Wednesday, August 22, 2007

good eats in ngo surreal life

Two fried eggs, a cappuccino with raw sugar, a homemade banana muffin and a copy of the Daily Monitor – all served up under a royal blue umbrella on a quiet little patio opposite a huge bougainvillea. This is the new food of Gulu. Maq Foods opened here in May of this year, to the collective and frenzied delight of the multitude of foreign NGO workers in the town.

Ugandan entrepreneur Patrick Menya saw how rapidly Gulu was changing and decided to “think outside the box” about his latest business venture. Menya spent six months working at a catering center in London in 2001, learning about western tastes in bakery and coffee. He returned to Europe again in 2005, attending an international pastry exhibition in Germany and visiting a bakery ingredients supplier in Brussels. The product of his travels and experience in food service was a comprehensive business plan for Maq Foods – a unique European-style eatery catering to western tastes.

It must be mentioned, however, that Gulu is no ordinary town. Lying at the epicenter of northern Uganda’s twenty-plus-year conflict, Gulu is the home to more than 200 NGOs attempting to serve the needs of a conflict-ridden, impoverished society. The town itself was considered a conflict zone until the signing of a cease fire agreement just last July. The boda boda drivers in Gulu know the location of every NGO. Massive clusters of signs point the way to Catholic Relief Services, Northern Uganda Social Action Fund, World Health Organization, UNHCHR, UNOCHA, UNHCR, Invisible Children, etc. It is a bubble of foreign aid allocations, which means lots of dollars and euros hoping to achieve peace in the region.

A year after the cease fire signing, Gulu is a burgeoning hub of economic activity, but sustainability poses a larger question. As peace approaches, will these NGOs still play a role? More specifically, will there be a market for Maq Foods? Menya thinks so. After all, some of Gulu’s explosive growth has come from an ever-expanding trade network with southern Sudan. Gulu is changing, but are those banana muffins a fleeting extravagance in a town that will eventually be littered with little more than dusty NGO signs?

I will retain my sense of cautious optimism. There is much to do in northern Uganda even once peace is achieved. Perhaps the NGOs will shift from relief to reconstruction, and in that case, someone will have to feed all the hungry mzungus. Maq Foods will be well-suited to do the job – with frothy cappuccinos, chocolate croissants, hamburgers, chips and ice cream (heads up NGO workers - ice cream coming to Gulu this October).

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

those amber waves of grain

The U.S.'s obstinate efforts to maintain its image as a breadbasket
(endless fields of glimmering corn in the soft glow of summer twilight)

The agony and suffering of African famine victims
(starving child, flies in eyes, ribs poking through stretched, dry skin)

The combination of these two competing issues has become a charged topic in the media lately, as the 2007 Farm Bill is up for its five-year renewal in Congress this summer. The resulting changes could have major impacts in the developing world, as the Bush Administration is looking for a shift in policy, “calling for an approach to U.S. food aid that doesn’t undermine regional food systems in the global South.”

They actually want to buy food in local markets.

The concept of U.S. food aid came about in the early 1950s, when the government was buying excess products from U.S. farmers and sitting on surpluses of commodity foods. In 1954, Eisenhower signed the Agricultural Trade Development Assistance Act (Public Law 480), also known as Food for Peace. Title II allows for the donation of U.S. agricultural products to meet Humanitarian Food Needs around the world. A simple solution to avoid the costly storing of surplus food and at the same time feed the world’s hungry.

The downfall – Public Law 480 mandates the food aid be grown by U.S. farmers. As time passed, the purchase of food aid settled out to lucrative arrangements with large agribusinesses – not U.S. farmers suffering from falling commodity prices. In short, circumstances changed and the policy stayed the same.

In April, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report revealing the current system to be rife with inefficiencies: rising logistical costs, dropping shipment levels – only a third of today’s food aid money is actually buying food. There are still over 850 million hungry people in the world, and U.S. food aid is feeding less and less of that population.

One proposed solution is a pilot program to purchase food aid in local markets. Benefits of local purchase are two-fold: it simultaneously eliminates the high costs of shipping food from the U.S. and provides a stimulus for local agricultural markets. As a result, more money will be available to ensure that food aid gets to those who need it most.

