Thursday, September 30, 2010

Food and drink in Uganda

Then God said, “I now give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the entire earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.  And to all the animals of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to all the creatures that move on the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food.”   It was so. God saw all that he had made – and it was very good!

If you want to know what the Garden of Eden was really like, come to Uganda. 

Uganda has a perfect climate: not too hot, not too cold, averaging about 26-28°C. Most of the country has plenty of rain.  And it is green, very green.

Roadside stall in Kampala
Everywhere you look there is food.  Small kiosks and stalls line the roads, whether in the towns or out in the countryside.  Everybody is selling food, so it seems, bunches of bananas, pyramids of tomatoes, mounds of sweet potatoes, huge branches of green bananas to make Uganda’s staple dish, matoke.

During the day there are family-run stalls selling matoke, beans and grilled sweet corn.  In the evening there are ‘pork joints’ and stalls selling chicken and chips.  Sometimes the 'kitchen' just occupies a small patch of pavement.

Here you can see the outdoor kitchens in the market at Namuwongo, a Kampala slum.  The large yellow containers are for water.  The large cooking pots balance precariously on small charcoal burners.

The roads are full of people transporting food, on foot, by bicycle and by lorry.

Uganda has enough food for its own people, in theory anyway, and is aiming to increase its exports. 

Typical meals could include any combination of the following dishes, the ingredients all grown or reared locally.

·         matoke - mashed green bananas, with the colour and texture of ‘neeps’ and slightly sour
·         Irish – potato, very similar to our own, served boiled, mashed or as chips
·         cassava – very similar to softened wood except when fried, when it develops some taste
·         rice – very good quality Ugandan varieties
·         posho– slabs of solid white cornflour with no taste whatsoever
·         chopped greens – quite tasty
·         bean stew – slightly spicy, with tomatoes, peppers, maize and other vegetables mixed in
·         groundnut sauce – sweet and pink
·         peas – often served in some kind of ‘gravy’
·         green beans
·         carrots – in abundance, much to Stuart’s chagrin
·         tilapia – caught in Lake Victoria and grilled, fried or casseroled
·         stewed lamb, mutton, chicken or goat
·         grilled or fried beef, goat, pork and chicken - the steaks are fantastic
·         eggs – in various familiar forms
·         salads – local greens shredded with carrot, as well as traditional ‘British’ salads
·         avocados – huge and superb
·         sweet potatoes
·         eggplants – a range of colours and sizes, often about four inches in length and an inch and half in diameter, but often cream in colour and just a couple of inches long
·         millet 'bread' – perfectly acceptable, but not thrilling. It’s sometimes fortified with soya to  provide extra nutrition.

Kampala and the larger towns like Jinja and Mbale have some excellent Indian restaurants, for Indians have returned to Uganda and run many of the businesses and factories.  In Kampala our favourites are Khana Khazana, the Coconut Shack, serving Goan food, Nawab in Garden City and, of course, Haandis (main restaurant on Entebbe Road, snacks in Garden City). Mamba Point has wonderful pizzas, as does Ciao Bella in Entebbe. Uganda does pizzas well, strangely enough, probably because the cooks as so used to using wood fired stoves.

When you’ve eaten all that, for dessert choose any of the following:
Roadside stall in eastern Uganda

·         pineapple - the sweetest and juiciest 
       you can imagine
·         ditto mangoes, of various kinds but the small
       local ones are tastiest

·         ditto paw-paws
·         sweet bananas, often half or a third of the size
      of our tasteless multi-national monstrosities
      and with ten times the flavour

·         oranges, green even when ripe
      and a bit sour to our taste

·         water melon
·         passion fruit of various sizes and colours
·         enormous jack fruit, sold whole or in slices
·         apples, just like ours, probably imported
      from South Africa

·         a range of other fruit the names of which I don’t know but which taste delicious.

Snacks can include:

·         small salted groundnuts
·       sim sim – sesame seeds either eaten ‘loose’ or made into sweet crunchy balls
·         sugarcane
·         chapattis – Indian or African
·         samozas, vegetable or meat
·         enormous doughnuts that fasten you to the ground for the rest of the afternoon and which Stuart
      eats when he thinks I’m not looking
·      roasted sweetcorn to break your teeth on and ensure Ugandan dentists make a living.

