Give me my flowers now

One of my guilty pleasures is a show on Netflix called Queer Eye. I have followed the show since the early years when it was still called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and was delighted to find five whole new seasons of it on Netflix earlier this year. In an episode that I watched recently, the guy responsible for culture, Karamo, mentioned that his Jamaican grandmother always used to say: “Give me my flowers now!”

This expression beautifully encapsulated something that I have felt ever since my paternal grandmother passed away more than 10 years ago. She lived with us for the last few years of her life, and I remember her daily lamenting over the fact that she hadn’t seen her other grown children for a while, and wishing she could see them one last time before she passed. Apart from my Dad they all still lived in our ancestral rural area, about 6 hours away by bus, and they always said that they could not raise the money to travel to the capital city and see her.

The moment she died, however, all of them dropped what they were doing, somehow found the money, and travelled overnight to make it for the burial. Now I know that we Africans place a lot of importance on the burial of our our loved ones but I remember feeling really bitter with my Uncles at the time. I felt that their presence would have been much more beneficial if they had made the time to come visit with their mother while she was alive. In any case I remember from that time on vowing always to prioritise time with my loved ones while they were alive, and not wait until they had passed away to pay my respects.

Apart from generally keeping in touch with my loved ones, I have also fallen into the habit of sharing personal messages whenever a special occasion rolls around – be it a birthday, wedding anniversary, mother’s day, father’s day, or any other special occasion. I always make sure I put thought into the messages I send, being careful to specify what that person brings to my life, and highlighting their particular characteristics. Over the years that I have been doing this I have felt that it has meant something special to the recipients, and it also makes me feel that I will have said mine to my loved ones while they were alive. Certainly I am aware that the decision to communicate like this may also be a reflection of the fact that my primary love language happens to be words of affirmation.

As I write this, anyway, Uganda is in a second wave of COVID19 infections, in which we have lost a lot of people. On my school groups, in particular, a lot of people have lost their Moms and Dads; one or two have even lost both in this period. This has brought me back to that moment that I buried my grandmother years ago, and I find myself extending the same thoughtfulness to the condolence messages that I write to my bereaved friends. Rather than the stock (& abbreviated!) MHSRIP, or what not, I picture myself really standing in front of this person and verbally expressing my condolences face-to-face, and then write a message that incorporates as much of what I am feeling in that moment as possible.

By sharing this with you today I hope I can inspire you to think more about giving your loved ones their flowers while they are alive. Those touching Facebook tributes & eulogies at funerals are all extremely valuable and comforting to those left behind, but I am pained that many of the people about whom they are may have never heard these sentiments expressed while they were alive.

For avoidance of doubt, in any case, I’ll ask all of you readers of mine to “Give me my flowers now”.

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Almost 9 years as a Toastmaster and still learning!

Earlier this week I ran a meeting for 4 women & men who agreed to join the core team to help charter the first upcountry Toastmasters Club in Uganda – Mbarara Toastmasters Club.

Three club meetings in, I had identified 5 individuals to form part of the core charter team – in addition to my co-sponsor – and I invited the individuals who had given at least one speech and also taken on at least one club role and invited them to become part of this core team. I proceeded to send each of them a private message inviting them to join this core team, stressing that they needed to be fully committed to working with me to get the club to charter. Each of them enthusiastically agreed and I created the WhatsApp group to facilitate our discussions.

I came to this meeting without a specific agenda – I only knew that we needed to discuss two things: a strategy to attract the additional members to enable us to hit our charter target of 20 paid-up members, and planning our next meeting about two weeks hence. Early on the agreed core team meeting day I sent a reminder that we would have a meeting later that day, and shared the Zoom Meeting Details, and then 5 minutes to the meeting time sent a message informing them I would open the meeting room soon and hoped they were ready to join.

The first person to join the meeting arrived two minutes late, the next 5 minutes late, and on, with the 4th member arriving at the 10 minute mark. Our 5th member had not confirmed his attendance, and surely enough did not attend the meeting. More on this 5th member later, but before we proceeded with the meeting I took the time to remind members that as leaders proper timekeeping was key, and asked them to imagine what would have happened if I, as the meeting convener, had myself been late. Some of the members did acknowledge that they generally struggled with time keeping, and that they would take the opportunity to better their timekeeping since they were now part of this core team.

To kick the meeting off I felt that it would not be wise to dive right into the two agenda items I had in mind, but that as this was our first official meeting it would be better to start by asking each member one question, and that was: "Why did you agree to join this core team? What is in it for you?

One person said that he has learnt that the best way to really benefit from an opportunity like Toastmasters is to be fully involved, because he learnt that otherwise he might find himself drifting away to something else; another member said he had calculated that each year he could only attend a certain limited number of club meetings, and being part of the core team gave him additional opportunities to grow; and yet another one said that she saw this as an opportunity to stretch herself in leadership, since she realised that in the past, doing things she thought were hard and time consuming actually turned out to give the best rewards.

After we had gone around reflecting on this I felt that I too ought to let the team know why I was putting in such efforts in helping charter a new club when 1) having already obtained the highest award that Toastmasters could give (Distinguished Toastmaster, or DTM) it would not bring me any additional Toastmaster Credit, and 2) I already had a home club anyway & could sit back and enjoy my “retirement”. My involvement in this initiative was really driven by my intrinsic desire to see people develop, and having seen the benefits of Toastmasters over the years I knew that facilitating the establishment of this new club could be the beginning of the establishment of more and more clubs in the region, and in this way I could create a self-sustaining mechanism for more people to enjoy the benefits of Toastmasters.

