I never thought I would have to wear a flak jacket

Updated to add a picture and fix the spelling of Karamojong.

My first flak Jacket experience

Donning the Karamoja flak Jacket and helmet

The morning of 6 September we left on the flak jacket journey.  Actually, we donned both bulletproof vests and helmets about an hour or so outside of Moroto, so at least most of the journey was armor free.  As a relatively short-waisted person with long legs, I spent much of the time in the car feeling like a turtle, since the bulletproof vest was longer than my torso.  Between that and the helmet sliding down, I am sure I made quite a vision of metallic glory.  Our driver estimated that each vest weighed about 30 kilos (approximately 66 pounds).  I am not sure it was quite that heavy, but it wasn’t far from it.

The reason for the armor, and the armed escort vehicle, is the presence of cattle raiders in this region.  The Karamojong consider themselves an independent kingdom, and thus feel they should not be considered part of Uganda.  They raid cattle in the Acholi region of Uganda, in Kenya, and yet they also raid across groups of Karamojong.  The raiders are very well armed, and they do get in firefights.  Attacks on UN vehicles aren’t expected; the risk is getting caught in the crossfire.  I must admit I felt quite silly sitting in the big UN vehicle, wearing a bulletproof vest and a helmet, while the locals strolled down the street.  We did see one cattle herder with two soldiers escorting him, but the vast majority of the locals just went about their business.  Apparently, this means that the soldiers helped this herder recover his raided cattle, as the soldiers escort the herder back to his village in that case.

Moroto is the major city in the northern sub-region of Karamoja.  Karamoja itself is composed of several districts, of which we will be visiting at three – Moroto district, Kotido, and Abim. The drive from Kampala was about nine hours, including a 30-minute stop for lunch in Soroti, which also seems like a fairly good-sized town.  I had an avocado salad for lunch.  I had no idea how prevalent avocado was here.  I think I’ve had more avocados since arriving in Uganda than I have the rest of the year.  It’s helpful that they have to be peeled, making it a safe food substance.

We stayed at a compound called C&D, which is run by an Italian NGO.  The good news is that this meant we got real coffee for breakfast, not Nescafe, which is an abomination if I must say so myself.  We also ate very well for dinner, albeit with a bit more pasta than I am accustomed to.  The ice cold showers due to the lack of hot water we’ll just not discuss anymore.

The area itself reminds me strongly of Santa Fe, New Mexico, with the city nestled in the mountains, the terrain, and in particular the light.  Sunset and dusk are gorgeous times in this area.  Apparently the local staff members at the UNICEF office here climb the mountain.  We in fact had a closing celebration of “sundowners” about 7 minutes or so up the mountain to a nice plateau overlooking Moroto and the valley.  We could barely see Kenya from there.  The sunset was spectacular.  I am hopeful some of the pictures turned out.

The drive up was made more interesting with the two sets of trucks that were stuck in the mud.  Apparently, there’s been a lot of rain in this area recently.  Indeed, the region is coming off of approximately four years of drought. We had the benefit of four-wheel drive, so we just went around the problem, fortunately. The road itself was quite rough; I’d estimate about 6 or more hours were over rutted roads.

We saw quite a large variety of livestock along the way, including donkey, goat, cattle, chickens, and even camel, although this was rare.  This trip we will be focusing on youth centers more so than teacher colleges and schools.  We also will try to see some NGOs that deal in the agricultural sector, since this region relies so heavily on cattle and the effects of the cattle raiding are so devastating to many aspects of life in Karamoja.

Other posts from this visit will include a discussion of the economics of cattle raiding, an exploration of life in a village, and why folks might care less about cholera and other diseases than we’d like them to.  At least those are the topics I can think of at the moment. Thanks for all your comments.

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A legacy of brutality and a fight for a return to a normal life

The very first stop we made on our trip to northern Uganda (except for the roadside banana and cassava stop that is) was at a place called Empowering Hands.  This group supports the returning victims of abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  The LRA is a group of rebels that operated for several years in the late 1980, the 1990’s and early 2000’s in the Acholi territory of Uganda in the north.  Recent news reports describe activity by the LRA in continuing their campaign of abduction and lootings, as well as maiming and murdering civilians, although this activity is currently taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, The Central Africa Republic and parts of Sudan.  Some reports indicate that the group may be preparing to re-enter Uganda.

