WASH United’s response to “Make hand-washing sexy”

Most of the times when you’re blogging, you feel like you’re just ranting in cyberspace. Even if a few people read your post, nothing really happens as a result.

I was therefore thrilled and impressed that WASH United’s communications team found my blog post, “Make Hand-Washing Sexy: The Misguided Ventures of NGOs,” and responded with a long and thoughtful comment.

When I wrote the original post, I considered e-mailing WASH United with feedback from someone on the ground in Uganda. Perhaps due to laziness or fear that I would stoke controversy, I chose not to. Now I regret that decision and I am glad that they eventually found my post and responded anyways. So here’s some civil discourse on the role of NGOs in Africa and our perpetual responsibility to question, analyze, and improve our society.


Hi Brian,

Thank you for your reflection. You definitely draw some interesting and relevant conclusions about the disconcerting relationships between NGOs and dependence on foreign aid, however, it would behoove us to respond and explain to some of the points that you put forward:

– Paper waste: we acknowledge that printing flyers may not be the most sustainable way of message promotion, however, these signs were very well received at the CECAFA Cup: fans were using them as banners through which to show their support and cheer for their teams. Additionally, nearly all of our campaign materials get produced in the country they are used, thus supporting the local economy (ironically, it is sometimes even more expensive than producing material here in Germany.) The core of our intention is to make printed materials interesting, worthwhile and educational. In our experience, quite a lot of people take these materials home and even put them on their walls because someone like Didier Drogbar is on it.
– The use of puppets: ‘Handy & Soapy’ are similar to mascots seen at major sporting events. We have had very positive, playful reactions to them by adults as well as children. Going to a football game is a fun and playful experience; we firmly believe that children (as well as adults) like to have fun and play around – we have seen this when we have taken ‘Handy & Soapy’ for walks through the streets of Kampala (and other cities in Africa).
– Instructing ‘Africans’ on how to use soap: most people have soap and use it for cleaning themselves in a shower/bath, to wash their clothes, etc., but not necessarily for washing their hands before eating and after using the toilet. This is not only a problem in Africa, but also in a country like Germany, where only ~50% of men wash their hands with soap after going to the toilet. In Germany, that is despicable (and frankly disgusting) considering every person has access to proper sanitation facilities. However, due to a lack of adequate sanitation in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, there are much more dangerous germs in the open and on people’s hands, and therefore washing hands with soap really can be a matter of life and death.
– Spending money on improving public education: WASH United does this with our WASH in Schools (WinS) programmes. Edutaining games are at the core of our WinS programmes. Generally, awareness-raising is a key first step towards better sanitation and hygiene practices, simply because people do not fully comprehend the extent to which the exposure to poop can really, seriously harm them if they are not active about taking care of their own, personal hygiene. Here’s a video that shows how we try to improve public education through WinS (and local events): https://vimeo.com/67113768
– That soap is too expensive: Our Human Rights Officer had discussed this at length with many people in Kampala the last time she was there. According to UNICEF, soap was present in 95 per cent of households in Uganda. Laundry, bathing and washing dishes are seen as the priorities for soap use.http://www.unicef.org/india/reallives_6533.htm What this means is that most households have soap available, but are not intent on using it for handwashing because it would be considered ‘a waste’. Our communication intends to change that.
We can send you more information and concrete studies on this if you would like.
– Networks of dependency and absolving the state’s responsibilities: Yes, this is a very, very big problem that we are trying to counter by creating innovative formats and programs that work and can be adapted by others, including state actors.
– “gung-ho, let’s-fix-this attitude from the USA” – We are not American, nor do we embody that attitude. We always, always, always work with and through local partners. The campaign you saw at the CECAFA Cup was a joint initiative by WASH United and our local partner UWASNET, the Uganda Water & Sanitation Network, with whom we have been working for the last three years.

We sincerely appreciate your feedback because it gives us a good reflection of how we can be perceived by outsiders who do not know us very well. It also offers us space to think critically about the work we do so we can work in better ways to do what we are here to do: supporting our partners in fighting the shit crisis.

