105 Degree Weather & Uganda Research 2.0

10 May

You know that feeling when you’re on a road trip and start complaining about being stuck in a car for too long? Well, next time you have the urge, zip that lip and remember what travel is like in East Africa.

Below, take a gander at the inside of a 5-passenger car, holding five passengers in the front seat alone. There are two people sitting in each front seat, with a young child out of view in the passenger seat. And yes, there are two people sitting in the driver’s seat, with the driver shifting the transmission awkwardly between the passenger’s legs. In the backseat, where I’m sitting, there are 5 more adult passengers, in fierce ongoing competition for leg room.

Such is life when I travel to conduct research on microfinance institutions around East Africa. The (maybe only?) good thing about this kind of overcrowded travel is that it makes it easy to engage locals in conversation, especially if the radio doesn’t work!

The last two weeks of April, I was in Uganda finishing up research there. I surveyed loan officers in Kampala, the capital city, in December, and this time I returned to survey branches out in rural areas of the country. Here’s a loan officer instructing clients on loan dispersal and repayment information –

While I can’t go into the specifics of the research, it involves trust and commitment levels of loan officers to their organisations. It’s a great way to meet a variety of staff in leading microfinance institutions, and I enjoy getting to explore new places. In this two-week stint (10 working days), I managed to visit no less than twenty cities/towns. The best time to catch loan officers and have them fill out a questionnaire is early morning and late evening. So, a typical day would go as follows:

6am: Wake-up

7:30-10am: Appointments in Town A

11am-3pm: Travel to Town B

4pm-7:30pm: Appointments in Town B

8pm-12am: Travel to Town C for morning appointments next day

Needless to say, I was exhausted at the end of the trip. But I found that no matter how little sleep I managed or how few warm showers I took, there was always a force of adrenaline that would kick in to push me through the day. Maybe that strength will be gone when I’m old, so I’ll use it while I still have it.

While Uganda has plenty of great roads if you are traveling to or from Kampala, connections between other cities are spotty and not tarmac, like this –

I encountered some late, late travel nights because of these bad roads. One time, I had the following scenario happen, with Ohioan cities used as examples – traveling from Toledo to Cleveland, a mere 117 miles, I found that the Ohio Turnpike was out of order, and had to travel all the way to Columbus and then back up to Cleveland – almost 300 miles.  I traveled from Hoima to Kyenjojo (90 miles apart) but had to traverse 340 miles to get there, and didn’t arrive until 3am! Google Maps doesn’t have a good handle on African roads.

It’s notable how cheap accommodation is in rural areas of Uganda – on average, I spent $7 a night, with one place only $3.21. Think about that the next time you fork over $50 for a budget motel in the states! Remember, though, that $7 a night doesn’t buy you a warm, let alone a hot, shower – it’s cold water in a jerry can in an outdoor public washroom.

One of the places I enjoyed most was Fort Portal in the far west of Uganda, with the Rwenzori Mountains in view dividing Uganda and the DRC. Here’s a picture of the rolling tea fields upon approaching the town.

Still in Western Uganda, here’s a picture of me in Ibanda, after a morning of administering surveys.

Frequently, instead of putting up with time-wasting matatu rides, I would hop on a boda boda, or more precisely a piki piki (motorcycle taxi). I took roughly 35 boda rides in Uganda during this trip, including this one for a long 40-mile stretch.

Can you tell I love these things? Safety first, though. Helmets aren’t required by law, but are required by common sense.

Over my free weekend in Uganda, I met up with childhood friend Amy and husband David, who are schoolteachers in Western Kenya and happened to be on vacation in Uganda. We visited a cool place, Byoona Amagara. It’s situated on Lake Bunyonyi, a high-altitude lake very close to the borders of Rwanda and DRC.

I reached the island we stayed on via a 1-hour canoe ride. Byoona Amagara is a truly environmentally friendly place – 100% solar powered. On rainy days, there wasn’t any power and meals took about 2 hours to finish after ordering. The menu was hilarious – an omlette called ‘Are you Eggs-perienced?” read – ‘An orgy of sliced eggs partying with tomatoes, onions, pickles, and cheese, all downing shots of balsamic, it’s a pretty rowdy scene.” Of all the places I’ve been in Africa I recommend this one near the top – it was filled with NGO workers and ex-pats, hardly any tourists, and it’s well off the beaten path. The lake is a rare freshwater lake that isn’t swarming with bilharzia risk, so we went for a chilly and very refreshing swim. The place costs $6 a night for a dorm room.

