Op-ed gets published!

3 03 2010

Just when you thought this blog was dead and gone, I have a follow up that is too good not to share.  After months of pitching and not knowing, I was disappointed to leave Uganda not knowing if the op-ed I wrote would ever get an audience outside of my co-workers.  Yesterday, my executive director (whose name you will see as the byline) wrote to say it was indeed published in the Independent, a weekly magazine in Uganda!

The op-ed is essentially a call to action, reprimanding the government for letting corruption get in the way of taking care of its citizens.  The case in point is the fact that there are hundreds of millions of dollars available to Uganda for treatment of HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuburculosis but the blatant corruption is harming Uganda’s ability to collect the money.

If interested, click here to read the op-ed. I seem to remember it being more interesting than it actually reads now but nonetheless I’m still quite happy to have a published piece in Uganda!


Best of…

12 02 2010

Living in Kampala, you get used to meeting new people all the time mixed in with a plethora of goodbye dinners.  It is hard to get close to people and have them leave or be the one leaving.  A common aspect of the goodbye process is reflection on “best ofs.” Here are mine…see you stateside and check back in the next week or two for a final summarizing blog post!

Top five things I’ll miss most:

  • The people
  • Walks to work
  • Rolex, pineapple, bananas, mangoes and eating “chips” with every meal
  • Discussions on bowel movements, malaria medications and other interesting, deep conversations about life and changing the world
  • Daily sense of adventure, learning and meaning

Top five things I’m most looking forward to going home:

  • The people
  • My bed (and no mosquito net)
  • Laundry machine
  • Decent food
  • TV/couch combo

Best experiences

  • Hanging out with kids: neighbors – Jimmy and Kathy, making paper airplanes with David, Esther and Ezra and visiting the school in Kitende (Jordan, Soloman & Joseph)
  • Teaching men at corner shack how to shuffle and play blackjack
  • Christmas travels: Sipi & Rwanda
  • Spin Saturdays at Kabira
  • Seeing Obama everywhere – earrings, ring tone of special hire, etc.

My secret love of bodas: Facing fear

8 02 2010

A boda boda is a broken down motorcycle that serves as a form of transportation in Uganda – a ridiculously unsafe option to help you get around.

The drivers are sketchy at best. It is not out of line to smell their breath to see if they’ve been drinking or check their eyes to see if they’re high. Most do not wear helmets and forget about any type of protective gear for driver or passenger. Women either straddle the bike where the exhaust pipe has literally burned a hole in my flip flops (considered safest if you trust your driver and not the other drivers) or sit side saddle if you’re wearing a skirt (easiest to hop off if your driver is reckless). Boda drivers literally weave in and out of cars on the road and excel at zig sagging through traffic jams with turns that often cause knee grazing of other vehicles. They may drive down the wrong way on a street or take to the side of the road where people are walking if it will get you to your destination quicker.

According to a popular guidebook, 10 people die in boda accidents every day. And according to my friends who work in the hospital here, the majority of patients they see are boda accident related.

There are numerous horror stories of boda drivers scheming to steal bags (one drives past the other and literally grabs the bag from the passenger while the bodas are moving). Right before I came, the American embassy put out a warning indicating that two American women had been attacked (one gang raped and the other violently robbed) after leaving a popular ex-pat bar in the wee hours of the morning.

Why you ask would anyone ever choose to take such a death trap on wheels?

I’m not really sure the answer. I know it is dumb. I know my grandma and Baubie Lu Lu will cringe when they read this (sorry!). I know my program specifically forbids taking them and Peace Corps volunteers are sent home if it is discovered they’ve taken a boda. Yet, I also can admit that I secretly love them. At the end of every ride, I feel a rush and thrill of survival – almost like a runner’s high but without all the sweat and hard work. They’re convenient, cheap and offer an incredible experience.

When I first arrived I had no intention of ever stepping near a boda. I lasted about one week of walking everywhere before I had an experience that made me face the fear. I was walking home from someone’s house late at night. She lived in the neighborhood and it was decided it was safe enough to walk. In retrospect, I’m not sure but that was the smartest but that was the decision made at the time. Nonetheless, I got lost in the dark and got scared. It was the first time it hit me that I was in Africa of all places, that there was really no 911 to call for a rescue, no identifiable street sign to help guide someone to my location and lots of unknowns lurking in the darkness. I managed to find my way to a busy road and so incredibly afraid of getting lost again I flagged down the next boda and hopped on. This was by far and away, the most dangerous risk I’ve taken in riding a boda yet it turned out fine. I survived and it broke me in to the world of boda bodas.

