Remember in my post about the old taxi park I said there were so many taxis I don’t know how anyone would find the taxi going to their destination? Well, Eden and I had to do just that. Since Fulbright is sponsored by the State Department, we all had to have a security briefing at the Embassy, so we were trying to get a taxi to Gaba Road which would pass the Embassy. We just started asking people, “Where’s the taxi for Gaba Road?” and they would point. Eventually, one nice man walked us to the right matatu—we were so relieved!
The US Embassy in Kampala is a huge fortress (sorry there are no photos, but no photography is allowed of the Embassy). After we showed our passports, left all our electronics behind, and passed security, we were admitted through the gate. Inside there was actually grass, Land Cruisers and other large government vehicles, Americans walking around in suits, and a large building that looked like a modern US office building. I felt strange and out of place after being immersed in Ugandan life. It was my first time in air conditioning since I’ve been in Uganda. The cafeteria had all kinds of American food: pizzas, tacos, bagels, mac & cheese, salads, even brownies! At first, I stood paralyzed and overwhelmed by the number of choices. If I had that much reverse culture shock after one week in Uganda, what am I going to be like after 9 months? After we finished our meetings, I stayed in the library to use their computers and free wifi (got to take advantage of the free wifi in Uganda wherever you can find it!).
The State Department Foreign Service personnel we met were extremely friendly and knowledgeable, but it’s difficult for them to integrate into Ugandan life and foster friendships with everyday Ugandans. The US Embassy personnel are highly protected behind walled offices and homes, and because they’re not allowed to take public transportation, they travel in large cars with drivers. Some Foreign Service employees volunteer with local organizations on weekends to meet Ugandans, but since assignments only last 2-3 years, the personnel are constantly leaving their local contacts and moving to new countries. While I understand the need for protection, security, and commitment to US interests, the Embassy is also supposed to foster understanding and diplomacy toward the local people. However, many Ugandans are terrified to approach the Embassy. It seems like more could be done to promote good relations and cultural exchange with more than just the Ugandan political elite.
When I left the embassy, it was raining, so I hopped in a matatu. We soon hit a jam. Kampala is notorious for its traffic, especially during rush hour. We sat in the road for 10 minutes, inched forward 30 feet, sat for another 5 minutes. All the drivers turned off their engines. Occasionally there would be a small break in the gridlock, and our aggressive taxi driver would accelerate as fast as he could through the opening. For a few moments, a cool, refreshing breeze would fill our hot matatu until we hit the wall of traffic again. I took out my book and read three chapters. At one point, a police truck with sirens and flashing blue lights tried to get through the jam. At first, none of the cars could move and the police were stuck. Eventually, they made an opening, and a line of police trucks and black cars zoomed past. Our matatu driver pushed his way into the fast lane behind the police escort, and we finally made it to Ntinda (the section of Kampala where I’m staying). It took 3 hours to travel 4.9 miles. Kampala rush hour was quite the adventure.
On Sunday we woke up, and Juliet gave us huge plates of spaghetti with sliced cucumbers, avocado, and watermelon on the side for breakfast. Then Eden and I went to the church next door with some of the GLA missionaries. We’ve been hearing the church worship team practicing all week because their sound system is amped up for the whole neighborhood to hear.
The church service lasted over 4 hours! We were greeted very warmly and asked to sit in the front row; nearly all the adults (and one little boy) in the congregation present at the time came over to shake our hand. The kids were absolutely adorable! The service started with worship songs and prayer followed by a sermon, more singing, and introduction of visitors where we and all the other visitors had to go up front and introduce ourselves. Afterwards, all the visitors were invited to a table to drink fresh fruit juice, talk with the pastors, and sign the church visitor book. Everyone was extremely friendly!
The singing was so energetic and emotional! They clapped, waved their hands, and danced. One guy was jumping as high as he could like he was trying to dunk a basketball and others were hopping around in a circle on one foot. It was so much fun! During serious moments, some people would kneel on the floor and pray. Most of the songs were in Lugandan, but I recognized a couple of the melodies, and a couple others were in English.
We came back and made juice with Juliet. She sliced fresh avocado and passion fruit and blended them by hand. It was the most delicious, creamiest juice I’ve ever had! It easily would’ve sold for $7 a glass at any farmer’s market in the US.
