Holidays in Uganda

Well, it’s time that I write again. For those who read my last blog, I attempted to leave on a cliff hanger by talking about my situation in Kenya vs. Uganda. Lame, I know. It’s quite an interesting story in itself, but the gist of it is that I got switched from my project in Northern Uganda to a regional project in Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda. So, after 2 days in Uganda, I took a flight to Kenya for a project orientation and to meet the team. However, this project isn’t the traditional TechnoServe agriculture value chain project empowering smallholder farmers, but it focuses on helping rural youth gain the ability to find jobs through an intensive training, capacity building, and mentorship program along with linking those youth to job opportunities and seed funding to begin farming and other entrepreneurship opportunities. It’s been an awesome experience, and I am super passionate about the work as it’s estimate that youth unemployment rate in these countries range from 40 to 60% of youth.

The holidays have been an interesting time in Uganda. I had a wonderful Thanksgiving with about 25 Americans and 1 British (poor guy). The joke came up that Americans have two celebrations for independence from the British. Needless to say, we had a pretty awesome time playing cricket and eating turkey. Christmas was a bit different as most ex-pats pack up their bags and return to their respective countries. For me, I had  a “Jewish Christmas”, which basically meant that some Jewish friends an some outliers went out to Chinese food. Legend has it that Chinese restaurants are one of the only types of restaurants open on Christmas and because Jewish people don’t celebrate Christmas, they go to Chinese food. Here’s a really funny post from the “Chinese Restaurant Association” (http://www.happyplace.com/13009/chinese-restaurant-note-thanks-jews-for-eating-chinese-on-christmas). Not sure if it’s for real or not :0)

What else have I been up to lately other than working and holidaying? Hmmm, I’m starting a joint US-Uganda business with a friend here that’s taken up quite a bit of time. More details to come… I’ve also had the opportunity to go Gorilla trekking in Rwanda this month. My friends and I were trying to go trekking followed by a volcano hike in Congo, but we ended up only doing the trekking as we heard of potential post election violence in Congo. That was enough for me to postpone the trip 🙂 Gorilla trekking is another story. I came under the impression that it’s would be a 5 minute hike to see the gorillas, 1 hour with the gorillas, and then a 3-4 minute hike back for a total of 1 hour and 7-8 minutes. I couldn’t have been more WRONG. Get this – 3 hour climb straight up a muddy hill surrounded by thorns and thistles up to around 9000-10,000 ft. Apparently, Rwandans don’t believe in a thing Americans love called switchbacks, which allow the hiker to feel that he is capable of doing climbs. It was pretty awesome to see the gorillas less than a meter away in their natural habitat, but the 2 hour hike back and the ensuing pouring rain made me question the worth of the $500/per ticket price tag. It will always be one of those things that I’ll question.

Well, that’s my update for now. Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season, and I’ll try to write an update again soon!

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Back!

So, if you haven’t notice by now, I decided to start writing this thing again. Thank you for all of the words of encouragement! I actually enjoy writing this thing, but I think a culmination of busy-ness and constantly putting it off lead to my blog’s eventual demise.

Okay, I think it’s best that I start from the beginning of my African adventure 2.0, and the beginning to every Africa adventure from the states begins with a plane ride (At this point, I almost wish they offered boat rides). To do this, I want to create a sense of imagery in the reader by creating two scenarios from Orlando to Uganda – ideal and actual:

Ideal – 0 stops, 11 hours flying time:

 Actual – way too many stops, >24 hours

Forgive me for the blurry images and unreadable text. Here’s the thing – I feel that my flights were already slightly misrepresented. I knew I had two layovers, but I mistook the “two stops” as the two initial layovers, not two more layovers. I guess it’s actually my fault. Now, four layovers wouldn’t be that bad if I didn’t have to go through customs in Canada, pick up my bags (not joking), have the airline mistakenly transfer my bags to the next plane (only take them off the plane to send the back to me 15 minutes later) drop off my bags, and go the international gate. I guess this situation wouldn’t be that bad if I had all day either – I had 1 hour and 15 minutes. It was a terrible experience and a pure and simple miracle that I made it, but thankfully, I did.  You can imagine how happy I was arriving to Uganda at 12:30 am on a Friday after leaving at 1:50 pm on a Wednesday.

