Monday, August 21, 2006

Home (part II)

After one crazy week back in the states, there are bound to be a few things besides food to comment on. For instance, how do I sum up my first trip to Africa? How can I characterize Uganda? What's weird about being back? While I'll spare you my verbal diarreah on all of the various in sundry topics of my first week back in the U.S., here are a few interesting tidbits:

1) Americans are bogged down with a lot of stuff. Even before I arrived at home, my poor wife was having trouble with both of our cars and as a result I had to ride a Greyhound for the last leg of the trip. Wait, poor? Two cars? Those don't belong in the same sentence. Also, for those of you who have never ridden a Greyhound or a Ugandan taxi, let me just say that the former beats the latter in legroom by about a mile. I never thought the cheapest possible mode of transportation in the country (short of skateboards and bicycles) could feel so luxurious. The frigid air-conditioning and the smooth ride (i.e. absence of potholes) reminded me that even the low-end realities of a rich country are poignantly and almost laughably posh even compared to the high-end realities of the third world.

2) Stuff is expensive in rich countries. I spent 24 hours in Gatwick airport, and the 60 dollars I spent there just to call my wife and stay nourished were cautious reminders of the 100 painful bucks I spent last time I passed through London . . . and that was just getting from place to place and eating some lunch! Another 50 bucks worth of cab ride from the Orlando airport to the Greyhound station reminded me that I could have gone back and forth from Orlando to Tallahassee 10 or 12 times for that much money in a Ugandan economy. This is going to take me a while. Shillings, how I miss you.

3) Ugandans are fearless. Even when my neighbors' kids there had no money for transport to and from school, their mum decided to bite the bullet and educate her children at home. People routinely go about their lives not knowing how they will foot the bill, faithful that it will all work out somehow, and with the generosity of friends and neighbors, they get through . . . which brings me to my next point.

4) I have never met so many ridiculously hospitable people. A Ugandan proverb states, "Mu nju temuba kkubo," or, "in the house there is no road." Visitors in the home are blessings upon that home, and people treat them as such. By extension, visitors to Uganda are within the confines of a collective Ugandan home, a reality that any traveler can feel in his everyday interactions with people in Uganda. My American friend in Kampala calls it "embarassing hospitality"; it's that kind of hospitality that makes you wonder what people think when they visit our country. It's not that we're unhospitable, but I was made a part of someone's family and of so many communities in Uganda. Of all the stories I could tell about my travels there, that's the one that touched me most.

5) No matter where home is, it's always good to be back. I'm happy to be home, to spend time with Jenn, to see my friends again, and to know that the meager student wage I receive has little to do with my quality of life because I live in a rich nation. I'm not a person who has a whole lot of guilt about living in the U.S. now that I have seen some places that aren't so filthy stinking rich. However, I do think that we have a lot to learn when we witness smiling people whose disposition doesn't match the balance in their bank account. We should be so bold as to find those reasons to be happy if for no other reason than just another day above ground.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Home, Home At the Table

Well, I've been home a week now and I gotta tell ya: while I generally enjoy Ugandan food and I'm always willing to be adventurous, there are a few things that I'm happy to be eating back in the good ol' US of A. First, the vast majority of restaurants in the Kampala metro area have no idea what the word "ketchup" means. You don't know what you have until it's gone. How I longed for the thick, tasty goodness of Heinz on so many occasions where the chips were so good but so lacking a proper dipping sauce. Can't settle for "tomato sauce," either. That crap is such a piss poor excuse for ketchup that it brings my taste buds pain to describe its thin, runny, tasteless, unfortunate existence to you. Yes, Heinz ketchup is available in Uganda if you look in the right places, but here I don't have to look farther than the center of the table to dress my burger properly.

