A Year in Food in 12 Parts: Part 1

Time to dust off the old blog I think. I’ve been unemployed for about a month now, save a few choice temping days. More or less, maybe less, feels like more. Instead of falling down the pits of despair as I am wont to do, let’s make this a cheery post! Starting with pictures of degustations of my own making, to sort of round up a year’s worth of baking/cooking/eating/gluttony:

My first cupcake attempt

Christmas 2009, I foolishly decided to make cupcakes as presents. Cue carrying 50 of them precariously in boxes on foot, bus to King’s Cross, train to York, car. Giving a clumsy oaf on the train the evils after he decided to slip, fall and land his hands right smack onto my box of delectables! A feat not to be repeated soon.

FYI, the recipe for these cupcakes came from the Hummingbird Bakery book, an impulse buy when my local Borders went bust (RIP). I only got it cos it was 40% off, and T__’s wild book-buying ways goaded me into following suit:

The Hummingbird Bakery Book

It’s just the sort of thing you get at the beginning of a year; thinking perhaps that you’ll turn into some fabulous Martha Stewart-type character and make a cutesy career wearing vintage-print aprons (don’t own one) churning out fabulous dainty pastel-coloured cupcakes for punters queueing round the block.

It was hard work if I’m honest, mostly because it’s so damned fiddly and I rounded up some ladyfriends to help decorate these mutha chocolate and lemon babies in return for coffee and … cupcakes, obviously.

Verdict? Hummingbird’s book has all the looks of a vacuous pretty blonde thing. So cute, but their recipes don’t seem to stand up to the punch. They make decent enough cupcakes, but as you’ll see from the next post, I’d have a better time searching for recipes on the Internet.

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What is mental health? A Googler’s attempt at cognisance

Ah, trusty Wikipedia. When you’re sitting in a comfy study room, in a world-famous (and unworldly expensive too) specialist university, trying desperately to write/research/be a useful intellectual member of academia, a world that I bought into to begin with, and you feel that familiar sense of malaise. What is the typical 21st century response? Google an answer. If you can label the unease, then surely you can quantify it, control it, obliterate it with words, thoughts, remedies, pharmaceuticals, if need be.

What is mental health? Wikipedia asserts it’s “either a level of cognitive or emotional well-being or an absence of a mental disorder,” amongst other things. I know, and have known for some time now, that this feeling of “unease” – let’s just call it that, comes upon me like an unwanted yet unsurprising wave a couple of times a year. I don’t know when exactly my mala fide friend first came to visit – I was subject to fits of restlessness and inexplicable disagreeableness as a child (growing pains?), I did my fair share of teenage rebellion, but nothing that stands out as particularly memorable. It’s within the realms of normalcy that, as a kid, you one day decide to act out and roll about, or lock yourself in the bathroom and try and have an hour-long crying marathon. That’s the joy of being a kid, you know that you can easily put obnoxious behaviour down to immaturity.

As a teenager, you’re supposed to discover the joys of finding holes in your parents’ once watertight logic. You find your own values, beliefs, principles, and you challenge authority, because you can, and you should. Everyone knows teenagers are supposed to be moody in the process.

Post-age of consent, you transition. Identity starts solidifying – still malleable, but structurally you know what sort of animal you are. If you go to university, you’re almost invariably going to have some form of crisis, as you have to decide the sort of person you are based on some pliable trade. All within the realms of normal.

So far, it’s normal to have episodes – if you’re a kid, teenager, young adult. It’s normal to have a crisis once in a while, question your identity, challenge assumptions. So what is normal once you’re done with your crisis points, when you know who you are, when you understand and accept the world around you, when major traumas are dealt with, what happens when you’re sitting here, calmly drinking tea, responsive and contributive to society, trying to basically get on with the day, and the unease creeps in, a niggling feeling in your mind that you just can’t cast off?

I’m not depressed – I have known people who have gone through periods of “proper” (i.e. diagnosable) depression and I don’t resemble anything like that. I am a functioning, social human being. I’m in a steady relationship that thrills me, am engaged in academic interests that by large stimulate me, I watch what I eat – greens, no preservative nasties, hell, I even watch how much coffee I drink. I don’t smoke, take drugs, sleep a minimum of 7 hours a night, I exercise, have friends, eat vitamins. I’m doing everything by the book. And  yet, I’m still vulnerable to a surprise attack my Unease.

I’ve narrowed down the list of suspects: hormones, prescriptions, the weather, psychoanalysing my childhood, evaluating my sense of self-fulfillment, ambitions, religion, social consciousness, self-esteem etc. I’ve looked at the paradigms of happiness. Honestly, there is no clear reason why I should feel this way with such periodic regularity. It’s not even serious or prolonged enough to go seek therapy about it. It simply comes and goes. Without warning, without reason.