Wash it all down with:

·         tea, served as ‘African’ tea i.e. flavoured gently with ginger or other spices,
      made with milk and drunk with sugar (if you’re Ugandan), though it’s delicious without

·         good quality coffee, though often served rather weak
      or as instant, with a flask of boiling water

 a good range of excellent local lager beers – we haven’t tried the millet beer and may leave that
      experience for later
·        ubiquitous 'sodas', i.e. Coke and Fanta, advertisements
      for which appear even in the most remote areas

·         South African wine, or, if you're brave, Ugandan pineapple wine
·         and, of course, water.

Water, now that’s a topic in itself.  It looks as if Uganda may have difficulty reaching the Millennium goal to provide safe drinking water to all its population.  The water in Kampala is reasonably safe.  It is treated and you can use it to shower in and brush your teeth.  However, it needs to be boiled and filtered before you drink it.  Once that's done, the water tastes absolutely fine.  The filter is in two parts.  You pour boiled water into the top container where two ceramic ‘candles’ draw out the red earth and other contaminants. The clean water then flows into the bottom container, which has a tap. We boil up water for the filter most days.  It’s just part of our routine.

Most of the population in Kampala and other towns carry their water from standpipes which draw water from the national system or from local boreholes.  Stuart and I are fortunate in having piped water.  ‘National water’ is being piped across Uganda, but it hasn’t reached many rural areas, and is unlikely to, even by 2015.  Carrying water is usually a job for women and children, and one is never too young to do it.  

Large yellow plastic jerry cans can be seen everywhere.  We often see people loading a couple of dozen into boots of cars at the university standpipe.  Bicycles wobble past with twenty or more tied onto the seat.

And if national water hasn’t reached your village or the standpipe is too far away?  Then you get your water from a convenient river or even from a ditch by the side of the road.  We often see children squatting in ditches or puddles, filling the family’s water cans.

A welcome snack
So, is Uganda really the Garden of Eden?  Thirty per cent of its population is below the poverty line, yet you very rarely see the desperately thin children familiar from media stories about other African countries.  However, a significant proportion of children (20% of the under-fives), particularly in rural areas, are stunted, the result of poor nutrition, affecting their ability to learn and in a good number of cases leading to irreversible brain damage.  Some of the six-year-old children we see going to school look like British three- or four-year-olds.  ‘Stunting’ is one of the major concerns currently being aired in the newspapers. How can this be in a country which is able to produce so much good quality food?

There are several reasons for this.  Rural Ugandans are subsistence farmers. Even in Kampala you see little patches of vegetables beside the shacks, and animals being herded along the main thoroughfares.  As we drive through our own immediate neighbourhood, we see goats and cows, not to mention hens and turkeys and even the odd pig.  Yes, there are large plantations away from the city: of tea, sugarcane and coffee.  These plantations go back to the earliest colonial years when the crops were grown by forced labour for export to Britain.  However, most Ugandan families grow crops principally for their own use, just selling the surplus.  You see small stalls, or sometimes just bowls of produce left out by the side of the road, all over Kampala and other towns, as well as out in the country.

One significant cause of malnutrition arises when families who are engaged in subsistence farming sell their entire crop to pay school fees or expenses, leaving them with nothing to live on.  The government pays for children to go to primary school under the Universal Primary Education scheme, although it doesn’t, of course, pay for uniform or books or for the supplementary 'development fees' which schools often charge.  A similar system pertains for secondary pupils with the expenses, of course, being higher.  However, school is not compulsory.  The choice between food and education is a difficult one for families.  As a result Uganda, which made such good progress in introducing universal primary education, has been finding it very difficult to keep chidlren in school.  Many children may start school but not complete the full course through to the primary leaving examination.  Across the country as many as 70% percent drop out.  Another Millennium Goal which may not be met.

