Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Week 7

Right now Meagan is sitting at the kitchen table writing her next blog entry on the Mac and Ginger is sitting to my right hand writing her notes for the day and both of us have our feet stretched out on the wooden coffee table. I’m sitting with my laptop in my lap, listening to Dave Matthews Band. We spend a lot of time sitting together, independently writing up our notes, occasionally stopping to verify someone’s name or a quote with the others.

I’m not sure what I’m going to miss the most about my time here, especially since I’m feeling homesick lately. I will probably need time back home to process everything. Physical distance and the distance of time help me see what I cannot when near. But I know I will miss living with Ginger and Meagan. We’ve spent so much time sitting, working together, in grad school and now here, and we are all entering times in our lives that are pulling us to different parts of the US. Meagan will be in New Orleans and Ginger will be in Oregon and from this point on in our careers research will largely be done alone. Just sitting and working with two women who I adore on a person level and implicitly trust on a professional level is something I’m trying to appreciate while I can.

I’m a bit maudlin today as we also reported our recommendations back to the foundation and I think it went quite well. We were able to document how Ginger and Meagan’s recommendations from last year have been implemented and have helped. The curriculum has become more gender balanced and inclusive of children who already are HIV+, for whom HIV education focused solely on prevention is not helpful. There are also drafts of children’s books now which were recommended from the first summer and countless other small ideas that came from their evaluation. I had a few small ideas to contribute too so who knows if they will be helpful in the coming years.

As Reverend Obed asked us about our personal sense of satisfaction beyond our professional input, I think we all got a little emotional talking about getting to be part of this organization. We are naturally critical by training and in the day to day we do focus on the weaknesses of SAS we want improved, but when you step back, it is rather inspirational. But enough sap; little less conversation, little more action!

We are also preparing for a trip to the West, which will serve as a treat to ourselves for working all summer without pay. We are going to Kabale, then Bwindi Impenetrable Forest where we will do a nature hike, then to Mhagahinga National Park where we will climb up Mt. Sabyinyo. Its peak is the international border for the DR of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda so we will be in three counties at once atop it. After that we go to Lake Bunyonyi and will probably be exhausted and manage little more than the dug-out canoe ride to the island our hotel is on. We get back Monday evening, have two days packed with work, then leave Thursday at 11:30 pm.

I’ll try to write before I leave about the trip and be sure to check out the absurd number of pictures we will upload 

The last few days have been jam packed with focus groups, observations, and interviews. It’s also been interesting politically. Last Friday South Sudan became a country and Monday the taxi drivers held a strike to protest unfair fees. There were still taxis out because the President agreed to meet the Taxi Union officials early in the strike, but the fewer taxis made prices go up and made boda boda fees almost double.

Monday I had the longest matatu ride of my life, figuratively and literally. It took me 2 hours to travel a few miles. I got on a matatu and it took forever to leave, then proceeded to stop at every possible point to pick up more passengers, sometimes passing the point and reversing back, only to eventually take off again without success. Then traffic jams made things worst and because I was in the front seat I was squished, sharing a row with three others instead of the usual two. Then the conductor thought it would be a good idea to over charge me. I had a 10,000 shilling bill and he gave me 5000 back when I should have gotten 8000 back.

Now 1000 shillings is less than 50 cents, but it is more about the principle than the price. The conductors think they can overcharge white people because we don’t know better and because they assume we are all rich and can afford it. That day I had had enough though and seeing the correct change available in his hand as he avoided my gaze spurred me to action. I got off the taxi and walked right in front of the man, demanding my balance. He gave me a 1000 bill and still refused to look at me as he called the names of the stops the taxi was about to go, attracting new customers. So I took a step back, blocking entrance to the van. That got him looking at me. I said balance and he put another 500 shillings in his hand for me to take, but didn’t extend it. To get the little gold coin I would have to step closer, allowing patrons on. I looked at his hand and then put mine across the door way, more obviously blocking entrance and said “balance sebo (sir)” in a patient, even tone. He made a smacking, tisking sound with his mouth, a common expression of disgust or disapproval here, and gave me another little gold coin.

By this point he was charging me 3000 for a 2000 ride and had tried to charge me 5000. I was happy with the situation and walked away knowing I had still been overcharged but not wanting to escalate matters further. When I told Ginger and Meagan about it they laughed, saying I was becoming a real Ugandan.

Earlier in the week the store owners shut their stores in protest and the electricity has been cutting out more than usual, the fruit of some tension between the government and the power companies. The newspapers are full of articles about the weakening shilling and the rising power of the dollar. After a focus group a mentor told us that most of the expensive apartments are sold in dollars, not shillings. Our neighbor told us her place was $650 US last year but rose to $800 this year and since our place is furnished it goes for $900 US a month! We also had to pull US dollars for our trip because the national parks take dollars if you are not a Ugandan.

It is odd to think about how much the US dollar impacts things here and how the citizens are holding their government responsible. Part of me thinks, what can the President do to control global markets? However a Kenyan doctor I interviewed that worked I humanitarian aid said in her home the price of fuel goes down when the global crude oil rate goes down. She said in Uganda it never goes down once it has risen. As the fuel price rises, so does the cost of food.

Only the well-off farmers also handle their own transportation. Instead middle men traders buy the food for low prices using the cost of gas as an excuse for why they can’t pay more. Transporting traders, not farmers, set the price. The doctor said few farmers are trained in keeping track of their inputs to get a profit and so they accept the traders’ prices. Earlier this summer I spoke with a sociologist who also farmed. He carefully kept track of things, but still only got 2 million shillings out of his crop after investing 3 million into it. He is a Ph.D., so it isn’t only about education and tracking. Many farmers are going under and that combined with the unpredictable weather in which season are shifting means crops are spoiling.

The humanitarian monitoring measures say there is a food shortage and that food prices are higher than ever recorded, though the UN recording only started in 1990. As a result people have been shifting to food that is filling but less nutritional en mass over the last two months. Basically it is a horrible situation, but opportune for me. Because I can see how this plays out on the ground. That said, all the people I’ve been trying to talk to are out of town because of this situation too, but I’m managing where I can. I was talking to a lady about it on the matatu today. You never know when you will find a helpful insight!

Well this is not everything I wanted to write about but the power is out and I’ve run out of juice. I’ll catch you on the flip side!

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