Hopefully the hiatus is over

I’ve been absent from this forum for a long time.  While I can blame some of it on systems problems, it’s mostly my fault.  It isn’t even that I haven’t had anything to say.  I just haven’t prioritized the writing high enough on the list of things to do.

I am back from my sabbatical now, but I still have lots of posts stacked up from my time in Uganda.  I also intend to return there for a while this year, so I’ll have new stories as well. So, there are still hopefully many more blog posts along the lines of what you’ve seen here before.  However, since I am back in my job, I’ll also have more technology related posts coming out in addition to the others.  Since my stack of books to read is still falling over, the book reports will continue as well.  I’ll try to be careful with the tags to make it easier.

I know there are lots of comments stacked up which I’ll be going through, so please be patient on that score as well.

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Nothing to Excess, Even Software Quality

One major saying coming from the ancient city of Delphi is the above saying, “Nothing to Excess”.  Another is “Know Thyself”, but I digress.  I thought about this as I was reading, or in one case re-reading, two blog posts recently.  The first is Dan North’s blog on the Software Craftsmanship movement at http://dannorth.net/2011/01/11/programming-is-not-a-craft/ and the second is by Gojko Adzic at http://gojko.net/2011/04/05/how-is-it-even-possible-code-to-be-this-bad/ on what the existence of really bad code in a really valuable and heavily used open source project says about the foundation of the software craftsmanship movement.

So where does “Nothing to Excess” fit in with software craftsmanship?  I think each of these two posts describes turning a knob too far one way.  Dan’s post argues that it isn’t the software that matters so much; we should care about the value delivered to the business instead.  I buy this argument to a significant degree.  However, as professionals, we also have a duty to our clients, “the business”, to make sure they understand the true costs associated with that value, now and later.  Unless a business can simply throw things away and start over every time they need to change things, the costs associated with bad code need to be visible.  Hitting a date may give significant short-term gains.  However, those gains can be gobbled up if the debt incurred in the code to make the date results in missing the next one.  We need to consider the life-cycle cost of the software we write, taking into account the short-term value that the business can derive and the long-term costs of maintaining that code.

I often get asked how to think about remediating an ugly code base.  I suggest to people (and I am certainly not alone in this) to consider 1) how often that part of the code tends to change, using check-in logs if they exist, 2) if that code is needed to support known significant upcoming business initiatives, in case it will become important but it’s been stable for a while, 3) the extent to which changing the code results in problems, through looking again at check-ins but also at defects, and the look of sheer terror on the faces of the QA, operations and dev folks every time someone suggests changing that area of the code, and 4) the quality metrics for that piece of code.  Yes, that means I advocate leaving some smelly stinking pile of code alone, at least for a long while, unless something tells me I am going to change it or the risk of touching it is incredibly high – and I would still prioritize the first two indicators.

Gojko’s post illustrates this point from a different direction.  Users of the code don’t care about how good it is if they derive value from it.  They start to care if poor quality makes the product unstable, affecting their ability to derive value now.  They also start to care if poor code quality makes the product so difficult to change that it affects their ability to continue to derive value in the future.  The comments to this post, at least when I read it, indicate some concern that this open source project is getting close to this second point.  However, the users won’t care until they continue to clamor for updates that don’t arrive.  Once that happens, the code quality does matter.  It also matters at this stage because they now have to pay to fix the code, not necessarily directly, but indirectly through the increased cost and time to get new features out.  From a business context, the business has a debt that it may or may not have made a conscious decision to take on.  It is the responsibility of the development team to make sure the business understands if they are compromising the long-term costs and value of the code by taking a particular decision in the short term.

The agile social contract between the customer of a software delivery team and the team itself establishes the right of the customer to decide what he wants, which parts are more important, and how much he wants to pay overall, while the team has the right to say how much each piece costs in terms of time and effort.  The customer can’t say “I want to pay 10 jellybeans and have all this by Tuesday”.  The customer can say “I want to pay 10 jellybeans and I want something on Tuesday” to which the team can reply, “On Tuesday for 10 jellybeans you can get X or Y or A+B, which do you want?”  This contract has another axis to be considered, though, and that is the level of quality, both internal (software) and external (functional and technical).  I believe the business has every right to say, “don’t bother completely testing this – I need it out now”.  I also believe that the team should make sure they understand the risks and the costs of potential failures.  Unfortunately this situation can turn into an “I told you so” moment, making things tough on the development team.

It is much the same with internal quality.  The business has the same right to say, “I don’t need quality work here, I need fast work”. What does need to happen, however, is for the business to remember they agreed to the cost of rework when they pushed the team to deliver more quickly than the team felt was sensible.  There’s still no free lunch.  Unfortunately, in my experience, things also tend to break down at this stage, but the theory is nice.

In the end, there can be a thing as too much focus on quality.  Some will argue that, given the state of affairs in our industry, we should push the pendulum way over the other way first.  I’d like to think there’s an easier way to find the middle ground.  That middle ground clearly exists.  Hopefully it isn’t too hidden in the weeds.

Posted in Software Development, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Where do the street children of Kampala go?

