Water Crisis in Kolo, Uganda

Today, I went out with a team of peace journalists to cover the water crisis in the Gulu district of Uganda. We ended up in a village in Kolo (about half an hour out of Gulu town) where I learned a bit about local farming and a lot about water availability. Listen to the piece and see accompanying photos below.

If you can’t see the player, please click here.


A view of the Kolo Village.

Harvesting cassava (tapioca) in Kolo, Uganda.

Andi making friends in Kolo, Uganda.

For more pictures from my adventures reporting from Kolo, Uganda, please click here.

Please let me know what you think of this piece – all comments are appreciated!

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Landmine Survivors Make New Life

My first radio journalism piece ever. I went out with a team in Gulu, Uganda with the goal of doing a developmental journalism piece. See the photos below as a supplement to the piece.

If you can’t see the audio player, please click here.

Irene Laker standing in the doorway of the training salon

Irene Laker and other landmine explosion victims are training as stylists in this nonprofit salon.

Your thoughts (positive or negative) about this piece are welcome and encouraged so I can improve my future journalism.

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Today, I taught a lesson on ethics in the media to the radio journalists at Steve Youngblood’s Peace Journalism seminar in Gulu, Uganda. I used the National Public Radio (NPR) code of ethics as talking points. This code is great in the States, where we have free press and are wealthy. But in Uganda, where journalists are only paid 1,000 shillings (about forty cents) per story, are these realistic?

The NPR code talks about refusing anything of value from a source. This would mean gifts, valuable items, transportation… In Uganda, many people are without cars. To cover a rally or event means that the journalists feel forced to accept rides from the event organizers. To refuse the ride means to refuse to cover the event. During an election season, not covering events can mean losing the audience – and therefore, losing money. But to take a ride means to compromise the appearance of accurate, unbiased reporting. So what should they do?

Another statement in the NPR code says a journalist cannot accept money from a source, either before or after the story is aired. But when you only make $2 a day and your children are hungry, can you refuse the money? It is easy to become corrupt, to say that personal interests come first.

Like any discussion about ethics, this one made some participants squirm in their seats. I can’t tell them what is right for them. I can tell them what the NPR ethics code says but as far as being an ethicist, I’m not a great one. In their situation, I don’t know that I would do what NPR says either.

What is the acceptable intersection of the reality of survival with the idealism of pristine ethics? I don’t know the answer, personally. What do you think?

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Safety & Security

Casear (our driver to Gulu) examining the tire.

We headed to Gulu yesterday for our second seminar. It took six hours, because we had more tire problems. This time, we didn’t have a leaking tire – which now seems tame – but a tread blowout. It sounded like firecrackers as the tread tore off the tire.

The roads in Uganda are very bad. The ones that are paved have frequent speed bumps that a small car could not navigate. Perhaps more common is dirt roads, which have potholes and bumps everywhere. The roads can be so dusty it’s like driving in a blizzard.

The roads are also very narrow. We often pull over into the grass beside the road to let a semi truck (known here as a lorry) pass. I end up closing my eyes when we drive through the countryside to avoid tensing up and gasping every time we play chicken with semis and boda-bodas (motorcycles).

There are speed limits on some roads, but these are ignored by everyone. Even traffic police don’t give speeding tickets, so there is no reason to obey the posted signs. Even our drivers – driving safe and “slow” (a subjective word) because we are easily frightened foreigners – sometimes go 100kph in a 45kph zone (basically, going 60mph in a 25mph zone).

 Our journeys are also slowed by the new addition of car checks. Because of the bombing in Kampala last week, police are implementing extra security strategies. Our car was examined on our way into the mall parking lot (on our way to lunch) and several times on the highway to Gulu.

At the mall for lunch, we were also subjected to security checks as we were walking through. One security guard demanded to see inside my purse, then promptly blushed and waved me through when he saw my spare tampons. At the next check, the female guard wasn’t nearly so shy, and rummaged around in my bag to find gum and a water bottle as well, before looking disappointed and waving me on.

If the newspapers are to be believed, the people of Uganda are exercising caution in light of the events by staying home instead of going out. However, there seems to be little to no threat of a copycat event, so I am not particularly concerned.

The Ugandan president has made statements to imply that he is considering going to war with Somalia (where Al Shabaab is based). It is unfortunate that an entire country is blamed for the actions of a tiny group of criminals. I sincerely hope that the Ugandan politicians find another way of dealing with the threat to their national security.

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We had the most perfect day imaginable followed by one where absolutely everything went wrong.