Okay, so I know what you’re thinking – “stop venting.” You’re right; I will switch gears and tell you about my time so far in Nairobi, Kenya… Now you’re probably thinking, “he accidentally said Nairobi, Kenya”, which would be a great guess. However, two days after I arrived, I re-embarked on another plane from Uganda to Kenya.  Crazy as it may seem, there’s a perfectly good explanation… But that will have to wait until next time I write my blog.  I have to go grab some food.

Ben

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Life lately

I think I have finally come to grips with the fact that I will never be able to make Africa meat stew as good as “mama” (proper way to refer to older women) makes it. I’ve tried 4-5 times to make it in order to replicate Africa upon return to the states, but it always tastes like Mzungu meat stew. I’ve gone as far as ask multiple “mamas” on cooking techniques and have been taught by the best on meat stew preparation. I think it’s getting better, but I am about to hire someone for cooking lessons. Time is running out!

Let’s see. What’s been going on lately other than food? Oh, last week I decided it was time that I venture out onto Lake Victoria for a little fishing action. In Uganda, you hear people talking about going to the beach this or that weekend and I always think the exact same think, “Wait, what beach? Uganda is landlocked.” To which they reply, “Lake Victoria’s beach”. Haha, it’s always funny to hear people refer to a lake’s beach when you grew up in California. We have real beaches! Anyhow, three friends and I decided to join the fishing tournament with the top prize for the largest Nile Perch. Now, ever since watching River Monsters, catching a Nile Perch has been on my person bucket list. Some facts about the Nile Perch:  it’s one of the largest fresh water fishing reaching 440 Ibs, it can get up to 6 feet long,  it fights like heck, and they can breathe out of water for up to 12 hours (okay, I made this one up but the fish is impressive).  Anyhow, to make a long boring story short, we fish all day catching one fish around 3 Ibs (a minnow) with another fish (on my line!) spitting the hook at the last minute only to find that my fish would have taken second in the tournament winning tons of cool stuff like reels and tents and stuff. Overall, only around 4 fish were caught between 10 boats which can be explained by gross amounts of overfishing (people actually use subsidized mosquitos nets to illegally catch juveniles significantly depleting the population).

Anyhow, not much else has happen in the last week or so. Oh, I got to attend a really powerful Lord’s Resistance Army reunion at my church where boys from the army got reconnected into the society of Gulu and people shared how they forgave each other despite horrific things that happened to their family and friends. It was quite surreal.

Also, I had the opportunity to play chess for a few hours with locals at a restaurant at the tennis club I play at. It was really funny because they were obviously making fun of me at the beginning, but after a quite a number of wins, people definitely quieted up a bit.

Lastly, I couldn’t leave you without a picture of the Nile perch that I hauled in (No big deal). Don’t ask me why I was wearing a helmet.

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Have you ever…

… had an amazing/ground breaking/genius idea right before going to sleep at night only to realize the next morning how little sense the idea actually made? Yeah well, those are all good and fun unless you still think the idea is phenomenal upon waking up the next morning. That’s exactly what happened to me this week.

Let me explain. Sometimes, I have those nights where I accidentally turn on the thinker instead of the sleeper.  This means 2-3 hours of random though covering a multitude of subjects. This night in particular, I was thinking how to use the knowledge from my job to create sustainable business ventures on the micro-level with one or two individuals. I thought, “how can I help create a small business for a poor individual which would be 1) sustainable, 2) profitable, 3) rewarding and what would that look like?” One thing that TechnoServe emphasizes sustainability and its goal is not to give a man a fish and feed him for a day but to teach the man to fish, what fish to look for, and how to make the most from his fish. Okay so – In my time in Uganda, I have only come by a few homeless people which is vastly different then SF. It’s very sad in SF as most homeless people have drug addictions driven by rough/sad pasts and although I’ve witnessed to them in the best way I know about gospel, it always seems like there’s very little hope. In Uganda, it seems as the begging population is older women and the disabled which is also sad in different ways. So – back to the story, I met a disabled man who begged outside of the grocery store where I shop, so I thought he might be the perfect candidate for my little business opportunity. Here’s the idea: I brought a bag of 400 tootsie rolls from the states which I would give him 200 tootsie rolls to sell at whatever price he wanted (probably around 100-200 UGX/each which is $.05-.10) and I would give him the candy interest free/zero down, but if he sold them and made a profit, he could repay me a small amount of $1 and keep the rest of the profits. The goal is not to make money from him but for him to take ownership and pride in his business’ success. I calculated his profit would be between 18,000-38,000 UGX which is potentially double what he made on an average day (he stated his average at around 10,000/day). I thought that with the profit, he could differentiate his goods and have a sustainable venture. Yeah, well I think it really could have worked but I forgot one key aspect, “you can have a great idea to help someone , but it’s not going happen if they don’t want to work with you”. When I presented it to him, he liked the idea but said it would be too much work and that he ultimately didn’t want to take the risk. Trying to put myself in his position, I can relate to his risk averseness and can see his point of view as he made enough money to live and take care of his family. One thing I realized: I guess I will never be my own microfinance bank. 😉