Next, Eden, Juliet, and I decided to venture into town to try to find the Gaddafi Mosque because you can climb the minaret and see fantastic views of the city. It started to rain as we were walking. Since it’s currently the rainy season, it rains almost everyday. Usually in the afternoon, it will get cloudy, downpour for 10 minutes, and then the sun will come out again. Everyone scrambled for cover under shop overhangs. The petrol stations were filled with people and boda drivers parked under the roof waiting for the rain to stop. The rain runs in torrents down the streets—some roads have ditches on the side, but many times there’s nowhere for the water to go. However, Ugandans say that this year, the rains are not as much as they should be and crops might suffer. Since aquaponics only requires 10% of the water used in conventional agriculture, aquaponics could play an important role in Uganda’s future.
We took a matatu to town (the central part of Kampala with the largest markets). I have never seen so many jostling people in my life! And Sunday is the day that’s least crowded! I was afraid to take out my phone to take pictures—the sidewalks were overflowing. Bodas, matatas, cars, trucks, and buses crammed the streets. Sellers spread their wares on blankets anywhere they could find an open spot. Apparently they’re not supposed to sell on the sidewalk, but during election years no one enforces the rule because the politicians don’t want to anger voters. A little while after elections, they’ll crack down and kick the sellers off the sidewalks.
The sellers constantly called out hawking their wares, and occasionally one would grab your arm to try to show you his goods. Dress shoes, water bottles, phone cases and batteries (probably stolen), passion fruit, and even toilet paper—everything is sold on these streets! There’s also a dedicated market with stalls selling all kinds of clothes. Two of Kampala’s major bus stations are also located here along with the old and new taxi park. Many matatas start their routes in these parks—they are jammed full! I don’t know how you would find which one is driving the route you’re looking for.
We finally found the mosque—it was beautiful. It was built from 2003-2006 mainly funded by Gaddafi. Called the Uganda National Mosque (or the Gaddafi Mosque), it’s the largest mosque in Sub-Saharan Africa seating over 15,000 people. We were given hijabs and required to take our shoes off before entering. The carpets were so plush! The interior is influenced by African, European, and Arabic architecture. Wooden panels covering the columns were imported from the Congo, the painted glass windows came from Italy, and the chandeliers were made in Egypt. The women were separated from the men in a smaller, upper section. It was a huge, gorgeous building.
Then we climbed the minaret (all 272 steps) for 360° gorgeous views. Built on the highest point in Kampala, the tower lets you see all seven hills that comprise the city—sometimes you can even see Lake Victoria. One hill is built up with five star hotels while slums cover the adjacent hill—a juxtaposition found all over Kampala.
Walking back, we saw a police truck and a crowd gather. At first Juiet thought the police might be caning a man, but it was quite the opposite. They were taking an extremely thin, sick homeless man to a hospital. He had become chilled in the afternoon rain, so the police wrapped him in a shiny thermal blanket. It seemed like everyone passing by had to stop, look, and figure out what was going on. Some thought he was Somali. Apparently many Somalis try to escape their country and live on the streets in Uganda.
We stopped at a fruit and vegetable market to buy pineapples and vegetables for dinner then took a matatu home. It was a long, full, exciting day. I still can’t believe that every morning I get to wake up and experience more of Uganda.
On Saturday, my professor, Dr. Musaazi, called me just past 7 am, and I hopped on a matatu to meet him at the university. We were going to find Charles Mulamata—the aquaponics expert in Uganda. He founded the Africa Aquaponics Association, which now has 100 members. Mr. Mulamata lives in Kampala, so we drove to his neighborhood. Once in the general area, we would occasionally stop and ask for directions to his street (there are no street signs). Someone would point the way, and off we would go.
We found his home and walked in—Mr. Mulamata was there! He talked with us and showed us the two small aquaponic systems he had in his yard. He’s growing catfish, celery, and taro yams. Tilapia are more commonly used in aquaponics, but catfish require less oxygen, so when the pumps shut off in Kampala’s periodic power outages, the catfish can survive better. The yams are a staple in the Ugandan diet. The yam, stem, and leaves can all be eaten, and they’re more nutritious than rice. His yams grow to 5-6 kg (11- lbs) in six months while the best farmer in Uganda growing in soil gets 1.5 kg yams after 8 months.
