Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Benjamin A. Sklaver Cafeteria: A proud but reflective day for ClearWater

On Tuesday, a four-member ClearWater delegation watched as the government of Kitgum District, the US Ambassador to Uganda and US Army Brigadier General James Owens -- a former superior of Ben’s, cut the ribbon on a joint USAID/US military civil affairs project, the Kitgum High School Cafeteria.

The military and USAID have completed many similar projects in Uganda, but none with such high level attendance. The joint civilian military project named in Ben's honor was fitting: he was one of few people who could easily cross between the drastically different organizational cultures.

There were several in attendance who knew Ben personally including Patrick Devy from Afrimax, who worked with Ben on many projects in 2007, and some local officials. Chairman of Kitgum Komakech Ogwok who met many generals, but was taken by Ben, called him a “simple and humble man" who “demystified a lot about the US Army” creating a positive image. Resident District Commissioner of Kitgum Omony Ogaba hoped that "Ben's spirit may empower others who use this facility to strive for lasting peace.”

The cafeteria itself was smartly appointed, with sturdy tables (unfamiliar to most dining halls here), a shiny brick floor and new cookery. Despite the Sklaver name, you probably won’t be eating any of Ben’s simple culinary favorites. And don’t expect anyone to take up the grill like he might to serve up simple American treats like hot dogs and hamburgers. No, at the Sklaver cafeteria, it will be rice, beans, boo and malakwang. It will be simple food, local food—the way it should be. And that, at ClearWater, makes us proud.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Favorite scenes from training

Over the past week we have been in the villages discussing the water situation, hearing about villagers' concerns and helping them develop their own strategies to find lasting solutions. It is a balance between training, conversing, convincing and ultimately, when done well, empowering. It is a process that does not last one day. It takes many.
Guiding people to find the best solution, not just putting a hole in the ground, is far more complex than you might imagine. But assisting people with the capacity solve their own problems is far more successful than coming in with the answers. We will address this more in future posts and through future reports. Below are some of our favorite moments over the past week.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Similarities in a far away land

Sunday likes to law down the law. Before our country director begins a training session in the villages where we may install a water point, he asks the community for rules of the session. He likes to keep the sessions participatory and the rules give the villagers a sense that they also help set the agenda.

It was a slow process at Amoninonu Village this morning. My mind wandered as I checked out the surroundings -- over 100 of us sat in the center of the village under the shade of an oak tree (Ok, it wasn’t an oak, but I know little African flora). A slight breeze blew caused our flip chart papers to flutter about, making it difficult for Sunday to write the suggestions down.

A chicken with a purple string tied around its leg clucked through the space separating Sunday and the adult villagers, who were attentively watching. Elementary school students in sun bleached, but yet still dirt tinged pink and blue tattered uniforms , checked out the curiosities of a morning large meeting and the white man in an over sized sun hat from a distance.

It was rural. It was remote. But it was yet, still so connected. And it wasn't just the satellite drilled into a mud-brick building.

Some of the basic rules that Sunday wrote down could have come from sessions in the states. My translator told them to me: respect for others views, no interrupting. The rules continued and focused more on personal responsibility: no smoking and no drinking of alcohol during the sessions. It was oddly comforting to hear rules with which I was familiar, albeit not always so explicit. As my eyes caught the large horn cow passing by, my translator leaned over and whispered and all too familiar rule, “turn your mobile phones to vibrate.”


Not only have mobile phones penetrated, so have apparent bad manners. Now, I must say, not everyone has cell phones, I only saw a few. And those with them were proud to show them off. But apparently the rings are a distraction.

When I related the story to a western colleague who has spent some time in country, she was dumbfounded. She couldn’t believe that the villagers would have thought of such a rule because in Uganda it seemed to her that one is almost expected to answer a cell phone call regardless of where one is. However, I was surprised about the rule too. After all, I wouldn’t think we would discuss cell phone etiquette in a village without fresh water.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Ice Man of Africa

Several years ago Denis had an idea: Ice. The orphaned boy, then in his very late teens, was able to get access to a freezer in the town of Lira and started selling the stuff to fisherman. They put it in coolers so they could bring their catch back to town to sell it at the market and at restaurants.