In Gulu, the UN World Food Program has a facility just on the outskirts of town – an enormous campus that seems to mock the thousands of individuals living in squalor at IDP camps just a few miles away. As northern Uganda approaches peace, IDPs are resettling to their farmland and villages; returning to an agricultural lifestyle. It’s disturbing to see malnourished children living in camps surrounded by what could be fertile agricultural land. One can’t help but wonder how local purchase could have helped in this situation. As the region stabilizes, purchase from local farmers could have provided a stronger economic base to which IDPs can return, easing the drastic shift from living on WFP handouts to subsistence farming. At the very least, it could have strengthened the surrounding region’s economy while it fed the hungry in the north.

U.S. agribusiness and shipping interests are lobbying hard in Washington to keep the status quo. A NYTimes interview with an Ohio farmer summarized the issue well – an observation that could be usefully applied across other forms of humanitarian and development assistance:
"Vernon Sloan, 81, used to donate and ship corn he grew on his 200- acre farm in Ohio to Haiti, Liberia and Angola to feed the hungry. But after years of working with the Foods Resource Bank, he said in an interview, he concluded that it was more practical to sell the crops here, avoid the huge shipping expense and use the proceeds to help farmers in Africa support themselves.

'It's what's needed there," he said, "rather than what we think they need.'"

Saturday, August 11, 2007

the african queen

Just before 2 p.m. on Friday, I was wandering around in the scorching afternoon sunlight after finishing A Thousand Splendid Suns. With nothing else to do, I decided to walk down to the boat launch to see if I could talk my way onto one of the river cruise rides up the Nile to the base of Murchison Falls. The guide was being pretty firm about not letting me on - so I started inching my way over to a ranger boat and chatting in my extremely limited Acholi - "Copango? Cope" "how are you? fine" with him. Turns out he was from Gulu, and I started gushing about the time I've spent thing you know he declared me his co-captain and I accompanied him on his river cruise up the Nile (and learned a lot about animals and very little about driving a boat). I Bogart-ed a boat ride up the Nile! Literally!

We crossed the river to pick up a group of eight very loud Floridians (from Boca Raton), and I fit in just fine. They kept taking photos with the Boca Beacon newspaper (with crocs, hippos and the waterfall in the background). I took a ton of pictures of hippos, Nile crocs, king fishers, darter birds, elephants, buffaloes, etc. The ride was incredible and we stopped at the pool below the falls to take photos as well. It was a perfect boat ride. I walked Nelson, my new ranger friend, back to his village and he helped me make arrangements for a ride to Gulu the next morning.

Robert (Nelson's friend) picked us up at Red Chilli at 6:45 AM and we boarded the ferry to the north side of the river to begin the drive to Gulu. In previous years you couldn't take this route because it was occupied by LRA rebels - one of the most dangerous areas during the height of the conflict. Since last year's cease fire the area has been completely tame. The drive to Pakwach (a small town north of the park) was gorgeous - it actually followed most of the game drive we did the previous morning, and we saw more kob and buffaloes along the way.

We arrived in Pakwach around 9 AM and joined the women with makeshift "restaurants" along the bus park (small charcoal stoves, swirling smoke, boiling eggs, grilling chapattis, little benches). We asked for African tea. A young woman promptly brought over three chipped mugs, poured English tea (tea made with boiled water) into them, and then started shaking in a packet of coffee...which turned out to be non-instant coffee. We smiled, added sugar, and drank down the grainy mixture... We ate a roll-ex (chapatti topped with fried egg and salt and rolled up like a burrito) and boarded the last few seats in the Nile Coach to Karuma - our next stop on the journey.

The ticket sellers for the Nile Coach ensured us "good seats" for the hour long ride - and promptly showed us to the back row. The seats in front of us were permanently reclined and I basically had a boy's head in my lap for the entirety of the hour. I listened to Andrew Bird (I'm obsessed) and zoned out looking at the scenery.