When everyone had spoken I felt the need to ask one more question before diving into the business at hand, and that was: "Given your short exposure to Toastmasters, as you prepared your first speech or prepared for your first meeting role: what would you say you have learnt?"

And once again people had a lot to say. From realising how difficult it was to speak within a specified time limit, to realising how much better a speech is if one takes the time to actually write it out and rehearse it, and even to the unexpected learning that one member experienced when they were meeting timer: this particular individual figured out how to share the screen but had no idea how to unshare it – he had had to call on me to help during the meeting and felt quite ashamed at the time but had added that small technical knowledge to his knowledge of the Zoom.

It was only after we had had these two rounds of what I later realised was our why that I went on to introduce these two items for discussion, and the meeting went on smoothly, with everyone giving productive suggestions on how to meet our now hared objectives.

I had planned for this meeting to only last the 40 minutes allowed by my free Zoom account, but the meeting ended up extending to nearly an hour an a half, necessitating us having to sign in again in order for us to continue. The possibility to extend a meeting on a free Zoom account simply by clicking on the meeting link again after the first 40 minutes expired is another trick I learnt conducting Toastmaster Zoom team meetings as an Area Director two years ago, which further exemplifies the unexpected benefits of being a Toastmaster.

As the meeting ran on I remember feeling slightly concerned that I was keeping the team members longer than I had planned (although I had been wise enough not to set a time limit in advance), but I knew that the opportunity to reflect on and share their whys, as well as listening to the why’s of the other team members was important for us to bond as a team, and also create a sense of shared purpose. I sensed that this would prove to be important going forward, if we were going to tap into the deeper commitment of each member and ensure a collective ownership of the effort.

Reflecting on this later I realised that what I "sensed" actually came from what I had learnt during my DTM project.  

My chosen project at the time was to support the establishment of the first Corporate Club in Uganda, and I remember I realised it could work as my DTM project when we had already run the demo meeting and made some progress towards charter. At the time I tried to get my Project Guidance Committee to allow me to skip the first few requirements of the DTM project in lieu of the groundwork that I had already laid, but the committee encouraged me to go through the entire project simply starting continuing on from where I was in the charter process, because, they said, it was much more important to go through the process even than if the outcome was successful or not.

I am here to say that they were completely right! The DTM project proceeds more or less exactly as I was now leading this club establishment initiative. The DTM project guide one through the process of defining the project, assembling the team, and collectively agreeing on the team mission, vision, and goals. Along the way the team also agrees on the values and principles that will guide their collaboration, and in our case we had agreed on some principles on how we interacted on the WhatsApp group, such as responding to messages in a timely manner, informing the team in good time when we were running behind on an assignment, feeling free to ask for help, and so on. In this way, the leader did not have to do everything themselves; instead, she or he could count on the collective energy, networks, and varied talents to drive the effort forward. Finally, the DTM project recommends assembling a team of 3-5 members, and I was stunned to realise that I had instinctively kept it within that number.

Speaking of the team size, I had mentioned that I would say a little more about the elusive 5th member. It turned out that even though he fulfilled the criteria that I had set for the others – he had completed his first speech and taken on at least one club role – he had more recently not been as responsive to requests to participate in club meetings as he had been at the start. I had my doubts by the time I invited him to join the core team, but he had assured me he was willing and fully committed to contributing to the team efforts. Once part of the WhatsApp group though, he continued showing very low interaction, and when he did not show up for the first team meeting I had told the team that I would have to ask him to step back from the assignment for the time being.

Again, I wondered if I was perhaps not being too strict about each member showing full commitment, but in the end I felt that having such a member on the team would take more energy from me in motivating and following up on him than I was willing to expend. Plus, I felt that excusing such a member from the assignment would send a message to the rest that if one committed to participating in the team efforts then they needed to commit, and if they really could not fit the assignment in their schedules it was better they stepped out – no hard feelings, and no judgement. Again: it was key that one had self-motivated team members if one was going to succeed.

Managing the exiting of this member also turned out to be a delicate dance. I wanted him to know I appreciated his willingness to participate, but that we would understand if he could not fit it in his schedule. I had to be careful not to lose him as a fairly active member of the club in general while also communicating that he could rejoin any time his schedule allowed. As removed him from the group I reminded him that he had promised to take up a role at the next meeting, to which he enthusiastically agreed and promised to let me know which role he would take on after he had reviewed the roles. I would like to think I handled this situation quite well, and feel that this member still feels appreciated and can continue to participate within the capacity he currently has.

All in all, as I continued to reflect on this experience I realised that this was a good way to manage volunteers even outside Toastmasters, and no wonder Toastmasters had such a clear procedure – they have been perfecting methods of managing teams of volunteers for almost 100 years. As a member of one other volunteer I realised that my leadership within that other organisation had been deeply informed by what I learnt in Toastmasters, and here again we see the transferability of the skills one gains in Toastmasters.

All this to say: it continues to amaze me that almost 9 years after I joined Toastmasters I am still learning and growing. Perhaps it has to do with my deep identification as an educator (and therefore a learner), as well as my deep identification as a leader (and therefore a follower). 

After achieving the award of Distinguished Toastmaster in March of 2020 I remember thinking I would now take a back seat and focus on my other (pressing!) non-toastmaster pursuits, but before I knew it I had moved to a new city and I found myself unable to resist the challenge of setting up this new club. What’s more, I have recently agreed to Chair the District Leadership Institute come the start of the next Toastmaster year on 1st July 2021, so clearly my leadership and communication journey in Toastmasters continues! I cannot complain, though, because really I volunteer for all of this – so I only have myself to blame, or maybe only myself to thank, what can I say? 🙂

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The Oak Seed Leadership Programme

About 5 years ago my brother-in-law attended what he called a super intense leadership programme, where he had to read and critique a pile of books, and attend intense weekend-long lectures and debates, and thought that I would be a perfect candidate for this programme.

