Slice of Ugandan life

29 07 2010

I know it’s been a long time since my last post. I could say it’s because of the slow internet (which is true, I always get a text from my ISP that there is something wrong with the undersea fiber optic from Kenya) but it’s really because I don’t know what to blog about. Work is always very rewarding and I think my colleagues are heroes. The recent bombings in Kampala made me pray more (by the way, everyone in our office is fine although more than 70 people lost their lives in the two blasts. pray for healing) and the new norm is waiting in long lines to be searched to go inside any large store.  So since I’m all over the place, perhaps I can write slices of my Ugandan life over the last few months Twitter style.

  • Met the Archbishop of Uganda. He’s tall and pretty cool. We’re best friends
  • My mukwano gwange (beloved friend) hugged the Bible I gave him. Never seen a person so excited to receive a bible. He texted me yesterday saying he preached two awesome sermons since he got the gift (Yes, he used the word ‘awesome’)
  • Drove up to Gulu (Northern Uganda) with seven other women in the car that is only supposed to seat seven. Guess I’m beginning to be more Ugandan by shoving as many people in the car as possible.
  • Stopped by the roadside to buy machomo (beef on a stick) for .25. Surprised that I didn’t get sick.
  • Preached in a small village church during a torrential rainstorm. Had to yell the message b/c there was no sound system and the roof was made from corrugated aluminum. Felt like an old fire and brimstone preacher (don’t want to do that again, brought back bad memories of jr. high camp)
  • Spent the afternoon with my 2% Aggie friend and saw the cool things she and the company do to help women go to university
  • Finally beat my buddy Greg for the second time in tennis here in Uganda. I rubbed it in and then realized that I’m 2-30ish lifetime against him. That made me sad
  • Gain a new appreciation for football (soccer as it is called in the States) watching the World Cup. Truly fun watching my Mexican friends cheer their country’s victory over France.
  • Got proposed to by a student who helps us with our work in the village. She noticed I was wearing my ring on my right hand and immediately asked me to marry her. I asked her why she didn’t want to date the guys at her school and she said ‘the men in Uganda are polygamists’. And we flew to Vegas the next day and got married…
  • Saw some other friends who are doing great work with a company creating a market for women in Gulu to sell their jewelry.
  • Met some of the clients we helped to get their land back. Very humbled by the meeting
  • Spoke at another church and the members wanted to say ‘thank you’ so they gave me a live chicken to take home. It is very rude to not accept the chicken so I put it in the back of the car. My colleague has it and it is going to see its last days soon…. love me some grilled chicken.
  • Got my iphone stolen. Can you say upgrade? cha-ching
  • Have become an expert in dodging potholes in Uganda
  • Hailing a boda boda by raising my eyebrows is second nature
  • Still learning how to keep my dress shoes from getting covered in dirt by the time I reach the office. How do my Ugandan colleagues keep their shoes so clean.
  • Cried and inspired after listening to a message by Britt Merrick talk about his five year old daughter’s battle with cancer
  • Flew to Rwanda to see friends. So much better than sitting at the bus park for three hours then riding on a bus for ten.
  • Played with some of the children in a village and the mom wanted to take a picture of her children with a Mzungu
  • Saw huge baboons on the side of the road.
  • My fridge smells like kim-chee that went bad
  • Thinking about going to the doctor’s and buying meds to treat bel-hazaria
  • Totally forgot to take my doxy for a month to fight against malaria
  • Got excited to find broccoli at the grocery store. Made broccoli beef and pork tofu for my friends.
  • Still can’t figure out why my dry cleaning smells like wet dog
  • Hacksawed a lock on a gate in broad daylight. No one stopped me (disclaimer: we got permission from the neighbors)
  • Pulled up in a car right in front of a little boy peeing into a drainage ditch. Didn’t phase me one bit since boys and men usually pee on the side of the road (I just want to go up to them one day and tell them if they got to go to have the decency to find a bush)
  • Thankful that the King is in control even when the world seems so chaotic

Packages oh Packages Part 2

23 03 2010

“Ray, you’re good with directions”. This is what my colleague told me as we were driving into the village. I told her I didn’t have a choice because there are some days where I don’t have a translator or a driver so I just wing it. I’ve gotten used to driving on the British side of the road, driving aggressively because I have to and four wheel driving in the dirt roads after a rainstorm. Half the time I don’t know where I’m going since there are no street signs so you just look for markers like ‘big banana tree’ or ‘turn left where you see the herd of cows’.

So I drove to the village today and then took a matatu back to Kampala. It never ceases to amaze me how many people they can shove into these tin cans. At the peak of the drive, I counted 16 in my matatu. Luckily it was cool today so I didn’t have to sweat profusely.

Upon getting back to the office I got package #2. Oh Happy Day!

