May 09, 2005

Early May - May showers

Let me start off with a big props to bro in D.C., Mr. V (some of you might know him by one of his many other names - "cheerleaders like to twirl a _____." He's holed up in his house right now with a broken shin. Soccer casuality. Now, I'll be back in the top position on the basketball court. But, in any case, props.

The Rocking Fun Zone just suffered a shocker to the system. While rushing home in the hopes that the Fun Zone had in fact scheduled a meeting with his Amharic instructor, the Fun Zone happened to purchase one of his favorite newspapers, the Sub-Saharan Informer. Tired from the travel back and forth to Kampala, followed by the days’ work, the Fun Zone wasn’t too interested in reading current events. That is until he opened page 17 to discover an article on blogging in Ethiopia with the Fun Zone prominently displayed, the address included, and a couple of anecdotes about the maid/brother-in-law conflict and the invasion of cats into our household.

This was a shocker. I couldn’t believe that the blog made Ethiopian news. This is the end of Stage I of the Addis Ababa Rocking Fun Zone. Next, we move into mass circulation followed by my eventual takeover of the United Nations. No, but seriously, what a shock. Because my brother-in-law was the subject of one of the article’s paragraphs, I immediately telephoned and instructed him to purchase a copy of the Sub-Saharan Informer. Now, with the potential for increased attention, I’m a little spooked and hoping that I didn’t put anything in there I wouldn’t feel comfortable with.

Holy Cow. The start of the big time.

Well, enough on that. I have to wait until my wife returns to truly understand the significance of this development. For now, I’ll build on the blog.

Monday evening at 2:50 am, my good friend Dr. W and I set off for Uganda for an exposure visit to a youth education organization we are trying to copy. I didn’t write while on the road out of business and a desire to enjoy the opportunity. Now, I’ve got to hope that my memory can bring it all back.

What to say, what to say. Kampala – nice town, very nice people, billboards, radio, and print advertisements everywhere. Yuck. I’m definitely Ethio-centrist – is that because I’m married to an Ethiopian, hopelessly naïve, or something else? I don’t know. I have been in five different African countries, sometimes for extended periods, so maybe I am credible. But, I can’t be sure.

Anyway, I like Ethiopia a lot better almost for the exclusive fact that everything you see, whatever that amounts to, is Ethiopian owned. Dr. W captured my thoughts nicely when he explained a previous trip he’d taken to Nairobi. “Every time I saw a Mercedes coming towards me, I knew that it was going to be driven either by a white foreigner or an Indian. In Ethiopia, if you see a Mercedes coming towards you, you know an Ethiopian will be driving it.” (Not his exact words – now that this blog is getting attention, I probably have to be careful with that).

Unlike Ethiopia, you get the sense that Kampala is not owned by Ugandans. Huge houses with large, well-manicured lawns, British Banks and South African (British) mobile phone companies, endless tea and sugarcane estates with large colonial houses in the middle, hotels, to name a few. For the most part, these don’t belong to Ugandans, as far as I can tell. I personally think that’s unfortunate.

I find this to be most reflected in the marketing campaigns. Being in Ethiopia, where most things are Ethiopian owned, there is not yet the sophistication of marketing like you see in the United States or Europe. Businesses are developing – as the markets here become more competitive and advertising and marketing more prevalent, ad and marketing campaigns will obviously become more sophisticated. Not so in Uganda – to me, they seem to be European-level sophistication plunked down in one of the poorest countries in the world. The disconnect was not lost on me.

I first started to notice the marketing on our ride from Entebbe to Kampala. It seemed like every fifth or sixth building was painted entirely yellow with black lettering that read, “Say Y’llow”. (Yellow is the color scheme for one of the mobile phone companies, MTN.) That wasn’t so bad. Coca cola paints a lot of buildings in Africa. Pepsi, too. And, the nice paint on some of the older buildings makes things look nice.

It was only after being inside the city for a few days and getting the full exposure to the advertising of MTN, combined with Mango and CelTel, the two other mobile phone providers, that I really started to feel uncomfortable. I don’t know, it’s just like every available space was covered by some kind of advertising. Check with Naomi Klein for more ideas about this.

It wasn’t just billboards, it was the radio. In my nine months in Ethiopia, I’ve gotten used to the 1-2 minute interruptions that take place on Ethiopian radio. Maybe because they are in Amharic, they don’t bother me. Probably more, because the ads are derived from an advertising industry in its infancy, they really can’t penetrate my head. But they were able to in Kampala. Every ten minutes, music or discussion was interrupted by some DJ with a cool British accent telling me about the next event sponsored by MTN or Mango (“This is Mango Country”). Please.

