Sunday, September 27, 2009


Between our large yard and Uganda's fertile soil (Eggplant grows as a weed. Seriously.), it was hard to resist the idea to start a garden outside our house.

We decided to start with plants and flowers first, because they are readily available in town. If it works well, I might venture into vegetables.

We went to a lady who sells plants near the hospital and picked out the types we wanted, then picked the best-looking one of each type. Once I see how they take, I will come back for more. Of course, once I had picked all the plants, paid her USh 10,000 ($5) and packed the plants in a box, we tried to hop on the Mate to go home, and it broke! The starter pedal just clean broke. (More on that later) So I took a boda home.

We started by choosing a patch of grass to use for the garden and breaking it up with a hoe, then pulling up all the roots.

After a lot of hacking and pulling, the ground was finally prepared.

I had left the plants we bought just inside the front gate, but when I went to get them, they were missing! Recently our security guard had his bike and radio stolen while he was on duty (yes, you read that correctly), so I assumed that they had come back for my plants. But why would anyone steal plants?
As it turns out, the same security guard had assumed that the plants belonged to our neighbor (a mzungu who works with me) and had brought them to her house.

So once that was cleared up and the plants were back in our possession, we were ready to plant. We created the border for the garden using empty wine bottles. The smaller area of the garden had poorer soil than the larger area, so we avoided it for now. We had started a compost pile, so in a couple of weeks I will mix the compost into that side.

We planted the plants we had bought, and put some limestone in for prettiness, and poured lots of water.

I'll be in South Africa for the next two weeks, but I'm excited to see how the garden will be doing by the time i get back.

Monday, September 21, 2009

We did more cooking this weekend.

We fired up the Braai (grill), which involved over an hour of effort from Scott to get the charcoal going. Now I appreciate quick-start charcoal. Cheating, schmeating.

We made steaks rubbed with salt, pepper and Tandoori spice, and beef kabobs marinated in balsamic vinegar, olive oil, tamarind, salt pepper, BBQ seasoning and honey.
We made string beans in tomato sauce - a long time favorite of mine that mom makes (of course).

Scott also found these weird tiny vegetables in the market. They're green and the size of half a finger. When you ask, they tell you the Luganda name for the vegetable, which doesn't help.

We couldn't figure out what they were, until Scott finally bit into one and it tasted like a cucumber. They were tiny, tiny cucumbers.

I chose to stir-fry them, for lack of ideas on what to do with tiny cucumbers - half in soy sauce, half in soy sauce plus tamarind. The ones with the tamarind were decidedly tastier. I don't think I'll make them again, though, because they were a pain to slice up, being so super tiny.

For dessert, we grilled a pineapple, which was the most delicious thing ever.

We were highly satisfied with our cooking effort, as was Joseph, our night guard, who proclaimed our cooking to be of "high quality." Next time, we want to make a BBQ for the whole house - probably not on a weekend, though, since everyone flees to Kampala.

Next project: Meat Omelet.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


A mzungu family medicine resident from California was working here for a month, and he rotated through all the wards. On the pediatric ward, he saw a child with the following lab results. (Keep in mind, this patient is alive.)

Hemoglobin 1.2!
I didn't know that was consistent with life, but apparently in Uganda, it is. Go figure.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Passion Big

The Rock Hotel has a very nice passion juice that we like to order when we're swimming. Passion juice is absolutely delicious. It is tart and rich, and The Rock Hotel makes a really nice one.
You can order a "Passion Small" or a "Passion Big." Passion Big is really big, but it's so tasty that I can usually drink it all.

Passion Big is high on my list of things that I love about living here.

Stir-Fried Okra

Before Scott and I left for Sipi Falls for the weekend, I wanted to use the last of the okra we had bought before. I looked up a recipie online, and decided to stir-fry it.
I didn't have the lemon or the thyme that the recipie called for, but I threw in some soy sauce and it came out really nice!

