Archive | June, 2013

Matatu Mayhem

25 Jun

I’ve seen some crazy stuff while using public transportation over the years (I’m looking at you, homeless man who urinated on the C-train!) but Ugandans seem to have a knack for doing exceptionally mind-boggling things…

8:00 AM – A rattling, sputtering, Kampala-bound Matatu pulls up to the petrol station. I squeeze into a back seat, next to a man with a baby and a woman with a hairdo that defies gravity. On the back window of the mini-bus, blue and silver letters proclaim “Jesus is Coming”. I ponder all of the possible ways that this phrase could be interpreted, as we wait for more passengers.

8:05 AM – Spaces start to be filled in strange ways, but I’m not fazed. I’ve been here for over a month, and I think I’ve got it all figured out:

[Man in a Uganda Cranes shirt] What the…?! You’re going to bring along a chicken, and stuff it under the seat for the whole journey? Ok, sure. Maybe you went home to the village to visit your parents, and they insisted on giving you a chicken. Now you need to get the bird back to your family in Kampala somehow. I would rather sit beside a live chicken than a bloody, decapitated chicken…

[Matatu Driver] What the…?! You’re going to stuff enormous bags of charcoal under the seats, so that nobody has leg-room? Ok, sure. You might as well have something to sell when you arrive in Kampala, and make a bit of extra money. Besides, your passengers will put up with any discomfort you inflict upon them because they have no other means of getting to the city.

[Old Woman] What the…?! You’re going to let people cram you into the front row with 5 other passengers? You’re like 180 years old! Ok, sure. Old people need to travel too, and clearly Ugandan women are tougher than I am. But seriously, lady, you deserve a little respect…

There is an interesting sort of logic that applies to these situations, it’s just a form of logic that is not often employed in Canada.

9:00 AM – The matatu lurches, and begins to roll through town. We pick up a few more passengers, somehow squeeze them into the already full seats, and then we’re off!

9:30 AM – The ride has been going smoothly, and I’m nicely settled in. Then things get weird. The matatu turns off the main road, into a village. I assume that we’re just picking up some more passengers. False assumption. We keep going and going along the tiny, red-dirt road without an apparent reason. As the road shrinks, my confusion grows; I’m pretty sure this “road” was never meant to accommodate anything wider than a wheelbarrow. And I’m convinced that my tailbone will break if we don’t start slowing down for the potholes!

The woman beside me glances over and laughs when she sees my face (I must have looked pretty befuddled). “It’s a shortcut,” she states.

“Aha! I seeeee!” I say, as if that explains everything…

Branches and leaves scrape against both sides of the mini-bus, providing an up-close encounter with the local crops. Suddenly we emerge into a cleared area with a small collection of huts, and I have a clear view out of the window again. A little girl stands by the road, sucking a piece of sugarcane. Her eyes widen and her jaw drops a little, as if she can’t possibly comprehend why a matatu would be driving past her home. “My sentiments exactly,” I mutter to myself. The next instant, we’re back amidst the foliage (probably ruining some nice farmers’ banana trees).

9:45 AM – The little road re-connects with the highway just outside of Masaka town. Maybe it really was a shortcut, but none of the passengers seem particularly happy about it.


12:30 PM – We reach the outskirts of Kampala. The driver pulls over at a gas station, and most of the men climb out to relieve themselves in a nearby maize field. A group of teenage boys runs up with jugs of water and sponges, to wash the mini-bus while we wait. Grimy water splashes through the gaps around the window, directly onto my face, and I’m feeling pretty bitter about this whole experience.

1:00 PM – The happy ending comes. An incredibly nice lecturer from Makere University gets off at the same stop as me. He shows me the way to the College Inn, and cracks jokes about how ridiculous bus drivers can be. I check into a room, drop my things, and spend a whole 5 minutes washing my face. Cleanliness, silence, and personal space are glorious things.


Your Opinions Please…

15 Jun

“What freedom has our subsistence farmer? He scratches a bare living from the soil provided the rains do not fail; his children work at his side without schooling, medical care, or even good feeding. Certainly he has freedom to vote and to speak as he wishes. But these freedoms are much less real to him than his freedom to be exploited. Only as his poverty is reduced will his existing political freedom become properly meaningful and his right to human dignity become a fact of human dignity.”

– Julius K. Nyerere, President of Tanzania (1964-1985)

This question has probably been up for debate for as long as “development” has been on the international agenda: Should economic development take priority over civil/political rights? Or are the two inextricably linked, and therefore need to be built up simultaneously?

What do you think?

Water Wonders

12 Jun

My host sisters are very excited today. We’ve just gotten news that the town’s water system is getting fixed. The system has been down for over a week now, but within the next few hours there should be water coming out of the tap in our compound again. In Canada, we have faucets and toilets in every house, water fountains in every public space, and irrigation systems for every industrial farm; but here it is not so common to have running water. The fact that our household has a private source of running water is a mark of my family’s relative wealth.

Yesterday, when we went down to the public well to collect water in jerry cans, I had my first real slap-in-the-face confrontation with privilege. As I walked down the hill with Irene, Fiona, and little Peter, I immediately spotted the well – not because of any special signs, but because of all the people standing around with empty jugs.  When we got closer, I watched women and children leaning out over the pool of murky white water, and was disgusted. Disgusted to think that anyone would drink that water, and disgusted with myself for judging people who probably have no other choice. Less than a metre away, a broken water pump seemed to say, “NGO XYZ cares about you and your access to clean water… sort of… but not really.”

I felt so lucky, knowing that the water we were collecting would only be used to wash clothes, since we still had some clean water stored up  for cooking and drinking. I have the privilege to choose to never drink water from a well like that one. Being aware of this privilege filled me with a queasy combination of gratitude and sadness. The United Nations says that, “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights”. But that doesn’t mean that everyone actually has access to safe water.

I know that the easy solutions – like installing another water pump or distributing LifeStraws – wouldn’t solve much, because the real problem comes from much larger constraints in political, financial, infrastructural and social systems. However that doesn’t dampen my fairy-tale urge to snap my fingers and have the world’s problems magically disappear. Being powerless sucks.

On a lighter note, if you see me randomly kissing water fountains when I get home, you’ll know why…


For anyone who’s interested in learning more, I’m going to pull a cheap move: Go check out EWB’s work on Water and Sanitation in Malawi at the EWB Website. Or check out some of my friends’ blogs here.

Missing My Invisibility Cloak

1 Jun

“Mzungu! Mzungu! How ah you?!” That’s the cry that follows me everywhere, as if I were a celebrity … or something not quite human.

In Canada, and even in Europe, it’s always been so easy for me to vanish when I feel the need to be alone. My “Invisibility Cloak” is a subtle behavioural defense against unwanted attention; with glazed eyes, slightly stooped shoulders, walking slowly and not making eye contact, people who see me lose interest immediately. In this mode salespeople leave me alone, awkward acquaintances don’t notice me, and sometimes even friends pass by without a second glance. When you look similar to most of the people around you, it’s easy to make yourself appear unremarkable.

Unfortunately for me, in Uganda I can’t avoid attention because there’s no way to hide my glowing white skin. I will always stand out as a Mzungu. My skin colour marks me as a foreigner, and comes with complicated privileges and stereotypes. I hope to challenge some of those in time, but right now I just wish that I could blend in.