Life in Uganda



A cartoon pulled from a local newspaper.

Loads of things about Uganda remind me that I am not from here. One of those things is polygamy.

Before coming here, I think I assumed that a monogamous marriage is always better than a polygamous one. While I’m not a big fan of the multi-spouse reality, I have seen a few that function better than many of the monogamous ones. In fact, in several situations it seems that it was the more gracious option (I’m thinking of a man who took on his brother’s wife and children after the brother died.).

Sometimes I like the very raw resource-orientation to marriage that I hear articulated. Back in the US, marriages seemingly fall apart over nothing. But I hear some friends here appreciate their husbands/wives for some of the most simple, yet powerful things. “I love her because she cooks food for me every day.” “I love him because our children can go to school and I still have enough sugar and soap at home.” This initially seemed too utilitarian to me. Shouldn’t marriage be about more? But then I hear friends back home are splitting up because “the spark is gone.” I have no idea how losing the spark means marriage termination, but it seems to me that in many cases we stopped seeing the love in the small things.

At times, I find it a refreshing reminder that it truly is wonderful when one cooks food for another. That the provision of simple pleasures like sugar will remind a spouse that another person has their interests at heart.

But in most situations, I find my Western sensitivities kicking in. I find polygamy heart breaking. Marriage is hard, but adding another partner creates some serious complications.

Recently we travelled around a village grading homes for hygiene and sanitation. We did a baseline survey of the village before we started working in the area to see how many pit latrines, drying racks, kitchens, rubbish pits, and clothes lines are in the community. Now after some conversations about improving hygiene and sanitation, we moved around to see what changes people began to make. We tallied the results and brought them back to the community.

For polygamists, we list the husband and the situation for each wife. One of the things we are looking for is to see if the wives are provided with similar, hygienic situations. As we arrived at a certain home, I overheard Ronald ask the woman, “Are you number two or number three?” She responded, “I’m number two.” I asked Ronald what he meant–he was referring to her order in the co-wife situation! Then Ronald turned back to the woman and said, “I just heard from the trading center that your husband took on a third wife today.” The woman screeched  “WHAT!?”

Ronald’s serious face widened into a toothy grin and the woman began giggling, realizing that Ronald was joking and a little embarrassed that she had reacted so strongly. I share Ronald’s raw, often inappropriate humor and laughed with the woman as we looked around the home. But the longer I reflected on it the heavier this woman’s situation seemed to me.

The reason the joke worked so well is that many husbands bring home new wives. There is no family meeting. No group discussion.

When we found the other co-wife at the next house, she was with the husband. Ronald asked her the same question and she responded, “I’m number one.” Ronald came back, “Wow. You look a lot like wife number four!” The woman corrected Ronald, “There are only two of us here.” Ronald slyly turned to the husband, “You mean you haven’t told them of the other two in town?” The man chuckled, shaking his head, “Ronald, get out of here before you start a war!”

As we looked at the homes, Ronald noticed that the two wives share the same bathing room and pit latrine. They all said that they were willing to share those spaces. Both women were in their respective kitchens (both newly built by the husband). I naively asked, “Why don’t these women just share the cooking load in one kitchen? They could even alternate cooking.”

Ronald’s wisdom came through. One woman has four children. The other has one child. Each wife is supplied with certain things from her husband; these gifts come in the form of soap, sugar, oil, etc. Expecting a mother for one to use her resources for a mother of four just isn’t realistic. Secondly, when visitors come, families cook. One shouldn’t expect the co-wife to cook for another wife’s visitors. The list goes on, but you get the idea. What a stressful situation!

This brings me to another part of life in Uganda that I love (most of the time). People don’t get bogged down in nuance. If you’re fat, that’s what people call you. If you’re old, bald, black, white, physically disabled, mentally disabled, rich, poor, clean, dirty, etc, then you should expect to be described accordingly. Obviously nuance is important, but here’s the great part: in many conversations the speaker expects the listener to listen forgivingly! Both speaker and listener can provide the nuance. And while I am sure I am overstating this, I find that Americans require the speaker to choose his/her words carefully.  I have not tried to be thorough on this subject of polygamy. So things that I seem to have glossed over or failed to address will need to go into another conversation. I’m extending the burden of communication, dear reader, to read these words and graciously fill in my verbal potholes.

As for my marital status, I’ll stick to one wife and try to do better about loving and respecting her.

Repairing Life

One of the blessings of living life in East Africa is the opportunity to repair the things in our own lives that are broken.

Our first home was a simple, rectangle of flesh-colored brick and thick shag carpets. It was a product of the 1960s in every way. By the time we acquired it the home needed a bit of work here and there. At first we made aesthetic changes, but soon realized that many of these changes were vanity for our own sake. They weren’t really necessary changes that improved or maintained the structure. We decided that the simple and cheap aesthetic changes were perfectly acceptable and that we would continue making them, but our investments would be in structural improvements and regular maintenance.

