5 cents

Crossing the Border from Rwanda to Uganda

November 14, 2007 – Mbarara, Uganda

Spent yesterday catching up on blogging on the gorillas and hanging out at the pool at Hotel des Milles Collines (a.k.a. Hotel Rwanda). Creepy to think that Tutsis were taking refuge there and rationing the water from the very pool I was swimming in during the genocide. Went out to eat again at Indian Khazana, this time with M. Her's is an inspiring story. She comes form a poor village in Kenya, both her parents and younger sister died of AIDS when she was 12... but now she is in medical school in Nairobi. Puts things in perspective.

J came to pick us up at 5:30 this morning. We drove north from Kigali to the Ugandan border, along a different route then we took to Ruhengeri. Not as mountainous. It rained half the time. Lots of tea plantations, along with sugarcane and banana and eucalyptus forests.

Rwandan Workers Heading Into a Rainbow

Rwandan Workers Headed Into Rainbow


Women Headed for the Border

Border Crossing

J dropped us off on the Rwandan side. The lines to pass through emigration were probably 50 meters long, with people lined up nose to back of head, and countless others trying to cut in at the front. After some patience, we got through the line, then passed a checkpoint into no-man's land, across a bridge, then through another checkpoint and then waited again in immigration on the Ugandan side. We got through but our ride wasn't there yet. We shot the shit with the money-changers while we waited, amidst the trucks and people coming and going across the border. Finally our ride pulled up, a big white truck with UN emblazed on the sides and hood and an antennae the size of a medieval jousting lance mounted on the hood. Our driver drove like a complete maniac, running bikes and pedestrians off the road. And Ugandans drive on the left side of the road, which takes some getting used to, even as a passenger.

The landscape opened up, from lush hills in Rwanda to flatter open grazing lands in Uganda. Bananas everywhere. Bicycles and trucks loaded with bananas.

Banana Bikes

bikes carrying bananas


Landscape Montage Going from Rwanda to Uganda




A Day in the Life in Ruhiira, Uganda

November 15, 2007 – Mbarara, Uganda

I shadowed Jess yesterday on a field visit to the Ruhiira site. The day got off to a grim start as one of the drivers who was bringing another of Jess's colleagues from Kampala hit someone the evening before. This didn't come as a surprise after our drive in yesterday. Ugandan drivers feel they own the road, I even heard our driver today say that "roads were built for cars." As they speed along the narrow roads, they blare their horns and expect pedestrians and bicycles to jump off into the ditch. There were many times yesterday that bicycles loaded with bananas or other stuff would at the last minute pull onto the shoulder or into the ditch and if they didn't they would've gotten nailed. Same with livestock. They don't slow down for goats or cattle, trusting that they will get off the road in time. This 16-year old student who got hit was not so lucky.

We set out in our huge SUV contraption, our driver still driving like a complete maniac. No lesson learned. Funny that they are concerned about HIV, Malaria, etc. when traffic fatalities probably beats them all out and is easily preventable, it's just not in the Ugandan lifestyle to drive carefully or have respect for lesser-life forms that don't drive large vehicles. We were traveling with the agriculture coordinator, the community coordinator and the village doctor. The drive to Ruhiira was about an hour on dirt roads (driving 110+ km/hr).

Downtown Ruhiira

Downtown Ruhiira, Uganda

First stop was the Omwicwamba primary school, where they were having their morning meal of maize porridge (as part of the school feeding program). I tried some and it was pretty bland. It's kind of like the mexican atole, minus the sugar and cinnamon, and the tamale to go with it. We checked out the gardens that the students were growing, interesting in that they had them sectioned off in circles, triangles, etc. to teach them geometric shapes, and also had a garden in the shape of a map of Uganda.The kale and other stuff they were growing in these gardens went into the school feeding program.

School Children from Ruhiira Getting Maize Porridge for Breakfast

Next we stopped at a typical farm, where a farmer showed us his crops. He had a variety of stuff, from maize and millet, to eggplant and chili peppers and mango trees. In other sites, it's hard to get farmers to eat these more exotic fruit and vegetable crops as they can fetch a lot of money in the market place, but this particular farmer said these crops weren't marketable in Ruhiira so they were for his family's consumption. When given the choice of wealth and his family's health, he was insistent on putting his family's health first. As he stated, if a family member dies, no amount of money can bring them back, and if they are sick, you will spend all your money to get them better.

