Archive for March, 2008


March 26, 2008

Since not too much happens over Easter weekend in Uganda, some friends and I went camping. By now the drive felt familiar, seven hours in a minivan passing dusty nowhere towns and fields of uncultivated papyrus. Two details unique to Uganda: cows with very large horns—I’ve forgotten the breed’s name—and phenomenal amounts of plaintains. Uganda’s national dish is matoke, mashed up plaintains. It’s bland and sticky with a slightly sour aftertaste. In every town we passed piles of plaintains in green bunches, each the size of a duffle bag. Open air trucks carried hundreds of bunches and men sitting jauntily on top of them. One truck I saw had bunches suspended below the chassis, between the wheels. At the equator we declined the opportunity to conduct an experiment. For a few thousand shillings a guy pours water through a funnel and then walks across the equator and does it again. The water drains in the opposite direction. I’ve tried this independently. It really does.

We were going to an island in Lake Bunyonyi, very close to the Rwanda border and not much farther from Congo. At merciful altitude, Lake Bunyonyi enjoys a temperate climate that reminded me of childhood summers in the Berkshires, foggy chilly mornings giving way to sunny afternoons. To the (OK, my) untrained eye most of the plants looked as if they would blend well in good ol’ northeastern deciduous forests, the odd banana patch or bamboo grove excepted. The difference is the galaxy of life. The landscape is almost obscenely green. And just about every bush flowers. Moreover there were marvelous birds and butterflies, 15-inch earthworms and an abundance of big, ugly spiders. Even the innocent-looking plants have prickers and thistles, though, so don’t touch.

We stayed at a campground run by an affable, bearded dude from Long Island. The place has a reputation for serving excellent but basic food and for catering to the tastes of Western budget travelers. This means, more or less, that it’s well supplied with beer, board games and books. The staff tolerate whining with almost divine patience.

Whether it’s a $5 a night campground or an ultra-luxe safari lodge, I’ve yet to encounter anywhere designed for white vacationers which is owned by black people. Without picking on this particular place, which was very pleasant, it fit comfortably into a familiar pattern. The owner brags about his staff and the importance of his joint in the community: paying local kids’ school fees, contributing to local development initiatives etc. At this campground, the owner said he doesn’t make a profit and earns his crust from side businesses. However, the place is still in white hands.

The staff runs the ground for months when the owner is away and the chef folds up a serviceable breakfast burrito. They’ve mastered the art of dealing with backpackerus occidentalis. (Feed, but don’t pet. Hang local crafts on the walls.) So why can’t the staff open their own place? The answer, I think, is the difficulty of finding start-up money. Even with the popularity of microfinance, loans to start slightly larger businesses are still rare.

P.S. (or perhaps S.P., Shameless Plug)
For more on African tourism check out my story in the new issue of Conde Nast Traveler, online at



March 19, 2008

Before coming to Africa, one of the threads I expected to grab was the Chinese influence here. So far I haven’t. By now, the story is familiar: China, looking to gain access to Africa’s mineral wealth and markets, has invested heavily in the continent. Oftentimes African governments find China’s money and aid more salubrious than offerings from the west since it doesn’t arrive leashed to bossy NGOs and lectures on human rights or policy. (One exception: China does not appreciate it when even the weakest countries recognize Taiwan’s independence.) Reading about China in Africa I’d also hoped dumpling shops had boiled up on street corners. Even back then, they sounded like a pleasant break from mutton and manioc.

Whether due to chance or my own failures as a reporter, the China story has been elusive. And the Chinese presence isn’t as obvious as in other parts of the world. Outside South Africa, I haven’t encountered anything resembling a Chinatown. Some businesses have names alluding to the middle kingdom and Chinese characters appear on everything from industrial equipment to mini-buses, but it’s tough to tell how it adds up. As a whole India is more influential. Indians run shops in small towns and, in big cities, are a pillar of the elite. Dar Es Salaam looks like an Indian City, low and gritty. China’s presence is less obvious and, I assume, more precisely targeted. That makes sense since the Chinese footprint is more part of a national policy than an immigrant community. Moving around, I haven’t met many, if any, people from mainland China. Not even tourists or journalists. And good dumplings, alas, are rare.


