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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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 | Leave a comment

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 | Leave a comment

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!

I Know You're There, Have No Fear

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'm not sure I can get down from here

I’m not sure I can get down from here

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.

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!

Posted in Sabbatical Experience Reports | Leave a comment

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:  https://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 | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Sabbatical Experience Reports | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Sabbatical Experience Reports | Leave a comment