One month to go…

Ok so this post is a little late, as there’s just 3 weeks to go now, but I’m still finding myself asking ‘Where have the last 11 months gone?!’ It’s been a crazy year full of surprises, fun, laughter, tears and long-lasting memories.

Special thanks to ICYE for getting me here, and to all my new friends and ‘family’ for keeping me here! Check out my feature on ICYE’s website to find out more about what I was doing in my first 6 months in Uganda and thoughts on volunteering:
http://www.icye.org.uk/portfolio-item/emmain-uganda/

So what’s next?

Well after spending a month at home for Christmas, I’ll be boarding a plane back to this wonderful continent, this time heading to South Africa to start a Masters at the University of Cape Town! (Of course I’ll be keeping in close contact with Uganda, which is not too far away!)

Thanks to everyone for reading, following and supporting my journey this year, it really means a lot. I’ll leave you with a video of one of my songs, ‘Hold Me’, performed at a wonderful little church in Mbale, Eastern Uganda. Enjoy 🙂

 

A-Z of Ugandan Food

A-Z of Ugandan Food

In case anyone thinks I’m starving here in Uganda, think again – when it comes to food, the ‘Pearl of Africa’ doesn’t fail to disappoint…

A – Avocado

Known locally as Ovacado, the most delicious I’ve ever had!

B – Bananas

Uganda is the second largest producer of bananas in the world after India, but did you know bananas come in many forms: sweet yellow bananas, savoury matooke (below), fried gonja (also below) and even banana beer!

C – Chapati / Cassava

Uganda’s most popular street foods (Cassava best eaten fried!)

D – Doughnuts

Another popular street food (known locally as mandazi) – these should come with a health warning!

E – Eggs

Sold hard boiled with a pinch of salt or in the dubious form of an ‘egg roll’ (like a scotch egg but fried in doughnut batter – another heart attack in the making!)

F – Fish

I’m not usually a fan of fish, but even I can’t resist fresh Tilapia from Lake Victoria… it beats English fish ‘n’ chips hands down!

G – Groundnuts

AKA peanuts – boil ’em, roast ’em, cook ’em in a stew seems to be the motto…

H – Hot pepper

Warning: Seriously hot!

I – Ice cream

The Ugandan equivalent of the ice cream van, complete with ring-tone style music (most commonly ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’)

N.B. This ice cream is best left to the kids – I don’t see the resemblance myself!

J – Jackfruit

The craziest fruit I’ve ever seen – weighing up to 100 pounds, jackfruits grow on trees and have a sweet, sickly taste. The inside is so sticky that it is recommended to grease your hands with something before you eat them.

K – Kalo

A type of millet bread, commonly eaten by people in northern, western and eastern Uganda. (I’ve never tried it but I’m told I’m not missing anything)

L – Luwombo

A traditional ‘royal’ dish created in 1887 by the Kabaka’s (King’s) personal chef and traditionally eaten at Christmas. Featuring fried meat/chicken, mushrooms and onions in a stew or groundnut sauce, cooked in banana leaves.

M – Maize

One of Africa’s staple foods, in Uganda maize is used for a variety of purposes: making Posho (see Ugali), porridge, popcorn and even in the beer industry. But of course it is best eaten as corn on the cob, cooked on the side of the road!

N – Nile Special

Talking of the beer industry, the Nile Special, brewed at the source of the Nile, is one of Uganda’s most popular beers (especially with international visitors) but doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to health – I’ve certainly experienced some bad headaches the next morning, probably caused by their ‘extra’ ingredients…

O – Oranges

Ok so they’re actually green, but still taste good (if a bit sour!)

P – Pineapple

Hands down the best fruit in Uganda (in my opinion!) and the most accessible – sold whole or cut into pieces from men selling from their bicycles or wheelbarrows on the side of the road.

R – Rolex

The tastiest street food going: a rolled chapati with eggs, tomatoes, peppers and cabbage. Sold at nearly any time of the day from pretty much anywhere (it’s not uncommon to see 2-3 of these stands next to each other, so they must be getting good business!)

S – Sim Sim (i.e. Sesame)

Used particularly in the north, roasted sesame paste is mixed into a stew of beans or greens and served as a side dish, or in Kampala, mixed with groundnuts to make a killer peanut butter. Also found as a sweet ball made from mixing roasted sesame seeds with sugar or honey.

T – Tea (Chai)

The nation’s favourite drink, taken black with lots of sugar and spice, or as ‘African tea’ – made with hot milk instead of water.