Okay, I don't eat burgers and chips all the time and I have thoroughly enjoyed being at home in the kitchen with my dear wife. My first meal back home, we made a summer feast on the grill with flank steak (a medium-rare concept foreign to Ugandans, who generally prefer their beef thoroughly cooked in some sort of stew or sauce--nice, but just not my scene with the grill sitting out back). We had fresh corn on the cob, a tasty change of pace from the late-night roasted kasooli to which I had become accustomed and a softer reminder of summers in Iowa. The grilled green beans and garden salad topped off a meal with more fresh vegetables than I'd eaten all summer. Above all, enjoying a meal and a nice bottle of wine with Jenn was a wonderful (if belated) way to celebrate our third anniversary.

It's not that I don't like Ugandan food. In fact, I found most things very tasty. My only dislike, papaya, had nothing to do with the way anyone cooked. But my stomach knows where I came from. Some things just taste like home. I will say this: even in Florida, the fresh fruit can't compare with Equatorial Africa. Pineapple, mangoes, and the best variety of bananas anywhere, you will be missed. Until next time, I'll have to stick to the summer favorites here and just know it's good to be in America, home of Heinz, of sweet corn, of cookin' cow on the grill with beers nearby and home of the backyard barbecue. Yum.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The (mis)Adventures of Kigozi: Land of the Many Strange Foods
"Don't Knock It 'til You've Tried It"

In all honesty, travelling is eating what you don't normally eat. There's no way you can avoid it. In my book if you're even trying to eat normally, you need to either get your head checked or stay home. I have a long history in gastrointestinal adventures in travel. I'm sure at least some of you can relate. For instance, when you eat plantains for days on end in the Caribbean, you begin to reap the benefits of a high-potassium diet. For me it was about endurance in playing highly repetitive percussion rhythms (yes, I actually believe the bananas help), but the beans and rice on the side don't hurt your fiber intake either. Japan and China: leave all your inhibitions behind, close your eyes in case something is still squirming on your plate, and enjoy! Easy as pie . . . or squid . . . or whatever.

Uganda is pretty tame in regards to adventurous foods, especially considering that all of their edible insects are out of season right now. Too bad. I could really use some nice enswa (ants) or ensenene (grasshoppers). But everyday food is pretty normal: matooke (another form of banana, so the potassium thing applies again), beans and rice, cassava, sweet potatoes, etc. However, this Monday I had a rare opportunity to try something new (begin flashback sequence).

So I'm "up-country" with a friend and we're on our way to a musicians house, but we get hungry on the way and stop for breakfast. As I go to the "short call" (see previous post on graduation parties for an overview), my friend orders us up some breakfast. I return to a nice plate of chapati and caayi (tea). One drink of the tea and I know the place can't be bad--it was lightly flavored with ginger--yum. But he's got an extra plate with an unrecognizable meat product. I ask him what this delectable dish is, and he responds, "it's, you know, the insides." Now most people are thinking this can't be good, right?
"Yes, that."
"This one is of goat." The waitress brings that extra bowl for me, but my friend hesitates, saying that his last research buddy "got problems" when she tried everything he put in front of her. But for me, I'm pretty brave, so I jump in with both feet. Turns out goat guts with chapati and caayi are pretty tasty. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it, friends. Breakfast, anyone?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Well friends, wedding week is over. I have successfully participated in a beautiful chain of ceremonies as the best man in Damascus Kafumbe and Betty Nayiga's wedding. If I recounted every last detail for you, you'd never read my blog again, so I'll try to hit the high points of the week in this week's segment: Matrimony in Uganda (a Liberated Man's Perspective). Disclaimer: this is a long blog by my standards and it contains personal opinions; if you are unfamiliar with Ugandan culture, beware of reading it as fact. Enjoy.

So there were basically three main ceremonies that made up the chain of parties: kwanjula (the introduction ceremony), kasiki (the "bachelor party," and mbaga (the wedding). I think a briefing on each process will suffice, but I need to vent some commentary here, people.

