Category Archives: Travel

Postcards from Bulambuli #3

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Latest postcard from Bulambuli shows one of our beautiful cross-breed cows delivered to the Buwebele Savings and Loan Association group. 15 of them have recently arrived and their milk will be sold in the town village as group’s micro-enterprise. Pint of milk anyone?

Africa in the time of cholera

Water-borne cholera is both preventable and curable. Africa is one of the very few continents where the disease is still endemic. Please agree with me that it is a huge crime against humanity. Cholera isn’t a cancer where we still not fully understand it nor can cure it. No people should die of cholera in 21st century as we know exactly what is it and how to deal with it. Yet, almost 90% of cholera deaths happen in Africa and most recently an outbreak in Eastern Uganda killed as many as hundreds in Bulambuli district alone.

Cholera is a water-borne virus that causes dehydration and acute diarrhoea. The infection happens when a person consumes water or food contaminated with the bacteria. The virus is spread through poor hygiene practices in places where people don’t use latrines or soap to wash their hands. According to a doctor who’s my neighbour, cholera in the East of Uganda came from the mountains where a dead person’s sheets containing excrements were washed in the river. The water then brought the virus to the city and further down, as the river flows, to Bulmabuli and nearby districts.

Cholera can kill in a day or two. After the virus colonizes the intestine where it multiplies and there it secretes a powerful toxin which interferes with water and electrolytes absorption. Usually by day two, the body collapses with constant purging and vomiting and sever dehydration causes muscle spasms and eventually death. This all can be prevented with a simple oral rehydration therapy (ORT) and adequate sanitation and awareness programs. And this is the saddest part which at the same time makes me immensely angry – how could we fail to eliminate cholera in Africa as we have done in most other parts of the world, if we know the disease and we know the cure?

We know that the promotion of the importance of hygiene through public campaigns and access to safe drinking water is crucial. A couple of weeks into the cholera outbreak I have seen health officers conducting workshops in villages around the district (!). My local volunteers were instilling good practices of washing hands properly and boiling water before drinking after each meeting we held. In the whole of Africa, the investment in prevention practices should be greater – from health campaigns, new boreholes, sewage disposals and latrine building. I believe that food shortage and lack of drinkable water is becoming the greatest crisis in Africa. Regional wars can erupt over the rights to water and land. I worry that large water bodies could already have cholera pathogens, including Lake Chad, Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika which can affect many countries from Nigeria, Cameroon, Zambia, Uganda and many more. I have read about using satellite images who could prevent the outbreak of cholera for up to a few weeks. Cholera or no, the subject of water and sanitation in Africa is hazard. We need more bottom up investment and more light on the sheer scale of the problem of cholera (and other preventable diseases) to avoid unnecessary deaths. For that we need less planning made by politicians and agencies and misused funds and more capacity and infrastructure building at the rural level to enable people take the task through shared responsibility.

Would you agree?

 

 

 

 

 

Book review: The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly

Written by a former World Bank economist and author of a few development books and papers, Easterly asks the question we all ask: does foreign aid work? The book provides no easy answers and each page got me more and more frustrated at big aid institutions, aid itself as well as Easterly’s writing style. No doubt he’s a great economist and raises very important issues but the book has a little too much of critique of some of his colleagues to my taste!

Key questions asked by Easterly is what many of us wonder – what is our motivation with global aid? Focusing on a distant horizon and big plans with grand slogans are we not missing out on what would actually help the extremely poor Africans?

Easterly divides the people and organisations working in development into ‘Planners’ who promote grand plans to save the world with a bang; and ‘Searchers’ who seek solutions to concrete problems that actually can be solved. Let the foreign aiders forget about their utopian blueprint plans to fix the third world. Collective responsibility for multiple goals for each agency doesn’t pave the way for a focused and country-tailored approach that will help the poor. Conditional aid won’t change their bad governments either (for examples and detailed analysis please refer to the book). Let’s stop invading other countries, trying to fix governments and wasting time on meetings and summits. Homegrown development and hard work of local individuals and firms in a free market is more likely to achieve end of poverty. Aid agencies should focus on channeling the aid to to get the poorest people the basics: vaccines, food supplements, roads, fertilizers, boreholes, textbooks and such. It is giving people health, nutrition, education and other tools so they can themselves seek their way out of poverty.

These are more less key messages from the book. They are supported by somehow thorough historical context and examples from various countries since the Cold War. Bear in mind that as with most development books, some of the data here is hotly contested. I found another study telling the opposite outcomes of one of the experiment brought up in Africa but this isn’t uncommon.