We finally arrived in Karuma, which is a haven for street food vendors - they bum rush the buses passing through, selling ground nuts (g-nuts), a very weird looking orange drink in used Rwenzori water bottles, bananas, chapatti, and gristly goat meat wound onto long wooden sticks. We piled into a matatu and thought it was full and ready to go with the legal limit of 14 passengers. The conductor managed to pack in 9 MORE PEOPLE AND A CHICKEN before we finally left for Gulu an hour later. I put my head down on my backpack and tried to sleep. We finally made it to Gulu around 12:30 PM and checked into Hotel Kakanyero, exhausted, dirty and hungry.

Friday, August 10, 2007

matatu safari

Upon returning to Red Chilli for dinner on Thursday, we were told that a group of four Spaniards were looking for four more tourists to fill up their open-top vehicle for the game drive the next morning. We accepted and met them promptly at 6:30 the next morning....and then our vehicle didn't show up...long story short, we ended up talking a matatu driver into taking us. Yes, we took a matatu on a game drive. We all piled up top on a mattress like the Beverly Hillbillies and had the most amazing experience (albeit ridiculous looking) driving through the park. The landscape is just as you'd imagine (or as you'd see on Discovery Channel Planet Earth or Planet Carnivore or one of those shows)...wide open expanse with yellow grasses swaying in the wind, dotted with acacia and date palms and scrub, the Nile River ambling along its slow, smooth curves in the distance. Every time we saw an animal (and we saw elephants, lions, giraffes, kobs, Jackson's hartebeest, warthogs, buffaloes, and shoebills) I stamped my foot on the roof of the matatu to get the driver to stop. Millions of "oohs," "aahs," and camera clicking ensued. My photos will do much better to explain the experience than my words can - check them out here.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

to the top of the falls

...and were promptly told that all game drives, boat rides and rides to the top of the falls were completely sold out. A group of 40 tourists had arrived in the area the day before and booked everything solid. We spent fruitless hours on the telephone and were feeling pretty cranky and irritable at the turn of events (or lack thereof). After a failed attempt at an afternoon game drive (we arrived at the ferry that takes vehicles to the animal-laden north side of the Nile only to see it floating happily halfway across the river)...we ended up hitching a ride with some adventure-junkies from Jinja on their way to the falls. It was an hour-long ride but took us directly to the top - where you can teeter over the edge.
The experience caused an immediate sense of vertigo - and also a strange desire to jump in...

Murchison Falls is the place where the Victoria Nile and all its famous volume bursts forth through a 7 meter crack in the bedrock, gushing 43 meters to the pool below. Words cannot describe the force of the water as it churns, drops down and swells back up in a frothing, swirling fury, emitting a constant spray of cool Nile water into the air. I instantly had goose bumps all over - it's one of the most amazing natural phenomena I've ever seen. If you still don't get the force of it - fish that go over the falls are temporarily stunned and unconscious when they hit the pool at the bottom - making it an easy and notorious feasting ground for the lazy but enormous Nile crocodiles waitng at the bottom.

road trip: kla - masindi - murchison

Murchison Falls is the sole must-see location in Uganda in my "1,000-places-to-see-before-you-die" book. We tried our best to set up accommodations from Kampala, but everyone we called kept saying "just go up to Murchison, you will be able to set up accommodations from there." We took their advice and hopped on the 6 AM bus from Kampala to Gulu, which dropped us at a random juncture in the road with little more than a few shops and some street food. We found a matatu driver and started the haggling - they wanted 400,000 shillings to take us to Masindi - we talked them down to 150,000 and began the bumpy journey through the bush to Murchison Falls National Park and Red Chilli Rest Camp.

We arrived at Red Chilli - on the south bank of the Nile River - at 2 PM on Thursday afternoon. After what could have been a disaster, the surprisingly easy bus ride and matatu trip left us quite pleased with ourselves. We plopped our things down in the safari tents (basically a regular tent with an actual bed camping with no electricity, if you will). We heard scratching on the outside of our tent and discovered a family of warthogs rubbing their little tusks against the side. Apparently they reside at the camp - we saw them everywhere - eating, napping, copulating, you name it. We ordered some lunch and began the negotiations for activities...