I am disappointed that my field trip to the western regions of Uganda had to be cancelled.  Sabine and Terra will go later, I am sure, but I will, alas, have to miss it.  I did, however, have one more field excursion, this one in Kampala.  Along with the RapidFTR field team, consisting of Tom and Zubair from ThoughtWorks and Jorge, who is consulting with UNICEF, I visited one of the Reception Centers in the city of Kampala.  These Reception Centers house children (often just referred to as the Kampala Street Children) who have been taken into custody by police, have been found on the streets, or end up in court.  There are NGOs that also provide care for the street children, but the reception centers are the ones that are officially mandated to care for these children.

Many of the street children are from Karamoja.  They’ve been left abandoned in the city by relatives who either presumably feel they have no way to care for them or sell them to individuals who bring the children from Karamoja to beg.  Some of the children are also runaways.  Some have escaped from or been abandoned by the LRA and have made their way to Kampala. Some of the children have physical and mental or emotional issues.  The difference between the NGOs and the official Reception Center is that the NGOs can pick and choose which and how many children they accept.  The reception center has no choice, as their mandate is to care for any child presented to them.  As a result, the percentage of children with some kind of problem is significant.

The remit of the center is temporary care, meaning less than three years, which seems a long time to me.  Sometimes they are not able to successfully reunite children with their families in that time, and sometimes they are unable to procure suitable alternative care.  A major part of their work, in addition to providing care for the children, is to locate their family and reunite them.  This work is what brought us to the center, as we were exploring different applications for the RapidFTR (FTR meaning Family Tracing and Reunification) system.  I’ll cover RapidFTR another blog post.

The reunification process on the surface seems easy.  The child answers a series of questions like “What’s your name?” and “Where did you live?” and “Who are your parents?”. The center then contacts the District Officials in the area with that information, and the District Officer pays the parents a visit, to assess if the family is ready, willing, and able to accept the child back into the home.  In an ideal world, the family is thrilled to get the child back and has the resources to properly support the child.  The child travels with a representative from the Reception Center to the District, and the District Officer takes the child with the representative to the family home, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Sadly, the real world diverges from this ideal world.  Sometimes, the kids ran away so they lie.  They might be traumatized by their experience, and thus might not be thinking clearly.  The name might not be unique enough for certain identification. Transportation to remote areas in a District is often difficult.  In many cases, the representative travels with the child from Kampala, picks up the District Officer and they all proceed to the family.  Of course, in this case, the family has had no warning about the pending arrival of their lost child. The child may indeed be placed in the awkward position of watching his family says he’s not wanted anymore.  If the family situation is too dire, even if the family does want the child back, he might still be returned to the Reception Center.  These alternative scenarios occur all too frequently, particularly in the more difficult cases, where the children are ill or the family is very poor.

The Center is crowded.  In 2009, the center we visited took in over 325 children.  Out of those, and the standing population of around 150, about 200 were re-settled with their families, and another 100 were taken by one of the local NGOs working with children.  Another 30 ran away, and one child died.  These numbers are just for the Kampala reception center; other NGOs also take in children directly, although they are supposed to have a court order of some kind before doing so.  I should note that most of my information is from the perspective of those working for the Reception Center or the Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development.  As we all know, there are multiple sides to every story, and the truth often lies somewhere in the middle.

The grounds of the Reception Centre include a couple of cows for milk, and several chickens for eggs.  The older children help out in the kitchen, among other things. They tried to have a garden, but it kept getting torn up, demonstrating one of the real problems the Center faces.  Many of its kids are troubled in some way (or more accurately in many ways).  The kids act out.  For example, while there are mosquito nets for all the girls in the dorm, there are none in the boys dorm as the boy there keep destroying them.  They also destroy the mattresses.  The facility has counselors on staff, but there’s only so much that they can accomplish.

The place is rather grim, I must say.  How much of this is a result of under-funding, avoidable or not, from the government or from government ineffectiveness is hard to estimate.  Government institutions for taking care of children are often grim places, regardless of where they are. It’s no coincidence that several dark, brooding, not really social characters in fiction have a government institution for children in their past. Private groups, who have more control over how many children they accept, and what issues the children have, frequently have nicer, more vibrant, and seemingly more caring environments.

The folks I met at the Reception Center were caring individuals who honestly discussed the problems they face.  They are in the unenviable position of dealing with children who have literally been discarded.  It would be easy to sit in judgment of their efforts, but without the level of funding available to the NGOs, and with the reality of some disturbed children in their midst, easy solutions are few and far between.  I am sure their situation would be improved with more funding from the government.  The question becomes how much more would it take, and even is this the right approach.  I have no answers; I wish I did.  The expressions on the faces of the children, including one boy of about 8 or so who clearly had some kind of problem, were heart wrenching. Unfortunately, without ideas and resources to follow-up with, my emotions were not terribly productive.

Posted in Sabbatical Experience Reports | 5 Comments

Teaser On My Trip to Bwindi to Trek With Mountain Gorillas

I’ve had so many pings for pictures, I thought I would get a few of the pictures out first and then add the more comprehensive blog posts later this weekend.

I Didn't Want to Violate the No Closer Than 7m Rule -- They Came To Me!

I Didn't Want to Violate the No Closer Than 7m Rule -- They Came To Me!

They have a “no closer than 7 meters” rule, but they also have a “don’t move if they approach you, unless the Ranger says to” rule.  I chose to obey the latter.  So I stayed and they approached.  You can only see one in this picture; I am hoping others got a better shot (this was taken by the Ranger with my camera).  Estimate from the scene was 7-8 feet away from the closer one, and the second one was about 5-6 feet away from the first.  I Know You're There, Have No Fear

This is one of the two silver backs we saw.  He’s checking out the surroundings.  I’m sure he knows we’re there, but he spent a fair amount of time with his back turned to us.  We finally moved around to see his face and he took off. He seemed to me to be sitting there on guard duty, but it is far too easy to ascribe human motives and emotions to them.