Okwanjula is the verb for "to introduce." Although the two families were already acquainted, this was an opportunity for the groom to offer his dowry and the bride's family to either accept or reject it as they decided whether to allow their daughter to enter the Holy Bonds. As promised, I observed this dowry situation closely since we're not really used to that. Although the bride's family had threatened to demand 70 cows, this groom was free to bring whatever he wanted as long as it included several essential items: ennyama (meat), omwenge (banana beer), mutwalo (ten thousand--I'll explain), and a gift of appreciation to the family. Everything else is bonus that the family shares with their extended family. The representatives from the groom's family (not his parents; they musn't interfere) drove to Masaka, about 3 hours south of Kampala, with this dowry. We brought about thirty or forty baskets with assorted items (bread, butter, sugar, tea, groundnuts, etc.), two "cows" (one being equivalent to either a side of beef or a thigh), three large gourds of mwenge (about sixty litres). Along the way, we picked up a live cock, which must be given to the muko or eldest brother of the bride, who gives her away from the family to the groom. We also picked up a live goat, which is a symbol of virginity (more on that later), and we kindly stuffed it in the trunk together with the chicken. Nice. We also got some containers to serve the mwenge in so that people wouldn't be drinking out of fifty-pound gourds. That would be messy. And difficult.

Now the only people who can really speak at these things are the omwogezi, who are family representatives that the families hire to negotiate for them. These dudes argue politely and use very complicated Luganda proverbs and metaphors to do so. They are masters of the language, which is why they are chosen for this, a situation in which so much is at stake. You know how easy it is to offend your in-laws? If someone else takes the heat off for you, it's easier to deal with that one difficult in-law that you swear wants to kill you. (I'm lucky, my in-laws are cool, but I know that's not true for everyone.)

So much for the kwanjula. There's a lot more to it, but in the interest of your continued healthy eyesight, let's move on to the kasiki. You know how American bachelor parties are characterized by drunken debauchery, raunchy humor, and women of questionable virtue? Ugandan bachelor parties are basically the complete opposite. The kasiki is an opportunity for a person's village and family to usher the bagole (bride and groom) into married life, and in this case, say goodbye. I am closely associated with the groom, so I was not allowed to attend the bride's kasiki. This was a party like any other with the obligatory food, drink, and music, but in a word, it was one thing: church. That's right, we couldn't even start until two hours late because the pastors weren't there to preside over the blessed event yet.

Now to wedding day. This was perhaps the least foreign to me and my faithful readers. Just a church wedding (though a fairly conservative one in terms of theology if you care to know) followed by a reception. The reception featured traditional dancers, however, and these people get right in front of the head table and do mbaga dance. This is a sex education dance that has been used in Buganda for years. It's explicit about the how-tos and everything. Whoa. I had been learning how to play ngoma for this dance, among others, but the musicians there blew my mind. They are among the best Baganda musicians in the world. It was pretty rad.

Now to some general commentary. There are a few things about events in Uganda that remain relatively consistent:
Food and Drink: As Steven the security guard in my apartment compound put it, "without those things there is no function."
Music: Duh.
Cake: essential, but rarely avoiding extreme staleness.
Speeches: Long, long, speeches. Hours of them.
Photographers and videographers: So many that you can't get a picture in before one of them steps in front of you to get the shot.
MCs: You'd be surprised what a good one can do for an event and how bad things are with a bad one.

Now food and drink are fun, because at most events you're allowed to eat with your hands even if they give you silverware. What's not fun about that? Music is varied: sometimes dodgy keyboards, other times Christian music that should never be recorded in the way you're hearing it (imagine "Amazing Grace" or "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" only in a discotheque). The music at this particular set of events was generally very good, however, so that was refreshing. Even better, both kwanjula and kasiki featured traditional musicians of the highest calibur.

Cake. Where do I start. Non-descript pumpkin or carrot or brown spice cake, always with raisins and a hard sugar frosting is the order of the day for any Ugandan event, no matter how formal. Usually stale, though I had some of the best Ugandan cake I've tasted anywhere at this mbaga. These are above average people. They can't settle for crappy cake. Right on, Mwami ne Mukyala Kafumbe.