Keepin’ it clean,
WASH United


Here’s my original post, published on December 7, 2012:

Last night reminded me of why I love Uganda. The afternoon rain gave way to a beautiful evening with a vibrant sunset, which I enjoyed from the back of a boda boda on my way to Nelson Mandela National Stadium. There I joined 20,000 fans for the semifinal of the CECAFA Tusker Cup and watched Uganda beat Tanzania 3-0.

Amidst blaring vuvuzelas (African horns used to intimidate the opposition), impassioned Ugandans waved flags and sparklers as they cheered on their team and brawled with Tanzanian fans shortly before half time. The handful of riot police mimicked the referee on the field: instead of intervening, they let the fans fight it out. I was a bit worried for the safety of the Tanzanians in the crowd, but the violence quickly subsided and spectators returned their attention to the game.

Throughout the match, vendors weaved through the stands, selling fried chicken, popcorn, beer, soda, and fried grasshoppers (a popular Ugandan delicacy). Towards the end of the first half, they also distributed thousands of massive brochures that were the same size as three sheets of 8.5 by 11-inch paper taped together. I grabbed one because I was intrigued by the glossy color photos.

“Hand & soap need your support!” the ad says. It features a picture of Didier Drogba, Africa’s biggest soccer star, with a small child, who is holding a bar of soap. “Play hard, play with passion. It is a matter of honour. So is washing your hands with soap.”

The ad also pictures two cartoon characters, “Handy” and “Soapy,” which were performed by actors in full body suits walking around the sidelines.

Ugandan fans wave the WASH United advertisement. Photo courtesy of WASH United's Facebook page.

Ugandan fans wave the WASH United advertisement. Photo courtesy of WASH United’s Facebook page.

At first glance, I didn’t think much of the brochure or the characters. That’s an odd thing to advertise, I thought. But this wasn’t just a soap company trying to promote their product; it was a German-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) called “WASH United.”

According to their website, WASH United was founded in 2010 with three goals: “Make toilets sexy”; “Promote hand-washing with soap at critical times”; and “Full recognition and realization of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.” They have reached over 100 million people in Africa and India through media advertisements, education programs, and sponsoring major sports tournaments, like the CECAFA Tusker Cup.

Trying to promote better sanitation is a critical goal, especially since diarrhea and pneumonia are the two biggest global killers of children under the age of five. While their aims are laudable, however, there are a number of things that bothered me about WASH United’s ad at the soccer game.

First, the environmental impact is obvious. Passing out thousands of giant flyers is an absurd way to get your message across. If anyone from this NGO has ever visited Kampala, then they would have seen the piles of rubbish lining the streets and smelled the ubiquitous stench of garbage being burned. Kampala has virtually no waste management services, so most residents burn their litter or toss it out on the streets. Unless people decide to hang these flyers in their homes and keep them forever, I assume that most of them are already on the side of the road.

Even more disturbing is the demeaning message that this NGO portrays. Featuring characters like “Handy” and “Soapy” might be a good way to encourage kindergarteners to wash their hands, but to the 85% of fans at the soccer game who were grown adult men, this must have seemed ridiculous.

While many American and European-based NGOs operating in Africa are subtly paternalistic, there is nothing subtle about WASH United. Imagine a nonprofit trying to teach sports fans in London or New York how to wash their hands with soap by having cartoon characters at soccer and baseball games. People would be insulted! But somehow, it’s okay for an NGO to spend thousands of euros on ads that teach grown Africans how to use soap.

I imagine that the founders and supporters of WASH United have the best of intentions, but the underlying logic of their campaign seems deeply prejudiced. Not only do they assume that Africans need their help, but they also assume that Africans can’t even do simple tasks—like washing their hands—without foreign intervention.

Stopping childhood pneumonia and diarrhea are pivotal goals, but there are probably more productive ways to encourage better sanitation. If WASH United finds the Ugandan education system so lacking that it doesn’t teach children how to wash their hands with soap, then perhaps it should spend its money improving public education.  Or if it finds that the cost of soap is too expensive for most Ugandans to afford, it should build a soap factory outside of Kampala to create jobs and increase the supply of soap.