For me, I consider it to be a calculated risk and one that I use certain parameters to determine whether or not I ride a boda. For instance, I never take bodas at night. I took a boda with another person one other time (yes you can fit and regularly see 3 people or more with kids on a motorcycle) and vowed to not do that again. I tend to judge which boda I take based on the condition of their bike.I always ask the driver to go slow and be safe.  In reality, I’d say I ride a boda maybe 3-5 times per week depending on where I’m going. My first choice is always to walk, followed by a group taxi (mutatu – also not very safe) and then special hire (our version of a taxi and most expensive option – I have two regular drivers who take me wherever I go at night). Are these parameters really going to save me from something bad happening?  Of course not.

The point in me sharing this is not to scare anyone. Rather it is to illustrate something I think is important to note. Every day of this experience there is something to be afraid of.

At first I was just scared to come. What if I miss home? What if no one likes me? What if I can’t do the work? Then once I arrived it became… Will this food make me sick? Is this person trying to scam me? Am I going to trip and fall when walking through the dark? Is my belly ache indigestion or the beginning signs of malaria?

Before I left I saw an article in my gym magazine about fear. It was written by an Olympic high diver with a fear of heights. His point was essentially that rather than focus on conquering fear – which may be an exercise in futility – it is better to acknowledge it and embrace it.This struck a chord with me. There are days I’m embarrassed of my fears and wish that I was a “stronger” person and not such a scaredy cat. Yet, I also know that by facing my fears I get the same high I get when taking a boda – the thrill of accomplishment and survival.

To me, that is one of the most rewarding lessons I’ve learned during my time in Uganda. I’ve always believed it was important to take risks but somehow I felt insincere because the same risks I preached taking were ones I was (and continue to be) afraid of. Now I have come to know, that I may never “conquer” my fears but I have a new confidence in my ability to face them and knowledge that in doing so, the greatest thrills are yet to be had.

Organizing a blood drive

2 02 2010

Reading the news in Uganda gives new definition to the concept of sensational journalism.  Unfortunately, many of the stories are true and the headlines, shocking as they are, describe actual events.  Struggling with wanting to feel like there was some sort of tangible impact before I go and wanting to inspire civic engagement from Ugandans (it was fascinating that news coverage of events in Haiti received so little coverage here — most Ugandans said it was because they had nothing to give.  I would argue they have compassion to give but the culture here is much more used to being the ones in need, rather the ones in position to give), our organization has decided to put together a volunteer blood drive.  There was a recent front page article in the New Vision newspaper (click here to read) stating that the national blood bank was out of blood.  Patients in hospitals are unable to get blood and are dying.  This is something anyone, regardless of how much money you have, can help with.  I’m really hopeful we are able to get a good crowd and am devoting most of my last week to mobilizing people for the blood drive and a meeting to present the strategic plan.  I hope to post success photos next week!

Information on the blood drive:

Every minute of every day, someone needs blood – anemic children, pregnant mothers, accident victims, surgical patients, etc. That blood can only come from a volunteer donor, a person like you who makes the choice to donate.

Recently, there was a news article stating that Uganda’s national blood bank has run dry, causing severe shortages of blood countrywide. This means people are dying unnecessarily because there is not enough blood available.

We can do something about this!

The Action Group for Health, Human Rights and HIV/AIDS (AGHA) is a local NGO committed to raising the awareness of all health care providers and the communities they serve about the human rights aspects of health. When we saw the recent news, we decided to mobilize people to take action and help generate the desperately needed blood.

We hope you will join us for the blood drive and help save lives!

What: Volunteer blood drive

Where: Action Group for Health, Human Rights and HIV/AIDS (AGHA) offices:
Kanjokya Street, Plot 69, Kamwokya (at end of street)

When: Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 9:00am – 4:00pm
(only takes about 15 min. to donate – come anytime during the day!)


• Donating blood literally saves lives – one unit of blood can save four children.

• As the rates of malaria increase, the need for blood also increases as many malaria patients are anemic and require additional blood.

• The Ugandan Blood Transfusion Service estimates the annual need for blood to be approximately 200,000 units. On average, Uganda is unable to meet the demand and is in need of an additional 50,000 units.

• The blood collected will benefit patients throughout Uganda.

• Giving blood is an easy way to make a difference in the lives of your fellow Ugandans – it is the patriotic thing to do.

• By giving blood, you will benefit from knowing your blood type and will receive free HIV/AIDs testing.

Frequently asked questions:

Who is eligible?

