Over the last year and a half I have been asked a few questions more than once. These questions range from where do you live- to what do you eat- to what kind of work do you do. Well, you get the idea. I thought I would use this post to give some answers to those of you with inquiring minds. I might even include some pictures…That is a technological stretch for me, but I’ll try.
Q: Where do you live?
A: Now I live in Gulu which is in Northern Uganda. We moved here from Tororo during Christmas week. I am living in a house that has water and inside plumbing, electricity, screens on the windows, and real doors with locks. These are very valued perks when it comes to Peace Corps housing. The house is located on the grounds of the Archbishop of Gulu’s residence. The two or three acre compound which is the fenced-in area around the property also includes: housing for the workers, the Archbishop, some of the priests who work directly for the Archdiocese, a nuns’ residence, the Archdiocese offices, garages for vehicles owned by the Archdiocese along with a number of cars, trucks, and buses; assorted domestic animals, and under construction is a religious radio station.
The best part of the place is the menagerie of animals. Every day the guy in charge of the piggery opens the gates and the pigs come tumbling out—two mommies, one daddy and two generations of piglets—about 20 pigs in all. They come puffing and snorting from one end of the grounds to the other looking for any overlooked culinary treasures that they can snarf up. If the babies find something especially good, soon the bigger kids shove them to the side and they claim the find for themselves. However, if the mommies or the daddy see what’s happening, it isn’t long before they shove the kids out of the way and take the prize for themselves.
Then there are the donkeys. Steve says they are just like big dogs. There is Paul, the Dad; Enini, the Mom, and Deacon, the baby (Deacon isn’t his official name. I just think that if you’re a donkey living with the Archbishop you should be at least a deacon). They have the run of the grounds for most of the day. Steve has made friends with them and sometimes when I look out the kitchen window I see Steve walking back to the house followed by Paul, Enini and Deacon—he's sort of a donkey Pied Piper. If you pet one of them, God help you if you don’t do exactly the same for the others. The other day I was cooking and had my back to the door. You know how you can feel it when someone is watching you? Well, I had that feeling and I swung around like a ninja warlock ready to defend myself. There stood Deacon, half way into the kitchen eyeing the veggies on the table with his big sorrowful eyes. He left without incident after I threatened to tell his Mom.
The house itself is more than adequate, but there are a few drawbacks. For example, we have to scrape the termite tunnels off the walls once a week, and shoot Doom (local insecticide) into every corner to keep them under control. The house itself is situated under two beautiful old mango trees. Now on the face of it, that sounds almost idyllic. We could probably just open a window and pull mangos off the tree. (FYI-mangos are my new favorite fruit) The bad news is that in a month or two when the mangos ripen, they will jettison off the tree right onto our tin roof! We’ve had a preview of things to come when a stray mango fell before its time. It sounds like a monster thunderclap only inches away. The nuns who used to live here paid a welcome visit to us one Sunday morning a few weeks ago. They asked if we had had any mango action yet. When we said “No,” they just rolled their eyes and said, “Just wait.”
There is ample space in our little domicile. We have two bedrooms, an inside bathroom which also holds the laundry sink, a sitting room and an eat-in kitchen. There is also a large area outside the bedrooms which is called the wardrobe room. They don’t have built in closets here. I suppose most people don’t have enough clothes to warrant a whole room just to store them. But middle class folks do have wardrobes. These are cabinets about the size of an entertainment center with shelves on one side and a space to hang clothes on the other. We have two of those and a three door cabinet with shelves where we store “stuff” and clothes that can be folded. These pieces are all placed in the wardrobe room.
The only drawback about where we live now is that it is far from town. Without the use of a car, it means that getting to and fro can be a hassle. But slowly, slowly we are figuring out how to make this transition. When I lived in Tororo, the market was less than a block away so I could send Precious there two or three times a day if I needed to.
Q: Who all lives with you?
A: Steve, Precious and Mbombay live here with me. Steve, as you know, is my son, and Precious is my unofficial adopted son. Mbombay is the cat and the real boss of the house.
Steve came to Uganda in April after Mike died. He’s been working on various IT projects both in Tororo and in Gulu. I think it was very brave of him to come here—to leave everything familiar and venture out to new territory. When I came to Uganda, I had the back up of the US Government in the form of the Peace Corps. Steve calls himself an independent volunteer and what that really means is that he is on his own. This is a difficult place to be on your own. There are very few safety nets to protect Ugandans in case a catastrophe should arise and virtually nothing for non-Ugandans. In spite of the challenges, we have had many laughs since he’s arrived, and we have been able to share our sorrow. While not every day is a perfect day living in a foreign land with my adult son, there are far more really good days than bad. It is so good to have him here to share the experience. No matter how persistently I try, I will never be able to bring to life for others the full experience of Africa. Truly, you have to be here! And Steve is. We will have this collection of memories which span the emotional spectrum to share for the rest of our lives. And I am very grateful for that.