There is also real hunger – and emergency feeding programmes - in some parts of Uganda, for example the north and north east.  A terrible conflict which turned Ugandan again Ugandan consumed the north for more than twenty years.  At its worst, there were 2 million internally displaced persons living in camps, moved there by the government away from their houses and farms, terrified of returning to their homes because of the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Most have now gone back, but you have to be very confident that peace is going to be permanent if you are going to plant crops.  Large areas of the north have returned to bush.  VSO has a significant presence in the north, setting up training centres to help people develop new skills, including agricultural skills. And in Karamoja, a cattle-rearing area in the north east of Uganda, the rains have failed for the last three or four years.

So, the food is there, but not always in the right places, at the right price and for the people who need it most.  And a number of other social and environmental factors have an impact on supply and consumption. One current concern is the rapid population growth.  

Kampala has been called the 'Garden City', but whether it's the capital of the Garden of Eden, I'm not too sure.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in:

Let's go shopping

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Golf courses of Uganda Part 2: Entebbe Golf Club

Time was when Entebbe, not Kampala, was the administrative capital of Uganda.  In fact, that arrangement only changed in the 1960s.  My trusty Bradt guide (thank you, Angela) quotes one Sir Frederick Treves, writing in 1913, as saying that Entebbe ‘is as unlike a capital as any place can well be, while as for administration it must be of the kind which is associated with a deck-chair, a shady veranda, the chink of ice on glass, and the curling smoke of a cigar’.

There certainly is a sleepy feel to the place, as if its 30-odd kilometres from Kampala were 100 colonial miles, and the hour it takes to drive there nearer 50 years.  This may sound odd to most Britons, for whom the name Entebbe has a very distinct resonance, conjuring up as it does the shades of the film Raid on Entebbe, about the 1976 Palestinian hijack and Israeli rescue, and the towering mad presence of Idi Amin. 

We found no hints of Entebbe’s sinister past when we arrived. We relaxed in the gentle warmth of the day, enjoying the occasional glimpses of Lake Victoria through the trees, and reminded ourselves that we were one mile south of the equator.  As in most of Uganda, the few last remnants of imperial Britain are quietly crumbling into the red dust of Africa.  That goes for the golf club itself.  Internally it retains some handsome wooden floors and panelling and an impressive bar, but that is just about all.  Externally it has the same rusty corrugated iron roof as many ‘modern’ buildings in the country.  

But the course itself is pretty good.

Two of the waiting caddies ambushed us on arrival in the car park.  As usual, the one who was first off the mark landed the prize.  Mind you, ‘the management’ was stern in its instructions to golfers, listing among the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’: ‘Do not surrender your car keys to your Caddy’.

As Stuart teed off at the first, his arrival on the golf course was announced by various hoots, screeches and cat calls, not all in response to the quality of his performance.  An unusual feature of the Entebbe course is that it is in the middle of a wildlife park.  There are not many places where the caddy tells you to be careful when you drive down the third because rhinoceroses don’t take kindly to being thwacked on the head by golf balls.

Smaller wildlife showed a particular interest in our progress.  Birds with wicked beaks heralded our arrival at each hole with raucous cawing.

Myriads of black dragonflies hovered around our every step.  

It was reassuring to be informed that golfers could get a ‘free drop’ from an ant hill mound.  There were no free drops from the bunkers, some of which reminded us of the potholes in Kampala.

Actually it was a damn good course – lengthier than Prestonfield – with five par 5s – including  a 546 yard opening hole, a 577 yard 7th,and a closing hole of 559 yards. But never felt it was a long slog – it held my interest all the way. And the speed of the greens was much more like the thing (than Lugazi). So, I’ll be back… often as allowed!!   

The course also offers various other enticements.  For those who find that three and a half hours of golf just zip along too quickly, there is always the less frenetic option of a cricket match, the pitch conveniently located right in the middle of the golf course.  

For those with other interests there are flowers to suit all tastes: showy and tropical, or modest and genteel, leftovers from a colonial past.  

In fact, there is something almost Scottish about the course.  The long fairways lined with firs produce the feeling of an African (ie warm!) Boat of Garten.  