That, to me, is what is most disturbing. Caused by no obvious trauma, and seemingly cured by nothing more than time, sheer will and maybe the help of a few B vitamins and herbal teas, everytime I self-remedy myself into reaching equilibrium, I feel both triumphant that I’ve finally beaten it and hopeful that it won’t come back.

So what the hell is this? Do other people have a voice in their head that occasionally tells them, at periods when things are going fine, that all good things will ultimately come to an end? Sometimes its not even worth talking to others about, if you have nothing “bad” to report, feeling “bad” is just self-indulgent.

Just give me a sugar pill and tell me it’ll make it go away.

On a related note: The Guardian had an article on whether the 1-in-4 statistic of people suffering from some form of a mental health problem in the UK is really true.

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We’re here to save the world! And wear nice suits in the process.

I didn’t come here already a self-professed cynic, but I am aware that anything I do isn’t going to result in the way things are done to change radically. Perhaps I’m just here to observe, impart whatever little use or skill I have, and antagonize a whole lot of people.

Fact: Uganda is the third most corrupt country in the world, after Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Fact: This applies to all levels, and everyday life.

Fact: If you want to do any form of work in an NGO here you need to
a) Give them lots of money and they run away with it (also known as briefcase NGOs)
b) Not give them any money, see them as honest people (who are so inefficient that no work gets done)
c) not give any money but time, effort, resources, fundraising etc, and they get work done (at their own pace of course), and they find ways of manipulating the system in order to live a very nice comfortable life.

Can you take a wild guess at which options I’ve either dealt with or am currently dealing with?

a) and b) are obvious enough to discern, but c) is by far the most conniving and perhaps the last resort if you want to come here and actually do something with some form of local assistance. So we grin and bear it (for now).

Without going into details, there’s a reason why I’m staying in a dorm that sleeps 18 instead of allowing myself to be paired up with a host family. I know for a fact that the host families invite guests to their homes for any length of time, give them their best food, water, shelter, room – especially when they themselves don’t have much to offer or have to go without at the expense of said guest. The guest, who misleadingly and innocently believes that host family is actually receiving some of the hard-earned money she’s put towards said NGO, has been told by host family that said NGO gives some sort of fund or stipend for the upkeep of the volunteer.
I’ve heard this story many times. And the truth is – no, the host family gets nothing. Absolutely nothing but the pride and honour of hosting a foreigner. And although that sounds nice in theory, I think I can do without the thought of having my own room at the expense of the rest of the family.
NGOs don’t give host families ANYTHING. Please understand this. I know because I have spoken to many different groups of volunteers from all different types of NGOs in the country and not a single one gives a penny or shilling for the maintenance. It’s a facade.

Many other things are facades as well.

Examples:

– If your NGO tells you that they have done a) HIV awareness days in slum areas b) support 600 orphans with school fees and own several orphanage schools c) own a bakery d) are setting up a youth conference with 500 international participants e) have organic farms that export vanilla, coffee, pineapples at fairtrade prices to places like Canada f) have bee-keeping farms
See this with your own eyes before you believe the wonderous tales of miraculous support.

Talking big and making promises of grand ideas and plans and executions is a prerequisite of being a) a Ugandan Male b) dealing with foreigners

At some point I would like to deal with a woman in charge of an NGO. I’ve not known a woman to have this sort of hyperbolic story-telling as yet. When I meet such a lady, then perhaps I will be fully skeptical of everything anyone in the aid world says here.

Two weeks: I have heard a lot of talk. And seen a lot of meetings that plan other meetings. Inaction is a weapon of mass destruction.

But, having said that – the children are real, they genuinely want to learn, they soak up knowledge like a sponge. They’re very well behaved (For 9 year olds!) and they actually look glad when you turn up and force them to do boring things like pronounce words over and over again. They love it when you mark their books. And when you leave the classroom, you realise that there aren’t enough teachers to even be present in the classroom, so they share a teacher between two grades and actually quietly sit still in the classroom, writing whatever is on the board.
Their needs are real. And anything you can do that directly impacts them makes for real effort.

Perhaps they’ll grow up to become smart enough to decide to start up an NGO and live the good life of walking around having meetings to discuss meetings all day long, have your lunch paid for you and generally hang out with relatively affluent foreigners and somehow procure land and become a landlord and collect rent and increase the size of your house and buy a generator and then supply it to your tenants and collect money off that.

Perhaps they will.

As it is they are being inculcated early to follow the tenets of the most virulently exploitative kind of evangelicalism – the kind of self-righteousness combined with complete deference to the (usually white) pastor or priest of their denomination. Colonialism is well and alive, and it comes in the form of your spiritual leader who blatantly tells you that he needs your money (yes you, the one who can’t pay school fees for your kids) in order to build the Kingdom of God. You, he tells you, are poor because you have not paid your tithe to him. You pay so you may receive. How, one asks, does one reconcile oneself to this sort of logic? You are poor because you have not paid enough to a rich man.