Friday was spectacular. The day started off with a nature walk through the savannah with a ranger named Benjamin. He knows more about the land and the things that live on it than any other person alive, I’m pretty sure. I followed him in wonder, as I tried to process the surreal experience of actually walking around an African wilderness. It is something I have always dreamed of doing, so once it was happening, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I didn’t want to believe it, in case it wasn’t true.

Steve, Ranger Benjamin, and Keith on the savannah

Steve, Ranger Benjamin, and Keith on the savannah

Well, that feeling didn’t end any time soon!

After our walk, we hung around the Mweya Lodge for a bit, eating great food and gazing out over beautiful expanses of land. I was very tired from the walk, but still enthused about the day. And I had no idea that it would get better.

Next, we had a boat ride along the channel between the two lakes in Queen Elizabeth National Park. As the boat drifted along the channel, I saw buffalo, water bucks, hippos, crocodiles, elephants, and more birds that you could ever count. I had to keep reminding myself that it was real – I was really observing wild African animals in their natural habitat. I must have sounded like a little kid at the zoo – “Look at that! Look at that!”


A hippo seen on the boat ride.

We headed back to Jacana Lodge and had a gourmet dinner on a boat on the lake. It was dark, so candlelight was the only light on the entire lake. It was, for lack of a better word, a romantic setting. I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed a dinner so much.

I went to sleep that night, listening to frogs and birds and monkeys, thinking that it may have been the highlight of my life so far.

Saturday started off decently. Keith and I went chimp-tracking in the Kyambura Gorge, a mile-deep gouge in the ground made from volcanic eruption. The volcanoes are dormant now, leaving behind a beautiful jungle in the gorge. We didn’t see any chimpanzees in the Gorge, as it is the dry season in Uganda so there isn’t much food in the jungle for the animals. Our guide, Stefani, assumed they had left to seek food.

The river in the Kyambura Gorge

She explained that “kyambura”, the name of the gorge, means Searching And Praying. It stems from the days when women and children would go down to the river in the gorge to wash clothing and dishes. Sometimes, the river would swell, sweeping away utensils and infants. When this would happen, the men of the village would go scour the area for the lost children. If they found none, they would come back and simply say, Kyambura. “I have searched, and I have prayed, and that is all that I can do.”

Even though we didn’t see chimpanzees, the walk was still beautiful and interesting. I came out covered in dirt. If you think I’m clumsy on the flat surfaces of Parkville, you should see me trying to edge over a river on a log in Uganda, or scale what seems like a vertical wall to escape the gorge. I was exhausted and felt like giving up a few times, but I realized that giving up meant living in the gorge. And as much as walking across a fallen tree over a rushing river was terrifying, living in the gorge would be even worse.

As we left the park to head back to Kampala, a six hour drive, Tabu felt bad for me being covered in mud. He pulled over to let me try to clean myself up with some water. As we sat on the edge of the road, Tabu discovered that we had a leaking tire. Awesome.

We pulled into a service station only to be told that they didn’t have the tools to repair a flat. “Go one more kilometer to the next one,” they said. One kilometer turned into ten before we found another station. Luckily, they had the tools and patched it up. It only took a couple hours of playing with local kids, trying to buy a soda without sharing a language with the shopkeeper (success!), and fending off beggars and potential husbands before we were back on the road.

Keith buying a poster at the Safe Corner Pub next to the mechanic shop.

Only a couple hours delayed, we were – as Steve says – cautiously optimistic. Alas, it was no good, for a few kilometers down the road, the tire was leaking again. Pulling into another service station, we waited around for seemingly forever before realizing that they couldn’t actually help us. We were on the road again, heading to Mbararra (a city instead of a small town) to find yet another service station. Luckily, the tire held out until we got there and the mechanics at that station seemed to be competent.

Then, out of my own sheer stupidity, I got my fingers slammed in the car door. I don’t remember this, but I’m told that I let out a bloodcurdling scream that extended until my fingers were released. Honestly, I can’t recall any part of the time during which I was actually trapped. I remember sitting in the car wishing for a breeze, and the next thing I remember is falling out of the car clutching my hand.

My fingertips were purple and bruised, and one was bleeding, but I knew I was going to be fine in a few days. I was shaking as I went inside the quickie mart to get some ice. The cashier informed me that not only did that gas station have ice, she didn’t know of a place to get ice in that town at all. I nearly cried.

Instead of ice, I went to run my hand under cool water. The pressure of a water trickle has never felt so heavy in my life. I was so shocked at the pain that I actually threw up. I hope no one saw me, as that would be even more embarrassing than writing about it on my blog.

Luckily, my hand felt better with painkillers courtesy of Keith. Within a few hours, I had some minimal use of my fingers again.

