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Friday, August 12, 2011

Sad News Just Days Before Departure

Just as my friend Cory and I were wrapping up our last video interviews, I got a bit of sad news about another ranger attack in the DRC.  From what I was told, they were hit on the road between Rumangabo (Virunga NP's park headquarters) and Goma.  Apparently some armed robbers had stopped a matatu (minibus) in front of the rangers and when they saw the rangers coming, they opened fire (knowing that rangers are armed paramilitary forces).  2 dead, others injured....brutal.

This is the tragedy of growing up in a post-conflict environment.  Some people call these people rebel groups....and some number of years ago, maybe they were rebels plotting to overthrow some authoritarian government with different views so that they could install their own authoritarian government with their own systems of corruption.  But not all of the armed groups in the Kivus are former rebels, nor do they have some alterior political agenda.  They're people who've passed years of their lives surviving conflicts of different scales, with little to no livelihood security, few options for economic improvement and relatively little education, because we all know schools and social systems break down when conflicts start.  
What they do have is really easy access to super cheap guns and all kinds of "free" natural resources and vulnerable people to victimize along the roads.  So they resort to armed robberies and poaching (ivory and other conflict resources are fetching high prices abroad these for a one-time low fee of $30 you can buy a kalashnikov and be in the global ivory trade). Anyone got a better idea for a quick buck?
This is an email from Jobogo, one of the former Virunga NP wardens, now routed to another NP further south in the DRC, about the killing of the rangers.
Dear All,
We are deeply sorry to inform you again the death of 2 rangers : IMANIRAFASHA SEMINANE and   NZABONIMPA BAHAMWITE. 
The ambush happened on Friday 29 July 2011 around 2 pm in the southern sector of Virunga Park, they were appointed to escort the poachers to the court in Goma for prosecution.  Another ranger and the driver were injured with two among the poachers that were part of the convoy were also injured. I visited all of them at “Heal Africa Hospital” in Goma, the driver ADOLPHE KAKULE received a bullet in the pelvis and the ranger MANIRAHO MUNYABIHOGO was seriously injured with a shot in the chest, the lungs must be touched but the bullet was out around the shoulder.  I managed to speak to them in the hospital and express my sympathy.

The question around the public is why the rangers are targeted this period, the Congolese government should find a long term solution, on the other side in the field the ranger’s moral has gone low.

Please share this sorrow moment with us and other rangers.

JP Jobogo Mirindi
As soon as I read this email, all I could think is please tell me it's not someone I know....luckily not, but really, it's sad no matter who has passed away.
I've been thinking about something since I first started this whole Fulbright thing and it's stuff like this that makes me think I should really do something about it.  Basically, what I want to do is start a Ranger Scholarship Fund.  I want it to go to two purposes -  (1) higher education for junior staff, rangers in the field and (2) school fees for rangers' children (particularly families who've lost their parents in the line of work).  
What I've discovered is that rangers need educational support.  They know so much about the wild and wildlife, but they're not usually the most wealthy.  They need the job...a lot of rangers really only become rangers because it's the best, most stable income you can get growing up next to a protected area.  Their families rely heavily on that income, usually their wife and their multiple children, but in cultures of social capital, this very likely extends to other family members, friends and neighbors.  So they can't take time off work to get full degrees or continue on to graduate studies (this is true even for park wardens sometimes).  
It's hard for them to work part-time and study part-time because the parks are in such remote places that there really aren't any universities nearby., let alone the really good institutes are almost always in big towns or far away capitals.  The transport they'd have to pay to move back and forth between work and school is really burdensome, not to mention they'd have to pay for lodging in two different places and try to sort out where their family stays, etc. etc.  
If they had scholarship opportunities, however, with tuition and a living stipend, it would be easier for them to take the time off of work for formal education in a degree that will make them better wildlife managers in the future.  If the funding were conditional on a certain number of years of conservation service afterwards, wouldn't it be worthwhile?  I know so many rangers who would jump on this opportunity in a heartbeat....I've seen how they struggle for education and for conservation.  No one should have to make that choice; it shouldn't be one or the other.