Maybe a year later a very well respected and close friend of mine also told me he had attended this course years prior, and that it was one of the moments he credits with being the clear minded and focused individual that he is now. And then two years ago my two closest girlfriends also did the course and raved about it, so earlier this year, as a result of being grounded by COVID-19, and hearing they were going to offer an online version I decided to go along and check it out.

The Oakseed Leadership Programme is a six-month long “Executive Leadership” course that is delivered over one full weekend each month for a total of 6 modules. In between these weekends, participants are required to read and write a 10-20 page critique of at least one book, sometimes two, and also work with a small group of fellow participants to conceive, design, and deliver a group leadership project within the six-month period that the course runs. In addition to this, participants are required to develop an individual leadership project that they should implement within 6 months of the completion of the course.

4 months in and I must say that it has more than lived up to the hype, and has been an immensely thought provoking and challenging experience so far. Apart from high quality lectures and the lively debates that we have during the online class weekends, engaging with all the study material has been greatly eye-opening.

The learning and engagement are organised around a number of spheres, which then guide our thinking around where we could take action as leaders. These include the spheres of Family, Governance, Media, Economy, and Education. My own chosen sphere was Education, and along with 5 other participants we have by now designed and are delivering a mini-leadership course of our own that is aimed at helping secondary school teachers discover their leadership potential. This is recognition of the fact that teachers have such a profound impact on their students, and with the widespread breakdown of family and society, teachers may be the last chance a child has to be set on the right road.

Beyond exploring the different areas where we might contribute to societal change, we have also been exposed to various leadership processes and principles, such as the value of mentorship and delegation, how to take the long view in all our thinking about addressing present challenges, what it takes to be a transformational leader, and about conflict management and creating strong value-based systems. All of these explorations, in addition, are underpinned by robust biblical principles, which as a non-religious person was a worry for me at first, but in the end made perfect and incontrovertible sense.

Finally, attending this course has been one big journey of growth and self reflection for me as an individual. This has come about through the excellent readings, videos, and open discussions with the facilitators and fellow participants, but also through clarifying a personal vision as I wrote the proposal for an individual change project. In the process I have also gained invaluable skills such as speed reading (because the reading is intense!), how to write a book critique (which I had actually never attempted before), and I even improved my proposal writing skills.

All in all, this 6-month programme has been worth every minute and every shilling that I spent on it, and I am glad I finally heeded the advice of my friends and family and took it. It is definitely one of the blessings that I can count in the midst of this disruptive and destabilising pandemic!

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Accra

Having longed to one day to visit Accra for so long, I suddenly had the opportunity to visit it twice in the same month! Both visits were marked by a strong sense of wellbeing upon arrival, although the state was induced by two quite different stimuli at the two occasions. The first was the result of an encounter with a man from Togo on the flight in from Abuja, with whom we discussed such deep spiritual matters that I was left feeling at one with all (wo)mankind, and deeply centred. The second, I must confess, was a lovely haze induced by the double gin & tonic that I had just before I embarked! 🙂

In both cases I was met by a gleaming airport and very pleasant officers; increasing my pleasure was the sight of so many immigration booths, in front of which stood hardly two people waiting, which made for a nice break. Everything clearly marked, too, so one knows where to go. I was also impressed by how clean the toilets were – everything automated – soap, water, and the drying paper are gently discharged by simply holding one’s hands next to each appliance… Unfortunately, my usual experience with airport bathrooms in African capitals is doors that don’t close properly, water flowing out of only one or two taps, and attendants asking for a tip. I catch myself thinking this must be a new airport and I hope they keep it up! Not very charitable, I know.

The city of Accra itself does look like a lot of the other African Capitals that I’ve been to – low concrete and brick colonial style government buildings jostling for space with gleaming tinted glass multi-storey buildings, and interspersed by half-finished and seemingly abandoned construction.. and just like many African capitals, the near roadside is lined by low tin or timber buildings here and there, crammed in next to one another and dealing in everything from furniture, to fruit & veg, to clothing, construction materials and whatever else the passerby might need.

Similar to other African Capitals one also observes large colourful billboards  all along the road, advertising mobile phone companies (MTN dominates), banks, and apartments for sale in the trendiest gated communities. I’m gratified to find that just like my own capital city Kampala, Accra is very green, and is also characterised by mild weather, with temperatures around 26 degrees as we approach noon; unlike my own capital city, however, the roads are wider and the traffic much more orderly.

There are a few peculiarities that I notice driving along the road in Accra:

1. The quirk of naming their roundabouts and junctions – there’s the Danquah Circle, then you have the Tetteh Quarshie Interchange, not forgetting, of course, the centre of downtown: the Kwame Nkrumah Circle – a little research revaels that there up to four more roundabouts named for Ghana’s Founding Fathers – the big six as they are known.

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Kwame Nkurumah Circle – courtesy Roads and Kingdom

2. Billboards announcing burials – these varied in size, from maybe 3 feet high by 2 feet wide, to entire industrial sized billboards. I was told that they had quite elaborate funeral ceremonies – especially the Asante tribe – where sometimes bodies lay in the morgue for up to six months as relatives were mobilised from within and without. Apparently for minor royals, the body is sometimes secretly buried and the ceremonies held up to a year later! This website tells more about the extravagances these funerals induce

All in all, my stay in Ghana had more highlights than I can count, but I will dwell on three: the food, my visit to the Cape Coast, and the fabric (Oh-My-God, THE FABRIC!!)!