We asked many questions and I learned so much. Mr. Mulamata said it’s difficult to find the appropriate pumps in Uganda because the pumps sold in the market are all 15 feet of head or greater. Aquaponics requires a high flow rate and little head, and since these two properties are inversely related, the market pumps don’t have an adequate flow rate. He also said that Ugandans are very hesitant to try new technologies. Even though aquaponics sounds like a perfect solution to food insecurity, they’re afraid to try it themselves. Also, many don’t realize you can grow fish in ponds and raise them for food. Uganda used to have a thriving fishing industry because their lakes were abundantly full of fish. Now, the fish in the lakes are almost gone, and fish are quite expensive in the market. Still, Mr. Mulamata said some Ugandans don’t understand you can grow fish like you grow chickens. He also said Uganda has the 2nd fastest growing population in the world, so the country is going to need a lot more food. Aquaponics sounds like it could be a solution.
Dr. Musaazi hadn’t heard much about aquaponics before this, but the more he heard from Mr. Mulamata, the more excited he became. Now Dr. Musaazi really wants me to build a system for his daughter-in-law and three grandchildren before I leave.
I can’t believe that I actually got to meet Mr. Mulamata. I’ve been reading about his work online for over a year, and nearly all the information about aquaponic sites in Kampala points back to him. We just showed up at his house, walked in, and talked with him! He answered many of my questions about aquaponics in Uganda, and he invited me back on Wednesday when he has more time. I can’t wait.
Juliet is the Ugandan woman who stays with us in the guest house and cooks for us. She is an incredible lady. The other morning I had the opportunity to watch her cook and ask her all kinds of questions about Uganda.
Juliet is from Lira in Northern Uganda. When she was nine years old, her father died, and when she was sixteen, she lost her mother. She was then mother and father to her four younger siblings. Despite this, Juliette finished secondary school then went to Makerere University Business School where she received her diploma. She worked at a bank for a while where she was employee of the month many times, but she lost her job. Now Juliet is helping at Global Link Africa (GLA) by cooking for us. GLA is the NGO we’re staying with in Kampala—they train young professionals to be missionaries in their field of occupation. Juliet is fluent in six different Ugandan tribal languages and can understand many more of the many Ugandan dialects.
Juliet is a wonderful cook—all her meals are so delicious! And she wants us to eat a lot! She always tells us to take more. The other morning she cooked a green called boyo with eggs and Irish (in Uganda, they call regular potatoes Irish and sweet potatoes potatoes). She picked the greens from the garden then let them sit in the sun for a couple hours until they withered. Next, we plucked the stems off all the leaves because they’re bad for your stomach. (there were a LOT of leaves to pluck!) She started a charcoal fire (which is quite difficult with just the coals) and boiled a pot of water with a special salt that helps the greens cook. She has a gas stove, but the boyo doesn’t cook well on it because the flame is too hot. She chopped the boyo very, very fine which made a lot of juice squeeze out. She then put the boyo in the boiling water and let it cook for a while. When I asked her how does she know when it’s done, she pulled some boyo out with a spoon, had me taste it, and said, “It’s either ready or it’s not.” She is a masterful cook who does everything without recipes, timers, or measuring scoops. She has an absolutely beautiful voice and often sings while she cooks.
On the gas stove, she browned sliced onions in some oil then poured in the boyo. Next she poured in beaten eggs, sprinkled in salt, grated garlic on top, and stirred. In the other pot, she browned onions and made a sauce with tomatoes, peppers, and garlic. She peeled the Irish and placed them in the pot to cook. To top it off, she squeezed fresh fruit to make juice. The meal was so tasty and fresh! It also took hours to prepare—I can’t believe she does this two or three times everyday.
Juliet dreams of opening her own restaurant—I think it’d be a huge success! She can’t get a loan from a bank because she has nothing to put up as collateral, so she’s going to start small and build up. In December, when her younger sister is on vacation from school, Juliet plans to move back to her home town of Lira and start a little roadside restaurant selling breakfast to boda boda drivers (the motorcycle drivers that everyone hires because they’re cheaper than taxis). She’ll have a little stand maybe with corrugated metal walls and buy plastic tables and chairs to put out front. She’ll just cook chapatis and beans for breakfast at first, but eventually she hopes to be able to afford to rent a room and establish a full restaurant.
Juliet’s story of overcoming hardship at a young age and pursuing education and her dream of cooking is not uncommon among Ugandans. Many of them are very talented, well educated, and have visions for what they want to do. Uganda has many entrepreneurs who start small and build up. Juliet and others like her inspire me to keep dreaming about aquaponics. I can start small and with hard work and a little help, see how far aquaponics in Uganda can go.