Then there are the children.  No person is without his or her progeny, fortunately or unfortunately.  How is a ranger to pay for his/her own education if he/she isn't supporting his/her child(ren)'s education?  What if a ranger dies in the line of duty?  Killed, like the two rangers in Virunga NP?  Maybe trampled by an elephant who felt it or its young were being threatened?  Maybe attacked by an ornery lone water buffalo or worse, by the most malicious animal of all, a human, an armed poacher?  Every year rangers are lost...and with them, the sole salary for their entire immediate family.  What happens to those children?  Children of professional conservationists?  Maybe even future conservationists themselves?
Plus, we all know the challenges of girl child education.  Many don't even make it into secondary level schooling, let alone university levels.  It's not always a question of funding alone, a lot of it is cultural.  Girls are afraid that they'll lose marriageability points if they're too old, too educated.  In their world, I'd probably have to pay to get someone to marry me at this point, no one will be coming to my dad with a herd of longhorn cattle anytime soon.  Some rangers have told me stories about how they pleaded for their daughters to continue their educations - they would do whatever it takes to find the money to pay their school fees.  But their daughters chose other paths. 

What if the daughters of rangers were being offered scholarships to stay in school, maybe even go on to university and pursue environmental (or related) studies?  What if those daughters were so much like their fathers, one of the two who were gunned down transporting poachers to justice?  Money won't bring their dads back and I would hope that something other than money is what drives them to learn, but if that support were there, imagine how different it could be.  I know for certain that my life is forever changed because I've been given scholarships to get me through school and to send me out to Uganda for the learning experience of a lifetime.

I don't have a whole lot of money and I don't know anything about setting up scholarship funds, but somehow....I think it's worth figuring out.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Touching the Borderlines - Bundibujyo and the Barracks

Ever on the border, never yet across.  The DRC looms tauntingly across rivers, across the lake, teasingly across the rift.  From the river bank, I am just meters away from Congolese soil.  On a plantation, I stand on the border line risking arrest on the other side.  From the mountain peaks, I see the living lava of Nyiragongo burning red into the night. These are stories of moments on the border, but not quite across.

Bundibujyo and the Barracks

Down a bumpy dirt road that takes you to the border of the DRC and Uganda lives a place where people, all those naturally existing things that we call "the environment", and conflict collide.  I was with George (the Community Conservation Warden) and Wilson (a Law Enforcement Ranger) again, this time I was which George politely commented on his own surprise that I am "actually a good driver."  But, I guess you should see the children in some of these villages when they see me pass through - "There's a Mzungu!  The Mzungu's a woman!  And she's driving!!"  I guess any one of those three things would be incredibly rare on their own, but to see it all in one event must be the talk of the town for days.

So George and Wilson and I are cruising down this bumpy road on the southern side of Semuliki National Park.  This time everything's green and covered in peoples' gardens, but for some time the road follows the boundary of the park to our right.  I see piles of wood stacked up along the road just outside of the park and wonder where the timber's coming from.  Some of the country's last remaining old-growth mahogany dwells in those forests.  The villagers wouldn't cut mahogany for firewood (it would be crazy to burn through money like that), but there are definitely more than a few people eying those trees for the stacks of currency that they're worth.

What the road leads us to is a little border town, Butogo.  Wilson slips into the village and starts to put the word out - meeting under the mango tree, a researcher's in town.  Giving the word time to spread, George and I make for the border...the River Semuliki.  It's mid-afternoon on a Tuesday and people big and small are in the river bathing, cleaning, swimming, playing.  The West Bank is the DRC, the East Bank is Uganda.

I touch the water and eye the other side.  George tells me how here, the River Semuliki is also changing its flow from time to time, cutting deeper into some banks, letting others go.  Crops are lost to its waters, sometimes surfacing in international lands.  Again, the ritual of goat gifting to the neighboring chief is necessary to regain access to lands and harvests.

The problems in this village are greater than just riparian erosion though.  Just over the river sits a series of grass thatched huts.  Staring at it from the top of a small hill on the Ugandan side, is another set of huts.  Uniform like a housing development in a U.S. suburb.  The Congolese huts belong not to the villagers, but to the FARDC.  Similarly, the Ugandan huts were built for the UPDF.  Military barracks staring each other down across a lackadaisical serpentine river filled with splashing children in their underoos. 

This part of Uganda was ADF territory not so many years ago.  The Ugandan government quashed most of that through oppressive violence, pushing the ADF combatants into the DRC (a.k.a. the Watalinga sector of Virunga National Park, home of the okapi).  Through a series of historical events that I know little about, the ADF somehow became the ADF-Nalu and there they are terrorizing the northern sector of Virunga NP.  That's why the UPDF barrack had been established in Butogo, but they tell me that it's now been abandoned.

Never you fear though, the soldiers are not far away.  An intelligence officer gave me a rough sketch of just how many barracks are situated up and down this DRC-Uganda border, each one stacked with some 700 odd soldiers.  I wonder in my head if population density counts in this region account for the massive military population stationed here as well.  Think about the resource pressures of such occupation!