Wow, that was a really long paragraph.  I will end on a picture of the Nile River rafting adventure. I have two questions. Can you spot me and would ould you believe it if I told you that the boat didn’t flip? Yeah, me neither.

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My job in Africa

This week has been somewhat calm. I found an ultimate Frisbee club that plays three times a week and I’ve been taking tennis lessons once or twice a week so my schedule remains relatively busy but not dramatic.

I thought I would take some time to write about my job at TechnoServe and explain some rather unfortunate and fortunate events. To give you some background, TechnoServe’s mission is to bring business solution to rural poor farmers through means of trainings, extension services, developing and strengthening farmer aggregation groups, linkages to buyers, markets, credit along with a ton of other things around donor needs. The goal is to bring more profit back to the rural poor as they are the most susceptible to getting taken advantage throughout the value chain. With all that said, my job specifically is to build a strategic plan for maize (fancy word for corn) and dry beans for TechnoServe to implement with tens of thousands of farmers (through farmer aggregation groups) to increase quality and quantity of production while linking the farmers to markets. How do you go about doing this task? It starts with lots and lots of research and data crunching around the country and the industries, interviews with key stakeholders in the value chains and field visits to different farmer areas. After that, it’s really about understanding the key constraints farmers face and figuring out solutions and outcomes of solutions to make recommendations that can be sustainable and effective. It’s been a really unique and challenging task, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely.

In the past two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to interview quite a few people whether that be a director at the World Food program to the marketing manager at a seed company. This week, I had the chance to spend the day with the CEO of the most successful farmer association in Uganda managing 6000 farmers with maize yields around 6 times the average yield of Ugandan maize farmers. Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I scheduled the field visit to make the drive totaling about 5 hours to his town in Eastern Uganda. The day before my departure, I phoned him to confirm our visit and found out that he was actually in Kampala, so I offered him a ride with us. Our driver was running late, so I decided to meet him and have coffee before departing on our trip. Two and a half hours later, my driver calls and says that he isn’t leaving until the next morning. I was devastated as I had offered him a ride, but had no opportunity to follow through along with it being 2.5 hours later and nearly dusk. It got worse as he had to be back the following morning for meetings. I apologized frantically and offered to pay for his bus ride home, but he refused politely and said that everything would be okay. He was so gracious with the circumstances that it threw me for a loop. To top everything off, he was nice enough to meet with me the following day and even took me around town to show the newly designed 2000 metric ton maize storage facility. When it was finally time to leave, he asked if I would be able to come back to visit his home and family. It was so nice! Wow, I love Uganda!

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The Nile killer

Alas, I am behind in my writings. It was quite a busy week, but I think the highlight (and lowlight for that matter) had to be the Nile River rafting death march. Now, I say death march only because of the multiple times where I saw my life flashing before my eyes as the raft toppled over a 45 foot drop while managing to fall on top of us at the same time. I exaggerate. It was only 15 feet, but it felt a whole lot longer on the way down.

