Inquiring Minds Want To Know

We woke up to the familiar sound of waves crashing on the beach and I had to remind myself where I was. The sky was dark but the air was warm and it sounded like we were on the ocean. What comfort to have sounds from home. Breakfast was pancakes and sausages and Spanish omelettes which are standard fair here, even in the smallest and grungiest of hotels. If you’re like me who didn’t know what that is, it’s an omelette made with onion and green peppers. We always mix a little hot chocolate into our instant coffee and each cup seems to taste better than the previous one. The icing on the already-awesome cake these next few days is that Michael, the hotel host, found the Tour de France for us on satellite tv!! We are continually blessed beyond belief by every single provision. Water when we need it. A cool breeze on a hot day riding uphill. Sweet smiling faces and high fives when we need encouragement. A cloudy day with no rain. Bad weather only on rest days. I could go on. But to be holed up in a great place on a rest day while it’s pouring rain outside and the Tour is on the television is almost beyond our blessing meter.

I went for a walk today to see if I could find any monkeys and ran into three delightful people: Deborah from Rwanda, new wife of Dr. Godfrey from Uganda and their friend, Wilfred (or Freddy). We had a great conversation and they asked me what I saw as the main differences between Rwanda and Uganda. They appreciated my understanding of the two cultures and I was thankful I could have an authentic conversation about it. They agreed that Rwandans are way more reserved and care deeply about what the outside world thinks of them as a nation, no doubt due largely to the trauma they have suffered as a nation. Ugandans feel more free, but also admit their nation is more chaotic and “really disorganized.” Godfrey expressed that Ugandans like money too much because they will sell their children for child sacrifice, which would never happen in Rwanda, according to him. He expressed the truth that every country has their own faults and problems. Rwanda is clean, but can feel oppressive and paranoid. Ugandans are free, but disorganized. This has been our experience as well. They asked me why I wasn’t afraid to walk around by myself. With a laugh, I pulled out my mace and showed them how it worked, but when I told them I also had a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, they seemed way more interested in that. And although I haven’t trained in TKD since John’s accident, I have drawn from my training a lot on this trip to persevere, maintain self-control and try to tap into an indomitable spirit no matter what comes. I also feel relatively confident in my ability to do enough damage to at least run away in most situations that I can imagine happening over here.

After we parted company, I came upon two other men, one of whom was drunk and asked me to give him money. “I don’t have any money,” I said aloud. “But I do have some pepper spray with your name on it,” I said, under my breath. Thankfully, they left me alone but he later found me again on the beach. He was talking to me but I couldn’t understand him so I tried to speak to him in Luganda because that usually de-escalates sketchy situations. He got really mad at me and yelled with a slur, “Why aren’t you talking to me in English? I am talking to you in English! I said Mama! Mom! I called you Mama!”“Ok, see you later,” I called over my shoulder trying to put some space between us and walking to a different area of the hotel so he didn’t know where I was staying. I hadn’t needed to be worried because he just walked off down the beach still talking to himself.

Because we are getting so many questions from people (thank you by the way and please keep asking!), we are going to spread them out over the next few days. Here goes:

Question: Is the toilet paper in Uganda

a) John Wayne style: like in Eastern Europe–rough and tough and very efficient. Leaves behind painful abrasions until you have built up the appropriate callouses.

b) North American style: soft and fluffy, sometimes too cushy to properly do the job for which it was designed.

c) South-east Asia style: a murky tub of water on the left side of a very scary hole in the ground. Inquiring minds want to know!

Answer: It’s definitely door number one, but it’s also two-plies that don’t stick together so you have to be careful how you unroll it. It’s normally already wet before use from the shower spraying all over the room. Like in other third world countries, there is usually a little waste basket by the toilet in which to put your used TP, and one place we stayed in hadn’t emptied the previously-used basket. It was ew. Also, the toilet quality is directly correlated to the price of the accommodation. At the bottom of the barrel, you have ‘the hole‘, where aim is critical. Pay a little more and you might get a toilet with no water so you manually fill the tank. The next level up has a toilet, but no seat. Then you get one with a seat, but it’s not attached so you can slide pretty easily. And then you have the luxury level: a toilet with an attached seat and the ability to push a lever for a full flush. Of course, there is also the outhouse version of all of the above.

