Gertie Visits a Resort

An African resort, I mused. Wonder what THAT will be like?

So I looked it up on Travelocity. Not first class, the review said. Make sure you reserve your hot water shower time in the morning: water is heated only once a day. Don’t expect fast service, cautioned another reviewer: getting your meals will take some time. And, beware of the plentiful cats everywhere, said a third critic. They have fleas.

So I packed my overnight bag as well as I could, considering the circumstances–I didn’t have jeans or a t-shirt, and I wasn’t sure that the proper Ugandan business person would welcome such casual clothes, either.

Ready as I’ll ever be, I thought, as i hoisted my bag into Vincent’s car, along with my materials for leading the strategic planning retreat for the Ugandan real estate association. Little did I realize, but the only thing I forgot to bring was my flashlight….

The trip to the resort was an adventure in itself. Driving in Kampala traffic is a little like playing in those rubber-bumper dodge ’em cars at the county fair–only at much faster speeds and without the rubber bumpers. Best to keep the car windows rolled up, too: the slow-moving traffic encourages thieves to reach in your vehicle and grab your valuables–a lesson a cab driver gave me as I was trying to take photos on my way to the hotel from the airport. “Roll up your window, Mme,” he said. “Those guys walking by the cars, they is bad ones.”

Vincent, the CEO of the Uganda real estate association, has a very nice car–fortunately with air conditioning (a rarity, and not often used anyway due to the very high gas prices). That and his cautious driving meant that the 50 miles to the Kingfisher Resort was completed in two hours and in relative comfort. However, any vehicle transportation in this country is a hair-raising adventure–roads are poorly surfaced (if at all) and without such conveniences as signs, lines, and shoulders. Traffic is heavy, and usually consists of mini-buses, smoke-belching ancient trucks, oil tankers, motor bikes, bicycles with huge loads of green bananas tied to the back of the seat, and assorted livestock–goats, chickens, and cattle.

On our trip, the two-lane ‘highway’ was lined with one-room tiny shacks selling various goods: fruit, hardware, paint, electronics and so on. The little buildings were usually constructed of spindly poles and sheets of tin for a roof, and perhaps a curtain for the doorway to keep out the ever-present red road dust. It’s also quite common for commercial advertisers such as Coca-Cola to come through a community and paint the little buildings with the company color and logo: it’s less expensive than billboard advertising and it helps maintain the buildings, Vincent says.

He also explains how in Kampala, the city of Seven Hills, the slums are in the low lying areas of the city, the swamp land. “All the rich people build on top of the hills,” he says, “and the basins are filled with squatters’ shacks and tents. ” There’s no good drainage in the low areas, of course, and plenty of sewage ditches and standing water, breeding grounds for unimaginable health threats. Vincent thinks that the life expectancy of 51 years for Ugandan men might be a little high: the living conditions, malnourishment, and AIDS are the biggest threats, he says.

As we travel further from Kampala, the jungle encroaches, long stretches of very lush, green forest. The only signs of civilization I can see are the cows and goats tethered along the highway, keeping down the roadside growth, and the many people walking along the roadside, baskets of fruit or building materials on their heads. Every now and then there is a cluster of merchants dressed in bright blue merchant union uniforms, selling a variety of items–food, cigarettes, produce. When we come to one of these areas, cars and buses quickly pull off the road so drivers can grab something to eat or replenish water supplies or repair vehicles. Think of it as the Ugandan version of a gas station and speedy mart operation in the US….

The Kingfisher Resort is located on the Nile River, close to the place where the Nile begins as the water flows from Lake Victoria. It’s down an unpaved red dirt road, a two-track, really, that winds past farms and a couple of elaborate mansions. The Kingfisher is a collection of circular huts, each of which contains 4 pie-shaped guest rooms with bathroom. The roof is straw-thatching, and the construction is cement. In the center of the complex is a pool, an outdoor eating area, and a fairly large hut containing the conference room facility. It’s a beautifully landscaped arrangement, and quaint and charming.

An yes, there are cats everywhere: one snuck into the conference room and jumped up on the serving table to help herself to the tomato sandwiches left there for our tea break. There were also thousands of bats in the trees outside our meeting room area: their constant chirping and humming was sometimes louder than our voices inside as we worked through the strategic planning process for the Uganda Real Estate association. During our night session, though, the bats were quieter and it was the frogs which accompanied our deliberation–creatures with harsh deep voices that sounded like incessantly quacking ducks. Those were the sounds that lulled me to sleep that night as I lay on my board-and-thin-mattress bed, enjoying the cool night air which had come to Africa at last.