What would I suggest? Probably nothing. That’s Uganda and it’s got a whole range of issues that extend beyond the presence of marketing. At the same time, I get the sneaking suspicion that what I experienced in Uganda was colonization in disguise. Economic colonization. Cell phones are within the conceivable range of many Ugandans. Maybe at the end of the day, that’s good enough, but I don’t think so. Maybe it’s just the first stage of Ugandans taking their destiny into their own hands. First they must see the outside world to know what they went, then they can grab it. Maybe it’s just colonization rolled into a new form, touting the latest technologies, that Ugandans will never be able to touch.

I’ve got a lot of friends and acquaintances in Addis that say they are frustrated with mobile phones, internet, duties on importing cars, banks, etc. Even I get frustrated with these, the banking system in particular. But, I’m a believer that these are the right things, that if the government appropriates revenues from these sources efficiently and fairly and has a long-term objective in mind when it comes to regulating these resources, then I’m for that, especially in the case of mobile phones and cars, which amount to a progressive tax on people who can afford them.

Off the soapbox. The rest of Uganda was pretty neat. I was reminded at the airport about the movie, “Raid at Entebbe”, a true story about a plane carrying a number of Isreali tourists that was hijacked and stopped over in Uganda. It’s a great movie, worth seeing (I especially like the scene in the airplane where the Israeli soldiers start singing). For those of you that have seen the movie, I was surprised just how far away Kampala is from Entebbe. It took us over 45 minutes to get from downtown to the airport when there wasn’t too much traffic. From the movie, I had the impression that Kampala was maybe 20 minutes away. Cinematic license.

In other news, be prepared for some shady dealing with the Forex bureaus and taxi drivers if you go. The Foreign Exchanges have a tiered system for accepting U.S. dollars based on the age of the bill. If you are changing a bill from before the year 2000, you can only get 1,500 shillings to the dollar, but if its over 2000, you can get up to 1,780. U.S. dollars, unlike wine, get worse with age in Uganda (what a cornball line).

Dr. W had some strange encounters with the Forex Bureau in the hotel we were at. We were both confused by the tiered system, Dr. W so much so that he only exchanged $20 of the $100 bill he was carrying when we first arrived. Needing more money the next day, Dr. W returned to the same Forex Bureau and gave the same guy one of the $20 bills that was returned to him the previous day as change. On this day, however, even though he was the same guy who’d helped Dr. W previously, he noticed that the bill was from before 2000 and wanted to give Dr. W the lower rate per the tiered system. Dr. W declined this offer.

We were, as such, none too impressed with the system of foreign exchange we encountered. Before I go any further, I think I should emphasize just how well we were treated by the locals and the people we worked with at our sister organization. They were exceptionally polite, professional, and kind, but, unfortunately, that doesn’t always make for what’s interesting.

So back to the shady dealings of some Uganda sectors. Next up are the taxis. I’ve taken taxis in a lot of places in Africa. Uganda, in my mind, wasn’t too much different from West Africa – when they see a foreigner coming, the price jumps 2-3 times. If you know the route and costs, you might be able to get down close to the local price, but even sometimes that can be a challenge.

I’ve had very positive experiences in Ethiopia. Once, I left my cell phone in the back of a contra taxi and a half-hour later, the driver and I got in touch – an hour later, I had my phone. I’ve also noticed it in the smaller instances, maybe when I’ve unknowingly handed too much money to the driver or when I’m not paying attention as he gives me my change, then realizes he’s underpaid me and stops me, even as I’m stepping out of the car, clearly thinking the transaction complete.

But, Ugandan taxi drivers were up to some different tricks. Prices doubling and tripling. I was often surprised that my colleague Dr. W didn’t negotiate prices ahead of time – he’s a post-service negotiator meaning that he receives the service, be it a taxi road, boat trip, or what have you, then tries to figure a good value. He’s very good at it, and negotiating in general, and I think it works much better because it shows the service-provider you are giving him/her the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, though, we probably would have been better off spelling out the terms of our transactions ahead of time.

Anyway, in the case of the taxis, we found we didn’t like. Once, at the recommendation of our Ugandan colleague, we contracted with a driver to take us around town for a couple of hours for some miscellaneous errands. We went a total of 12 kilometers over the course of 2 hours, and at the end he was asking 40,000 shillings or about ($25). It was a rip-off, especially since he recommended by our colleague and we adamantly refused, eventually handing him 25,000 shillings and walking off.