Farmer from Ruhiira

Ugandan Farmer

Unfortunately the statistics don't bear out this particular farmer's sentiments. A lot of farmers sell their cash crops for money rather than feed themselves and their families. The particular problem Uganda has is not so much that people are going hungry or starving, but they don't have a lot of diversity in what they eat. They essentially eat a lot of matoke, or a bland mashed plantains, which provides a lot of starch but hardly anything in the way of protein or vitamins and minerals. Some sixty percent of young children suffer from stunted growth or malnutrition as a consequence. The drive from Mbarara to Ruhiira was almost entirely through banana plantations with little else. Hopefully more farmers will be going in the direction of this farmer we visited in diversifying their crops.

Typical Home

typical Ugandan home

This is what Jess does, so it was interesting to see her in action, and the effects of what she is doing. Americans might eat shitty foods, but at least the majority of Americans know better, and choose to eat junk, or are have psychological reasons why they do. Ugandans just don't know any better. Even the educated Ugandan professionals Jess was working with didn't realize that "fanta," as they call all soda here, is bad for you. They just think of it as a liquid, like water, just like matoke is considered food, and it is good to eat food and drink liquid. They don't think they have eaten unless they have eaten matoke, everything else is superfluous. If they eat just vegetables, that wouldn't be considered a meal. If I lived here and ate local foods, I would likely starve. The food here is the worst I have ever experienced. The matoke is bland, as is the other staple, posho, which is made of maize flour. No spices or vegetables are used, it's just eaten straight up. And rarely can they afford meat or fish.

After that we went to the Ruhiira field office. Then we went and visited a rudimentary bank/credit union where the farmers pool their money and can get loans.

Bank Signs

Ruhiira bank

We visited a health center that was more like a pharmacy. Then we visited a workshop where locals were learning how to make beads out of banana leaves, as an alternative source of generating income. Then we visited a few more health clinics. There were a lot of people waiting for treatment. The maternity ward had 8 or so expecting mothers. Jess sat down and through an interpreter had an informal Q&A. They were all eager to learn about nutrition and asked good questions. Some foods like eggs have certain taboos, so it's not so easy to tell them they are good for you. A lot of women have problems breast feeding because they are too busy working in the fields all day. The women do most of the work. A lot of the men spend the day drinking banana gin, or just hanging out, while the women are out working. But the men control the money and what foods they buy. Men eat first, then women and children.

After that we drove on this muddy road to another primary school, just in time for the lunch. For lunch the children were having posho and beans cooked with amarinth (a leafy vegetable that the kids were asked to bring from their homes to mix into it). Some other vegetables, onions and tomatoes were cooked in with the beans, so it was pretty tasty and nutritious.

Posho with Beans

Posho with Beans


The Bean Ladler

Bean Ladler

I devoured a bowl of it, though we didn't have to wait in line and we were given forks unlike the kids who ate the corn mash and beans with their hands. We hung out with the kids afterwards.

Ruhiira Children

Ruhiira Children

Ugandan Kids


Kids Going Crazy When they See themselves on the Screen

I watched some playing football (soccer), and when I asked to see the ball, discovered that it was tightly packed wad of plastic bags! Ingenious.

Ugandan Children Playing Football with Wadded Plastic Bags

We visited another health center, and another maternity ward, this one with mothers post-delivery. In all these remote places, it's incredible how competent the doctors and staff are. They really know their shit, and even if they went away to medical school or universities, they return to their villages to practice, for I'm sure next to nothing in terms of wages. I was extremely impressed. There was a woman in the maternity ward that had just delivered her fourth baby, this one by C-section. The scar on her belly looked like it had been infected and re-infected, and she was anemic. She was the third or fourth wife, so her power and rights had diminished. The husband didn't want to pay for medicines or good food for her, but at the same time he didn't want the hospital to assume control over the situation. What to do?

Maternity Ward of Health Clinic

Maternity Ward with Cow

Then we went and visited a nursery. There were three young convict workers there guarded by a guy with a machine gun. The convicts were huddled around a plastic tub eating matote or posho soaking in some sort of brothy water that looked pretty disgusting. One of the guys we were with asked the convicts what they did and they declined to comment. You see a lot of that here and in Rwanda. In Rwanda, you could tell who the convicts (many from the genocide) because they wore pink. Here they seem to wear bright yellow. Besides just providing community work (though there are some working on the grounds of our hotel so perhaps they are for hire), it also acts as a sort of public shaming.

We saw how they grafted trees at the nursery, mango and citrus trees that they would then distribute to the farmers. One of the workers went and got us a yam that you can eat raw. We tried it, it was kind of like eating a mix between a carrot and a raw potato.

The Ag Coordinator Peeling a Yam for Us to Eat

Peeling a Yam with Machete

We survived the drive back and hung out at the project office. Then we came back to the hotel and survived another meal. One of the few places I feel like I'm eating to live rather than living to eat. I am thankful that I can enjoy food, that is not a luxury everbody has.


(c) 2007 Derek White & Jessica Fanzo

Five Senses Reviews