We converted a half-bath into a full bath. We dug up piles of stone and concrete out of the backyard and planted a garden. We repainted a dilapidated old shed to give it a few more years of life. We added a wall to create a third bedroom.

We liked our home, and we gained great satisfaction from the work invested. It reminded us of our ownership and responsibility. All of our appliances were second-hand. Most of our tools we purchased at yard sales or hand-me-downs from my dad and Grandpa Garner. We made many of these decisions in order to cut a few costs, but it lead us into some important life changes.

Our ironing board broke a few days ago. This is the second time for this particular ironing board. It’s a cheap imported Chinese board. The welds just haven’t held together well. If we still lived in America, I’m quite sure we would have rushed down to the nearest store and purchased a brand new ironing board. But there are no ironing boards for sale in our town. Instead, we’d have to make a several hour drive to the capital to make a purchase. So we opted (for the second time) to weld it back together.

The weld isn’t the prettiest of things, but who puts their ironing board on display when company comes over? The weld gave new life to our old board and to us. It was a small, yet important moment continuing to instill within us that a life of repair and grace is a good one.

Folks have berated the disposable nature of the typical American life for quite some time, so I won’t belabor the point. Instead, I wanted to share a reinforcing moment in our own transformation: Today we repaired rather than replaced.

We will still purchase new things from time to time. But we will also continue to look for ways to repurpose and responsibly use the things discarded by the world. We hope that our ironing board will do as much for you as it did for us. Well, it’ll probably still do more for us unless you’re coming over with some wrinkled clothes.

The Making of a Crowbar

Some folks like to go to the hardware store for their crowbars (if you do, you should try out Busy B Lumber in Dexter, MO). But some folks prefer to have theirs hand-forged by local craftsmen.

Here is a clip of a bellows fabricated from an old cement bag, a discarded piece of water well pipe, and some locally made charcoal.

And here you can see the crow bar coming together and this guy beats the heck out of it.

Celebrating 50 Years

Uganda gained independence from the British 50 years ago today. Folks from around the world are gathering in Kampala today for celebration. With businesses closed, Candice and I are enjoying a slow morning organizing photos, digging in the garden, and reflecting on our time in Uganda (we’ve lived here for nearly 10% of Uganda’s independence). If you’d like to read some fascinating history or tributes to key players, just do a google search.

I thought I’d do something a little different–something significantly more ethnocentric. In the many discussions with folks from outside Uganda, the conversation invariably turns to comparisons. Most of those comparisons involve the current standing of Uganda with his/her respective country on social, political, religious, and economic issues. The difficulty with many of our amateur comparisons is that our bias is heavy. The rubric for success involves categories from the foreigner’s country. My comparison below is problematic on loads of levels, but it was fun for me to reflect on it.

What if we compare the USA at 50 years of independence with Uganda at 50 years of independence?

For whatever reason, most Westerners like to talk about a lot of the negative stuff about African nations. We accentuate the deficits. So I thought I’d do the same with the US of A at 50 years of independence.

The United States was under our 6th president: John Quincy Adams, the son of our 2nd president John Adams. In the West we talk about “political families”. In Uganda we call it “nepotism” or “tribalism”.

The US was in debt: $81,000,000 (approximately $1.8 Billion in today’s currency)

Two of our Founding Fathers died: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

24 states: Missouri entered 5 years earlier and Arkansas wouldn’t come in for another 11 years. Below is a map of the US in 1826.

Wars! Wars! Wars! We had just finished up the War of 1812, the 2nd Barbary War, battles in the West Indies, ironically fighting slave traders in Africa (while maintaining our own slaves). We fought indigenous tribes like the 1st Seminole War and the Arikara War – a pogrom, of sorts; the Russian Empire in this case was US government and Jews were Native Americans.

We were continuing to develop all things inherited by the British, as they had built roads, established markets, created postal services, installed a military, etc.

The Comparison

So where’s the Uganda side of things? I decided to leave it out of this post. The US was in a fairly tenuous state in 1826; burgeoning industry and western expansion gave us something to look forward to, but we had not yet “arrived”.  We still had more wars to fight, epidemics to contain, debt to incur, and states to unite. Uganda in many ways is in a similar boat. I’m looking forward to witnessing Uganda’s further development over the next few decade–although, I am hoping for fewer wars.

Life after Ebola

As most of the world is aware, Uganda had an ebola virus outbreak in July. The last detected case was a month and a half ago–that’s twice the incubation time of the virus. Several people died (much less than the 2000 outbreak) and many others suspected of contracting the virus were held in quarantine.