During our stay, we also got the chance to do a little sightseeing, taking one afternoon off to head to the town of Jinja along Lake Victoria to see the Nile headwaters. That was a nice occasion. We took a shared taxi for $2 from Kampala to Jinja, then headed on motorcycle taxis over to the Headwaters. There, we sat under a thatched roof, tried a number of Uganda’s beers, and then rented one of the tour boats to head up the river a couple of hundred meters to the actual headwaters.

The actual location is somewhat anti-climatic, though we were so relaxed for the day and had the whole tourist point to ourselves, at least when we first arrived, that it really didn’t matter. Just seeing the Nile was enough. It is a dang big river. I’m befuddled because I know that 85-90% of the Nile’s water comes out of two Ethiopian rivers – the river must be absolutely immense once it reaches the Sudan and Egypt.

After cruising up the river and returning to the tourist landing, we enjoyed a nice lunch of fish and chips which in this case, turned out to be a whole tilapia deep-fried with a handful of chips on the side. Delicious. I ate the whole thing, except the eyes and fins and washed everything down with a Nile Beer, followed by a Pilsner, and then a Club. All excellent.

After the headwaters, we went south a couple of kilometers to one of the hotels that sits on the river bank south of Jinja. On the way there, we road bicycle taxis which turned out to be quite enjoyable. Though not as comfortable as their motorcycle counterparts, the bicycle taxis were quiet and relaxed. It was a peaceful way to head down deserted roads with fields all around that looked an awful lot like Hawaii. Once at the hotel, we simply sat and watched this giant, black river flow by. The rain clouds overhead made everything look even greener – truly beautiful.

There were other happenings in Kampala. I really amused a number of the staffs at our sister organization when I told them about my motorcycle ride to their office one day. I said a lot of people were seemed to be amused by me sitting on the taxi. I thought it was because I was a foreigner but in fact it was because I was riding the motorcycle side-saddle like the women do rather than straddling it like the men. Dr. W never mentioned anything to me and I just assumed that was how everybody did it. Glad I could provide some laughs.

On our way out of the country, we encountered a bit of racism in a unique form. After checking in and clearing customs, Dr. W and I decided to do a little duty-free shopping. He wanted some chocolates for a friend who’s mother had just died and I was on a mission for perfume. The shop was huge and, driven by different interests, we split up. After finding my perfume and a couple of other goodies, Dr. W approached me and said the man at the counter wouldn’t take his dollars because they were too old.

We knew that line and weren’t really bothered by it. Figuring I, too, wouldn’t be able to purchase the things I’d selected since all I had was a bill from 1996, I walked to the counter and asked the clerk where I could leave my basket for them to re-shelve. At that point, he changed his mind and said we could both purchase our goods, that he didn’t want to lose two good customers. Dr. W. was indignant and immediately called the clerk on his actions saying that it was because I was white that I would gain treatment. Eventually, we just left, highly dissatisfied by the treatment Dr. W. had received.

It was really unfortunate and I felt bad for my friend. I guess that’s the reality some people live with. I can’t fault the guy for being suspicious of old dollars and Lord knows there are a lot of counterfeit schemes going around Africa, but it was exceptionally poor taste to reverse his decision so blatantly. Would it have been better if Dr. W and I hadn’t known about each other and I was served while he wasn’t? No. Then again, I can’t 100% fault the shopkeeper from wanting to avoid being scammed, but definitely in this case, he was clearly the most at fault.

I experienced a small tinge of racism that made me want to crawl back to my Ethiopian comfort blanket. Here, given my status as the husband of an Ethiopian, and having committed myself to living here long-term, I feel I enjoy a certain amount of respect and care that I don’t get elsewhere. In Kampala, particularly in the offices of our sister organization, an organization staffed by highly competent and educated individuals, I felt on a couple of occasions something I didn’t like, though it’s hard to pin down exactly. In many instances, I think it was the respect my colleague Dr. W was given while I wasn’t in all instances accorded that same respect, though to the employees of the organization, we shouldn’t have appeared any different other than that he was Ethiopian and I a white foreigner.

That does bring up an interesting point about Ethiopia. I’d heard before that other Africans admire Ethiopia for its resistance to colonization, but I’d never seen it in action. There it was before me, though, in Uganda. One guy talked admiringly about Ethiopia’s history.

