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Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Weather Channel is Not Particularly Useful Here


We don’t miss the Weather Channel for two reasons*
Moon over Mukono.

1. The weather, sunrise, and sunset are fairly consistent. Sure, it rains sometimes, but rarely for the whole day.  Sunny, warm, gorgeous, and twelve hours long pretty much sums up the forecast.
2. Everything is in Centigrade.   “It’s 30 degrees in Gulu! “ has little emotional impact for us. 86 degrees sounds a lot hotter.

Ugandan English.
The sign says "Strictly For Short Calls Only".

We love the way English is spoken here:

Sorry!  This is said, with a lilt, in response to bad news, any of life’s slings and arrows, dropping something, slipping, breaking something, or hearing about any of those things happening to anyone else anywhere in the world.

To pick.  This usually means “pick up”, or find. “I have to go to the market to pick some bananas.” “Did you pick your friend yesterday?”

Short (or long) call. See picture. The door is to a toilet.  Functional plumbing can be an issue.

Shift:  Move, as in an office or a household
Coaster: A big bus, not a taxi
Taxi: Public transport or minibus
Private hire:  Super expensive private car with driver
Balance: Change from a purchase
Jam: Traffic jam.  “We need to leave for Kampala at 7:00 a.m. to avoid the jam”.
Take tea: EVERYONE has tea at 10:30 a.m. on campus. Men and women carrying thermoses and plastic food baskets on their way to offices appear everywhere.

Mukono market
Academic terms
Marks = grades
Scripts = test papers
Set the exam = write the exam
Sit for the exam = take the exam
Invigilate = proctor.  Invigilate?
Student guild = student government
Canteen = cafeteria
Course or class = Degree program

Market stalls

The International Women’s Fellowship to which I belong decided to have a potluck for our last meeting of the semester.  The IWF was begun and nurtured for many years by Peggy Noll, wife of Stephen Noll, the Vice-Chancellor at UCU for ten years. The Nolls are much-loved, heartily missed, and welcomed eagerly when they come back.  Peggy introduced me to the IWF  when we overlapped briefly, and I am eternally grateful.

The table after dinner.
In honor of Mama Peggy, we called our potluck “Thanksgiving”. She had left tablecloths, napkins, and fold-out turkeys for the occasion.  It was great fun and the international food was delicious. There was no turkey, pumpkin, cranberries, yams, or mini-marshmallows.

Esther and Deborah from Tanzania

Northern Uganda, Western Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Congo, Indiana and Utah are represented. (Cindy Smith from Utah took the photo.)

Everyone needs a hobby
My hobby is buying fabric and having clothes made.  I  was thrilled to find a nearby store that stocks great fabric, and a local tailor, Harriett Mukisa, who can sew anything if given a sketch, or even a verbal description, and a few measurements. My goal is to leave as many of the clothes that I came with here as possible and fill up that luggage space with Harriet-made creations.  Even David has one of her shirts.

Shopping at the Kampala fabric market
Ugandans likes the head scarf. They say it looks "smart".

Starch in its many forms
There are a multitude of nice things about living here:  People are pleasant and helpful; the weather is great; the exchange rate is ridiculously favorable to the dollar at 2300 Uganda Shillings to $1; English is widely spoken; there is a lovely relaxed sense of time; and starch is a major food group.

Starch is something of a Burnett staple. In our ancestral home of West Virginia, we ate starch in the form of peeled potatoes and white bread. Here in Uganda, it’s a Burnett paradise.  The varieties of starch to be found on ONE PLATE are mind-boggling:  Matooke (cooked, mashed starchy banana); Gonja (grilled or broiled starchy bananas that are not matooke); Irish (potatoes like Yukon Gold); yams; rice; posho (polenta-like corn flour dough that is the most unappetizing food ever); pasta;  and ugali (cassava and millet flour paste).  Everyone has an opinion about their favorite starch and how it is best prepared.

Many Ugandans lack a balanced diet containing fruits and vegetables, which are cheap, available and delicious.  This is a mystery to those foreigners who just don’t get the allure of a plateful of carbs.

* Of course, we do miss the Weather Channel.  In Indiana, sometimes we watch it even when we’re uninterested in the day’s weather. Those little pulsing suns and classical music are so soothing.

