Friday, July 30, 2010


On a morning much like this one last week, I walked half way to work just a couple of steps behind a young girl, not older than 12. Her hair was cut short, she wore her school uniform: a blue skirt and black sweater with a white collared shirt below. She carried a grimy orange and black bag slung over her right shoulder, its strap tattered and tied in several knots just to keep it in place. Though barefoot she walked with confidence, negotiating the potholes, mud, and rocks with ease.

Mobile Money

During our lunch hour I walked to and from town with two coworkers, Lucy and Lillian. Lucy was in pursuit of a new mattress and Lillian needed to stop at the bank. Today, unlike the cloudy cold day yesterday, was hot. The scarf, sweater, and rain jacket that seemed essential yesterday now appear completely out of place. The line at the bank for the ATM was long, probably 20 people waiting patiently for their turn at retrieving cash. We stopped in at several store fronts with stacks of foam mattresses covered in thin cloth, 5 or 6 inches deep. Although the salesman boasted long lasting foam, if these are anything like my mattress, I have a reason to believe that after just one month there are indentations where one sleeps at night.

Before we headed back down into the valley of swamp land between town and our office, Lillian stopped at a Mobile Money Agent to send money to her son via a cell phone. I remember my friend and colleague Oola (from Gulu, studying with me at Notre Dame) telling us about this in our economics class last semester, but did not understand how this system actually works. The Mobil Money Agent is associated with one of the cell phone companies and sits at a small desk outside on one of the main roads through town. In order to send money to her son, who is studying law in the south, Lillian simply gave cash to the Mobil Money Agent, who registered and completed the transaction to the son's cell phone within a couple of minutes. Lillian called her son and confirmed that he had received the money before we left the stall.

Lillian sent 20,000 Ugandan Shillings ($10) and paid 800 Ugandan Shillings (40 cents) for the transaction. Her son will then go to a similar Mobile Money Agent and retrieve the cash. He will pay 700 Shillings to get the money. The transaction fee increases slightly depending on the amount of money being transferred. Lillian explained that this was so much more convenient than sending money through the banks- there are more Mobile Money Agents than banks, there is no line, and the transaction is immediate. With this system one can send money to anyone, and it seems a whole lot less complicated than paypal...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

it's raining again, slow down.

The rain begins as a slow putter. Drops tap tap tap as they hit the tin roof above our office, a sign that perhaps more is to come. As the rain builds I can actually see the drops falling just outside our door, which is wide open and welcoming. Little puddles become big puddles, potholes are filled with muddy water, and small streams are formed alongside the road. It sounds like rocks are being pelted against the roof, the volume of the noise generated by the rain against tin is incredible. Will it last a couple of minutes, or hours?

Yesterday I sat with Irene, my office's human rights protection officer (a lawyer by profession), discussing the type of cases that we take on and how the court system functions (or doesn't function) here. As she described the complicated process of resolving land disputes through the court system---

'if mediation fails, then a case will taken to court, if the land is unsurveyed the case begins in the Local Council I Court, and can be appealed twice, but if the land has been surveyed it begins at the Sub County Court level and can be appealed all the way up to the Court of Appeals. But there are no lawyers present at the lower level courts, and often the results of the case are influenced by the wallet...'

---as she explains all this the rain becomes heavier, the sound it produces increases, and consequently the volume of our voices is raised. We are practically shouting back and forth, just to be heard by one another. The rain fades, we speak more quietly, the volume of the rain increases, and so do our voices. We follow this pattern for about an hour.

As I get up to leave for home, despite the rain still pouring, Lucy (office assistant) says, 'first wait for it to stop.' You can't be in much of a rush here. The rain forces you to slow down, sit where you are and wait for it to lighten up. Since I move by foot I cannot do much but wait, wait for the rain to become a drizzle or for the sun to show its face.

Monday, July 26, 2010

It's winter, say what?

It was only this past Saturday that I really felt cold. Last week I saw my co-workers begin to bundle up in the morning hours with winter jackets and scarves. The cold weather had not really hit me yet, it felt cool, yes, but cold enough for a winter jacket? I was still comfortable wearing a short sleeve shirt, skirt, and sandals- I thought the cool weather was a nice respite from the heat of the past weeks. The odd thing is that it is cold in the morning or evening when the sky is covered in rain clouds threatening a downpour, but, in a matter of hours the sun is shinning strong and it is quite hot out again.