Well: maybe I will start with a quick fourth: the people! Warmer, nicer, politer people I am yet to meet. Calling you Sir and Ma, gentle as you like – my overriding adjective for them is simply: a noble people!

But to the food. The Ghanaians, like many West African I have since found, love their spice. I will never forget the deceptively named “spicy goat broth” that I served up one lunch time, which was so hot that within two spoonfuls my whole face was burning and I had to abandon the dish! Wa! But so aromatic, and even through the heat really delicious! And of course their famous red-red – a dish made half from beans and half from palm oil it seemed to me! This to be eaten with fried plantain and sometimes rice, it is utterly delicious! I came across all sorts of other vegetables and pounded fermented grains, and of course the ever-present Milo chocolate drink – as they proudly say: “we are cocoa people!” (although I don’t know how much of the Milo they drink is actually manufactured in Ghana).

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Courtesy of Infision

Speaking of chocolate, I also got to get a taste of their locally produced chocolate – I hear there are a lot of specialist chocolates produced in Ghana but the only ones I could find in the shops were the Niche and Goldentree brands – the Goldentree brand appears to be the one that most people I spoke to associated with their childhoods, but I could not find a high percentage chocolate version and so did not try it; I did try the Niche 72% one and that was very good! .

Our trip to Ghana’s old capital city, the Cape Coast took us about 4 hours out of the city, through some beautiful forest, and hills, and a couple of small towns. Arriving in the Cape Coast I am reminded of the coastal towns nearer to me, like the old towns Mombasa & Zanzibar – narrow streets and crowded houses; the difference here is that the houses sit on steep hillsides, reminiscent of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan that I once visited.

The main attraction in the city is the castle that most recently housed the British Colonial masters, but started life as a trade outpost for various European nations including Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, France & The Netherlands. In the end, however, it was captured by the British, and after their exit is now a memorial to the slave trade that marks a large part of its history. Our tour guide told of the horrors faced by the men and women that were held at this castle, including the dreaded windowless dungeon where unruly male slaves were sent to die of thirst of suffocation, whichever came first. Just as I had seen at Ouidah in Benin, we were finally brought to the door of no return, although while the one at Ouidah is symbolic, the one at the Cape Castle is the actual opening through which slaves walked and encountered the boundless ocean, many for the first time, with no possibility of turning back.

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With colleagues from East, South & West Africa at the end of the tour

We were reminded, once more, by the horrors that these innocent men and women endured. In 2019 Ghana widely commemorated the 400 years since the slave trade began, and had declared it the year of the diaspora. As such, all through the tour we cam across many groups of people of African decent from all over the world, some standing silently in remembrance, and others moved to tears. The most bizzarre sight for us was the little church that was built on top of the dark airless dungeons that housed the slaves below, complete with a little hatch through which the Sunday morning worshipers could peep down at the wretched masses below. How could they reconcile their actions with their faith?

But on to more joyous subjects: at no time in my life have I encountered a more dazzling and delightful array of fabric than I was on my two visits to Ghana!

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The traditional handwoven Kente Fabric – courtesy of Arhinarmah

From the fabric that some savvy entreprenuers brought to our hotel during the workshops I was attending, to the trip to the market downtown, I bought so much material that I had to send some along to Nigeria with some colleagues, so I could pick it up on a trip to Lagos in another few weeks! My two happiest purchases were a roll of Kente and one of Adinkra – both hand made and stitched – 3 yards of the Kente cost me about $120 and 4 Yards of Adinkra about $75. CAN’T wait to convert them into some stunning garments!!

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Adinkra Fabric – Courtesy of BellaAfricana

What can I say, readers? Visiting Ghana started on a high and ended on a high. There are high chances that I will be returning there in another few months and I am sure I will find even more to love about it – I know I will be on the hunt for these specialist chocolatiers, for sure!! Looking forward to it!

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Niamey

I arrived in Niamey right at the end of the Extraordinary AU Summit of Heads of State, which I was told more than 30 presidents had attended in person – this, of course, meant that the airport was in complete chaos – barriers everywhere, both incoming and outgoing lanes cleared to allow the various motorcades to bring their precious cargo, and those cars leaving the airport held up to keep the way clear. When I had finally cleared immigration and located my driver, we had barely reversed out of his parking before we were stopped short by a thick winding mass of cars all waiting to leave the airport. My driver and I squeezed into the mass and waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

My driver did not speak a word of English so no conversation was possible, smiley and pleasant though he was. This being the middle of the afternoon temperatures were in the late 30’s; fortunately my driver was kind enough to keep the engine idling and the air conditioning! Amazingly, though, some waiting in this queue with us had their doors open – for a spoilt Ugandan like myself, anything over 30 degrees feels like I have one foot in hell!

Intermittently clusters of four wheel drive cars with darkened windows whistled past us, sirens at full blast and wheels squelching on the hot tarmac. Besides that it was a heavy, shimmering heat interspersed by the languid chatter between my fellow passengers and their drivers

About 45 minutes of waiting later a sudden burst of energy. Men flying across towards the mass of waiting cars, doors slamming, engines firing, and a surge forward as our lane was released – horns blaring and (what I assume were) French curses flying, the drivers urged one another on so they could get through and out before our lane was closed again, but alas our car was too far back and we were stopped again before we made it out.