I don't know if anyone else liked it, but I did.
I don't really feel like cooking anything fancy or complicated, but fresh vegetables are so available here that it's nice to make something quick. It also gives some variety with our starch-heavy meals.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sipi Falls

We decided to go away this weekend to Sipi Falls, a waterfall at Mount Elgon that is about 2 hours away.

We took a bodaboda to the Shell gas station in town, then took a matatu from Tororo to Mbale. In Mbale, we couldn't find the matatus we needed, so we asked a bodaboda to take us there. We found a matatu going to Kapchorwa, the nearest town to Sipi falls.

A woman named Doreen started talking to us. She was holding a baby girl. (Babies tolerate these matatu rides remarkably well. I can't imagine an American baby so calm on such a crazy, hot, cramped ride for so long). She became our impromptu guide, informing us when we had traveled into a new province.
That matatu van was smaller, and the people in the first row of the back sat either in the seats (forward-facing) or on a bump behind the very front seats (facing backward). This meant that about 6-7 people were sitting essentially in a circle, and it encouraged conversation.
About half an hour into the ride, they were engaged in a debate, and it was fun to watch. It was in a mix of languages, with only occasional phrases in English, so I had no idea what it was about. But Doreen was clearly arguing with some young man about something, although they seemed more amused and not very angry. Scott heard some phrases that sounded like they were talking about the recent violence in Kampala (which reached us only through news reports), but later I heard Doreen say something about "pregnant" so who knows.

Everyone on the van knew we were going to Sipi Falls, and as we approached, they asked us which lodge we were staying in - which was Lacam Lodge. They dropped us off at the door.

Lacam Lodge
was very nice. It has 3 self-contained bandas, with a queen bed and a double bed in each, plus a bathroom. There was no electricity - at 6:30, an employee comes and lights two kerosene candles for the room. The toilets were compost toilets - after you use them you put a handful of wood shavings. An employee comes periodically during the day to empty it. It really didn't smell at all, and in fact seemed really clean.

The Logde is built on a slope overlooking a massive valley.

It is so close to the waterfall that you can hear it all the time, but you can't see it from your banda. There is a lookout point on the grounds of the lodge from which you can see the waterfall, and it's huge and beautiful.

The Lodge is too high for mosquitos, which is nice, although it is also very chilly. If you go, bring long pants, a sweater and pajamas. During the day, we were warm in the sun (which was actually quite hot), and the shade was pleasant. At night, it got very cold - such that I wore every piece of clothing i had brought just to go to dinner. And we slept with a sheet and 3 wool blankets on the bed.

The shower has hot water, but only hot water. It wasn't mixed with any cold water, so it was literally scalding. It was pretty much impossible to expose your skin to it for more than a flash, but anytime you weren't under the water you were cold, so it made for an unpleasant shower. I didn't completely rinse my hair of conditioner, either, because the heat of the water was much too painful on my scalp. The only nice part of the shower is that there is a large window that looks over the beautiful valley, although it's hard to appreciate while being scalded.

The food at Lacam lodge was very good. There was a nice dining room and bar.

The bar overlooked the valley.

The waiter would come to our table and tell us how many courses the meal would have (lunch had 2, dinner had 4) and what they would be. Everything was simple but very tasty. We also had a very nice bottle of South African red wine with dinner.

The Lodge can organize short hikes of about 1 hour - they have one to the waterfall, and one to a coffee plantation. We didn't do either one, although they sound nice if you're interested. I'm not sure how enjoyable it would have been, given my distaste for hiking, and adding onto that the high elevation that made exertion difficult. Just climing the stairs from our bands to reception required a rest in the middle.

Mostly we just relaxed at the viewpoint.

Scott did an amazing drawing of the waterfall, and I did a lot of reading.

I finished "Zeitoun" which was outstanding and really shocking. I also read the September 7 New Yorker that arrived, which included a fascinating but appalling article on a man who was executed in Texas for arson (his children died in the fire), when the fire was very likely accidental.