U – Ugali (Posho)

Called Ugali in Kenya, Posho is made from maize flour and is the most common food given to school children due to its relatively cheap cost and nutritional benefit. Living in a pre-school, I’ve eaten my fair share of posho but I still can’t say I like it; the texture definitely puts me off!

W – Waragi

Popular with Ugandan men, Waragi is a strong type of gin, triple distilled and made from millet. According to wikipedia, it is known as the “Spirit of Uganda” – at 40% ABV, I don’t think they’re talking about witchcraft…

Y – Yams

Last but not least, yams are hard, starchy vegetables that can be cooked in a variety of ways: boiled, mashed, roasted or fried. More common in West Africa than East, I’ve been lucky to escape eating yams on a regular basis (they’re definitely in the ‘acquired taste’ category for me!)

Introducing a Ugandan Wedding

Weddings are one of the biggest cultural ceremonies in Uganda. They are usually attended by hundreds of people who all know the bride or groom in some way, or just love an excuse to party!

Almost as important as the wedding itself is the introduction ceremony, where the bride’s family and the groom’s family are ‘introduced’ to each other. It normally takes place a week before the wedding, at the bride’s ancestral home.

I was lucky enough to attend an introduction with Madina, my host mum, and Thea, another volunteer from Denmark who was staying with us for a month. Although we didn’t have the traditional gomesi to wear, Thea and I put on our best clothes and set off with Madina to her village, a three hour drive away in Mukono District.

After driving on dirt roads for at least two hours, we noticed they were getting gradually smaller and smaller, until we turned a corner and found ourselves in a large compound full of cars and trucks, with huge white tents rising up behind them. There were people everywhere but somehow we managed to find Madina’s brothers almost immediately.

After greeting them, they took us straight to the food tables where huge portions of rice, potatoes and meat were being dished out. Looking around, everyone else was using their hands to eat but a few minutes later they had found a couple of forks for the muzungus (much to my relief, I still haven’t mastered eating rice with my hands!)

The food queue

The food queue

The tents themselves were set up in a rectangular shape, with the bride and groom’s families occupying opposite tents, arranged behind the parents and direct siblings in the front row. There must have been over 500 people in total; by the time the ceremony started people were still arriving and finding themselves standing at the back, watching the screens that were showing real time footage from two cameramen who were circulating in the space in the middle.

The whole ceremony was meticulously planned by an organising committee, but it was clear tensions were running high when an argument broke out between two men in the bride’s family, one of whom was sitting in the wrong seat. We couldn’t understand much of the argument as it was in Luganda, but we realised it was serious when a woman went to intervene and was knocked on the floor in response!

It was over five minutes later, however, and the ceremony got underway without any further interruptions. The ‘introducing’ part involved a series of processions of the bride’s family members, starting with the youngest and going up through the generations, dancing into the space in the middle, then kneeling down (if they were children or women) to introduce themselves. In return, each one received a gift from the groom’s family.

This went on for an hour or more, until it was the turn of the bride herself to come out, dancing with her bridesmaids and cultural dancers, and accompanied by a live singer.

After that came some speeches from the groom’s mother and father, the local chairman and finally the imam (as it was a Muslim wedding).

Then came the gifts (dowry) from the groom’s family. I’ve heard friends and colleagues joking about the dowry part of weddings, as traditionally cows or other animals were given, but these days it can be anything from a TV to a car. The bride’s family request the items they would like to receive, and the groom’s family usually add a few more as a goodwill gesture. On this occasion, it was a whole dining set of tables and chairs, sofas, a TV and a huge water tank, as well as some extra bags of sugar, flour and crates and crates of fizzy drinks! We couldn’t believe our eyes as all of these things were carried out of the back of a truck by the groom’s family, then passed by a chain of about ten men until they were all safely inside the house.

  P1090483 copy

By this time it was getting dark so we decided to head home. Madina assured us the only part we were missing was the cake, which was distinctly overshadowed by all of the huge gifts that had been produced! We spent the journey home marvelling at the whole thing, Ugandans certainly know how to put on a show!

International Youth Day 2014

On International Youth Day, I couldn’t help but write from the country with the most youthful population in the world. Uganda has the world’s largest percentage of young people under 30 – 78% – according to the 2012 State of Uganda population report (UN Population Fund) and more than 52% of Ugandans are below 15 years.

So what does this mean for Uganda and its development? According to most media reports – both global and national – a youthful population lays the foundation for unemployment, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy and even terrorism.

But rather than look at it from a negative perspective, as a major challenge that needs to be managed, how about we look at the positives of having such a young population?