The Uganda Ministry of Health has officially announced the end of this particular outbreak, but consider those in quarantine. They are now able to head home, but home carries significant stigma. We know very little about the virus and for neighbors of those quarantined this is terrifying. Its not a matter of dropping the person off at their doorstep; the community needs time to process all of this.

The World Health Organization has a photo gallery that provides a glimpse into this reality. The gallery follows Nyamurungi Magdelena’s return home. All of her possessions were burned in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Nyamurungi has lost all her possessions and the trust of her community. The WHO provided her with new goods, but the real work is with Nyamurungi’s community.

A mid-morning visitor

At 9:30 this morning a well-dressed woman arrived in front of the Source Cafe. She sat down at one of the tables outside. The odd bit was the half-empty bottle of wine that accompanied her.

The Source is an alcohol-free establishment, but less than two yards’ away is a bar. It isn’t uncommon for one of the pub’s patrons to wander over and order some food. But this wasn’t the case. She had purchased her bottle at a local market, opened it as she left the store, and then proceeded to stop at any open chair on the sidewalk. As her quarreling and drunkenness grew, so did the public contempt. As soon as she was driven off one bench, she would find another. This continued until she landed at the Source at 9:30.

I was negotiating with a local carpenter across the street when I noticed her. My intention was to talk to her as soon as I had a work agreement from the carpenter, but Lazarus, the manager of the Source Cafe, was a step ahead of me. He found a friend of the woman and tried to discover why she was in such a state. I was planning to offer her two options: a sobering cup of coffee in exchange for the bottle or she could continue her bench hopping down Main Street. Fortunately, I never got the chance to implement my terrible plan as Laz initiated a much wiser and compassionate approach.

The friend told Laz of the woman’s recent hardships: her husband was in the military, deployed in Somalia. Uganda has been a strong regional force in the dismantling of Al-Shabaab. In a recent attack, the husband was killed. The wine was a poor attempt at killing sorrow. Laz invited the friend to sit with her and encourage her to loosen her grip on the bottle. The chances seemed better coming from someone she knows.

He failed.

The neighboring table was full of a group of christians from the Jinja Church of Christ. They invited the woman to come sit with them and she obliged. The conversation began with some surface-level banter about alcohol abuse and judgmental “born-agains”. But eventually the conversation went beyond good-natured jabs. One of the Christians asked, rather callously in my opinion, “Why don’t you follow Christ and accept his forgiveness and grace?” Without missing a beat, the woman retorted, “Where was his forgiveness and grace when my husband was killed?” The conversation sobered quickly. The cheap shots and chit-chat were over. I was impressed with the respectful exchange that followed. Eventually we learned that the woman was a soldier–a captain, in fact.

The military in Uganda is impressively strict. Public drunkenness for a soldier is punishable by immediate imprisonment if it is reported.

The woman eventually passed out in the chair. The group of Christians brought over the Source security guard and they hatched a plan. One woman took her purse and phone. The bottle was emptied and disposed of. When the woman awoke, she would be sober enough to find her way home without causing any more disturbances. The guard would tell her the location of the woman with her purse and phone. The guardian of the purse would use the opportunity to invite the captain to stay with her for a few days.

As I write these words, I’m sitting next to the sleeping drunk. I have no idea how this will unfold, but I’m already impressed with the compassion and cooperation of these Christians. Perhaps forgiveness and grace will be seen after all.

Home Renovation

Since moving into our house in April 2008, we’ve always had the dream of converting part of it into an apartment. Our house was huge and with 4 bedrooms and several storage closets. We had more than enough space for the two of us. After returning from the ladies retreat last month in Rwanda, I was inspired by our friends in Mbale, Vince and Joy Vigil who renovated the guest house on their compound and rent it out as an apartment.

During my workday at the Source, I continued to run into Alisha Vice a new friend who had searched high and low for a place to live. Bobby and I talked it over for a few days, and with the go ahead from Alisha-we started transforming the back part of our house into an apartment. It all happened so quickly. The first day of work was March 31 and by April 20, Alisha had completely moved in.

It’s been 4 months now and it is hard to imagine our house without the apartment and we’ve never been happier. Our only shared space is the laundry room which doubles as Alisha’s bathroom. The renovation forced us to clean out and get rid of stuff that we never really needed, and provided a comfortable place for Alisha to live.

Underpants Bandits

Below is an email I wrote to friends in Jinja.

Alternative Subject lines: Knicker Nabbers, Panty Pirates, Loincloth Larcenists, Skivvies Swindlers

Jinja Community,

On Saturday night, Candice and I came home late after dinner with friends. Not long after heading to bed, the rain went from a drizzle to a downpour. Due to other incidents at our home over the last few years, such rainfall prohibits peaceful sleep.