David: Time for one last field trip

Artfully disguised cracked
windscreen on our field trip van

The semester is rapidly drawing to a close, and as is the case back home, things are getting very hectic (in a uniquely Ugandan way).  We had money left over from the four field trips that were originally budgeted for our Environmental Health class, and as Sarah, my co-teacher put it, “If we don’t spend it all this year, next year when we request money they will say we aren’t serious.”  Does this fiscal philosophy sound familiar?

So the students organized a trip to Jinja, a city about an hour and a half from Mukono.  We (Sarah and I) originally thought this would be a mostly social trip for our graduating seniors, but one of our students had a different plan.

Grace at the tannery

Grace had worked last year as an intern in a business that is adjacent to Leather Industries of Uganda, the largest tannery in East Africa.  She became friends with the tannery's health and safety officer, waste management specialist, and industrial chemist (all the same person).  She made arrangements for all of us to visit and tour the operation.  We drove to the tannery on the shores of Lake Victoria, and this industrial renaissance man gave us a tour of the facility's sights, smells, waste water treatment ponds, everything.

Tanning vats (back) and finished hides (front). The smell was indescribable.

The main tanning facility was housed in a warehouse building that included several dozen huge wooden vats in which the hides were first tumbled with a variety of caustic chemicals to remove the hair, fat and flesh.  Then, they were transfered to other vats to be tanned using chrome, which resulted in leather that was an interesting shade of blue.  These pieces of leather were sorted and stacked, awaiting shipment to China to be made into shoes, clothing, and a variety of other leather items.

Salted hides ready for tanning

Nearly all of the work was done by hand using very low-tech equipment, and the entire place had a very medieval feel to it.  Wooden tanning drums, wooden wheelbarrows pushed by hand, hundreds of gallons of tanning fluids dumped directly onto the floor to drain into channels leading to open air holding ponds.  If it wasn't for the plastic aprons and rubber gumboots worn by the Ugandan employees, all of this could have been a scene from the 1500s.

Wastewater treatment ponds

The tannery is owned and operated by a Chinese company, and they were outsourcing the tanning operation to Uganda.  (We in the US bemoan the loss of jobs at home due to outsourcing to China, India, etc.)  Apparently it is cheaper to purchase the hides from all over East Africa, tan them in Uganda, and ship them to China than it is to do all of this in China. The vast majority of the leather is shipped back to China, but some of the highest quality pieces are also sold to fashion industry firms in Italy, Germany, and other European countries.  Needless to say, I got a whole new sense of the term "global economy" after this visit.

The rest of the day was spent at a resort on the hills overlooking Lake Victoria and the source of the Nile River.  The students had a great time playing soccer, using the playground equipment, and just being young and enjoying each other's company.  All thoughts of the upcoming final exams were temporarily banished by a wonderful afternoon together.
Environmental Science senior class

Things around campus

With final exams upon us, the normal campus routines have changed a little.  Just like back home, students take advantage of the beautiful weather (year round here - did we mention that already?) and spill out onto the lawns around campus to study.  One difference here is that the university supplies hundreds of plastic lawn chairs that students gather into circles for group study sessions.  The green lawns are dotted with clusters of students, intently reviewing notes or discussing course topics.  The libraries are filled to capacity as students try to compensate for less-than-perfect devotion to their studies earlier in the semester with marathon cram sessions.

This plant looks like it belongs on a Star Trek set
but it's in front of our flat.

Great Blue Turaco

Alarm clock, Mukono style

With the rains falling nearly every day for the last four weeks, the plants around campus are much greener and producing lots of flowers, and a variety of animals are out and about during the day.  The bouganvilleas and the gardenia that Beth and Helen planted many weeks ago are thriving.  We hope that many future occupants of T8 (our flat in Tech Park) will enjoy the green thumbprint they have left on our little corner of campus as much as we do.


  1. Mom, we might need to have a talk about your Gonja consumption. I know college campuses are pretty relaxed, but a staple in you diet, don't you think that might be overdoing it?

  2. Dear son,
    Gonja, as in GONE-JA. Gonja is a banana. We will get some GONJA when you're here. The ladies on the street outside our flat sell it.
    There is a kind of music they call Uganja, which is a celebration of just what it sounds like, we are told, which is definitely not sold by the ladies. Love, Mom