Sitting under the mango tree with what feels like half the village sitting or standing around us, I start a line of enquiry probing these issues of cross-border conflict and environmental degradation.  The villagers say they hear gunshots every day, not sure why but they fear.  They're pretty sure it's coming from the FARDC camp because whenever the soldiers aren't there, things are quiet.  It's possible the soldiers are hunting bushmeat; some of the villagers claim to have seen soldiers killing animals when they have crossed to the other side. That bushmeat is taken home or sold in the communities.  As a few of the men point this out, Wilson turns to one of them and says in a language I don't understand, "I've seen you kill animals in the forest as well."  George chuckles, takes note, and the man is silent.

The Ugandans have family and farms on both sides of the river, so they come and go, especially because land is scarce on their side.  The Congolese side is much less populated and really the peoples are of the same tribe.  Sometimes when the river floods though, the villagers are unable to cross to their gardens and if the waters are high for long enough, they face food insecurity as well.  These days though, the water volume has decreased and they're not sure why.  I decide to go with that thought and in the meantime, end up teaching George a little about participatory research and the Socratic method.

Q: Why is there less water?
A1: There are more taps taking the water away.
A2: There is more sunshine so the water's drying.  There have been changes in weather and climate.

Q: Why has the weather and climate changed?
A1: We don't know.
Q: Anyone else?
A2: There used to be certain things that conserved the environment and now man is destroying those things.  Like tree cutting, which is causing less water.  Or industrial machines (referring to the Hima cement factory nearby), which produce gases and gases are affecting the climate.  This never used to exist in the past.

Q: What can be done?
A: We need to go to the communities and educate them to stop destroying the environment.
A2: We haven't planned to plant more trees.  We could get seedlings (whereupon he proceeds to ask George for seedlings from UWA, George agrees to put forward their request and to see what he can do)

I come away from that meeting buzzing.  The community as a collective had identified the causes, effects and impacts of climate change, plus some mitigatory and adaptive measures that they could engage in collaboratively with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA)!

In the car ride back to the park headquarters, George and I discussed this, both of us excited by what had transpired.  George noted that I had an interesting way of asking questions and I replied that this was the result of my legal training in the U.S. based on what we call the Socratic Method.  We answer questions by asking questions which will probe the inquirer to think and to come to the answers on their own.  I suggested that this is an effective way of facilitating so-called collaborative conservation and used the example of the man who had linked industrialization, environmental degradation and climate change to illustrate.

In traditional UWA style, George would have come into that village, sat under the mango tree and lectured off to the villagers.  He would tell them what to do, instead of asking them what they could do, while making additional or corrective suggestions accordingly.  I emphasized that it's not that "the community" doesn't know these things already; that information is sitting in the minds of at least a few of them.  They just need to be probed and shared.  I had to ask a few times before one of the men came forth with his explanation on climate change.  Not to mention, none of the women will speak at all unless you start calling on them and forcing a response.  Plus, when the views and recommendations come from the members of the community themselves, it looks a lot less like an externally imposed mandate.  But, when an outsider asks for the voices of women, people may see that it matters.  George sat on this for a bit, eager to try it out.  I made a mental note to donate my book on Participatory Research to UWA.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Touching the Borderlines - The Semuliki Flats

I've been on the Congo border numerous times now, approaching it from different places along the Albertine Rift both in Uganda and Rwanda, but never ever truly ever actually inside of the DRC.  This is the beginning of a series of stories of border encounters, with wishful hopes for an actual border crossing in the very near future.

The Semuliki Flats

North of Semuliki National Park are the broad flat open flood plains of the Semuliki Flats, sparsely populated homeland of pastoralists, who are likely outnumbered by their cattle.  They live largely in small grass thatch and mud huts.  I wonder that their homes don't disintegrate with the heavy downpour that turns these flat lowlands into mud plains and wetlands during the rainy season, but somehow they survive.

I was there in the hot hot heat of the dry season which meant that we could actually visit the border.  When the land dries and hardens over then vehicles, animals and bicycles can pass.  The rest of the year, these communities are cut off from all else around them and are left to fend for themselves and their cows.  We (the Community Conservation Warden, George, and his driver from Semuliki NP) met at the District Office, which I found via the new road that the Chinese are building.  Multiple times I was stopped, which is good because I had no idea where I was going really and needed directions or at least confirmation that I was headed the right direction.  The road is still under construction, but there's no other way really, so they'd wave me through.  Some of the Chinese workers would look at me, probably wondering where I'd come from because I look an awful lot like their one of their own.

