Sunday, January 19, 2014

Bananas by Bicycle - Reflections on My First Time in Uganda

Chapter 1 - Get Your Shots

Early in 2013, I heard about a two-week science policy immersion program in Washington D.C. ran by ASU CSPO. As an enginerd and a long-time politics junkie, wanting to pursue attendance of this rather expensive program I went tin-cupping around campus for funds. Ultimately I was able to get the trip funded 50% by my advisor and 50% by a kind benefactor we shall call Professor S.

A couple months after the D.C. trip I went to Prof S's office to catch up and "kiss the ring".
"What do you think of international travel?" - Prof S.
"I love it. I've been to Europe a few times, Canada a few times..." - Me
"Do you have a current passport?" - Prof S.
"Yep." - Me
"What do you think of Uganda?" - Prof S.
"Uh...maybe not so much." - Me
"You know that's not the politically wise answer." - Prof S.
"Oh, I'm aware." - Me

We meet back up a few weeks later, where I meet Kaitlin, the other student Prof S eagerly wants to ship off to Timbuktu. Prof S mentions Professor Abigail Mechtenberg, who is working on a project related to a solar thermal prototype and that she and her team are headed to Uganda in January to work on it on-site. A bit skeptical of the prospect of shipping off to a developing country in Africa, I offer my gratitude for his considering me to go and mention I know next to nothing about power systems nor solar thermal technology, and that the project may be better served by sending another student that has such experience.
"I don't think you understand the real product of this trip." - Prof S.
"Well I see it as partially a humanitarian effort, so I figure the Ugandans would be best served by a student that has more relevant experience." - Me
"You're the product." - Prof S.
"What?" - Me
"The NSF wants to develop engineers that are leaders and can understand how to work in a developing world." - Prof S.

Now it's starting to click. Of course no one is going to help identify and solve all the energy problems in Uganda in a single trip. Practically the whole point is to provide an invaluable learning experience to the engineers that are sent. Providing any benefit to the local people while there is a secondary or tertiary goal, a concept which at first offends until I recall the "real product" and the long term benefits of the trip.

The meeting ends with Kaitlin and I slated with a list of to-do's including filling out joyous travel forms with the ASU travel office and visiting the ASU health center to get our shots.

A couple weeks later I meet with an M.D. at the ASU health center. Having already performed some research on travel vaccines on the CDC website I already anticipated getting more needles put in me than Keith Richards. The doctor pulls up a map that shows "high risk" areas for various things Noah remembered to bring on the ark like malaria-carrying mosquitoes, yellow fever and typhoid.
"Ha! Great..." - I remark after noticing practically the whole country is 'high risk'.
I leave the office after getting five shots and refrigerated capsules for the typhoid vaccine. In the process I got my first tetanus booster in...30 years or so and my first flu shot ever, because "f it...I'm getting everything else anyway".
Get ALL the shots!

Chapter 2 - "You are SO Lucky."

So Uganda is kinda far away. Eager to get organized to go, Kaitlin and I shop for plane tickets and settle on an exhausting itinerary to get us there: four flights including layovers in Seattle, Amsterdam, and Kigali Rwanda. Tickets get purchased and our first flight is EARLY in the morning on New Year's Day. Like the responsible old man I am, I crash as early as possible New Year's Eve and get up at Oh-Damn-Dark Thirty the next morning and give Kaitlin a wake-up call (turns out she decided to just stay awake after New Year's Eve celebrations...crazy kids).

First flight from Phoenix to Seattle goes perfectly well and we have about four hours until our next flight to Amsterdam wherein we have a two hour layover. The Seattle to Amsterdam flight takes off about one hour late...(cue sad/dramatic foreshadowing music). After watching what felt like 13 movies and having about 8 meals on our Airbus A330, Kaitlin and I begin to worry about catching our next flight. We are near the back of the enormous aircraft that holds about 300 passengers. Ultimately we realize we'll debark calmly, find the gate for our connecting flight and RUN. We find a screen with departures and I gaze at it stupidly, attempting to decipher it with my 0 hours of Dutch language training. "How the f**k is this thing organized..." I think while hopelessly looking at the screen. Finally realizing it's organized by departure time, ascending "What the f**k..." we find our flight and see that our gate is only one concourse over. We sprint. We make it to the gate and meet Dr. Mechtenberg and her merry gang of students, and we're off to Kigali, Rwanda. Eight hours later we're parked at a gate, remaining on board for passengers headed to Uganda.