While we were relaxing, we heard some hooting and cheering. We looked across to the waterfall to see a crazy mzungu hanging from a rope next to the waterfall, descending the rocky cliff. I think it's this activity called "abseiling."

The mzungu was lowered on the rope down to the base, where there was grassy land, and a Ugandan was there waiting for them. Another item that for the list of Crazy Things Mzungus Do.

We had a really nice weekend in Sipi. I would definitely go back, although I would bring warmer clothing next time.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Rock

The town of Tororo is most notable for the huge rock in the center of it.

You can see the rock from almost anywhere in the town. When you are a visitor, people constantly ask you, "Have you climbed the rock yet?"

This is the rock as seen from the road outside the hospital:

After a few weeks of living here, we decided to finally climb the rock.
If you know me, you know that hiking is not something to be "enjoyed," it is something to be suffered and usually avoided. Let's be real - nature is the same crap everywhere, and views I can see from the window of a plane. But you have to climb the rock, just to say you did it.

Don't be fooled by my smile. I'm schvitzing.

A view of the roads leading elsewhere.

Blair is pointing something out, and Scott is watching.

At the top, we met a guard, Patrick, who seemed thrilled to have someone to chat with. He guards the cell phone towers. When we marveled at the beautiful view, he seemed underwhelmed. We said "You get to see this beautiful view every day!" And he said "Yes, but the climb is very difficult. Every day." I feel his pain.

You can see the town center, with the main roundabout here.

I'm glad I did it. I will not be doing it again.

Mzungu, Stand Up!

While we were shopping for dinner on Saturday, we stopped at Pastor's shop to replace the lightbulb on the Mate, which had blown out. Two little girls, Winnie and Divine, came to chat with me.

Later, while waiting for Scott to bring the last of the shopping from the hardware store, I was approached by four children who were playing in under the veranda where I was sitting. One of the girls said, "Mzungu, you are sitting!" I said "Yes, I am. I'm tired." She said, "Mzungu, stand up! You will dirty your clothes!" The children then asked me to take their pictures and, as usual, giggled hysterically when I showed them the digital image.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

To Market

On Saturday, we decided to cook dinner ourselves, and give Mohammed (who is currently suffering through Ramadan, starving himself until sunset and going to Mosque several times a day) a break.

Ugandan food is nice, but very repetitive. Ugandans are accustomed to eating the same thing for every meal (some combination of rice, beans, matooke, posho, groundnut sauce, and potatoes (which are called "Irish") and sometimes chicken or beef), but we Americans are not. I especially like groundnut sauce, but I have been eating a varied diet for 30 years; it's hard to make the psychological switch.
So it's nice sometimes to eat out (we can get Indian food or chips/fish (fried whole fish or fillet with french fries) at a couple of the restaurants, like The Rock Hotel and TLT).
Even then, we don't get many vegetables. It's weird, because tons of vegetables would grow here, but the range of vegetables actually grown are small. You can find a lot of bananas, oranges, tomatoes, onions and Irish. Several vendors usually have avocados, eggplant and cabbage. Pineapples are available, but few and sometimes not ripe. If you look hard, you might find 1 or 2 vendors in the entire market selling string beans or okra. But more importantly Ugandan food doesn't seem to use most of the vegetables.

So we decided to take advantage of the fresh vegetables available to make a pasta sauce. To buy the vegetables, you go into the market in town. The market is a sprawling area of different wares, separated into sections. There are multiple entrances, which are small doorways in between storefronts in town. The sections include produce, hardware, rubber (where they make flip-flops out of old tires), second-hand clothes, luggage, and miscellaneous stuff (which includes anything made out of plastic, mirrors, wallets, cards, keychains, etc.).
The produce area is dark because it has a tin roof covering, which keeps it cool, unlike the other areas. The stands are just flat wooden boards suspended between wooden posts with mountains of vegetables. Most vendors have a variety of produce, but not always the same amounts, and no one has everything. One woman specializes in bananas, and she always has the sweetest ones.