The District Office is actually part of the local school.  It's a new district (lots of districts are popping up, especially around elections), so they don't really have any infrastructure yet.  I met with some of the officers and talked to them about water and transboundary conservation issues.  Then I piled in the big green UWA pick-up with George and the driver and we started across the flats, through the bush, following old tire paths of previous wanderers.  Homes were scarce.  Mostly, it was flat barren land with your dry grass and scrub here and there.  Eventually, we reached a small trading center, a conglomeration of small semi-permanent buildings in the middle of this vast dry land.  As we came, so did the people.  We quickly identified the local chairmen and I sat in a small dirt shop with them and villagers crowded around for an interview.

They told me how water is scarce in the dry season and they have to fetch from the River Semuliki, which is getting polluted from up-source users (ag run-off, cattle, bathing, laundry, etc.).  That's also their primary water source in the rainy season.  They're also losing land to the River Semuliki.
River Semuliki is the border between Uganda and the DRC.  This means that it's a "live" border, changing with the shifting patterns of the river itself.  When the river flows slightly to the right, so goes the border to the right.  With the larger population and higher instances of land cultivation on the Ugandan side, there is a severe problem with riparian erosion.  The Ugandans are constantly losing their lands to the river and bit by bit, the River Semuliki is flowing deeper and deeper into Ugandan land.

One day a homestead may have crops along the riverbank, the next day, their crops are in the Congo.  To regain access to their lands, they ford the river and offer a goat to the venerable chief (local leader) on the other side, who then lets them continue farming.  The land remains Congolese, but at least the crops aren't all lost.  Most people in this area can tell you a story of lands lost to the ever-changing River Semuliki.
They can also tell you that the erosion is happening because of land conversion.  Some time ago the National Environmental Management Authority came in and constructed a make-shift fence some distance from the riverbank and told all the people that they couldn't farm beyond the fence.  During this time, the vegetation regained its position along the banks of the river and the erosion was curtailed.  The villagers told me that they know the fence is effective, but that the poles have rotted and it is falling apart so people are encroaching the riverside again.  They wanted my help, a.k.a. they wanted my money to help them buy poles and they wanted me to rebuild the fence for them.

I replied that it seems they already know the solution and the problem.  If the people cannot be controlled without the presence of a fence, then they should repair the fence.  There must be local materials that would make suitable poles and from there, the only thing that would be missing is a little labor and a little will.  That was the help that I could offer.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

When Time is Too Fast and Too Slow at the Same Time

It's been nearly four months now in Uganda and I am feeling simultaneously like time is going by way too fast and I wonder if I will be able to finish everything in time and like time is too slow, that I still have half a year of this life before I'm out of here.

I think I'm in a funk where the moods and feelings change with unforseeable circumstances.  When the day is productive and I'm moving through these beautiful landscapes, I'm so happy to be alive and to be here and to be doing what I'm doing.  But then there are these days when the work is raising challenging questions I have no answers to (in fact, I feel only more confused about all my theories and ideals that seem to have no reconciliation with political realities) and the car is having problems and the food is scarce and the weather could care less that I'm having a rough day, so it's pouring down on me and what little I have...and I just want to go home.

But where's home?  Home in Kampala, a city I can't say I'm really even fond of?  Home in California, where I haven't lived in years?  Home to that vast place called the United States where a lot of the time I feel acutely aware that I'm different from people I've known for years, even those I've grown up with.  I don't quite know how to live that sedated life of job, car, rent, tube and consumerism.  What's new on TV?  Who wore what to some award ceremony?

Meanwhile, Northern Africa is burning and people are dying for "freedom".  We gave our governments exclusive control over armies, weapons and law enforcement so they could turn it right around and use it against the name of peace.  The logic is so twisted I'm disgusted.  Police, alleged officers of peace are the ones with guns, batons, shields, bullet-proof vests, tear gas and the law behind them to abuse, quash and silence the so-called public.  Then there's the military and national security.  Even more well-equipped to deal evermore torturous, cruel and widespread death and suffering.  Torture condoned by political leaders and silently by the masses who fail to stop them...for what?  For peace and security.

I see no light ahead for the DRC, it's all warlords and corruption poisoning the forests and spilling across these borders I'm so close to.  There, I'm not a researcher, I'm ransom.  I see people here take harems of wives, raise numerous children and I can't bring myself to look at them and think, "oh, how cute".  All I can think about is how many people are eating this planet, what kind of a world are these children growing up in, what future will they have?