People are also unlikely to change their habits just because they see an ad of Didier Drogba using soap. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes the process of habit formation as revolving around cues, routines, and rewards. According to Duhigg’s principles, WASH United’s marketing campaign would be more effective if it focused on the cue (“Are your hands dirty and gross? Wash ‘em with soap!”), the routine (“Add a bar of soap to your washing routine”), or the reward (“I love that feeling of clean hands…now I can eat without getting diarrhea!”). I know these slogans aren’t as flashy as a big picture of Drogba, but basic psychology might make them more effective than “Give your all. It is a matter of honour. So is washing your hands with soap.”

While I hope that WASH United’s campaign achieves more than I give them credit for, I implore them to think critically about the implications of their messaging. Even when people are trying to help others, the legacy of colonialism still shapes much of our thinking on Africa and continues to perpetuate cycles of aid and dependency. Although NGOs are usually more effective than bilateral aid that gives cash directly to governments, they still establish networks of dependency and absolve the state of certain responsibilities.

Take Uganda as an example. The health sector here is largely bolstered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and various NGOs. These NGOs deliver critical services and medication that are literally saving lives every day. But because people are getting their medical needs taken care of, they aren’t demanding more services from the Ugandan government. The government still collects tax revenue, but now it doesn’t have to invest as much in the health sector and can spend its money on new fighter jets, guns and ammunition, and political projects to entrench the ruling party.

Because the erosion of democracy is an unintended consequence of foreign aid,Daily Monitor Managing Editor Daniel Kalinaki wrote a column yesterday on why recent donor cuts might be the best thing that’s ever happened to Uganda. If you’re interested in this topic, it’s worth a read.

Ultimately, I don’t support cutting all foreign aid, because there is important development work to be done here in Africa. However, I think we can be smarter about how we deliver aid. The first steps should be to study a problem and to look at how local populations are already addressing that problem. If a civil society organization, a business, or a governmental entity is already making progress in an area, then we should offer them support instead of starting a brand-new NGO based in Washington, D.C.

And if there is already an international NGO moving forward on an issue, then we shouldn’t create five or six that are doing the same thing. It is a running joke in Kampala that half of the NGOs here are doing the same thing. There is so much NGO overlap that women’s groups and schools will sometimes hear nearly identical presentations about HIV from three different NGOs in the same month.

If we have researched a problem and decided that an NGO is the most effective institution to address it, then we should proceed strategically and ask ourselves, what is our ultimate goal? Is it to provide short-term aid that builds local capacity so that Ugandans can run their own economy? Or is to initiate long-term programs that will continue to be run by foreigners? Unfortunately, the status quo in development tends to follow the latter model, but I don’t think it always has to be this way.

The Ugandans I have met so far are brilliant. There are engineers, doctors, lawyers, and administrators who know how to develop their country, but there are deeply ingrained structural challenges that get in the way. As an American, I appreciate the gung-ho, let’s-fix-this attitude from the USA, but it’s foolish for us to think that our methods are better than Uganda’s. And unfortunately, I have met some foreign NGO workers who give off the air that they are smarter and wiser than most Ugandans.

So before we send naive and inexperienced 22-year-olds abroad to “change the world” (myself included), perhaps we should ask the civil society leaders of these countries what they really want from us. “Foreign expertise” probably doesn’t top very high on the list.


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Rags to riches: Pursuing the Ugandan dream

Today the Daily Monitor published an article I wrote about the “Ugandan Dream.” Like it’s American counterpart, this dream is shared by millions of low-income workers across East Africa. If I work hard enough, I can make it. I can escape poverty, buy some land, and build a better future for my children.

Well, it’s not quite that easy, as Charles Alisingura’s story shows. Like the American Dream, ambition in Uganda is often slighted by things beyond our control. Personal and structural obstacles have led some theorists to believe that the American Dream is a romantic myth, at best, and a deliberate lie crafted by the wealthy elite, at worst. It leads people to believe that their failure to become millionaires is their own fault and that if we work hard enough, we can all become Bill Gates.

For most of my life, I bought into this argument more than the libertarian viewpoint that success is almost entirely determined by individual merit. But I also think that some social critics, like Malcolm Gladwell, whose book Outliers I read a few weeks ago, take this theory a bit too far. By focusing almost exclusively on the strong correlation between  predetermined factors (parental income, birth year, and place of birth) and long-term success, Gladwell doesn’t leave much space for grit, determination, and hard work. This is exactly the kind of leftist thinking that makes my libertarian friends cringe because it leads to the fatalistic conclusion that none of us controls our own destiny. 