Prices usually run like this:
Bananas (1 bunch) - USh 2000 ($1)
Avocado (1) - USh 500 (25 cents)
Tomatoes (4) - USh 300-500 (15-25 cents)
Irish (1 kilo) - USh 2000 ($1)
String beans (1 kilo) - USh 3000 ($1.50)
Okra (1 kilo) - USh 4000 ($2)
Pineapple (1) - USh 3000-4000 ($1.50-2)

We had decided to make a sauce from tomatoes and eggplant, and then I got all excited when I found okra and string beans, so we bought a half kilo of each.

At home, we soaked the vegetables in water with a little bleach.

We made the sauce out of tomatoes, eggplant and okra. We threw in some salt, balsamic vinegar and a "Portuguese" seasoning we had bought. We thought about putting red wine in the sauce, but Mohammed is Muslim, and some of the Ugandans in the house don't drink at all, and we wanted everyone to be able to eat.
We sauteed the green beans with garlic.

Everything was delicious. Mohammed loved it too, even taking seconds.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Getting Around

Transportation here is an interesting phenomenon.
There is no actual public transportation, but there are alternatives.

Most local transportation is in the form of a bodaboda. It is said that the term comes from this area, which is 10 minutes from the Uganda-Kenya border. Supposedly, it was the only way to get across the border, and people would request their destination, "border border." Sounds like a myth to me, but everyone repeats it.

There is a bicycle boda, which is usually a chinese-made bike with a brightly colored cushion on the back. They are ubiquitous, and there are drivers sitting around waiting for fares nearly everywhere. It is the slowest and least comfortable form of transportation, but also the cheapest. A typical ride is USh 500 (25 cents). I don't have a great photo of one, but you can see one on the left side of this photo.

Typically, you sit behind the driver with one leg on either side, and there are pegs to rest your feet. The problem is, if you are wearing a skirt, it is more prudent to ride side saddle, and this can be difficult and uncomfortable on a bicycle boda. One ride I took was on a very tall bicycle, and the driver did not keep the bike steady on the uneven ground - I was so afraid that I would fall off that I made the driver stop and somehow got on the regular way, still managing to have the skirt cover me.

Faster, more comfortable and more expensive (USh 1000 - or 50 cents per ride) are the motorcycle bodabodas. They are not quite as ubiquitous as the bicycle bodas, but still very common and easy to flag down on the main road. Usually outside the hospital gates, about 5-10 bicycle bodas and 2-3 motorcycle bodas sit waiting for fares.

These are much easier to ride side-saddle if needed, and I prefer to take them for convenience and comfort.

I have seen all manner of things transported on a bicycle or motorcycle. I've seen a family of four squished on the back, huge boxes, bundles of six-foot-long pieces of wood, several large whole fish, a full-size wooden bed frame, chickens, and a live pig wrapped in leaves and squealing bloody murder.

As mzungus, when we have lots of things to carry, we avoid the crazy strap-everything-to-a-boda option, and get a special hire. These are four-door cars available in town for a flat rate of USh 5000 ($2.50). It's hard to find them on the road, but you can find them in town pretty easily.

The last transportation option is a Matatu. It is a white van with blue stripes that runs a predetermined route. You can take them from town to town, or sometimes from country to country. We took one to get to Mbale. Usually you go to where you know they leave from (a gas station or central corner in town) and the fare collector repeats a long string of locations (presumably destinations), ending with the final destination. In our case, going to Mbale, it sounded like "Balboobalbananalabadoobasibanlanarasafa Mbale!" You can also flag one down on the road - the fare collector usually hangs outside the window and shouts the destination in case you're interested. They drive with almost intentional insanity, and seem held together by a thread. As you careen and lurch over potholes and dirt roads, you hear the creaking and squealing of rusty metal.

