I am an applied medical anthropologist beginning my PhD in Public Health this fall. For the second summer in a row, I will travel with my research partner, Ginger Mckay, to Kampala, Uganda. Last summer, we evaluated an HIV education program for children developed by the Savannah Sunrise Foundation, which is a non-profit organization. We we will be residing in Kampala from the end of May until the end of July to conduct additional fieldwork. This summer, our colleague Nicole Smith will be joining us as we wrap up our project.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

June 15th through June 22nd

Tuesday June 15th
Today the power went out shortly after Grace and Annette arrived around 10 am. We left the dark house after we ate lunch to meet our friend Richard to discuss travel plans for this weekend. He agreed to take us to visit his family in Bulisa, which is in the western part of the country near Lake Albert. We decided we could go to Hoima to observe a few of the schools there, then after spending two nights in Hoima, he would meet up with us on Friday night. Then we would go to Bulisa, and he would go with us to Murchison Falls from there. We also invited our friends Moses and Sonja to accompany us. We are so excited! After lunch we went to his workplace and met his co-workers. When we got home the power was still off and it didn’t come back on until almost 8:30 pm. It was unfortunate because we had to dispose of a few things in the fridge that got moldy.

Wednesday June 16th
Today we found out Sonja and Moses may not be able to come. Poor Sonja broke her toe a few weeks back, but she banged it again last weekend. It is rather painful and difficult for her to walk. We told her we really might not have time to go another weekend for 3-4 days like this, plus we already arranged to meet supervisors, mentors, and students in Hoima. We will be disappointed if she decides not to come. L

We went on an observation with Robert today to another school. The school is in a beautiful area, with scenery that could be out of a movie. There are many trees and flowers, with benches and pastures you have to walk past. There are approximately 4 schools in square across from each other, and they are all on gorgeous land. After the observation, I walked down into the playground area of the school yard and I was swarmed by students. Many of them wanted to see what my skin feels like and they wanted to know all about the US. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grow up and many said doctors, teachers, and pilots. They were so cute.

Then, we went to Mary’s house since she invited us to have our meeting there this week. She is so generous, she even prepared a big meal for us again. We all sat down to eat, and her son Julius told us he’d seen us in town the day before but he was too far away to greet us. I guess we are easy to spot. Mary said she’d learned her lesson about giving us portions that were too large for us to eat, but she still scooped out more food than we could finish. It was delicious. After our dinner, we discussed our upcoming plans to hold meetings to get parental consent for focus groups. It’s an ongoing process. Mary said that parents will come if they know they will be given a little soda and some cake. So we created a budget to feed parents, children, and staff at 4 parental meetings. It’s actually not going to be as expensive as I thought. I suggested buying 2 liters instead of individual glass bottles, but Mary explained that it is culturally inappropriate. Apparently, they don’t do it that way at functions. I would have liked to stay longer to chat, but we really had to go since we were leaving in the morning for Hoima, so we thanked her and said goodbye. We came home and packed excitedly for our trip!

Thursday June 17th
We woke up early, and left for the clinic where we were meeting Andrew. His father lives in Hoima, and so he was accompanying us. He is also works at SAS, so we needed him to come along for the observations. Jude picked us up from our compound so we didn’t have to walk around with our book bags. In the car, he told us that the night before the security guard had slept in his car. Apparently he left it unlocked, and when he got inside the car he checked his phone. It was dark out and the first thing he saw when he looked at his phone was a rifle protruding from the backseat. He was terrified at first, but then he realized it was the security guard. Haha. The guard was “guarding” his car!

When we got to the clinic, Andrew told us one of his sisters, Rachel, was joining us in our journey. People sort of invite themselves places when it sounds like fun, especially relatives. The four of us took a big Link bus to Hoima. We got on, and the air was stagnant as we sat waiting. People climbed on selling stuff and shoving it in your face. One guy dropped a loaf of bread on my head. I was feeling really claustrophobic because they were blocking the aisles and pushing into me and shoving things in my face. It was so hot on the bus, too. We thought that they would all exit the bus, however, once we got started one woman stayed on. She walked up and down trying to sell tooth whitening stuff and mints to the same people over and over. Her voice was soon drowned out by the extremely loud dance music that started to play once we really got going. The bus has around 10 subwoofers and we were booming down the road. I took my headphones off because I couldn’t hear my own music over the music they were playing. It was so loud, but no one complained. In fact, one guy kept singing along really loudly behind me.