Question: Do many speak English, is English speaking common, or are you muddling your way through with the little you know of their language?

Answer: It really depends where we are. English and Swahili are the two national languages, but we didn’t hear any Swahili (not that we know enough to recognize it, but we only heard some “Jambos” when we were in the west near Kenya). Closer to the bigger cities, more people speak a little English. Most hotel workers have had some level of English training just from working with customers, but the street vendors and shop owners in smaller villages have little to none. They understand words like ‘water’ and ‘soda’ and ‘thank you’ but not much beyond that. And the little Luganda I did learn was only useful for the first two weeks or so because the spoken language changed as we progressed. There are approximately forty languages and so even Ugandans themselves do not find it easy to communicate if they move about in their own country. Now we are back in the area where they speak Luganda so it’s more enjoyable for me and more entertaining for those with whom we interact.

Question: What’s the scariest thing that has happened on your trip?

Answer: Earlier on, some of the harassment and demands for money were stressful, but now we are used to it and know how to handle it. I have almost gone over the handlebars at high speeds (stupid speed bumps) which had my adrenaline pumping a bit, and riding even a few hundred feet behind John through some places have caused some concern based on the gross comments. Of course, the traffic and pace of navigating through the cities always gets the blood flowing. The scariest thing for me though has been when I went the wrong way and lost John and had no way to find him. I had to work hard to control my thoughts to avoid utter panic. John is not really afraid of anything, quite honestly, but the one fear that comes up (like every day) is tainted mosquitoes. He is convinced that every bug he sees or lands on him – gnats, flies, take your pick – is a mosquito. He asked yesterday if we were in the “malaria capital of the world” because he was getting pelted with bugs on the day’s ride, but we had already gone through it about a week earlier. I didn’t mention it at the time and he didn’t remember where it was. A bug flew into his eye last week and he was convinced he would get malaria from it. I comforted him with the fact that by the time he showed any symptoms, we would be home already.

Question: One thing I am curious about is why the systemic poverty? Is it governmental? Related to access to resources? It seems as though there are barriers I don’t understand. From what you have written the people seem like hard working and kind folks… something (many things?) is stopping their success. Or is success even a western way of framing it?

Answer: This is a fantastic and complicated question and it’s important to understand that John and I have a very limited perspective on this ancient continent. But having said that, I think it’s appropriate to simply share our impressions. Having spent time in East Africa on a variety of trips, it has become apparent that the people, while hard working, are up against three very powerful headwinds.

1. High population which results in extreme competition for limited resources.

2. Lack of education which leaves them doing manual labor with little opportunity for upward mobility.

3. A lack of structural stability because of political corruption (even theft of resources by other countries).

To resolve these issues it seems to me that they would need to develop a tax base that can provide for education. With educated citizens, they could diversify their economy and move it from farming by hand to other more lucrative and efficient industries. But sadly, political corruption often steals the natural resources and any taxes that are collected. This keeps the people stuck, living off tiny plots of land and selling small amounts of produce. The average wage is only a dollar per day and because education is private and also costs about a dollar a day, a very high percentage of people are only able to afford a few years of education for their kids. This leaves the kids to work on the family farm and live their entire lives within a fifty-kilometre radius.

Because the rule of law is scarce and doesn’t allow for strong property rights, financial credit, personal safety and the other structures that young people in Canada build their lives upon, it is difficult to borrow against your future to get ahead. The advent of micro-finance, drilling programs for clean water, HIV / AIDS education and many other tools of the west have been a great help to East Africa over the past twenty years, but there is more to do.