Well, I’ll sign off for there with one last note I wanted to comment on. It actually ties into colonization, however obliquely. On the plane back, they displayed on the television screens the planes progress, altitude, speed, etc. You know what I’m talking about. For whatever reason, they played it the whole trip back and, I’d never seen this before, but they showed the plane’s progress from a view from behind, so you were looking forward towards Addis as the plane sped along. That screen looked at lot to me like the Himalayas. Because the map had demarcated the boundaries, you could easily see where Kenya stopped and Ethiopia began. Almost exactly at the base of the mountains, except for Gambella and Eastern Ethiopia. Amazing. Anybody trying to colonize this place would have had a hell of time no matter which direction they came from.


Could it be? The Fun Zone is gaining international recognition? International, if you consider that I am an American and I was written about in Addis.

First off, big props to my own blood in the U.S. who seems to be renewing the adept business skills he displayed as a high school ski shop employee. Much love and I’ll be waiting for my “older-brother-tolerance” check as soon as funds clear the bank.

Here, things go well. I’m writing from the office on a Sunday morning. I volunteered to join in what has turned out to be an all-Amharic discussion of the translation of the Activity Book I wrote. I could listen in, and interrupt seemingly interesting points for a translation, but I think everyone is better off if I’m in my room and they are in the conference room.

Last night, my wife and I attended a social gathering of a colleague. Despite being one hour and ten minutes late, we arrived somewhere in the middle of all guests. When somebody strolled through the front gate at 10:00, I thought that might have been a little excessive, but who am I to complain.

I don’t know if I can write anymore now that I’ve been discovered. Makes me nervous or at least self-conscious, a bit, like now I’ve received feedback on my writing and I may respond to that feedback. Gotta get past this. It must be the challenge that writers experience after publishing their first book. They get all sorts of feedback and criticism and their voice tries to accommodate that feedback. Fortunately, all I’ve gotten is a description of my blog in one newspaper article. Despite the presence of a lot of avid-newspaper reading farenj at the party last night, I don’t think anyone knew. Which is good.

Anyway, the party was a work/general celebration of some kind. The theme was, “Sheep and Beer” – kind of like “Pimps and Hos” or one of those other themes that seems to circulate weekly in college Greek systems. My Amharic instructor was there. I found that a bit surprising, as he is probably over 70, but he seems like the kind of guy that might be able to get down.

There was a young kid at the party playing one of Ethiopia’s unique musical instruments – something like a cross between a one stringed violin in the shape of a guitar. The kid’s job was to entertain the crowd with songs about the party hosts and guests. You paid him money and instructed him who to target. Then, he would begin making lines based on his observations of the target. Some lines got a lot of laughs, others not so many, but clearly the boy had a big role. I gave him 10 Birr at my wife’s insistence just to get him to stop singing about her.

My wife said that these guys play a function at events like last night’s or in more traditional party-settings. They essentially “talk junk” about other people, but in a fun, teasing way. If you think about it, it’s probably a great way to give social feedback that isn’t too confrontational or overt. Like telling someone maybe that hairstyle needs to be changed or that he/she is too attentive to the opposite sex. Probably serves a real purpose.

All in all, the party was a nice one. There was some amusement over one of the guest’s attempts to start the fire. I suggested to my wife that, given my Alaskan background, I might be able to offer some assistance. She declined, knowing about my attempts to start fires at our house. There’s something different about the wood here. I had fire-starting down to a science in Alaska, but in Ethiopia, I’ve got no skills. I go for the quick ignition with gasoline which seems to give you a big jump up front but then the flames die away. Last night, the guy was trying the same technique and on the third application of gas, the fire finally roared to life.

So, a good party. A lot of yesterday, my wife and I treated ourselves to a day on the couch watching episodes from the Simpsons. I’ll give this to Uganda. They’ve got a far better system of pirated DVDs. Vendors on the street carry around bags full of “5-in-1” DVDs meaning 5 movies on 1 DVD. There was the Matrix collection, plus a couple of other Keaneau Reeves flicks. The Godfather series. Indiana Jones plus “What Lies Beneath” and “Air Force One”. And that’s just to name a few. They literally had bags full of unique 5-in-1s.

Not confident in the quality, I only went for the Simpson’s third season and the Indiana Jones collection. Aside from a few glitches at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, so far, the DVDs have been exceptional. Yesterday, we must have watched 10 Simpsons episodes. That may sound like a lot, but when you edit out commercials and fast-forward through credits, you’re looking at about 21 minutes per episode. Brilliant.