Precious is 14-years-old and has been living with me for a little over a year. Our relationship started out when we were living in Tororo. His aunty, Keziah, lived in the space next door to me. (You might recall that Keziah was my boss at MESAGE Uganda, my workplace in Tororo.) His mother, Robinah, lives in Iyolwa, a village about 25 k from Tororo. She is a widow with five children. Robinah sent Precious to live with Keziah to go to school in the city as the city government schools are thought to be better than the village government schools. The only problem for Precious with this plan was that Keziah went to her home in the village most weekends, leaving him in the city to look after himself at age 12. He would sit in the compound in back of the house on Sunday afternoons with a forlorn look on his face. By then he would be out of food, and he would be getting very bored.( AND God forbide that Precious gets bored!) So I would invite him to eat with me when I cooked—and then I would invite him to watch movies with me on my computer—and then I would ask him to run an errand for me—and then one day I turned around, and he was living full time with me.
He’s a great kid—obedient (usually), funny, lively, smart, and has never met a stranger. When I made the decision to move to Gulu, I asked his mother if Precious could come with me. She agreed. On Monday he will be going to school here. It is a new Jesuit run boarding school, so he won’t be living with me full time anymore. I am having a sort of empty nest attack, but I'm sure it will pass. It will be very quiet around here without him. And even more to the point, who will run to For God (local market place) to get sodas!!! I will really miss him. But, he will be back during holidays and maybe some weekends.
The third member of the household is Mbombay. He’s the ferocious cat who saves us from rats, mice and other assorted rodents. At least that was the original intent. His name, Mbombay, I am told is Swahili for ferocious. We named him that before we found out that he is afraid of rats! So, he really serves no useful purpose except to look cute.
Q: What do you eat?
A: Now we get into the nitty gritty of life here. It isn’t that Ugandan food isn’t good. It is. It is also very monotonous. Here are some Ugandan food rules:
1. All food must be hot—except fruit.
2. All food must be bland. The only spice allowed is salt—and lots of it.
3. There should not be more than five ingredients in any one dish—counting salt.
4. Beef is boiled.
5. Chicken is boiled.
6. Fish is boiled.
7. Veggies are boiled.
8. Matooke must be served with “soup.” (Not our kind of soup. Our kind of soup is not food. Ugandan “soup” is watery gravy.)
9. Fruit is eaten first.
10. Salads are not served. No lettuce or celery!
11. Chapattis (unleavened flatbread) are used as bread substitute—sometimes.
12. Many meals consist of only one dish—like Irish (potatoes) with tomatoes, onions, and salt. (Notice, only 4 ingredients)
13. G-nuts (peanuts) and popcorn are perfectly OK for breakfast.
14. Utensils are optional. At big parties you probably won’t get a fork even if the menu is rice and beans, but there is a hand washing station set up at the beginning of the food line.
15. Bring your own napkins! Napkins are usually available in restaurants, but seldom used at parties or in private homes.
The foods that sustain the typical Ugandan are: rice, rice, rice, beans, beans, beans, greens, boiled chicken (special occasions), boiled beef (special occasions), boiled fish (special occasions), posho (also good as a wallpaper paste), kwan kal (add food coloring to any leftovers and use as PlayDoh), sweet potatoes (great big root veggie—not orange but sometimes purple), fruits—bananas, pineapple, passion fruit, mangos; egg plant, cabbage, tomatoes, onions and green peppers.
So in my house we eat a lot of spaghetti with red sauce (did you know that you can make spaghetti sauce straight from tomatoes!), chili with beans and minced meat (hamburger), beef sausage and potatoes, egg salad, macaroni salad, Irish potatoes—fried, baked or boiled, beef stew(I bought a pressure cooker—best investment since I’ve been here), pancakes, avocado and tomato salad, fruit salad, and lots of bread. Many nights I have to make two dinners. Precious truly believes that macaroni salad and all spices except salt are inventions of the devil!
We eat well. But there are things we really miss—like good chicken. Steve and I salivate just thinking about KFC!
Q: What kind of work do you do?
A: My new role in Gulu is yet to be defined. Ugh! I was hoping that I was walking into an organization that had established programs, staff who were trained and ready to go, and a plan for the "way forward." But, this does not seem to be the case. Please stay tuned. There is much work that needs doing, but what I will do specifically is still not clear.
If you have any more questions that you would like me to answer, please email them to: email@example.com
Until next time--I miss you all and look forward to hearing from you. Take care of yourselves. Oh, FYI--finally have a mailing address:
Mary Beth Johnson
PO Box 914
PS: Why do we call hamburger, hamburger? Why don't we call it minced meat?