Young people have energy, entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility to adapt to changing employment opportunities in our globalised world. I haven’t yet met a Ugandan youth without a Facebook page, and most are accessing it on their smartphones, when they’re not on WhatsApp or Snapchat. A huge number are university graduates with relevant degrees such as IT, accounting and finance, medicine, environmental management etc.

So what’s holding them back? In my view, it’s a political system that’s saturated with the older generation who care more about the contents of their own pockets than investing in the young people of tomorrow. On paper, there are countless schemes to develop youth entrepreneurship and innovation (e.g. The Youth Venture Capital Fund; Youth Livelihood Project) but despite the billions of shillings that have apparently been invested over the last couple of years, no measurable results have emerged as yet.

Although it’s frustrating, it’s difficult not to lose hope when the young people around me are so full of ambition and determination. For the last few months I’ve been part of a youth group in Kampala that goes by the name of “Amfuture”. Started by a passionate youth leader from my church, it’s a friendly, open group of at least 25 dynamic 16+ year olds, who meet every week to discuss different topics: money, family, studying, relationships, Christianity etc, and share ideas and advice with each other.

I am constantly impressed and inspired by the maturity and independence of these young people, the majority of whom are still in school or university. They all face challenges in their lives – big and small – from school fees to family problems, but what is remarkable is their attitude to overcoming them. For example, there’s one brother and sister (both in secondary school) who rear rabbits, chickens, goats and who knows what else in their backyard, to raise money for their school fees. They can tell you off the top of their heads the market price for the different breeds, sex and sizes of all their animals, their current turnover and their aspirations for growing their operations. Now just imagine that spirit harnessed and nurtured on a larger scale, across Kampala and the whole of Uganda…

That’s what I call youth development.

Amfuture youth members

Eid Celebrations

Monday was a day of excitement and celebration in our home and on the streets of Kampala… Eid was finally here!

Approximately 12% of Uganda’s population is Muslim (according to the last census, taken in 2002) but the day is always declared a national holiday. In true Ugandan spirit, huge parties were scheduled for beach resorts in Kampala and Entebbe, and there was a definite party feel on the streets too.

In our Muslim home, the atmosphere was a little more serious and reflective however, marking the end of a long month of fasting and abstaining from ‘bad behaviour’ such as arguing, fighting and listening to hip hop and dance music. For Fahad, Madina’s oldest son, who had been fasting whilst at school, and not eating or drinking until sunset every day (7pm), Eid was both a relief and a sense of achievement.

Fahad and Ark ready for the mosque

Ark and Fahad (right) ready for the mosque

Everyone woke up early and put on their best clothes, the kids receiving an extra-thorough scrubbing down from Madina in one of the plastic basins. I and another volunteer who arrived last week from Denmark were asked if we wanted to go with them the mosque, so of course we said yes! After putting on our long dresses and veils, all 12 of us piled into the car for the short drive to the mosque.

We arrived just in time and joined the throngs of people streaming inside, splitting off into men and women. We went up onto one of the balconies with the children whilst the boys and men stayed on the ground floor where the imam and other leaders were. After the prayers in Arabic, the imam spoke in Luganda so even with my improving language skills, I only picked out a few words and phrases about setting an example to others and leading a holy life.

 

Outside the mosque with some of the family

Outside the mosque with Sarah, Ark, Magezi and Babiryie

Afterwards, we were directed outside to join everyone for food, which was being served on huge dishes on mats on the grass. Although it was only 10:30 in the morning, everyone tucked in to the rice, meat and chapattis with great enthusiasm, passing round bottles of fizzy drinks and water.

The rest of the day was spent at home, relaxing and cooking yet more food – a chicken was bought and killed for the occasion. I didn’t eat it but this lot enjoyed it… Eid Mubarak! 🙂

6 Months in Uganda

Next week will mark six months of volunteering in Uganda, and guess what? I’ve decided to stay for another six!

The time has really flown by but I’ve loved every minute so far, and can’t imagine leaving yet. Life has become routine for me now, seeing friends, going to church, playing music and having fun with the kids at home. My Luganda is improving rapidly and no-one dares try and cheat me anymore, or offer me a ‘muzungu price’!

So what’s new? (Stole ki? in Luganda!)

Well I’ve finished my volunteer contract with Environmental Alert and I’ve moved onto a new organisation called the Uganda Carbon Bureau (www.ugandacarbon.org), the pioneers of carbon finance in East Africa. It’s a bit of a leap from the ‘grassroots’ work of Environmental Alert, as these guys are involved at the highest level, actively participating in climate change negotiations and discussions around the ‘Clean Development Mechanism’, under which high-polluting countries finance emission-reduction projects in developing countries (click here for more information: https://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/mechanisms/clean_development_mechanism/items/2718.php).