I have seen the answer and it starts in school at a young age.

And yet I teach kids how to read and have nice handwriting.

I hope that if they are lucky they will get to read alternative view of life, read about logic and both sides of the argument.

But in the classroom I see that the nicest (and only) books they own, all brand new hardcovers – are copies of the New Testament.

And yet I teach them how to read.

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The Rules of Pooing and Peeing

And with such a scintillating title who could resist?

Currently the options are:

– Pit latrine (a hole, preferably deep, with concrete on the top to disguise the fact that it’s just a big shithole. Popular in villages, local restaurants, schools. Building of wooden shack-like cubicles to cover said hole to give appearance of actual toilet optional, shrouding poo-er or pee-er in complete darkness once door is closed.

– Toilet at Red Chilli dorm – advantages: seat disadvantages: water pressure too low to flush away anyone’s Ugandan floaties. Result? You can imagine.

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Ugandan man sandwich

I better commit this to writing before I forget. I think this rather succinctly sums up what people groan about when they say “Africa” I’d proudly bought my Gaso bus ticket for Kampala – Kigali set to depart at 1am from the city centre. I even managed to bully/smile my way into them issuing said ticket on the Monday.

  Too good to be true. I roll up in the special hire taxi and no bus. All darkness. In a sense the price for a special hire was worth it, as they had to ask around where the goddamn bus was. Unlocking gates. Opening of ticketing office (so that the man who was staring at me could sit behind a counter and talk to me with some degree of protection from actual bodily harm) It appears the bus broke down and the parts – brought over from Kenya (?) hadn’t made it back in time. For their daily bus journey. Hmmm. Blood pressure rising, refunds done but I’m still there with all my kit and no bus and no money to take the taxi back to the hostel. At some point arguing with this man won’t materialise a bus, and a Rwandan lady appears, similarly surprised and about 6 million times more irked than me as she has to go to work the next morning in Kigali, and I leave her to inflict damage on the Gaso man as I search for an alternative.

With some luck and confusion, the taxi drivers hear of a competiting bus company who happen to run buses at the same time. Drive in teh darkness. Appear at a much larger bus depot for Jaguar. More scrambling around with full backpack on. Buy a ticket. RElief.

Get on the bus.

Then of course, I realise that I’ve been assigned a seat, rather hilariously, in between probably the only fat African man I’d seen thus far and another man who decides to play with his laptop at 1am in the morning. The bus shockingly leaves on time. I spend the next 6, 7, 8, (time is variable) hours elbowing them and actually getting some decent sleep.  At some point the frustration and discomfort melts into acceptancce and… sleep.

The potholes on Ugandan roads are hell on your spine/neck. You don’t realise but all the bumping does impact you just at that part of exposed vertebrae.

A great refuelling stop somwhere at 5am and there’s a section labelled “ladies” but then I realise all the women  squat and piss behind this signed wall! Ha ha. TIA. I much prefer a bush wee toto a pit latrine wee.

As we roll out of Uganda the air does get a bit chilly and at some point, I’m the only one wearing just a t-shirt and a little cambodian scarf. I start to appreciate the shared body warmth of the Ugandan sandwich, but in my mind I’m ready to inflict bodily harm if any funny business should ensue. In this state of alertness and acceptance I sleep on.

Daylight. Bus stops and people get off. No idea, I follow the herd. Immigration forms to fill, long queue on a dirt track. Ugandan exit stamps. Then nothing – can’t see the bus, am vaguely aware that I’ve left Uganda but where the hell? We’re in the mountains (or hills anyway) – it’s misty, the air is great and nippy, I walk to the obvious direction away from Uganda.

200metres of no mans land and men trying to get you to change currency and I think I reach Rwanda? More forms to fill. I find the bus. And then this sort of circus happens where they empty the entire bus of all luggage and two ununiformed men proceed to open everyone’s bags and discard plastic bags. Yes, every one – 40 people’s worth of luggage. Plastic bags are ‘illegal’ in Rwanda. I applaud the concept but honestly, rifling through people’s belogings to confiscate the plastic wrapping from loaves of bread is just a farce.

I take the proactive measure (I have many many many plastic bags that wrap absolutely everything) and open my own bag for inspection. Luckily I have packed everything so densely that is is scarcely worth digging through. Bag back in the bus.

Sleep.

I roll into Kigali by 8 or 9 or 10am (elastic time, and Rwanda is 1 hour behind Uganda). More human circus of being looked at, haggled upon, etc. I change a US20 quickly and just start walking in a general direction, after asking around where Blvd de Nybugogo is.