The LRA apparently maintains its capacity primarily through kidnapping children and turning them into soldiers, through a campaign of terror and intimidation.  Female children are kept as concubines or presented as sex slaves to cooperating groups.  I have read in some of the research I’ve done since the trip that children as young as ten (one reported a child of five) are being forced to be soldiers by the LRA.  Not surprisingly, the death toll among the child soldiers is thought to be quite large, although some children do escape and return or some are released when they become too ill to be useful (in this case having to make their way back home, somehow, while dealing with their illness).

Once these individuals return, the work of groups like Empowering Hands begins.  The returnees face many challenges.  Clearly there are the impacts deriving directly from their ordeal, including the trauma itself, health issues arising from the conditions under which they lived and from injuries sustained while fighting, and the interruption of their education and development.  However, these individuals also often face rejection by their villages and families.  Women who have fathered children by the rebels at times are accepted back but their children are rejected.  Given the indoctrination the children undergo while held captive, the people are afraid that the returnees will harm or even kill them, since many of these individuals have been forced to kill while in captivity. In the aftermath of such horrendous treatment, these individuals must then deal with the rejection of their family and former neighbors, and they must find a different way to re-enter society to establish a new life for themselves.

Empowering Hands currently works with about 30-50 individuals, although the estimate we heard was that there were approximately 200 returnees in this particular sub-county alone.  Some returned home as recently as two years ago.  No one mentioned, and I was not going to ask, about how long they endured captivity.  We also did not hear individual stories so much as we heard more general issues.  Two things struck me when we first encountered the group.  The first was how warmly we were greeted.  The group greeted us with a traditional song with all the members participating.  It sounded joyful as a song, but I could not understand the words.  The second thing that struck me was how young so many of the people were.  Abductions and enslavement are completely wrong, but somehow the violation seems all the worse when it is inflicted on children

The group’s initial focus has been on psycho-social counseling for the returnees.  However, the focus for the individuals in the group has turned towards education and vocational training.  Since their education has been interrupted, these individuals need some form of remedial education to re-enter the educational system in any meaningful way.  There are also issues for the children born to the returning women, as there is no source of support for these children to attend school at all.  Some efforts have been made to provide vocational training, but the areas of training haven’t been considered particularly useful.  Another issue for the group is, not surprisingly, medical care.  Some individuals are still suffering with bullet fragments, for example.

Sitting down and speaking to these individuals (both through an interpreter and in English with the group leaders), I was struck by the contrasts I had seen in my own life over such a short time.  Indeed, less than a month prior to this visit, I was on holiday in Germany with my father, my sister and a group of people. The stories about life behind the wall in East Berlin seemed foreign enough to me then.  This reality is even further removed from my own life experience. I was humbled at the thought of what kind of strength these individuals demonstrate each and every day as they focus on rebuilding their lives and finding a way to re-enter society.  Their focus was not on restitution or revenge but on tangible things that would help them return to something of a normal life.

There are some issues around a proper understanding of the rights granted to Ugandan citizens by their constitution, which apparently hasn’t been translated into the local languages and English isn’t widely understood by this group, not surprisingly.  In particular, without proper explanations and understanding, it is hard to grasp the implications of a right in a constitution for daily life and how those rights also often imply responsibilities.  Even though English is the official language of Uganda, making such crucial documents accessible would to me seem to be an important undertaking.

The raids of the LRA also resulted in a huge number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in camps across the region.  One estimate placed a peak number of IDPs at approximately 1.8 million people.  In Northern Uganda, that number is declining significantly, to about 295,000 as of June 2010, although this number does not include individuals in urban areas outside the Acholi, West Nile, Lango and Teso regions or those in Karamojo.  Life in the IDP camps was quite difficult, and many people who have returned to their homes have trouble with reclaiming land and making a living again.  These issues will be discussed in a subsequent post.

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My Northern Ugandan Adventure

I had my first trip this past week really out into the field, not just to other parts of Kampala but to the northern parts of the country, getting close at one point to the border of Sudan.  Joining me on the trip were Sabine, Terra and Humphrey, and our driver was Simon.