My room was spartan–a built-in board and mattress bed, an extra straw mat for sleeping on the concrete floor, a sink and toilet, a plastic chair and table, a single wall sconce for light (when the electricity worked), and a single screened window. It was simple, but clean and charming: people didn’t stay in their rooms except to sleep anyway. Some visitors, like us, were in meetings and the few other guests spent time sightseeing or hanging out by the bar and pool.

“Mostly the guests are people who live in Kampala and want to get away for a few days,” Vincent explained to me. And indeed, after the frantic hustle and frenzy of big city traffic and living, I could understand the attraction.

Uganda Justice and Fresh Pineapple

Got up this morning in my Kampali Sheraton Hotel in Uganda. I can look out my window and see three of the Seven Hills of Kampali, just beyond the red rooftops of the office complexes and shops below my 8th floor room. There are clouds there, too–gray rain leftovers from yesterday. Today is my day to write reports and catch up from my meetings in Kenya and Rwanda: I only have one short meeting this morning, and then I will do some report writing and a few scratchings from Gertie.

I haven’t mentioned breakfasts here in African hotels, but they are my favorite meals. Generally hotels here include a buffet breakfast in the price of your room–that’s true of hotels in Eastern Europe and Russia as well. But the African breakfasts are most delightful: they are filled with tables of fruit–kiwi, papaya, passion fruit, bananas, pineapple, poached apples, and some fruits I’ve never heard of. There are lots of juices, too, and yogurts and cheese and pastries. And of course, the more traditional eggs and sausages–but why waste digestion space on that stuff? It’s the fresh fruits I love here, the pineapple I saw the Ugandan women carrying on the heads yesterday, and the huge bunches of fresh bananas being hauled on the back of a motorbike.

To complement my breakfast this Sunday is a copy of Uganda’s “Sunday Vision” newspaper. It tells me that more members of parliament are rebelling against President Museveni. “Imagine,” the party president is quoted as saying, “what President Museveni will do if we are not in Parliament?” (Shades of Wisconsin!).

And the paper headlines that 70,000 Ugandans will not be able to get into Uganda’s Universities and colleges this year because they did not pass the qualifying tests–and even for those who did, there are 62,000 qualifying students for only 30,000 vacancies. ( The number of qualifying university students has grown, but Ugandan universities can accommodate just 20% of the number of applicants, and the education infrastructure is not growing to meet increasing demand. ) Not to mention the 38,000 who did not pass their exams and can never be admitted to a Ugandan
institute of higher education…

Well, these are heady topics for Uganda, and a little too thought-provoking for me this early in the morning. My secret is, first thing in the morning, go for the gossip. I turn to page 6. “Cow Kills Man”, I read. I decide some of these local articles will need to be shared: read on.

“Kamuli: A 70-year old man died after being knocked by a neighbour’s cow in Nawangaiza in Balawoli Sub-county. Isanga Kibulubutu was attacked by Ahmed Kaitaita’s cow as he tried to drag it away. Isanga had responded to an alarm from another neighbor who found the cow eating her crops. When Kaitaita came and admitted liability, Isanga insisted that he would have to pay sh5,000 as compensation. Kaitaita did not have the money, but promised to pay the next day. The doubtful Isanga decided to confiscate the animal and lead it to the local council leader to help settle the dispute. Unfortunately, he got the full vengeance of the beast.” (Note: sh5500 UGX is approximately $2.31 at today’s exchange rates).

Well, there’s more. (And please understand that I am quoting these directly from the “Sunday Vision”, page 6.

“Housemaid electrocuted. Kampala. The Police is (sic) investigating the cause of death of Jane Tusiime, 19, who was electrocuted while hanging laundry at her employer’s home…Neighbours believe Tusiime was deliberately targeted by another house help in the same home who felt threatened by the new girl. They say Solange Hakimaana had been told to stop doing the housework once Tusiime came and had been angry ever since. On the fateful day, Hakimaana locked herself up in the house until it was too late to save Tusiime…”

Or: “Villagers kill suspected rapist. Mpigi. A man accused of theft and rape in Ndoddo…died after villagers clobbered him mercilessley. Triggered by reports that he had stolen four sacks of charcoal, a crowd gathered and determined to teach him a lesson. Residents said they were fed up of seeing Sebandeke released from Police custody whenever he was arrested…” (Note: gory and descriptive details are included in this account. You don’t want to read them.)

So let’s try this for size: “Men teach dirty cobbler lesson. Masaka. Car washers in Lukaya decided to apply their skills on a dirty cobbler who worked nearby only identified as Kasirye. The car washers accused Kasirye of ignoring previous advice and objections regarding his hygiene. This time they decided the stench was too much and forcibly undressed and scrubbed Kasirye.” (Mob justice at its best.)