Speeches: now kwanjula and kasiki are really nothing but series of long speeches with breaks for food, drink, and a bit of music. However, I must again commend this couple on their ability to keep the speaking to only one hour at the wedding. This is an unusually short amount of time for speeches at a mbaga.

Photographers and Videographers: these guys are ridiculous. They filmed us changing into our tuxes. They are everywhere, at all times, and they do not relent with thier warm lights and close lenses. I will say this. The professional photography that I've seen so far has been extremely high quality. At least if I can't take my own pictures, somebody else can take them better.

MC: Let's just put it this way. If the MC is good, it can cut hours out of boring or offensive or just plain inappropriate uses of time. If he's bad, he personofies all of those things. If only we had MCs at weddings in the US to curb the drunken best-man speech before he offends the entire county or the bandleader strangles him with a microphone cord (this is no reflection on my own best man, who touched everyone deeply with a classy and brief toast at our wedding--thanks, Josh).

Now the character of all of this was very conservative, which in principle I think is the couple's prerogative. I will keep my theological issues to myself, but I must add this: the place of women in all of these ceremonies constitutes a telling microcosm of their wider social status. Women must get on their knees to greet men or other women. Baganda women are generally very shy and submissive, and that's just the norm here. They can have careers (though the glass ceiling is not strictly American), they can be outside the home (though the verb that a woman uses when she is going to marry is okufumbirwa, from the verb okufumba: "to cook"), and she can wear trousers (but not when she goes to see her grandparents). Very interesting. It's not that a Muganda woman can't be her own person and have her own life or anything like that, but her disposition is generally that of a quiet, submissive cook. I am strictly not a practitioner or supporter of cultural hegemony, but I am pleased to be married to the boisterous, opinionated, loud, beautiful person that I call my wife, and I like it that it's okay for her to be like that.

Friday, July 21, 2006

How to Beat a Kampala Hangover

So last night I went to have a drink with my friend Richard. Thing is, it was really Richard and much of his extended family. We met about nine, and just planned to have a couple of beers, but then some more family showed up and we figured out that they were Ffumbe clan (and hence, my brothers). To celebrate the discovery of new family members, one of these fine gentlemen decided to purchase an entire bottle of Uganda Waragi. This stuff tastes a bit like gin and it's about that strong. He proceeded to top off an eight ounce glass for me. Now I hadn't had that much to drink, but this on top of a beer really put me over the edge. It doesn't help that beer bottles here are 500 ml instead of the good ole 300 ml bottles we mortals are accustomed to in the states. So this morning when I was all set to be on campus by 9:00 and didn't wake up until much too late, I had to be in quite a rush. Now, for the moment you've been waiting for: how to kill a Waragi hangover (subtitled Seven Steps well, if not to Heaven than at least out of Hell):

1) Eat the beautiful Equatorial fruit bowl that your roomate has prepared for you (thanks DK--you're the man--pinapple and bananas for breakfast = yum).
2) Wherever you are, find the nearest boda-boda to get there fast.
3) Make sure he can see straight, even if you can't.
4) Enjoy the refreshing mist of the cool rain just beginning to fall.
5) Take four straight hours of Luganda lessons. This is a real buzzkill when you'd really rather be sleeping.
6) Eat a big lunch.
7) All better!

In spite of the fact that I throbbed through the entire Luganda session this morning, I sit here at 2 PM free of headache and finally rid of the smell of Uganda Waragi. Thanks muganda wange empya (new brother). Diplomacy in kinship, she is a cruel mistress.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Adventures in the Boda-Boda Kingdom