The bus hurtled down the road like an extremely fast bullet. I have never been more aware of my own mortality. The potholes and rocks we hit caused all the passengers to lurch forward and bounce around in our seats. It was like a really bad rollercoaster. I completely went airborne, clearing my seat every 5 minutes or so. I thought about those fat burning devices they sell on infomercials late at night that jiggle away stomach fat. I think riding these giant buses might have the same effect.

Somehow, we all managed to half doze as we sped through the country heading towards Hoima. After around three hours, out of nowhere Rachel sat up and said we needed to get off right then. I had trouble pulling my bag down from the overhead compartment, and I was yanking it out really hard because we had to get off so quickly. From there we took bodas to their sister’s house and made calls to the mentors and their father. Rachel and Andrew both have 2 cell phones, as most people here do. There is often a delay before a call can be made, in which they switch out SIM cards and batteries among 2-4 phones. Ginger and I ate a granola bar, the first thing we’d eaten all day. Then, a supervisor walked into the yard. She told us that the place where we were meeting (Meeting Point- an organization for people with HIV/AIDS) ended up being within walking distance to where their sister lived.

Many mentors were eager to meet us, and there were somewhere between 10 and 15 mentors at Meeting Point waiting on us to arrive. We had an impromptu focus group with them immediately after we arrived. We were not prepared to speak formally and ask questions to so many people at the same time. It was the textbook example of how NOT to conduct a focus group. People kept arriving late, we had no audio recorder, no flipchart, no blackboard to write on, no structured questions in logical order, and no leader/rapporteur. Yet, it ended up going extremely well, despite our utter lack of preparation for a focus group. The mentors provided us with so much information, and it was really nice to get to know how the program is working in Hoima, since it is new there. After that, the mentors wanted us to go to all of their schools, despite the fact that the time was approaching 4 p.m. and schools are finished around 5. I was glad to see they all wanted their schools to be observed. We ended up making it to two schools that were in walking distance before school was over for the day.

Then, we all walked back to their sister’s house. There was a mix-up about where we were staying, and then we decided to walk somewhere to eat. We walked to a hotel, and the server had to check if they had food. He came back and said they had chicken, pork, fish or chips (fries). I ordered fish and so did Ginger. Then, a severe thunderstorm started and there was lightning striking in really close proximity to where we sat outside under an awning. We waited for a long time and Rachel made a joke that they must be chasing her pig in the back to slaughter it for her meal. After well over an hour, the food finally came out. The waiter was carrying a plate with an entire deep-fried fish complete with eyes and fins. I grew up on the lake so eating fish with bones is familiar to me, but not usually with the head attached. Right after the waiter brought out Ginger’s whole fish, and the rest of the plates, the power went out. So there we were, trying to eat a whole fish in the dark during a severe thunderstorm. We both were laughing, and Ginger gave up using her fork because she found it easier to pick out bones in the dark with her fingers. Afterwards, we spent the night at Andrew and Rachel’s (Mr. Tibagwa) father’s house. He lives way out in the country in Hoima. They use solar power for their electricity, and it had not been sunny enough for us to charge our phone or camera.

Friday June 18th
Today is my sister Sarah’s birthday. I wish I could call her or email, but I am completely disconnected. We went to a school where Mr. Tibagwa’s wife teaches. It is 100 yards from their backdoor. The school is a nursery school, which is like kindergarten. The students used bottle caps and pencils to form letters, numbers and shapes.

After that, we had breakfast: bread, toasted peanuts, and a boiled egg. They gave us this really delicious tea. There were no tea bags so you just pour the leaves into your cup and they sink to the bottom. When Ginger cracked her egg open, a dead baby chick was inside of it. She tried to cover it back up with her shell and looked around not knowing where to put it. It smelled quite foul, and they brought her another one quickly, taking it away. Since the chickens and roosters roam freely in Uganda, the eggs often get fertilized. We are not used to that in America because of the chicken farms that provide most of our eggs. I hadn’t cracked mine open yet, and I was nervous mine would be fertilized too, but it wasn’t.