Well, there are other headlines, too: “Police saves two rape suspects” (town residents were attacking the police station to lynch the rapists); “Boy Loses Finger” (Police arrest a man and his wife accused of punishing a 14 year-old nephew accused of stealing $25 by cutting off his middle finger); and “1,000 Poachers Surrender” (as a result of a campaign by the Uganda Wildlife Authority the poachers turned in their spears, bows and arrows, and snares. They were given goats to rear as an alternative occupation and source of meat. All’s well that ends well.)

And that’s the news from Lake Victoria, as Garrison would say. Beats the heck out of reading the court reports in the Leelanau Enterprise. And of course, if the Traverse City Record Eagle management thinks the paper can stay afloat by charging for local news, they’ve got a lot to learn. The R-E can’t hold a candle to the drama of the Kampala newspaper’s local news reporting.

Nairobi Knights

Getting to Nairobi is not half the fun, as they say.

But here I am, back in Africa for my second trip. I didn’t think I’d be returning, but the project on which I am working — a regional real estate training center — is going very well, and the International Real Property Foundation suggested I return to continue the work we started in October.

I really do love Africa, and I left my Bahamas cottage early so that I could return to Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda — the three countries which are involved in this project. All three countries are building real estate trade associations in order to stabilize property business practies and better educate practitioners, and the IRPF suggested that all would be better served by a regional education project in which resources could be shared and synergy created. My job: to help set up the infrastructure which would facilitate the success of the project.

As you might imagine, it’s a long flight: eight hours from Detroit to Amsterdam, and another eight hours to Nairobi. And, of course, Schipohl Airport in between.

The plane was packed on both legs of the journey (and oversold, of course, on the flight out of Traverse City to Detroit–what else is new?) To upgrade to a business class ticket was about $2,000 more than the already exorbitant price of the airfare, so I requested an aisle seat in coach class and hoped that the screeching small child wouldn’t be directly behind me. He wasn’t: he was four rows back. Nothing wrong with his lungs, though, and they were well exercised by the time the night was over!

But I’m not complaining. My theory is that the farther away you get from the US the better the airline service becomes. The food’s not bad, the airline personnel have a much better understanding of the term ‘customer service’, and the airports are designed to accomodate real, living people–at least Schipohl is,, with its many restrooms, restaurants, free internet, lounges, shopping, and casinos.

Nairobi at night — and during the day, as well — is another matter. Originally a swamp (the word ‘nairobi’ means ‘cold water’), the city was the first railway camp for the Uganda railway in the late 1900’s. It later became the capital of Kenya, and many hotels sprung up as the hosts for big game-hunting tourists.

The city is one of the most diverse places I’ve ever visited. It exudes a frenetic energy, both day and night. Traffic is impossible, as most roads seem under construction and every intersection has huge pot holes and large sections of missing pavement. Massive yellow hunks of Chinese-made contruction equipment lurk everywhere, covered with red dust and ready to spring into action, clogging lanes of traffic.

Mass transit in Nairobi consists of swarms of motorbikes and an equal number of minibuses known as Matatus. The matatus seat 14 people, but nobody ever monitors the number, so there are usually more passengers than seat belts. Also, since they’re not licensed, the ability of the drivers varies widely and I’m told these vehicles are involved in a high number of traffic accidents each year. No wonder.

My second day in Nairobi I set out by taxi to visit the Kenya US AID headquarters, located at the US Embassy. The ride there was harrowing: construction, Monday morning traffic, live stock in the road, large trucks sharing the road with 2-wheeled pushcarts. Many pedestrians as well–and no sidewalks. No self-respecting pedestrian ever walked to a corner to cross a street, and no motorcyclist ever stayed in one lane of traffic, either.

The Embassy grounds, however, is the oasis in the middle of the storm. Once through the gate (“May we have your cell phone and your memory stick, Mma?), the lawns are clipped into submission, and a large tent roof shelters a part of the grounds from the hot sun. To reach the head of the US AID organization in Kenya I passed through three security gates (TSA look like kindergardeners in comparison), and my hip implant and the magnetic latches on my pocketbook attracted quite a bit of attention.

Once I reached Mr. Hope’s office (now THERE’S an appropriately named administrator!), I found an affable and welcoming man who seemed supportive of our project and very dedicated to the work being done in Kenya–particularly in the areas of agriculture and health care. (A few facts: life expectancy in Kenya is 51 years for women, and 50 years for men–and dropping!. The child mortality rate is 78 per 1,000 births. I could go on….)