There is no schedule; the Matatus wait at their pick-up spot until full. This could be a few minutes or a few hours. In Kenya and Mozambique, I remember they would squeeze 22-25 people into seats designed for 13 people - every time you thought that they couldn't possibly fit one more person, they squeezed in 5. Some people sat on the floor facing backward, essentially in the crotch of the person in front of them.
In Uganda, limits are strictly enforced, so they can't fit as many in, which is a blessing. They still put 4 people on a seat designed for 3, but it's better than 10.
Matatus are not known for their safety. There are loads of fatal traffic accidents involving them, but there are few alternatives. Appropriately "Matatu" is only 1 letter off from the Swahili word for problem - matata.

Adventures in Bike Repair

After buying and bringing home my new Yamaha Mate, I realized I wanted to be able to lock it. Tororo, in my opinion, is much safer than New York, but still, things walk away. (The other day, someone's laptop was stolen when she stepped away from her desk for 5 minutes. It subsequently created 3 hours of chaos at the clinic, but was never recovered).

There is supposed to be a lock for the front wheel, but our key didn't work in it, so we took it to a mechanic, and that's where it all started.

The mechanic's name is Pastor. He is called that because he is, in fact, a Pastor. He also plays solo guitar, in case you were curious.
He is slight, has a lisp, and wears no shirt, only a yellow plastic pullover vest, like the kind you use playing tag football. He is very sweet, and seems to know these bikes well.

The first time we went to see him, he gave us very tasty watermelon with more seeds than I had ever seen in a watermelon. It was about 50% seed, but very sweet. They brought us about 6 slices. We each ate 1 slice, and they insisted on wrapping the rest in a plastic bag for us to take home. (It got squashed in our bag.)

We decided to fix more than the lock. I had had trouble starting the bike for over 30 minutes that morning, and so we asked him to look at that. (Of course, at his shop, the bike started perfectly). We also asked him to check the alignment, and see if he could get the neutral indicator light to work and maybe the spedometer and gas gauge. He drove around on it with me, and noticed that the brakes didn't work well. He also noticed that the engine seemed weak, and speculated that new spark plugs were needed. He also offered to change the signal lights, which were scratched up and ineffective. There was talk of replacing the battery, which seemed weak as well.
So, lots of things. I was under no illusion that all of them would get done.

I dropped off the bike in the morning, and Pastor said he might be done by after 12. That seemed fast to me, but ok.
He showed up at the clinic at 11:30, looking embarrassed and asking (in a roundabout, sheepish way) for money to buy the replacement parts we had asked for. I gave him some (plus extra) and we agreed that he needed until after 5 to finish.
At 5, I took a bodaboda to his shop, but he was still working on it. He showed me what he had done so far, and what was left to do. "So the bike will sleep here tonight, and I will bring it to you in the morning at the hospital."
His phone, of course, had fallen in the water, so I couldn't call him to check on it.

The next day, I didn't hear from Pastor, but we went back in the evening, and the bike looked almost done. He said it would be another hour. We wanted to go swimming before dark, so we agreed that we would wait until morning.
To his credit, each time we went to check on the bike, we added more things to look at, so it took longer as a result. Each time we arrived, Pastor and his multiple assistants were working furiously on the bike, and he ran through each area of repair with us. There seemed to be progress, and, like everything in life, it just took longer than expected.

The next morning, I didn't hear from Pastor. We went to the shop in the afternoon, around 4:30pm, and it was very close to done. His assistants were changing the oil, and then the lights needed to be attached. I had a phone meeting at 5, so Scott waited for the bike. At 5:50, Scott and Pastor showed up at the clinic with the repaired and functional Mate. Pastor had a bill with a full listing of parts he had replaced at our request, and then a bill for service. The parts came to USh 90,000 ($45), and the labor came to USh 48,000 ($24) - for 3 days of work with 1 mechanic and 2-4 assistants.

We agreed that Scott would drive Pastor back to his shop, and then come and pick me up. I waited a while, then went outside and called him. "We're having white bread and coke." (Every time we went to see Pastor, he offered us a different form of snack - watermelon, peanuts, white bread and coke, etc., and sent us home with the remainder).