Among the many goodies I received:

  • lop cheung
  • sirracha hot sauce (a must for every Asian household)
  • dried chap chae noodles (time to enlist my Korean friend to cook)
  • SPAM!!! an essential when you’re cooking fried rice
  • chocolate and lots of it
  • little debbie’s snack cakes and oreos!!!
  • hand sanitizers and razor blades
  • lay-see (man I miss Chinese New Year)

Thanks Bay Area friends!!! I would hyperlink everyone so you can read their blogs but only Stan updates on a regular basis.

Packages oh Packages!

10 03 2010

So I received today I hope the first of many care packages. I knew I had one coming but didn’t know how long the Ugandan mail system would take. Apparently USPS international postal service is fairly on time and it took two weeks to get here. Before I show you the loot, I need to write about the mail system.

We have a PO Box where we receive international mail and so I headed over there. I opened the box and there was a slip saying I had a package waiting for me at the main post office. The slip also said I had to pay 3,000 shillings because they had held my package for more than 7 days. I didn’t care because I was more excited about getting something in the mail. So I get to the main post office and waited in line after line after line. This wasn’t going to be easy. I finally got to the right line in parcels on the 2nd floor. I gave them my slip and they said to take a seat. Are you kidding? There’s no one in front of me, I just want my package. Five minutes later they come out with my box. Then they said I had to sign a receipt and show them my ID. No big deal. I started getting frustrated when they said I couldn’t take my box yet because I had to show them the receipt that I had paid the 3,000 shillings. So I moved five feet down the counter to another gentlemen who moved slower than a snail to match my parcel receipt with the original receipt. He then asked for my ID. I told the guy, ‘uh that dude just checked my ID’. He didn’t care and just proceeded to write another receipt for me to sign and then said ‘you can’t leave yet, go take this receipt to the man over there on the opposite wall. So by now, I am just about to go postal (not really, but it would have been funny since I was in a post office) and proceeded to take yet another receipt to another man writing down something on a ledger. He asked for my ID. You have to understand the comedy and inefficiency in all this. All three men can see each other and all three have identical ledgers saying the same thing – I have paid and signed for my package. So I obliged one last time, showed my ID, signed the man’s ledger and darted out the door holding my package like it was Christmas day!!! Total time in line: 30 minutes.

Let’s just say I was not too impressed with the efficiency of the post office.

But it was all worth it because….

I hit the motherload. Thank you Caitlin, Kevin, Harrison, Liz and Hadley. Toiletries check, chocolate check, jif peanut butter check, pens check, magazine check, valentine’s card from Hadley priceless. You have made my day!!!

Cultural Lessons

2 03 2010

One of the things I love about my role is going to the villages. It affords me opportunity to share with strangers what we do in their community. It allows me to listen alot and just soak it all in. The village is one big cultural lesson. When I go out to the village, I am usually with my assistant, translator and jack of all trades – Kaye. He’s great and has been a blessing as we talk about everything and anything in our car rides. Our office administrator calls us siamese twins because if I go to the village alone, I’m hosed. Sometimes the people will speak English, other times in Luganda. The other thing is I have no clue how to get to some of these places without a trusty guide. Like yesterday, we had to take a back road because there was an accident with a overturned truck on the main road. It was raining like crazy and we were on this narrow muddy and steep road. Lots of fish-tailing on the Rav4. Everything looks the same when your landmarks are trees (there are no street names).

So as I had to process all the cultural nuances, here are a few that just boggle me.


I remember growing up and giving my friends the head nod as a sign for ‘sup!’. Here Ugandans love to use facial gestures. The problem is they don’t tell me what it means. Boda drivers will raise their eyebrows to get your attention. It looks sometimes as a ‘come on’. My Ugandan colleagues in the office always love to raise their eyebrows to and make a ‘mmmmm’ sound when I talk. Are they affirming me? I have no clue what they’re thinking. I haven’t had a chance to ask Kaye about it yet.

Hand Signals

This is even funnier. Usually if you want to wave down a taxi in the states, you whistle or wave your hand. I tried doing that when I needed a boda here and they just passed me by. The secret is to nod your head with the eye brows raised. How in the world are they supposed to see that from 200 feet away? And then there’s the driving hand signals. I see the thumbs up when people want to signal or turn. Wait a second… there are really no rules to driving. I’ve driven several times and there is no common courtesy. You have to drive aggressively. New York cabbies have nothing on these matatu (taxi bus) drivers and crazy pot holes. The ironic thing is when they want to tell drivers off, they don’t really yell at you, they just shake their fingers towards you like ‘shame on you’.

