Archive for February, 2008

In Kampala

February 28, 2008

Maribou storks rule Kampala. They’re impressively ugly birds with black wingspans about as wide as I am tall. It’s sometimes possible to count dozens of them at a time. In the air they inelegantly stick their legs out in front of them as if they haven’t quite nailed down flying technique or are about to swoop on a mouse. The number of kids in this town suggests they’re busy with baby delivery as well.

A good perch to watch the storks is from the back of a boda-boda, motorcycle taxis that remind me of Cambodia. In Phnom Penh, moto-taxis were the only route from point A to B (unless you worked for the UN) and the city suited them. Motorcycles and bikes were almost all the light traffic which glided along through the flat city at a stately 30 MPH or so. A moto was a good time to read a magazine or take a call. You could relax on one. It was the only time no one was hassleing you to get on their moto.

Here trucks and matatus crowd out the bikes and spew exhaust in riders’ faces. Kampala has awful traffic and bikers rush into oncoming traffic lanes and weave between cars or, if necessary, go off road. They accelerate going downhill and generally scare the hell out of me. I try not to ride with the few drivers who wear helmets. They embolden their wearers with a sense of false confidence, or so I figure.

Those who are interested can find another recent story of mine at


All about the music

February 25, 2008

Aging rock stars looking to drink the dregs of their fame sometimes tour America’s state fair circuit. But Africa is a lesser known option. On Saturday night the pop-reggae band UB40 filled Kampala’s cricket stadium in Uganda’s biggest concert in years. Every night of the week, it’s possible to find more exciting live music in a Kampala club but like most mega-concerts, this one was about spectacle and cross-recognition: UB40 finds a place where 30,000 plus will turn out to hear them sleepwalk through Red, Red Wine again and Kampala is happy that a band capable of attracting 30,000 people would come to Kampala. I’m not a fan but it was a fun show.

Most tickets were about $15, far too expensive for most Ugandans, but there were also seats selling for more than $150. It’s hard to imagine anyone, anywhere paying that to see UB40 but there you go. Like everyone at the concert, I’d imagine the expensive seats owed more to greed for a status symbol than love for a has-been pop-group.

(By the way, South Africa suffers from a similar dearth of current acts. When I was in Jo’Burg, the white hipsters were excited about novelty punk group NOFX’s coming show.)

Tech blues

February 22, 2008

Technology doesn’t work so well here. Phones will call some numbers but not others. Or they won’t send text messages, the central medium of communication. Nobody knows why! The Internet is always slow and cuts out inexplicably even in the business centers of five-star hotels. In cyber cafes, each refurbished, computer has its own personality and requires stroking and soothing like a willful thouroughbred. Press the wrong button and you’d better just walk away quietly. The gesticulations of the cursor might owe nothing to the mouse or, in one example suggesting demonic possession, one computer erased every email I was trying to type as soon as it reached twenty words or so. There’s never any explanation. No use making a stink. Things will start working again or they won’t. Patience is rewarding and eventually things get done. And it almost never matters if something is a half hour late.

 The other day I had a flight cancelled. The airline told me they had booked me on a different carrier. At the airport, they had no idea what I was talking about. But I told them what happened and showed them the e-mail and then sat down with a book. An hour and forty-five minutes later they told me everything had been sorted out. After that I was a bit apprehensive about getting on the plane. But it left on time and arrived early. I felt a sentimental frisson looking at the sign welcoming me to Entebbe International Airport. So, Uganda…

A word about prices (and life in Nairobi)

February 20, 2008

Before leaving for Africa, a few people joked that I’d take my generous fellowship and live like a pasha. They were wrong, for interesting reasons. I live comfortably, don’t get me wrong, but no one is fanning me with palm fronds or dropping grapes into my mouth.

In Nairobi, foreigners from the rich world, including me, typically live in an economy unrecognizable to most residents of the city. In my experience, the least expensive places to visit are those countries where foreigners and locals buy the same things. Bangkok or Mexico City, for examples, have mass-transit systems and tasty street food. Conversely, in a small Kenyan village, which doesn’t cater to foreigners at all, life would be extraordinarily inexpensive if you tripled normal prices. In Nairobi where ex-pats from Europe and North America don’t want to eat Kenyan food for every meal (I’ve yet to meet the one who does) or who wants Internet access in their apartment, they are consuming like a foreigner and they pay like foreigners too. For me, life was cheaper in middle income South Africa than Kenya. A few examples:

— I wanted to live in a secure, furnished apartment with Internet access and a short-term lease. Anyplace that meets those specifications runs almost as much as rent on an unfurnished one bedroom in Prospect Heights, though it will be roomier and have maid service. In Nairobi there’s very little middle-ground, say a secure half-furnished studio with no maid.