I'm not sure I can get down from here

This is one of the youngsters, although it is hard to get a sense of size.  Consider, however, the diameter of the tree.  We saw many instances of the gorillas going up trees that were just not quite big enough, resulting in a downed tree.  I think this might be like elephants knocking down trees to get to the nice tender leaves at the top. The also seemed to enjoy riding the tree down; I didn’t get a picture of that.  One rode the tree down and tumbled a bit further down the hill All this viewing took place on the side of the mountain, making footing an interesting problem.

For those impatient sorts, http://www.friendagorilla.org/Family_bio.aspx?fid=30 contains information about the family of gorillas I spent time with.  Some more stats: 2.5 hours to reach the gorillas from the briefing, consisting of in excess of 600 meter vertical climb (yes, that’s over 1960ft vertical).  Yes, I was tired at the end.  One hour and a bit with the gorillas.  About 1 hour back down to the briefing banda.  We beat the rain, and we only were attacked by ants twice. The Ranger Godfrey and one of our party were charged by gorillas in our family, but nothing serious. Godfrey had his leg grabbed and the video Jeff was taking when the gorilla got tired of being the lead actor is very amusing.  There were seven people total in our group, four others with me and another couple.  We had one Ranger, two porters (Thank You, Ezra the Porter!), two trackers (who started at 6am to find the family for us, Thanks to you as well!) and our guard, complete with AK47.  We saw no elephants but saw a couple of fresh elephant tracks, and a fair amount of fresh elephant dung.

Stay tuned for the full story!

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RFID Tags and the Economics of Cattle Raiding

I’m sure many folks expecting this blog to be filled with geek speak have been surprised, but hopefully not too disappointed.  This post should appease slightly, as it covers an interesting application of RFID technology.  The items to be tagged are not pallets of aid or anything like that.  The items to be tagged are cows.  Yes, cows.

Cattle are a vital part of the economy of Karamoja, and indeed they are to many other regions in Africa, notably for this post in Kenya.  Cattle raids have become increasingly common in Karamoja, to the extent that UN requires its travelers in the region to proceed with armed escort, flak jackets and combat helmets when traveling outside the major cities in the region (see my previous post on the joys of flak jackets here:  http://rebeccaparsons.com/?p=81).  Raids occur between different groups of Karamojong as well as between Karamojong and Kenyans across the border.

Cattle raiding impacts the life of the Karamojong in myriad ways.  The lack of physical security makes acquiring food and water more difficult.  Natural resource utilization patterns have changed, with over-utilization of some resources affecting their long-term viability.  Trade diminishes with increased hostility and concerns about the security of trade routes.

There are two different issues I’d like to explore, but this post will concentrate on one issue:  How can cattle raiding be reduced or even eliminated?  It seems to me there are four potential points of disruption: demand for cattle, supply of cattle, difficulty of raiding cattle, and difficulty of profiting from raided cattle.  Let’s consider these strategies.

Uganda has recently passed laws calling for life sentences for people caught cattle raiding.  Unfortunately, one side effect of this law has been an increase in the recruitment of children (we heard one story of a seven year old being captured).  I guess the view is that society will not want to punish children that severely for something they have little ability to understand and possibly even to resist.  It also seems to my naïve mind that, given the prevalence of gun use in these raids, the life sentence for cattle raiding adds little to what would hopefully be the penalties for armed criminal activities of any kind.  Attempts at disarmament have resulted in villages being left exposed to raids from Kenya just after the gun collection.  I don’t think anyone believes the current policy of disarmament is working, but I could be very wrong about what the political class in Uganda thinks about the issue. I don’t move in those circles. So, making it more difficult to raid doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact yet.

Supply of cattle is reducing somewhat already, as it becomes more difficult to tend properly to herds in the insecure environment.  In addition, there’s little incentive to invest in a herd for things like vaccinations if the probability is that you won’t be the one who reaps the benefit of the investment.  As a result, there’s significant spare capacity in Karamoja to support more cattle; it isn’t being utilized.  So, limiting supply doesn’t seem to have helped much.

Demand for cattle remains strong.  Although the security situation is shifting things, the culture of the Karamojong is strongly tied with cattle.  Bride prices are discussed in terms of cattle.  Cows are a source of food.  They’re an integral part of the economy.  Disruption of the demand for cattle would produce (and/or require) an overhaul of the culture of the region.  There has to be an easier way.

So, the next pressure point is the ability to convert cows to cash. There are three things one can do with a cow: keep it in a herd, for stud or for milk; sell it in a market; or sell it to a slaughterhouse.  The second and third options provide for points of intervention, if one can actually identify the cows.  Now, branding is commonly used, but given the fact that cows are also sold, brands are not infallible.  This is where technology comes in.  An experiment has already been run in Botswana, which showed a massive reduction in cattle raiding through implanting RFID tags into cows and registering the owners.  The slaughterhouses and markets verify ownership of the cattle before they’re accepted.  Law enforcement personnel also have portable readers to identify cattle when dealing with cases of suspected raiding.  I heard about this previous experiment in talking with the director of Vets Without Borders or VSF, the vet version of Doctors Without Borders, in Moroto.  While originally designed to assist in tracking and auditing to make beef export to the EU easier, the experiment has had unintended consequences, as so often occurs.