Like any argument, however, there is a middle ground. Of course external factors matter. Class, race, gender, nationality, age, and any other external indicator have an enormous influence on who we are and how we live. But you can’t dismiss the role of free will. While people are constricted by their environs, they can still choose how they respond to them. And whether you’re the daughter of Bill Gates or the son of a Zambian coal miner, no one can take that away from you.

I first heard about Charles Alisingura during a dinner conversation with friends. We were discussing the plight of house boys and girls in Uganda. As I mention in the article, there are thousands of these servants who are the equivalent of modern-day slaves. For around $2 USD per month, they attend to Uganda’s wealthy elite and have almost no economic or social mobility.

In the brief encounters I’ve had with house boys and girls, I have been surprised with how optimistic they seem. Even if their current situation is dismal, they assume that they’ll move onto bigger and better things if they just keep on keepin’ on.

So I asked my friends–do you know of any house girls or boys who have actually made it, who have achieved their dreams?

They responded with an enthusiastic “yes” and told me the story of their driver, Charles. Last week, I met with Charles and tried to document his story. The story is inspiring because he is achieving his dreams through hard work and perseverance. But I also tried to document the moments of change in Charles’ life–the opportunities that emerged and how he reacted. Ultimately, it is this intersection between luck and choice that I think we need to pay attention to. You can’t control external factors, but you can control how you respond to them. So here’s the story of how Charles responded to his limitations and opportunities.


Houseboy-turned cab driver and land owner

By: Brian Klosterboer

Daily Monitor


Charles Alisingura poses by his cab at Kisementi. He started making his living as a houseboy but now owns his own cab and 16 acres of land. Photo by Brian Klosterboer.

It is a relatively short drive from Masindi to Kampala—three hours under the best of conditions. As a special hire driver in Kampala, Charles Alisingura knows this trip well. But for him, a former houseboy with 41 brothers and sisters, the journey from living in the village to becoming a businessman in Kampala took half a lifetime.

There are thousands of houseboys and girls in Uganda. Most of them are young, uneducated, and do menial tasks for as little as Shs5,000 per month. Although they are compensated with room and board, most house helps have no social or economic mobility. Some of them live and work in a compound for 24 hours a day and are rarely allowed to visit friends or family members.

Sending a child to work as a houseboy or girl is seldom a parent’s first choice, but with Uganda’s birth rate being one of the highest in the world, over six births per woman, some families have few options.

Getting into domestic work
Alisingura’s father had six wives and 42 children. Although some of his elder brothers and sisters were able to attend secondary school, the school fees quickly ran out and in 1979, Alsingura’s parents decided to send him to Kinyara Sugar Works to become a houseboy for a family from Pakistan. Alsingura was 16 years old.

Alsingura reflects fondly on his first few years as a houseboy. It was difficult work—he often laboured from 6am until midnight—but he gained valuable skills like cooking, cleaning, and speaking proper English.

With the Shs250 he earned per month, Alsingura helped to pay the school fees for some of his younger siblings. Three years later, the family at Kinyara returned to Pakistan. Because Alsingura was a hard worker, they recommended him to an Indian family living in Kampala.

For a young man from Masindi, Kampala was a big and exciting place, but Alsingura felt trapped when his new family refused to give him a single day off. “I asked them to go see my parents and they wouldn’t allow me,” Alsingura said. “And that made me hate the work.”

Alsingura remembers being trapped inside the family’s compound as the darkest moment of his life. When he was finally allowed to leave for a short visit, he met a friend of his brother who was working as a taxi driver in Kampala.

When Alsingura told him about his predicament, the man invited him to become a conductor. Alsingura began working as a taxi conductor in 1985 and for the next five years, he shuttled people into Kampala’s taxis for a small amount of money every day. During the end of Milton Obote’s presidency, inflation soared and soldiers would force themselves into Alsingura’s taxi without paying.

Some days, he would earn Shs500,000, but the money was almost worthless until the National Resistance Movement captured Kampala and reset the currency.

Even under the new regime, working as a conductor was hardwork and Alsingura only earned about Shs60 per day. But once again, he saw an opportunity. Whenever he could, Alsingura took the wheel and taught himself how to drive.