After 10minutes of futile walking (mostly AWAY from the hagglers rather than the sureity of walking towards the hotel) I flag a motorbike taxi and succumb. Glad to say Kigali’s motor-taxis are all centralised (wearing uniforms and helmets for them AND you!) and their bikes are mostly brand new and far heavier than the skimpy scramblers infiltrating Kampala. So I feel some insignifcant degree of safety with these and hop on, two backpacks on, and thankfully go straight to the hotel.

Kigali – it’s lovely. Very beautifully located in a valley surrounded by the milles collines, thousand hills – the air is clear, the streets are clean and the roads are not riddled with potholes!

Unfortunately though, out of the 3 times I took a motor-taxi today, twice they didn’t understand the street name I wanted, to my chagrin. Maybe my French accent just doesn’t cut it.

I saw the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which is an absolutel must. Free of charge, informative, and perhaps more poignantly – this happened in 1994. I was 9 when it happened. People my age would have been children witnessing this. Generations are and will be scarred by this for a long time yet.

There was a school excursion there with me. Kids, couldn’t habe been older than 16. Halfway inside I hear lots of screaming and I think maybe it’s some part of the exhibition. Then I realise when I exit that it’s the students – 2 or 3 have spontaneously gone into hysterics and have to be separated and taken into the gardens outside to calm down. It’s more than affecting, it’s disturbing, but the teachers supervise with an air of expectancy. Someone brings out a mattress so one of the students can lie down. Genocide is still very raw to the Rwandans.

Tomorrow I could go to the cathedrals where massacres were conducted, 25km out of the city. Or I could go to Gisenyi.

Don’t believe everything the Lonely Planet guide tells you:

http://allafrica.com/stories/200902050221.html

hmm I might get cholera in Gisenyi. Fun. It’s a 2 hour bus to Gisenyi to chill at the beach. I’ll have tonight to contemplate if sitting on a beach is worth the effort. “water sports” – as the Lonely PLanet claims, is a myth. There would be water sports if water sports companies operated there. But they don’t. So clearly no water sports!

I’m also not going to see the gorrillas. I cannot bea to part with US500. I really couldn’t.

Suddenly this is starting to sound as though I’m becoming incredibly negative and lazy on deciding what to do in Rwanda, but the reality that I’m a single female travelling does present some limitations. There are no backpackers in Kigali which is my normal modus operandi to making new travel companions. Without them you wouldn’t really want to hike alone up the Parc de Volcans.

I think I will spend a night in Gisenyi, just to go and see it. And then I’ll have to come back to Kigali, hopefully have time to see the cathedrals outside of the city and then get a less squashy bus back to Kampala. And hope the damn office building is ready by then.

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A Novel costs two nights sleep

And so goes how I spend my days in Kampala, calculating the cost of everything with the view that my money has to last me until July at the very least. It has been T + 15 days since I arrived in Kampala and I can now officially say that my patience is running thin. T.I.A. or no T.I.A.

The office is not ready. I saw it on Thursday after repeated promises that “3 or 4 more days” (calculate how many times that has been said to me in 2 weeks) it would be done. If you’d put me there all it needed was light fixtures, wiring electricity in and moving in some furniture, moving out the painting equipment. I understand and have been told time and again that the pace of life in Uganda is leisurely, but I was past leisurely last weekend.

So what to do, having finished two novels and reread Pride and Prejudice out of desperation in my entire days spent lolling around Red Chilli Backpackers.

Last night, by this very computer that you will see me at most days (though not of my choosing), a very pleasant man offered some very inspirational conversation.

And so this morning I took a matatu (minibus taxi, aka the only and cheapest form of public transport), then a boda-boda (life-endangering motorcycle taxi) to the Rwandan embassy, handed over my passport and 50 000USh for a visa. And then somehow made it through the city centre’s sweat, dust and crush of humanity to a bus agency and argued my way into getting a bus ticket to Kigali for Friday morning, 1 am. If all goes to plan I’ll be in Kigali in time for breakfast. Wow.  I think that’s my birthday present to myself.

No guidebook, too expensive (6 nights in a dorm!!) so I’m borrowing as many people’s Lonely Planet’s and scribbling furiously as I can get my hands on. Unfortunately I have a terrible memory for maps, so I suppose it will be a great opportunity to practice my deplorable French in getting around.

In the meantime, I shall have to somehow eat cold baked beans on toast as the gas stove in the dorm has run out of gas for two days and no amount of genteel enquiry will get it sorted. I’ve been told by so many people working/living in Africa that you have to be firm and well, insistent but not angry to get what you want. It worked at the bus ticketing office (they couldn’t count past today (Monday) and told me to come back to get a ticket for Friday. Silly. The only thing they hawk there is bus tickets so I confused him into submission)

More forcefulness is required. A zen-like forcefulness. I practice being pissed off with a smile. Maybe it’ll work. And also practice “ou est l’hotel gloria?”

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