Life in Moroto

Moroto may not be the cosmopolitan world of Seoul, or even have the artsy cultured vibes of Ann Arbor, but somehow we keep ourselves entertained. It’s not uncommon for both of the only two cell phone servers to lose service (sometimes even for days), and my internet speed (and availability) varies from day to day. I can count the number of restaurants in Moroto on one hand and all of them offer almost identical menus. Within approximately the first month of living in Uganda I had already sampled all varieties of Ugandan food. In contrast, during my one year in Korea and incessant sampling of new Korean dishes, I failed to scratch the surface of the variety of food. Korean food was so varied that I even introduced some of my native Korean friends to new dishes.

In spite of how dull life in Uganda and Moroto might appear, there is never a dull moment living and working here. While I do spend a significant amount of time in an office (something that scared me from ever being a real engineer), even my office time presents daily new challenges and surprises. For the past week and a half I have been acting project manager of my project and so I get the full range of problem solving opportunities. Figuring out how to get a stray chicken from wandering around my office and relieving itself, trying to communicate with my staff when the cell phone network is down, trying to read and send e-mails when the internet fails, losing power because someone accidentally mixed diesel and petrol when refueling our generator, trying to get money from the one atm in town when there is no power for days, trying to make it to the field and not get stuck when driving on roads that often more closely resemble rivers than roads, figuring out how to print when our ink cartridges suddenly run out and the only way to get new ones is bringing them up from Kampala, figuring out how to send a visa application registered mail and get appropriate dutch passport photos, sorting out how to transport staff to the field when there always seems to be a vehicle or motorbike in need of repair, the list goes on. Even the task of hiring new staff is more complicated that one would expect. Receiving strange phone calls at 9 pm begging you not to hire one of the interviewed candidates? Yes, that happened and apparently happens frequently.

Beyond work, we entertain ourselves with weekly hikes, looking ridiculous doing sprint workouts around town, movie nights, pizza nights, a play and dance for the whole town, and making enchiladas and other meals from scratch. According to the several personality quizzes (that seem to always produce different results) I’ve taken, the trend I’ve noticed is that my personality thrives in a fast paced, busy, challenging, and constantly changing work environment. While, Moroto may not provide the cosmopolitan lifestyle of a world class city, it does provide constant challenges and entertainment. Although I am looking forward to living somewhere where I can satisfy my “sophisticated” (or so I think) taste buds, be completely independent, and blend in; I will miss living in the shadow of a mountain and the humorous daily challenges that life and work in Uganda present. Image


How are you?

Phrases don’t always carry the same meaning in every country. In Korea, I very nearly banned the phrase “nice to meet you” from my speech due to its constant improper use. “Nice to meet you” directly translated back to Korean more closely resembles the phrase “Nice to see you again”. Because of this translation error, I was greeted with “nice to meet you” by almost everyone I “met” on a daily basis. The confusion was humorous at first, but very quickly grew old. I found myself cringing when I was forced to use “nice to meet you” in its proper way, instead trying to at least replace “nice” with different adjectives.

Even the simple expression, “how are you?” carries slightly different connotations in different countries. “How are you” is most often treated more as a greeting in the US than a genuine inquiry to a person’s well being. Even so, how are you is not used at the beginning of every conversation and one might expect slightly different responses from person to person. In Germany and much of Europe “how are you” is only used when one really wants to know how a person is. If you ask how are you don’t be surprised to hear about how horrible someone’s day is with all the details. A simple “I’m fine” would only suffice if the person was truly fine. At first, I was a bit taken aback when I received what I deemed long winded responses to how are you, but later I learned to appreciate the honesty of people and how the question was taken literally. When someone asked me how I was, I knew they were genuinely interested in my well being, rather than just throwing out a standard greeting. 

In the US how are you may be viewed as a greeting, but its frequency of use pales in comparison to Uganda. How are you in Uganda is the equivalent of hello. A standard conversation might run like this:

“Hello! How are you?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“I’m very okay.”