From Kigali it's only an hour or so and we finally arrive at Entebbe airport around 10 pm local time. We get through customs and head to the baggage carousel. Generally I ALWAYS carry on all my luggage to mitigate the disaster about to unfold. I look helplessly at the baggage carousel and after the rest of the party happily stands by with all their baggage and a near-empty carousel mocks me, reality sets in. Sweet, I'm in a third world country in Africa and don't have my luggage.

I shuffle over to the 'lost baggage' desk, and begin to enjoy the unorganized chaos. I am not the only hopeless traveler crowding around the desk as others also had a tight connection in Amsterdam. Don't look for a 'take a number' machine. Don't look for an organized line. Just accept the madness. Hakuna Matata. It's about 45 minutes until I finally move my way into an available spot and present my passport, baggage claim ticket and boarding passes. The 30+ minute experience being helped motivates me to make this public service announcement... If you work at such a customer service desk wherein each customer will be with you for a while...keep them updated on what's going on. Don't make me pry. Ultimately I learn that, sure enough my luggage is still chilling out in Amsterdam (I hope it found a nice 'coffee shop' at which to hang), and that the bag would be sent on the next flight. The next flight is tomorrow, arriving at the same about 22 hours away. Baggage delivery is during the day. I am provided with a stack of helpful information including the lost bag desk's direct phone number, my reference number, etc... So now my best hope is that my luggage with my clean clothing and other essentials will arrive sometime two days later. Until then, I'm left with the clothes on my back, the one pair of underwear I've already enjoyed for ~ 30 hours, and various crap in my carry-on bag.

We head out of the airport to our taxi-service mini-van, piling in the ~ 10 of us and "most" of our luggage. Shortly after loading up, Dr. Mechtenberg suggests the prospect of buying a replacement custom-tailored wardrobe...just in case. The prospect amuses, but I just desperately want to hug my luggage. She asks if there was anything very important in my bag.
" Malarone (anti-malaria medication)."
"Ok!!! Does anyone have extra Malarone?" - Abigail Mechtenberg calls out to the other students.
A quick inventory suggests everyone will have enough even if I have to bum from other people every day. It's about a one hour drive from Entebbe to the capital city Kampala. A drive that freaked me out...quite a bit. It's about one in the morning and our driver flies down dirt roads continually passing "slower" drivers and while never actually killing us in a head-on collision, doesn't exactly avoid the possibility either.

We eventually arrive, unscathed, at the Pope Paul Memorial Hotel in Kampala at some unknown hour in the wee morning, and I happily fall asleep for the very first time under a mosquito net.
The next morning I hand-wash my one pair of underwear and one of the two shirts I was wearing, and meet everyone else for breakfast. A rather helpful poster is displayed prominently in our hotel's lobby:

After breakfast we decide to head into downtown Kampala for various errands, including potentially buying some clean clothes (I'm sure there are plenty of 6'0" tall, 260 lb guys in Uganda, so this should be easy...). 

Traffic in Kampala is...well exactly what you might expect in a big city of a developing country. Most of the vehicles on the road were either large taxis (vans that would carry about 14 people) or motorcycle taxis (boda-bodas). The former British colony incorporates a lot of roundabouts and "driving on the wrong side of the road". Traffic lights are practically nowhere. Honking your horn actually has meaning and effectiveness in this African wonderland, as we watch boda-bodas and bicycles move over time and time again to make room for our taxi-van.

Lawrence, a local friend of Abigail's acted as our chaperone in the area for the afternoon. I couldn't help but admire his stylish sandals:

We first stop at an arts-and-crafts area wherein I could easily lose/leave my mom for several hours (takes mental note of this potential future opportunity). I come back by this area after lunch and miraculously find a couple shirts that fit me.
Arts and Crafts market in Kampala
After the farts-and-craps area, we head to a flea-market full of various mechanical parts to shop for pressure and temperature gauges for the solar thermal system. Let's just say we were likely the only white people (mzungus) strolling around this pleasant market. Truly we were a sight to behold.