What does this system require?  Each head of cattle in the country would need a unique RFID tag, placed in a tamper-proof location.  Each slaughterhouse, of which there are only a small number in Uganda at the moment, would need devices that could read the tag and retrieve the registered owner of the animal, and the ability to mark the animal as deceased.  Each market would need similar equipment, as well as the ability to transfer ownership after sale.  The owners would need some way to prove they’re the person in the registry.  Law enforcement personnel would need devices similar to those used by the markets and the slaughterhouses.  Vets Without Borders  is trying to get funding for a project like this in Uganda to help reduce cattle raiding.

Efforts in Kenya, primarily relying on significantly increased and focused enforcement along with technology, have resulted in a marked decrease in cattle raiding there as well.  Unfortunately, the situation degrades quickly when attention is moved elsewhere.

From a technology perspective, likely the most complicated part is figuring out the design of the RFID tag to make it easy and safe to insert, hard to corrupt, and able to survive in the part of the cow’s anatomy for which it is destined.  The rest of the application is relatively straightforward.  A social issue might surround how an owner proves he’s the person listed in the register, as to my knowledge there is no recognized ID system yet in place in Karamoja in practice.

One of my first questions after hearing about this is the economic impact from reducing the raiding.  If the economy currently “works” with cattle raiding, the economy needs a way for the reduction of cattle raiding to be sustainable.  Two things immediately spring to mind as a way for the economy to compensate for the lack of cattle raiding.  The first concerns the spare capacity for keeping cattle in Karamoja.  The current herd sizes are quite small compared to what is feasible. Thus, individual herders could significantly increase their herd size, thus improving their economic prospects and providing growth for the overall economy.  The second source of economic potential is simply in the increase in trade activity and more sensible resource usage that can return once the situation becomes more stable and secure.  The economy, and the livelihoods of the individuals in this region, are held hostage to the security situation.  Economic development can occur if the area can be made stable.

More broadly, increased trade allows for economic diversification, which might help make the region less dependent on cattle as a whole and more tolerant of issues such as drought.  Drought conditions over the last 4 years have simply increased the pressure on the natural resources and the people in this region.

Cattle raiding won’t just stop.  The individuals participating in this activity need a viable alternative and structures to increase the barriers to raiding.  There are examples of ways this can work.  Hopefully, VSF gets their grant to try it.  Technology to the rescue, perhaps, even if it does come in the form of an RFID tag in a cow’s stomach.

Posted in Sabbatical Experience Reports | 9 Comments

Positive Deviants and Their Role in Development

I feel like I am taking a bit of a risk here using the word “deviant” since it might just result in a rash of, shall we say, off-color comments to the blog.  However, I find the concept of the positive deviant fascinating, so I figure it’s worth the risk.

I first heard the phrase on our trip back to Kampala from Lira.  Before leaving, we headed out to a PTC (Primary Teachers’ College) near Lira.  As we drove towards the PTC, we saw several small solar panels at various businesses on the road.  Sabine made a comment about positive deviants being present in the community.  Needless to say, elaboration of that comment was in order for me.

So, what exactly is a positive deviant? According to the website of the Positive Deviance Initiative, and I quote from http://www.positivedeviance.org/:

Positive Deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges.

Simply put, positive deviants present a very context sensitive existence proof that things can improve.  These individuals and groups demonstrate a better way through their behavior.

In Kordito, Sabine visited a manyatta while Terra and I visited a primary school.  We had heard a lot of resistance to constructing latrines, primarily because of the lack of materials locally coupled with the lack of security, making procuring materials remotely dangerous. However, Sabine found a positive deviant, a woman who proudly showed off the latrine she’d built with local materials based on the instructions that she’d received.

A lot of resources in development programs go towards “sensitization” and “messaging”, although I think “education” might be a less buzzword-like word for it.  Topics might include such things as the importance of hand washing, or even the importance of using a toilet or latrine.  Both of these activities have increased in importance here recently, as the result of a new outbreak of cholera in Uganda.  In fact, even Kampala was put on a cholera alert due to concerns with flooding.  However, the list of topics likely also includes the importance of pre-natal care, the signs of malnutrition, reproductive health, the evils of child labor, the importance of primary education, and the list goes on.  Now imagine sitting through these sessions.  How much more impactful might they be if you had a real world example, showing how this could actually work in your own village, and in your own context.  Enter the positive deviant (PD).

Clearly a PD is a powerful tool for increasing the adoption of desirable behavior.  The PD serves two roles in this context.  First, the PD demonstrates that the desired behavior is possible to achieve in the local context, including any resource limitations.  This existence proof moves a training exercise from simply one of “telling someone how to do something” to also being able to “show how someone else actually did it”.

Perhaps even more importantly as time goes on, the PD provides an on-going demonstration of the value of the desired behavior as well as the costs of maintaining that behavior.  In the case of the woman and the latrine, that household should experience lower levels of diseases like cholera, and those surrounding her will also see the proof that maintaining the latrine is feasible, again in the local context.