Personal Space

I was out in the village today with Kaye and we were meeting with some pastors. After that meeting I needed to confirm a future legal education so we went to the edge of our project area to talk with the person who is helping us mobilize this community. I walked around the venue where it’s going to be held (it’s super rustic, see pics below) and it’s great because the homes are right next to the venue. After we left, I knew of a roadside stop where there are a ton of food vendors and I wanted machomo (kind of like kabobs) so we drove down the hill and onto the main road. When we pulled up to the vendors, we were swarmed by 40 people all unionized wearing their blue vests selling machomo, gonja (it’s not pot, it’s grilled plantains), water, fruit, and anything from the animal. Our windows were rolled up but these people pressed their goods on the window yelling do you want water, beef, liver, chicken, goat, gonja? The idea of personal space is kind of lost. Kaye told me that my predecessor Jaime and another ex-pat Suhanya were riding in the village once and stopped at a similar roadside stand. Kaye and Jaime left the car to buy some food with Suhanya taking a short nap in the back seat. The windows were rolled down and when Suhanya awoke, she had whole chicken legs on a stick and other animal parts shoved in her face. Personal space violated. My personal space was encroached on when I road the matatu last week. Now the matatu is a well oiled machine. There are thousands of these mini-buses that drive all over Uganda and can take you from one end of the country to the other dirt cheap. I took the matatu back from our project area which is about 20 km from Kampala for .75 cents. Now the thing about the matatu is the frequent stops. They make their money hauling passengers, dropping off and picking up new ones. When I boarded my matatu, there were only three people in it. The sticker outside the van said ‘not to exceed 12 passengers’. Would they really obey this rule? Silly me, of course not. At the height of my ride and passenger load, there were 17 people in our van which is a little bigger than a Honda Odyssey. I had a lady that was leaning on me, it was a hot day, and it just didn’t smell good. Personal space violated.

The Hand Shake

As Jack Black said to Lawrence in ‘School of Rock’ – “slap it, shoot it, kaboot it”. The Ugandan handshake consists of the universal handshake, then the ‘right on my brother handshake’ and then back to the universal handshake. Now I don’t know but I have followed along and this is how I shake hands with Ugandans. I don’t discriminate, it’s the same handshake when I greet the women (no one told me if we’re supposed to greet them differently). The problem is I don’t know when to stop. We tend to shake hands a lot so I greet the people with a handshake, and then a few minutes later I may greet them again. It makes greeting a fun excercise.

Thanks for reading, I’m sure I’ll be adding more cultural faux pas soon.

This is restricted personal space in the village. Not pictured is the cow tie to a tree five feet from the squatty potty

This pic shows a more calm group of vendors. Mine swarmed the car today

This is why I love going to the village. Great views, clean air, and rural

My Ugandan Home

24 01 2010

Home – it’s a word that I am still trying to figure out. I’ve been living out of my suitcase for the last five months. Although I miss my creature comforts, my own house and the little things, living with just what you can roll and carry has taught me a few things.

First is the amount of excess stuff that I have. I recently watched Up in the Air starring George Clooney. The story is about a man trying who is trying to obtain the Gold Level status of frequent flier miles for American Airlines. He works as a middle man who terminates employees for companies who are too scared to terminate their own workers. Overall I liked it because it was an interesting commentary of how people live their lives (somewhat lonely) yet surrounded by people with no real relationships. But the thing that struck me was the way George traveled. Everything was carry on. He managed to pack suits, ties, shirts and leisure clothes into his rolling carry-on with ease and efficiency. I, however, have not perfected this art. Two back packs and two rolling suitcases is quite difficult as you’re trying to navigate the line to obtain your entry Visa as well as make sure you have your  important documents protected.

As I unpacked into my new apartment, I wondered if I packed enough. Even though I had read previous fellow’s experience and packing suggestions, I still felt that I had forgotten things. I’ve learned since being in Uganda that I should have brought more toiletry items. Why might you ask? Well, one is that everything is super expensive. Deodorant is $6 dollars and hairspray/gel can go upwards of $11. It’s just crazy. I’ll have to email my friends to send me a toiletry care package. The second is availability. You can’t just go waltzing down to your local Wal-mart and pick whatever you want. It’s a creative game of understanding Ugandan brands and buying when available. For example, I bought the last bottle of mustard at the grocery store the other day because I don’t know when they will have more. So I will use sparingly.

The other thing about living with less has taught me is budgeting my finances. I’ve always been pretty good at this but living in a foreign country makes you ask yourself need vs. want. I need to go to work everyday. I don’t need to take the boda. I want to take the boda to save me time and not be a sweaty mess when I enter the office. But how often do I take it? The other is dining out. I can skip a meal and be fine. Besides, not like I need to be packing in the pounds.