How is one supposed to know what to wear to work? Should I carry my rain jacket? Will my extra sweater feel like a burden by lunch time?

It seems we are entering the rainy season, and with the rain comes cool temperatures and breezes. Can you believe I did not pack a scarf? Me, of all people! I will search for one in the market today after work and perhaps a blanket too.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What's for dinner?

We have been joking amongst the four of us that we should start a cookbook to chronicle the evolution of our home cooked meals in Gulu. We all eat lunch at work, which is typically a Northern Ugandan staple of some sort.

Meals are ordered with a carbohydrate:
layata (sweet potatoes)
posho (flour and water mixture that looks like mashed potatoes)
mucele (rice)
chapati (the Indian bread)
cassava (root vegetable)
kwan kal (millet bread with a mashed potatoe texture)
kwan unga (corn bread).

AND a main dish/side dish:
dek gwenno (chicken)
olel gweno (chicken in a peanut sauce)
muranga (beans)
rech- (fish, normally not fresh)
ngo- ground peas
boo- green vegetable in a peanut sauce (looks like spinach sort of)
akayo- green leaves
malakwang- like boo, but with a sour taste
odigo- okra

Although tasty, the dishes all have very similar flavors and so once at home we have tried to get creative with the available ingredients. In the market we can find these basic vegetables- tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, eggplant, zucchini, avocado, cauliflower, corn (it is very hard), onion, garlic, ginger and these fruits- lemon, pineapple, mango (though we are at the end of the season), sweet bananas and passion fruit.

There are many supermarkets (tiny by US standards) the size of a large room, with shelves full of various necessities: pasta, rice, lentils, cans of tuna, spices, cookies, loaves of white bread, honey, a locally made ground nut and sesame paste combo that is similar to peanut butter, canned tomatoes and sweet corn. The supermarkets generally appear to be run by Chinese or Indian owners, which is reflected in the items available (ie soy sauce and curry powder, which are not found in Ugandan food). It is always important to check the expiration dates and for bugs before buying anything!

When we first arrived a couple of weeks back, the kitchen was unfurnished, and so our very first meal together was a mango and pineapple cut up with Niki's swiss army knife. Within a couple of days the landlord had furnished the kitchen with plates, bowls, utensils, pots/pans, and a gas canister as a stove (we filled it with gas at the gas station, and Ahmad rode back on a boda boda with it). We were quite proud of our first real breakfast- boiled eggs and pan toasted bread. Once we stocked up on the basics from the supermarket we graduated on to a stew made of various veggies and a tomato sauce over rice or pasta. We have also been quite creative with canned tuna, heating it up with onions and garlic (although I'm not sure I should admit that). We manage to cook over our one burner 'stove' even when the electricity is out using a kerosene lamp and our battery powered head lamps.

On Sunday we grew tired of the stews and so made lentil soup- we each contributed ideas, each with a different way to make this basic, but delicious soup. We had it with our new favorite- chapati chips (warning: overload on the grease, not only are chipatis greasy to begin with, but these chips are then deep fried to make them crunchy!). Last night we introduced ginger to our repertoire and had a ginger/soy sauce/garlic stir-fry with egg plant, zucchini, and cauliflower over thin spaghetti noodles- Ahmad said it was worthy of a restaurant! Next ingredient on the list is coconut milk, all we need to buy is the curry powder.

Recipe ideas welcome :)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Visiting Oola's family

Yesterday we spent the afternoon with Oola's family (our classmate from Notre Dame). His family home is in a village just off the main road into Gulu. They just returned to their land this past year after nearly 15 years of living in town during the conflict years. Their home is surrounded by a variety of fruit trees (mango, jack fruit, lemon, avocado) and they have farm land with corn, sweet potatoes, and casava.

When we arrived Oola's mom was attending a meeting of a locally organized group working to help each other and themselves as they live and work on their land again. They work on things like micro-finance and cleaning water wells. Below is a photo of the group.

We were invited into the home of a family living adjacent to Oola's mom. Below you can see photos inside of their round hut. Interestingly, there is no word in Acholi (the local language) for the word 'corner.'