We said goodbye, and went on to meet the mentors for more observations. A man from New Vision, a Ugandan newspaper, was waiting for us at Meeting Point. We all spoke to him, and he wants to do an article here about the IBES programs expansion throughout Uganda. I’m stoked! Then we went on for 2 more observations, which required a lot of walking. We decided to rent a hotel room so that we would not impose on Mr. TIbagwa another night, and ended up booking one at the same hotel we ate at the night before. Then, we walked into town to meet Moses, Sonja, and Richard who arrived in the late afternoon. We watched a match, and decided to go to bed and get up early to head to Bulisa.

Saturday June 19th
We met up with Sonja, Moses and Richard early. We were on a matatu by 8:10 a.m. but it kept driving around Hoima trying to pick up people to fill the taxi to the maximum capacity of 14 passengers. Once we were at an uncomfortable number of 19 passengers, I asked how many they would stop at. Sonja said she saw a matatu with 30 children on it before. At one point they tied a bunch of fish to the outside, and you could smell the fish permeating the taxi. I found out later they tie the fish to the matatu to keep them cool in the wind as we speed everywhere. At one point, we stopped to let people on and the driver and conducter disappeared. After a while, we spotted them up the road buying roasted corn. They were just standing there eating it slowly while we sat squished on the taxi. Richard got off to buy some for us to share too, and it was delicious.

We reached the rift valley and it is absolutely beautiful. You could see Lake Albert as we drove down the mountainside. Breathtaking. At the bottom we stopped and I could see a monkey in the trees. I was trying to take its picture, and capture the image of a baboon wandering by, when I realized we were really squeezing people in the matatu. When we started to move again, I counted 25 men, women and children on the bus, many of them carrying large bags with items to sell in (or bring to) Bulisa. Moses joked that next someone would try to bring on a cow. Apparently it’s not uncommon to see a cow tied up in the back seat of cars, but I have not seen that yet. We stopped for a guy trying to bring on a goat, and almost let him on the matatu. But there were 25 of us already. I was grateful they did not let him on.

We met Richards family in Bulisa, and they were very nice. They live without electricity and running water, in a really rural area. It is really beautiful out there. Their homes are made of clay and they have grass thatched roofs. I had never been inside a true grass hut before. They are surprisingly cool in the hot weather. We sat in some chairs in the hut, and chickens came inside to check out the visitors. Then, a goat crawled in the window to look at us. It was so neat. I was getting anxious to go to Murchison Falls National Park, which is around 20 kilometers from where his family lives, but we had to meet his grandmother and mother first. We walked to their house, and met the family. We ate rice and drank warm sodas before we finally left.

The park ended up being somewhat disheartening. DON’T EVER GO TO MURCHISON FALLS NATIONAL PARK! We had to pay a driver 50K Ugandan shillings (USh) to drive us around 6 miles to the park from Bulisa. Then, they ripped us off at the entrance gate. It’s 5K USh for a Ugandan, but 66K USh for a tourist. They said it’s $30 US but then tried to give us a poor exchange rate, to charge even more. It’s an additional 35K for the car you come In, even if it is just dropping you off. There is no way to not drive into the park, because it is so far away, and the gate is miles from any of the sites inside the park, which are also spread apart from each other. Plus you have to pay 5K USh for the driver to enter the park.

Later Ginger and I decided we were mostly upset about the cost of the park because it is close to impossible for a Ugandan (many of whom are poor and do not have cars) to actually visit it. The hotels are over $100 US a night, and it costs close to $200 US to go on safaris. If you don’t have relatives in Bulisa, there is nowhere for you to stay outside the park. The boat ride on the Nile to Murchison Falls is $20 US per person. It’s a small fortune for a Ugandan to get there and go in the first place, without all the extra added fees for excursions. While in sum, we did not spend a large amount of money by American standards, it was very pricey by Ugandan standards. Americans are fortunate to have so many accessible and low cost national and state parks preserved for our enjoyment.