 A Ghanaian economist Yaw Nyarko was quoted saying: ‘foreign aid distorts incentives’ as ‘it makes people look to others to solve their own problems’. I agree with this statement. Giving billions of dollars in aid whether through bilateral or multilateral agencies does not guarantee country’s development, and often the conditionality of it and corruption prevents it creating a dependency which is counteractive.

As the saying goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions and it pretty much sums up William Easterly’s book. I am mostly on board with his critiques of some of the big agencies and I really like his ideas about bottom-up development and the importance of accountability in development work. I did have some frustrations with the book too – for example, his failure to critique multinational corporations with the same incisiveness that he critiques international financial institutions and governments.

Overall opinion: worth reading to understand why aid hasn’t eradicated poverty yet and why should we focus on doing rather than planning. 

 

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3-month milestone!

Hard to believe but I’ve been now in Uganda for 3 months! Not even half a year ago I was sitting in my London office desperately wanting to go out there to help people and get out of the rainy city I’ve spent my last 8 years. Time flew by when you doing what you love. Those 3 months were wonderful yet challenging. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the type of work is what I want to do – marrying up travel with doing good to people and communities. It’s incredibly fascinating to live in an African village and watch the community grow and benefit from your work. How did I overcome some of the difficulties?

  • Chill out! Uganda and in fact the whole Africa doesn’t perceive time in the same way we, Westerners do. Time for us is more of a linear concept, a road with clear marks of past, present and future. Africans don’t regard future as time. It’s a ‘no-time’ hence the concept of time itself is more liquid and fluid. In Africa people tend to value other things like interpersonal relations more than time. Unless there is a strong drive for time management, everything in Africa will always be behind schedule. Being quite a punctual person this one definitely has taken me the longest to get used to! Typically, am the muzungu arguing with the matatu driver who told me ‘sister the vehicle is leaving now’ (and it’s obviously not).
  • Food. Glorious food. I have written a post on it here. I love it but had to break up with cheese! Sigh.
  • Muzungu… how are you? I heard that probably 100 times every day and I won’t lie – in the beginning it could annoy me especially when you are trying to talk with your companion! I got used to it now 🙂
  • Things just take time… this is truth for doing a simple bank transaction to something basic like a greeting. You stop, you smile, you exchange a series of questions: how are you? How’s your wife? And kids? And neighbours? How’s your mother and father? How are things in your end? And it goes on and on…
  • It was incredibly hard to see poverty both in the village and in town for the first time.

I am excited for the next 3 months ahead and loving my Ugandan life!

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‘Museveni Babies’ go to the polls today

Today Ugandans are casting their vote for the person who’s going to lead the country for the next 5 years. How thrilling! However, many have lost the hope for change – the results are almost pre-determined. Yoweri Museveni is likely to hold his seat for yet another 5 years. Museveni, 71, has been in power since 1986—just over 30 years. What originally started out to be a one-term presidency for the heroic guerrilla fighter soon turned into the same “overstay in power”. ‘Museveni babies’ (60% of the population!) – people born after 1986 as they are often referred to because they only have one ‘father’. They are deciding whether to re-elect Museveni for fragile peace and ‘steady progress’ or seek fresh leadership. And they increasingly want to secure the future with better jobs than subsistence agriculture or riding motorcycle taxis.

Current president faces challenges from his former government pals – Besigye and Amama. Five others, including a female candidate, are also in contention for the presidency.

Officials say nearly 150,000 regular and military police personnel are being deployed in Kampala and major towns for the electoral period. Mbale seems to be relatively quiet and peaceful – and I hope it stays that way until the results are announced. And who knows, maybe we’ll all be surprise?

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Presidential debate few days ago – picture: Voice of America website: VOA 

The ugly world we live in

Since childhood I have been fascinated with the idea of travelling and exploring the deepest corners of our world. I remember seeing one of the first ‘Incredible India‘ advert on a foreign TV channel and thinking how indeed incredible it would be to see an elephant or that colourfully dressed lady with brown skin. I also decided I’d visit places off the beaten track – I saw somewhere a documentary on Azerbaijan and decided that’s the place I will visit one day.  I haven’t done that yet but I was lucky enough to start travelling outside Poland at a very early age. I’ve been travelling abroad with my parents and their friends and friends’ kids abroad, be it Croatia, Germany or France. At the age of 6 I joined the Polish Folkloristic Group ‘Wielkopolanie’ and soon after I joined them in promoting Polish culture and dance in various festivals around the world: Russia in 1997, Taiwan in 1999, Shanghai in 2006, most of Europe throughout my 12 years of dancing career. I left to study in the UK and pursued travels in and out of London: Malaysia, Australia, India, Europe again (you re-discover many places when you older!). Majority of my trips, like the majority of people, from let’s call it 1st world countries, were for pleasure and relax – you visit the prettiest and most interesting places according to your preferences and the Lonely Plant guide. Some of us like a luxury setting, some backpack and scale mountains, others prefer the big city thrill.