At one point, I noticed some flashlights flickering in the hallway and decided to step out and investigate. I saw a figure duck into the guest bedroom. With a quick injection of adrenaline, I flicked the hall light on and yelled, “Get out of my house, thief!” in the gruffest, loudest, manliest voice I could muster. (Candice later commented that it sounded more like a squeaky scream, but I’m writing this story, so I’ll write it as I remember it.)

The man emerged from the room and ran toward the sitting room. Much to my surprise, he was only wearing underwear. No shoes. No Shirt. Only a small brown, satiny cloth that barely covered the thief’s keister. Note to future thieves: if you intend to rob me, please have the decency to at least wear boxers.

I chased the near-naked heister into the living room where at least one other thief was making his escape as well. At this point, some of my mental faculties awakened and I realized that chasing men au naturel wasn’t what I wanted to be doing at 2AM. I also realized that I didn’t know who else could be in the house so I retreated to my bedroom and began searching room-by-room.

Two other men live on our compound, so I called both of them and they went out to wake up the nightwatchman who was sleeping in the back. The dogs are well-trained and tend to stick with the nightwatchman, which is exactly where they were during the entire caper. You might wonder why the nightwatchman was asleep in the back, and to such a curious mind, I wish to smile and gently pat you on the head. Such innocent spirits are so precious.

I drove the streets looking for any movement but the heavy rains impeded visibility. As I drove, I tried calling the LC1 but he never answered the phone. The LDU’s phone was off. I called the owner of the tracking dog, but he discouraged using the dog due to the rains. So I headed home to assess the damage: a 15″ MacBook Pro, two iPad 2’s, Nikon D7000 w/lenses, DVD player, cash, some bags, airtime, and a raincoat. (If you hear of anything for sale or have any tips for recovery, let me know!)

Everyone is safe and unhurt. I’ll clearly need therapy for PG-13 nudity. The other stuff we can replace or do without. It is obviously infuriating to have someone enter your home uninvited and to lose possessions, but this being our 7th situation like this, we have come to terms with such realities. I’m fairly certain this was a non-violent, petty theft sort of break in. There were small piles of stones where they cut the fence and where they entered the house, but my interpretation is that these were to be thrown in order to discourage the dogs from attacking.

I just wanted to make you all aware as this type of action often continues until people are caught.

In a move of compassion, I am starting a new NGO to help disadvantaged thieves in Uganda. If you wish to make a donation of boxers, shorts, trousers, shirts, shoes, etc., I’ll be happy to leave them in a bin on my porch where they can be regularly accessed by T.I.N. (thieves in need).

Bobby Garner
Executive Director
SUTUM – Sustainable Undergarments for the Thieves of Uganda Ministries
“No one should suffer the shame of silk briefs.”

PS – Yes, I realize that most of my subject lines indicate that the thieves were stealing undergarments rather than having the intended meaning of stealing stuff while wearing only undergarments. We were robbed less two nights ago. Cut me some slack, you critical snob.

A couple of things may need explanation: an LC1 is a local councilman (like an alderman but with a few more mediation duties) and an LDU is a local defense unit (these guys carry AK-47s around at night and look for trouble-makers).

UPDATE: The First Baptist Church of Dexter (the church where Candice grew up) and a few friends graciously provided us with replacements for all our technological losses! What a blessing to know that people care so much for us and desire to be part of our recovery. Their gift provided us with their presence and support. In fact, I type these words on the keyboard they provided. Thank you.

Jews in Uganda


Last summer, Hannah Nemer and Lindsay Rosenfeld were film interns for Kibo and Mana. Students at the University of North Carolina, Hannah and Lindsay have a scholarship that partners them with Silent Images. We were fortunate to have them participate in life here for 10 weeks. Check out their videos:

Hannah returned this summer to work with the Abayudaya, Jews in Eastern Uganda. She documented the effect of Idi Amin’s reign on Jews, Muslims, and Christians in that community. Here’s a fun video she made for the Abayudaya youth.

Chris & Kate Circumnavigate

My Harding roommate Katy and her husband Chris have given up the hustle and bustle of their New York City lifestyle. After 4 1/2 years away from home they decided to move back to Panama City, Florida where they met and became high school sweethearts.

While we were visiting New York last Fall they told us of their plan to take an around the world trip before settling down in Florida. Uganda was on the itinerary! Earlier this year, I began to make plans for their trip.

They spent a week visiting Murchison Falls Game Reserve, trekking chimps, and rhinos, but their first two and a half weeks were in Jinja with us. They visited 3 Kibo projects, attended church in the town and in the village, rafted the Nile and took some much needed down time.

The best part of their visit was evenings we spent together discussing their travels thus far, their life in New York, and their anticipation of living near family after being away for so long.

Chris and Katy have kept a blog chronicling their journey. Katy is an excellent writer. Read her reflections on Uganda Life and Uganda Work.

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