“You cant wait for Karamoja to develop”

I have heard stories about the poorest region of Uganda since my arrival. Everyone warned me of the backward ways of the Karamojans, they do not wash their hands, they drink dirty water, they refuse to farm and they walk around half naked!! As I drove with my driver from Oxfam, Matthew, through the north of Uganda from Gulu into Karamoja, he made more and more comments, pointing out the funny hats people wear, how they are bathing next to the road in ponds and how they speak bad English. We starved as he refused to get fooIMG_3420d in the villages we passed through, explaining, ‘you know they are not good. You get it?’. He was subtly referring to the fact that they dont wash their hands after going to the bathroom.

The Karamojans are cattle herders. Therefore I have been constantly comparing them to the Pulaars, who are also the primary cattle herders throughout West Africa.

Similarly, they are known for being stingy (all of their money is in their cattle which means they are rich but they do not like to use it so they eat nothing, buy no medicine and no land).

They are stubborn (it is hard to make them ‘develop’, or change). They only speak their language (refusing to learn English in school and not learning other major languages in Uganda like Luganda or in Senegal, Wolof). They travel around and don’t stay in one place- making it difficult for them to develop, and they are dirty. They bath in the ponds of water next to the road, not hiding their nakedness. I was warned by multiple people that women would walk around topless. I laughed, explaining this was fairly common in West Africa.

A typical herder, walking around with a loose cloth, walking stick and a wooden stool to sit on that is an exact replica of the Dogon stools in Mali. 

When I have been told these things, they are meant to be negative, demonstrating to me how they are ‘bad’. But take these as you will. What I have been told in Uganda is “the Karamojans, their culture is STRONG”. This is something that I have truly missed here in Uganda. A blatant visual of the traditions, the history, a pride of their ethnicity and culture that is more apparent in Mali and Senegal. The Karamojans showed me that this exists in Uganda, but sadly is seen by the rest of the country as a negative, backwards way of living that prevents their development.



While the clothing was very different of the Karamojans vs Pulars. The Karamojan women wear these kilt looking skirts, men a singular cloth that they tie on one shoulder). Additionally, the men in Karamoja wear these adorable small hats. The feather indicates that he is ready to find a mate. As you can see, this young man below was happy to pose for me.

But similarly, women in both places wear a lot of colorful beads and practice facial scaring.

The method of cutting is different. Here they use the spokes of a bike tire, in West Africa primarily a razor and charcoal is used. The top two are from Senegal and Burkina, as you can see the cutting is very small and precise. The bottom is a Karamojan woman, with raised scaring.

Their housing was shockingly similar in terms of the permanent huts. The one below on the bottom left is from Mali, but I saw essentially the exact same structure in Karamoja. For longer term shelters, the Karamojan woman build huts made from sticks and thatch as well as thorn fencing all around the small village to keep out cattle and animals from destroying their shelters. The men are merely responsible for taking care of the cattle, finding water sources and making decisions about when to move next.


It is clear that Karamoja has a long way to go to ‘develop’. Partially, there is almost no business in the region aside from NGOs, government and cattle herding. In the town I stayed in, there were almost no cars without an NGO placard . There were no offices for private businesses. There is no outside investment. And the fields of farm land were few and far between. The soil is farmable, but in comparison to the rest of Uganda where you practically only need to scatter some seeds and watch your crops go, farming here is hard work. Also it is not part of the culture. And like I said, the culture is strong. The Karamojans are known for being stubborn and territorial, not allowing others to farm their land and not wanting to do so themselves. So, like I was told by Matthew “You cant wait for Karamoja to develop”.

Can you find me? Matthew is the one in the white shirt, he was thrilled to have a picture taken with this crew, finding it hilarious. 