It was good to see that the Simpsons was well received by my wife, as well. The problem and/or beauty of the Simpsons is that almost every line is a reference, and those references almost always relate to some aspect of American life. The nice thing, though, is that because the degree of difficulty is so high, you can watch them repeatedly and constantly be understanding more and more. I guess, in summary, you can watch the Simpsons at all sorts of levels. In any case, it was a pleasure for me to get reacquainted with the show that most captured my attention during and after college and to introduce it to my wife.

You ever have one of those days where you get about a million phone calls, you have to meet with a ton of people, and everything just feels like it’s going to hell? You find yourself getting shorter and shorter with each person in attempt to regrasp what it is you were trying to get done. That encapsulates my day – crazy! By the way, a shout out to my childhood friend who has suffered the first broken bone between the two of us – much love, but gotta ask, who is Cool Guy 1 now?

So where did I leave you last? Yesterday was the biggest rain I’ve ever seen in Addis and one of the biggest I’ve experienced in my entire life. There was a time during the summer of 2003 in Pehunco, Benin, when I was riding with a friend on a motorcycle. We were returning from a family visit out in the countryside. About 30 kilometers from our final destination, the heavens started to open up. At first, being young and dumb, we tried to ride through it. Finally, we abandoned the motorcycle on the side of the road and made our way under the thatched roof of a mud hut awning. Didn’t keep us too dry. I swear, the ditch turned into a small river. Shortly thereafter, the sun returned and we enjoyed a wet ride home.

But yesterday, I saw a different side of Addis. I’m a huge fan of inclement weather. I love watching those shows on TV about hurricanes, tornados, and the like, though if I can give you a word of advice, do not rent National Geographic’s, “Extreme Weather”. What a jip. It’s a one hour video taken up mostly by discussions with experts – they show you very limited coverage of the actual weather. Take a note boys, what we want to see is huge waves crashing into rocks, tornados tearing through fields, and hurricane winds and tidal surges. We don’t want to see some NOAA scientist telling us what makes these things and why. It would be like watching, “And They Walked Away”, a film about car crashes, only to have doctors take up half the film explaining the physics of a car crash in relation to the human body. (Editor’s note: I have never seen, “And They Walked Away”, nor any of the other films in the series. I’ve heard about it, and am simply using it to illustrate a point.)

Getting back to the Addis weather. Yesterday was ripping. I can’t give you an estimate of total rainfall, but for about 45 minutes, there was a consistent sheen of water on the road surfaces and people were driving with their hazards blinking (a clever idea I’ve not seen elsewhere). I was on my way to pick up some documents at an NGO. Unfortunately, the NGO sat at the base of a hill with a small incline on the other side, meaning water just flowed right into it. In addition, the storm drain immediately next to the office gave out – there was 8 inches of standing water by the time I decided to move my car. I thought of my friend in Washington D.C. who’s 1985 Toyota Camry was caught in a flash flood in D.C. and completely destroyed. Not that it was worth a lot – he paid less than $800 for it, but still, I was thinking I didn’t want to see my car go down a similar route.

The rain’s effect in neighborhood was substantial as well. Just this morning, I saw entirely new grooves carved out of one of the side streets. The rain was so strong that most of the remaining top soil on the alley we use to access the main road was gone, leaving just large rocks and construction debris for us to drive on. Even the entrance to the neighborhood, normally occupied by two large but manageable puddles had become one entire lake that could only be forded by putting two of the wheels up on the grassy edge on one side.

Fabulous. I love weather like that. Feeling the heat this morning, I thought we might get a repeat this afternoon. So far, nothing huge, but we can always hope. I hope it doesn’t cause any damage or injuries. Just a few weeks ago, a flash flood in the Somali Region killed seventy people. I don’t think that would happen in Addis. I worry about the continuous wet of the rainy season combined with Addis Ababa’s low temperatures due to the altitude. That might give you one idea of why Ethiopian’s are so durable – somehow they survive in the cold and wet of these mountains.

So anyway, no big rain today, but will keep you posted. In other news, the cats in the neighborhood seem to have gotten the best of me. Every other day, it seems, I find another one venturing through our front door, which I keep open at times for purposes of ventilation. I haven’t been fast enough yet to actually hit one with any sort of projectile, but I’m not even sure it matters. They are bold. Once we get our dog immunized against parvo virus (a feline virus carried by many cats, but which has little effect on them; however, when transmitted to dogs, causes a huge problem – that’s what took our last dog), we will put him out in the front. He’s a frisky little champ so he should have no problems with this neighborhood’s feline population.


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