In this first post on the trip, I’ll give a broad outline of the itinerary and some of the scenery and items of interest along the way.  The next few posts will go into more detail about the different visits we made.  Hopefully I’ll get some photos uploaded soon as well.

Our trip went from Kampala on Tuesday morning, stopping first in Minakulu and then on to Gulu.  According to my map of Uganda, Minaklu is in the district of Apac near the border with the Gulu district.  We stayed two nights in Gulu, then drove to Kitgum, in the Kitgum district although we had to go through the Pader district.  Later around mid-day we left Kitgum for Lira and Boro-Boro, both in the Lira district and traveling across the Pader district again.  After spending the night outside Lira, we returned to Kampala on Friday, visiting Loro along the way.

Most of the road to and from Kampala was pretty good, but the other roads, although labeled as highways on my map are also referred to as “unsurfaced”.  I can certainly vouch for the fact that they were very rough.  Indeed, I understand the label unsurfaced far more than I can understand what makes it a highway.  I shudder to think what the secondary roads and car tracks on my map are like.  I made the mistake of dosing off for a brief time on one leg of the journey, and I think I woke Terra up when my head smacked against the window.  I made sure I stayed awake after that.  It was a couple of hours each between Gulu and Kitgum and then on to Lira, all on these rough roads.  If I were a martini, I would certainly have been shaken enough for James Bond’s purposes.

We spent our first night at the BOMA Guest House in Gulu, just down the street from the UNICEF Zonal Office in Gulu.  Our original intent was to spend the second night in Kitgum but rains (a reasonably short but pretty hard downpour) and over-running meetings meant that we couldn’t make it to Kitgum in time, and travel after dark requires all kinds of special clearances.  Thus, we spent a second night at BOMA Guest House.  We left fairly early Thursday morning for Kitgum, eating lunch there at another branch of the BOMA Guest House chain, and then proceeding on to Lira.

We saw a couple of places in Lira and then began the great search for a place to stay.  Apparently Lira is a really happening place, since we got turned away from several places.  While they all seemed to have one single or double room available, there were four of us, since the driver slept elsewhere.  One place did have room but it was on an incredibly noisy street in the heart of town and had no real security.  Since Lira is known for the alcohol consumption of its people, among other things I am sure, we decided that perhaps something a bit further out would be more appropriate.  We finally found a place, a Christian Guest House, that was close enough so that we could walk to town and get dinner with alcohol but far enough away that we wouldn’t have the overwhelming noise from town.  According to my fellow travelers, there was a huge thunderstorm that night, sufficient to even flood Terra’s and Sabine’s rooms.  My room was not flooded, and I had to admit at the breakfast table that I had managed to sleep right through the storm.

Highlights of the drive included the family of baboons on the road to and from Kampala, including a baby baboon initially trying to scare us, or at least that’s what it looked like, and then getting worried and returning to his mama for a ride clinging to her and hanging under her stomach as she walked; crossing an impressive stretch of the Nile; the vast number of abandoned structures, which are apparently the remains of some of the IDP Camps (Internally Displaced Persons, since apparently one can not be a refugee in one’s own country); large numbers of cows and goats, with just a few pigs in and around the road;  chickens mostly heard but occasionally seen as well; and the strange appearance of an upholstered sofa and two chairs on the side of the road in what looked like the middle of nowhere.  I saw no houses or huts or anything nearby.  I wondered if perhaps I had hit my head too hard on the window while napping but Sabine confirmed its existence.  I also wondered where it had been, how it had gotten there, and who would buy it, presuming it was there for sale.  I then wondered how the new owner would transport it, since the standard mode of transportation in that part of the country seems to be foot or bicycle.

I did see someone riding a bike with approximately 8 feet of pipe (and not the thin or narrow stuff) balanced on the back and tied down;  placing that load right at its balance point was crucial I believe.  Of course, there are the trucks that take people, cattle, chicken and general merchandise, for lack of a more specific term, all together in the back, so perhaps that was the plan.   Farm animals are also sometimes tied down on the racks on the back of bicycles.  The goat we saw traveling that way didn’t look terribly pleased, but the pig I saw was making a real racket; he was decidedly unhappy with traveling in economy class.