We managed to make it onto a pontoon boat, the last ride of the day. From the boat we had a beautiful view of the banks on the Nile. We saw warthogs, water buck, kingfishers and all kinds of birds, hippopotami, African elephants, African buffalo, and Nile Crocodiles. Seeing elephants made my miss my Mom. I also thought of my Sito, who loved elephants so much. The Nile is amazing, and I was already planning my next trip to the river while we were still on the boat! (just not at Murchison!) Of course, one of my dreams has been fulfilled, but it was bittersweet because of the situation. We came back as the sun was setting, and I began to feel so relaxed. I love water.

We finally found a ride back, after asking many different people to drive us. Most wanted 70K USh to take us six miles to Bulisa. We asked a white guy, who ended up being the park manager, and he wanted 100K USh. People were clearly taking advantage of us because they knew we had no other options. We paid the 70K and vowed to never return to Murchison Falls. When we finally got back to Richards mothers house, we ate posho and drank warm milk. I desperately wanted some vegetables. We sat outside in the moonlight talking. It is gorgeous out there. Then, we walked to the grass huts, to find a place to sleep. Ginger and I slept on the same cot. There were three in the small grass hut, and all 5 of us slept there. In the night, a drunk man barged in and asked if there was somewhere to sleep. I vaguely remember it, and it seemed like a dream. The hut was so cool that I got cold in the night.

Sunday June 20th
We woke up to the sound of goats. They must have been hungry because they were mehhh-ing really loud. We sat outside enjoying the cool morning air, and tried to write in our journals because we’d gotten so very behind in the past 3 days. As soon as we took out pens and paper, the small children in the village came over to watch us. They watched us very intently for a while, inching closer until they were sitting with us. I let them draw in the back of my journal. I thought what they drew was interesting: flowers, sunshine, tables, chairs, a garbage truck, a grass hut, matatus, a tree, and numbers. One girl did not want to share the pen to let others draw. I was trying to tell her to share, but they do not speak English so I had to take the pen from her and give it to someone else. In the end, I gave them the pen to keep. I hope they share it.

For breakfast we had chapatti and warm “chai.” All tea is called chai, although this was mostly milk with a few tea leaves at the bottom. After breakfast, we put on sunscreen because it is already painfully hot in the sun by 10 a.m. in Bulisa. Richard and Moses both put asked to use the sunscreen. I thought that was funny. Then, we walked to Lake Albert.

Richard said it was not far, but I am beginning to distrust his sense of time and distance. It seemed really far, and we could not even see the lake for a long while as we walked. Luckily the sun was behind us. I enjoyed the walk because it is so rural out there, and there are only a few huts scattered about. The land is mostly used for herding cattle, and you can see young boys directing them where to go. It was awesome. It occurred to me how in America, the land would be considered prime real estate, but here it is undeveloped and without power lines, running water and paved roads. It’s almost better this way. . I relished taking deep breaths of fresh air, and the quiet afternoon in nature. It made me wish we were not staying in Kampala the whole time we are here. The fumes and traffic are overbearing compared to the way I felt in that field. I am not a city girl.

When we reached the lake, there was not much of a beach. Richard braved the reeds and grasses at the water’s edge, and walked out a bit far. I was praying he would not get bitten by a snake. You can see the Democratic Republic of the Congo across the water. The view is amazing from the water’s edge. We walked toward houses we could see in the distance, looking for a beach. We walked right into a fishing village, which was apparent by the smell before we saw any fish. I was fascinated by the fishing nets. They use the heels off of colorful flip-flops as floaters, and round stones as sinkers. The boats were almost all blue. Many fisherman were gutting fish they retrieved from their nets that morning. We walked through the village, and there were people preparing lunch, and fish to sell in town. I say town, but it’s really just a handful of shops. There were salted fish drying in the sun, and fish smoking over charcoal pits. It was the most remote and isolated place I’ve ever been to.I loved it.

After taking pictures with them, we walked back into Bulisa. We went for lunch at one of the shops, and had matoke, fish, and kalo. Kalo is sticky, almost like silly puddy. It is made from millet and cassava. To eat it, you break of a small chunk, then you roll it into a ball, make an indention in the center and use the tiny “bowl” to scoop soup. It has absolutely no taste. I thought it was interesting, but not very tasty.