You’re probably thinking, “What were you thinking?” in which case I would respond that a friend told me it was a once in a lifetime experience and that I had to do it. What I didn’t realize was the fact that “once in a lifetime” didn’t mean that everyone had to do it at least once. It was more of a “once in a lifetime” because you won’t be alive to do it again. Okay, well I feel like I’ve been writing for 10 minutes and haven’t really said anything, so I’ll begin. The trip was around 30 km of river, which meant around 2 km of whitewater and 28 km of rowing. Needless to say, it was a good work out. It was raining most of the day so I still haven’t really figured out why I looked like a tomato after it was all said and done.  There were 8 rapids and our boat actually only flipped on 2 of them. Flipping isn’t as fun as it sounds. The best comparison would be being too far up on your surfboard when you’re trying to catch a wave only to find the wave and your surfboard crashing down on your face. Overall, it was a really fun tiring trip, and if you’re ever here – “it’s a once in a lifetime experience”. It’s funny because one of my favorite parts of the trip was the drive home when all of these cute little kids ran up to our bus while yelling “bye mzungus (white people), bye!” except for one little boy who threw a stick at the bus. I am thinking he didn’t share the excitement of the other little kids.

Anyhow, the other highlight of the week was the quiz night at a local restaurant. A few well diversified friends and I put together quite the all-star team and ended up winning the 10 round bouts. It’s funny as I answered probably one question total and yet my teammates always looked to me as if I had the answer. Yeah, Jeopardy was never my strong suit.

Oh yeah, I also have a great picture from the trip that I’ll have to include in my next post. It might just be good enough to be Ben Tejes’ next Facebook profile picture. Eh, I’ll let you decide.

Until next time!

Ben

 

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African food

One of the most exciting things for me about going to new places is the food, and Africa was no exception. On arrival, I knew there were a few things that I had to try such as matooke (steamed green bananas) and the infamous meat stew, so I dove right in. The matooke which turns into a yellowish mash after steaming is definitely an interesting concoction. I think the best representation of matooke is probably a potato with a hint of sweetness. It tastes okay and some ground nut sauce (non-sweetened peanut butter) definitely improves the taste.

Next, we have the cow intestine which sounds as bad as it tastes. It doesn’t help that it looks like a huge snail and is chewier than cow tongue. I really didn’t think that could ever happen.

The meat stew certainly makes up for the cow intestine. Oh, the meat stew… If I had to choose a last meal to finish off my life, I think the meat stew would be in contention. I really don’t know what makes it so delicious but it’s served with fries and it’s just good.

Now, I can’t mention food without mentioning the Rolex. You are probably thinking, “yes, you can mention food without mentioning a watch company” but please let me explain. The rolex is the Ugandan equivelent to a breakfast burrito. The best part about it is the chipati which is similar but far better than a tortilla. I can’t really describe it other than unhealthy, but I am excited on bringing a recipe back to the states so I can replicate Africa all of the time. Next, they take the chipati and throw it on a fryer with eggs, onions and some salt. After that, they take some tomatoes and wrap it all together. For $.45, I don’t think I could ask for a better meal.

Ugandan rolex

Lastly, we have the pork. Africans love their pork and I can’t blame them one bit. They bbq the pork and serve it on skewers with tomatoes and chili seasoning. My first run in with the pork was at an infamous restaurant called “Deep Blue”. The place is known for its pork and all of my ex-pat friends rave about it. We go to Deep Blue on a Friday night and order up 15 skewers for the entire table. It is quite obvious that it’s taking longer than normal as we close off the first hour being there without any food. Finally, the food arrives and we delve in. Not 5 minutes after we started eating, our ex-pat friend tells the waitress, “This pork is not from here, it’s not Deep Blue quality”. The waitress tries to cover it up but our friend has no intention of backing down. Finally, our friend calls over the manager, and the manager admits that they ran out of pork and purchased the pork down the street at another restaurant. How can I pork place run out of pork? Needless to say, I thought it was excellent regardless of being important, so I can’t wait until we go back for the real deal.

That’s mostly it for the food. I could mention the pizza but there’s nothing really to talk about there. It’s not the same.

Other than eating food, I’ve started taking tennis lessons. Yeah, it was definitely a random move. I met a guy named Moses at a local African music concert who is an Ugandan Olympic hopeful and gives lessons, so I decided there’s no better time as now.  The first lesson was quite eye opening to my need for more lessons but it was really fun and am trying to get them two times a week.

That’s all for this week. I have so many more stories but not enough time to share them all. Oh well!

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