and whether it's because of a difference in our hometowns and cultures or if, under similar duress, I would remain just as persistently alive, I don't know. I don't know if there's some innate sense of how to feed one's family that exists in the widowed mothers-of-many who sell avocados and cigarettes to passersby on the streets of Gulu, or if I, too, would find a way to subsist were Kansas ever to erupt into war.

At the same time, though, there is a difference between surviving and thriving.* The tenacity of street vendors and roadside cobblers is admirable and inspirational, but it is not necessarily the sign of a vibrant, secure economy. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised, on my last visit to Gulu, to discover an abundance of new bars and restaurants.

Josh already talked about the wave of construction washing over the city, but this is something more: the growth of the entertainment industry, I think, is an even greater signal of the growing security in northern Uganda. Several years of relative stability have convinced Gulu that it's time to rebuild — not only in terms of microbusinesses and village huts, but also in terms of permanent establishments dependent on a clientele that can now, finally, afford a little leisure.

One of the flashiest examples is Bambu, an upscale (entrees are 10-15,000 shillings) outdoor restaurant across the street from the Bomah Hotel/Restaurant/Health Club that serves, among other things, wine and cheese. The presence of cheese in Gulu is itself a rather remarkable development, but less someone argue that Bambu is less a sign of Gulu's return to stability and more of a growing NGO presence directly related to the conflict (admittedly, it caters to the expat crowd), allow me to present The Embassy.

Near the market, The Embassy is literally a hole-in-the-wall — if you don't know where you're going, it's easy to miss the tiny, duck-your-head entrance to this local hangout. The bar bears witness to its recent construction: sawed-off boards and chicken wire are stuffed into a crawlspace behind the tables. This, combined with the blacklights and full-size cardboard man inside the door, can contribute to a vaguely haunted-house atmosphere. Still, the drinks are cheap, and the pool tables and music — country, believe it or not — make The Embassy popular with everyone from average Gulu-ans** to young development workers to Northern Uganda Peace Forum ambassadors.

Bambu and The Embassy are joined by a handful of new local restaurants, a local dance club that is rumored to rival the legendary Havana, and a general sense of wellbeing and optimism. It's a little trite to equate a new bar with hope, I know, but I'm taking these places as a good sign.

*I like "survival and thrival" better, but Webster's tells me thrival isn't a word. Should be, don't you think? [back]

**Gulu-ers? Gulu-ites? Citizens of Gulu Town? [back]

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jazz night at Iguana

I am the furthest thing possible from a connoisseur of Ugandan nightlife/live music. I've done the basic rounds: Rouge, Fat Boyz, Just Kickin, Bubbles, Mateo's, Steakout, Al's Bar, Punchline, Backpackers, the now defunct Blue Mango, Slow Boat. When I got malaria I sort of lost my will to live, or at least to go out, and lately I've been more content to stay in bed and watch Scrubs than to get all fancied up and leave the safety of Kisementi. Besides, I can hear the music from three bars plus the restaurant downstairs from here, anyway (lending to a weird sort of aural schizophrenia), so really, what's the point?

Which brings me to Iguana. Formerly Wagadougou (cited in Lonely Planet as "a good place to retreat to if Just Kickin is too crowded"), this bar shut down late last year for renovations — renovations that took place approximately three feet from my bedroom window, starting at 7:00 AM and accompanied by the loudest radio I have ever heard. They reopened as Iguana a few months ago, and when I stopped by mid-February to check out the art gallery downstairs, I was handed an invitation to their Wednesday Jazz Night.

A friend was down from Gulu (which has a whole new scene of its own — that's a post that's been a long time in coming), so we decided to check it out. The invitation was pretty and demanded "dressy-casual" clothing, and we allowed this to get our hopes up. We didn't exactly expect a live saxophonist, but we definitely weren't prepared for the dubious delights of Jazz Night: a single Kenny G CD, played alternately with an uncensored version of Akon's "I Wanna F*** You."