Ok, marvelous, PDs provide a tremendous uplift for adoption of desirable behaviors.  How do I get one?  Herein, of course, lies the problem.  The quote above from the Positive Deviance Initiative asserts that potential PDs exist in every community.  The logician in me is uncomfortable with most statements that say “all” or “every” or “none”, since aberrations clearly exist, but I digress.  I do think that there are strategies for finding potential PDs.  Once identified, these individuals can hopefully be encouraged through perhaps more targeted education, so that they will ultimately provide the basis for a more effective program rollout through their story.

The PD approach as outlined at the Positive Deviance Initiative website is slightly different than what is discussed here, in that they go a step further.  Rather than using the PDs to demonstrate the behavior desired by the development partner, they look to have the PDs determine for themselves what constitutes the desired behavior given the issue being tackled and the local context.  Clearly this provides an even more powerful example to the community, in that the solution is not externally developed or imposed, but created within the community.  I suspect, however, that there are individuals capable of being PDs in the sense of implementing techniques that are brought to them who perhaps aren’t yet ready to develop them on their own.  Thus, the first set of PDs is larger than the latter, although hopefully membership in the first group more readily leads to membership in the latter group.

There’s clearly a lot more to this subject, and again I don’t claim to be an expert.  Indeed, there are certificate programs and online courses on this topic.  However, as someone who has for a long time been a big fan of the existence proof, I find the concept of PDs intriguing.  Alas, it just means that I have more things to study.  It’s a good thing I didn’t actually believe my list of things to read, study and learn more about would decrease on my sabbatical, although I did have that admittedly faint hope.

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The Royal Ascot Goat Races

When we walked down to the Munyunyo beach a few weeks ago, we saw a sign for an after-party for the goat races. Up until that point, I didn’t realize there was such a thing as goat races, but I wasn’t particularly considering going.  Then, Terra forwarded a flier she had received describing the event – The Royal Ascot Goat Races.  I’ve spent enough time in England and read enough Dick Francis to know about the “real” Royal Ascot Race (which is for horses, not goats).  This instantiation, for charity, suddenly looked more interesting.  So, we all decided to go.

First, let’s cover briefly the history of the Royal Ascot races.  Racing first took place at Ascot in Berkshire 1711, after then Queen Anne decided that racing should be held on the spot not far from Windsor Castle, one of the royal residences.  Racing was ensured to continue there by an act of parliament in 1813.  The first running of what has now become the Royal Ascot event arguably took place in 1807.

One of the more notable aspects of the Royal Ascot races has nothing to do with horses, but with dress.  The Royal Enclosure has a very strict dress code, including dresses of appropriate length and straps with hats or fascinators for women and “black or grey morning dress, including a waist coat and top hat” for the gentleman (from the Royal Ascot web site here: http://www.ascot.co.uk/royal/royalenc_dress.html).  There are specific places that men are allowed to remove their top hat; otherwise, it must remain on. Any violation of the dress code can get you expelled from the encolusre.  In case you don’t know (I didn’t), a  fascinator can be informally defined as bizarre head wear with feathers, lace and other materials, worn by women in place of a hat to fancy events where they want to get noticed.  Given this tradition, it isn’t surprising that the Royal Ascot Goat Races had a costume competition.

Since traffic going from Kololo in central Kampala to Munyunyo, which is more like “the suburbs”, is often bad on weekends, we took the back way.  It was a bit difficult, since five of us were in a car that doesn’t have good clearance at the best of times, and the roads along the back way were in pretty bad shape.  We considered getting out a few times to save the shocks and the under-carriage but the car survived the journey.

We had heard from one of our standard taxi drivers that the festivities started at 8am, but we were not going to get up that early.  It’s good we didn’t, as the doors didn’t even open until early afternoon.  We got there around 2pm, just in time for the second race.  The security was very tight, including making people get out of their cars so that the cars can be searched separately, bag searches, and metal detectors.  Given the number of people there, the level of security made sense, as the threat from Al-Shabab still exists.  There was actually a wedding going on that day also at the Speke Resort, where the races were held.  We saw the bridal party come in, complete with bride in bridal gown and the bridesmaids in their long gowns.  They fit right in actually, among those who dressed for the event.  My party was primarily in jeans/shorts and t-shirts, although we did have 3 (quite normal) hats in our group.  At the entrance to the races themselves, we were greeted by this:

Greeter for the Goat Races

The races themselves were run about every 45 minutes.  There was a standard enclosure in the center with the (mostly English sounding) emcees calling the races.  There were about 10 goats in the two races we saw. Companies like Ericsson sponsor the prize money for the races (and the proceeds all go to charity).  The winner in the first race I saw (only the second of the day) won 2.8 million Ugandan shillings (about 1245 USD).  I assume like most all day race events, the prize money goes up as the day goes on.  So, the goats did an initial preview lap, so that the goats could get warmed up and the spectators could make their final selections (yes, there was a tote for bets).  The goats each had a handler using a long lead rope.

Yes, these are goats attempting to race.

When the race itself begins, the goats take off in a clump.  There’s a padded slide behind them to keep them moving, as they often seemed more interested in grazing or fighting than racing.  Often they tried to go the wrong way, so the prod was useful in keeping the race moving.  The lead goat didn’t change much in the races I watched; I do not know if that is typical goat racing behavior.  The prod tended to keep the goats in a pack, so the opportunity for the lead to change often was certainly there.

Our groups discussed the possibility of sponsoring a goat in next year’s race.  Since I have no idea where I will be this time next year, I don’t know if that would be a sensible thing for me.  However, the rest of the group is pretty well committed for at least another year – to Kampala, that is. I’m not so sure about their budding career in goat racing.