By the end of his stint in the taxi business, Alsingura was a capable driver. In 1990, “there was a friend of mine who knew me, who contacted me to drive a special hire,” Alsingura said. “Because I was a good driver, they gave me a car and I started driving and saving some small money.” With 41 brothers and sisters, and an entire network of family burdens and obligations, Alsingura found it incredibly difficult to save money. He frequently sent money back to the village, but he also tried to save a little for himself.

Acquiring land
For every Shs1,000 Alisingura earned, he tried to save at least Shs100 and by 1994, he had saved up Shs120,000, enough to purchase 16 acres of land in his home village. Today, with the improvements he has made, that land might sell for Shs50m.

Although Alsingura knew how to dig on farms, he was not a farmer by profession. But he found yet another opportunity in life; to become an outgrower for Kinyara Sugar Works, the same place where he had worked as a houseboy.

“When I first bought my land, I dug on it, slowly,” Alsingura says, “But when they, [Kinyara] said they needed outgrowers, I went and registered and they planted for me. They give you the workers and they even bring tractors to dig for you. They call it a loan and take the harvest, to pay up the loan.”

Alsingura did not make much profit in the first harvest. But 18 months later, Kinyara paid him Shs15m for the second crop of sugarcane. Now Alsingura’s farm earns between Shs15m and Shs20m every 18 months.

When he returned to Kampala, Alsingura paid cash for a used car from Japan. He joined a stage near Kisementi in Kamwokya and used the English he learned as a houseboy to develop relationships with Ugandan and foreign customers. Now he receives dozens of phone calls a week from customers who refer him to their friends.

“The secret to my business has been faithfulness,” Alsingura told the Daily Monitor. “For those houseboys and housegirls to succeed, they must first be faithful. Faithful to their bosses and faithful to themselves.”

Unlike many drivers in Kampala, Alsingura tries to give consistent prices to every customer. “Sometimes drivers charge Shs30,000 for what should be a Shs10,000 ride,” Alsingura says. “But when someone discovers that you were cheating them, they will not give you any more business.”

Future plans
“I have worked for a long time,” Alsingura said. “To this day, I wake up at 3am to go pick people from the airport. But in 10 years, after my last child finishes university, I want to retire.”

Alsingura claims that his greatest challenge has been his lack of education—not being able to read, write, or use a computer. For that reason, his primary goal is that all four of his children graduate from university.

His oldest son has already graduated from Makerere University with an accounting degree and three others attend Kiteteka and Nalia Secondary Schools in Kampala. “The school fees are high,” Alsingura said, “but I know that they will get the scores to attend university.”

Alsingura has been married to Sarah Birungi, since the mid-1980s, but it wasn’t until he started selling sugarcane that he could afford for her to move to Kampala. Because of that investment, Birungi now owns a small shop in Kamwokya.

Alsingura has overcome tremendous odds to reach where he is and the secret seems to be seizing opportunities along the way.

“If you have no help, it is very difficult to come from the village to the city,” he says, “You need somewhere to stay, money to buy food. So for me, it helped me to come to Kampala while I was still a houseboy. It helped me to know the city and learn English.”

Alsingura is the member of this transport association that has four cars they rent out and he owns one of the cars. Add that to his 16 acres of land in the village, he has certainly journeyed a long road.

Now that he has connections in the special hire business, Alsingura has paved the way for his younger brother and nephew to become drivers. “Now they have the opportunity,” he said.

For houseboys, and housegirls, it is a long, difficult road to join Uganda’s growing middle class, but Alsingura’s story shows that with a few opportunities, a little bit of luck, and a lot of hard work, it is possible to achieve the Ugandan Dream.


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Ode to my backpack

My backpack is not a very sentimental bag. It doesn’t like greeting cards, flowers, or sappy love songs. But as we approach our fifth anniversary together, I wanted to take a moment to thank this black piece of canvass for having my back on five continents, in nine countries, and on thousands of journeys and adventures.


From the very beginning, our relationship was based on practicality. You were the largest backpack on jansport.com and your lifetime guarantee told me you were ready for a serious commitment.