The visits themselves were in many ways overwhelming, but they also represented much of why I chose to do my sabbatical this way.  I saw again in stark terms how privileged and lucky I am in my life, as indeed many of us in the “west’ are.  I was truly humbled to be in the presence of some of these individuals who have endured so much and are still living life, learning and growing, bettering themselves, trying to reintegrate into their society and even evolving that society to reflect the past, the present and their hopes for the future.  I will talk about the visits and the stories of some of the people I met in the subsequent posts.  I only hope I can do their stories justice.

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It was bound to happen eventually…

Well, it’s been incredibly hectic the past several days.  Terra had a friend come for her R&R for a long weekend.  Juliet is based in Somaliland, which internally functions as a country but is not recognized as one by the international community who view it as an autonomous region of Somalia.  Given the security situation in most of Somalia, UN workers like Juliet have to operate under some pretty stringent restrictions, giving rise to the need for frequent R&R breaks.  With her visit, we did a fair amount of shopping (those who know me know how high this generally ranks in my list of pastimes, but I did manage to get gifts for folks).  We also ate Chinese, Mexican and Indian food, all of which was good (for the most part – I’ll get to that next). I still haven’t had Ugandan food yet, as we’ve been eating sandwiches, fish and chips, pasta, fried chicken, and the cuisines mentioned above.  Terra has promised to get me some real Ugandan food this coming week.

As was bound to happen eventually, I finally came down with what I will euphemistically refer to as “travelers’ digestion”.  I think it was something in the Indian food that didn’t agree with me, although, given all my travels to India, I would have thought that should be fine.  As Terra and Juliet and I shared all the dishes, I can’t even blame the food.  So, rather than leaving for our trip to the northern part of Uganda on Monday as planned, we had to wait until Tuesday.  I slept until 2pm on Monday, ate the Ugandan version of Raman noodles with some leftover bok choy from the Chinese dinner on Friday and all was right with the world.

I must say that, although I was expecting some intestinal distress, the botfly was a surprise.  Also called the mango fly here, this little creature lays eggs on laundry and if you do not thoroughly iron your clothing after drying it outside or at least let it sit for a few days, these eggs implant themselves beneath the skin and gestate new flies, which then do bad things that I would rather not contemplate.  For those interested in videos, googling “botfly Uganda ironing” will bring up some videos.  I have not looked at any, figuring it was safer to wait until I am far away from these creatures.  Fortunately, most furnished apartments here come with laundry and ironing services, so I should hopefully continue to avoid experiencing this malady first hand.  I did so hope it was exhaustion, jet lag and perhaps even hallucination when I first remembered Terra mentioning this.  Alas, I was not so lucky, so it is ironed clothes for me!  Wearing ironed blue jeans takes some getting used to.

Coming up next, posts on my tour of Northern Uganda and some thoughts arising out of that experience,  and an experience it truly was.

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First Field Trip into Kampala

I got to take my first field trip, visiting a teachers college in Kampala that has one of the Digital Drums distributed by the UNICEF office here.  As in any job, it is always nice to be able to get out of the office and see how things are in the real world. The trip started with the ride in the official UN/UNICEF vehicle.  Fortunately, there was no convoy involved; that would have felt just a bit weird, particularly for a trip across town that took only about 15 minutes.  The trip back took longer, but that’s because we came upon a parade or a demonstration or something that blocked the road for a time.  It was very near the electoral commission, which is often accused of corruption and manipulating elections, so perhaps that was the delay.  There are several political posters up with candidates’ pictures, so it is also possible that this was a political rally of some kind.  We weren’t close enough to read the signs and banners or to understand the chants so who knows what it was really all about.

The look of the city definitely changed in getting out of the central business district, which also seems to house a lot of the ex-pats (it has been referred to also as the luxury part of town).  I noticed in particular the way the shops were arranged.  In the districts I’ve been in, there have been mostly shopping centers with the streets of businesses being mostly just in a couple of areas.  In these other neighborhoods, rows of shops line the streets. I didn’t really see a residential district, so it’s hard to know how they might differ.

