Monday, July 14, 2008

Rite Of Passage Into Africa

 “I think I’m going to go to Africa.”

The heads of my two girlfriends jerked up and that was the end of our study session that day.

It was the last month of the semester- December 2006 to be precise and while everyone else in my batch still had one more semester to complete their final year, this was my last term. The most meticulous planner of the century was graduating a semester early.

So when December came around and I still had no job in hand…and none in the bush, I considered it a sign, did some introspection and decided I should give up looking for a job and travel for some time. Like three months in Africa. It would make for the perfect coming of age experience.

My girlfriends recovered fast after their initial shock. After all, three years of staying with a mentally deranged person like me, and shock value greatly dissipates.
Three months of waitressing later, tickets, visa and immunization shots in place, I was plane-bound to Uganda on the 29th of March 2007.

I had done my senior thesis on the role of students in microfinance, and figured Uganda would be a good place to volunteer with a grassroot level microfinance institution (MFI). A kind professor in college suggested I stay with his family while I was in Kampala. I jumped at the offer.

I reach Uganda- hot, tired, sweaty yet superbly excited. I was here! I was here! I was staying with the Muhairwe family. They came to pick me up- really wonderful people. They introduced me to their friends and colleagues and told them I was interested in working with an MFI. They set me up with the Uganda Agency For Development and thus I began my one month stint with them. I worked with microfinance clients, visited their homes in the outskirts of the city, picked up some of the local language, met cattle raisers and local teachers and weavers and pig owners- all MFI clients and all happy to have a muzungu in their midst. Muzungu is the local word for ‘foreigner’ and because my skin color was lighter than that of Africans and most Indians there, and I was sporting a really short hair cut, most people took me for a Spanish or Central American damsel. They were clearly excited to see me. Foreigners mean money. Unfortunately for them, there were no gold coins, or even copper ones flowing out of my pockets.

I had decided before my trip that when in Uganda, I would do as the Ugandans do. I watched local news, attended a local wedding, went for my first mass, traveled in public transportation, made local friends and hung out in local joints. I picked up bits and pieces of the local language, handled pickpocketers with ease and was just as comfortable with banana dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner as I would have been with dal and rice at home.

After one month in UGAFODE, I got wind of a microfinance rating agency looking for interns. They would pay in Euros and I could do with some money at that point. How I hated that job.

I sat pouring over balance sheets seeing which MFIs broke even, which had long term goals, which ones should be rated against what criteria. Besides this, I was also given a lot of administrative and filing work to do- the quintessence of being an intern. I spent a month doing what I did until one day, I got talking with a radio journalist, Anita Mago, while waiting at the Licensing Department for Motor Vehicles. She told me about how she had adopted a village in the district of Masaka and she was trying to implement the Millennium Goals there.

Now, while I wouldn’t recommend you believe everything strangers tell you, being an economics graduate who had been heavily involved in developmental studies, the mention of Millennium Goals made me go weak in my knees. I had to stay in touch with this lady.

We met a few times again and decided I would accompany her the next time she returned to Masaka. Two weeks later, I said sayonara to my employees, packed my bags and was on my way to a remote village. I spent a week there working with Anita, helping her with her interviews and documentation. She was my mentor, friend, translator, everything mixed into one. We stayed in less than modest accommodation- there was no running water, there was no fan, I shat in a 6 feet deep pit latrine everyday and popped a malaria tablet a day to keep the illness at bay.

But Masaka was an eye opening experience. The village school had holes in the wall for windows but no money for the windows, plants were dying of disease here while thriving in the neighboring village. Why? Because there was no communication between the two on the benefits of plant grafting. Water to cook, clean and drink came from stagnant water so entrenched in filth that I was astounded as to how virulent the immunity systems of the villagers must be. Many of them had never seen a movie in their life. On our last day, after a village meeting, we set up a projector screen, waited till the sun went down at seven and played The God Must Be Crazy for everyone to watch. What an experience that was! The old, the young- man, woman and child, everyone sat glued to the screen, most of them experiencing cinema for the first time in their life.

It had barely been two days since my return to Kampala when I got the opportunity to travel almost immediately to Mbarara, a small town close to the capital. My host family knew someone there who was working with MFI clients and was willing to take me around. I spent another week and a half there, this time with many more views and opinions because I was still riding the wave from my Masaka trip. I learned that cooperative banks were set up without any concept of checking versus savings accounts. People put all their money into a single fund which could be accessed by the head accountant alone. As expected, in one case the head accountant withdrew all the money and ran away.

I don’t pride myself on my banking knowledge at all, but when I suggested that there be two accounts per person, one personal and the other cooperative, such that the later required two signatures- that of the account holder and head accountant, people looked at me like I’d cracked the biggest puzzle of all. I, on the other hand, had simply told them about a system we take for granted in the city.

Despite all this however, if there’s one thing I learned during my stay in Uganda and particularly outside the city, it’s the power of resilience. I was surprised how in any environment, no matter how reprehensible to live in, people were making it work everyday. They found ways of being enterprising and resourceful with whatever little they had. One way or the other, they scrounged for food and shelter and managed- albeit just barely. But they did this, day after day after day.

On a personal level, there is so much I learnt about another culture and myself during my three months in Uganda, that I consider my time there a rite of passage. Ripe out of college, brimming with dreams, ideals and expectations, I see now in retrospect, what a fertile ground Uganda had been for my personal development. I was accepted into a new cultural fabric with such ease and warmth, that it humbles me till date. Mostly though, my short stint in Africa ignited the fire in my belly to go on another exploration quest. Which I hope to do soon. Now, talking about belly, how about that rice and dal?