–Most middle class Kenyans eat ugali every day. To prepare it they can buy vats of vegetable oil and cooking fat big enough to bathe in. Call me a lousy traveler but it’s important to my disposition and comfort not to eat ugali every day. Nairobi’s not a big street food town. Instead it has an endless number of cheap takeaway joints, a few salt shakes up from the Kibera shack of the last post, selling fried chicken, fried fish, sausages, samosas and meat and cheese pies. Again, not so great for the disposition. The nicer places serve immense portions of roast meat, (nyama choma, the national dish) with kale, ugali or fries. But quick lunch of Chinese or Indian can run twice what it would in New York. Nairobi’s suburbs have some fancy restaurants for wealthy Kenyans and foreigners. They are expensive.

–Nairobi is not a walking town. Without a car the options are buses, matatus (minivans) and taxis. Buses and matatus cost about 50 cents a ride and stop frequently. The main difference is aesthetic. The buses are more comfortable and conductors walk down the aisle selling tickets from a neat metal gizmo that operates with a crank. The brakes resemble what I’d imagine the cries of a stuck pig to sound like. Matatus pack in fifteen people and drivers customize them with decals and liver-shaking sound systems. I was in one recently that showed videos on a flat-screen three times as wide as the seats. While the van rolls, the sliding passenger door is usually open with a teenager hanging off the frame shouting the destination.

Matatus and buses run on a hub and spoke system. They’re convenient if you’re going to or coming from down town but are pretty useless otherwise. Unmetered taxis have to put up with the same miserable traffic but not the fixed routes. Very roughly speaking they’re three times faster and fifteen to thirty times more expensive.

What this is all trying to say is that developing countries are cheaper to visit the less rich visitors, for reasons of safety and comfort,  recuse themselves from local standards of living. A recent poll found Luanda, the capital of Angola, to be the world’s most expensive city for ex-pats. The average Angolan will almost reach their 38th birthday. There’s also no real tourism industry. And many of the ex-pats are oil executives spending company money.


February 16, 2008

The other day I ate lunch in a Kibera canteen with two guys I know. In these places you  order chapatti, flat yet doughy things which resemble tortillas, or ugali, the cornmeal substance known as pap in South Africa, and then accompaniments. The menu offered kale, cabbage, meat, fish and every part of a chicken. I ordered chapatti, beans and cabbage. The beans were kidneys, in a bowl with a few scraps of gristle.

When eating ugali you rip a piece off the slab and squeeze it like a stress ball before using it to scoop up some meat or greens. One of the guys said he doesn’t feel full unless he has ugali. And I’ve heard similar odes to it. Most Kenyans eat it every day. It transcends politics. Our meal of chapatti, ugali, beans, cow intestines, meat (probably goat), kale, cabbage and two Cokes came to $3.90 including tip. Today I invited one of the guys to the laptop, coffee and lunch place Java House where they don’t serve ugali. He looked guilty then ordered a big bowl of strawberry ice cream.

Lots of Democracy

February 14, 2008

Later this month, Kenya will have another election. This time for mayors and municipal officials. The presidential candidates are still in mediation efforts with Kofi Annan to figure out how to resolve the outcome of the December election. One possible resolution would have them sharing power for a year or two and then holding another election to figure out who won the last one, which ended in rioting and such.


February 11, 2008

I’ve uploaded a few Photos from Mozambique and Tanzania to my Flickr page. You can see them at:

Super Tuesday post

February 5, 2008

You’d think following the politics here would be enough but people also keep up on the American election.  Of course, Barack Obama’s father was Kenyan and he’s a popular figure, though the people I meet here seem skeptical that he can actually win. Obama’s heritage is Luo, the same tribe as the opposition candidate Raila Odinga, who lost the disputed election. The oft-repeated joke here is America will have a Luo president before Kenya does. A few people have written to ask if Obama’s family is causing all the trouble in Kenya. The short answer is no.

The longer answer is also no. Kenya seems to have quieted down quite a bit, knock wood. But the trouble here was caused by a small number of people from diverse tribes. In the sort of overreaching statement that Kenyan politicians sometimes indulge, Odinga said he was Obama’s cousin. I haven’t heard of any confirmation from the Obama camp.

Writing elsewhere

February 1, 2008

I’ve been unforgivably lax about posting to this blog, mainly because I’ve been writing for a few other publications. If you haven’t had enough of me, here are a few of the pieces.



The Christian Science Monitor