3, 2, 1, BUNGEE!!!

28 Dec

Merry Christmas, everyone! Hope the New Year brings good things for you and your families.

About a month ago, I sat down and crunched the numbers to see how much I’ve spent since my arrival in Kenya. The number was much higher than I anticipated. Some costs I forgot to include were travel/visas outside of Nairobi, tourist activities, healthcare services, and the occasional night out.

The money I raised to come to Kenya will run dry in February instead of June!

So, I’ve begun to look for opportunities to make a buck or two, or more specifically a Kenyan schilling or two.

To get an initial stream of income, I’ve joined a Durham University (UK) research team. As a research assistant, my job is to visit microfinance institutions (MFIs) and administer questionnaires to loan officers. I won’t go into much detail as the research is still in progress, but it deals with trust and commitment levels of loan officers and loan officer performance. The research is for all MFIs listed on MIX Market in Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Zambia, and Kenya.

From December 11th to 23rd, I spent time in Uganda administering surveys.

About half of the appointments I had scheduled before arrival. With many of the MFIs, however, no active contact information existed, so I met with them upon arrival. Some of the “lost” MFIs I found randomly on city streets while passing by!

In 12 days (9 working), I collected over 100 completed questionnaires from seven organizations.

Yes, you can see the stack 🙂

By and large, the trip went smoothly. I spent long hours convincing MFIs to take part in the research, but had no one turn me down. First, I would get approval from the CEO and then I’d begin the process of scheduling appointments for branches of that MFI, which numbered between 3-5 in Kampala for most MFIs. More branches exist in the rest of Uganda outside of the capital, and I will return in January/February to visit those.

For most of my transportation, I used boda bodas (motorcycle taxis). Kampala is swarming with boda bodas; it has quite a culture in the city. The main advantage of wipping around town on these things is saving time. When a deadlocked traffic jam occurs (which is most of the time in Kampala – just as bad if not worse than Nairobi), boda bodas always find a way around it. Always. Another advantage is that they are basically like a taxi in that the only stop it makes is for you. The open air feels a lot better than a smelly matatu with smelly people inside, and the cost is A LOT cheaper than a hired taxi. The only drawback is that they are unsafe. My rule of thumb was to always pick a boda boda driver who looked 40+ years old, as they drive safer than the young guns. After riding boda bodas all day, the wind in my hair made me look like a bit like this.

Another drawback – dirt in the eyes. Also, every morning in the shower I’d find copious amounts of dirt in my ears!

A shot of some boda bodas. They get their name from bicycle taxi drivers that used to shout “border-to-border!” to travelers from Kenya’s border entry point to Uganda’s, which used to be almost a mile.

I enjoyed negotiating with the boda boda drivers. After a couple of days, I loosely understood what price should be charged for particular distances. Since there are many boda bodas competing for business, I used a zero-sum negotiation tactic. It’s something like the way House Republicans negotiate when it comes to raising taxes. I would simply state my price and refuse to budge.

Actual conversation –

Me: “How much to Muyenga?”

Boda Boda Man: “For you, a good price. 15,000.”

Me: “Good joke, you’re a very funny man. I’ll pay 5,000.”

Boda Boda Man: “But it [the distance] is far. My friend, give 10,000.”

Me: “I’ll only pay 5,000, let me ask the guy over here then.”

Boda Boda Man: “OK, 5,000. Hop on.”

I found Uganda very addicting. Even though English is not as well spoken here and Swahili is not widely used (Luganda is the language of choice), I felt very welcomed by almost anyone I spoke to. I had many random long conversations with people I met. Seeing as I was traveling alone, I took any opportunity to engage with those around me. A couple of times when I was out at dinner, a group invited me over to eat with them! Very friendly people. Uganda, or at least Kampala, has a way of submerging you in happiness. I’m considering applying for positions here sometime in the future.

Logistically, I surprisingly only had a few hiccups. But they were notable hiccups. My favorite – I had a morning appointment with an MFI branch in Natate, a suburb about 10 km west of Kampala. When I arrived there, I checked a note on my phone to confirm that I was in the right place, and it said “Nakawa,” not Natate! And where is Nakawa? 10 km EAST of Kampala. So I hopped back on the boda boda to back track. Upon arrival in Nakawa, I phoned the branch manager and told her I had arrived in Nakawa. She then told me – “Nakawa? Our branch is in Natete.” So, I continued my neverending boda boda ride right back the way I came AGAIN! Frustrating to say the least.