They give wild tigers less than 20 years on this less than 20 years they will be completely extincted from their natural habitats!!  The only ones that will remain are those in forced imprisonment, slavery to show and tell through bars and cement compounds.  It's depressing to even think about, especially after you've seen these ancient majestic animals move through wide open wildernesses.  That's the future children of today will know?

Nature, Mother Earth, the environment, the so-called natural universe is one of the most inspiring things I know.  But the human dimensions that suffocate it can be a real killer.  I came out here equipped with my dreams and ideals, ideas and theories, that compilation of experiences and information unique to my being from other far but near corners of the world....but somehow they're getting all confused and muddled.  So many nay-sayers.  I'm beginning to wonder if what they say is true.  It's not possible.  Impossible.

Impossible as in they've never even tried....never even tried.

A friend of mine once told me I'm too idealistic.  I asked him if that's a bad thing.  He said, it just means you're going to fall further and harder.

I don't want to fall.

But when I've spent the last months trying to learn about community participation in transboundary conservation only to find that it's not happening.....that I'm told "it's too early, the communities haven't been sensitized"; sensitized as in, they haven't been told that transboundary conservation is happening in the Central Albertine Rift, in the very mountains and forests and grasslands they live in...I get a little disillusioned.

If community participation in transboundary conservation means that you do something and then tell the communities about it later so that they accept and understand, then I'm lost as to what community participation is truly about.  I thought it had something to do with "broad and meaningful participation" in all stages of a decision-making process.  Something like true democracy or anarchy, ownership of environmental governance, real and effective contribution to a collaborative conservation process.

I checked in briefly with a man who's been living here for decades, fighting for wildlife and wild places.  He said sometimes you want to go looking for the rocket launch button (a.k.a. the red escape button), but somehow he stays.  I wanted to know how he does it; truly, I admire that resilience.  There must be a tremendous amount of hope, somehow unstifled despite.  It's bad he says, but it's been worse.  Maybe I haven't seen worse, but I think it exists just across that border with DRC. Most of all, I know that after 10 months I will hit that rocket launch button and leave....only 6 months to go.

So the time will come, fast or slow.  I will part with this place, but the problems will stay.  The question is whether or not what I'm trying to do while I'm here is contributing or meaningful in any way.  Is this just a mental exercise?  Will I just write some paper, try to present it, publish it maybe even and then pat myself on the back for this wonderful accomplishment that will somehow advance my personal career?

Am I just chasing wind in the marketplace? 

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Dusty is the name of the used car I just bought.  Ever since we left Kampala, it has been a dusty shade of reddish yellow.  Something like the color of this savanna bush that I've been spending most of the last days roaming around.  I don't know if this poor little car knew what was going to happen to it after I bought it.  Basically, as soon as the car was out of the mechanic, I took it into the field.

The ominous foreshadowing that this wasn't going to be easy on little Dusty was the battery failure the day before we were scheduled to leave.  A friend of mine was flying in from Boston to join me for a week or so of adventures in the parks (I mean, rigorous academic research) and the plan was to leave the morning after he arrived.  Dusty had other plans in mind.  Basically, the car wouldn't start the Friday before we left.  It had been parked at the UWA headquarters for two days, no movement.  Something was draining its battery.  When they tried to jumpstart the car for me, the cables sparked - something was wrong.  That night, my car that had just come out of the mechanic's the day before...went back to the mechanic's.

Godfrey, the UWA mechanic told me he'd call me with news at 10am the next morning and hopefully the car would be good to go.  He knew I had a long journey ahead of me...all the UWA guys knew that I was worried now, so they kept telling me I'd bought a good car.  The next morning at 10:03am, Godfrey calls me and says the car is ready.  Some fuses had gone bad and were draining out the battery, he'd replaced them, so they should be good now.

That day, we loaded up the car and headed out west for Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve where we'd stay with Paul, the Law Enforcement Warden, for the next few days.

 Paul and me in front of his house at Toro Semliki Wildlife Reserve

Next shocker, gas prices.  Fuel here is more expensive than it is in the US, I think, although I'm not up to date on fuel costs in the States these days.  Without doing any mental math or conversions, a liter of petrol is ~3200-3250UGX (I think the exchange rate is somewhere around 2300UGX/$1USD these days).  So, about $1.40/L.  At 60L, a full tank can cost me about $84...this is for a little rav-4.  They say my car should get about 6-8km/L.  Anyway, point is, travel is not cheap out here.