I am glad I had the chance to see this once, and to take at least some pictures.  After all, how could one miss such a cultural and social event of the season?  That said, I can’t say I have a burning desire to go again.

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Book Report: Greed and Grievance — Economic Agendas in Civil Wars

Greed and Grievance – Economic Agenda in Civil Wars, edited by Mats Berdal and David M. Malone, copyright 2000.

This book wasn’t on my initial to-read list for my sabbatical, but Sean, one of my colleagues here at UNICEF, suggested it.  The book itself is a collection of papers/essays by individuals who attended a workshop in London on the topic in 1999.  After reading the first few chapters, I wished the book had been written post 9/11, with the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. While I suspect much of the analysis holds true still, the world in many ways is a very different place.

This book is not a “popcorn/beach” book.  It requires thought and concentration to read.  It is also in many ways a disturbing book, when one is faced with evidence pointing to the culpability of corporations and countries in funding the continuation of wars that devastate countries, economies and communities.  It is easier to think of some crazy despot responsible for all the tragedy, but the situation is often far more complex.

As a collection of essays, this book works remarkably well, as the various authors cross-reference other works, providing a sense of cohesion that is not always present in such collections.  The authors also shared the same general understanding of the issues at hand, although their focus and their methodology differed.

The chapter by Paul Collier particularly impressed me, leading me to add his more recent book “The Bottom Billion” to my to-read pile.  He uses a statistical/quantitative approach to explore the question of whether “greed” or “grievance” (either with other “tribes” or with the government) is the primary indicator for civil war.  His evidence points quite strongly to the greed position.  One particularly strong indicator for the likelihood of civil war is the presence of extractive natural resources, that provide for a ready stream of cash.  While the reviews of his more recent work indicate he is taking a more nuanced position, his essay is compelling in making his case.

Some particular startling quotes:  From page 81: .

“Conflict linked to transborder trade is different.  Such wars are not necessarily about winning or securing a comprehensive settlement.  Indeed, the suspension of legality due to insecurity is often a necessary precondition of asset realization through parallel and transborder means.”

It is hard to imagine that the parties to a war might not actually want it to end.  Page 84:

“Today’s so-called warlords or failed states may act locally, but to survive they have to think globally.  In this respect, a high level of complicity among international companies, offshore banking facilities, and Northern governments has assisted the development of war economies.  There is a growing symbiotic relationship between zones of stability and instability within the global political economy.”

From Page 97: :

“Inequality, whether measured in terms of income or landownership, has no effect on the risk of conflict according to the data.  This is, of course, surprising given the attention inequality has received as an explanation of conflict.  “

Ah yes, the pesky data.  It would be nice for the world to be the way we want it to be, rather than the way it is.

Some prescriptions for action include, for example, from Page 106:

“If only the international community can change the economic incentives for conflict, it can help substantially reduce their incidence, even in societies riven by long-standing hatreds.”

And finally, and perhaps of even more relevance today as Africa becomes more and more noticed by western businesses (although this particular quote is specific to Angola), from page 170:

“It may be very easy for companies to respond that it is not possible to alter the way in which they do business, but this response, especially when set against the scale of recurring tragedies across the African continent, is no longer acceptable.  In the end any company should determine for itself if it can do business in Angola and remain in accordance with its own policies and ethical code of conduct. “

I find ample support that this sentiment should apply just as much today and to the entire continent.

While a bit challenging to read, I found this book to be well-written, with the conclusions clearly supported by references, clear arguments and sound reasoning, and with the assumptions properly established and noted.  I learned a great deal, even though I found much of the material depressing.  My biggest concern is the extent to which the conclusions either no longer hold (while possibly true in the details, the general theme quite likely still applies) or can be dismissed as being out of date.  Perhaps Collier’s newer work can reassure me on both these points.

Posted in Progress Through My Pile of Books | 7 Comments

What passes for my normal life in Kampala

What’s normal here in Kampala for my sabbatical?  I thought about doing “a day in my life” but that seemed to be rather limiting, and likely to be rather boring as well.  Instead, I’ll summarize what seems to be normal here in terms of sights, sounds, and activities.  I’ll close with a bit about what “having fun” in the normal course of life means as well.

I think the sound that will stick with me the longest from my time here is simply the sound of sweeping.  It seems like people are almost constantly sweeping the drives and the parking lots in my apartment complex, and you’ll also see people on the roads in the city doing the same thing.  The women lean down from the waist with straight legs; this isn’t the natural position for we muzumgus (white people) but apparently the center of gravity for Ugandans (and I believe more generally for native Africans) is different and this position puts the least strain on the body.  Intellectually knowing that it is better that way (I heard it from one of the medical doctors here in the UNICEF offices) doesn’t make it easier to watch.

Other sounds are the wildlife.  While I don’t hear the same symphony of wildlife at my new place as I did at Terra’s, the bird calls are still quite common.  Then of course there are also the roosters, who seem to have a very poor grasp on the concept of dawn, or perhaps it is only Midwestern US roosters that only crow at dawn.

Finally, I am getting used to hearing “muzumgu” as a greeting, as a name, possibly as a curse, or to see if I need a ride.  I’ve actually seen some people wearing t-shirts saying “My Name is NOT Muzumgu”.  It doesn’t bother me that much, now that I am aware enough of the various possible meanings.