I set out on day 2 much more confident. I was heading back to Makerere University to meet my advisor and wanted to drop off my application for research clearance at the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST). This time I remembered to apply sunscreen.
I was advised to take a matatu to Makerere where I planned to pick up a special hire taxi to take me to the UNCST since I didn’t know where it was. Matatas are vans that run up and down set routes stopping at stages to let people on and off. They’re the form of transport everyone uses because they’re the cheapest (a 15 minute ride can be 1000 Ugandan Schillings, which is about 30 cents). There’s so many of them! Each has a driver and a loader who takes the fare and calls out the name of their destination trying to herd people into their matatu. The goal is to pile as many people as possible into one van. Our GLA friend also told me how much the matatu conductor should charge me since they’re infamous for trying to overcharge mzungus (white people).
When I found the right matata, got on, and disembarked at the correct stop, I was so proud of myself! The ride was actually quite exciting. Next, I found the special hire taxi driver who had been recommended to take me to the UNCST. I hopped in and off we went. Little did I know that the UNCST was right next to the matata stop where I had got on that morning. I paid the taxi driver 30,000 shillings to take me right back to where I started! But on the bright side, he showed me where the UNCST was, I dropped off my forms in 5 minutes, and they said they would let me know if I was approved in less than a week. As Eden said, we’ll make dumb mistakes at first, but we’ll learn quickly and soon know how to navigate and live in Uganda.
Back at Makerere, I found the College of Engineering and met my professor, Dr. Moses Musaazi. He’s a professor of electrical engineering and a talented entrepreneur. He’s launched many new technologies, including bricks that do not need baking for building and improved sanitary pads. Dr. Musaazi was very warm and welcoming. His office is neat but filled with boxes of papers, tools, a small solar panel, and solar pumps he is playing with. We discussed my research proposal and what I wanted to do here in Uganda. He offered to help me find the right people to talk with and chemicals I need for water quality testing. He also wants me to build an aquaponic system for his daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
The Ugandans are very helpful and kind. I was in the Makerere library but couldn’t connect to the Internet (their wifi is not too good). A student offered to lend me his Ethernet cord and helped me find a port that worked. Ugandans are also happy to help with directions—the first day, when I was really lost, I asked a woman how to get to Makerere. She explained the way and was walking that direction so I followed her. After a bit she got in a matata and told me to get in too. The next stop was Makerere main gate; we hopped out and she even paid for my fare!
I’ve also noticed that Ugandans are very personal. I can send an email and wait months for a reply, but if I call or talk to them face to face, they are extremely responsive, warm, and helpful. They value personal relationships. Even when calling on the phone, they go through many pleasantries and inquire about your day before getting to the point of the call. While it may be annoying not to get an instant reply through email, this emphasis on personal relationships teaches respect for others and to care for them as actual human beings, not just someone who can get things done for you.
It’s also hard to get used to the Ugandan money—the numbers are so large! $3 is about 10,000 schillings, so while things are cheap, there are so many zeros to keep track of!
I felt so much more comfortable on day 2—I had a phone, a place to stay, Ugandan friends, my roommate Eden, and my professor. I understand the transport system and was becoming familiar with my surroundings. Everyday is a new, exciting learning experience—I can’t wait for my next adventure!
After traveling for 25 hours, I finally landed in Entebbe Airport at 7:30 pm local time. I managed to make it through customs and find all my bags while I was on the lookout for the US Embassy driver that was supposed to pick me up. When I finally spotted him, I was so relieved! He introduced himself as Andrew, we hopped in the van, and off we went on the 2 hour ride into Kampala. Almost bordering Lake Victoria, Kampala is Uganda’s large, growing capital infamous for its traffic jams.
At Makerere, I met Mark, a Fulbrighter who’s teaching at the university. While I only knew him from 2 days of orientation in DC, it was comforting to see a familiar face. He showed me around campus, introduced me to his favorite taxi driver and fruit seller, and told me about living in Uganda (he’s already been here a month). Makerere is quite large with many different colleges, and the students and professors always dress up—many of them look like they’re going for an interview! I only saw a few pairs of jeans. There are also giant, blue storks flying from tree to tree all around Makerere. In the afternoon, I met a Ugandan professor and chatted with her while sipping banana juice.
