Monday, November 24, 2008

Unforseen Consequences of the Current Financial Crisis

In Cross Lanes, we have Kroger's; in Chicago we have Dominick's; in Wisconsin it's Piggly Wiggly. Ugandan grocery shopping beats to a different drum, one bereft of apostrophe.  Largely my shopping is done in Mukura trading center, a ten minute walk from my house.  The trading center is the commercial center of our sub-county, the only place around with electricity.  It is also blessed with tomatos, onions, and occasionally green peppers and certain tubers.  This makes up about 60% of my diet.

The rest of it comes from that ubiquitous Ugandan phenomenon, the Indian Supermarket.  As many know, there is a substantial population of Indian immigrants in Uganda, most of whom are entrepeneurs.  As industry in Uganda is hardly diversified or even specialized, the bulk of spending is on consumer goods.  Thus, the supermarket industry is dominated by enterprising Indians.

Now, don't imagine these supermarkets to be similar to those in the states.  There are a couple of those in the capital city of Kampala, but they are overpriced and cater to the wealthiest 2-3% of Ugandans and foreign ex-pats.  No, the local supermarkets are quite a different beast.  Imagine your average 7-11, cut its size in half, and double the amount of products inside. Your average 7-11 however, tends to focus on snacks and auto accessories. We don't have beef jerky or slushies, we don't have rear-view mirror adhesive or rain-x.  What we do have is buckets and brooms, laundry detergent (for hand-washing of course) and surge protectors (a tease to those of us without electricity).  We have pirated DVDs, toilet paper (oh blessed toilet paper), blueband (something akin to margarine), candles (the good Taiwanese ones in a blue box, not the Chinese crap you get in the village), and a tacky and flimsy version of many things that you would certainly buy if only they were less tacky and flimsy.

(side note: the one thing that Ugandan supermarkets do have in common with America is an overwhelming assortment of Pringles chips.  Seriously, in my nearest supermarket 40k away, there are 11 different types of Pringles! I mean, I've never even seen a Ugandan eating Pringles! Where are the hidden Pringles connosieurs of Uganda! I want to meet you! I want to shake your sour cream and onion residued hand!)

Since our consumer goods are limited, and our opportunities to collect them are few and far between, Peace Corps Volunteers tend to be quite brand conscious.  There is a fervent rivalry between users of the two laundry powders, omo and nomi (the latter being dolts and derelicts). I have high fived many over their preference for pepsi over coke.  When I walk out of a supermarket to rejoin a waiting PCV friend, she may look at the color of my axion grease stripper tub quizically and ask "really? you buy yellow axion?" (I have since switched to green). We grow up in ultra-consumerist America and have a hard time reconnecting with those roots in our East African villages.
The most amusing change however, is where my brand loyalties actually lie.  Back at home, I would passively attempt to buy products from the companies that I felt served the local community better.  No, I didn't shop at Whole Foods, and probably wouldn't have even if I could afford to.  I did however take mild satisfaction in buying RC cola rather than Coke (although RC is owned by the only slightly smaller behemoth Carbury plc). I would buy the tortillas at Dominick's whose label was written in Spanish because it felt more authentic. I would try to eat at local restaurants rather than fast food chains (Taco Bell excepted).  Many would say that these behaviors would make me the worst type of consumer, one who is willing to modify his spending habits to buy products that offer more than just low prices, but one who is so uninformed in his erratic choices that he is actually working against the creation of new market trends.  These people are right.  I take great satisfaction in buying local, but since I don't know what is and isn't local, I probably don't buy local often.  What's worse is that I don't really care about this discrepancy.  I should either accept that I am not doing anyone any good and buy from the big boxes, or decide to get to work and figure out where my money would actually make a difference. Eh, whatever.
This has manifested itself oddly in Uganda.  The attitudes and ideas of my fellow PCVs, as well as recent election results, has rekindled my sense of patriotism.  But my spending habits (however feeble) are hardly good for Uncle Sam.  I am essentially taking money from American taxpayers (a group which my paltry salary prevents me from joining) and putting it into a relatively closed economic system in Uganda. Lets be honest, Opio George from the duka down the street is not going to be investing my candle money into a mutual fund.  My entire salary contributes to our obscene current account deficit! Everything I buy is an import! And none of it is going to come back to America!
So, in a desparate attempt to aid our flailing economy (charity begins at home you know...) I find myself choosing American products whenever possible.  This is the antithesis of my passive and self-defeating brand consumerism from America.  Instead of helping the local community, I have a great sense of pride in buying American products.  For instance, there is a thriving local industry for bottled water.  Of the brands available in our villages, all of them are based on Uganda.  But these colors don't run.  When I'm in Kampala, I find myself relishing the opportunity to go to the one store where I can buy Dasani, run by the oh-so-horrid Coca Cola company.  It's American!  I buy pepsi instead of fresh squeezed passion juice (the first gives a profit of 100 shillings to the guy I bought it from, the second around 600.  I'm awful.)
How has this happened? I'm supposed to love the little guy right? I joined the Peace Corps! Isn't buying Coke products in Uganda like rooting for the Yankees! What has happened to me!?
Alas, the great human struggle between patriotism and altruism - do I act for my American brethren who have done so much for me, or do I act for the development of our brothers and sisters of the world who need me more?