Unlike at Terra’s, I don’t here the calls from the mosques as much, although I still here them from time to time throughout the city.  I have seen estimates that Muslims represent between 12 and 30 percent of the population of Uganda, with at least 6,700 mosques.  Since much of the country’s population is in the Kampala area, it isn’t surprising that there are a significant number of mosques.

Then, of course, there are the city sounds.  Everywhere I walk, I am constantly hearing “taxi taxi” or “boda boda” and I am constantly saying no to these offers of transport.  Then, of course, there is the traffic noise. Bodas, matatus, and taxis use their horns to get your attention, and of course there are the people who seem to need to be reminded not to walk out in front of the motorcycles and cars.  There is also just the sheer volume of cars and trucks, and truck mufflers seem to be rather ineffective in my experience to date.

As for the sights, first it is just the sheer number of people on the move.  In the mornings, I see lots of kids walking in the area in their school uniforms, women walking carrying things on their head, and lots of police and security guards pretty much everywhere, mostly armed with what looks to me to be older rifles.  The police uniforms were changed shortly after the bombings to camouflage uniforms, making some folks concerned about military deployments.  Using a bike as a cart, walking beside it with goods piled high, seems to be quite common as well.  Some of the things I’ve seen people carrying on bikes and motorcycles include two brooms and a mop, a lamp standard, twin mattress (fortunately the mattresses here aren’t all that thick), huge rolls of firewood, and over a dozen jerry cans.  These trump my former winner of the weird things people carry on bicycles award, from Houston Texas, which was the now rather pedestrian entrant of an upright vacuum cleaner (although that image still makes me chuckle).

Even with all the people walking, the traffic gets horrible.  The ever-present potholes, that don’t seem to get fixed in a timely manner, don’t help traffic flow at all, although it does make crossing certain streets easier. My sense of fair play was at least pleased to see that even in the ambassadorial and other rich people’s area, the roads still have very real problems.

Then of course, there are the storks, or more precisely the Marabou storks.  I saw these creatures close up near Lake Victoria in the Munyonyo area of Kampala.  I had unfortunately forgotten my camera that day, but I am hoping to get some of Sean’s pictures.  These birds look prehistoric.  They are huge, quite ugly, and they are toxic to eat, presumably because of their poor diet.  I will try to get a picture posted, hopefully of one wandering around in the outdoor restaurant hoping to get people to throw him their fish bones.  With me sitting down, he was about as tall as I am.

So, what’s day-to-day life like?  In some ways, it reminds me of London, with the smaller fridges, and having to walk home with the groceries, meaning shopping about every couple of days, walking a lot, getting bags searched, going through metal detectors and/or getting wanded on the way into many complexes, being hailed by bodas and riding in swerving cars, usually to avoid the pot-holes, but sometimes because the driver is just impatient.  Although I do walk a lot here, I also use official taxis a fair amount, always calling the driver.  I inherited many of Terra’s number, and our tastes for driving adventure seem compatible.  I rode with a driver Seth uses a lot and let’s just say I spent most of the time with my eyes closed.  Many men say all bad drivers are women, but I have at least an existence proof of the falsehood of that assertion.  In addition, there’s the extreme street crossing, which perhaps should be added to the X-games.  It is even possible I will be able to cross Airport Road in Bangalore the next time I go there (without cheating and latching on to someone else who is crossing).

Some items are packaged quite differently and “grocery stores” don’t seem to have the same variety of things you’d expect.  Milk comes in plastic bags and/or in boxes; yogurt also comes in similar plastic bags.  I even saw a “gin bag” on the ground on a walk I did on Sunday morning.  The stores themselves seem more like superstores, but then are missing things like coffee pots (thanks to Sabine, I have a French press pot for coffee in the morning).  One store had dish towels, while the other only had bath towels.  I must admit I’m just happy I brought most of the things with me I needed. Apparently, ziploc bags are a treasure. I’m bringing some more back when I return from my trip back to the US (I leave this weekend for a week).

Very few people are out on the roads running for exercise, although I’m seeing a few more since the Kampala Marathon is coming up soon.  I also rarely see street beggars, although the spot between the Oasis shopping center (which contains the grocery store I usually use) and Garden City shopping center (which contains an ATM that actually accepts MasterCard, a rare thing) usually has one or two.

Given the prevalence of mosquitoes, inset repellant is popular.  I’ve not had to use much sunscreen (and no, I don’t currently look lobster-esque).  Malaria is apparently relatively rare in central Kampala, but I am spending enough time out in the field that I am taking the anti-malaria pills and using bug spray, as well as sleeping under a mosquito net.

So, what kinds of things do we do on weekends?  There’s actually a fair number of team dinners (Annie is a fantastic cook) and TGIF parties (caipirinhas are a new favorite cocktail).  There are trips to “The Belgian Place”, also known as “La Petite Village”, or at least that’s what the sign says, which contains a patisserie, a deli and a wine shop.  There’s dining or drinks at Emin Pasha, one of the nice hotels here in town.  There are trips to Kabira, a hotel and country club, to use their pool and gym.  We had a volleyball party this past Sunday at Terra’s.  My volleyball skills haven’t deserted me completely apparently and a good time was had by all.

Let’s also not forget the Royal Ascot Goat Races, but that’s the subject of a post all its own.