Later that night, Andrew came back and picked me up to bring both me and Eden, the Fulbright girl who had just arrived, to GLA. This time we found it! We had to drive up a steep hill filled with ditches and deep holes. I wasn’t sure we would make it. At the top, we fell backwards three times before finally making the turn. Andrew pulled into the gate and the GLA staff met us very warmly with tea, bananas, and other snacks. When Andrew left, the van struggled to make it over the hill and turn just outside the gate. He kept accelerating but the tires just spun until the air reeked of burned rubber. He left some impressive skid marks and finally made it.
My first 24 hours in Uganda were a rollercoaster of emotions. There are so many new sights, sounds, tastes, and ways of doing things—the culture shock hit me pretty hard. While I have been here before, it was only for two weeks in rural, northern Uganda, which is very different from bustling Kampala. Being on my own is also much more daunting than being part of a team. Just from walking around and observing, my senses are oversaturated, and I learn new things constantly from talking to Ugandans. It’s difficult to process everything I’m taking in, but I’m so thankful for this opportunity and love getting to know the Ugandan people.
As I sit here in the O’Hare Airport (slightly backtracking on my way to Uganda) on my first layover, I can’t believe I’ve actually left and am going to Africa for 9 months. Everything seems surreal. Is this adventure really happening to me?
While it was really hard to say goodbye to my family, it makes me realize how blessed I am to have such a close family. They support me in everything I do, make me laugh, and challenge me on the basketball court. In a way, the pain of saying goodbye is a good thing because it's a testament to how much we love each other.
As I boarded the plane, my sadness abated as I remembered how much I love flying. The hugeness of the plane, the powerful g-forces on takeoff, the picturesque views out the window of skyscrapers and then patchwork quilt farmland, even the stomach churning bumps of turbulence that make you feel like you’re riding a roller coaster—they all fuel the exhilaration and excitement of embarking on a journey over the ocean to a foreign land. The exhilaration was a little dampened when I discovered that United charges for their movies, but hey, at least I had a window seat.
I can’t wait to get to Uganda and live there for nine months. I want to learn the people’s stories to really understand their culture and history. I want to taste their food, live in their towns, and shop in their markets. I want to make Ugandan friends and experience everyday Ugandan life, so I can understand how to design technologies they really want. For the next nine months, I want to be part of Uganda.
For my research, I'll be studying the cultural, technical, and economic feasibility of aquaponics in Uganda. What is aquaponics? Aqupaonic systems grow fish and vegetables together in water. It's a symbiotic relationship where the fish waste provides the nutrients to the plants while the plants and bacteria filter the water so the fish can survive. Aquaponics is six times more productive than conventional farming, requires 75% less energy than mechanized agriculture, and uses 80-90% less water. The problems are that the initial capital investment is expensive and aquaponics requires knowledge about managing water quality levels.
While aquaponics is not widely used in Uganda, there are a couple aquaponic systems. I'm hoping to visit these farmers and learn how they've designed their systems to work in Uganda. I also hope to interview conventional farmers, government officials, and materials suppliers to gauge their interest in aquaponics and get their input on an aquaponic system design for rural Ugandan farmers. I'm working with Dr. Moses Musaazi, a professor at Makerere University in Kampala, and Dr. Duncan Ongeng from Gulu University in Gulu.
I'm also working with an NGO called ChildVoice International (CVI) in Lukodi, Uganda. CVI is a Christian nonprofit organization that works with girls who were abducted and forced to become child soldiers by Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army. CVI helps the girls recover spiritually, emotionally, and physically while teaching them skills and trades to help them support themselves. When I went to Uganda last time with Engineers Without Borders, our team stayed at CVI, so I'm excited to go back and see these incredibly strong people and hear more of their stories. When not working on aquaponics, I hope to be able to volunteer and help CVI with their ministry work.
CVI's center in Lukodi (about a half hour drive outside of Gulu) has a farm and fish ponds, so I'm going to help CVI convert one of their fish ponds into an aquaponic system. Hopefully, other farmers in Lukodi will be able to copy the design and build their own aquaponic systems.
I know there will be many challenges and surprises, but I can't wait to see what adventures and life lessons await me in Uganda! I hope I will grow in my engineering skills, knowledge of international development, and understanding of Africa and its people. Stay tuned for updates!