I too was looking for something enduring. As a freshman in college who thought that we actually needed to bring textbooks to class, I stuffed you to the brim with 30 pounds of reading materials. Only later did I come to realize my folly, so I quickly replaced that 30 pounds with books for pleasure and binders and notebooks for extracurricular activities.

Just as Tim O’Brien wrote in his masterful book, The Things They Carried, about the burdens that soldiers carried during the Vietnam War, you too have stories of the things you carried. The journalist in me wants to ask you those secrets, but how do I recall the random things that you hoisted these last five years?

Nothing stands out beyond the requisite equipment of a student/traveler. Hundreds and hundreds of books. Granola bars. My Nalgene. A Centre College coffee mug. Pilot G2-07 pens. Hand sanitizer. My iPod. Dirty socks.

Perhaps it is not the novelty of the things you carried but how you carried them. Through thick and thin, good and bad, you never let me down. When I went far beyond my comfort zone, to the ends of the earth, you were my safety blanket—sure and steadfast—connecting me to home.

Every night that I stayed up until 5 a.m. studying in college, you were there.

When I first stepped foot outside the United States, you exited a millisecond behind me.

When I got lost in Chongqing and spent four hours searching for my hostel, you reminded me that I wasn’t alone.

Together we reveled on the black sand beaches of Cameroon.

And when I was elected student body president, you congratulated me by carrying two bottles of champagne.

You and I even started a business together. When I paid the first four months of rent at Jakob’s Lounge, you carried the money from the bank to the landlord.

And during my scariest moment in Uganda, when I saw a motionless body on a road in Kitgum, you jumped off that truck to help me find the police.

Now don’t get me wrong. There have been times when you and I had to separate, but those were mostly my fault, not yours.

I had to leave you behind when I took the LSAT. That evil test made me leave everything behind—even my sweatshirt, which had a nefarious pocket in it. Near freezing, I took the test as quickly as possible to return to your warm embrace.

I also couldn’t take you bungee jumping or white water rafting on the Nile—would that have voided your lifetime guarantee?

And then there’s the time I betrayed you. I wanted to take you climbing in the Rwenzoris—I promise—but that big gash in your side just would not have held up in the rain. I know I cheated on you. That Osprey hiking backpack just came into the picture and trekked up those mountains with me. But sometimes even the best of friends have to separate and I was so happy to reunite in Kampala and take you to Ethiopia and Kenya.

(That Osprey backpack was too heavy anyways. I would have climbed Weisman Peak much easier with you on my back.)

I’ve only washed you three times in the last five years—never mind those rotting bananas—and you haven’t complained once. I almost killed you with that vicious dryer in Australia, but even though you’re frayed and dirty, you’re still just as handsome as when you first arrived in the mail.

So here’s to the must rugged, dependable, unrelenting backpack anyone could ask for. You might need to get sewn up before we start law school together, but don’t worry—I won’t ditch you for that sleek-looking Fossil messenger bag in my closet at home.

My backpack is a bit more camera-shy than this puppy on the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria.

My backpack is a bit more camera-shy than this puppy on the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria.

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Carrie Underwood: My solution for surviving Ugandan traffic

A very apt description of traffic in Kampala. I often feel like I’m in a James Bond film while racing through traffic on a boda boda. I have yet to drive on top of someone’s roof, but we pretty much drive on anything else that’s passable.

The Sunblock Chronicles

Driving in Ugandan traffic will change your life; mostly because you’ll constantly see it flash before your eyes.

Imagine this:  Take the majority of Kampala’s 1.7 million people and put half of them on road – in one form or another – at the same time.

Now, take away all road signs, traffic signals and directional markings. They have a few, but they’re more for decoration.

Subtract the grid layout of the United States’ roads and highways. Most roads in Kampala go in circles. If you look at a map of Kampala, it looks like a spider’s web, overlaid by another spider’s web.

Now decrease the width of the roads and increase the number of lanes – two lanes become three or four, four lanes become 26 (that might be an exaggeration). In fact, just erase any lane lines because they are irrelevant.

Here would be a good point to…

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Time for Reflection: Race and Ethnicity

After ten months, 300 days, and thousands of moments and experiences, I am no longer a Fulbright Student. Although I extended my stay in Uganda for two more months, my grant period officially ended on May 30th. So a few weeks ago, I finally got around to filling out the Fulbright Final Report.