Like every other complex I’ve entered here other than shopping centers, the teachers college had a gate.  This gate wasn’t manned, though, which did surprise me a bit.  We were greeted when we entered the school and then made our way to the location of the Digital Drum.  We got a chance to talk with a student who had used the drum and one of the staff members about their experience with it.  The student in particular had clearly enjoyed using the machine, although it wasn’t currently working.  We’re ensuring someone gets out to figure out what’s wrong and fixes it.

This particular student hadn’t started with any computer skills but had learned to use the machine by watching a friend of his use it.  For the things he’s already found, he’s confident he can find them again, but he still was unsure if he had browsed the extent of the content available.  He was particularly interested in history (primarily regional history, including stories of different countries’ paths to development), mathematics, and science.  My high school chemistry teacher would have been pleased with how interested this individual was in the periodic table of the elements.  I can only assume he is training to be a science teacher.

The current deployments of these devices do not have Internet access continually and some don’t at all.  When asked, the student said that Internet connectivity was important, although when pressed his major request was for current sports scores. The staff member seemed less convinced of the need for the device to always be online.

I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to talk to someone actually using and interested in the content for these systems.  It is all too easy to sit in our offices and ascribe to people a set of requirements and features that don’t actually correspond well to their current circumstances.  There’s a particular risk to this when introducing technology that isn’t yet commonly used.  Many of the teachers, students, and the future teachers in this country are currently unfamiliar with computers, browsers, and the reality of the web.  We must tread carefully in introducing this technology to them to not bias our content presentation and interfaces based on our perceptions of their skills and needs rather than their articulation and the reality of their skills and needs.

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First Weekend in Kampala

Not only did I survive my first week; I also survived my first weekend in Kampala.  Thanks to the hospitality of my colleagues and their partners, I had three very nice home cooked dinners, followed by a nice home cooked meal from my room mate.  Thursday and Friday evenings were basically the extended team eating together, cooked by Seth and Annie.

Saturday evening the overall UNICEF representative for Uganda and his wife hosted a party with some UNICEF folks as well as others in their circle.  He has an amazing garden, including lots of vegetables and herbs.  I knew of different kinds of basil, but I hadn’t heard of black basil before.  It is apparently the main base for pesto, at least was at one time, and it is incredibly fragrant.  I wonder if it grows in Seattle.

From a purely cultural perspective, there were two highlights to that evening.  The first highlight was clearly Sharad’s art collection.  In his career with UNICEF, he’s working in places like Iran and Afghanistan and he has some stunning pieces of local art from these areas.  I like his philosophy about the pieces he collects;  he wants them to have a history (which he wants to know about) and ideally he would like to actually know the artist.  The second highlight was the Eritrean coffee ceremony, which is apparently quite similar to the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.  This ceremony involves roasting the beans over a small fire (in the living room no less), and then grinding the beans.  The coffee is made in a specially shaped jug that allows the grounds to remain in the jug while the coffee is poured in small, espresso-sized cups.  Multiple rounds of coffee are made, with obviously each of the successive rounds being less strong.  I went for rounds one and three.  There were five rounds total, which was a bit more caffeine after dinner than I was prepared for, but it was delicious coffee.  The incense got to me after a time; it actually reminded me a great deal of the incense used in high masses in the Episcopal and Anglican churches I’ve attended over the years.  I am happy to report that there were no embarrassing moments of illness or fainting involved, but I will admit to being very glad to get out into the fresh air at the end of the evening.

Apparently, Eritrea and Ethiopia have a very troubled past and current relationship.  There is much I still need to learn about African geography, African politics, the various alliances in Africa, etc.  In some (if not many) ways, I am rather embarrassed about how little I know now.

Other highlights from the weekend were the brunches Saturday and Sunday mornings (for some definition of morning that is).  On Saturday we had a delightful brunch at “the Belgian Place” (I must find the proper name).  It’s a shopping complex consisting of a restaurant, a patisserie, a wine shop, a meat and cheese shop, and a pharmacy/chemist style shop.  Pastries, coffee and soda water were a fantastic addition to the good company and the fascinating views of the rainstorm moving over and around the surrounding hills.  Kampala, as I may have mentioned, is identified in many ways by the different hills that make up the city.  There are certainly prominent landmarks associated with many of the hills.