Glancing at the fuel gauge of our car I feared we might run out of fuel so I told the driver to switch off the engine and open the windows, and as the waves of heat billowed in we settled down to wait. I pulled out my computer and began to watch some Masterchef, while my driver wandered off to chat with the other drivers. After about 30 minutes he came back and fumbling in the back pulled out what looked like a little carpet, and gestured that he’d gone off to pray. After maybe another hour our lane was finally released again, the same pandemonium broke out but this time at least we were able to break free.

Alas, this was not the end of traffic. This holding up of cars to let the visiting dignitaries out had been going on all over the city, and in the end a journey that normally takes 20 minutes ended up taking us a good 4 hours!

Snaking through the city I passed the time looking out at the city as we passed, and I was struck by a few things. For one, hardly any grass anywhere (at least not alongside the road that we was travelling on) – only a light brown earth everywhere. But then I noticed that the motorbikes were riding over this earth and not raising any dust, and it struck me that this was actually sand. Just as well, I thought – it would be bad enough to be surrounded by this without having to contend with unending clouds of dust as well. The second thing that struck me was that not a single woman was walking around with her head uncovered – almost everyone had a hijab on and their dresses down to their feet. A handful had a cloth wrapped around their heads in the usual way one saw with women in West Africa, but not a one with their head uncovered! I began to feel distinctly foreign in that moment with my little Bantu knots sticking out on my bare scalp. The third thing I noticed was how politely these drivers drove – unlike the streets of Kampala, where whoever got to a junction first had right of way, these drivers actually waited their turn or requested to get in when they got to a round about or such-like – this, more than anything else, really made me feel that I had arrived in a foreign land!

Getting to hotel I was lucky to catch my other colleagues (who had arrived at 4am and had not suffered my fate) leaving for dinner, so I dumped bags in my room and headed out to a local dive that served local Nigerien but also Beninese food. Before that we asked to be taken to a large supermarket to pick up some supplies – fruit, snacks, and the like – but were disappointed to find most of the shelves labelled fruit and veg standing nearly empty, with only some terrifically over-priced, and clearly imported kiwis, grapefruit and some forlorn-looking brussels sprouts (what?) staring back at us. I picked up some UHT milk, sardines, canned cannoli beans and a bar of 70% dark chocolate and beat it out of there.

I did not catch the name of the restaurant we went to but it was rather dimly lit, and one could make out some oblong wooden tables scattered around the interior – we took one and checked out the menu offerings. Our host recommended the beef fillet, chicken, aloco (fried plantain), fried fish and the amiwo – a kind of meal made from corn, and maybe mixed with tomatoes, but utterly delicious! We waited a good while for the food to arrive but boy was the wait worth it – I have to say that washing that food down with a few glasses of Bordeaux I forgot all my trials and tribulations coming in from the airport, and felt properly welcomed to Niamey!

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The next few days were filled with business that I won’t bore you with the details of – except maybe to point out that the President dropped in on our session and I got to shake hands with him!

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But back to the Nigeriens! One thing that I kept being struck by was their politeness and hospitality, as well as the deliciousness of their food! We were attending an event at the newly opened Radisson Blu and one of those days we had lunch in one of their restaurants and my confit lamb on a bed of mashed aubergine was just so delicious I didn’t even mind that he lamb was rather dry! Back at the guest house the residents were just as hospitable – one of them sat out a game of volleyball so I could play!

I took an extra day after my main business in Niamey, and had not one, not two, but three Nigeriens taking me around the city! One of them picked me up from the hotel, and we met the second one at the museum, and both proceeded to take me around the displays showing their different cultural dress, a special exhibition dedicated to the oil refinery up north, and round to see some ostriches, hippos and a lion – pitiable animals we all agreed! They also took me around the artisinal centre there, and helped negotiate the prices down, and when I was right out of money bought me some gifts from out of

We also went around to see the traditional art of cloth weaving, and saw some stunning pieces – far outside my price range and only made for special occasions such as weddings – what skill and majestic beauty those tapestries, demonstrated! Simply breathtaking! the items that I had shown a strong liking to.

Nigerien

The third Nigerien then joined us and took us to lunch – some fish and rice that we bought off the side of the road and carried away to be eaten back at the guest house, which of course also turned out to be totally delicious! As if that was not enough, this third Nigerien arranged for his driver to bring me another traditional dish for my supper, completely ignoring my protests that after such a heavy and late lunch I would not need to have any supper – he swept this away with an admonishment not to be afraid to get fat! Can you imagine! But see how much he sent me!! I had to ask the receptionist to give take some and give some to the gate men!!

 

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And of course this too went down and was just as delicious as anything else that I had eaten since my arrival.

On the now 20-minute drive back to the airport I felt a warm appreciation for the hospitality that everyone had shown me – it really humbled me and reminded me that the best way to live really was with an open and generous heart, and Niamey had reminded me to treat others just the same going forward.

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Mombasa

I have been to Kenya more times than I can count – heck, I was born in Kenya, but I had not yet been to Mombasa until this past week! It is June and the weather is nice and cool (well, cool for Mombasa – staying between 21° and 29°C)  – I spend the first week at the Sarova White Sands for a Pedagogical Workshop for Universities across Africa, and then have to relocate to more affordable digs at the Reef Hotel.

The Sarova White Sands hotel is – just a dream! The high ceilings of the lobby, the many islands of seating dotting the lobby, tastefully decorated with Swahili-style timber and rattan weave love seats here, and deeply cushioned day beds over there, or one can float past this and step down into meticulously kept grounds out to the low wall beyond which lies the dazzling expanse of the Indian Ocean.