So back to my title of this post. Below is a pic of my home. I didn’t take a shot of the actual house, but the view from one of the porches. As you can see, I have a great view but it is an interesting dichotomy of rich and poor because just a hundred yards away is a row of homes that just have tin as their roof (may or may not have running water). Uganda is situated on hills and my hill has a huge radio tower close by. As I write about this year’s adventure, I am grateful to be serving in this capacity (if you want to know what I’m doing click here) and hope to share more about a simpler way of living for me in 2010.

The Irish Pub

16 12 2009

So I spent my birthday with some great friends at an Irish Pub tonight. Now what’s a Chinese American who just spent four months in Mexico doing in an Irish Pub? It gets better. This evening consisted of topics and conversations that covered the whole spectrum. From sports, business, faith, church, you name it – we talked about it. I even spoke in Chinese. One of the guys asked me to share about what I will be doing in Africa because I promised his wife I would tell her why I’m so excited to go.

But before that, they wanted to hear about Mexico. The food, the culture, my host family and what I learned. I told them I learned to slow down. I learned about the sabbath. I learned that I am truly loved by some wonderful people (more on that in the next paragraph). And I relearned how to just talk to God. My school was about one mile from my house and I walked to and from school twice a day. During most days, I would just pray while walking. Just talking with God asking Him to show me things to do and asking for opportunities to share and talk with people about Uganda. Coincidentally walking four times a day helped me lose 15 pounds!

My friends asked how they could get involved with IJM and I shared a few different options. Then I shared with them why I’m so excited to go. I started to tell them that it’s ironic that the work I will be doing will be helping protect widows and orphans from forces of oppression. It’s ironic because some of my #1 supporters are orphans. I have over 125 children and staff from an orphanage who have committed to pray for me daily. And I know they pray because they’re up at 4:30 am during the weekdays for morning prayer (6am on weekends). And the times that I have been there this fall, the children and staff would gather around and lay hands on me and pray. They would also pray for my friends G & P who are going to Uganda as well. But here’s where I usually tear up while telling the story. The directors of the orphanage asked the children to pray about supporting myself, G & P financially. He said ‘why can’t an orphanage give to missions and especially to people they have known for many years?’ When they finished praying, he asked how many would like to give their money. ALL the children raised their hands…

The director told me the story the next time I came to the orphanage and true to their word, they have given and will continue to give financially and pray daily. That’s one of the many reasons why I am so excited to go. I have orphans praying for orphans to be rescued. I have orphans giving financially to the cause so that I can be part of the fight to loosen the chains of injustice.

When I finished sharing the story, I saw these men tearing up as well. The guy who asked me to share about Africa in the beginning of the story said that he and his family are going to commit to pray and support me as well. All of this happened at the Irish Pub. This is one of those memories I will cherish and look back with fondness.

Countdown: 5 Weeks

8 12 2009

Have you ever tried to pack for a two week trip? Then you probably know the dilemna I’m facing trying to pack for one year. Typically on a two week trip, you pack more than you will ever wear. You bring back from your trip even more than you pack. After sitting on your suitcase, kicking it a few times and calling friends and family to help you zip it up, you’re on your way.  The fun part is trying to come under the 50lb weight limit at the ticket counter.

So here’s my dilemna. The culture that I will be working in is very formal, therefore I will be dressing business formal most days. You’re probably laughing because if you know me, you know that I love wearing jeans, t-shirts and flip-flops. I’m also going to be living near the equator so that will mean African heat + suit/tie = sweaty American.

The other thing about packing your life in two suitcases for one year is wanting your creature comforts. I’m pretty laid back, but I like the brand name toiletries I’ve been used to. I checked before and they don’t carry some of the products at the local supermarkets.

Finally, when packing for a trip is figuring out if you will actually use those items there. Do I really need all my northface gear? Do I need boots or just tennis shoes? Should I buy bug spray there or pack it. How many Bibles should I bring? How many books will I actually read in a year?

As the countdown approaches I am trying to say goodbye to friends and family and satisfy my cravings for mom’s cooking and other comfort food.

Here’s the reality:

  • Getting used to frequent power outages
  • Being okay with internet that is sometimes equivalent to dial-up speed
  • Toilet paper that resembles party streamers at your local Party City store
  • No DIM SUM. Though there are a few Chinese restaurants, the food reminds me of Panda Express.
  • Driving with an International Driver’s License. This should be fun
  • Great Indian Food. Large Indian community thanks to colonization.

Actually to be honest, I’m really trying to enjoy my favorite foods in five weeks. It’s not about going to visit places one more time or seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s more like going to places like Yogurtland, In & Out Burgers, Beard Papas, that greasy Chinese restaurant on 8th street in Oakland, my favorite noodle shop on Franklin/8th Street, eating gai-mai bows and mom’s ju yook ben (pork pancake with pickled radish).

If you were moving to a new country in a few weeks, what would you crave or want to eat one last time?