When we finally got back on the road, we discovered we had made about one hour’s progress in four hours. Barring another crisis, we still had five hours left on the journey back to Kampala.

Fortunately, we did make it back in five hours. The tires held out and I didn’t attempt to lose or permanently damage any more body parts.

The polar opposites of consecutive days here is unbelievable. I am cautiously optimistic that the rest of my trip will flow well.

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One Hundred Cows

A Ugandan man asked me to marry him and stay in Fort Portal forever. He said I would enjoy the weather and have a good life. I told him that neither my mother nor my best friend would ever allow such a thing, so I have to decline. He thought for a moment, and then suggested that we invite anyone who protested to come live in Fort Portal as well. When I did not budge, he was rather upset and urged me to reconsider – he would wait for me, he said.

In an American rom-com, this would have been the end of the second act, with just 30 more minutes of film to show how the woman falls in love after all. Well, let’s just say that the audience for the imaginary movie about my life went home disappointed.

However un-theatrical it may appear, it is one of my new favorite tales to tell. And, as anyone who knows me knows, I love telling stories. So I was relaying the newest addition to my repertoire to Tabu (our driver), he said I should have asked him about his wealth and then declined him on that front, because as a journalist, he most certainly couldn’t afford my dowry!

My dowry?

I knew that Ugandans still practiced the art of the dowry, but I hadn’t given it very much thought. Certainly I had never thought of a personal application of the idea. As an arrogant American woman, I like to think that I am priceless. No man has the amount worthy to buy me from my parents, because I am more irreplaceable than a herd of cattle ever could be. I can certainly be more obnoxious than a herd of cattle sometimes.

So, naturally, I inquired what my dowry would be.

Tabu said I was worth at least 100 cows! Maybe even more, Tabu said. He said I’m pretty and smart, so I would fetch a high price on the marriage market. I would marry a rich man, because only the wealthy could afford to trade 100 cows for a woman. In neighborhoods like Tabu’s own, a woman is lucky to have a dowry of one cow. And as horrifying as it sounds to me, to be traded for 100 cows (worth about $40,000 USD) at least Tabu was generous.

Steve said he thought I was worth only 60 cows!

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All Those White People Look The Same

It seems that every time I speak to a native Ugandan, I ask a billion questions. I must sound like a broken record! “What is this? Why do you do that? What does this mean? How are you supposed to eat this??”

Yesterday, though, my new Ugandan friends gave me a taste of my own medicine and asked questions about the United States.

“I heard a rumour,” said one in a whisper, “that you could draw a rude picture of President Obama, making fun of his new law, and no one would arrest you for it! Can this possibly be true?”

“Yes,” I answered. “In fact, we publish those pictures in our newspapers and people enjoy them very much!”

He took a long sip of tea. “That would never happen here,” he said with a shrug.

They ask about our educational system. Many are surprised that we stay in school for so long – primary school and secondary school, and then university! How interesting. They asked about poverty and unemployment. They asked about the friendliness. The best way to compare is how Americans and Ugandans answer their doors. A Ugandan warmly welcomes you and invites you into their home for tea even if they’ve never see you before in their life. An American stands blocking the entrance and asks what you want. All of the sudden, the American way seems barbaric and isolated.

Walking with my new friends down the street, we passed another munzungu (white person). One asked me if I knew the other munzungu. I answered no, I didn’t. He was surprised. “I thought all munzungus in Africa knew each other,” he said, “since there are so few of you.”

He thought about it for a bit, and then suggested that I go talk to that other munzungu. I inquired why, since we were on a journalistic mission about local politics – something this other munzungu likely wouldn’t have enough knowledge of to be helpful. (Like me, I admit.) My friend said that if he was in America, he would approach every other African because he would be so happy to see someone from home.

“How would you know if they were African?” I asked.

“Well, he would be black!” said my friend.

“You do realize we have black Americans, right?” I said. “Not everyone in America is white, not by a long shot. You could spend all day approaching black people in America and never meet another African.”

This stunned him. “But, you only have white people in your movies!” he said. “If you really had black people, don’t you think they would be in movies?”

I didn’t have a good answer to American racism in pop culture.

I sat with another new friend for tea. During the workshop, we take tea twice a day. She had a million questions about the States. She, too, thought America was an all-white country. She wanted to know if I had ever seen a black person before. She was surprised that I wasn’t scared of Ugandans, since she assumed I looked at them like they are a different species with different clothes and different customs. She didn’t know how I could tell Ugandans apart, since she thought that a munzungu wouldn’t be able to.

I asked if she was scared of me. She said she was, at first, because she had never talked to a munzungu before. She didn’t think I’d be friendly or happy. I asked if we all look the same. She said yes, all munzungus look the same.

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