Uganda

I wasn’t sure what to expect; how could two neighboring countries be different? How could the ambiance of the major cities (Nairobi and Kampala) be stunningly distinct?

But there it was: even from the air, I knew I was in another country, literally and figuratively! Kampala is tucked among rolling green hills, and looking down from the airplane I saw a city laced with twisting streets and alleys of red dirt, veins circling around a sprawling metropolitan area which stretchs from the airport in Entebbe for about 30 miles, to the city center of Kampala.

My hotel representative, from the Serena Kampala, was there to make sure I had a taxi. I’ve always wanted to get off an airplane and see my name on a sign. I think that happened once to me when I went somewhere in Eastern Europe, but I’m always kind of envious of the travelers who are greeted this way. And there I was!

My driver was Francis, a tall and thin man with a happy smile and excellent English–and, as I found out, he also spoke a couple of languages he called ‘mother tongues’, as well as some German and some French. And not only was he a happy, articulate guy, he must have nerves of steel to survive the Ugandan traffic.

There’s lots of traffic–everywhere. They all drive on the right hand side of the road–well, for the most part. Even in Kampala city center, potholes are terrible, and they’re deep enough to fill with water and sell as lakefront property in the US. Roads are made of hard packed red dirt, and there is no evidence of painted lines or curbs, or even directional signs and street markers. What’s even more surreal is the number of motorbikes–thousands of them. They often travel in packs of 20-30, zipping in and out of traffic patterns, oily smoke trailing behind them. Everybody seems to have one–young men to older men in dark suits with briefcases strapped on the back.

Nobody rides them alone–there’s always a passenger clutching on to the driver, often texting or talking on a cell phone. Many times these riders are women dressed in bright African print dresses and high heels. The women sit side-saddle–I’m told because it’s proper for women to keep their knees together and not straddle the bike. Nobody wears helmets.

Francis takes this in stride. “I make this drive several times a day,” he says. “It’s nothing,” he assures me as he swerves around a cow and two motorcycles.

A couple of other interesting trends in transportation: the first are the mini-van busses. They are brightly colored, covered with flashy ads and slogans like “Jesus saves” or “Preserve Uganda Wildlife”. Francis tells me the vans do have routes, but there’s no real indication of that anywhere, and there’s no official bus stop, either. If you stand my the side of the highway, apparently, you will be swarmed with vans and the driver will shout where he’s going. If you like the destination you climb on and pay your shillings.

Apparently there’s a legal limit as to how many people you can pile into a van, but Francis says nobody ever observes it. People just keep climbing on, sitting in each other’s laps, and text or talk on their cell phones during the ride.

You want to drive in that mayhem? To complicate things, add the fact that there aren’t any traffic lights. I mean, NONE. There are lots of roundabouts, and everyone circles around until they get to the ‘off’ street. And there are no pedestrian crossings, either. You just walk across wherever you can, and drivers seem to know they aren’t supposed to squash the pedestrians.

With all that mayhem, it only takes us about 45 minutes to travel the 30 miles. It isn’t until we get into downtown Kampala that traffic comes to a standstill, but there are policemen everywhere in starched white shirts and hats, directing traffic. These cops don’t carry guns, by the way: the only armed guards I saw in this country were at the UN compound and at the US embassy–those guys didn’t carry sissy pistols, either. They had big, nasty looking rifles.

By the way, on my visit to the US embassy in Uganda two days after my arrival, I was subjected to the deepest security check I’ve ever experienced. I even had to give up my iPhone earbuds and show the guards that the felt tipped marker in my purse was not a weapon. These boys make our TSA look like innocent kindergarteners.

These are the dark reminders of the violence that exists here in Eastern Africa. But what I see from the window of Francis’ taxi is a chaotic, bustling, busy city, teeming with life that hurries headlong into its future.

Arriving in Africa

Nairobi Airport: Ground crew briefing for the arrival of an airplane

Bet you didn’t expect to hear from me quite so soon, did you? It’s still another couple of months before I head for Eleuthera, though I must admit I’ve bought my tickets and I’ve threatened Kervin to get busy working on restoring his old car so I have something to drive. I am ready to go!

It’s been a busy few months since I came back to Michigan: I’ve had lots of consulting projects, all very interesting and engrossing. I had a heart attack over Memorial Day weekend (which I like to call the Munson Medical Center’s annual experiment to see if it can run a hospital without doctors–though that’s not really very fair, as I had excellent and attentive care). And I managed to go on a cruise up the East Coast from New York to Nova Scotia with some wonderful friends–the only thing that really got hurt on that trip was my pocketbook, thanks to the great deal on fire opals in the cruise ship jewelry shop. Oh yes, and that exotic sea scrub cleanser that they sold me in the ship’s spa after my massage.

That was September, and now it’s October and I’m in Africa–Nairobi to be exact.I’m here as a part of my consulting activities for the International Real Property Foundation. I’ve been affiliated with them for 12 years or so, and under their auspices I’ve travelled to much of Eastern Europe, Russia (including Siberia), and Armenia. I’ve played my Irish whistle at raucus banquets in Tiblisi, taught in ‘resorts’ where the electricity was intermittent, climbed 36 flights of stairs when the elevator broke, and worn formal gowns to dinner parties in remote castles.

I’ve taught business ethics in the oldest Christian nation in the world, tried to start a computerized multiple listing service in a country without regular electricity and exclusive property listings, and spent two days helping the Russian Guild of Realtors build a curriculum for a country-wide certification program after the government decided not to license professionals any more. This particular assignment is to assist three independent countries (Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda) work together to build a regional training center for real estate professionals. During the next two weeks, I’ll be visiting each country, meeting with leadership, and conducting training in ethics and in association management.