Everyone is eligible as long as you meet the following criteria:

• Are between 17 and 60 years of age

• Weight at least 45 kgs

• Are not sick

• Are not on medication

• Have no history of chronic diseases

Will it hurt?

In general, donating blood is not painful and will not cause you any harm. You should feel free to partake in normal activities after the donation.

Is it safe?

Blood donation is safe and will not affect your health. You cannot get an infection by donating blood. The blood drive team is well trained and equipped to ensure your safety during the process. All of the equipment used is sterile and is only used once before being thrown away.

If you have any questions about the blood drive, please feel free to contact Allison at 0718 375 024.

The post you’ve all been waiting for: thoughts on gay bashing in Uganda

28 01 2010

As you may have heard, Uganda has made recent news for a piece of anti-gay legislation.  Just when the shadow of Idi Amin may have been beginning to fade, Uganda has managed to rebrand itself in the global community with a reputation for hatred and gay bashing.  Great job, guys.

There is much confusion about the actual details of the new law.  See in Uganda, homosexuality is already illegal.  And in a country where justice is at times served through vigilante mobs (unfortunate but true) it is not unheard of that homosexuality would be punished by death.  Though to be clear, that is not the penalty under the current law.  There was talk that the new law may ask for the death penalty for homosexuality though that is rather unclear (some interpretations are that it designates the death penalty for acts of pedophilia and purposefully infecting someone with HIV/AIDS though it equates such acts with general homosexuality – again rather unclear what the law itself actually says).

Perhaps the most interesting part of the new legislation is that it makes it a crime to not report someone you know is a homosexual.  This means that family members, friends, health professionals, etc. could be thrown in jail for up to three years for failure to report someone as being gay.  Keep in mind that if you did report someone as being gay you are essentially condemning that person to violence, stigma and time in prison.  If this were true in the U.S. I’d be serving a lot of time.

The human rights implications of this bill are obvious.  Clearly, the law is astounding, abysmal and whatever another word is that starts with an “a” for just plain bad (I guess “awful” works, huh).  In a country with so many other really serious issues to deal with, why would anyone choose to focus on this?

Part of the answer lies with the upcoming elections in 2011.  The National Resistance Movement (NRM) party is in power and has been since 1986.  The Member of Parliament, Bahati, who introduced the bill is part of the NRM.  It is thought that he did this as a way to make a name for himself in the party – particularly with the more conservative wing.  No one expects him to challenge Museveni, the current President in the 2011 elections but there is anticipation that as Museveni grows older, others are beginning to angle for position as a possible replacement.  It certainly worked from an increasing name ID perspective – he’s the only MP I can name.  I have serious doubts this will work for his long term aspirations but that remains to be seen.

Another theory is that Bahati introduced this bill as a distraction technique.  Think “Wag the Dog.”  They chose a controversial issue that they knew would galvanize support from the public.  As the international community inevitably reacts, the ruling party can be seen as the hero who is standing up for real Ugandan values.  All this so that Ugandans wholeheartedly show up to the polls and vote the NRM back into power – completely ignoring the problems yet to be addressed under their rule.

The unfortunate truth is that many Ugandans have extremely homophobic beliefs so the bill itself is not that farfetched in terms of representing popular opinion.  I’ve been surprised that even in the human rights community where an organization may oppose the bill, the individuals who work at the human rights organization still think homosexuality is wrong.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who is openly gay in Uganda.  There are certainly signs that we would use to stereotype gays in the U.S. (i.e., men hold hands on the street all the time, this weekend at the market I saw a man dressed in a dress for the sake of trying to sell more dresses, etc.), but according to many Ugandans, homosexuality does not exist in Africa.  If there are cases, it is because the Europeans brought it (thank goodness we escaped blame on that one) to Uganda.  Some proponents of the bill preach that the stipulation to penalize who don’t report homosexuals is that those individuals are denying gays from access to treatment to “cure” their gayness.  Riiight.

Crazy stuff I realize and in my opinion definitely deserving of strong reprimand from the international community.  Still, like everything here, the issue itself is complex.  Countries who threaten to stop aid if the bill passes are not hurting the proponents of the bill, rather they are just denying services and treatment to many innocent Ugandans whose thoughts on the bill are unknown and frankly irrelevant to their right to live.

As you can imagine, this bill has caused a ton of chatter in Uganda.  Aside from media coverage, there have been numerous conversations about the bill among the ex-pat crowd – all of whom are strongly against it and think it is ridiculous.  Most Ugandans who I hang out with also are opposed to the bill and think it will not pass but again they don’t personally claim to know or in general seem to be OK with gay people.