Over the course of my travel in Uganda, this was my favorite moment – hawkers selling both live and dead chicken to bus riders.

One last pic from Uganda – Mt Elgon, a mountain shared with Kenya.

I’ve really started to fine-tune the way to administer the surveys to get more organisations on board and get loan officers to trust in the confidentiality of their answers. It takes humour, somewhat rehearsed and straightforward answers to common questions, and other little nuances I can’t express in words but have caught on to. It struck me one of the days during the research, probably in a crowded matatu, that very few people could tolerate the challenges I encountered, as well as embrace uncertainty so warmly.

Back in Nairobi for the last 2 weeks, I’ve been undertaking some new projects to finish out my year volunteering with Maono, including developing a guideline for a monitoring and evaluation of the organisation. NGOs usually only do this at the demand of donors, but it’s an important (if not the most important) project to complete.

We are also searching for a way to sell rabbit meat from Maono clients to distributors in Kenya. It’s hard to find a fair deal for our clients, as the Kenyan government makes it very hard for your average small-scale farmer to make a buck.

Last weekend, I decided to embark on another excursion to visit an area of Kenya that has always intrigued me – Turkana. Situated in Northwest Kenya on the Rift Valley, it borders South Sudan, Ethiopia, & Uganda and is home to Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake and the world’s largest alkaline lake.

The journey there was tough going. All in all, it takes around 20 hours from Nairobi. The roads from Nairobi to Kitale are perfect, but the road from Kitale north to Lodwar is a 30-year-old tarmac road that has never had one repair since its construction. Most parts, it is not intact at all.

Waking up in Kitale, I walked down to the bus station at 5:30am to check departure times, as usually some depart at 6am. Sadly, there were no buses leaving until 11am. Not wanting to wait around 5 hours, I asked around for shared taxis going to Lodwar. I found out that the road is so bad that only lorries, buses, and Land Cruisers can survive the 8-12 hour trip. And, lucky enough, there was a Land Cruiser leaving within the hour! Except that the driver was a downright liar and we didn’t leave until 2pm, long after the buses had departed, but by that time the buses were full.

Two hours along, the Land Cruiser ran out of petrol. Yes, the driver forgot to fill his tank with gas. Contrary to popular belief, automobiles do require fuel to move. So, we waited for over two hours while the driver fetched some crude.

In the course of this waiting, a Kenyan Army truck passed by. We flagged it down and a solider hopped into the back to give us some food! Here’s my fellow passengers bringing the spoils back.

Among the list of items the solider gave us – ‘army’ biscuits (no sugar, no taste), baked beans in tomato sauce, vegetables, and my favorite – Orange Powder.

We chowed down and most of us had stomach aches later on.

After the driver filled his tank again, we ran smoothly for another two hours until a fuse blew. The driver did not know anything about how to fix it, had no mechanic to call, and literally no plan for what he would do if he encountered a mechanical problem on the road. Once it got dark, passengers noticeably got nervous, as this area is not the safest for travel. After the third or fourth lorry (one vehicle passed roughly every 20 minutes), one trucker knew how to fix it. We were on our way again, and then broke down again 5 minutes later. At this point, I got very frustrated, and stood out in the rain waiting to hitch with a passing vehicle. Finally, an Eldoret Express bus passed by (the same bus I refused to ride in the first place), and I boarded that one, standing room only. The driver of the Land Cruiser refused to give any of his passengers a refund. Once on the bus, I noticed a police escort riding in the bus carrying an assault rifle. This area is prone to banditry, and I’m thankful I found a bus to get in before anyone could rob the Land Cruiser.

The bus waited for 4-5 hours in the middle of the night to wait for a river that had formed over the road to subside. Even though the area is the driest in Kenya, it is the rainy season. We arrived after the sun came up the next morning and I was greeted with this –

Lighting is not good, but the Turkana soil is basically white and sometimes light brown sand, with very little vegetation. And this was the rainy season! It is very hot in this area, did not drop below 80 degrees at night and the days hovered between 95 and 100 degrees, with the ‘real feel’ well over 100.

I immediately spotted these tall and skinny termite mounds! This is the best picture I took, but some were as tall as twenty feet, scout’s honor.

Here’s a pic of a Turkana man, traditionally dressed kind of similar to a Masaai.

Although most have sadly adopted Western dress, many still dress as they always have – here’s a woman wearing a khanga and a beautiful assortment of beads on her neck. Many Turkana women wear mohawks – they were doing it way before those dudes in the 70s.