Fort Portal

IMG_2991.jpgFort Portal is a destination for tourists and upper class Ugandans alike. Known for Crater Lakes and views of the Rhezori Mountains, it is also a place for great food (I tried crocodile and ate amazing Italian pizza 3 nights in a row) as well as a safe place to go out at night. The expat scene is so large there is a weekly frisbee team, facebook groups, numerous well stocked large supermarkets and a bar that was 50/50 Ugandans vs white people. Most of them know each other, either greeting openly or nodding a sign of recognition. Small enough to walk everywhere and big enough to have many good hotels and restaurants.

The famous crater lakes there are one of the most dense spots in the world, some of the lakes over 400m deep. Created thousands of years ago by now extinct volcanoes, the depth gives them a very deep blue color and makes them very chilly, but didnt stop me from taking a dip after a long hike! Most of them are a short 15 kilometers away from the center of town and easy to get to. I spent the day walking around with a guide, visiting over 8 of them. We started going to the ‘top of the world’ where a wealthy Ugandan bought the top of a hill with a great aerial view of 3 lakes. You pay to get to the top which is now built up with a large hideous bar and the view blocked by small ‘hut like’ rooms for the soon to open hotel.

While it is extremely beautiful, I was disappointed.People whose family has lived there for generations are certainly profiting from the tourists but like any area rich with natural resources, it comes at a cost.The lakes have become a real estate destination. Every piece of land being bought by a wealthy foreigner or Ugandan to build a larger hotel or house. The most expensive luxury hotel is called Ndali Lodge and costs about 500 dollars a night.

The locals no longer see a reason to live on the lakes when they can sell their land for plenty. It is not a great place to farm as the slopes into the lake are steep and there is much erosion. Soon, the views of the lake will be blocked even more by mansions and hotels.


I preferred my visit to the close by Amabere caves and waterfalls as well as 3 separate lakes (featured in the photo above). The caves were a pricy view not an overly thrilling scene, but the story was fascinating. Legends of the previous king who cut off is daughter’s breasts and threw them in the water by mouth of the caves. Now, the caves have ‘breast like’ stalagmites that emit a white fluid as well as many other features of the story. The nearby lake is in the shape of her foot after that was also cut off after she had a son out of wedlock.


As I missed the chance to take a safari, I was able to see many birds and beautiful monkeys. Can you find them?


Another beautiful feature of the Fort Portal area is the tea plantations, all over the landscape they are surreal green, perfectly lined, hedged and stretching on for acres. It is impressive the amount of tea produced in this area, but also sad to know that the workers are getting less than enough to survive (mainly are immigrants for surrounding countries as the locals dont want these horrible paying jobs) while the primarily Indian and Ugandan owners make a massive profit. Similar to plantations in the South, the ‘masters’ live in a huge house on the hill while the workers slave away in the hot sun.



From my experience in West Africa the main carb, or food in general,  is either rice or some sort of boiled corn. In Southern Uganda it is matoke, a small banana like tuber. It is has more flavor than rice and really fills you up. It can be grilled, boiled, fried…. Eaten with peanut sauce, cooked with meat, served plain, served with rice… It is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The possibilities are endless.  I am currently in the North of the country where there is not matoke and the agriculture and plants are more similar to West Africa but with much more variety in food and easier to farm as there is more rain and 2 harvest seasons in the ‘dry north’. But, as you can see it is plentiful.

Above is a market in the South,  close to the trees which are everywhere, meaning matoke is easy to grow. One of those stalks is sold for less than 15,000 shillings here, or about 5 USD.

Most of that is matoke trees 

So from there they are sold to a middle man who brings them to places like Kampala where they are sold for about double the price.


Overall, the produce here is slightly cheaper than in West Africa, especially the bananas and pineapples. One kilo of bananas in Senegal was over a dollar at a banana plantation. Here I got all the fruit featured below for about 3 dollars USD.

Yes, that is 3 DELICIOUS pineapples, the fruit on the bottom left is passionfruit- my new love, and an avocado, bunch of onions and more than 12 bananas.


Why is Ben&Jerry’s ice cream so good? Ugandan Vanilla.