The Carbon Bureau’s first project under the CDM is distributing improved cookstoves to women in East Africa, which consume less fuel and release minimum emissions, helping both the environment and the health of the women in the kitchen. Check out this video filmed in Northern Uganda:

What else is new? I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my younger sister, Jane, who is coming to visit me for a couple of weeks and to share ideas with Madina at the school about teaching. Let the adventures continue!

3 months in Uganda

Three months ago today, I was having one last coffee and cake with my family at Heathrow Terminal 5, before setting off on my East African journey.  I had no idea where I would be living, what I would be working on, or even when I would be coming back (!) so needless to say I was feeling a little nervous, but excited all the same.

These last three months have been an absolute whirlwind. For the first few weeks, I felt like I was in a dream, trying to adapt to new sights, sounds and smells (and no, it wasn’t just the side effects of the malaria tablets!) but there came a point around the middle of March, two months in, that I suddenly felt completely comfortable with everything here: the culture, food, language, people…

So today I’ve been reflecting on the things I’ve learnt since arriving in Uganda, both about the country and about myself:

1) Ugandans are very friendly!

This is said a lot about African cultures, especially East African, but even so I am constantly surprised by the friendliness and generosity of people, and their ability to strike up a conversation absolutely anywhere.

One day for example, I was walking along a busy road in the middle of the day when I heard a voice call out behind me, ‘Hello!’ I half turned around, replying wearily, ‘Hello, how are you?’ I thought it might be one of the beggars who congregate along that road, holding out their hands for money, sometimes even following you down the street, but when I turned round I couldn’t help but laugh. It was a young guy in low-slung jeans, shades and a snapback cap, but he was draped head-to-toe in ladies’ underwear! It’s a common sight to see hawkers wearing as much as their stock as possible, trying their best to entice passers-by with a sale. But this guy didn’t try to sell me anything; he just wanted to tell me that it was dangerous for me to be walking on my own as a white woman and could he pay for me to take a boda boda?! Without waiting to hear my answer, he turned and hailed a passing driver, stuffed some money into his hand and said ‘Take this madam wherever she needs to go!’

Street hawkers in Kampala (ityafrica.net)

Street hawkers in Kampala (ityafrica.net)

2)  That leads me onto my second observation: Ugandan’s are extremely polite (and that’s saying something coming from a British person!)

Men and women are always addressed as Ssebo or Nnyabo, or in English, Sir or Madam. Greetings are very important, so you must always ask someone how they are before you say anything else, even if you’re just asking for directions or where the nearest toilet is!

It’s also common to thank someone for their work, or after a meal to thank your host for cooking. Other unwritten rules that probably have more to do with culture than politeness include: never eat while walking, never publicly show affection (this includes hand-holding between couples, but for some reason it’s fine between friends of the same sex!) and always avoid confrontation or arguments, even behind closed doors.

There’s a Ugandan proverb, “Ombra dra ni” which translates as ‘Anger is death’ (meaning that anger can lead to disastrous situations)

3) Sharing is caring.

That means when you have money, you are expected to share it, and when you don’t it’s acceptable to ask friends and family to help you out. But in my experience, nearly everyone here has problems of some kind and these usually come down to a lack of money, yet it’s only very few who expect to solve their problems themselves; the rest just rely on those around them to support them through the tough times.

And this relates to something I’ve learnt about myself:

4) No matter how much I want to help everyone, it’s not physically possible to do so. As a “muzungu” (white person) I am automatically labelled as ‘rich’, despite being a volunteer, so it means people are constantly asking to borrow money from me. Notice I said ‘borrow’ – the intention is always to pay it back, but I have no idea in what time-frame they are expecting!

5) Patience is a virtue and slowing down is good.

“Africa time” can sometimes be a struggle, especially when plans are pushed back so much you wonder if they will even happen, or someone calls to tell you they’re on their way but don’t show up for another two hours. However, now I’m getting used to it I’ve discovered how much more relaxed it makes me, possibly because of the freedom and lack of expectations about time-keeping.

And I’m even starting to understand the patterns of “Africa time”, for example if you make plans for early in the morning or around lunchtime, you will find that food is the priority, followed by conversations and catch-ups with people, before any thought is given to where you are supposed to be. Similarly, if it’s rush hour or the rainy season, then all plans go out of the window completely!

Rush hour in downtown Kampala (matoketours.com)