That afternoon I make quite a few calls to hear about my delayed bag and continue to hear that the bag 'should' be on the plane that is headed to Entebbe that day. I call again two or three times late at night after the plane arrived and ultimately hear my bag had arrived. Now I pray for prompt delivery the next day.

The next morning after breakfast, the rest of the group heads to Makarere University to talk to engineers and professors working on various energy projects. I stay behind at the hotel to 'smile and dial' to ensure delivery of my precious luggage. I eventually get the cell phone number of the actual driver, and plead with (read 'desperately bribe') him to deliver my bag first in exchange for a cash reward. Now here's what you need to know about Uganda in regards to scheduling. If you have an estimated time for something, add at least an hour or two and then you're close to reality. The Entebbe lost bag desk claims bag delivery occurs during the day from 8:30 am to about 4pm. So...naturally I think 8:30 am is when the bags are loaded up and on the way to their various destinations. Nope. It isn't until some time around noon or later that the bags are finally loaded, because after all, why not wait for another flight to arrive that morning and load even more bags...

My afternoon is a balance of calm patience and crying in a fetal position in the lobby of the hotel. At one point I have one of the hotel managers talk to the driver. The driver spoke English, but the accent is so thick it is hard for our conversation to be fruitful. Around 2:15 pm, Dr. Mechtenberg and crew return from the university. I inform her my bag "should" arrive within 15 minutes. Not two minutes later, I see a van pull up, the driver get out to open the back...and see my bag. Tears of joy would have occurred if I displayed emotions like humans tend to. "You are SO lucky," Abigail exclaims. I pause and realize her several years of various trips to Uganda makes this an informed and not passively casual remark.

That afternoon we waited for our ride to Fort Portal, the main town at the west end of Uganda wherein we would call the next couple weeks home. Our hired drivers first arrived with a van far too small for our group, so we waited patiently for a larger vehicle. Note: in Uganda, nothing goes according to your plan. This will be a recurring theme.

Chapter 3 - Why did the elephant cross the road?

We load up into a spacious bus for the five hour trek west to Fort Portal. The road is paved but littered with potholes that would scare a Manhattan cab driver. We stop at a small town about mid-way for "bio break" and to buy chapati (a flatbread that looks like the offspring of naan and tortilla). The brave bio-breakers return from the latrine with stories of the facility that make me grateful for: (1) being a guy and (2) not having to take a leak at the time. It is nighttime when we are about 30-45 minutes away from our final destination when we're driving through a jungle area. Our bus and the other cars slow from our nice cruising speed to a stop. I look ahead to see what the big deal was... Moments later we see a young elephant cross the road. Such a cool incredible sight to see in the wild, and a nice way of welcoming us to the area.

We finally make it to the house of Patrick Kaahwa, a friend of Abigail's and coordinator of USSIA (Uganda Small Scale Industries Association). Patrick welcomes us into his newly-finished house and gets us acquainted. "We have no running water right now because the electricity has been out. When there is electricity, they are able to pump water to get water pressure." Over the days that follow, we learn and accept that intermittent electricity is the norm. In lieu of running water, we are introduced to the 'jerry cans' in our bathrooms. Each of our bathroom has two Jerrycans which hold about 20 liters of water. We also have a bucket with which we can take baths. The Jerrycan water is also used to flush the toilets. Running water, like consistent electricity, is just another luxury that most 'Muricans take for granted. Despite what most Americans may consider substandard living conditions, I get the sense that Patrick is relatively well off in the area. Patrick then introduces us to what must be the Ugandan version of a 'gated community'. He hired a man to keep watch over the house and the land throughout the night, which makes me feel safe and worried at the same time.

We spent the next day having lunch in town at a restaurant called the Dutchess, named so as it is ran by a dutch couple, and a trip to the local market.
Lunch on the back patio of the Dutchess in Fort Portal

Kaitlin walks through the arts and crafts market in Fort Portal

Patrick, like most people in Uganda it seems, does not have a refrigerator (yet another convenience we take for granted). The benefit of this, however, is that your food is always prepared with fresh produce.
Abigail and Evelyn chat with Patrick

Later back at home, most of us express interest in learning to cook with Margaret, Patrick's neighbor who acts as our maid and cook the duration of our stay.
Kaitlin helps Margaret with the Ground Nut Soup
Over a dinner of matoke and ground nut soup over rice, we meet John, another coordinator from USSIA, and Peter, an engineer from Makarere.
John, Peter, Abigail and Casey

Chapter 4 - First Day at St. Joseph's Technical Institute
Sign: "This school is a gift of the German people to the people of Uganda - opened Feb 1983"
The next day, we headed to St. Joseph's Technical Institute to meet the technicians with which we'll be working over the next several days. We get a tour of various projects including a grain silo built with local materials and requiring zero energy to keep the grain or maize aerated.
Grain Silo at SJTI
It should be noted that other well-financed mzungus have tried to engineer something similar for the Ugandan market and have failed miserably.

