August 08, 2007

The two faces of Africa

The two faces of Africa

I am sat at home feeling pretty pathetic. This is for two different reasons. Firstly I feel pretty ill and am swaying between the diagnosis of either food poisoning or malaria. Needless to say that for once I’m rooting for food poisoning. Secondly, when I was sending a message into work telling them that I wouldn’t be able to attend I received a message from the head of the organisation telling me that it was best for me not to attend as their had been an assault which had thrown everything up in the air. So not only do I feel sick, but I feel pretty ashamed of my wallowing state when there are much more serious things going on. Nearly everyone here has a story, they have been touched by death, disease or a war and yet when you tell them you have a headache they say ‘I’m sorry’ as though in some way they are personally responsible for your mild pain and as though it in some way compares to the troubles in their lives. There really are two sides to this country. Uganda is so beautiful and the people are so kind, friendly and welcoming yet, when you begin to scratch the surface the problems begin to spill out, I have a few stories which can perhaps serve to highlight the range of problems.

Whilst I was working on my project for Hospice I had a few translators with whom I worked and at the end of the project I had asked that one of them come in for a review of the work. I received a note from her which explained that her uncle had passed and that it would be unable for her to attend for the next week. Also last week we had a staff meal for the Children’s Palliative Care team and one of the nurses was unable to attend because that evening he had found out that his son had got malaria. A friend here saw his father killed because of mistaken identity during a political dispute. A guard we know was kidnapped at 9 and made to become a child soldier, he was brave to run away at 12 and has been rebuilding his life since. He is also one of the friendliest people I have met and you would have no clue that this was part of his history.

Although I don’t believe that you can summarise a countries problems and complexities in a blog, I will try for the sake of readership. As I have already mentioned there are numerous NGO organisations in Kampala and one can’t help but feel that everyone in Kampala should be being helped by someone. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are still slums in Kampala, there are still orphans who can’t get to school, malaria although reduced still kills and Mulago Hospital can’t afford to fund its cancer ward. This is mainly because there is only so much that foreign aid can do. I think that there are some clear reasons why Kampala hasn’t developed as much as it could and as efficiently, but please bear in mind that these are just my opinions and I am in no way qualified enough to be able to profess that they are correct. I think perhaps it is best to start with light hearted tale which highlights one problem:

Two of my friends went on a trip with some affluent young Ugandan males, the sons of businessmen and government officials. During their trip they purchased some pineapple, fairly standard for a long journey, which they dumped in the boot. The pineapple lay forgotten until they were on their way home. The big problem which arose was what they should now do with this fruit that they no longer had a need for. Fortunately some helpful suggestions were offered. One suggested putting it in a bin. I liked this suggestion, it was nice, logical and tidy, however, there aren’t many bins floating around in Uganda. A quick thinking young thing suggested throwing it under the car as ‘no one will notice’, this was true, but I’m sure that as the car pulled away people would spot the plastic bags full of pineapple. Short of burning the stuff there just didn’t seem many options left. Just to add a little context to this situation I should really add that they were in quite a poor village at this point with many children hanging around the car. But what to do? After much deliberation, and some helpful hints from the visiting Americans, the future of Uganda decided to give it to the hungry looking mites. Good call.

Now I in no way am suggesting that this is typical, but it does serve to emphasise an important issue. With no social welfare system there needs to be another way of distributing wealth, the rich of Uganda need to be as aware of the issues of poverty as the incoming volunteers. Uganda is a country that now boasts a $9000 a night hotel room and still can’t provide electricity or clean drinking water in its capital. There is a need for change, and it is not a job that can fall solely on the shoulders of the West. I am in no way saying that rich Ugandan’s don’t care about their own people, because there are many Ugandan run CBO’s and NGO’s here in Kampala, but there seems to be a lack of consensus between the rich and the influential.

This next paragraph will seem littered with juxtapositions and an irrational cold logic, so I ask you to give me a chance to try and explain. I am a business person, I think in business and I do believe, although many will disagree, that business is a way of making life better for a lot of people if ran responsibly. Uganda needs business. One of the greatest needs in this country is proper business teaching. The people here are kind, they are not shrewd. They are not greedy either as they will pass on work to a friend if they are not willing to go for your price. And above all at the grass roots level they are honest. I have had shop keepers chase me to give me 200 change (about 7p) when I’ve got the price wrong and I’ve had boda (motorbike taxi) driver’s tell me when I’ve given them a 10,000 bill instead of a 1,000. None of this is making anyone rich anytime soon. It is the average man who needs help. You can spot a Western run organisation a mile off, they know how to exploit you, and they know how to do it in a way that will mean that you will come back for more. The good restaurants add VAT to their prices, they teach their staff about service so that you are more likely to tip and they charge higher drinks prices. Having travelled a reasonable amount I would say that the Ugandan’s have a much less keen business sense that in Asia or even in Morocco. Considering the amount of foreign workers here in Kampala little has been done to take advantage of their wealth. There is one Irish bar, which is heaving at the weekends because it is the only one of its kind. There is one café with wireless internet, again always filled with do-gooders and their Macs. There is a craft market with goods tailored to the foreign market, they are on the right lines but it is still not quite right. It’s the value added activities which are missing here, something that we have ample experience in and something that I think would help the Ugandan economy. This is not a solution that will fix, but it is one that will serve to make the country’s economy stronger.