Sometimes people are so zealous to answer the question that they don’t even wait for you to ask. “Hello. Fine. How are you?” Ugandans are some of the friendliest people I’ve met (particularly in all other regions of Uganda besides Karamoja) and probably are mostly interested in my well-being. However, I’ve about had my fill of how are yous. My daily walk from the office to lunch allows me to disclose my well being at least twenty times as I pass by a village full of young children. “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are you?” “Mzungu! How are you?” “Mzungu! How are you?” At first the small children running up to greet me was cute. But my patience for repetition (and children in general) is rather limited and these days I find myself getting irritated with the rapid fire stream of greetings. My answer to how are you does not change in the one second between the first greeting and the second and more importantly seeing a mzungu walking past the village should cease to be a novelty, given that I walk the same way nearly every day. The only thing that prevents me from completely ignoring these greetings is the knowledge that I have some kind of image to present since no one here comes in contact with many mzungus. So every day I robotically respond “I’m fine. How are you?” a million times in a row as I briskly walk past to the peace and quiet of lunch. 

I know I’m being impatient and intolerant, but pretty soon I won’t be “fine” if I hear one more “how are you” 😉 Image

Good thing they’re super cute or I my patience would be exhausted by now.

Blending in

The more time I spend in Uganda and other African countries, makes me wonder what it is that draws me to these places. In my natural, comfortable state, I am pretty close to opposite the average “African” (if I’m going to do some generalizing) citizen. I immensely enjoy planning (as long as its long term big picture planning), I love structure and schedules. I dislike being late. I have a terrible sense of rhythm, and am a bad dancer even for a white person (not that it stops me from having a good time). My ideal diet would be mostly plant and whole grain based. I have the attention span of a two year old; therefore am lucky to sit through a one and half hour church service (forget about an all-day affair). While I consider myself semi social, I am not nearly as relational as people here are. I would likely prioritize finishing a to-do list or making it to a meeting on time, than stopping to chat with someone. I prefer hugs to handshakes. I have no immediate or even long term plans to have a family, and if I ever decide I want kids it’s hard for me to imagine handling more than two or three. Repetition in speech, writing, or song irritates me and when viewing the Bible and faith I struggle with theology that is legalistic or merely focused on evangelism.

There are a million reasons why I do not blend in here and why I often become frustrated, but I also love how different life is here. It is slightly less stressful (in some ways) knowing that meetings will NEVER start on time, deadlines are flexible, and no one takes life too seriously (a lesson that could be learned in many other countries). I appreciate the rhythm and character of music here since it’s so opposite to what I’m capable of and used to and I appreciate the passion people put into their worship even if I’m the awkward one stiffly standing and singing. I appreciate how relational people are and how they will stop whatever they are doing to talk, no matter how trivial the conversation is. While I seriously doubt I will ever learn to love African church services, it is admirable that young children are able to sit through three hour plus services and that people often devote their entire Sunday to church. I’m not sure if I will ever understand the obsession (for lack of a better word) with fertility and “producing” here, and it is one area of Ugandan culture that for the health of the country and people that could perhaps adapt a bit (without trying to sound like I’m trying to change culture).

There is a vibrancy, color, and relaxedness to life in Uganda (and the other African countries I’ve visited) that I haven’t encountered anywhere else in the world. In spite of the many, many reasons I look silly here, I do enjoy Ugandan life and there is so much I will miss.

Simple luxuries

I didn’t expect to experience minor culture shock traveling to Kenya, but it seems that my life in Moroto is more “deprived” than I realized. My locally available food supply here is mostly limited to beans (and not in a can of course), rice, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic and avos. I can often find exciting items like green peppers, carrots, and the occasional mango (even though mangoes are in abundance in the rest of Uganda) or pineapple in the market, but it’s always wise not to expect anything on a trip to the market. In Kampala I can find what I thought was a wide variety of foods—luxuries like ice cream, chocolate, brown rice, chick peas (if you search hard enough), and cheese. A wide variety until I visited the local Nakumatt (a regional grocery store chain) in Kenya. Not only were the prices often significantly less, I found couscous, refried beans!, coconut milk (at a price that wouldn’t break the bank), tortillas (although I’ve enjoyed making my own), healthy granola bars, and more varieties of candy and chocolate than I remember existing. I bought gelato in a MALL (even though in my other life I hated malls), drank fresh juices of every fruit variety in Lamu, had a proper cappuccino with thick wholegrain bread, ate fish that had been caught the same day, discovered a health food store in the mall and had to refrain from purchasing everything in the store, and ate salad.