All of a sudden the wind picked up and storm clouds rolled in, so we went inside Oola's mom's house for dinner. We had matokay (not sure how this is spelled), which is a green vegetable mixed with a ground nut paste (like peanut butter) and layata (sweet potatoes).

We left just before dark, and made our way back home along Kampala road. We are hoping to spend many more afternoons in the shade of trees around Oola's home.

Making Clothes

Last Sunday we went to the market to find a tailor, pick out cloth, decide on a design, and have a skirt made. Winnie, Oola's girlfriend, took us to her most trusted tailor, Santa (she works fast and the price is very low). Santa's shop is just up this ally on the right. We chose designs from a large poster packed full of skirt and shirt combinations. Although the designs look similar to our untrained eyes, Santa was able to help us sort through the differences- one flares out at the knee, another is made with strips of fabric rather than a single piece, some have slits up the side, but most seem to hug the hips pretty tight.

Next, we had to decide on the fabric. Santa took us up and around the corner to a room filled to the brim with cloth of every color and design. We pulled neatly folded bunches of fabric from the shelves, trying to make sense of the color sensory overload. Since the fabric is sold in 6 yard chunks (enough for 2 skirts and a shirt), Niki and I decided on a design we would both like. With our blue floral fabric in hand we returned to Santa's shop where she got our measurements, and told us the clothes would be ready in just three days. See photos below for the finished product!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

To the market

Niki, Christina, Ahmed and I at the Refugee Law Project office on Sunday, having a delicous home cooked meal made by Winnie (our Ugandan classmate Oola's girlfriend).

The walk from our home to downtown Gulu takes about 30 minutes, along those bumpy, dusty, dirt roads that I have written about. The photos below follow our path from home to the market.

A photo of our backyard shows that just beyond our walls is the country side.

The red roofed house at the end of this driveway is our home. On the left just before our gate are several huts and a small corn field.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Along the road

This morning the sun was still hidden behind clouds as I made my way to work along bumpy red/orange dirt roads. I stick close to the left side of the road, following a well worn foot path. Along the side of the road is low lying green vegetation, full of thorns and perhaps snakes. There are others walking in the morning hours, some dressed smartly for work, others on their way to school hand in hand with their kids. The majority are on bikes or boda bodas (motorbike taxi). Boda boda drivers slow as they approach me, do I want a ride? I decide to continue walking, taking the opportunity to get a bit of exercise.

Boda bodas zoom past, honking as they approach. Cars (mostly trucks with four-wheel drive) tear down the roads, stirring up an unbelievable amount of dust in their wake. Bikes share the road more gracefully, some bike side by side conversing on their way into town, others transport a friend on the handlebars or back of their bike. One bike passed by with large chunks of meat protruding from a wood box on the back, another balanced a large sack of charcoal ready for the market.

Although storm clouds and a cool breeze swept in in the afternoon, the sun returned in time for my walk home. As I walk I seek shelter from the sun's strong rays in the shade of trees that line the main street through Gulu. Just down from the Acholi Inn, a group of men in uniform followed by men handcuffed to one another emerge from the court house, and quickly disappear into the distance as they march towards the prison. Taking an alternative route home, I am met by a constant stream of children and youth returning home from school. Dressed in identical blue pants and white shirts, or for the younger ones blue dresses and bright purple shirts, the children walk in groups, only a few carry bags or papers in their hands.

Two young girls follow close behind me, repeating a quiet plea for money. They are hungry, they tell me. Along a road particularly rife with large potholes, a group of cows and bulls suddenly emerge from a field. Now I follow the girls as we dash out of the way. Turning onto Kitgum road I part ways with the young girls, and at once I am met with the smell of mint growing on my right and the fumes of a truck passing on my left.

Friday, July 9, 2010

North of Gulu

Below are some photos from a drive we took a bit north of Gulu. We drove along a red dirt road, flanked by villages, former Internally Dispaced Persons (IDP) Camps, corn and sun flower fields, and small scale farms. There were some cars, people on bikes and boda bodas (motorbikes), and many people walking along the side of the road, some carrying goods and others were children returning home from school. This is an area previously unaccessible during the conflict years. It is hard to imagine such a beautiful landscape was the place of such brutality.

IDP camp huts (notice the numbers painted on them)

Carrying a bag of charcoal.