Not to mention, all the costs of service and repairs.  Since I left Kampala, I have been to two different mechanics in Fort Portal (Stitch & Sew and Shell, both of which service UWA's vehicles) on three different days.  First time because my front right tire kept losing air.  So Shell patched the tire while Stella (the Community Conservation Ranger I was going around different outposts doing interviews with) and I had lunch with Moses, the Warden in Charge at Semuliki NP.

 Stella, the Community Conservation Ranger at Isunga, Kibale N.P.

Then the next day Stitch & Sew tried to fix this foot block thing for me, discovering meanwhile that this metal plate in the bottom front of the car (helps protect the undercarriage in front I presume) was loose and needed to be attached.  So they fashioned clamps and welded them tight to the front cattle pusher (that's what I call the metal bars in the front for lack of a better technical name).  When they did this they pulled the car up on a ramp and discovered that the Z-link on the left side of the car was disconnected and basically tied in place with a rubber strap and that the CV joint drive shaft boot on that same side was broken, both the inner and outer.  They welded the Z-link and replaced the drive shaft boots.

 Bending metal to make a clamp
 Mechanics at work

 Stitch and Sew: they say an old pumpkin is not easy to uproot

All the while, I was trying to understand what was going on, so I was covered in dirt and grease and quickly becoming friends with the mechanics.  It was election day so thankfully I had no plans, I spent the whole day at the mechanic.  When they finally sent me off, I treated myself to a drive up to Ndali Lodge on the top of a hill overlooking three crater lakes, then made my way back to my own little banda on the edge of crater lake Nyabikere just as the sun set.

 Garden at Ndali Lodge
 Crater lake
Crater lake in the distance

 Swimming pool at Ndali Lodge
 Ndali Lodge
 Crater lake in the distance

Two days later, I was back at Shell.  This morning, I went out to the parking lot to discover that the front right tire was completely flat....not just low, dead flat.  A guy at the Mountains of the Moon Hotel had to catch a boda boda to fetch the mechanic with tools to switch the flat out for the spare tire so we could drive to the Shell station.  The mechanic tried to do a simple repair on the tire only to find it losing more air.  He took the tire off the rim and there it was, at least a one inch gash all the way through.  He told me he could patch it but I would need to get a tube to help maintain the pressure.....a tube....for my tubeless tire.

I was really starting to worry.  This is just one week in!  I still have 4 weeks to go!  Of bush and savanna and forest and rocky dirt roads....I can't have the tires going on me like this.  Especially since I'm critically missing a jack for the car and the spare, well the spare is hardly in good condition.  Besides, all these repairs and parts and things are starting to cost up.  I can't afford to be at the mechanic every other day with some new thing falling apart or needing to be replaced.  I was beginning to think that I had bought myself a car of woes and bills.  Not so trusty Dusty.

I'm going to monitor the tires and pray for the best.  For now, I'm driving slowly and trying not to rip through the bush or these rocky roads too harsh.  But yikes, I can't say I'm happy to be owning a car right now.  Even if it gets me out to these outposts and remote places. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Welcome to the World of Consumerism and Responsibility

Tuesday, February 8th, I made the biggest purchase of my life.  I mean "biggest" in so many ways.

1.  I have never spent so much money on any one thing, except for education, but that's an awesome intangible thing that no one can ever take away from a person (except for maybe by degenerative mental illness or something)

2.  I have never owned any one thing that made me feel so (unwantingly) responsible, with so many legal implications and what feels like a gajillion strings attached

3.  I rarely purchase things that are not easily carried, granted this thing will move on its own and with all my worldly possessions in it, but usually the stuff I buy fits in my backpack, a large suitcase, a guitar case, on my body, something of that sort..maybe this is tied to that overwhelming feeling of unwanted responsibility

For 8.5 million Ugandan shillings, I bought myself a 2-door black 1998 Toyota Rav-4.  I still feel completely strange about it.

This purchase was no small feat either.  It took nearly a month and the time and efforts of many people.  First, I had to put the feelers out....ask different people about buying a car in Uganda.  Feel out prices, models, and all the various strings attached (insurance, licenses, selling the car when I leave, etc. etc.).  This way, people were aware that I was at least theoretically interested and I was doing my research on the possibilities that exist and what it would seriously involve.

Then, after some contemplation and various discussions, I decided to make the inquiries real.  I notified different friends that I wanted to buy a car, please help me look.  I told them that I wanted a small short chassis (what they call 1-door here) 4x4 in the range of 4-6 million shillings.  4-6 million shillings would buy me a junker and all kinds of grief probably, but I had to start low or they'd start bringing me stuff in the double digit millions....something I was not willing to pay.

