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Africa-April 2007


Monday, 9 April 2007

It’s been a great couple days catching up with Jared here in Cairo. Similar to how I felt when I saw Julia when she arrived in The Hague, in addition to sharing time as friends it is so validating to be able to share experiences of the year thus far with people who really understand and relate. It’s also great to fill in the gaps of travel stories that aren’t the same over email. It provides a good sense of continuity to be able to have brief contact like this with the other Fellows, and I feel lucky that my schedule worked out the way it did that I could see both of them. We basically did very little yesterday except catch up and talk; it’s an interesting transition to be heading to the place Jared has just lived for three months, albeit working on different things and in mostly different locations. In my anticipation of landing in sub-Saharan Africa for the first time, I picked his brain about living and working there, things to do, safety issues, etc. etc. Eventually we walked around a little on the outskirts of Cairo where I’m staying, in search of some falafel. Embarrassed about my complete lack of understanding of Arabic, it was nice having Jared around to ask for some directions and facilitate ordering food for us at a non-touristy local place that had no English.

Today we went out in Cairo as I was hoping to pick up some things before I head south, but unbeknownst to us, it was a public holiday here so the city was eerily silent, the streets were empty, and the pollution was visibly less dense than the other days I’ve been here. Nothing was open, so we walked around deserted streets, marveling at how strange it felt in this usually giant, buzzing metropolis. One thing that was open, though, was the Egyptian Museum. Jared and I split up for awhile, as he had already seen the massive, rather haphazardly put together collection, and we met up later in the afternoon.

Jared and me in front of the Egyptian Museum

I walked around the museum for a few hours, which I had been warned about as being difficult to navigate with its incredible wealth of (mostly unlabeled) artifacts. The highlight was getting through the crowd surrounding the relics from Tutankhamun’s tomb. The golden head mask was even more impressive in real life than in the many reproductions of it and I was glad I got through that far. Jared and I both took advantage of reliable internet in the afternoon to catch up on work and correspondence, got some dinner, and now I’m here at the airport, ready to board a red-eye to Nairobi, where I’ll arrive tomorrow at 4 am. I’m finally about to embark on the final placement. I’m very excited, and feeling ready.

Tuesday, 11 April 2007

Yesterday was one of the longest days of my life. I arrived at Nairobi airport on time at 4:15 am, met Rowland, the Village Enterprise Fund (VEF) regional director whom I’ll stay with about a week or so in Kenya, and we drove outside of Nairobi to a guesthouse where a VEF intern, Max, who arrived last night was staying. At about 6 am, after having some breakfast and hearing the first of the tales of notorious robbery in Nairobi (from another guest at the guesthouse, also associated with VEF), we got on the road in Rowland’s sedan for what I knew would be a very long day of driving. All in all, it was about fifteen and a half hours. Exhausting, exhilarating, and quite the introduction to east Africa. From Nairobi we drove through the Great Rift Valley, where humanity allegedly began. The views were breathtaking, and after exiting the city slums of Nairobi it was such a contrast to open onto a beautiful view from such an elevation; surprising to me, it was also pretty cold and windy.

A windy view on to the Great Rift Valley

We continued driving through calm village scenery, down into the valley and back up out again, and eventually the roads got worse and worse; hitting rock bottom in clouds of dust and potholes.

Abandoned Kenyan railway 

Clouds of dust, dust covered plants resembling wasteland on the roadside

After driving through Kisumu, we ended up in Lake Nakuru National Park, deciding that it was worth a couple hours’ delay in the middle of the long drive to pay $40 to see gazelle, water buffalo, thousands of flamingos, baboons, monkeys, warthogs, and zebra.

A view of the park from a peak above; with the pink lining of the lake all flamingos!

After finally tearing ourselves away from Nakuru, we stopped in the town for supplies and pressed on. We were nearly marooned in Kericho for the night because all of the fuel stations but one were suffering from shortages, but we managed to refill the tank when we were reallllllly on empty, and kept going. With still hours to go, we saw the sunset over Lake Victoria, an especially exciting event for me.

In the dark of night, we arrived in Eregi, a small rural village in Kakamega district, and my home for the next short while. Today I mostly rested after yesterday’s exploits, walked around the village a little, and gotten my bearings.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

I am in Africa. It is a completely different world than my previous home for three months, and though I’ve already spent a fair amount of time thinking about how to describe my initial impressions, it is difficult to even begin. Right now it’s calm and warm and has all these village sounds – of the water from the big rainwater drum, cows and geese and children around. Josephine, a girl that works in the house where I’m staying (in exchange for the family paying her school fees), just approached me and was amazed that I was just writing about what life is like so far in Africa. Then she picked up the heavy plastic jug of water, said, “I’ve just drawn water,” and went back inside followed by the dramatic silent neighbor’s child who hangs around here during the day.