Monday, August 06, 2007

dispatch from the land of the little birds - part II

Ah-Gandhi? As promised, here is the second installment from our journey to southwestern Uganda.

Before I get started, I should mention that we were a bit ambitious when planning the trip. Initially I had the girls convinced to go to Kigali to visit genocide memorials and Virunga to see the gorillas. In the interest of time and money (visas get a bit pricey), they opted to return to Kampala after our time at Bunyonyi and then attempt a safari at Murchison Falls before heading to Gulu later this week. I was disappointed (especially being so close to the Rwanda border - only 60 km or so), but I know I'll be back. I'll have to push Rwanda off for another trip add-on. I'm set on seeing the gorillas, so while spelunking is off, gorilla-tracking has been added to the life list.

Saturday at Bunyonyi was very similar to Friday. We set off from the market launch early in the morning in a dugout and paddled on the glassy water for about 45 minutes, disembarking and walking back on the meandering road that lines the lakefront - about a two hour walk. After the ride and walk, Bosco invited us to see traditional dancing at the orphanage he runs with his Grandmother. We climbed up to their plot and sat on the grass as eleven adorable kids danced and shook their hips to the beat of a single drum. A tiny little baby bounced around to the beat and stole the show. The kids pulled us up and we danced with them, feeling like awkward giants. Afterwards we stopped down at their shop - they make and sell papyrus baskets to tourists to raise money. We nearly cleaned them out of their stock, and of course my mind was reeling trying to figure out how I could ship baskets from Bunyonyi to sell in the US. I don't know if One Mango Tree will ever happen, but moments like that inspire me just enough to keep the dream alive. Plus the baskets are beautiful.

We went back to Overland Camp and I spent the rest of the drizzly day obsessively photographing little birds from the porch of the restaurant and reading my book, The Power of One, which is a story about coming of age and boxing in the early years of apartheid in South Africa. Alexander works as staff at Overland and made it his personal mission to ensure we had a great trip. He's on an apprenticeship for a hospitality management certificate. I've never had better service (he came to our porch to take our food orders and even offered to build a charcoal fire on our porch when we were too cold and lazy to walk the 500 feet to the main restaurant area) and he even took us to the bus park in Kabale Sunday morning to see that we got back to Kampala without any problems.

We were lucky enough to get seats in the middle of the bus for the ride back (significantly less bumpy), but we still did a lot of head bobbing and iPod listening. We also ate a ton of street food (little banana pancakes, biscuits, samosas, etc.). About an hour outside of Kampala we could smell the pollution and see the effects of the heavy rains that had been pounding the city since we left. It truly was a dreary way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but it makes you feel a little better about wasting a whole day on transport. After getting settled in back at La Fontaine and ordering take away (I had a pepper steak from the restaurant downstairs and veggie spring rolls from the Chinese place across the street), our power went out and we sat chatting in the dark for a few hours, sipping red wine our of our chipped coffee mugs.

It's a gorgeous and sunny day out today and Kampala looks freshly scrubbed from all the rain. Sophia (my housemate) and I took a glorious boda ride into town and have been sitting at Cafe Pap enjoying the afternoon. Now on to the next plans - setting up Murchison for the girls...and for me, deciding on an itinerary for the Kenya trip and beyond. Should I be thinking about what happens when I come home? Nah...I'll put that off for a bit. Time to get down to business, drink lots of cappuccino, and piss away lots of time on the internet, just like I love to do.

Click here to see photos to accompany the Bunyonyi trip.

dispatch from the land of the little birds - part I

A lesson in Rukiga, the very philosophical-sounding language of the Bakiga tribe of southwestern Uganda (Kabale District). I never received correct spelling for the phrases, so here's my own pronunciation guide:

Ah-Gandhi - How are you?
Nietzche - I'm fine.

As you might expect, my dorky side came out and I said Ah-Gandhi to nearly every passerby, just to hear them say Nietzche in response.