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The grounds, as you can see, are immaculately kept, the view out to the big blue Indian ocean beautifully framed by the numerous palm trees lining the walkways, and large comfy sofas set right at the egde of the hotel lawn, with the white beach stretching away to meet the ocean – eating breakfast every morning knowing all that was just out of view, or walking past it as I went off to the workshop rooms simply suffused my whole body with the joy of being alive, and I could not wait for the workshop to end so I could soak it all up at my leisure.

The Whitesands itself had its additional pleasures – the vast array of local and international dishes on offer at every mealtime, the warm and pleasant servers, always willing to go that extra mile to please, and the tastefully decorated dining area and its surrounding terraces; best of all, for me, however, was the special eggless stations to be be found at the desert station at lunch and dinner, as well at the pastry station at breakfast. This was the first time I had ever seen such an arrangement, and being allergic to eggs that made me feel extra at home.

Two days in the workshop organisers surprised us with dinner on the renowned Tamarind Dhow – I simply cannot put into words the excitement that I felt as we cast off! I could hardly sit still!! Comfortable wooden benches with deep cushions lined the sides of the dhow, and dinner places were set out on wooden tables built into the boat (I assume – I didn’t check) across the lower and upper decks, and oldies music pulsed around us, adding a layer of pleasure that threatened to tip me overboard!

Writing about this I am filled again with the feeling of extreme excitement and filled with gratitude at my good fortune – while some of my fellow passengers gripped the sides of the dhow with ashen knuckles I flitted around the deck from table to table – to the upper deck and back below – stopping to dance to an old favourite when it came on, and just not knowing what to do with myself! At some point I was forced to sit in one place so I could place my order – on offer was a four course meal, starting with a fresh or spicy soup, a salad and a main for which we could choose from a variety of fresh seafood prepared on a charcoal barbecue grill standing right there on board, including snapper, lobster, prawns, and crab, or prepared Swahili style (not being a fan of seafood I opted for a regular steak – boring, I know!) All this was finished off with some fresh fruit and coffee – and everything accompanied by some delicious wine if the fancy took you (as it took me!)

Drifting along in the pitch darkness and seeing the coastline get further and further away, sipping on a glass of wine, and being gently rocked by this ancient dhow, is honestly a sensation that I will never forget – I wished for it never to end but alas we were eventually fed (food – delicious), we danced, we chatted, and two or three hours later found ourselves back on shore, and the dream at an end.

On the last day of the workshop I finally have an afternoon free, and the only thing on my mind is to finally start on my copy of The Door by Magda Szabó, so I find an empty day bed facing out onto the ocean, order a cocktail – the Mombasa Raha, which translates to Mombasa Enjoyment – and sink into the mountain of cushions and start reading.

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The arrival of the cocktail ought to have completed this picture but alas, it was too sickly sweet for my liking, so I try the Sarova Sundownder – but no thanks – also not my taste at all – well, forget the cocktails – sitting here is so deeply relaxing that nothing can spoil it!

At the end of the workshop I extended my stay for three days so that I could explore Mombasa on my own – on the itinerary was Fort Jesus (of course!), the old town, getting myself a henna session, and shopping for Kangas! And perhaps catch a local dish at a local restaurant.

Right outside Fort Jesus were some guides offering to take one around for a fee, and after failing to agree a fee with a slim young woman she passed me on to a gruff-looking light-skinned gentleman, who agreed to take me around the Fort as well as the old town for KES 500 (about $5).

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Fort Jesus was quite a revelation – built in the shape of the cross by the Portugese in the 1500s, it was later taken over by the Omanis, and although it was eventually abandoned and fell to ruin, present day Mombasa still ahs strong links with Oman, and one of the great families of the land, ascendants of the great African intellectual Ali Mazrui could trace their origins from these Omanis, and boasted an impressive burial plot right in front of the entrance to the fort.

Abdullah, my guide, then walked me through the old town, and brought me to some friend of his who make leather sandals – they measured me for a pair of sandals which I could pick up in about an hour, and all for the princely sum of KES 800. We wandered around the narrow roads within the old town, jumping out of the way every now and then to avoid getting hit by the tuk-tuks whizzing around (motorbikes with a two seater enclosure attached to the back). Finally we came to the market, where I ate some freshly made kashates (apparently these are coconut and something – not the peanut in sugar – find the right name) and haggled with a young man over a half kilo of cashew nuts.

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In the meantime Abdullah’s Henna artist was now waiting for me at a house nearby, so we hurried over so she could get to work. I was ushered into a small dimly lit front room with a floor covered with cushions along one wall, and a matress along another – further in one corner was a small kitchen curved out of the space, and a woman sat on a low stool making chapati over a tiny charcoal stove. At various points the wall was punctuated by an opening covered by a curtain, behind which I assumed lay the bed rooms, and indeed at some point a young man with a towel around his waist emerged from one of them and entered another, only to emerge some time later fully dressed and apparently washed up as well.

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The woman doing my henna had a baby with her, who she gave to one of the women in the house to tend to while she applied my henna – I had the choice between the black colouring, which was really created using black hair dye, it ruend out, or the more traditional brown orangey henna – given my dark skin complexion (darker than the mainly mixed race Swahili women anyway) I thought the black would suit me better, and 20 minutes later I had beautiful designs three quarters of the way up my arms, after which I had to wave my arms in front of a fan for another 30 minutes to allow the henna to dry so I could peel off which I assumed We drifted along to one of the better known Swhailli cuisine restaurants in Mombasa – Fordhani, where we settled down to steaming plates of Mutton Biriyani each, accompanied by sweet tamarind juice. (was it? -check menu!)