Reflecting on the introductory epic drive on Monday and my first days, I’m overwhelmed by this feeling of being really happy – it’s impossible not to feel alive here for so many reasons. Life is simple. People are happy in spite of their circumstances. The land is beautiful. And in Rowland’s car, there was always a great African soundtrack. Yesterday we passed gorgeous tea fields covering the hills, precise lines cut into rows, and this brilliant bright green of the tea leaves.

It’s taken me only two days to care desperately about whether it rains or not, since that means that the tank will fill and I can take a bucket shower (it did today, a great thunder storm this afternoon). Work started today with a planning session with Max and Rowland to re-do the VEF training manual before we present it in Uganda next week. I’m hoping I can add something valuable to the conflict resolution piece of the training before I begin my other research in Uganda, and it was good to have a meeting to set expectations and goals, and define some of the process for the week that I’ll be working with these guys in Kenya. is an e-bay type website for the micro-finance community that connects individual lenders with individual entrepreneurs, started by two people out of Stanford—I have seen a few Kiva businesses so far and am planning a field visit tomorrow with one of VEF’s Volunteer Field Coordinators (VFCs). And now I’m back from my first Swahili lesson with Max (VEF intern) and Valentine (Swahili teacher), and then off again for some local Tusker beer at Rowland’s bar, Mwema center. It’s been a full day.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Sunrise. We’re supposed to be up early for the bullfight, a unique tradition to Kakamega, Kenya, where bulls are raised to respond to their owner’s provocations and fight other bulls.

Yesterday was the first day of field work and it was good and long. It was mostly just to give both me and Max an introductory survey of the small businesses and to get a sense of VEF’s work in the immediate vicinity. I asked general questions of the beneficiaries to get a better sense of what VEF’s efforts have enabled them to do, and it was very rewarding to get out and walk deeper and deeper away from any semblance of a town into the surrounding villages. Exuberant kids in ragged clothes shouting ‘mzungu mzungu!!’ followed us, running and weaving through short cuts in the fields to always remain ahead of us.

One of the first VEF beneficiaries I met in one of her workshops
Delving into the villages
A VEF grant beneficiary with her record book

Today I encountered some of the challenges of this work that I know I’ll continue to experience over the next few months, most of them inherent in my role as a visitor and outsider. The first challenge comes from working through a translator; most of the beneficiaries only speak local dialects, and I was uncomfortable in not being able to relate more on a person to person level with the people whom I was speaking to and asking questions of. The second challenge comes with the fact that I don’t have personal access to seeking out and finding beneficiaries – I simply don’t know where to find them or how to get there (and then again would face the communication barrier). This challenge brings the risk that I’ll only be shown the success stories, when I’m really here to get a comprehensive picture of how microfinance is working, and VEF’s role in that. These are things I’ll have to remain conscious of, though they seem to be inherent challenges.

After lunch at a local place in the market, we visited VEF’s businesses in the market center. Of the ones I’ve seen so far, these are the ones that I worry about because of the limited diversity and innovation within the market. If twenty-five people are all selling tomatoes next to each other, I fear that even with the competitive advantage of having VEF’s business training, the odds are stacked against these entrepreneurs making significant leaps out of poverty. However, I have had interesting conversations with VEF staff and others who have been VEF consultants in the past about addressing these issues and the spaces for VEF to grow in the microfinance landscape, and I think there is still so much space to develop, and for me to learn! I’m eager to push my experience here to get as much as I can out of it to learn about development on the ground, and to add experiential value to VEF’s programs in the future.

In the market

Monday, 16 April 2007

The bullfight certainly happened on Saturday. We went to a field in Eregi and there was already quite the crowd gathered in anticipation, with a host of drummers, men dancing in circles and chanting, and women and children gathered in crowds and up in trees around the edges of the field. The individual owners or proxy trainers attended to the bulls in various corners of the field, riling them up. There were times when the bulls were aggressively charging in the open field with no barriers and I was a little nervous, but it was fun and lively and definitely a unique cultural experience, and something I never could have found on my own as an individual traveler. It is very fulfilling to be living here, and be as much of a part of it as I can be as a temporary resident. It was adorable to see small groups of barefoot boys imitating the rhythmic dancing of their fathers, and unique to get a relatively inconspicuous, tiny, superficial glimpse into the cycles of tradition and generations that have kept this custom alive for so long.

