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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Step One

Yesterday we left in a tropical downpour, only to find out that Nathan
and Sarah's hoped for airplane ride would not materialize, so they
needed to pile on our truck, too. We ascended the mountains in an
eerie mist, complete with baboons silhouetted, huddled in the trees.
But once on the other side, the clouds dissipated, though the day was
still quite long with errands in Fort Portal and with us not wanting
to dislodge the loose shock and spring that had torpedoed Scott's day
last week. Step one of our journey was to reach Kampala, which we did
by early evening. I have no great desire to live in the city, but I
do find something about this place vibrant. Cramped one-room shops
lit at night, some with a TV or a pool table, shelves of biscuits or
cooking oil packaged in the tiny daily allotments of the poor, hair
salons with loiterers, used clothes stretched on curvaceous hangers.
Everywhere darting motorcycle bodas, overbearing mini-buses full of
commuters, random pedestrians, blaring horns, all though with a good
humor. It is a city of the scramble for life, of a rising expectation
and eroding culture, a city of filth, and a city of beauty.

And the center of pretty much everything that goes on in Uganda, the
place of multi-story office buildings, grocery stores with
refrigerated meats and bar-code-scanning check-outs. This morning I
headed to the fortress of efficiency that is UNICEF, braving the
intimidating security to talk my way into meeting a very busy and
important executive whose subordinate forgot to tell her I was
coming. I understood her insistence on protocol and order and yet I
think she also heard my plea for the kids in Bundibugyo who were about
to be sold out on a technicality or oversight. All in all as much as
I could hope for, the promise to "look into it". Not a clear "expect
a shipment this week", but far from a "no."

The rest of the day, a little of this and that, some kid time, picking
up a hand-woven kitengi cloth that Luke had requested (we use them for
towels), finding out that Tuesdays are half-price at the movies and so
our whole family could go to the matinee. Dinner by candle light at
our favorite Indian restaurant. Fun. Perhaps the anonymity of being
just one more mujungu among the many, one more person no one knows, is
the best part of Kampala.

Step two begins tomorrow at 6, the drive across eastern Uganda to the
border and into the central Kenyan highlands. We will traverse one of
the major east African trade routes, the two-lane paved corridor of
goods that flow from the port at Mombasa throughout Kenya, Uganda,
Rwanda, Sudan, into even Congo. And so I end with some news from
today's East African Newspaper, detailing a special field
investigative report that collected data on trucking: "Bribery
expenses total about $891 per truck, accounting for over 21% of the
total export costs." There are 36 road blocks along the way, from
borders to police checks to weigh stations. Drivers face the subtle,
indirect request for a bribe at 78% of these stops. It takes 5 times
longer to move cargo from the Kenyan port to Kigali (Rwanda) than it
took to get the ship from Japan to Africa. Over 57% of the journey
time is spent, stationary, at the road blocks. . . . I will remember
all of this tomorrow when we see the endless lines of trucks backed up
at the border, or when the police wave us through their nail-studded
barriers looking for more lucrative vehicles to question. And I will
ponder the connection between the trade routes and the AIDS routes,
wondering whether the harshness and futility of the African trucker's
life makes him more vulnerable to high-risk HIV-transmitting
behaviour. And I will be thankful that we brave the potholes only a
few times a year, and do not live on the roads every day.

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