Kampala is a growing city of nearly two million people, but you would never know it from the public transportation systems and infrastructure. In fact, it's as if Kampala has no idea how big it is or how quickly it's growing. I've never seen a planned neighborhood here, which for an American is refreshing but for most Ugandans is increasingly frustrating. The city operates on a triumvirate of public transport hawkers: 1) the matatu: these are 14 passenger vans, but if you can imagine something that's half as large as a regular 15-passenger van in the U.S. and then cram twenty people into it, your image will be right on. These are usually extremely dirty and if you think the driver smells, the conductor probably smells worse. 2) Special hire: this is for the rich or well-to-do when they are without their cars OR for regular folks who have to haul a bunch of stuff and don't want to piss off the other 19 people in a regular taxi. Special hire drivers are notoriously pushy about getting you into their cars before they overcharge you for a short trip. 3) Boda-boda: first of all, this is one of my favorite Luganda words. To my knowledge there are only two cities in the world that have these: Lagos, Nigeria and Kampala, Uganda. They are basically mopeds (never larger than 100 cc engines for you gearheads), the drivers of which are not quite as pushy as special hires for one reason: they don't have to be. Can you think of a more fun way to spend a quarter when you have to get somewhere?

In Kampala, as in any other city, you have to know a few landmarks to get where you're going. The difference is that in most cities, all the public transport people know most of the landmarks, too. That's certainly true of the matatus and the specials, but when you get on the back of a scooter with a 14-year-old boy driving, you might be in for an adventure in navigation. Most of the time, you try to get a guy who looks a bit older or one who at least wears a helmet. These fellas usually tend not to think they're quite as invincible as the young'uns, who would just as soon kill themselves and you before allowing that ISUZU 18-wheeler go in front of them.

And now for a recurring adventure in the Boda-Boda kingdom . . . inevitably I run into at least one boda drivers per week who has no clue where he's going, is half-drunk, or has simply borrowed the machine from a friend because he was hurting for cash and the other guy had to sleep sometime. Now these dudes are really frustrating, because even if you speak to them in their own language, they will tell you they know the place when they really just want your money. So what happens is you get halfway there and then the dude says: "which way?" If there's another boda driver around, you can just get off, pay the first guy half what you agreed, and gamble again, but if not . . . So after a while you get used to the look on the guy's face BEFORE you board the bike, and you tell him you'll find another driver. Now out of the roughly ten occasions I've done this, about half have resulted in a mad rush of boda drivers coming to me and telling me they know the place. And invariably, one of these poor fellas is hopelessly crosseyed. So while I'm trying not to laugh while he says, "Yes sah, I know the place, I can take you there, you sit and we go," I just think how happy I'll be when I can get in my own car and cause my own problems on the road. In the mean time, it's continued misadventures in the Boda-Boda capital of East Africa.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Editor's Note: I know this is long, but stick with it. It's pretty interesting. I'll do my best to pare down the parts that seem a little long. Happy reading! P.S.- You'll note that changes have been made to this post several times. I finally have accurate info on dowry, which will be enriched by my participation in Kwanjula (see below).

So I'm the best man in a Ugandan wedding, and I thought my faithful readers would want to know a bit about some of the customs here. In days past and in places outside Kampala, a family threw the wedding party for the bride and groom at the home of the bride. Now the family asked this particular groom for 70 cows as an intimidating tactic. He can actually bargain for and bring whatever he wants as long as he includes a few essential items (more on that later) Since at the kwanjula (introduction ceremony, which will happen a week before the wedding), the groom is not allowed to speak, the negotiation part should be interesting. I'll say more about the groom's silence and the essentials of dowry after I've attended and participated in the kwanjula, but for now let's concentrate on cattle and parties. Mooooooo.

The bride's family and the groom's family put on the wedding party, or mbaga, with the help of their villages. Mostly the brides family friends, neighbors, and clanmates would help out by bringing whatever they could manage, sort of like a potluck. Mwenge (crude brew--like moonshine made from bananas and sometimes distilled with sorghum) was brewed, mom made a cake, and they all had a big drunken bash complete with local musicians--sounds like fun, right? Only problem is, now that people live in the city and they either a) don't have the land in the village anymore or b) don't think it makes sense to haul 100 litres of mwenge and a cake from the village (wherever that may be) to Kampala, they have to hire some professionals to help them put on a proper shindig.