After lunch we made our way back to the shoemakers, and found that my sandals had been ready for a while already, and they fitted me like glove! At this point I was quite tired and decided to part from my guide, but given that we’d spent the better part of 4 hours together, that he’d organised for the henna and the sandals I ended up giving him $20, and had him gave down a tuk-tuk to take me back to the hotel.

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The tuk-tuk driver looked a little rough around the edges but Abdullah assured me he knew him from his home town of Lamu, and I could trust him to get me back, so off we went. Along the way the tuk-tuk driver stopped to fuel up, and then produced a brown paper bag out of nowhere (it seemed to me), and shook some leaves out of it, which he proceeded to chew.

“Do you eat Mira?” He asked.

“Mira?”

Yes – these leaves – they put you in a good mood – here – try some! You have to chew them along with some gum so their effect is not too high” he said proffering me some leaves. Half curious half not wanting to turn him down I took the leaves and the gum and said I would try them later. We went on without further incident until he dropped me off at the hotel, but I later threw the innocuous-looking leaves into the bin – I ate the gum, though.

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The next day I made my way on my own to the market to buy some kangas. I had heard that the most dependable quality kangas were to be found at Mali ya Abdullah – a veritable institution in Mombasa, as some people claim to still have the kangas they bought off him 20 years prior. By now his son had opened an equally respected shop called Mali ya Mwana wa Abdullah – surely enough the shop had a wide variety of really lovely and unique designs, and I must say I went a little crazy buying Kangas, batiks, ankara, etc!

As I was walking away from Mali Ya Abdullah, weighed down with my purchases, I spied his son’s shop, and unable to resist taking a peek I stopped by there too and ended up picking up more fabric! I was also after some locally made silver jewelry but fortunately or unfortunately I found the shop closed. I took the rest of the day to enjoy the beach and relax a little, and headed home the next day.

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Mombasa turned out to be quite an enchanting city – I did not have time to visit the nearby towns of Lamu and (what was the other one?), but I am assured that thee will be more enchanting still – I can’t wait to come back!

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On corruption

I was having lunch with a colleague the other day when we started talking about corruption in Uganda. He told me that some scholars argue that public officials in unnaturally created nations like ours do not feel all that bad about taking public funds, as long as they use those funds to take care of their people – i.e. tribes men and women, extended and nuclear family. In their minds they were taking money from some faceless people somewhere and redistributing it to their people.

This got me thinking.

What is corruption? And who is corrupt?

These questions brought some incidents to mind that I told my lunch companion about.

There is this office complex where I had a desk for a while, but it was near impossible to find any parking there because most of the slots had been allocated to the tenant organisations, and only a few left for guests like me. If I couldn’t find a parking space, however, there was always a parking attendant winking at me and telling we could “reach an understanding”. I always refused and just parked on the street because I thought that if we reached this understanding then both he and I were corrupt.

Another thing that doesn’t really count as corruption that I often experience is security men and women randomly asking you for money as you leave – so not even to do anything in return but for you just to give them money.

My companion told me that some scholars call all this low-level (quasi) corruption behaviour a kind of – distributed tax? Illegal tax? I don’t remember, but it meant that in these situations I was being taxed by those who earned less than me because I earned more than them.

And I thought, you know what? If I thought about this money as some kind of tax resulting from our unequal circumstances I would happily pay it, but the question still remains: if corruption is so widespread, then do people think of themselves as corrupt?

Which brought another story to mind.

Some other colleagues had told me about one time when they interviewed a man for the position of Lecturer in History of Research. And the applicant felt that the best evidence of his qualification was the fact that he ran a successful “research bureau” at Makerere University, and had helped many, many undergraduate and graduate students do their research. My colleagues, were, quite understandably, completely flabbergasted! This man clearly had no inkling of the ethical implications of his so-called research bureau. Needless to say he did not get the job.

Narrating this story to my lunch companion we both agreed that measures of perceived corruption were certainly far from approximating the real levels of corruption. But then that depended on what we meant by corruption! Especially if someone was not even aware that his behaviour was corrupt.

The question that remained with me, though, was this: that public official who thinks his corruption is OK because he is stealing to take care of his people – would he not steal if Uganda did not exist; if instead he was governing over just his own people?

 

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Mama Grace

I was at a conference the other day, and met a distinguished professor of Gender Studies. We chatted for a while about the difficulties of being a gender scholar in Uganda, and of being a woman scholar in general.

And so she told me a story.

Once she was on a panel of professors at a conference, and the moderator, a young man well known to her, proceeded to introduce each presenter and invited them to take their seats on the panel. For each Professor the moderator would read their full qualifications, their special awards, and what not, and then invite them to the stage.

When he came to my professor friend he said:

And now let us welcome Mama Grace!

My professor friend said she completely froze! Not knowing how to react, she decided in that split second to remain seated and not get up until she was introduced properly.

Mama Grace – please come to the stage

Everyone was craning their necks to see where this Mama Grace was, and Mama Grace herself decided to look about her as though looking for this Mama Grace. The moderator was confused. Looked at his notes again, and then read out her full name and position, upon which she got up and walked onto the stage.

My professor friend tells me that that moderator has never forgotten that moment! While some people came up to her and congratulated her on standing her ground, some others castigated her for humiliating the moderator – really?? What about how he humiliated her? He was later to tell her that he referred to her as such to show her respect as a mother, but she told him that was a load of bull!

Mama Grace indeed!