March 18, 2008

This week the Libyan leader is in town to open a grand mosque, named after him, which he funded. He’s a popular figure in Uganda.  Posters with his picture, arms raised, hands clasped in a heroic pose, line the streets of the city. Spelling his name about seven different ways, newspapers trumpet his “triumphant return.” (I won’t attempt to spell his name.) A Ugandan friend said he’s more popular with the Muslim community than the population at large. However, he must be popular with the ruling party as well:

Generation jackass

March 12, 2008

Following the article about Natalie Portman and microfinance in the NY Times, I was going to blog a bit about how hip microfinance is here and, more generally, the kinds of things development organizations do and if they work and how foreigners working for them feel about the organizations and their roles in them. Fortunately for you, something came up and that entry has been postponed, perhaps indefinitely.

I’ve spent a few days on the banks of the White Nile, not far downstream from Lake Victoria, a part of the river known for white water rapids. At a campsite I met a bunch of dopey seeming guys in their early twenties who, it turned out, are world class river kayakers. Many are country kids from the Canadian West. Unlike the other young white people you meet in Africa, they were never burdened by idealism.

Kayakers boast that they’re the wildest boys out there. There’s not much in the way of sponsorship so they save up for jaunts to the world’s great rivers by roughnecking on the Alberta oil rigs, a job one compared unfavorably to soldiering. After waking up, whenever that happens, they spend their days running the river, filming their X-treme X-ploits from the banks.

At night they keep the camcorders on to shoot hardcore footage of themselves having sex with tourists, many of them young Brits on their gap year who travel around Africa on teen tour style trips called overland trucks. The kayakers narrate the sex videos in the style of departed Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin (“We’re here in deepest, darkest Africa, Uganda, where we’re watching a rare mating ritual…”)

When there aren’t girls around they commit themselves to drinking. One night a guy who was celebrating his birthday and last night in Africa stripped and invited his friends to kick him in the delicates. Several of them obliged. To bang some sense into the guy, his brother smashed a beer bottle over his head in what I can only call the spirit of friendship and goodwill. It got raunchier but I’m too much of a prude to go into it. This, they kept saying, maybe too insistently, was a tame night.


March 8, 2008

Obviously I have more than enough access to the Internet here. But one thing that’s pleasant is the clear divide between tie spent online and off. Blackberries don’t interrupt people—cell phones do, it’s very 2002—and Wikipedia doesn’t moderate conversations. Wi-fi doesn’t run in the water and the water doesn’t always run.

Across from where I’m staying is a dusty field. During the week it’s a schoolyard where hundreds of kids in uniforms run around. On weekends boys use it for daylong soccer games. They can be deafening. I’ve never seen one of them with so much as a walkman but if someone tossed them a video game player they’d go silent in an instant. There’s a reason they don’t have video iPods and PSPs and its not parents sensitive to overstimulation. More access to technology, though probably not PSPs or Facebook, would probably help them at some point. And who am I to say they’re better off without an iPod? Still, I kind of like the shouting.

Dubai world

March 4, 2008

I used to think of Dubai as a tacky outpost embodying the less appealing parts of Las Vegas and Riyadh. But from Africa it looks like a world crossroads. People who run electronics shops fly there every couple months to stock their stores. Saying  that someone is in Dubai makes them sound important. As a glamour destination, this hot sand bar has, in a few years, achieved a similar status to Paris and New York. With the possible exception of London, there are probably more flights from Africa to Dubai than any other place outside the continent.
More than Jo’Burg or London, many people in East Africa, speak fondly of Dubai. It seems like the sort of city that could or would get built in Africa if someone found himself atop 10 billion barrels of oil. Even during construction Afri-Dubai would call itself a ‘world-class African city.’ It would offer indoor 4×4 safari’s and ultra-superior shopping. Like Dubai it would be oppulent, exclusive, awkward to navigate and deeply stratified. But it would also be someplace to reckon with. Like Dubai itself, it would be important because someone deeply wished it so.