I waited outside, talking on the phone for a long time. As women and adolescent girls passed by, they smiled at me, greeted me, and sometimes shook my hand. Many bodabodas passed by offering a ride.

Scott was stuck on the road. The first time he tried to leave Pastor's shop, the wheel almost fell off. It seems that the assistants had used a nut that had been stripped, and so it loosened. That fixed, Scott took off to meet me, and halfway to reaching me, the bike died. He was walking the bike to me. We guessed that the bike was out of gas, since the mechanic had probably had it running a lot to test it.

I hopped on a bodaboda and had him drive me to Scott. The driver said he could take me to get gas. We went to a gas station, where they suggested I buy a "Gerrycan" to hold the gas. The boda driver then took me to the next street over, where I bought a 1 liter plastic milk bottle for USh 1000 (50 cents), and drove me back to the gas station. They filled the bottle for USh 4800 ($2.40) and we drove back to Scott, where we filled the tank.
I paid the driver USh 3000 ($1.50) - triple the normal rate for a boda ride.

As Scott had been waiting for us on the road, a man named Josem had come to talk to him. He was the brother-in-law of the owner of a small storefront on that block, and he came to thank us for our "patronage" of his shop. (We've been there twice.) He seemed very sweet, and we told him we liked his lentil samosas.
He encouraged us as we tried to start the bike again, confident that it would work. As the gas made it through the system, the bike finally started. We thanked Josem, and we were off. We drove home without a problem, except that the headlight on the bike is very weak, making it hard to see potholes very far ahead, now that it was dark. We drove slowly.

The bike does seem better. We weren't able to fix the electrical system - Pastor looked at it (getting to it was part of the delay), but it would be too complicated/expensive to fix. He did replace the spark plugs, put on a chain cover and fix the front and back brakes. He also made a new key for the wheel lock, so it works now. He didn't remember to change the battery, but I think we can do that ourselves.

This morning, when I went to start the bike to leave for work, it didn't start - again! Scott's theory is that the oil gets cold overnight and then thickens too much, and needs to warm up before the bike can start. And after about 15 minutes of trying to start it, it did work. We're going to leave it in a sunny place, and maybe get thinner oil.

The New Yorker

I was elated on August 26 to find the August 24 issue of The New Yorker in our Tororo PO Box at the post office here. It's a major coup, as it means constant availability of reading material.
(Admittedly, there is a good bookstore in Kampala, called Aristoc, but that's 3 hours away. And there is a small library in town, too.)
And it came the same week it was released! I had expected a delay of at least a month.

I expected when I checked today to have the August 31 issue waiting for me. But what I found was this:

Apparently it is essential to remind me about subscription renewal even though
a) My subscription isn't up until July 2010
b) I live in rural Uganda

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mobile in Water

I found a bodaboda driver that I liked, and I thought I would get his number in case I needed a ride and couldn’t find one. He couldn’t give it to me, though:
“I don’t have one. It fell in the water. I have to buy a new one.”
Then after I bought the Mate, I took it to a mechanic, and I asked him for his mobile number.
“It fell in the water.”

It seems to be a theme here.
I’m not sure if it’s just code for not having a mobile phone (can’t afford?), or maybe there’s just lots of dangerous water around where people are using mobile phones.

It reminds me of the time my Chief resident and I conspired to get a new Gyn pager. We hated it because was big and bulky, and had no case or belt clip, so it was really annoying to carry around (and also because it went off constantly with calls that always started “So I have this lady…”). We knew there were newer, smaller ones available but of course we weren’t allowed to exchange.
“OK,” she said “I’m going to telecommunications. I’m going to tell them the pager fell in the toilet. They might want me to prove it, though, so if the phone rings twice and stops, then run to the bathroom and throw the pager in the toilet.”
A nervous intern, I sat in the call room by the phone, grasping the pager and ready to jump up and run to the toilet at the first hint of a ring. The phone never rang. My Chief came back with a new pager - still big, bulky and without a case or belt clip.