We then see the various prototypes built by the team over the course of years, including: a 'cattle-go-round' that produces electricity, a bicycle-powered generator, and a hand-crank generator. We then head outside to check out the second in-progress prototype solar thermal trough on which most of the attention will be focused during our stay.
The team inspects solar thermal trough prototype # 2
Before coming to Uganda, I knew very little about solar trough systems but wanted to be as valuable as possible to the team. So the first few days working with Amos (the de-facto team lead in Abigail's group) was for me a delicate balancing act between my tendency to assume control of every project, and yielding to Amos's relative expertise on various topics. At very least, I just didn't want to give off the impression that "the PV guy is trying to sabotage the solar thermal system".

Chapter 5 - Field Trip to Crater Valley Kibale (CVK)
CVK is the site wherein the St. Joseph's techs installed a hydroelectric system. The CVK lodge is on a lake and like most of the area is incredibly beautiful. The trip was in part for the sake of sightseeing and also for maintenance as the system was known to be down before we arrived. The techs got the problem solved in short order upon arrival. The conversation about the formerly out-of-order hydroelectric system between the frustrated owner of the lodge and the technicians felt remarkably familiar to me. I was reminiscent of several years arguing with other directors about the function and performance of various software applications.

The team arrives at the resort in CVK

A short walk from the lodge let us "monkey" around.

After lunch, we walked down the road and to the river where the hydroelectric system was installed.
The team and SJTI techs looking at the inner workings of the hydroelectric plant at CVK

Water inlet for hydroelectric plant at CVK

Chapter 6 - Back to the Drawing Board
For several days, we worked under the assumption that the prototype solar thermal trough was essentially parabolic in shape. Running with that assumption, using my Wikipedia skillz, I calculated the appropriate place at which the water-filled pipe should be placed. Days earlier, Amos was attempting to find the focus by visual inspection. His method may have proved more fruitful, and I must admit it first struck me as insufficiently scientific. Ultimately we determined the trough is not parabolic in a couple ways: (1) we couldn't get water to heat up and (2) the method with which the trough was fabricated did not consider parabolic shapes, but rather something more cylindrical. Amos decided to abandon the prototype # 2 trough altogether and had a plan for building a new set of troughs which connected in series would measure about 16 feet long and 20 inches wide. He double-checked his assumptions that evening with our scarce internet, and thus we committed to the bold new path of building a third prototype.

Chapter 7 - Malaria Strikes the Team
About a week into our stay in Uganda, trip leader and student Rainey headed back to Entebbe to escort the latecomer Madeline back to Fort Portal. Rainey had been feeling sick leading up to this trek back east and visited a clinic back in Kampala after picking up Maddie (sp?). I'm sure having a likely malaria-stricken trip leader gave Maddie a great sense of comfort.

Shortly after their arrival in Fort Portal it was determined that Rainey did in fact get malaria, which can be fatal if not treated promptly and appropriately. Rainey spent a number of nights in the hospital in Fort Portal for various treatments. You can imagine Rainey's parents were a bit excited about the prospect of their daughter having malaria in Africa and were on the phone with Abigail regularly. The first treatment consisted of anti-viral pills which had little to no effect. Ultimately she was given I.V.s of quinine. Her mom has a good travel insurance policy and arranged for her to travel back one day earlier than planned while accompanied by a nurse. 

Chapter 8 - Sunday Fun Day
The Sunday of our second weekend in Fort Portal, and a few days before we would head back to Kampala, we had planned on a four hour trek to Queen Elizabeth National Park for a safari. The malaria-stricken Rainey clearly could not come along and Abigail was obligated to stay near her and was not enthused about all the students travelling so far without her. We reached the fair compromise of travelling back to the CVK area, but further than when we traveled to see the hydroelectric plant. The selling points were: less travel time + resort bar hopping + more relaxation time. Surprisingly the whole group was happy with the compromise. I actually expected to have to perform a bit of politicking to get everyone on board with our "plan" to have fun.