Exercise was not to be denied, and we did a couple of walks up Kololo hill, the hill in Terra’s neighborhood, going past EU, Danish, African and US diplomatic residences along the way.   The Danish residence is highest up the hill, apparently because of the level of their aid to Uganda.  Of course, I made no attempt to independently verify that statement. Sunday’s walk was to end first at the used bookstore and coffee shop, which were both unfortunately closed for summer break.  So, we headed instead to Eman Pasha, a very nice hotel, spa and restaurant where we had a lunch of sandwiches for our brunch.

There was certainly a lot of activity over the weekend evenings (and even during the day).  One of the taxi drivers told me that weekends used to be one long party.  All that changed with the bombings, but people are starting to go out again.  Some of my colleagues even did a dry run for a new pub crawl.  The results were a bit mixed, I was told.

I am beginning to learn my way around, although I am still sometimes startled when we arrive at our destination.  I am also learning more about the city and how to get along.  The roads in the city are pretty well marked, but the potholes are unbelievable.  Traffic often slows and gets disrupted simply because cars have to slow for the potholes or swerve around them. Lanes seem to be more of a guideline than a rule here in Kampala. Uganda is almost exclusively a cash culture, and in Kampala there is only one bank that accepts debit/ATM cards that are with MasterCard.  Visa is much more broadly accepted.  The only other place I’ve seen this is in Paris, where only EuroMasterCard is accepted at places like a train station, for example.  I didn’t even know there was such a thing as EuroMasterCard that was distinct from MasterCard.

Security is still very visible, with guards at the entrances to shopping centers, etc., checking for bombs under the cars and sometimes in the trunk.  Entry into many restaurants and shops requires a check for metals with a wand, although some of these seem pretty perfunctory.  It also appears that men are checked much more closely than women, even if the person with the wand is a woman.

So, week one is finished.  So far no stomach or digestive trouble, although I’ve not hit one of the pork stands yet, apparently a local must see/eat.  My consumption of diet coke is way down, for which I am sure my system is grateful, although there must be consternation at Coca Cola corporate headquarters.  I doubt I will become a long term coffee drinker, but coffee is my main source of caffeine here, and I am drinking lots of (bottled) water.  South African wines are prevalent here, not surprisingly, and I’ve had some very nice meals here so far.  The people are friendly, the traffic frenetic, the climate temperate, and the scenery lovely.  The adventure continues!

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Week one completes and more info on the projects

Well, I survived my first working week here in Kampala.  It wasn’t actually a full week as there was a national holiday declared for Wednesday because of the death of the former president Binaisa.  He was apparently the last remaining ex-president alive and is also the first ex-president to die while in Uganda.  I’m still learning a lot about the history and the politics of this country, so stayed tuned.

Perhaps to make me feel more at home (as in working on a national holiday), we ended up having a couple of business meetings anyway, but it was still a relaxed day.  Also, the working day on Friday ends at 2pm at the UNICEF offices, so I had time to read and relax Friday afternoon as well.   A typical day begins between 8 and 830 am, and we head back between 5 and 630 in the evening.

This week has been spent mostly meeting people and learning about the projects that are underway to understand how I can best contribute to the efforts here.  I’ve met the heads of the various sections.  T4D (Technology For Development) is one of the cross cutting groups, as are, for example, Communications for Development (C4D), some data collection groups and the various operations and logistics groups.  The office here has an internal organization around three focus areas:  Alive, Safe, and Learning.  UNICEF’s mandate is focused at children’s issues, which includes maternal health, and these three focus areas refer to the various broad outcomes UNICEF is targeting for children in Uganda.  These focus areas overlay the more traditional areas of health, education, water and sanitation, nutrition, HIV/AIDS targeted programs, and child protection.

The T4D projects I will be mostly involved with are in three broad areas:  mHealth, many utilizing the RapidSMS platform (http://www.rapidsms.org/overview/); Social Monitoring, also using the RapidSMS platform, but this initiative focuses on broader aspects of availability of social services; and the Uganda Portal, an effort to bring information to even remote locations using rugged computing devices, both connected to the internet and providing offline content regarding health, education, and services.