And just so we don’t forget our history, the tee markers remind us.  Some are strange Victorian relics.

Others are reminders of a more modern Uganda.

And finally we reached the end of our 6,600-odd yards, pretty exhausted but quite pleased with ourselves.  It was time for a gin and tonic on the terrace, and some delicious Lake Victoria tilapia caught a few yards from the eponymous hotel.

A good day for both.  

For Stuart, his shot down the throat of the flag at the second.  

For Elisabeth, her shot down the throat on the terrace at the nineteenth.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Visiting schools in eastern Uganda

‘What are your main priorities for improvement?’ I asked the depute head - a typical HMIE question.

I had just finished shadowing my DES colleague as she inspected this ‘up-country’ rural secondary school, and could see a score or more potential areas for improvement.  I thought the depute might mention the lack of a science lab; the lack of a library, the expired chemicals; the eight science textbooks shared among the 168 pupils in the one S4 class; the lack of electricity and, hence, of ICT for learning and school management; the four bare classrooms for over 800 students; the gaps in curriculum coverage because of minimal resourcing and the need to work in shifts. I could have gone on and on.

The depute leant forward and said intensely, ‘There are three things we must do.   We must build a hostel for the girls; we must build houses for the teachers; and we must feed the children.’

Why these priorities?

Uganda is an ambitious country.  It has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, though the poor remain very poor and corruption is a major problem.  It was the first country in Africa to introduce universal primary education (UPE) and to successfully reduce the spread of AIDS.  It has other major challenges, of course, malaria for one and maternal and neo-natal death for another.  

One of Uganda’s newest targets is the provision of universal secondary education (USE), an aspirational national target well beyond the Millennium goals.   You might think that the country has got enough on its plate working towards the primary target, for numbers don’t automatically translate into quality.  However, now these younger children have started learning, it is both inevitable and right that they are able to continue learning into their secondary years, and beyond. Hence, the introduction of USE. 

Up till now, about 10-12% of young people transferred from primary to secondary school.  They pay fees set individually by each school, government as well as private, and provide their own uniform, jotters and books.  To meet the new target, the Ministry has designated some schools as USE schools, specifically those with the lowest fees.  These are the schools which take in the extra USE pupils whose fees (but nothing else) are paid by the government. The USE pupils, like the other secondary pupils, will have passed the Primary Leaving Examination. As a result of PLE, the percentage of the secondary cohort receiving schooling has now increased to around 25%.

Our DES colleagues are currently engaged in establishing baselines for Uganda’s major education policy initiatives.  These initiatives include USE and the introduction of Basic Requirements and Minimum Standards (BRMS) across all schools.   Last week, Stuart and I travelled about 300km across the country, right to the Kenyan border and north, to join some of the inspection teams.

We gradually left behind the tropical forest round Kampala.  As we went east the tree cover thinned, though never entirely disappeared, and the landscape became more like savannah.  

We passed through dusty mouldering colonial towns with deep potholes in their roads.  

We saw strange rock formations.  

Hills and mountains suddenly reared up above the skyline.  

We saw Mount Elgon with the town of Mbale. nestling below it. The low rectangular houses with their corrugated iron roofs were replaced by round huts with thatch.    

Most of the younger children went bare foot.    They still wore school uniform, but rather dustier and shabbier than the smart outfits we had seen in Kampala.  A good number of them were not in uniform.  They were playing in the dust, looking after younger brothers and sisters or doing household tasks like carrying water.  

In other words, they were not going to school.

The roads outside the towns were sometimes quite good and sometimes terrible.  We saw our first monkey family and a very impressive baboon (no pictures, we were driving too fast).  The country was criss-crossed by defunct railway lines.  Both roads and railways had originally been built by the British to carry raw materials from the west of Uganda across to Mombasa in Kenya, from where they would be shipped to Britain to feed our factories and contribute to our wealth.  The railways had been closed down 20 years ago, so heavy use by huge long-distance lorries resulting in badly deteriorating road surfaces.