Here are some random lessons I’m learning on this trip:

1. You gotta get a lot of shots to come here. My flute-playing doctor friend in Traverse City runs the infectious disease clinic, and a simple yellow fever shot visa requirement turned into an hour interview, three shots (I was too OLD for the yellow fever shot!) and some prescriptions to protect me from diarrhea and malaria, and a lot of advice (like don’t drink the water, don’t use ice cubes, don’t eat at buffets, don’t eat fruit you can’t peel yourself). I told the nurse it was a good thing I hadn’t had to visit them before: I might never have strayed far from Fouch Road!

2. Getting here isn’t half the fun. It’s a long damned trip to Africa. At least 16 hours in an airplane, in fact–and I’m not counting the airport lines and the TSA pat-downs which we artificial hip persons always have to get. Preparation counts! Bring along plenty to drink; ear plugs to protect you from 7 hours of close proximity to a screaming, ill-behaved child; and a variety of activities (work, games, books, magazines) so you can trade one boredom for another. A lifesaver for me on this trip: individually packaged sterile wipes and disposable tooth ‘brushes’ that fit over my finger so I can clean my mouth after a meal.

3. Professional appearance means something. I know Americans don’t like to think that way, but a well-run airport may change your mind. Amsterdam is a prime example. The announcements are in well modulated tones, unhurried and carefully articulated. Employees wear clean, pressed uniforms and are friendly and willing to help, no matter how off-the-wall your question might be (Hey! I know you’re cleaning toilets, but how do I get to gate Q 57?) Transportation carts are immediately available for the handicapped and elderly (ok, so I am both). And there’s WIFI everywhere!

4. Some service industries take themselves seriously. I had more good food on these KLM/Delta flights–not fancy stuff, but food that works well on airplanes–fruits, cheese, pastas. No micro charges for bathrooms or earphones. And people here in Nairobi have been service oriented as well: this morning at breakfast (included in the lodging fee) it seemed that every employee looked me in the eyes, smilled and wished me good morning–even if they had to go out of their way to do it. My taxi driver couldn’t make change from my big bill and said, “Here’s my card. Just leave it for me at the taxi stand when you get change.” And the clerk in the electronics store couldn’t make change either, and took my money across the street to the bank, making sure to being the reciept which documented the exchange rate currently being offered.

These aren’t new lessons, of course…but here, half-way around the world, they are just as meaningful as ever. Maybe more so.

Lunch with Grace

 

 

Today I’m having a long lunch with Grace. We’re sitting in the poolside restaurant at the Hilton, where I ate yesterday: it’s got lots of green vines and shrubs and some beautiful red and bright pink flowers. It’s well shaded, though the temperature is only in the low 80’s. The menu is eclectic–curries, sandwiches, salads, and lots of fresh fruit and vegetarian dishes as well. Grace, who lives in Nairobi, has never eaten here, and is surprised by the reasonable prices. She agonizes over her choice–a club sandwich or a quiche. She finds the Western food enticing, while I appreciate the French and African dishes on the menu.

Grace is almost 50 years old, she tells me. I am surprised: she is trim, well-dressed, and has beautiful firm features. Her skin is a gleaming, dark color and her hair is — well, individual. It’s tightly braided in mini-ropes, with streaks of red. It suits her personality: she’s clearly an independent, individual woman.

I tell her I would have guessed she was 35 years old. She says, “It’s because I walk a lot. I can’t afford to get my car fixed, and so I either walk or take the bus. Most Kenyans do.”

Grace is a professional valuer. That’s not really an occupation which has a US counterpart: she values property for loans, estates, and sales. The subject property could be land, houses, even cars. She’s hired as an independent expert by people who need the service, and she often finds herself on a bus, traveling to distant communities in Kenya, to examine a piece of land or a pickup truck, and then writing a valuation report and trying to collect her fees from her client.

“Well, I had this guy yesterday,” she says. “I had to take an hour bus ride, and value his property. He said he’d pay me $400, and he put $50 down as a guarantee. I delivered the report to him this morning, and now he says he can only afford to pay me $150. I do need the money, too.”

Valuers in Kenya are an interesting lot: in order to be qualified a candidate must attened 4 years of college with a specialized course of study. Then comes a 2 year apprenticeship. Finally the candidate applies for certification, and takes an exam. Grace must renew her certificate annually to continue to practice. Right now she’s in business for herself, but she’s applied for a valuer’s position at a local bank.

“I can only stand to work for somebody else for a couple of years,” she says. “Then I go back to doing my own thing.”

“Her own thing” is being a single mom to a teenaged daughter whom she is maintaining in a private boarding school. Her daughter is her best friend, soon to graduate from secondary school and head for college. “I’ve never been married,” Grace says. “I really embarrassed my parents. They were very strict with me (and my 9 siblings) and never quite got over the fact that their youngest daughter had a child out of wedlock.”

Grace tells me that she grew up on a farm. Her father owned a string of small retail shops as well as the farm, so they were a fairly well-to-do family. “But all of us kids had to work on the farm, planting and harvesting and tending livestock. We were paid, of course. But we didn’t have any choice in the matter. I hated it.”

Two of her sisters emigrated to the US, she says. One lives in Atlanta, the other in another southern state. They are professionals, one has a nursing degree.

“Why didn’t you go with them?” I asked.

“I just didn’t want to. I love my country, and I have a way to make a living here. My parents were alive then, too, and I was growing close to them again. I just didn’t need to go that far away.”

Grace looks at her sandwich. “Wow. I talk too much. I haven’t eaten half of this, and now I am not hungry.”

“Take it home,” I say. “It will be a good dinner.”

“I’ll need it then,” she says. “I’ve got to go and see if I can get some more of my fee from my client.”