Greetings from the “banana republic”

10 06 2011

By Edgar Asiimwe

When the pilot announced that we would be landing in 10 minutes, reality set in: we were finally in Uganda and after a whole semester of IRB writing, protocol reviewing, protocol discussing, etc, the official data collection finally begins! I quickly rubbed the sleep off my eyes, and by now my excitement had surely supplanted the underlying fatigue of an over 24-hour journey which had nearly been mired by a canceled flight from RDU to O’Hare (thanks AA for saving the day!).

As soon as we alit from the plane, reality firmly sunk in! I was at Entebbe airport, a place I had last been over half a decade ago! In my fatigue-induced trance, I staggered with my small backpack over to the arrival section to the “warm” welcome of a serpentine queue.  Apparently, there had been some new mandated changes: all entrants, regardless of citizenship, were required to provide biometrics in the form of finger prints from all 10 fingers, as well as a “pupil shot.”

Thirty minutes passed and the queue seemed to be making no progress whatsoever. By this time I was growing as cranky as the gentleman standing next to me: I was clearly sleep-deprived, hungry, and drenching in heat-induced sweat which did not seem to be appeased by the fresh air coming from the open doors at the back. By the time my turn finally arrived, I had been in queue for over 50 minutes, and I was relieved as soon as the immigration officer beckoned me to a small “MTN” kiosk where he did the necessary.

Next step was baggage collection in the baggage claim area just 2 meters beyond the immigration entry point. At baggage claim, one is greeted by a rattling conveyor belt, direly in need of mechanical lubrication, encased in a light blue boundary engraved with the words “Uganda Telecom Welcomes You.”  With MTN “in charge” at the immigration desk upon entry and Uganda Telecom “in charge” only a few meters away (at baggage claim), one immediately senses the ferocious rivalry that exists among cell phone companies in this land-locked country of 34 million. If recent estimates are anything to go by, then cell-phone use is huge in Uganda, with recent numbers placing ownership at nearly 66%. This wide coverage has sparked interest in both the economic and global health sector as both mull over how to best harness  this seemingly ubiquitous technology (see this 2009 article from the Economist which describes one way in which cell phones are being utilized : But at that point in time, a hot meal and a warm bed were at the fore of my concerns, global health and health science could wait another day. I quickly grabbed my luggage off the conveyor belt and headed to the waiting area, a small room huddled with taxi drivers carrying placards with names of those whom they’d been sent to pick up. I scoured the crowd for my waiting party and we were off on our way to kisaasi, a suburb about 30 minutes from Kampala. This will be my home for the next 10 weeks.

The clamoring conveyor belt at EBB

The ride to Kampala from Entebbe seemed to take longer than I remember, and the roads, better-paved. When I ask about the changes in both distance and appearance, I am quickly reminded that Uganda hosted the common-wealth heads of summit meeting in 2007, and that HRM Queen Elizabeth was also in attendance. I watch quietly as we speed down a narrow un-divided 2-way road lined with market vendors on the sides in wooden make-shift stalls. In one stall, a mother with a baby roasts maize, next to her, a young gentleman (probably in his early 30s) fries “chapatis” billowing smoke in to the stygian night illuminated only by a small lantern “tadoba.”  As I take note of this bustling activity at the odd hour of 11pm, I am suddenly blinded by the bright headlights of an on-coming car. I soon realize that our driver had attempted to overtake a slower moving truck on this narrow row road. I gasp in fear as we narrowly escape a head-on collision. As I recompose myself after this near brush with death, I realize that I am alone in my fears: everyone else in the car, including the driver, seems calm unperturbed, oblivious (or indifferent?) to what had just happened…… be continued……

PS: with more pictures next time…;-)




One response

10 06 2011

Yay…Edgar’s blogging! I can’t wait to hear more.

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