I’ll put together separate blog posts for each of these broad areas, but it appears my initial focus will be for the Uganda Portal, looking at issues of configuration management and remote maintenance of the devices, scaling of the network, the full content management life cycle including content organization and delivery, and issues around profile management, personas, personalizations, including security implications.  T4D is looking to outsource the development of the content management piece, although another important aspect of my efforts will be to help with capability development.

The social monitoring program has the potential to empower individuals to influence policy by providing visibility into the status of infrastructure and availability of supplies, water, and even teachers.  With the number of cell phone subscribers (I’ve heard the number 8 million quoted several times), there should be some interesting scaling issues both surrounding data collection and data analytics.  Visualization of this data is crucial to providing the needed visibility to the data that can result in the policy impacts.  Hopefully my status as one of the world’s least visual people (pictures are not worth a thousand words – give me the words please) will not hamper this effort.

The various mHealth initiatives are in various stages of development.  Many discussions are currently surrounding a program to speed up and reduce the cost of birth and death registration.  This program also utilizes the RapidSMS platform, with the VHTs (Village Health Teams) sending SMS messages with the necessary information.  This initial message results eventually in, for example with a birth, the printing of a birth certificate at a facility close to the birth.

So, week one completes, with plans for some field trips over the next few weeks, both here in Kampala and further afield.  It also looks like I will be speaking at some local user groups here during my stay.  I also expect more meetings with potential donors and partners on the various projects underway here.  Some things are the same across all kinds of organizations; someone needs to make sure the money is there.

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Predictably Irrational

Roy went on a behavioral economics kick some time last year, and at that time I at least made it through Nudge and Sway, leaving Predictably Irrational and a more academic book on the subject on the pile and collecting dust.  Well, I finished Predictably Irrationaltoday.  The book does have a lot of interesting experiments providing insights that are sometimes amusing, often disturbing, and certainly worth examining for their ramifications.  I was struck at times, though, by the somewhat naive solutions the author proposed as a way to deal with the world as it really is. I would tend to agree with his oft-repeated assertion that the model of the rational decision maker that is so central to traditional economic theory is inadequate to say the least.  However, I am less convinced that he has a more realistic view on aggregate.

One example proposal of his illustrates my point here.  He argues that, rather than dividing up the bill amongst all parties when a group dines together, the group should adopt the “one person pays and this rotates” strategy.  While I can buy this for a very small group that often dines together and knows each other well, I think it breaks down pretty rapidly.  Even his example of four payers to me seems too large to work effectively.  While he acknowledges the risks of people moving away or the same people not coming or other problems with the idea, he still thinks it deserves more serious consideration.  Perhaps he just isn’t the one who would normally feel compelled to pick up the check if no one made a move for it, even if I had paid the last time around.

I do also somewhat question how broadly one can reason  from the conclusions of his experiments.  While they are certainly well designed experiments, by their nature there is little opportunity for group behavior to emerge or for the effects of time to be taken into account.  His group behavior is really more the sum of the individual behavior rather than there being much opportunity (with one exception) for individuals to influence the behavior of others in the group.  To me, both of these characteristics play an important role in reasoning about behavior in economic systems.  However, I think he makes several points about our tendency towards trust, fair play, dishonesty, procrastination and our unrealistic assessment of costs and benefits that more traditional economists should at least attempt to incorporate in their models.

Of course, one experiment that I thought had its original source in this book wasn’t there.  Now I have to try and find it for someone somewhere else.  Sigh.

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My Sabbatical Reading List (for starters anyway)

One of the hoped for benefits of a sabbatical so far seems to be panning out.  My book pile that has grown way too large is finally getting some serious attention.  The books I brought with me, both in the old fashioned form and on the kindle, include the following (not listing the fiction):

  • Predictably Irrational
  • An Introduction to  Behavioral Economics
  • The Ethical Brain
  • Three Scientists and Their Gods (Thanks Neal)
  • From Poverty to Prosperity
  • Complexity: A Guided Tour
  • The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms Schools and Societies
  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

Since arriving, Sean has added Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars to the pile.  Terra is worried that since I just finished my first book on the pile (Predictably Irrational), I might run out of material.  Fortunately, I return to the states for a week in late September, so I will be able to replenish my stash, assuming of course that there aren’t too many additions from here.  My pile in Seattle is certainly capable of sustaining me for quite some time. However, in case I need it, there is a good used book store not far away, so I need not fret.