After lunch, we took a matatu headed toward Masindi. After a coupld of hours, the matatu sputtered to a stop in the middle of a sugar cane field. Apparently, someone siphoned gas out of the tank where the driver parks at night. A passenger walked toward a gas station a ways back. So there we sat, in the middle of nowhere. I was getting agitated because it was approaching 3 p.m. and we had to get on a Link bus by 4 in Masindi to take to Kampala. Finally the guy came back with the gas in a small jeri can of gas. It did not look like enough gas to me, and I thought we might run out again, but it got us to Masindi where we stopped for more gas. Even in the city, matatus will pull off to get gas, or put air in their tires, while you sit there waiting. It’s bothersome when you are in a hurry.

The Link bus was much more comfortable than a matatu, although still uncomfortable by American standards. By the time we reached Kampala three hours later, Ginger really had to “make a short call” (go to the bathroom). So we got off the bus, not knowing where we were at all. I felt a wave of relief wash over me because we had been cramped for close to 6 hours in speeding, bumpy, scary transportation. The relief immediately faded, however, as I stepped directly into sewage. It was dark and I could not see it before it was too late. My foot felt warm and I could smell the odor. I was praying that I did not have a scab from a mosquito bite anywhere near the area on my foot with waste on it. We walked to a gas station, but could not find the bathroom for Ginger. The moment was becoming crucial that she relieve herself, so she used the drainage urinal for men. I guarded the open wall. Then, our friend Jude called and came to pick us up from where we were. He said it was not safe to walk from there. When we got home I skyped Mike and my Dad to tell them Happy Father’s Day. It’s funny how you forget about Hallmark Holidays when you visit isolated fishing villages and sleep in grass huts.

Monday June 21
Today we ate nsenene. Ugandans call them grasshoppers, but online it says they are actually bush crickets. They taste like soft shelled crap shells after they’ve been deep-fried. I believe I would enjoy them more if they were sautéed with garlic or onions. We dipped them in ketchup to add some flavor. I want to try them with barbeque or cocktail sauce. After lunch, we wrote for hours trying to catch up.

Later we met Jude and Augustin to watch the game. We laughed and talked about Youtube clips. They have not seen many of them, and Ginger and I could hardly control our laughter as we described “The whistles go wooo,” “I wanna know where the gold at,” and “the grape stompers.” They have seen “David goes to the dentist.” Then, we were hungry because we never ate dinner. They walked us to a fast food place called “I feel like Chicken Tonight.” The name prompted me to sing the commercial jingle, which Jude and Augustin have never heard before.

Then, Jude ordered Ginger an eggroll. I saw the employee pick up a golden softball sized lump and place it in the bag. I said, “Ginger I think you are actually getting some sort of bread roll.” The bag was really heavy. Ginger asked, “What is this?” as she peered down into the bag. Jude said, “It’s an eggroll.” We immediately began laughing. She pulled it out and it was huge, I mean almost as big as her face. She bit into it, with some difficulty because it is so large, and said, “it’s potato.” I could not believe my eyes. I tried it, and it was a fried ball of potato. I said, “is there an egg in there?” Jude started looking annoyed that we found this so amusing, but he said, “Yes.” I asked if it had a shell, and he said it did not. Ginger then said, “I wanna get to the egg!” And we both started to eat it trying desperately to reach the egg. Ginger said it was like “how many licks to get to the center of a lollipop,” except it was us eating potato. Jude asked us if we were “just going to stand there and eat it,” because they think it is bizarre to eat standing up. I guess that’s an American thing. Sure enough, there was a boiled egg in the middle, which had us rolling with laughter even harder. So, eggrolls in Uganda are potatoes smashed around a boiled egg, and deep fried. I wonder what else we think is familiar is in actually something completely different. You never know until you try.


  1. Hey Meagan, I haven't been able to read this for a while, but had so much fun reading it and catching up on everything! Thanks for the bday shout out! =) I love reading about what you are doing! You have such a gift! Can't wait until the next entry. Love -Sarah

  2. Meegs,

    I hope you are being very careful! All the wildlife mixed with you makes me nervous haha! I miss you and I am soooo happy for you. I second Sarah's sentiment, this blog is very fun to read! May the lights stay on and the road be less sweaty (and crowded).

    Love you,