Though I definitely liked Iguana's Blue-Mango-like couches and open-air, lofted-roof, second-story atmosphere, I wrote it off after that. Most nights they play your standard Kampala fare (that is to say, a blend of Jay-Z, East African Bashment Crew, Blu*3 and oddly hiphop-ish Toto remixes) — all audible from my flat, where I can sit anywhere I want — and Jazz Night was truly, truly awful.

But as I'm sitting in bed on Wednesday, reading, I notice that something is drowning out the screaming and bad rap from Just Kickin and Fat Boyz — something good.

It's jazz. Real jazz. Played by a real, live band. With an incredible female lead singer whose voice is sultry and smoky and sexy and kind of reminds me of the woman who sang in the bar in The Last King of Scotland, in a very good way (I told you I wasn't a connoisseur).


I think about heading next door, but I decide to open my window instead. I'm closer to the band than I would be sitting in the back of the bar, and besides, I have a book to finish.

P.S. An hour later, they started playing Meghana Bhat, and when the band came back on after midnight, someone had acquired a cowbell. I will never understand the culture of music here.


whine, iraq, whine, whine, stupid government, hiphop

I'm going to pull a Whitman (do I contradict myself? Very well, then...) and take the wonderful opportunity afforded me by Sunday's New York Times to bash a little on American foreign policy. 27th Comrade, if you're reading, this still doesn't mean I think the VA Tech killings were justified.

James Glanz wrote a fun little exposé about the spectacular failure of American-sponsored reconstruction projects in Iraq.

Like every other American who's ever traveled with aid and development in mind, I find myself questioning my purpose here so frequently that it's easy to fall into despair. Dante asked why I don't write a more personal blog — it's because no one wants to read my self-inquisition:

What am I doing here? Am I helping anyone? Am I even capable of helping anyone? Why did I think I could do that? What skills or magic knowledge did I think I had? I'm 22 and have a Russian degree, of all things. Idiot.
Break out a few racks, some rusty chains and a vat of boiling oil, and you have a close approximation of the inner workings of, I'd venture, most development workers' minds.

I read a book last month that threw in red-hot pincers and a guillotine: Michael Maren's The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. It's mostly about (surprise) America's blunderings in Somalia, but the broader message is that the vast majority of aid and charity is nothing more than a self-serving industry that ends up harming more than it helps.

A real upper.

Maren writes exclusively about Africa, but Glanz points out that this trend isn't unique to the continent: seven out of eight "successful" projects designed to rebuild Iraq are non-operative due to technical problems, lack of maintenance, looting, misuse and local distrust. Millions of dollars worth of generators at the Baghdad International Airport aren't running because of missing batteries or broken fuel lines. A medical waste incinerator at a maternity hospital isn't being used (and the waste contaminating the water supply) because no one can find the key. Meanwhile, the U.S. is proudly touting these "successes" to the public.

I try to stay optimistic, and every once in a while I hear about a project that reminds me of the wonderful things that a little concerted, locally-initiated and externally-sponsored effort can do. Glanz quotes Rick Barton, co-director of the postconflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as saying that "What ultimately makes any project sustainable is local ownership from the beginning in designing the project, establishing the priorities." How are we still not getting this?

Um, hello? Government? Elected officials? WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

I'm not saying that I could do this any better, but an 87.5% failure rate isn't exactly screaming "Great job, Team USA!" to me.

May Day resolution: stop reading depressing books and spend more time around people like Abramz, starting with this weekend's Hiphop For a Cause festival.

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hiphop for a cause

photo © Glenna Gordon
I've written before about Abramz, a Ugandan hiphop artist and community activist whose work with disadvantaged children and youth throughout Uganda makes me squeal like the little, breakdancing-wannabe I am.

This weekend his Breakdance Project Uganda is presenting HIPHOP FOR A CAUSE on Sunday, May 6th at the Sharing Youth Centre, Nsambya. The festival aims to show people the positive role that hiphop plays in Ugandan societies and to encourage youth and children to participate in community work. It will feature breakdancers and hiphop artists, most of whom are youth and disadvantaged children, from Gulu (H.E.A.L.S), Kampala & andother 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: 2 to 6:30 PM
DATE: Sunday, May 6th
COST: 3,000 shillings

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