The answer lies in that other great American trait: unbridled capitalist zeal. I'll buy whatever is cheaper.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Life continues...

So, the school term is well underway and everything's going well. updates on life...

firstly, things are the same in the schools. i'm doing the same support and supervision etc. and talking to headteachers in my catchment area. i'm thinking of doing a couple of small workshops with other volunteers, one with headteachers about HIV/AIDS, and another with headteachers and teachers about nutrition. if these go well, maybe i'll expand and do more.

second, the VSL project is getting off the ground. i've got a meeting set up with local leaders to start to form groups, so hopefully next time i post we'll actually be having meetings. the only issue is that the entire kit to get a VSL started is going to cost aroudn 40,000 shillings (roughly $25) and we want to start 5 groups (200,000 shillings). grubbing up the money might be difficult, so we need to clear that last hurdle before we start getting things done.

finally, the newest development in my life is that i want to run the kampala marathon in december. i started training already, and am going to keep a good record (hopefully) of all my training woes and victories. so far so good, but it's a long way to go. in addition, i'm going to try and couple the marathon with a fund-raising effort for a project in my village. i'm still seeing if it's feasible and looking for partners, so i won't stop hounding you for money yet (but it's coming).

i haven't posted an anecdote in a while, and i wish i had a funnier one off hand, but this will have to do:

before i started running, i decided to take the ole GPS out for a spin with my bike to mark out miles on the road near my house. as soon as i got 5 miles out (the end of what i was marking) my rear bike tire popped and went completely flat.

now, this ordinarily is not a big deal at all, but here, any little snag often complicates everything you're doing.

firstly, it was about 6:00 in the evening and it would be dark in an hour and a half. i stupidly hadn't brought my headlamp with me, so i was just planning on booking it back home (on the equator the sun sets incredibly fast, so visibility would still be fine at 7:15, completely dark by 7:45). Luckily, biking is one of the main forms of transportations in uganda, leaving the roads littered with bike mechanics willing to patch a tire.

the bike guy took about an hour to patch the tire, leaving me with very little time to get back. one very good note to this story is that since i had been out without my wallet, i only had 700 shillings on me. it was 300 shillings per puncture and there were two other small punctures in the tube, so the charge was 900 shillings. now i often bargain to the last 100 shillings (about 8 cents) but this time i felt pretty bad. but for once, he said 900, i said i only had 700, and perhaps seeing that i was in need, he put up no fuss, said it'd be fine, and sent me on my way. some people are awesome.

anyways, i barrelled home just after dark, and that was that. but TIA, so the smallest inconvenience has a myriad of consequences.

first, i was planning on running the next day, and flying home took a lot of energy out of me, making the next day's run significantly more difficult. also, i had been planning on making pasta that night to get some carbs in me (i make pasta from scratch because it's cheap and packaged stuff isn't anywhere near my village). i got home after dark, and couldn't spend 2 hours making and drying pasta, so that was out of the question. so i just had to eat porridge, which has almost no nutritional value aside from not making me hungry anymore. also, i only had about 8 liters of water left, 2 of which i would need to drink that night, another one in the next morning, and a bit more for making breakfast. i was planning on going to the borehole to fetch water after my bike ride, but it was now dark and it would have to wait til morning. i had a meetin the next morning, so i needed to bathe, which meant that i had to delay my trip for water to either the morning before my run, tiring me out a bit, or immediately after the run, when i would be in no mood to fetch water (i ended up doing the latter). this made me late for my meeting the next day (thankfully i was the least late of everyone as usual, so i actually arrived early, but didn't get to take the moral high ground that i relish from being on time).

basically, the point of this story is how little things here can snowball quickly into large issues. if i hadn't been able to get my tire fixed, i would've been in a much worse pinch. if i was in chicago, i would've hopped on the el, or a cab, or called matt, or even walked home under streetlights.

eh, that's life.

Monday, May 5, 2008

every 6 months, i post something

so, it's been a long time since i've written anything at all. sorry about that. i'll try to be better about things.

also, apparently people don't care about my dismay over sports losses. i'll try to keep those rants to a minimum as well.

so, quick updates on my life...

computer grant was shot down. i'm trying to restructure the project and reapply. probably going to drastically reduce the scale of the project.

a new project i'm working on is creating village savings and loans programs (VSLs) in my catchment area. These are basically small banking schemes set up amongst 15-30 people, providing a pool of capital and high interest loans in areas that are really strapped for investment capital. they've been incredibly successful in other areas, and i'm excited to bring them to mukura.

also, we finished our mid-service conference, which now officially makes us 2nd year volunteers. the first year was a blast, and i hear the second flies by. hopefully the good times will last.

i'll be back on the internet on wednesday, when hopefully i'll have some hillarious anecdotes typed up and ready to post.

out of internet time now, so i'll have to post more later.