I think that it is time that I elaborate on the work I have been doing while

The foothills of the Rhezori mountains, where I traveled to find the fields.

here, so as to make you all less jealous of my travels and prove that it was worth Oxfam and Cornell’s money to send me here. Essentially my job here is to document programs that can be ‘scaled up’ and fully transformed into effective Climate Smart Agriculture programs.

I recently visited a partner organization of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), in Kasese Uganda. This organization, Rhezori Farmers Cooperative Union (RFCU) is a cooperative of over 2,500 farmers in four Districts of Uganda all of who farmer one or more of the following cash crops- vanilla, cocoa and coffee. I was there to look into the vanilla project.  Prior to arrival, I had never seen a vanilla vine (yes they grow on a vine) and quickly became fascinated by them and amazed with the fact that more people here do not grow vanilla as it is HIGHLY profitable. The market has fluctuated greatly, one of the reasons for its bad reputation as a crop and part of what the CRS project aims to improve. But at its high it can bring in about 40 dollars for one kilo. That is at least 8 times more than other cash crops. Since I learned this I have been half joking/half serious about starting a vanilla plantation here.

The project itself is largely funded by Ben and Jerry’s (who gets there vanilla from here) and supported by ‘Fair Trade’ as it is a fair trade crop- although to be quite frank it is not produced any differently than other crops here so the only difference is in price. Which, is the biggest challenge for the project.

IMG_2893.jpgI visited 3 farms that were thriving, intercropping vanilla with matoke/banana trees. I was impressed by the knowledge of the farmers, although I should not be surprised as the first farm I visited was the first vanilla farmer in the country. The second had been growing for over 20 years. They had both been using the skills and new knowledge that they had learned at union trainings and seemed to be very grateful to learn new techniques. The last farm I visited was the most impressive as a group of 30 farmers were all together, digging water catch irrigation systems, using natural fertilizer and planting trees within the field to improve the soil. This group rotates working on a person’s field daily, so as to cut down on the work hours and ensure that they all properly implement new techniques. This collective effort shocked me- but also would not work everywhere. In this region the culture is very community and hard work oriented, and they get enough rainfall that they do not need to water. This system would not work if you needed to water your own crops daily.

What did all of these people say was the biggest problem? Theft. Because vanilla is so expensive and small, therefore easy to steal, each farmer said their biggest problem was not finding a buyer or even growing, just that people come to their farms and by taking just two batches, they can get 40$. Ways to stop theft varies. Some farmers sleep in their fields. Turn a radio on very loud. Buy dogs. Put thorns around the plants. But clearly this is a big issue without an easy solution. Made me wonder if the high value is worth it or would it be better to stick to coffee where you know the gain.

Some of the group members. The woman in the front with the blue flowered shirt was so outspoken, passionate and funny. She is putting her son through University with her vanilla money and I am certain he will be a big success with a mom like that. 


Have money to make money

I am living in the gated and guarded compound of a widow, Lydia. She speaks excellent English as she spent five years working in Boston as a nurse and is a highly successful business woman in Kampala. When rented out, she receives a large chunk of money from the apartment that has previously been occupied by other foreigners like me whose organizations are willing to pay the steep price for the Western accommodations- it is 800$ a month. You are paying for the appliances that other places would not have, an electric stove, a microwave, a fridge and even a washing machine. She also offered to lend me a stationary bicycle for my spare room. But rent from the apartment hardly registers for her as a necessity as her real money maker is an impressive catering business.

I am on the bottom floor, the view of the rest of the compound commonly blocked by 6 vehicles

Known in Kampala as ‘good sauce’, she commonly caters for weddings, funerals and events at large organizations like Oxfam (how we found the apartment). A large wedding in the states is attended by 200 people, but here that would be small and exclude key individuals like forth cousins, neighbors, long lost friends and friends of those friends. So Lydia ‘good sauce’ often cooks for 600 people.

