"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi", quoth Pliny the Elder. There is some debate about what he really meant, but most likely he meant trouble. In this sense has the phrase been used most often since but I hope to reverse the trend and on these pages bring you the exciting, novel and curious out of Africa.

And wherever I am I hope to remain,
Ex Africa Semper Yours,

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Various, Curious and Spurious – Sex and Food

In this series of posts I have decided to bundle together some of the random flavours of Uganda. This practice will be entirely at odds with the modern socio-anthropological practice, which abhors pointing fingers at other cultures’ curios and idiosyncrasies and prefers to look at them as comprehensive, self-explanatory systems, where nothing is ‘weird’, just yet not understood. Good for them. I will nevertheless revert to pre-Bronislaw Malinowski techniques of those good old fashioned nineteenth century armchair anthropologists who found utmost pleasure in trying to make sense of the quirkier, more colourful and unusual aspects of ‘exotic cultures’. With all due respect, that just makes for a better read than Levi-Strauss.

This is a rather eclectic combination of facts, images and impressions that have surprised, intrigued or amused me during my travels. While some of them are peculiar to Uganda, others I have observed Africa-wide and others are just non-European. But they all make Uganda a colourful, fascinating and perplexing place.


The Saturday editions of the two main newspapers, the government New Vision and the independent Daily Monitor, have a rather sizeable agony aunt and matchmaking inserts. These make for a fascinating read.

Firstly, white is still in demand. For example, in the recent issue out of 23 ladies 11 were searching for a white man, out of which two requested that he be wealthy too. The guys were less fussy, only 6 out of 40 wanted a ‘beautiful white lady for love’. Secondly, most of the posts contain a note that HIV test is a must. Not so surprising when one considers, that despite commendable government and NGO efforts (on the Kenyan-Ugandan boarder there is a free condom-dispenser, although I do wonder why there) still over 6.5% of Ugandans are thought to be HIV positive. This also explains, why there are three categories of match-adds ‘man seeks woman’, ‘woman seeks man’ and ‘HIV positive’. ‘Man seeks man’ does not feature but that should not surprise you if you recall that Uganda made headlines worldwide with its attitude to homosexuals not that long ago. Lastly, the adds also often contain tribal affiliation requirement, for example Acholi, Langi or Mukiga; more often so than religious, although adjective ‘God-fearing’ is used in many.

This is a subject meriting its separate entry but it is worth noting that Uganda (and Kenya) has a striking number of single mothers. This problem has been raised by many women with whom I have spoken and their explanation is usually poverty and the fact there are more women than man out there. If there is a husband, the families are usually large (the record so far was a man who claimed to have 24 kids with 3 wives, second came a policeman with 12 kids with one wife) but I have also spoken to many girls of my age struggling to make-do while also caring for one or two love-children. Ugandan law provides for them in theory but in practice tracking a run-away dad is next to impossible, in particular if he has enough money to pay bribes. As in many developing societies, boys are still preferred to girls, the explanation given being that the girl leaves the household (i.e. supports her husbands parents in their old age) and usually brings a lesser return on educational investment (women earn less, especially if they have children). Sadly, many women seem to be convinced that, given the large number of NGOs dealing with orphans, their children would be better off without any parents.

Bus Rides and Hawkers

I love riding buses and matatus, despite their smelliness, hard seats, crowds and long waiting times, for two reasons: the views and bus-stop hawkers. Not much to be said about the views in general (they are pretty) but the hawkers are fascinating. Whenever a vehicle pulls up en route to let people off or on, its sides get flooded with a throng of sellers trying to reach its windows and offer their wares to the passengers sitting within. They mostly sell food, although other articles, like watches, belts, perfume and live chicken also feature. The nicest thing about them is that the hawkers are not aggressive or persistent in the slightest, a polite ‘no, thank you’, or even a smile and headshake is enough to make them turn their attention elsewhere. Given the fierce competition between them (there are usually many people selling the same thing) this is rather surprising. It makes me wonder if the profits, at least in some villages, are not shared somehow or if there is not a rotation system in place.

In any case, travelling on an African bus is like being in a moving restaurant. You don’t have to move from your seat to be able to enjoy refreshments and local tastes. You can start the journey by stocking on biscuits, water and chewing gum, which local boys carry on their shoulders in cardboard boxes. The drinks are usually nice and cold but you should always check if the seal is unbroken. As you stuff yourself with cookies, you might want something more watery – that’s when you could reach out for fruit which is sold either as fruit salad on trays (watermelon, papaya, avocado, durian and carrots (don’t ask me why carrots)) or separately (good luck fitting a durian through those little windows). After a couple of hours its time for something more substantial: there are chucks of meat on a stick (goat, beef, liver (yuck!) and chicken), roast sweet-corn (my favourite), roast bananas (one of the basic staples), chapattis (pancakes) or roasted cassava. Should you feel that has not been sufficient, you can always fill up on deep-fried locusts, peanuts and pumpkin seeds, or popcorn. There are also muffins, banana doughnuts (yummy) or mandazis for dessert.

Stuffing yourself too much however might not be advisable as there are usually no toilet breaks and if there are the bus just stops on the side of the road and both men and women squirt in the plain view (you are lucky if there are bushes). Instead, you can always buy that live chicken (usually three in a bunch tied by their legs) for later.

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