Eventually, we met up with our colleagues. Stuart and I separated and, with our respective partners from DES, turned off onto dirt tracks and penetrated further and further into the countryside.  We passed children of all ages laughing and waving.   ‘Mzungu (white person, stranger), how-are-you?  I-am-fine,’ they chorused before collapsing into giggles.

During the week, we made half-day inspection visits to three secondary schools (one private, two government), a primary teaching centre (or college of education) and a vocational school.  In each school, we checked how staff were addressing USE and/or BRMS.  Our colleagues did more than we did.  Two schools a day was their norm.  Inspectors employed by the districts monitored the primary schools.

So, in this particular secondary school, why these three priorities?

In Uganda, many children are not safe and their health and wellbeing are not assured effectively.  The risks for girls of secondary age are particularly serious.  Whereas primary children normally attend schools which are relatively near their homes, secondary students may walk miles to gain an education.  They may set off before dawn, reaching school two hours later.  They study through the day, in many schools without food.  The school I was visiting had a borehole so it could give them a drink of water.  However, it had no budget for feeding them. The depute, supported by local politicians and officials, had pleaded with parents to provide their children with packed lunches (for example, beans left over from the evening meal), but to no avail.  As he said, hungry children find it difficult to learn, teachers find it hard to sustain their attention and class management can be a problem.  

At the end of the day, around five o’clock, the young people walk home.  Night falls quickly on the equator and it can be quite dark before they arrive.  Imagine what can happen to girls, in particular, on the way.  They may fall for the temptation of a ‘soda’ offered by a passing cyclist or boda-boda driver and be sexually assaulted or raped.  The number of unplanned  pregnancies is high.  Girls may also drop out because it is just too difficult to go to school or because their parents put pressure on them to help at home or to get married.  One of the government’s priorities is to reduce early marriage (often just after puberty).  The proportion of boys to girls in this secondary school was two thirds to a third, and the numbers dropped off as they progressed from S1 to S4.  A hostel, as the depute said, would keep the girls safe, or so he hoped.

So what about the teachers’ houses? Ugandan teachers are very poorly paid.  Some may receive only about £80 a month.  Many have other jobs to make ends meet, and almost all cultivate their own patch of ground to feed their families.  They are assigned to their schools by the authorities and often travel long distances to get there.  They don’t have cars.  Some may have bikes and others may travel by boda-boda.  Some have left their families in their villages and rent accommodation in the local area.  In many schools, there is a very high teacher absence rate, sometimes as high as 50%.  The first thing the inspectors do when they enter a school is to check the book which teachers sign on arrival.  They draw a red line below the last entry and then check on the number of absences and any latecoming.  I wonder how Scottish teachers would react? In one of the reports I read, the fact that all the teachers were in school was given as a key strength of the school!

For all these reasons it is quite common for schools to provide houses for teachers.  Nothing grand, just a room or two with a bit of land and somewhere to cook, but it makes teachers part of the local and the school community.  They are there on site and much more likely to put in the hours.  Their families are happier too.

So, for a whole number of reasons, the depute headteacher's three main priorities were probably pretty good ones.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Golf courses of Uganda Part 1: The Mehta Golf Course, Lugasi

The golf course at Lugasi is a carefully kept secret.  It appears in no tourist brochures or guide books.  How did we hear about it, then?  By word of mouth, of course.  Admittedly, we had just discovered that playing Kampala Golf Course costs £70 for a round compared with £3 at Lugasi.  However, there were other considerations beyond the £67 difference.  A visit to Lugasi would let us see a bit more of the country.  More importantly, its golf course is unique, or at least unique to us.  You may, of course, know of many golf courses sited in the grounds of sugar cane processing plants, but we do not.  The golf course at Lugasi is the inspiration of one man, one of the most successful businessmen in Uganda, Dr Mehta.  All more than enough to whet our appetite.  

But first we had to get there.

It’s not far to Lugasi, say 30 miles, and we live on the right side of town.  How long would it take?  Half an hour or so, one would think.  We started off joining the standstill traffic on the Jinja Road.  We weren’t in an enormous hurry, which was just as well.  The sides of the Jinja Road were lined with market stalls of one sort or another.  