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First Day at the Office!

Monday 9 August saw my first day at the UNICEF offices in Kampala.  However, Monday began with my first morning waking up to the local noises.  I still vividly remember my first morning in Orlando, FL after I moved there in 1994.  I had driven about 2000 miles in 2.5 days, alone, in the summer, in a car with no air conditioning.  By the time I had arrived, all I could think about was sleep.  I checked into a Holiday Inn Express in (what I thought was) the middle of Orlando and collapsed in sleep.  I was rudely awakened by what I first thought was a hallucination.  Was that really a rooster crowing outside my window?  Well, actually it was, since I wasn’t smack in the middle of the city, but in a part of town that still had a bit more of an outskirts feel to it between Orlando and the eastern edge of the city towards the university.

I had much the same feeling this Monday morning.  At least this time, though, Terra had warned me about the rooster, and the dogs that howled at the rooster, and the muezzin’s call to prayer; at least I didn’t have to worry that I was hallucinating.  Add to that symphony the use of open windows rather than central air conditioning, and no alarm clocks were needed, even given how tired I was after the flights.  Welcome to Kampala!

The drive in that morning in a taxi gave me my first glimpses of the city.  Terra’s place is located in quite a nice area of town called Kololo.  The UNICEF offices are quite near to the central business district.  The city itself is a series of hills; the office shares a hill with a (incomplete) tall hotel.  Traffic was quite a bit like India (Bangalore being my prevalent experience) without the cows or the motorized rickshaws, but with significantly more potholes, many of the car-swallowing variety.  Note to self: get the contact numbers for several different taxi services; the world does not need me driving on the streets of Kampala.

There are three major sources of transportation in Kampala (other than private vehicles, that is): the special hire taxis, the boda bodas (mostly motorcycles), and the matatus, which apparently have regular routes much like buses do in the US and are vans.  I think I’ll be sticking with the special hire taxis myself.  Apparently some companies suspend insurance coverage if you ride a boda boda; this does not sound like fun to me.

As luck would have it, this particular Monday was the right one for the MMM (formerly Monday Morning Meeting and now Monthly Monday Meeting).  Thus, I got a chance to be introduced to many of the folks here in the Kampala Office that I will be working with.  Everyone I’ve met here so far has been very friendly and welcoming.  When I consider the lifestyle choices these individuals have made, this doesn’t surprise me.  I am hoping I’ll remember all of the names, as this has never been one of my strengths.  So far so good, though.

Following the meeting was a day filled with hearing about the various projects on the go here and starting to figure out how best to insert myself, and most importantly where I can be most helpful.  We seem to be settling around aspects of three major initiatives: 1) the Uganda Portal, which will provide access to information (initially around health, education and items of interest to youth) across the country; 2) Social monitoring, an SMS based reporting system collecting information on a wide range of issues like malfunctioning water points, teacher absenteeism, availability of medications and/or power in medical clinics, etc. with a dashboard overlaying a map to show how services vary across the country and 3) a variety of m-Health initiatives, also primarily utilizing SMS.  I’ll describe each of these projects in more detail over the next several posts.

I’ve already got a couple of field trips planned to different parts of the country, and possibly even a trip out of the country to Nairobi.  I guess I don’t have to worry about being stuck in an office for my entire trip.  I am already starting to learn about the different regions of Uganda, but I still have a lot to learn.  Like remembering names, geography hasn’t been a strong suit either.  Experiences like this go a long way towards making us sometimes painfully aware of our limitations.

The end of the day found me dragging from jet lag but exhilarated from work.  In many ways, this day was like the first day at a new consulting client. There are the usual issues of where to sit, where the ahem facilities are, along with all the new people to meet and the logistics of connectivity and building access and the list goes on.  I am still very sure, though, that this experience will be an education for me.

That evening, I didn’t even realize that I didn’t eat a proper dinner, but I was at least able to sleep soundly.  Tuesday 10 August among other things will include an initial apartment-hunting trip.  The adventure continues!

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