We often think we’re the hub of the universe. However, we’re only a smart part of the Big Rock. The privileged part of the world may I add. Huge percentage of population of the planet Earth lives in the ugly, lives in the dirt and poverty beyond our imagination. A cow dung hut, few pots, firewood and often behind a smile a pair of sad eyes – that’s what you see there and you find it hard to understand it, to comprehend this world that’s so different to yours. You begin to feel something shifting in you – you ask yourself questions: how did I not realise this earlier? I watch news, hear about the poverty, I know Africa..

Thanks to this experience you get to understand the emotions inside the people, the way the world is shaped  for them, their unique beliefs and in what conditions they live and function in. If you travel and stay for a bit longer in places not advertised in a guide, not as a tourist with a fancy camera but as a human being you start to feel solidarity and an overwhelming need of help. You discover that to help is to simply be there and that’s often enough. I wondered before coming to Uganda whether I get the feeling that helping one person is only a drop in the ocean and that would put me off it. On the contrary – you feel like you in that moment you’re giving hope and a smile and the day before there was no hope and no smile.

I want to tell people about what I saw in Uganda – about the world which isn’t glamorous and glossy. I want to dedicate my time to search for ideas and solutions that would actually help them, even one person. I want to leave small footprints around this world. I’ll teach my children that giving is so much better than receiving, that to experience the world, travelling comfortably isn’t going to be enough. While working in the 3rd world countries might not suit everyone, I’d encourage people to find time to travel and experience the real dirty and ugly side of Big Rock even just once. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

Carbs? Yes, please dear Uganda!

Ugandans rely heavily on starchy carbs – and I love it. Being vegetarian I was initially afraid of what was I going to eat but I am actually really content with the food here. Okay, I miss cheese. I miss it so much it hurts. But my love affair with carbs is strong and I get plenty of it here. I just simply tell them I am unable to digest meat and chicken (chicken is not meat according to Ugandans…) and voila! I am served with mountain on my plate (portion sizes are beyond my words) consisting of rice, matoke, greens, g-nut sauce, cabbage and more!

The staple Ugandan mid-day meal involves “everything” with a sauce of some kind. The “everything” is really just a concoction of different kinds of carbs from posho (maize flour) rice and matoke (cooked mashed plantains) to millet, cassava and potato. The potatoes vary – from Irish (white) to the sweet ones and purple yams. The meal comes with g-nut sauce (considered Ugandan national) which is made of ground nuts (peanuts) and either cabbage or greens (whatever greens grow nearby the house). In the village majority of these ingredients are from the garden outside the house. Talk organic! Everything here is free range, organic and unpasteurized (hence my inability to take fresh milk here).

The best thing of Uganda though are avocados… they are big, cheap and beyond tasty. I also consume copious amounts of bananas and tomatoes – both rich in taste and different to the imports in Europe. This side of the country it can be tricky to find more fruit and some are certainly not heard of at all (I asked someone about kiwi and they looked at me like am from Mars) however pineapples and mangos and jackfruit (on the picture below) can be found in bigger villages or in the city.

For a snack you have an option of fried: chapatti, samosa (different to Indian though, much blander) or sweet doughnut. In the city you also get Rolex – cheaper and edible than the Swiss version – chapatti with egg and veg omelet inside. Yum!

Ugandans drink chai (sweet milky tea) and majority have never tasted coffee even though it’s they main export abroad. They also drink lots of soda but only the full fat one. No one has heard of diet coke – even in Mbale which is 5th biggest city in Uganda. Beer (local and bottled) can be found almost everywhere but forget about good wine.

Caution: if you like spicy food or very rich aromatic food Uganda might disappoint. Usually the only spice used is salt or all-in-one type. I don’t mind it as it’s better for my stomach but I know muzungus who complain about it a lot.

So even though this is typical food I consume during the week in the village I do indulge in strong black coffee, pizza (albeit with crappy cheddar cheese) and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies during the weekend since I am staying in town. And in town you can get most of things (except cheese… did I mention it already?).