So, that’s what passes for normal here for me in Kampala.  (And yes, I will try to get some pictures up).

Posted in Sabbatical Experience Reports | 8 Comments

Essay: Social forces impacting gender based violence in Uganda

This post presents all kinds of questions, issues, angst and speculation on the problem of Gender Based Violence (GBV).  GBV is one of the major focus issues for Sabine, the Communications for Development (C4D) person I have been traveling with, along with Terra, on my trips outside of Kampala so far.  As a result, we’ve had several conversations on issues of GBV with men and women leaders in various NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), government, FBOs (Faith Based Organizations), and UNICEF offices.  BTW, I have learned that the development community loves TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) perhaps even more than the technology community does. They don’t even stop at TLAs, but move on to MLAs (Multi-Letter Acronyms).

I do not claim to present any answers here, but I do want to present some thoughts and observations from my time here.  As I have expressed elsewhere, it is far too easy to default to a western solution to solve whatever problems I encounter.  I don’t presume to understand the cultural traditions, the societal norms and the pressures that impact these individuals in their daily lives, let alone the historical context.  However, the forces influencing this particular issue struck me.  So, enough caveats. Although there is controversy associated with this position, this post/essay will explore the following idea:  Effective male empowerment programs are essential to address GBV, even though GBV is seen as an issue of the disempowerment of women.

To me, the following exchange forcefully demonstrates a basis for this position.  An (female) aid worker visited one of the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) Camps about mid-morning.  She found all the women out collecting food and water and otherwise working to provide for their families.  She found the men all collected around the camp drinking (actually drunk), even that early in the day.  She asked one of the men why he wasn’t out trying to provide for his family.  His response was “I have been reduced to the status of a dog.  What else can I do but drink?”  This exchange began her thinking about the issue of male empowerment and GBV.  However, when she started speaking to some of her female counterparts in other agencies working on GBV, she met with harsh resistance, with the primary message being that “Men are clearly empowered enough if they feel they can beat their wives with impunity”, and therefore that any resources directed towards male empowerment were not only unnecessarily but potentially even counter-productive.

Now, I am not condoning violence against women as an acceptable outcome from male disempowerment.  Nor am I in any way condoning a traditional structure that relegates women to the status of property, and thus likely contributes to a cultural norm that somehow makes GBV an acceptable expression of a man’s frustration. However, simply providing support and empowerment to women in a context where men feel useless does not remove the pressure that can, and often does, result in GBV. This issue has to be more complex or it would have been solved long ago.

The conditions within camps and forced settlements are not like “normal” communities.  The inherently transient nature (in theory, anyway) of the camps do not provide the conditions for the creation and sustainment of a traditional economy, allowing for reliable revenue generating activities, and a traditional job that a man can have to provide for his family.  In some of these settings, the social structure of the community before the camps and settlements were nomadic in nature, and thus the expectations of men had nothing to do with providing for his family in a stationary context. Adding to these difficulties is the cultural traditions surrounding what it means to be a man in this culture.  In this culture, a man must pay for a wife with, for example, 60 or 80 cows (at 300 USD a head, that’s either a lot of money or a lot of stolen cattle).  What does this say then about the relative status of the man and the woman in a marriage?

Yet, it is also perhaps too simplistic to focus on things like the bride price as the root of the problem.  Some groups in the Acholi region, for example, are working to get the elders to abolish the bride price.  Acholi women, at least according to some conversations, have mixed feelings about this.  While it does eliminate the justification for an “I paid for you therefore I own you” attitude, some women also feel that the price helps them establish value in the household. A bride price (which is how they refer to it, not as a dowry) might seem strange to our modern western notions of marriage but it isn’t historically that foreign a concept.  Certainly the plight of women in the Acholi region can’t solely be blamed on the bride price.  Just as certainly, simply abolishing the bride price can not remedy the issues of GBV.

A colleague forwarded me a link recently from the Atlantic, entitled “The End of Man” (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/the-end-of-men/8135/1/).  While the article itself includes no references to back up the statistics, there’s a thread in that article about how the recession in the US is differentially disempowering lower-middle class men.  The growth job sectors as currently projected do not tend to favor the skills that such men have typically been able to use to earn a living wage.  This article also raises the possibility of women just deciding they don’t need to keep men around, as they are more often the major financial support for the household.  While it is hard to imagine that happening in Uganda, to me there are some interesting parallels, which I will try to explore in a later post.

I also have begun to wonder about how the culture of the Acholi would have to change to support more empowered women.  There is the added pressure in that region of establishing or re-establishing communities and industry that have been disrupted or even destroyed by the LRA.  The path to stability and “a normal life” is a long one for this region.  One can hope that principles like fairness for women can be woven into the construction of their new culture and society.

As I said at the beginning, this post does not attempt to provide answers.  I can’t even say that I provided any clarity to the problem.  Expect more on this line as my thinking evolves.  As I spend time here, I find a society that has tremendous problems of health, violence, drought, starvation, corruption, instability, education, justice and exploitation.  I also see efforts, both sensible and misguided, attempting to alleviate at least some of the suffering and address some of the issues.  Finally, I see an incredible resource represented by the skills and talents of the people of this country.  The world is not so rich that we can so readily discard people. It feels sometimes that loss of life is readily accepted here; I hope this doesn’t translate into a feeling that the lives here are worthless.  They are not.

Posted in Sabbatical Experience Reports | 4 Comments