One day, Boaz took me to a bond lot (where car owners drop off their car to have a middleman sell it for them for a cut) to look at a bunch of different cars, mostly Rav-4s.  At this point I learned that there are only so many of the type of car I'm looking for....Suzuki Escudo, Mitsubishi something, Pajero, or Toyota Rav-4.  I was told Pajeros overheat and lose value quickly, it won't sell well.  Mitsubishis...I can't remember why, but they're also no good....also bad resale value.  Suzukis and Toyotas are probably the most reliable vehicles, but Toyotas have the advantage of being very commonplace in Uganda (meaning, I can get it repaired and serviced all over the country, no problem and people like them, so it will sell quickly and for a good price).  Suzukis are more rare and harder to sell.  So it was set....we were looking for I was also starting to talk in the range of 6-8 million shillings.

Eventually, I recruited Lutale's help.  I asked him to look at cars for me....I didn't want the sellers to see me.  Once they know a "muzungu" wants to buy the car, they quote high and refuse to negotiate.  They think money grows on trees in our cold countries of fat lonely people (ahh, stereotypes).  Lutale had his friend Abdallah help and the next day, they found the car that I eventually bought.  They negotiated the price down from 11 million to 9 and then drove it over to Makerere for me to see.  It looked nice enough to me, but I needed a professional's opinion.

The next day, we took it over to the UNICEF offices and Mark had his driver take us to their mechanic.  Islam, a kind of intimidating looking old man who'd probably scare me if he ever smiled, had his mechanics give it a quick look-over.  They reported back that it was in fairly decent condition, the airbag light was on and the back tires need replacing, but it was generally good.  Islam told me he'd value the car at 8-8.5 million.

I tried to get an idea for what the airbag problem could be and learned that it could be anything from a small wire misconnection to the airbags are gone to the computer has serious issues and this is just symptomatic.  With this information, I told the seller maaaaaybe I'd pay 7 million for it.  My's worth 8, but it's got all these things that have to be fixed, so with all those costs...if I buy it at 8, fix it, in the end I will have spent what it's worth...not to mention, we don't even know how much the airbag problem could cost.  This got us to 8.5 million.

Then we took it over to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), where I had their transport people take a look at it for me.  Festo, the transport captain, looked it over, had his mechanic look it over, had some of the drivers look it over; meanwhile, they murmured amongst themselves, jibbering away in Luganda.  I had no idea what was going on, but I fed Festo some of the back we started at 9 mil, went to the UNICEF mechanic and they said this and that and now we're at 8.5.  Festo pitched 7.5 as the guys poked around at things under the hood.  They told me all the main things were there though.  The body is good, the engine is good, it's just little things here and there....he pulled me aside and asked me if I had the money, said I could buy it at 8.

The seller was stubborn though, he stayed at 8.5 for days.  They had fixed the airbag problem, said it was just the wiring.  Eventually Festo did a quick look around the market for me and told me I should buy it.  Even at 8.5.  I was getting slightly frustrated by this time anyway.  I'd been in Kampala for nearly 3 weeks, when I'd hoped to be back in the field right away, and it seemed the car was more trouble than it was going to be helpful.  I just wanted a way to move through the parks!  All this effort was overwhelmingly discouraging.  So I did it, I called Abdallah and Lutale and told them I had the cash, let's buy the car.

The next day Abdallah and the seller came to meet me at UWA.  They took another look at the car, at the papers, at the fat stack of cash that I'd brought tied up in two rubber banded bundles and stuffed into a used envelope come from Benjamin in Germany via the U.S. Embassy's diplomatic pouch and started to fill out the paperwork for me.  Festo, Abdallah and Rodney signed as witnesses, counted and paid over the cash, which Innocent (the seller) tucked into his left sock and pulled his tight jean leg over and then lastly, I nervously signed while Abdallah took photos on his phone camera because my little Freecycle hand-me-down had decided to stop working again.

Photos of this momentous moment taken by Abdallah on his camera phone:
 Witnesses sign
 I sign!
Post-signing and feeling awkward.

There I was with some papers, 8.5 million shillings no longer burning a hole through my pocket, and a car sitting out in the parking lot.  I never felt more uncertain of what I had done.

