Sunday, December 12, 2010


“You have been lost,” my neighbor and local dukka (small general stores that litter Ugandan towns by the hundreds) owner says to me.

“Lost?” I ask. “But I have been around. I see you almost every day.”

“Yes, but you used to always come to me to buy eggs and bananas and pay me for doing your laundry.”

She is telling the truth, and I had hoped that this conversation would be prevented by the usual Ugandan reserved politeness, but I was not surprised to be asked anyway. I could have easily skirted the question and gone on my way, but I decided to be honest with her. The second of three goals for every Peace Corps Volunteer is to share the culture and values of America with people of our communities, and that is exactly what I decided to do.

“Well, nnyabo (m’am), you haven’t had any bananas to sell in months.” I watched as this fact registered with her. “You sell eggs for 300 shillings each, when most places in town sell them for 250.” Again, I could see her contemplating this fact. “And I had to find someone else to do my laundry because you did not seem to be very serious about it. Even after I told you about the problem, you continued to bring my clothes back wet and smelling worse than when I gave them to you. I am not going to pay for such service.” It may sound like a ridiculous story, but this conversation actually took place, and it is an almost perfect microcosm of the state of rural Ugandan business as I have found it.

When talking with my friends and neighbors about why they shop where they do, they will usually give answers that perfectly mirror at least two or three of “The Four P’s of Marketing”; product, place, price, and promotion. Very few of them have ever heard of the concept, but they use their common sense and list them off anyway. They will say that they go this specific shop because the prices are better, or they prefer that shop because it has what they need and is conveniently located, or they always go to the other shop because the keeper is so friendly. Basically, they are the exact same things that cause anyone to choose to buy what they do from where they do it.

For some reason, though, the common sense on the customer’s end does not equate to the same knowledge on the owner’s end. If you walk down the streets of Kisoga town, you will find failing dukkas everywhere you look. They are shops that have been opened in an already oversaturated market which don’t carry the products people want to buy, are staffed by people who are negligent or flat out rude to their customers, and are located out of the way of any significant traffic. In many cases, when sales are poor the shop keeper attempts to address his or her losses, not by fixing the issues of the business, but by charging more money for the few products that they are selling.

I can’t say I have any idea why the customer’s common sense appears to be like rocket science to the people who are opening up these businesses, but I suppose it presents an interesting opportunity for me as an economic volunteer. As a friend once told me, “if it was already developed, we wouldn’t need development workers.”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

a different perspective

Being the only outsider in my community, you can probably imagine that I am the subject of a lot of local attention. Even though I have been here for three months, and I seem to be going about my business unnoticed, I have found that I never really have privacy.

Some people in my village know me and are familiar with my Western ways, but most prefer to keep their distance and speculate. They come up with some pretty outlandish, but pretty amusing theories not just about me, but often projecting them onto all non-Africans.

Not used to manual labor, I am soft and weak.
Emma, really my only local friend, brought me a couple sections of sugar cane the other day as a treat. For those who don’t know, sugar cane looks like bamboo sectionals, and, as the name implies, tastes delicious. Two sectionals is really too much for me so I asked Emma if I could just break it in half and share it with him. “No!” he yelled, taking it away from me in a hurry. He then quickly shattered the stalk over his knee and handed one back to me before tearing into his own half. “You could not have managed,” he said.

My diet consists entirely of yellow bananas.
Being a bachelor in Uganda, I am not expected to know how to cook. I had many people apply for the position of house girl (maid), but I turned them all down, and the speculation began immediately as to how on earth I would feed myself. Often being seen walking back from the market with a bunch in hand, Emma told me that a large portion of the town believed that I was subsisting solely on bananas.

I am quite the ladies’ man.
I have said it on here before, but not being used to seeing white people, the locals really have trouble distinguishing us from one another. Despite the fact that she has been here at least seven or eight times, many people mistake my girlfriend Nicole for a new, attractive woman every time she comes to Kisoga.

I am one of the world’s greatest soccer players.
Again, the issue of recognition comes into play here. To many locals, I am the spitting image of either Cesc Fabregas or Carlos Tevez (Spanish and Argentinean international soccer superstars). This, coupled with the fact that I am in regular attendance at the cinema hall (wooden shack with satellite dish) on weekends to watch English Premier League football has caused many people to believe I have unparalleled skills. Luckily, ten minutes on the pitch was all it took to disprove this theory.

Having a different internal composition, my body is physically incapable of eating and digesting many of the foods that Africans eat.
I have no clue where this notion came from, but I think it’s hilarious.

Being born naturally smarter, I only had to attend school for 5 years.
This one is really sad. After talking with Emma and a few of his secondary schools friends about it, I found that they felt African children needed to attend school for 13 years because they weren’t born with the same intellect as children from other parts of the world. When I explained to the boys that I had actually attended 20 years of schooling, and that they had the same exact same natural gifts of any foreigner, I think their spirits lifted, but I still get upset every time I think about it.

I am not someone to be messed with.
Unfortunately, this belief is only held by young boys (it would be a useful safety deterrent if the whole town believed it). They have told me that no one will try to rob or harm me in any way because if they do, they know they will feel the wrath that all Americans are capable of dishing out. When I asked how they knew Americans were so fierce, they told me it was because of all the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan films they had seen.