Explain in 1,000 characters or less what you’ll take away from the Fulbright experience.

This was one of the questions I had to answer.

But how do you distill a year’s worth of experiences abroad? How do you sift through the memories—the good and the bad, the moments of victory and annoyance? How do you remember the hundreds of people who made an impact on your life—many of whom you can never repay?

In 1,000 characters, it is impossible. It will take me years to reflect on my time in Uganda and to realize the full effect it’s had on me. Memories, emotions, and changed perspectives will slowly seep through me for the rest of my life.

In the short term, however, I will do my best to distill some of these experiences and changed perspectives in a short blog series. So here we go—tugende.

A natural starting point seems to be something that I never considered much at home: my skin color. From the moment I stepped off the plane at Entebbe, I looked different from most people around me. Well, not that different at first, but once the missionaries left the airport, there I was. A lone mzungu, as we’re called in East Africa.

I’ve asked two Swahili experts about the origins of mzungu and I’ve heard two different things. It either means white person or aimless wanderer who likes to look at things and take pictures. Both definitions seem appropriate for the European explorers and missionaries who first came here at the end of the nineteenth century.

At home, in Texas and Kentucky, I am extremely privileged to be in the racial majority. During high school and college, I attended countless diversity workshops and even took a class called Race and Ethnicity, so I thought that I knew a lot about “privilege” before I moved to Africa.

Looking back, however, I only knew the intellectual concept of privilege—not the feeling it invokes. Privilege is largely invisible to those who have it. Growing up in American suburbs, I never had to think about race. I had friends who were different, but I looked like most of my classmates.

In East Africa, I’m in the minority. As the lone mzungu reporter at the Daily Monitor, I do feel a bit conspicuous. This feeling is amplified by the fact that I’m the least qualified journalist in the building. I don’t speak the local language, I know hardly anything about local politics, and I don’t have any connections to feed me “scoops.” When the editors ask me what stories I know about, my usual reply is silence.

Like the odd-man-out in middle school, I typically dread lunch time. One of the perks of being a Monitor intern is that I get to eat for free and the local food at the newspaper’s cafeteria is the best I’ve had. After I grab my plate of matoke, rice, and potatoes covered with beans or gnut sauce, I look around the eatery for tables of people I know. Sometimes I guess that a group of journalists work in editorial, so I’ll sit with them. Sometimes I’ll guess correctly and they’ll talk to me about Ugandan politics. But sometimes I’m wrong and the people I’m sitting with work in the printing presses, in human resources, or in some other department.

Oftentimes my tablemates will chat with one another in Luganda. I can pick up a few words but have no idea what they’re talking about. When the conversation touches on football or politics, I can typically offer a phrase or two, but I’m largely incapable of engaging in genuine conversation.

Even when my tablemates talk in English, I still feel woefully uninformed. So that’s why I generally eat quickly and retreat upstairs to the business desk, where I return to the comfort of my laptop.

Even though I now know what it feels like to be the odd-man-out, I still retain a huge amount of privilege as a mzungu abroad. To land an internship at the Daily Monitor, I leveraged my connections as a Fulbrighter and future Harvard Law student. Both of those titles invoke a tremendous amount of wealth and privilege.

And as annoying as it is to have children shouting “mzungu, mzungu!” at you in the streets, that too is a form of privilege. People in East Africa equate whiteness to wealth, no matter how untrue that may be. When they see a Land Cruiser driving through their village, people have come to expect money and assistance.

Even this morning, when I was walking from my house to Jakob’s Lounge, two kids called out to me. “Mzungu, mzungu!” they said.

“Ogamba chi?” I replied. What’s up? (not sure of the spelling).

Instead of answering me, they held out their hands. “Give us money!” they said in English.

I laughed, shook my head, and replied honestly, “I have no money!”

I have tried to explain to countless Ugandans that not all Americans are rich. I cite statistics I learned in my Poverty and Homelessness class in college: that there might be up to 3 million Americans who are homeless, 15% of children go to bed hungry every night, and 2.8 million children live on less than $2 a day—little more than the poverty line in Uganda.