I was unsure whether or not I'd made the right decision.  Was I really one of those?  A car owner?  Had I gotten myself into more trouble than I was bargaining for?  Not to mention, paying huge chunks of money for all that grief?  Cars come with all kinds of issues, costs, accidents, repairs and servicing, fuel and emissions, not to mention eventually, inevitably, the thing will come to its resting place, leaching into the soils, back to where it was ripped out of the bowels of this beautiful Earth.  I never thought I'd be buying a car, let alone, buy my first car in Uganda!

But there it is, sitting at the UWA office in the safely guarded parking lot, waiting for me...bizarre. 

This Saturday, I will take it for its first test drive.....a good 7-8 hour roadtrip to Semuliki National Park out on the western border where the Semliki River winds its way, dividing Uganda from the DRC.  For a month it will live in the parks with me, amongst the lions, the leopards, the elephants and kobs, the chimps and the mountain gorillas.

I think it needs a name.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

We come into the world naked and we will leave the world naked

Two somehow related events.

My friend Lutale's sister's life has been sadly, unexpectedly and abruptly taken in a boda (motorcycle taxi) accident.  I'm not sure exactly what happened, when or where, all I know is that I couldn't get a hold of Lutale for some time when I finally received news from his friend Abdallah that they were in the village for the burial of Lutale's sister who had just died.  Today, I found out that it was a motorcycle accident and against all hopes, she didn't make it.

Sorry bambi.

In times like these, I believe that no amount of words can suffice, heal or fix things.  It is what it is.  The circle of life gives and takes.  The universe acts in mysterious ways.  It's heavy news and I can't help but feel like lately, all the news I get is about death and tragedy.  You think it's true what they say?  How we must know sadness to know happiness, to know darkness to know light? 

One afternoon somewhere on a bumpy dirt road between Lake Bunyonyi and Mgahinga Gorilla NP, I had a conversation with Alessandro and our driver, Gorsham.  Gorsham was arguing that evil people and atrocities happen for a reason - so that we might learn from them and so that other people can stop them.  In his view, genocide must happen in order for us to learn that genocide is bad and for some part of humanity to have its opportunity, its shot at destiny, to fight genocide, so that perhaps genocide will not happen again.  God makes some people evil so that God may make some people good. 

Typical to my contrariness and love for argument, I disagreed.  Without even getting into the whole religious aspect of his view, I will not agree that we must all experience genocide to know that it is a horrible thing that should not be permitted.  I have never been privy to witnessing such an atrocity, I mean, my lifetime various genocides have been committed around the world....but not by machete or AK-47 in my hands, in front of my face (minus media, of course), to my very family members.  And yet, I can say definitively with every cell and sub-cellular particle of my being that it is wrong and should be prevented by all means possible. 

Never again, as they say in Rwanda.  I've been told that in Kinyarwanda, "Never Again," actually means "again and again and again".  What this might mean for life and the universe, intrigues and perplexes me; but, I'm sure it will make for some interesting discussion in times to come.

Lutale's sister's death....for what?  Is Gorsham right?  So that we might learn something?  To heed the warnings about taking bodas?  I'm lucky I survived an accident with a scarred up knee and a healthy bit of fear.  This fear fed by the hour and a half of horror stories rattled off to me by my friends in the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) transport office about motorcycle accidents, animals chasing motorcycles through the parks and their riders up trees, people assaulting or killing riders to steal their bikes, and so on.  All this to lead me to my second bit of news.....

I'm buying a car.

Today's the day, I'm handing over 8.5 million Ugandan shillings to some guy with a green log book and some transfer papers for a small 2-door (they call it 1-door here, 1 on each side) 1998 Toyota Rav-4.  My first car. 

I'm still in a state of semi-disbelief.  I never thought I'd be the kind to buy a car.  What I really wanted was a motorcycle.  Open road, two wheels, wind in my hair, not to mention it's way cheaper as a means of transport and fuel would cost less.  Or maybe I should say, what I really want is to never have to buy a vehicle and to just have awesome public transport everywhere I go.  But in a world all-too-influenced by automobile manufacturers, all these events in my life, the accident, the UWA stories, Lutale's sister's death....I feel like the universe has something else in mind for me.  So soon, I will be the awkward owner of a small 4x4 that with a couple new tires and a complete servicing, I will take out to the parks in a heartbeat.  I'm itching to be back out in the field.  That, and I'm becoming slightly concerned that I don't have enough time!

Time, that funny people-made abstraction.  It's not just that I'm nearly 1/3 of the way through my Fulbright, but it's also that I'm ever so vividly aware that life is a fragile thing.  Every day, species extinct, gone forever.  Every day, individuals pass on to some other form of existence.  Every day, must be lived.

"For only this actual moment is life."
- Thich Nhat Hanh