Having been here a few days, I have gotten exposure to both the larger community gatherings and sides of rural life, and African life, that are not as entertaining nor as easily accepted in my own sense of cultural norms. One is the prevalence of political bribery, and the other is the complete lack of gender equality. Although microfinance as a development strategy has focused on women since its beginning, with the thinking and the proof in data that a whole family will benefit from the education, empowerment, and fiscal control of a female, the theory has by no means been a panacea for gender equality. In the families that have had access to microfinance capital, the woman is usually the sole provider; in many of the cases I’ve seen, the husband expends most of his energy on drinking or ‘relaxing’. Clearly, from a ‘do no harm’ perspective, it raises questions to me on a policy level about the risks of introducing financial empowerment into domestic situations that may already be unstable or abusive; the perceived threat of a woman being able to raise herself and her children out of poverty may earn her more resentment and abuse, rather than empower her to make that leap successfully. With very entrenched ideas about remaining in the home of your husband, it is hard even in bad situations for women to leave when they may have the financial means or education to do so. It is also emotionally and intellectually overwhelming for me to think about how deep-seeded gender perceptions are here; and I know I’m not here to change them, nor could I, nor should I try to as an outsider with so little background and experience here. I will certainly learn a lot though, and not all of it will be easy.

Yesterday after church, the weekly men’s and women’s groups met, of which my host family, the Amulyoto’s are a part. The women’s group met this week at the Amulyoto’s house, so after Max and Rowland left for the men’s group meeting, I took the opportunity to help in the kitchen and learn how to make chapatti (fried dough). It was long, tiring, and humbling work, and made me infinitely more appreciative of how long the mother of the family, Judi, and Josephine, the house girl, spend in the small kitchen preparing a great deal of food without any of the luxuries of refrigeration or running water. I had to smile as I was sweating in the small space, rolling, oiling, rolling and re-kneading dough with turkeys poking their heads in the doorway and wandering in and out of the kitchen, with the sickly sweet smell of rotting mangoes outside. It doesn’t get more real than this.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

I woke up yesterday morning at 4:15 when there was intense drumming and chanting outside the gates of the yard; it was still pitch black and I was completely disoriented. I have since learned that it was for a funeral–to mark the beginning of the 24-hour period of mourning that occurs when someone in the community dies. We attended the funeral briefly yesterday. Once again I felt privileged to be able to observe something that is so central to the traditions and intimacy of a small rural community.

Earlier in the week, we spent time working on the training manual that we will present in Uganda this weekend. It has been hard to get moving on things and I’m trying to create balance between my own planning, communication, and organizational skills that have been honed this year through Insight’s material and working in different cultural contexts, and remembering that there is only so much I can do, and that with limited resources in different places, sometimes things have to happen at their own pace. I spent time designing the conflict resolution module of the manual, and it was rewarding to feel like I could reflect on the tools I’ve learned this year and be able to apply them to an area that is also interesting and relevant to me professionally.

I had another Swahili lesson, and was going to go look at hippos in the river with my teacher when it started raining and we had to wait to walk back home through the village.

The vista on the walk home

Tuesday we went into Kakamega, the nearest legitimate ‘town’ which is about thirty minutes away, to access power and use the internet and finish editing the manual so we’ll be able to print copies in the next two days to bring to Uganda. The power went out for a few hours while we were there, so we went to go see the VEF office in Kakamega, a small room within a compound of sectioned buildings. INSERT <<IMG_3712.JPG>>

Monday, 23 April 2007

The whirlwind of the weekend training is over, and I’m starting to settle in Uganda now! We experienced an interesting border-crossing experience at Busia, and it lived up to the mayhem I had envisioned with people everywhere, diesel buses and trucks jostling to get through, freelancers who shuttle border papers back and forth, money changers, and fairly conspicuous prostitutes all just milling about in the heat. It was comforting to have Rowland there with us, as he’s done this countless times before and knew the ropes. The Kenyan side was fairly smooth, but when I got to the Uganda side—for which I had already procured a visa in Washington D.C.—there was confusion and trouble over how long I was staying, what exactly I was going to do here, and then having the border official dig through piles of paper to show me a letter stating that my three-month, U.S. Embassy issued visa was invalid and I needed to go to Kampala to get a ‘special pass’. Not a very comforting entry experience, but I’ll figure out what I need to do about it.

n the Ugandan side of the border!