Denis tells me through his gapped tooth smile that he had earned enough money to expand his business to rent the public water kiosk two years ago. He now also charges 100 shilling, or about 5 cents, for 20 liters of water. However, his big business is still ice. At 1,000 shilling for roughly a two-liter block, he does well, though far better in the dry season when the need for ice triples his business. His biggest constraints are the size of his freezer and time, as it takes about a day for the blocks to freeze. And, of course, the constant loss of power, which melts his profits.

Denis did well enough that people far wealthier have begun encroaching on his business, lowering the market price of ice. But he still does well selling the blocks as demand in town for ice has expanded. The sustained business has allowed Denis to put his three younger siblings through school. He had previously moved his brothers and sisters down to the city from his small village for a “a better life than I had.” Since the rebels killed his parents, adulthood came early to Denis. Fortunately, so did his entrepreneurial skills.

At the kiosk, he also grinds up peanuts, or g-nuts, into peanut butter for roughly a 20% mark up, less electricity costs, which he laments for eating into his margins. The grinder chews up electricity, and spits up peanut chunks, making his kiosk door and adjacent wall look like the back of a 4-wd that spent the day off-roading.

He has tried to expand beyond his kiosk and bought a bike which he rented out to a motorcycle taxi driver. But he found the driver unreliable, he liked to drink a bit too much and work a bit too little, so the bike sat idle just beyond his kiosk.

The Ice Man of Africa? Maybe that's a bit rich. After all his margins are too small to hire an employee (although he pays someone to trim the overgrown grass around his kiosk). But at 23, the Ice Man of Lira is sure a hard worker. And his skills are helping provide sustainable clean water and fresh fish to Lira.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

I should be writing about water, but... (Kampala bomb blasts)

I would love to say that all is as it was here in Kampala. I should be writing about the meetings I had with water officials, or even an entry about the rooster calls emanating from the kitchen of the restaurant I am in. But the news is the July 11th bombing during the World Cup match and the reality is Kampala has changed. It’s timid.

For the one-off visitor to Kampala the change would be unnoticeable, but the bars are quieter, the roadsides at night, a bit less active, and the talk is about how many people are choosing to stay home at night. Third-hand metal detectors have sprung up outside restaurants and all security guards seemed to have a metal wand (detector), that they rub over strategic parts of your body to detect coins. It’s for show really, I thought as they jabbed the wand against my leg assuming the detector has to actually touch the object in order for it to beep. I wonder, would they really jump to take down someone who just burst past them? But security is not much different at many places at home.

Don’t think for a minute, though, that Kampala is quiet. I still get stuck in monstrous traffic jams and see throws of people walking up and down the streets day and night, bopping in and out of road stalls. The welders are still welding, the traffic police still are policing and the motorcycle drivers are still eerily dangerous.

I went past the main bombing site, where many were killed. Although some foreigners were there that night, the crowd was far more local from what I hear. Most people I interact with seem to know someone who was there and have a story to tell, at least hearsay.

I try to keep a low profile. Hard to do really, but I shy away from crowded places, like markets and bus stations. Fortunately, they are not on my route. There are rumors of another attacks in such spots. In a sense, it is easier to be secure here by avoiding those places. But in New York, all places are those places.

We had a crude bomb attack in Times Square this year and threats on various subways always seem to be thwarted. But NYC is not alone in security fears, Madrid and London all had far larger attacks over the past few years and Istanbul -- where I was at for a day previously -- has had more numerous deadly attacks in recent years than those cities combined. The reality is that terrorism happens where I live and travel. But I am far more susceptible to the more mundane, the less hand-line grabbing car accident or bout of malaria. And to avoid those, I use cars, swallow Lariam and hope for the best.