My friends Keiranne and Brenda arrived safely from the US last Tuesday evening and we set off for our first adventure in the pre-dawn darkness on Thursday. After purchasing Roll-ex (a fried chapatti topped with fried egg and then salted and rolled) from a street vendor, we claimed our seats on the bus - the very last row. Not surprisingly the ride was miserable and bumpy. We did a lot of head bobbing. I listened to a lot of iPod (new favorite for the road trip: Scythian Empires, Andrew Bird off Armchair Apocrypha) and looked out at the passing scenery, which changed from hilly to flat to hilly (soft, bare, golden hills that look like enormous piles of harvested wheat) to terraced cliffs (every inch cultivated with matooke, sweet potato, sorghum, beans). It was pretty peaceful, until a little boy in our row decided to relieve himself on the floor during the first hour of the 7 hour ride, so we had to put up with full wind from the window (just so we didn't pass out from the odor). Ick.

Disembarking in Kabale was overwhelming - being the only mzungus people on the bus (and in the town), we were swarmed with taxi drivers offering to take us to our camp on the lake. A bad choice left us with a driver that snatched my purse and hid it under his seat as soon as we got in the car. Luckily I was tired and cranky and not up for getting a new passport (not to mention losing lots of cash and my debit card). I forced him to stop and found the purse. As you can imagine, I was in full-on bitch mode for the rest of the ride. We were ecstatic to finally get to Lake Bunyonyi Overland Camp in one piece and with all of our belongings intact.

Overland Camp is nestled into a wooded hillside on the lake, with covered eating area, treehouses, tents and cabins. Our room looked out over the lake and had its own balcony. The first thing that strikes you about this part of Uganda is how cool it is. The temperature averaged somewhere around the mid 60s and dropped significantly at night. Our first day we went for a run (my run was about 25 minutes, while hard core Keiranne and Brenda continued on for another 40 minutes). The crisp, pollutant-free mountain air was making me nostalgic for fall in Ohio, so I sat on the porch, read my book and journaled.

Friday morning started at 6:45 a.m., with matte-gray, misty sunrise and breakfast of fried eggs, toast and milk tea before we set off on our hike. Bosco, a 16-year-old local boy orphaned by AIDS, was our guide for the hike. After a brief walk on the main road, we set off into the terraced fields, following a steep dirt path. The first hour of hiking was almost entirely uphill, leaving me completely winded and wondering how on earth I thought I was going to climb Kili this summer. We wound through farmland and villages, at one point inadvertantly interrupting a primary school class - students saw our strange white faces and the entire class (teachers included) ran outside to see what we were doing walking about in the hills. Some of the little ones were chattering on in Rukiga about how we were going to eat them. The turnaround point for our hike was a cave in the hillside, but after climbing in on hands and knees and seeing nothing but a long, very small passageway, I climbed right back out. Apparently I'm a bit claustrophobic (probably from when my brother trapped me in the secret hiding spot in his room so many years ago...). I'll have to cross spelunking off my list of life goals.

Lake Bunyonyi is known in the guidebooks not only for its idyllic setting, but also for its lack of water predators (crocodiles for one, but most notably the lack of bilharzia - a small snail that gets inside your system and eats up your insides...not pretty). Ugandans in this part of the country all know how to swim. Fisherman set nets for crayfish, which is the main source of food from the lake. We spent the rest of the afternoon on Friday renting a dugout canoe (which is made from a carved out trunk of a mature Eucalyptus tree) and paddling out to Bushara Island Camp - one of 29 islands on Lake Bunyonyi. We saw an otter on the way and crested cranes teetering along on a hillside. The national bird is monogamous and rarely seen without its partner. Kind of romantic, no? After docking and hiking up through a forest of enormous Eucalyptus trees, we had lunch at the camp and relaxed (I had crayfish masala with rice - I feared it would be little hardened creatures with claws in a bloody tomato paste, but not so, it was delicious).

Friday night was cold and drizzly, so we had dinner by the fire at the camp and I drank several mugs of hot cocoa and ate "glucose snackies," which are little biscuits that taste a bit like vanilla wafers. I can't go to bed without an adequate sugar intake. I eat so much here I'm starting to think I have a very happy tapeworm living inside of me. I slept like a rock and woke up to day two - another day of canoeing and hiking.