My initial impressions of Uganda at the border, in comparison to Kenya, were that it is poorer—I saw more mud/thatch huts as opposed to brick or cement buildings, more children without clothing, and it just looked dirtier. The landscape is also varied and greener looking than Kenya, with swampy bush and fields on both sides of the road. We stopped in Mbale for lunch, and then proceeded onto Soroti, where I’ll live for the next few months. I had braced myself for it to be another small village based on the descriptions I had heard in comparison to Eregi, but I was surprised when we arrived and there were two main streets, gas stations, a bank, etc.! It is really a town.

I’m going to be living in the VEF compound, a plot of land with two houses on it and fenced in by 6 foot walls of cinderblock, chained link fence and barbed wire. The compound is bordered on two sides by IDP camps on government owned land, whose residents generally have come from areas north of Soroti as a result of both the conflicts with the Karamajong and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Being surrounded by what looks—from my outsider perspective—as such an unstable and impermanent way of life will really deepen the immersion aspect of my work here, and though I’m not living in the camps, I’m as close as I can get without actually being in a mud thatched hut.

Kids watching to greet us at the compound gates

On Friday and Saturday, we conducted the program training for 25 Volunteer Field Coordinators (VFCs), presenting the training manual that they will work on with their beneficiary groups on successful business skills, bookkeeping, and conflict resolution. Saturday I conducted a full day of coaching session debriefing in the morning and presented the conflict resolution material in the afternoon. It was hot, exhausting, and at the same time fulfilling to test my skills in facilitation with a new audience. I felt good about it afterward as I spoke with some of the participants. I hope the material was helpful and that it will enhance their relationships with their beneficiaries.

In the afternoon Max and I walked half an hour into town, so I could learn my way around my new surroundings before he and Rowland both left to return to Kenya. It’s been nice living with a family and a new friend, and it will be a readjustment again to get used to living by myself in the compound.

In Soroti’s Independence Square

Today I completed my formal project proposal, generated a preliminary survey for review, and met with a colleague, Judi, who works at the ICC in Kampala. She has a background in human rights work in this region and helped me identify relief agencies I can look into as contact points for interviews, and I think will be a great resource to get my work started here. I’m eager to get into the IDP camps and see what things are like, three to four years after people first arrived there. Judi spent a long time showing me things on the map of Uganda and talking to me about politics, regional issues, and the past several decades of conflict here. I am going to learn so much about how complex the history of conflict has been here, and I’m eager to begin.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

I like the mornings here, watching the village around us start moving, the sun warm up before the day’s heat unfolds, and sitting outside and writing with a cup of tea. It’s idyllic, and a calm beginning to the day’s environment, which I’m still figuring out how to productively work in. It’s challenging with only one working internet connection for three computers, multiple radios playing music in different languages, and space constraints. It has definitely relaxed my concept of an office.

Lizards sunning themselves as the day heats up

Today I did some background work looking at past VEF impact surveys to get a sense of how to better structure my own, and walked around the nearby parts of the village, making friends and meeting neighbors, settling into my new life and community.

This evening, Esther, a girl who works in the compound, and I walked to a tiny market nearby, away from town, surrounded by one of the poorest areas I’ve seen so far. The air was full of smoke from burning trash and dust from the street. Some adorable kids from the neighborhood followed us there on the walk, cart-wheeling in the dirt behind us for attention and repeating the same “Mzungu how are you?” over and over. I stopped to get us some sodas and some candy for them. They are unbelievably cute.

Obuku IDP camp on the way home, with Soroti rock in the distance

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Life is so simple without power: a candle, a radio, a journal. Being here is making me think a lot about how simply one can live happily; though I don’t think I’m prepared to permanently move to a small village in north east Uganda and live without power, ‘disconnected’ from normal life. I’m learning how to do it now for the time being and that’s a fulfilling exercise.

Moving forward with research has stalled a little bit as we we’re waiting on input from the home office in California and developing a new idea about a possible additional research project on the microfinance institution (MFI) landscape here. I’m learning a lot about the challenges of coordinating an organization from two different places, additionally strained by the unreliable technology infrastructure here with frequent power outages and inconsistent internet availability.

Last night I went with Michael, the Country Director of VEF, to see what we thought was a play about conflict resolution at the Lion’s club but ended up being a South African-made movie about decision-making. After that we went to a guest house to watch a big football (soccer) match, making it a very social night for me in Soroti.