I feel pretty confident the bill will not pass for a number of reasons – for one, I just don’t think the Ugandan Parliament is that dumb to have it pass in its current version given the uproar it has caused.  I would not be surprised though if a different version made its way to law.  Then again, perhaps the introduction of the bill itself was all the Government needed (and the religious right from the U.S. who came to Uganda last year and are credited for giving the idea to local Ugandans) to make its point.

For more information and commentary from a recent meeting discussing the bill, please visit my friend’s blog: http://avnerabroad.blogspot.com/2010/01/anti-homosexuality-bill-of-2009.html (though don’t visit too much as we’re in a heated competition to see who can get more hits on their blog :))

Also, for those who are interested, here are a few recent news articles about the bill.  Can’t wait to hear your comments on this one :).

Minnesota coverage: MinnPost: Death penalty for gay sex is included in proposed Ugandan legislation

National coverage: NY Times: Americans’ Role Seen in Uganda Anti-Gay Push

International coverage: The Guardian: UN’s human rights chief urges Uganda to scrap anti-gay legislation

Ugandan coverage: The Independent: Opinion: An Open letter to the Ambassadors of Donor countries accredited to Uganda

Corruption and a culture of complacency

25 01 2010

I have realized what a classic American I am in my thinking by coming to Uganda.

As a westerner, I take for granted the key elements of living in a democratic society. I accept without doubt that there is a certain level of responsibility and checks and balances both the government and we as citizens have for each other. Politicians rise to power because they have an idea and ambition. They fall from power because they fail to do what they say and the people get fed up and vote them out. The power of the people is ultimate.

When I first arrived I was immediately drawn to trying to understand the political dynamics in Uganda. (I know, real shocker I was drawn to politics :)) As like most Americans, I knew very little about African, let alone Ugandan politics, and after two months, I am still struggling to figure it out.

The current leader, Museveni is “good” by a lot of African standards but then again that is not saying much. He has been in power since 1986 and Uganda still struggles at the bottom of most lists (health stats, growth, etc.). People die of preventable deaths here all the time. The roads are horrific and yet while people bitch nothing is ever done to change anything. Why is that? In my opinion, it is because Uganda has a “culture of complacency.” I realize that sounds harsh but unfortunately it is the best descriptor of general attitudes.

At first I thought Museveni was in power because there was no real organized opposition and that all they needed was a charismatic leader willing to call attention to the issues and lead a grassroots movement to change something. If people don’t like the roads, why can’t a local neighborhood band together and fix the road themselves? As other neighbors see the fixed roads, they become upset that the people who are supposed to fix the roads (government), aren’t and they apply pressure for change – basic elements of grassroots action. If enough people get riled up, change can happen.

Instead what I’ve realized is that nothing like this happens in Uganda because the prevailing mentality is that things are better than they were. There is a fear it could be worse so why try and make it better. In the U.S. every action is about being better – success and improvement are obsessions. Here the culture is to be complacent about the ailments of the country. Poverty is accepted. Death is tolerated as a regular part of life. Basic infrastructure needs (electricity, running water, communication technology, etc.) are interrupted all the time without rhyme or reason. People are not ignorant (though at times I wonder how much they are able to imagine how things can get better because of their limited exposure to a world outside of Uganda) – they know enough to get frustrated by it. But they also know enough to believe things can’t change. How do you change when things are so fundamentally corrupt? Who do you look to for change?

Government regularly gets in trouble for stealing huge amounts of money. Money for life-saving AIDS drugs disappears and there are shortages of drugs that should have been financed across the country. It is widely known that local police pull people over expecting a bribe in exchange for a get out of jail free pass. To get a passport in this country in any decent time period, you have to slip someone an extra 100,000 shillings. The stealing and corruption is not some sort of dirty little secret. It is wide open for everyone to see. And because of it, the motivation and belief that change can happen is non-existent.

Government is not the only sector where corruption prevails. My friends who are working in the private sector here regularly discuss how they know that literally every day someone is stealing from the company. They can choose to have a Western reaction and be outraged or they can accept it for what it is, plan around it and do the best they can to continue to grow the business despite of it. It is easy to see how people fall into the pattern of accepting corruption and become complacent.

Of course, like many critics of development, I am quick to point out a significant barrier in Uganda but remain clueless as to any suggestions on how to address the issue. Nonetheless as I’ve had countless conversations about this dilemma and think it is an important aspect to understand how things really work in Uganda, I decided it warranted a blog post.