Another funny anecdote – while boarding a matatu, the my (favorite) pants caught a piece of sharp metal sticking out of a seat. It tore a huge hole right on my backside, revealing my colorful boxers and white-as-snow upper thighs! I refused to pay the matatu conductor, got out, and sheepishly walked to a tailor. She sowed it together, although we both agreed maybe I should have left the hole to make a fashion statement. What’s more, she refused to be paid for her service. An early Christmas present! What kindness.

Other problems I had resulted from my American accent, which I’ve tried very hard to get rid of in the last 5 months. Talk to me on the phone and you’ll hear part Brit and part American. American English is sometimes too lazy to be understood. To cope with these issues, I always typed out a destination on my cell phone to confirm and re-confirm that the boda boda man was taking me where I thought he was!

The best times for loan officers to take surveys is usually in the early morning, or in the evening, since during the day they are busy in the field meeting with clients. So, most days I was out of my guest house by 7am and back after 7pm. Busy days.

What was the food like in Uganda?

Quite tasty. Here is a basic meal – chicken, matoke (green bananas) w/ ground nut sauce, cassava (yuca), pumpkin, posho (maize porridge, similar to ugali), spinach, coleslaw, and two unidentified kinds of sweet potato.

Another common meal is roasted pork and matoke.

This was my favorite meal of the entire trip, complete with my first African coke that was cold enough to earn the description “ice-cold.” I enjoyed it with Wilbert, a loan officer I met in the rural village Mpigi, who kindly took me out to lunch and footed the bill. This pic shows Mpigi town in the background.

In Kampala, there were many exquisite cuisine options as well. The best hummus I’ve had in Africa so far is pictured here. Those red lines look like part of the bowl, but they are actually sprinklings of cayenne pepper. By the way, for some reason Guiness is pronounced “GIN-ESS” in Uganda.

On the weekend, I kicked back and played tourist!

Kampala consists of 27 hills. On the top of “Kampala Hill,” the one Old Kampala is built on, Gadaffi Mosque stands tall.

A loan officer turned friend I met during the week took me out to experience some of what Kampala has to offer. Visited the Uganda Arts & Crafts Village, a film festival, the Uganda Museum, and a dance performance.

On Sunday, I stole away to Entebbe, a city on the shores of Lake Victoria 35 km from Kampala. I took a boat to Ngamba Island and visited the Chimpanzee Sanctuary there!

The boat ride took 45 minutes. Here’s the view looking back on Ugandan land.

Once on the island, we explored a bit before observing the chimps. These lizards, 5-6 feet in length, were everywhere!

Watching the chimpanzees was an amazing experience. Chimps are sooooo intelligent, and their behavior/communication is remarkable.

They got pretty crazy at feeding time. Here’s a video of a chimp demanding food, and successfully catching an airborne mango!

Another notable item – the nests you see in this picture are constructed by males, and the females fly around inspecting the real estate to choose a mate!

Back on the mainland, I spent the rest of the day in Entebbe.

I visited the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, aka the Entebbe Zoo.

They had monkeys running around the entire zoo-grounds. One stole a banana from me – it was so entertaining I starting feeding them nuts and other goodies.

Then I saw this sign!

But the feeding was worth it to snap this picture.

In the zoo, they had a beach on Lake Victoria. It looked a little sketchy and I had no change of clothes, so I didn’t swim, but I did wade out in the water a bit.

But the tourist fun did not end there. On my way back to Nairobi, I spent a night in Jinja, a town halfway between Kampala and the Kenyan border.

What’s in Jinja, you ask? Well, the Nile River runs right through town. I came to bungee jump into the river!

It was a heart-thumping, frightening endeavor!

Here’s me nervously waving to the camera seconds before the big jump.

They secure your feet, attach a harness to your waist, and ask you to waddle over to the edge. Once there, you place both hands on a yellow bar above your head to hold on to. Then, you must put the tips of your feet off of the platform! The hardest part is next – removing your hands from the bar! Really hard to do….but I did….then it’s 3, 2, 1, BUNGEE!!!

So exhilarating! Feeling like you’re about to die and then not dying is a great feeling. This jump was 150 feet. There is one in South Africa that is over 500 feet tall! Call me crazy but I hope to make that jump when I visit.

The jump cost $95, but it was well worth it. Good thing I jumped – if you get up there and can’t do it, you still have to pay the $95! And a girl in the group I was with did just that.

I met some tourists at the place I stayed – from India, the UK, and New Zealand. The night I stayed reminded me of a frat party. Lots of chants and Nile Specials (beer of choice among Mzungus in Uganda).