Life in Moroto is not so bad really; I live in a place with twenty four hour power and hot water (thanks to American tax dollars supporting US military here…hmmm), I have a good community of friends, I live in the shadow of a mountain, I have access to an oven (better than Korea), and the weather is almost perfect here. However, I also have unreliable and slow internet, I’m a ten hour drive from Kampala on roads that make the drive a bit like riding an old wooden roller coaster, and cell phone service will often cease to exist for up to days at a time. Once relatively simple tasks like getting passport photos for my resident permit in the Netherlands and DHLing my resident application form, become exercises in problem solving. I enjoy living in Moroto in many ways simply because it’s a place no one wants to be, and in its remoteness there is a beauty and untouched aspect that makes it appealing. Culturally, it is the one place in Uganda (one of few in Africa) that is still mostly preserved (which is also what makes work here a bit frustrating). Although I wasn’t exactly jumping with excitement to return to Moroto after the loveliest and “luxury” filled holiday in Kenya, it was also comforting to catch sight of Mt Moroto on the drive back and once again settle into life here.

After leaving Moroto, I realized how dramatically the development of Karamoja would change for the better if the relatively simple task of tarmacking the road to Karamoja were completed, a task that has been promised by the government year after year (mainly in election years). Businesses would come to Karamoja, driving prices down on the few goods that can be found here, therefore making life more affordable for the average person. Services like schools and hospitals would be improve because people wouldn’t be so opposed to living in this area and supplies would dramatically increase. Sometimes, I feel like all the gardening and food distribution in the world will not change this area, until they have better infrastructure. Unfortunately, infrastructure is a problem for the government…

Development aside, after my Kenya visit I think I’m in for a real shock returning to the developed world. Who would have thought that salad and ice cream would have me excited to return to a developed country?

Life is short

Originally I thought my next blog post would be a glowing report of my holiday in Lamu, Kenya in my more typical travel blog style. I will write about Kenya soon, but right now I’m trying to wrap my mind around a very, very sad piece of news: Juma has passed away. On Friday May 25th after it seemingly recovering from meningitis, Juma went into a coma. On Sunday he was airlifted to Kampala and emergency surgery was performed to reduce pressure on his brain. He apparently had a brain aneurism and due to lack of proper treatment at his hospital in Karamoja the pressure in his brain continued rising, requiring emergency surgery Kampala. The facilities in Kampala could not perform the necessary corrective surgery and so he was airlifted to Nairobi, Kenya on Tuesday (after much stress trying to sort out his travel documents). Sadly, Juma never made it to Nairobi. During the journey his lungs filled with fluid and eventually he stopped breathing. I’m not a doctor and all the information I have has been acquired second hand, but my understanding is that his death was not a result of meningitis, but the brain aneurism and conditions that followed.

Just writing this post and thinking about Juma’s family and anyone else he left behind breaks my heart. It is so sudden and shocking to think that just over three weeks Juma was driving me out into the field to visit project sites. Juma was an invaluable asset to our team and he determination to break the cycle of cattle raiding in Karamoja and provide education to his children, makes his death even more heart breaking. Sadly, frequent death is a reality in much of developing Africa. Most people here have experience the loss a loved one in circumstances that would rarely happen in developed countries.

I wish I had something insightful and meaningful to say about his death, but I’m frankly at a loss for words. It’s so hard for me to understand why I was born in a country where events like this are rare, and where I don’t have the fear of potentially losing a loved one. As a thinker and doer, I keep wishing there is something I could do or could have done to “fix” the situation, but no amount of “fixing” will bring Juma back or replace the loss felt by his family. Juma’s family was fortunate that he worked for Samaritan’s Purse because his insurance (and SP’s assistance) paid for the medical bills and did give some kind of financial help to the family after his death. I hope and pray that this will help them stay on their feet and the children will still have the chance to keep attending school. Juma’s death is a further reminder that life is painfully short, so each day we should make each day we have count.

Please pray for Juma’s family that they would be able to get through the loss and that all their needs are provided. Juma was fifty two years old, young by western standards, but sadly right in line with average life expectancies for Uganda. Rest in peace Juma, you are sorely missed by all who were touched by your life.