Sorry for a not so cheery post.  I’ll try and add a nice fluff post with photos soon 🙂

AGHA Op-Ed & Update on Expert Positioning

21 01 2010

We are currently in the process of pitching an op-ed to media in Uganda. We’re hopeful that we can get the country’s largest newspaper to publish it in the next few weeks. I thought I’d share as the topic is interesting and shows some of the work I’ve been doing with this NGO.

At the same time, I’ve been helping with an “expert positioning” effort for AGHA and its Executive Director. So far it is going well, though again interactions and expectations from the media are quite different. After the op-ed I’ll post a few responses I received from media upon trying to set up background meetings.

Op-ed: Stop playing politics with Ugandan lives

According to the Global Fund to Fight Tuberculosis, Malaria and HIV/AIDs (GFTAM), an estimated 150,000 Ugandans die from AIDS, Malaria or Tuberculosis each year. There are almost 14 million people affected by these three deadly diseases in Uganda and yet they are also highly preventable. The Global Fund is a multi-billion dollar international financing mechanism established in 2002 that aims to combat these diseases by providing financial grants to countries in need. The GFTAM also now has a window for health systems strengthening which is an opportunity for countries like Uganda to receive funding to address broader weaknesses in the country’s health system.

Clearly, Uganda’s health crisis fits the criteria for this type of assistance yet local politics are hindering our capacity to receive funding and fight these diseases. Currently 95% of all funds for ARVs/TB medications comes from either GFTAM/or PEPFAR. When GFTAM didn’t make a disbursement last March, Uganda experienced a serious TB drug shortage.

In the eight years the Global Fund has been in existence, Uganda has applied for and been approved for money in six rounds out of the nine (round five was not successful, round eight proposal was not submitted and in November 2009 round nine was not approved). A total of $343 million has been committed yet less than half $158 million has been disbursed to date. Why?

Quite simply, the Government of Uganda’s lackadaisical approach to fighting corruption and mending the errors of our previous ways is affecting our ability to secure vital health care funding from the international community.

In 2005, Uganda received publicity when the Global Fund decided to suspend five grants worth $213 million because of mismanagement of funds. While the Government of Uganda acted quickly and spent a lot of money to set up a commission to look into the mismanagement, they have failed to prosecute the people implicated and have yet to come up with a long term plan to ensure this type of corruption does not happen again. In fact, while an estimated 300 people were accused in the mismanagement, only four have been prosecuted. As recently as 2008, the Global Fund acknowledged that Uganda had not done enough to guarantee the safety of the money. We have not received a grant from the Global Fund since then. Coincidence? Unlikely.

Of course the international community is hesitant to dole out more money to Uganda when they lack assurances that the funds will actually go to the people in need.

The time is long overdue for Uganda’s government to address issues of corruption and recognize the effects this type of poor management has on the lives of real Ugandans. President Yoweri Museveni has declared a war on corruption. If President Museveni is really serious about fighting corruption, this is an opportune time to deal with the people who were in senior leadership positions and mismanaged GFTAM monies – people whose indiscretions are costing Uganda millions of dollars. The people with the greatest responsibility for mismanagement of GFTAM monies must be prosecuted and the money returned to the people of Uganda. The diversion of attention from the real criminals by punishing a few small fish as scapegoats is totally unacceptable. It is a sign of political hypocrisy and illustrates a lack of commitment to the people of Uganda.

Most importantly, Uganda needs to figure out a sustainable approach to providing transparency and accountability in how health care funds are spent to mitigate any potential other losses of funds. Ultimately, we must create a system where corruption is not tolerated and the health of Ugandans is the utmost priority for all.


Verbatim responses from media to expert positioning:

Dear Allison, Thank you very much for your email. This is to inform you that I am already in partnership with AGHA and have on several occassions covered news events for the organisation. I have also held a one on one intrview with the Executive Director Sandra Kiapi. This email is therefore to express my continued commitment in working with AGHA in as far as news coverage, advocacy and campaigns are concerned. I will definitely keep in touch with the Executive Director while covering health and human rights related stories. Thank you once again. —————————————————————————————————————-

Thats good please but am asking you to avail me with a detailed programme for the above mentioned training and meeting with spacified dates. Thank you and may God bless you.


Dear Alison, niceto hear from you. Happy New year . I have been very busy with my daughter who studes from Goa UniversityIndia. She had come around Xmans time for her research on a Masters programme. I will definetelybe in touch.I remeber around january 7, i received a mail about AGHA and I wrote a story. My boss told me it appeared as a news brief. So you can imagine how someof our bosses frustrate us. That is when I came to know about that organization and the executive director. But when I tried to call her number it was off. I will try to get in touch using the contacts availed me. Please stay in touch. God Bless U.