A New Zealander not pictured above reminded me of how much one misses when they are a tourist instead of a a more long-term visitor. When I said I lived in Nairobi, he asked me if I had been on the “Ky-Beer-A” slum tour. I had no clue what he was saying, until I processed his mispronunciation of Kibera. I told him the truth – these awful tours are a real disgrace. Tourists pay safari operators to go on a walking tour through the slum. Many bloggers describe it, deservedly so, as “poverty porn.” Pictures are taken of slum-dwellers as if they are animals in a zoo. The better way to experience life in the slums is to visit someone there, sit down, and ‘take’ tea – not pictures.

Uganda seemed to be a very safe place – never once felt threatened the entire time I was there. The weather was pretty hot – a bit warmer and more humid than Nairobi, with temps hitting over 90 and never dipping below 70. I look forward to visiting “The Pearl of Africa” again. Someday, I hope to go on a gorilla tracking in Western Uganda, but it’s $700 at the cheapest!

The trip provided a much-needed dose of independence. Living with a host family has mostly upsides, but one downside is you lose some freedom. It felt great to follow the beat of my drum in Uganda.

I arrived back in Nairobi on Christmas Eve at 4am and left that morning with the family to go to the countryside for Christmas festivities. I stayed at this shag (farm house) in Rongai, a village way off the beaten path smack-dab in the Rift Valley.

I really enjoyed my Kenyan Christmas. In short, in Kenya the holiday is about two main things – family and food. We ended up slaughtering three goats over three days of celebration to feed about 25 people. And every part of the goat is consumed – most eat not only the meat but the fat as well. Then, the remains are stuffed into the intestines and stomach to make “African sausage,” which I must say was tasty. I ate so much over my time there, and feel like I’ll never be hungry again!

In terms of gifts, none were exchanged! Waking up to Christmas morning with no presents or Christmas tree was quite a different experience. I bought a gift for the Grandma & Grandpa owning the house, but that was the only gift exchanged. I’m glad I didn’t buy something for everyone in the family!

Everyone welcomed me and I was treated with wonderful hospitality.  90% of the time people where speaking in Kikuyu – a tribal tongue – so it was hard to follow most conversations, but I felt the warmth of the family at all times!

I did miss snow, listening to the Alvin & the Chipmunks Christmas song, and having my sister wake me up at 5am Christmas morning, but all in all I’m happy I experienced a Kenyan Christmas. And I hear Ohio didn’t even have a white Christmas, so I’m not too jealous.

Ah! This has been my longest blog post ever – hope it’s been entertaining and you’ve made it to this sentence alive and well. I’ll leave you with a picture of my host dad’s father and I.

Happy 2012!


9 Responses to “3, 2, 1, BUNGEE!!!”

  1. macmcnair December 27, 2011 at 11:17 pm #

    Ben, good stuff! Your blog is always fun to read! Sounds like you are having an amazing time! Please greet our Kenyan friends and Dr. Bellows for us. Blessings, Mac

    • Ben December 28, 2011 at 12:59 am #

      Hey Mac,

      Thanks, I’ll send along greetings – and I think Scott counts as a Kenyan now 😉


  2. Dave Fisher January 5, 2012 at 7:22 am #


    With the amount of good food you eat, you will need to run at least 10k every day to wear it off. In some of the pictures I think I see a little belly showing up on you 😉

    Take Care and God Bless

    • Ben January 10, 2012 at 2:57 pm #


      Noted. The Christmastime feasting did a number on my gut. Now that I’m back in Nairobi, it’s time to hit the ground running, literally!

  3. Ahlam January 10, 2012 at 6:06 am #

    Hujambo rafiki mzungu wangu… I don’t know if you really want to do the South African Bungee jumping man. Thought of you when I saw this yesterday: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16461278… The cord snapped! It’s a miracle she’s alive. The cuts and bruises will eventually go away I hope, but thank god a crocodile didn’t catch her.
    So did this make you change your mind? haha.

    • Ahlam January 10, 2012 at 6:09 am #

      Try the link on the post below instead, there is an error on this one. Sry.

  4. Ahlam January 10, 2012 at 6:07 am #

    Hujambo rafiki mzungu wangu… I don’t know if you really want to do the South African Bungee jumping man. Thought of you when I saw this yesterday: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16461278 The cord snapped! It’s a miracle she’s alive. The cuts and bruises will eventually go away I hope, but thank god a crocodile didn’t catch her.
    So did this make you change your mind? haha.

    • Ben January 10, 2012 at 3:10 pm #


      Sijambo! I’m happy I jumped before this accident happened. I wouldn’t have jumped after reading this story! The SA trip is a several months away…I think I’ll be ready for the challenge by then.

      For the microfinance research, I’m either going to Ethiopia or Zambia at the end of this month. I need your recommendations, etc. if I go to Ethio. I’ll let you know!

      • Ahlam January 12, 2012 at 9:24 pm #

        Cool! Anytime. 🙂

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