There were people making furniture and even herding their cattle through the traffic.  

And everywhere there were the boda boda drivers waiting for business, and then suddenly shooting out half an inch in front of the bonnet.

Before long, the businesses started to thin out and we began to come across small rural communities surrounded by banana plantations.  Businesses of various kinds were going on there too, but at a rather slower pace.  

And the kinds of businesses were also different, for example, weaving cane baskets and stools.  

Small houses suddenly appeared, half buried in the trees. 

A sudden splash of colour caught our eyes.  The children in the boarding hostels had spent the weekend washing. 

We passed elegant mosques and grandiose churches and little chapels which looked as if they had been lifted straight out of the Welsh valleys.  

There were the usual idiosyncratic Christian slogans, and not just on the places of worship. One of my favourites was a lopsided sign over a rickety stall announcing that it sold ‘Blessed Man Garments’.  

We passed cows grazing in peaceful meadows, thick wild forest and, as we got nearer to Lugasi, tea plantations on gently rolling hills.  And sugar cane, lots of it.  Eventually, just over an hour after we left Kampala, we reached Lugasi.  We followed the lumbering sugar cane lorries as they turned off to the left, and there we were.  We had arrived at the Mehta estate. 

Dr Mehta is a twenty-first century entrepreneur with many of the characteristics of a nineteenth century benefactor.  The processing plant which supplies much of the light brown sugar stirred copiously into Ugandan tea and coffee cups, is just one of the structures on the site. Within the same grounds are also the Dr Mehta Primary School (West), the Dr Mehta Primary School (East), the Dr Mehta Secondary School, the Dr Mehta Nursery School, the Dr Mehta football stadium and the Dr Mehta hospital.  As we drove along the tree-lined avenue, we caught glimpses of the Dr Mehta colony, a term used just as it is in Edinburgh to denote housing built specifically to accommodate workers and their families.  We swung round to the left, up a hill, and there we were.  We had reached the Mehta Golf Course.

This is Dr Mehta’s personal golf course, but he kindly allows other enthusiasts to share his passion.  The course has been developed over a period of time – basically it’s a nine-hole layout with inventive alternative tee positions for outward and inward halves. Golfing readers (and only golfing readers!) will wish to know that the yardage is 5102, par 70. 

The first hole is a 195 yard vertical drop, followed by a number of climbs and dips that would be familiar to Joan and Ian at the Merchants. In fact the course is a sort of combination of Lothianburn and The Merchants with the addition of jungle (literally) rough – so a piece of cake for you two. You’ve never seen anything like the 9th/18th - absolutely unique: a 110 yard par three over a deep gully with a bunker dividing 9th and 18th green; and if you land on the 18th when you should be playing the 9th (or vice versa!!), you must take a drop in the identified zone. And the greens are the slowest in the universe, bar none. (NB. It might not surprise you that Stuart wrote this bit.)

For those willing spouses prepared to trudge the hills behind their partners, the views are splendid, the flowers magnificent and the birdsong glorious.  

Golfers wishing to tackle its challenges may wish to consider pre-emptive heart bypass surgery. Alternatively, playing the course is a very good way of testing out the effectiveness of any previous procedures. (Thinking about applying for a second pre-emptive stent.)  The staff could not be more pleasant or more welcoming.  And the course makes a difference, not just to the Saturday afternoons of busy Kampalans, but also to the lives of people in the community.  Locals, who would otherwise never have the chance to learn the game, are able to practise when they feel like it and supplement their earnings as caddies and ground staff.  Our pleasant and courteous teenage caddy had had to leave school at the end of Primary 7 when his father died. He was using his caddying fees to support his brother through secondary school while dreaming of going back to school himself to recoup his missing four years of education and eventually become a car mechanic. 

Lugasi was definitely worth the journey.

Subsequent instalments will include descriptions of the golf courses at Jinja and Entebbe.  We might even make it to Kampala and we are already finding mysterious references to golf courses in the more remote areas of Uganda.  You readers have such a lot to look forward to!