Since the average Ugandan in Kampala makes about 400,000-800,000/= (shillings) a month (about $200-400, a living wage in Kampala) with the growing middle class doing a bit better than that, people need to raise some money. I would estimate that the average modest wedding in the city costs somewhere between 10 and 30 million shillings, so that's a lot of bread (or Matooke as it were--that's the staple food here) for your average Kigozi. To get the job done, they have wedding meetings, one of which I attended this evening.

Now these meetings are meant for the sole purpose of raising funds for the bash, but I must admit that they are quite a lot of fun. If you want to make it through one of these things, just bring lots of small change (1K shilling bills and coin change, like stuffin' your pockets with quarters), your smile, and a giving heart. Friends get invited by other friends through the use of pledge cards. Depending on how well someone knows the couple, they might contribute anywhere from 20K/= to 500K/= at a given meeting or on a given pledge card (that's between roughly $10 and $225).

So the first item on the agenda is always prayer, which the chairperson leads or asks someone to lead. He or she is almost always a relative of the couple. After prayer, the "chairman's bag" goes around the group for an initial donation, which he uses to secure locations for future meetings or contribute to whatever particular fund is suffering. There have been between 10 and 15 people at both of the meetings I've attended. These folks are there to support the couple in whatever way they can, but mostly with their cash.

After the chairman's bag goes around, it's time to go through the budget. That's exactly what the chairman does: he goes through the budget, item by item, recognizing the recent contributions and applauding them, asking for support for those items which have been neglected. It was at this point in my first meeting that I decided I needed a drink and contributed some money to some wine for this party.

After the budget, it's time for the auction. Now I've seen plenty of auctions in my day, but these are something else. Someone buys a gift and wraps it (might be the bride, might be the groom, might be the chairman . . . ) and then it's time to pick an auctioneer. At both of the meetings I've been to, the chairman picks three possible candidates to be the auctioneer, usually volunteering himself in that mix. These three get up and campaign NOT to be the auctioneer, and the one who raises the least money has to do the deed. It's not that bad, but it's uncomfortable at first, especially when you don't talk like an auctioneer. As you can plainly see, I didn't raise enough money in this process, so I was the auctioneer this evening.

It's not that interesting to tell you about what bids were made and so on, but what is interesting is that bids aren't made with raised hand or numbered paddle, they're placed with cash. That means that for each bid you make, you put that much cash in the bag. For example, if bidding starts at 5000/=, a person can reduce that by however much she pleases to "unseal" the item. So we collect small donations until someone can afford to "seal" it again for herself or someone else. As you go, you don't want to bid too big because if you get outbid, that large bid is already in the bag and you have to come up with more cash in order to bid again. (Note: the first time I attended one of these babies, I didn't understand the rule and ended up spending 25,000/= on an auction item that I didn't win.) This all goes on for about a half hour, and people make silly rules like: "1,000/= so that the auctioneer can't talk" or "1,000/= supports a song and dance from the chairman," and in order to remove these bidding curses, someone either has to bail the target out or the target has to be filthy rich and bail himself out.

At the end of the day, the group raises about 100 times what the gift cost in the first place, and the couple can buy some more wine to make these people happier at the wedding so that they won't be thinking about what percentage of the cake came out of their pockets.

That's really about it. Then the auctioneer counts the cash and a great announcement is made to celebrate whatever amount was raised by the auction item. The crazy part? The couple doesn't even have to be there if they've got some other important wedding planning to do, like marriage counseling or meeting with the caterer or something. That's right happy couple, while you're out working your butts off to make this thing happen, we'll be right here raising the cash to support you. Now that's community. So even though people don't bring stuff from home like a couple of trees worth of bananas to feed the guests, they still contribute as a community of friends to help their friends throw a good party.

I for one have invested in wine. This particular couple doesn't really drink, but I think a good party ought to have some libations and as long as nobody loses their matooke after too much mwenge, that's okay. So cheers to the happy couple. May your auction item bring as many ridiculous rules as it does shillings, because I'm not walking to the reception and there had better be something to eat and some good music when we get there.