The ‘problem’ with the Ugandan honesty is that it doesn’t seem to be retained when the affluence and power of the individual grows. It is a well known fact that the corruption levels in most African countries are significantly higher than those in the West and unfortunately Uganda is no exception. Business here is often slowed due to the levels of corruption, there have been cases of top businessmen skimming as much as 25% from company profits (not even being deterred if they work for a multinational corporation). If I were a psychologist a fascinating experiment would be to try and gage where the honesty of the population ended and the corruption began. Like any country Uganda is split between the rich and the poor and like most countries it seems that the rich are only too willing to exploit the poor to make themselves richer.

New Job

I have started work at a new organisation called Help the Needy. I decided to take on a new job as my work at Hospice had pretty much come to an end and I wanted something that I could get a little more involved in. I was involved at Hospice, but because I was a neutral observer I couldn’t suggest anything and had to try and not get involved. Not an easy task. Anyway, this new job is the exact opposite, there is loads for me to do and they are in serious need of some help. Working in this new organisation has made me realise just how well run and well resourced Hospice is. This place has nothing. It operates on an income of around £80 a month which is used for rent and some staff salaries. The office is one of the most bare I have ever visited, there is one old school pc and a desk, that’s it. I hope that I can be some help to this organisation as I really like what they are trying to achieve and they are a group hard working, passionate individuals (who all have full time jobs) who deserve a bit of a leg up in the CBO world.

Small travelling nugget

I also have managed to squeeze in a small trip. I thought that I’d have travelled much more since I arrived but as the distances to cover are vast nice little weekend trips are kind of out of the question. However, for my trip I treated myself to an additional two days off so that I could go and visit Queen Elizabeth National Park. This was to be my first safari and I was expecting the whole shebang; lions, antelopes and warthog fights. Alas we weren’t so lucky, we did see elephants though and my new favourite the warthogs who bounded happily though the grasses. We also did a water safari which had a much higher animal yield, there were loads of different birds (and their accompanying birdwatchers), monkeys, crocodiles, big lizards and hippos. I’d like to include pictures, but I’m still without camera on this trip. The excursion included a mammoth amount of travelling for a 2 night trip and on the way home we got a flat tyre which was all kinds of fun as the owner of the vehicle had had a slight oversight in not including a spanner for the tire change. The highlight of the trip was an unexpected visit to a bat cave, I know, it doesn’t sound particularly enthralling in comparison to a safari, but it was incredible. The cave wasn’t particularly vast, it had about three shelves, but upon every square inch was a small fruit bat. The smell was pungent but the sight was breathtaking, the bats flew around in a small area, and when they landed in the busy crowd they were immediately accommodated. There were thousands of these bats, all just hanging around getting on with their daily business of washing, chatting and sleeping. I have never seen so many of one species (humans being exempt at this point) together at one time.


I cannot believe that I only have a month left here. I am starting to get the fear that I won’t have enough time to complete the tasks that I set for myself. I think that part of the reason is that jobs here are never ending, there is always something else to do or someone else who could use your help. At one point here I began to question how helpful volunteers can be, but I have begun to re-asses my original comments. I think, like in any situation, it depends on the individual. You have to be pretty self aware here when you are working in an organisation as those that you work with will tend to commend your work if it is good for their organisation or not, just because they are grateful for the time that you have invested. It is also about bringing in skills that are needed. Much of what I have talked about is about business but that is only because that is where my skill set lies. There is a great need for good volunteers. By this I mean people who are creative and can work with limited resources and above all have endless bounds of energy. There are many volunteers here, but I am not sure how many of them are ‘good’. There is also a need for teachers, teachers who have had TEFL experience and can again adapt to working in a resource poor environment. The English teaching here can be pretty appalling and it is not unusual for teachers to set exam questions which are incomprehensible to a native English speaker. As a final point I will include an exam question that Dave was given to mark by one of his students:

‘Moses went to the desert and experienced many situation and things, describe in situation and analysis difficulties with problems and solution’

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Philip Mitchell

    Hello Jennie,

    I came across your blog when I heard there were medics at Hospice looking for related challenges. I like your observation in ‘Two Faces’ – very true.

    In your remaining weeks, please have a look at our website, talk to Julia at the APCA perhaps come to see Hope Clinic Lukuli. I wonder if we are the sort of place you are thinking of.

    Take care,

    09 Aug 2007, 11:01

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