The staple of these meals, and most meals here in Uganda, is matoke- the green bananas cut and steamed into a paste, served with meat, a thick and tasty peanut sauce, vegetables and rice. To prepare for 600 she hires about 6 people, who I have watched work from 8 am until past by bed time at 11 pm the day before.  It depends on the order but for one of these events I observed two goats being killed, over 30 chickens grilled on a banana peal fire, 50 kilos of rice and a massive sack of cassava cooked to perfect. From what I could tell, the biggest task is peeling all the bananas, which amounted to over 1,200 and economically come from her own fields, land purchased outside of Kampala. Thus, rather than buying most of the input, she is able to get it from her own production.

IMG_1323.jpgFor the morning of the event the sou-chefs are back at it by 6am as only the meat and matoke can be prepared the day before, the cooking happens at night in 4 massive broilers. Making rice, frying up final additions and getting the food warmers and dishes ready are early morning tasks, loaded into 2 square, basic vans that live in our compound. I am constantly impressed the work of the food prepares and scared to ask how much they are earning.


Lydia also cooks Western dishes for the smaller wedding party upon request. For one event making lasagna, chocolate cake, a watermelon salad, avocado salad and apple pie. I was thrilled to be invited to a feasts at home when her ‘brother’ came to visit from Colorado. She made a spectacular Ugandan meal, taking all the typical dishes and making them with non-traditional spices like basil from her garden for the the fried rice and meat, chives and curry powder in chipati bread and mint in a watermelon smoothie. Previously, I have disliked the matoke, but hers changed my opinion as a perfect balance of sweet with the richness of the peanut sauce, steamed greens and delicious chicken cooked in banana leaves to add flavor. I did not need to eat for 24 hours following.


Like anywhere in the world, with successful parents children are more likely to be a success. All of her children have been or studied abroad. Her son, who is currently living in the apartment above mine, studied engineering in the UK and worked there for many years until his father passed away. His two elementary aged children still in there with his wife. In Kampala he has a cleaning business that works at the airport and government offices- once again, with connections and the initial capital, there is big money to be made.

I have had extensive conversations with Lydia about work in Uganda- it is clear she has been very successful and she insists that anyone can do it, there is money to be made here. Like other upper class Africans I have met, all of who have at least one maid, a guard and other employees, they complain about their ‘help’ who come from the bush and do not know how to cook properly, fall asleep during their 18 hour shift or never works hard enough for their liking. She claimed one of her helpers recently ruined one of her microwaves. I defended them saying that they probably did not know how to use it, she said of course not, but they need to ask. Which is easier said then done as they are all terrified of her, tip toeing around the compound and whispering greetings to me when she is there, but smiling, shaking my hand and asking me questions when she is not present.

She claims any of these people can become successful like her. While,  I certainly agree, the business potential here is massive: Land is extremely fertile, the population is growing by the minute and investment is pouring in, the connections and the initial finances are essential. She would not have the ability to cook as such if she had not been to the states. She would not get these jobs had her husband not been in government and she would not have had the funds to purchase all of the necessary equipment had it not been for her family wealth.


The Baha’i Faith in Uganda

In the outskirts of Kampala, on top of one of the city’s many hills, rests a Baha’i temple. Peacefully perched with the luxury of not being crowded by tin roofs and half built hotels, the temple’s nine sides stands amongst lovely acacia and palm trees with a sloping landscape of well groomed gardens. I arrived at 11:07 Sunday morning after a long goose chase with the taxi trying to locate the temple (like men in America, Ugandan men dislike asking for directions).
I expected the 10:30 service to have started according to ‘African time’ but was

View from the top

disappointed to see a stream of Ugandans, whites, and people of unknown colors and nationalities coming out of the sanctuary. As I stepped through the crowd I shook hands and was greeted by an overwhelming number of individuals. Many asked if this was my first time, apologies for my missing the service, and assurance I could still go in and pray.