“We’re anticipating a 30% drop in funding for our US AID programs,” Hope told me. “And we really don’t have much we can do except cut programs. We don’t get discretionary funding.” Of course he did mention that there is an earmarked fund of 4 million dollars a year for orangutang preservation. “Over 5 years at 4 million a year–that’s a lot of health issues we could be working on.”

Orangutangs, I muse on my way back to the hotel, get a lot more funding than Kenyan real estate professionals. Later in the afternoon I will spend time with Moses Kiambuthi, the newly hired CEO of the Kenyan ISK (the leading real estate association) and we will plan the agenda for the first meeting of the Real Estate Education Center for Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. We’ll gather together a small but determined group of volunteers who will begin their work together to build toward a common goal of a stable real estate business environment in a rapidly growing (and often chaotic) corner of the world.

Gertie in Kigali

If you ever have the opportunity to come to Africe, don’t miss Rwanda. Kampali is a picture-perfect city by any stretch of Western imagination: it’s green and clean, calm and beautiful.

“Oh,” said the Kenyan US AID director, “it’s what can come from a benevolent dictatorship.” Generally speaking, democracy is indeed contentious and chaotic–issues like growth and planning are often the result of hard fought battles among citizens and governments, and progress is often determined by economic feasibility rather than informed decisions.

Clearly, that’s not true of Kigali. A master hand laid out the city plans, and a controlled treasury implemented them. I notice this immediately upon arrival: processing through immigration is efficient, and the airport lobby is organized for travel comfort. Taxis are obtained quickly, and are spotlessly clean. I am driven to the hotel on newly paved roads which have no potholes, cracks, or bumps. Traffic moves smoothly along, and uniformed police men and women are stationed at every intersection of any consequence, making sure that there are no clogs and that fender-benders (if any) are quickly moved out of the traffic flow.

And clean? You haven’t seen ‘clean’ until you’ve visited Kigali: it’s almost unnatural in its pristine landscape. All along the way, there are women in blue coveralls sweeping the streets with brooms and dustpans. Because Kigali is hilly, many of the roads have been cut through the hills, and these sections are characterized by elaborate retaining walls, intricate patterns of brick and rock that are truly works of art. Parks are landscaped, as are divided roads and the center sections of the many center sections of traffic roundabouts.

Signage is clear and well maintained, and the frontage of businesses has no debris–no cans, loose papers, plastic bags–not even a cigarette butt. Everywhere, there are workers: at one stop, over 30 men were constructing an elaborate retaining wall; at another location, a dozen or so laborers were hand-digging a trench, pick axes flashing in the hot sun. There are sidewalks and motorcycle helmets, leafy trees over the roadways, and manicured yards behind beautiful fences.

As I drive around town, I think “This is too good to be true. There has got to be pain and poverty behind the latticework and brick. ” And there probably is–it’s just that the casual visitor doesn’t see it. Even brief glimpses of small earthen hut villages show an orderly system of smooth dirt roads and trenches, and of one-room businesses with neat facades and bright signs.

Well, I am here for a few days, and most of my meetings are held in the Serena Hotel–an aptly named facility, to be sure. The hotel staff understands the term ‘customer service’ like few other hotels I’ve ever visited, in the US or elsewhere. For instance, when I arrived in Kigali, I asked the cab driver if he took US dollars, since I had not had an opportunity to change dollars into Rwanda francs. “Of course,” he assured me.

However, upon arriving at the hotel, I discovered I had no bills smaller than a $100. “No problem,” he said, I will get change.

But it seemed that the hotel wouldn’t change the bill, and so off he went to the bank ‘just down the street.’ I went to my room, and the bellman promised to bring me the change when the cab driver returned.

Within fifteen minutes, the bellman knocked at my door. “Sorry,” he said. “The bank will not accept a bill printed earlier than 2003.” We discussed this, and it seemed the best course of action was to give him another bill. I found one from 2006, and off he went.

Twenty minutes later, he was back. “The bank,” he explained, “would not take this bill. It has a tear in it.” Sure enough, a small tear (not 1/8 of an inch long) was on the bill.

“The poor cab driver,” I said. “It’s taken him almost 2 hours, and he still hasn’t got his twenty dollars. Not a good return for his day. (Not to mention his gasoline cost!)” Together the bellman and I sorted through my cash, and agreed upon yet another candidate bill to submit to bank scrutiny.”‘

This one worked, and I resolved to stop at the foreign exchange office in the airport when I arrived in the next country I would visit.

But the point of my story is that throughout the ordeal, both the cab driver and the bellman were cheerful and willing to go to any lengths to resolve the problem–an attitude that was clear throughout the facility and — in fact — everywhere I went in this country.