Most people here can’t fathom these statistics or picture people sleeping under a bridge in an American city. To them, “America” is still the promised land, where everyone has a dog, a Lexus, and a nice big house in Beverly Hills.

Granted, our government does a lot more for poor people than Uganda’s, but people struggle everywhere—and a lot of that struggling has to do with race. Just as European countries have never rectified the damage they did to Africa, we as Americans have never undone the suffering we inflicted on blacks, Native Americans, and other racial groups.

A black, latino, or Native American family is more than twice as likely as a white family to live below the poverty line. I have no idea how we can eventually achieve racial equality in the United States, but refusing to ignore the problem might be a good start.

Many Americans are quick to criticize tribal conflict in Africa and we have invested millions of dollars in judicial processes searching for accountability for the Rwandan genocide. While we acknowledge that our ancestors committed atrocities within our own borders, we simultaneously pretend that it was too long ago to matter.

But for the people of East Africa who have lived here for more than 3 million years, two centuries doesn’t seem like such a long time. That means the grandparents of our grandmother’s grandparents lived through the “American genocide” and we’re still feeling the effects today.

In my next few blog posts, I’ll talk about other types of privilege that are inevitably intertwined with my mzungu-ness. In almost every corner of the world, wealth opens doors and because whiteness is associated with wealth, people sometimes interpret it as the same thing.

I must confess that I am guilty of using whiteness to my advantage while traveling abroad. In China, skin color works the same way. When I was exploring Shanghai or other Chinese cities, I would often walk into a four or five-star hotel to use the bathroom instead of using the disgusting public bathroom on the streets.

Would the security guard let a Chinese university student walk into the Hilton and use the toilet in the lobby? Probably not. But did they ever stop me and ask if I was a guest at their hotel? Not even once.

Similarly, I have joked with friends in Kampala how easy it would be to be a mzungu thief. You can walk into any nice hotel or restaurant and security guards hardly search you. Even if you walked out with a plasma T.V., you could probably just smile and confidently assert, “This is mine.”

Perhaps any form of racial profiling is inevitable when it comes to security, but the amount that mzungus in Kampala get away with sometimes makes me feel like Uganda is still being colonized.

So to the kids on the street in Kabalagala, perhaps I should have said: “You don’t need to ask white people for money anymore. Just ask your politicians; they’re richer than all of us!”


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‘That opposition paper’ is back in business

At press conferences earlier this year, President Museveni sometimes referred to the Daily Monitor as “that opposition paper.” It is therefore plausible that he used the Gen. David Sejusa letter as an excuse to shut down and punish the newspaper financially.

As I wrote in Think Africa Press, this intimidation seemed to work for a few days, as the newspaper backed off from controversial stories. But now it seems like the independent paper is back in business. The last few issues have been full of stories critical of the regime.

There were two articles about political opposition:

“Museveni says teargas has silenced Besigye”

“Museveni address deceptive – Muntu”

And one article about the OPM fraud scandal. The Daily Monitor broke this story but has since been warned by the government not to report on it:

“Leaked OPM report pins government officials”

There is even one article on the arrest of Gen. David Sejusa’s aides. It doesn’t mention the dozens of other suspected arrests of people close to the general or speculations that the general might have been plotting a coup:

“Sejusa aides denied freedom” 

Finally, the front page today ran a story that might have been too critical, as the EU ambassador later accused the Monitor of twisting his words and making a sensational headline:

“European Union diplomat attacks Museveni over graft”

Here’s the EU’s “clarification” in response to the story: “European Union delegation reacts to Daily Monitor headline”


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A Bittersweet Victory or a Sugarcoated Defeat?

Less than a week after the Daily Monitor and Red Pepper reopened, the two largest independent newspapers are steering clear of any controversial topics. Did they concede their independence to the government? And what triggered this media storm in the first place?

I explore these questions with Risdel Kasasira in Think Africa Presshttp://thinkafricapress.com/uganda/daily-monitor-red-pepper-sejusa-museveni 

Ugandan civil society members protest the muzzling of their freedom of speech before being dispersed with tear gas on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of http://news.ugo.co.ug/

Ugandan civil society members protest the muzzling of their freedom of speech before being dispersed with tear gas on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of http://news.ugo.co.ug/

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