More interested to learn about the history of Baha’i in Uganda, I was directed to one of the oldest members, a man with severe burn scars all over his face and neck. He has been Baha’i since 1965, and like many Ugandan Baha’i was raised Christian. With 22 other Ugandan Baha’i he traveled to Israel in 2014 on a pilgrimage to Haifa. He spoke of his journey there with such pride and longing, recounting the open gardens and inclusion he felt with the community there.


Baha’i first came to Uganda in 1952 and slowly found a following with at the place of worship pictured, completed in 1958. It is one of only seven similar temples in the world, and the first in Africa. There are Baha’i in many other cities but not a center of worship such as in Kampala. According to my Baha’i historian, the goal is to build a school, library, university, hospital and house of worship all in one. Additionally, this center was forcibly closed from 1977-1979 because the president wanted to make Uganda a Muslim nation. He claims they did not fight this but he accepted the closure as a path from G-d, praying at home during this time.

I spent over an hour talking to a Congolese Baha’i- evidently the country with the 3rd largest Baha’i following. He spoke strongly about his religious beliefs, saying that he supports the religious choice of all individuals. Even his children he allows a freedom of choice, but all he can do is show them a way. He emphasized the power of g-d, saying that “perfect things only g-d can do”. I kept inquiring into the religious tensions he has experienced, wanting to know more about what other Ugandans and Congolese think of the Baha’i. He insisted that he holds no prejudice and has felt none towards him. Honestly, most people even living close to the temple are unaware of its religious affiliation. I have heard other speak negatively towards Muslims, making reference to recent attacks in the US and globally, but he intelligently stated that this could have been from a Christian, Jew or Hindu, it is not the religion but the person.

All of the people I spoke to were kind, open and welcoming, excited to tell me about their beliefs and the oneness of humanity. The basic testament being that they share a love of G-d, peace and unity. The program for the service had passages from the Qur’an, new and old Testament as well as the Baha’u’llah and was in English and Luganda. While it is clear that there is a slowly growing following of Baha’i in Uganda, most of the attendants were like me, merely excited to sit in a peaceful part of the city, away from the traffic and smog. The space is open daily from 8 to 5pm and is well visited as there are no public gardens in the city that are open to people of all socio-economic levels, at least from what I can find. Several couples were sitting picnicking on the grass, a Middle Eastern family came to take photos in front of the flowers and a High School aged boy sat studying his books.



Kisoro: A corner in the Pearl of Africa

Kisoro is a sleepy town in the Southwestern corner of Uganda. About 500 kilometers from Kampala it is primarily a passing point for travelers going to Kigali, Rwanda or for those who are willing to shell out 600 USD to do a ‘gorilla trek’ in one of Uganda’s national parks.  Nestled in the Virunga mountain range, with spectacular views of 3 mountains shooting up 11,000 feet in the sky, I felt the warmth and friendliness of Ugandans creep out. It is a slow movement in comparison to the boisterous and occasionally annoyingly friendly greetings of West Africans, but Kisoro made me realize that perhaps my West African bias will melt away the more I spend time outside of Kampala.

Aside from paying an arm and a leg to see gorillas for one hour or mountain climbing (topic of my next blog), it appeared as if Lake Muyenga is a less visited tourist destination. And for selfish reasons, I was very happy about it. I spent a day virtually undisturbed day walking along hillsides, through small villages and mountainous fields to get to the lake shore and a well kept but seemingly rarely visited eco lodge.

View of the lake from the hillside behind my hotel. One of the perks of Peace Corps that they don’t advertise is that you have massive network of amazing and friendly tour guides for the rest of your life- I wouldn’t have found these ‘insider’ spots without my PCV guide.


A group of kids had followed me for about half my walk to the lake side. Once I made it to this peaceful swimming dock they all whispered, we are not allowed to follow her and scrammed. I was able to swim and sketch in peace.
Coming from the island in front, this boat pulled up next to me to unload 4 women my mothers age. The captian, a barely 7 year boy, skillfully turned back to make another peaceful journey.


Any bird watchers dream place, the lack of tourists and large hotels made Lake Muyenga a perfect spot, so long as you dont mind some more rustic living.