At our first stop, we walked down to a lake and enjoyed the view over some Ugandan beers. At our second stop we soon learned the whole place was rented out by one group, but we could stick around for about one drink before we were politely expected to mosey on. I enjoyed a great mojito and another spectacular view and we headed back home for dinner.

Enjoying a mojito at Ndali Lodge

Chapter 9 - Let There Be...Properly-Focused Light
We carefully calculated X & Y positions of a parabola 20 inches wide in x dimension. The coordinates for the parabolic curve (as well as the focal point) were scribed onto a piece of steel. Festo, one of the techs, carefully cut out this first side and it became our template for further sides. Over the better part of a day, we fabricated one trough four feet long as a proof-of-concept wherein we would check the focus. Another infamous visual inspection showed promise, and work continued thereafter to construct three additional troughs.

This third prototype trough is incredibly parabolic in shape (especially compared to the first two), and the focus was right on the money. The light was going right where we needed it to.
Light successfully focused on the 16 foot trough
In a last ditch effort to have more successes on the day we planned to head back to Kampala, we put in a half day in the morning to try to get the trough to boil water. Over the course of an hour, we saw the water rise in temperature from about 23 C to 45 C. Around this time, we received the glass covers. The glass was dirty and improperly cut so they did not fit well at all. If the glass was properly sized and the trough was sealed, the air around the pipe would continue to heat up, but instead we were just heating the water in spite of being open to the ambient air. After several minutes of failing to install the glass, which resulted in one of the four panels breaking, we decided to revert back to ambient air. Quietly I think we all knew that moment we abandoned our hope of producing steam before leaving St Joseph's that day.

It will be interesting to see what progress the team makes after we left. With the back mirror properly cleaned and glass installed and sealed, steam may just happen. And with steam is mechanical energy and the ability to spin a turbine to get electricity.

Chapter 10 - Reflections
- The luxuries we take for granted
Imagine walking to your local well or hose, perhaps a kilometer or more away, every day to retrieve the water you'll use to drink, to bathe, to cook, etc... That is a reality that millions and millions of people (perhaps billions?) live in every day. In the U.S. when electricity goes out, it seems the world comes to a halt. In Uganda, it is just a part of life so you deal with it, and that is for the 10% of the population that HAS electricity. When is the last time you washed your clothes by hand and hung them out to dry? What about buying fresh produce that you would use within a couple days before it spoils, for after all you do not have a refrigerator. When did you last cook every meal outside over charcoal? After all, you don't have a stove nor an oven.

- Poor in riches, but not in spirit.
Many of the people I worked with over two weeks make the equivalent of $2 to $3 per day. Let that soak in for a bit. Now granted, a lot of people seem to grow some of their own food and that may cut the food budget somewhat, but still doesn't exactly leave room for "entertainment" in the ol' monthly budget. I am a bit awestruck at how despite what we may consider to be conditions of extreme poverty, how apparently content my new Ugandan friends are. They all seemed to have a rather positive attitude, were productive on the job, etc... I couldn't imagine Americans handling similar living conditions as well, because we have been conditioned differently. Americans are high maintenance. We just are.

- Neocolonialism
To her credit, Abigail advocates for energy systems that can be designed, built, and maintained locally by Ugandans. This may allow, in some ways, greater energy independence vs. importing Chinese-built solar PV panels. However, I must note that on one field trip to the markets of Fort Portal, we learned that solar lighting systems are quickly becoming more common and being adopted by the residential market. Most of these shops would sell about a dozen systems per month, and the most common system included a 15 watt panel, a couple lights, and a battery that supports eight hours of lighting.

- What really matters
Having infrequent access to the internet was simultaneously frustrating but also liberating. I feel the internet can easily become a distraction from what really matters: spending real time with friends and family. I certainly hope here on out that I allocate my time accordingly to this reflection.




  1. tl;dr

    Jk, sounds like an awesome experience

  2. Tim - this is a great reflection! SO glad your trip went as well as you hoped for, albeit for a few 'small' adjustments!