From Lodwar, I headed to Kalokol, a small town of 500 people on Lake Turkana. We passed through more rivers flowing over roads, like this one. And yes, that’s 30 people crammed into one lorry.

Turkana recently struck oil. It is thought that Kenya’s oil reserves may double or even triple the amount found in Uganda. Of course, this will not benefit the Turkana people at all, as transnational oil giants have their hands on the supplies. Here’s some Kenya Oil employees hanging out by the lake.

Fishing is the main economic activity on Lake Turkana, including tilapia and mudfish.

I was walking through town one day and passed by a woman frying tilapia – and she let me stir the fish! I bought three of these fish, for 50 cents total.

I took a boat ride to Central Island National Park, a UNESCO site 19 kilometers from the mainland. Lake Turkana is called the Jade Sea, and for good reason!

Central Island is known for it’s population of Nile Crocodiles. There are said to be 14,000 crocodiles surrounding the island and the crater lakes within the island. Here’s a picture of me with Crocodile Lake behind me and Lake Turkana to the far left.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see any crocodiles, save for a few that poked their heads above the surface. After I explored the island on foot for 3-4 hours, I headed back to the boat. I dived into the water for a quick swim, and the captain starting screaming and waving his arms at me because I had jumped into standing water, a sure hideout for crocs. Phew, close call!

A viscous squall had developed, and the captain thought we may have to spend the night in a tent and head back in the morning. But, after confirming with me that I was OK with the risk, we set sail. Well, not really because it was a motorboat. The next hour was exciting and stressful at the same time – we navigated through waves that reached at least 5 meters – about 15 feet. I thought a couple times that my life was coming to an end! Like one of those ‘red flag’ days on Lake Michigan growing up.

Here’s a picture after arriving on solid ground – a welcome feeling.

I’ll leave you with a picture of ten individuals competing for 2-3 open seats on a bus. Survival of the fittest!

One last thing – a realization: Kenyans stare at wazungu (white people, or more precisely, foreigners) not out of hate but out of curiosity. How do I know this? Now that I’ve been living in Kenya 10 months, when I see a fellow fair-skinned human being, I stare too. Caucasians are unique, and especially in rural areas, an mzungu sighting may well be the most extraordinary experience of the day. Even for another mzungu!

How do I have less than 50 days left in Kenya? Sijui.


10 Responses to “105 Degree Weather & Uganda Research 2.0”

  1. Nancy Clark May 10, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

    Ben, you are one brave soul!

  2. Janet Scagnetti May 17, 2012 at 5:55 am #

    Joyce Kinney jus sent me the link to your blog. I read the first and the last so far. What an exciting experience for you. I am sure your family cringes everytime you relate one of your narrow escapes. Continued good times and good fortune! Jan Scagnetti

    • Ben May 17, 2012 at 11:46 am #


      Thanks for your message, great to hear from you. Do note that I feel the need to describe all my near-death experiences but the majority of the time, life is quite safe here!


  3. tim May 20, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

    haha…i’m a great fan of your blog.I think i have read all of your articles. I am Kenyan myself from Nairobi. I am assuring all of you that its not a ‘brave’ act living in Kenya. This is a completely normal country,don’t trust the pictures you see on international news. Keep on writing but i’ll miss your work when you will be back.

    • Ben May 23, 2012 at 12:55 pm #


      Happy to hear you’re enjoying my blog. You’re right, living in Kenya is not nearly as unsafe as the international media feels. Nairobi is much safer than New York City, for example.

      I hope to return to Kenya soon…I have a feeling I’ll be back 🙂


  4. Dave Fisher May 21, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    Ben, You wrote…

    Maybe that strength will be gone when I’m old, so I’ll use it while I still have it.

    Knowing your dad, I doubt it.

    • Ben May 23, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

      He ran a 3:44 in the Cleveland Marathon this weekend. In other words, point taken 🙂

  5. artwords January 14, 2013 at 10:48 am #

    that is how the rest of us grew up, its actually interesting that we lived a near death experience all our lives. Glad you made it through… I will personally now go to turkana this year, get may hair done and probably try my hands on frying fish.
    hope you can come back to kenya…so much more in store.

    • Ben January 14, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

      Good luck with the Turkana trip, I recommend it. Btw, I’ve come back to Kenya for another year at least…AND I’m still alive!

      • artwords January 25, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

        karibu tena… I hope you learn more swahili and a bit of either Kikuyu/Luo/Tugen and get to experience more in our country. I was searching for pictures for army biscuits and bumped on your post… Very interesting

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: