Thursday, December 31, 2009

Teka Teka

In Runyanchole, the language of southwest Uganda, "teka teka" means "to think". So, in these waning hours of the first decade of the 21st century (profound, huh?), I thought I'd give some thoughts about my first nine months in Africa.
  • Finding your place is hard - coming to Africa as an individual was undoubtedly the right thing for me to do, but it's been hard. I came with an unclear idea of my role or organization, and it's taken some work to be assertive in making a place for myself. I'm now doing some great work for ACTS, sharing in the design work for a new GFS project, creating new water testing equipment, and soon writing proposals and preliminary engineering for new projects. As with most pursuits in life, no one has guided me by the hand. This has been a tremendous lesson in self-motivation and determination.

  • Does the world need more NGO's? Last week I had an encounter with one of the many characters you'll find in Africa, the old male ex-pat. Married to a Ugandan woman, he was recently retired from work with the European Union and now helping his wife to run a small guest farm in western Uganda. After dinner, he came over to our table and whispered in conspiratorial tones about the underside of politics in Uganda, which is wicked indeed (and of course it is, or it wouldn't make a good story!). But the thrust of his discursive soliloquy was that in the last 15 years the number of NGO's has exploded across Uganda. Bloated, bureaucratic and unresponsive, he railed against the huge overhead they spend on ex-pat staff, wasting most of the donor's money.  And the government plays along, all to happy to relinquish responsibility for tasks it would normally handle in a well functioning state. Indeed, they also crowd out opportunities for the private sector. In fact, a friend of mine now just finishing their first year of university has told me of his great desire to work for an NGO, because that's where the best opportunities are. So, does the world need more NGO's? A hyperbolic and impossible question to answer in so short a space, but I'll say at least this - all effort should be put into finding private sector solutions to issues before resorting to the creation of another NGO.

  • The world is, uh, complicated - every action you take affects others in potentially a myriad of ways. This is especially true when you enter into a vulnerable environment in an effort to help. Bottom line is, think, and think twice before setting up new projects to help people. You may end up doing more harm than good.

  • Matoke, matoke! Ugandans LOVE steamed matoke. They love posho, and they love g-nuts. I mean, they love this stuff. I find it entirely pleasant, but I admit I'm putting together an epic list of restaurants to visit once I get back to Berkeley.

  • Goma is a strange place  - This city on the eastern edge of Congo, clutching the north shore of lake Kivu, is a study in constrasts. It's home to legions of mzungus, who work for an ABC list of NGO's, or the UN (MONUC). There's parties, bars, and fantastic restaurants. The incredible barricaded homes along the lake are just beautiful. In fact, Mobutu's (now Kabila's) notorious vacation villa is just a few hundred meters away from HEAL Africa's Maji Matulivu. And yet in those meters between, the destitute children of Goma que up on the lake shore to carry water in 5 gallon jerry cans, often many kilometers to their homes. The wooden shack is by far the most common home in the city. Because of the huge foreign presence, prices for basic items have spiraled up, putting them out of reach for ordinary people.

  • Corruption is killing potential - this isn't anything new to the cynics out there, but it's particularly depressing to see it up close. In Uganda especially, parents put a huge emphasis on education, sometimes going into crippling debt to pay school fees. And yet the hope of their children find a job is slim, because the managers in charge of hiring are looking for a 5 million shilling bribe ($2,500).

  • Music! A quick list of some of the music I've find during my time here: Maisha Soul (Congo), Khadja Nin (Burundi), Afrigo (Uganda), Yo-MalĂ© (Senegal), Moses (Uganda). I was blown away by the street music you hear in the villages of eastern Congo on a Sunday afternoon.

  • My New Year's resolution - the opportunity to be here and have the freedom to learn and participate as I wish has been a huge blessing to me. Occasionally I remember to really absorb that fact, but it slips away so easily. In 2010 I resolve to be more thankful for the people and groups I've worked with in Uganda and Congo. I don't want to look back with regret when I get home, wishing I'd appreciated more the chance I'd been given.
Heri za Mwaka Mpya!


  1. Keep the updates coming, Densmore! I'm loving them

  2. Thanks for sharing Alex! what interesting insights.