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An encounter on KQ

One of the many reasons I like to travel is that the people one encounters on the way can really have a profound impact on you. I often wish I could keep a record these encounters  somewhere but the story is sometimes so little that I don’t think it warrants a full post. The other day, with the latest little encounter still on my mind, after I found myself relating it to someone else for the 10th time, I thought – wait: of course I can blog about these encounters – I could just create a category just for these snippets!

Don’t ask me why I  thought I have to create blog posts of any specific length but anyway, here I am.

So I was sitting next to this woman on a flight from Nairobi back home to Entebbe, while she was just beginning her journey back home to the States – Kenyan by Nationality, she now lived in the U.S. and even had a U.S. passport.

Our conversation started out innocently enough – she was fretting over having left her passport and smartphone in her hand luggage, which because the plane was full had had to be sent down to the hold at the last minute, and I was consoling her about the fact that there had been such little time for anyone to tamper with her luggage that it was likely OK.

We chatted about this and the other, and then, as it usually does, talk turned to relationships. She told me that she had met her husband at the age of 25, and that at the time had not really felt ready to get married. However, her boyfriend really wanted to get married, and her family really wanted her to get married, and in that mix she fell pregnant, and so she got married.

Unfortunately, over the 23 years of her marriage she had not ever really felt happy. Her husband, she felt, never made any effort to woe her, and instead preferred to spend most of his time drinking beer with his boys and watching soccer on television. Over this time she had considered leaving many times, but her mother had dissuaded her every time, telling her to think of her 4 children if nothing else, and so she stayed.

Somewhere in 2016 they came back to Kenya so that he could perform the final ceremony of their marriage – something involving the shoulder of a goat – I din’t follow it too closely. In early 2017 he then traveled back to Kenya to pay bride price for another woman, and then came back and asked for a divorce. Over most of their their marriage, her husband had traveled to Kenya quite frequently so as to oversee his business interests, and apparently he and this woman had been carrying on for sometime already.

She told me that she was completely devastated by this news. Here she was, nearing 50, always having been dependent, and she had no clue what to do next. But the words that really stayed with me were:

He has always done what he wanted to do, and I was never allowed to do what I wanted to do.

Truer words were never spoken. He had wanted to get married when she was 25, and he did, and now he wanted to move on and he just did! Whereas she had wanted to do so many things throughout her life but had always been told that she couldn’t! And now she didn’t even know what she wanted anymore!

Sitting next to her that day she looked so sad and lost my heart really broke for her. She told me that since her divorce she has met a few men but even knowing they were all wrong for her she still dated them. She said she really felt like she needs a man to function, and was afraid that she would eventually settle for someone else who was no good for her, but she felt helpless.

He had always done what he wanted to do.

That really struck me because it is the story of so many women – being told by society what we can and can not do. Sorry as I was for her, sitting next to her I felt really vindicated for having taken more control of my own life when was in my late 20s. Society insists on calling me selfish for never having married or had children; they find my semi-nomadic lifestyle bizarre, and they warn me that I will regret it all when I am older.

Well, I always say to myself: I don’t regret any of my choices to date (although I have made some unwise ones I can’t lie!) – but that is because I am always careful to be sure I am doing what I want to do.

If I have no regrets now, I really doubt I will have any when I am 80, so I keep on going!

 

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Panama here I come – Part 3

Spoiler alert: I did not go to Panama.

As I write, the conference has started, and the pre-conference workshop has ended, and I should have been in Panama four days ago, but after all that back and fourth the visa office finally wrote to me, with about a week to my travel date, well, why don’t you read the email yourself:

Good Day Ms Connie,

Thank you for the statements, we are sending all your documents onto Panama they will the process your  Authorised VISA this will take 2 months for them to come back to us here to confirm whether to issue a VISA or not. I see that your date of arrival is the 20 October 2018 and I truly don’t think Panama will be have authorised your VISA.

For future reference If  you live in Uganda and have and Ugandan Pass Port   you need a VISA this has to be done through Embassy ofPanama/Consular in Egypt…these are instructions that  South Africa, Egypt and Morocco have received from the Panamanian Government.

Regards

VISA SECTION

Embassy of Panama

Now these are people who the very first email I wrote to them had the subject: ” I am a Ugandan and would like to travel to Panama”

Further. All this time they had not checked my date of departure???

Anyway.

In brief. After that DHL-ing there was some more back and forth telling there were some parts of my translated bank statements not translated, and indeed one line was still in English – how had I missed that? So I had to send the PDFs to my Panama hosts and ask them to review, and they corrected the line and sent the documents back; and then the visa office told me that the dates also had to be translated – WHAT? The lady helping me in Panama couldn’t figure out what they meant, and wondered if it was because she herself was originally from Uruguay and maybe they do things differently in Panama; and I say, well, maybe the month has to come first and then the day, unlike the British system where the day came before the month – WHO KNEW??

So she wrote the dates out in full, like with the month written in words (mind you, these back and forths eat up another week because everyone did not always reply me immediately, but at this point I was just resigned);  and then I sent the new translations back to the visa office (on Oct 4), and then followed up on Oct 8 to ask: everything OK? And they wrote back on Oct 9 with the above email.

Sigh.

OK. Nothing to do but cancel my trip and just pass everything on to my fellow GYA Co-Chair, who, being British, only had to check her calendar to see if she was free and book her flight if she wanted. Unfortunately she wasn’t free either so we had to delegate even further. Point being: here I had gone through weeeeeks of torture and she only had to check her calendar to see if she was free and she would have been off.

Anyway. This has been a long tale. Thank you for reading this far. Writing it has been somewhat cathartic but believe you me this is not the end of the matter!

I have more to say on the matter so watch the space!

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