Friday, 27 April 2007

After working in the morning, I took a walk with Esther through the nearby Obuku camp, which I had previously only walked around en route to other destinations. After spending more time there today, it really didn’t match my expectations of what life in an IDP camp would look like: I expected barbed wire, filth, evident hunger. Instead, it was hard to tell where the village outside the camp stopped and the camp began. The huts were just in straighter lines, and there were some permanent concrete structures with tin roofs that were once administrative buildings. The issue of people still being in camps in the northeast is a major political issue, because the government alternatively issues mandates that everyone return to their villages (but offers them no help in resettling) or denies that there are any camps. And in the case of displacement from Karamoja in the far northeast, people still feel unsafe and the government is not actively protecting them, after a few years of mixed disarmament efforts.

Excerpts from some of my background research for my interviews and paper:

The Karamajong are an ethnic group of nomadic pastoral herders who live in the northeast region of Karamoja, one of the most isolated, least developed, and poorest areas of Uganda. Karamoja is sometimes called ‘Uganda’s forgotten conflict zone’ and in spite of a long legacy of violence, it has largely evaded international media. The Karamajong believe that all of the cattle in the world belong to their tribe; to defend and exercise this right they have been involved in cattle rustling—an increasingly violent activity with the introduction of assault rifles—for 150 years. In addition to their belief in this divine right, cattle play a very large part in their value and status system, and a large herd is essential for a man’s eligibility to be married.

While traditionally cattle rustling was aggressed with spears and sticks, arms became available during the advent of British colonialism, during the reign and fall of Idi Amin, and increasingly from nearby Sudan and Somalia. In 2006 the estimated number of weapons in the Karamoja region was 30,000. The Ugandan government themselves allegedly armed the Karamajong starting in 1986 to fight Northern uprisings against Yoweri Museveni’s new government, but disarmament programs, beginning in earnest in 2000 have since tried desperately to re-integrate the Karamajong and end the cycle of conflict that has persisted in Karamoja and throughout the surrounding Iteso and Acholi regions.

In February 2002, after waiting a year for voluntary disarmament (during which time 8,000 guns are said to have been surrendered), the government began a forcible disarmament campaign. Because of the campaign’s inconsistent application and increasing distrust of the government, rapid re-arming spread throughout Karamoja as groups who had disarmed feared the advantage of neighboring groups. Again in 2006 the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) re-invigorated their disarmament campaign, leading to a great amount of violence on both the Karamajong and the UPDF sides. Due to widespread reports of human rights abuses during the campaign, in November 2006 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR) called for the suspension of the disarmament campaign. The Ugandan government and military maintain that the campaign is successful and will continue.

I’m planning on starting interviews on Monday, and will get out to camps like Kapelebyong near Karamoja, where people have lived since 1954 because of conflict with the Karamajong. The complexity of conflicts here, and the fact that I have so little background in African conflict, is making all of this fascinating to me, and I have so much more to learn.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Yesterday I convinced Esther and Immaculate, the two girls who work in the compound, to take me to climb the big rock right next to town. They were a little confused about why I’d want to do it, but there’s not a lot to do here, it seemed like an appropriate challenge, and I was curious about an aerial view over Soroti district. After passing the “No Trespassing” sign which they assured me was fine, and arguing past a random man who insisted that we pay him to summit it and that we would be met by troops at the top if we didn’t (which was quite believable to me based on the amount of armed men in uniform I see here), we made our way up.

Esther and I at the top of Soroti rock

The view from the top confirmed that Soroti is flat. We were able to see troops move through town – the UPDF has a base here to guard Soroti’s (unused) airstrip, as the government feared the LRA taking control of it during the conflict in 2003. As we descended, we passed groups of women breaking rocks to be used in concrete – long, tireless work.

The big rock

Last night I went with some of the VEF staff to a Christian fellowship dinner and party for someone who is leaving Soroti, and we walked quite far through the old “Senior Quarters” part of Soroti to get there. Senior Quarters is made up of larger plots of land, beautiful flowering trees, and dilapidated, haunting ‘50s era buildings that were built for the white segment of the population (which gave it its pre-independence discriminatory name) and have not had any maintenance or repair since then.

In more community events, today there was a wedding in AsiaNut camp, adjacent to the compound. It was such a celebration of life that even in the midst of displacement, people found music, fancy clothes, and food to provide for a festivity that attracted quite a crowd, no doubt in part by the presence of free food. And I got to see one of my neighborhood friends, Bena, who came to play through the fence of the compound while her family was at the wedding.

The crowd at the wedding