A First Week in Mbale

<<They’re walking along the road in twilight’s glow, but almost never alone… Well, they’re coming home from work, they don’t have a car, what else would they do? And better to walk together than alone… I wonder how far they go, what is said between them, what is left unsaid… The same things you sit and talk about: what sucked about the work day, what will Friday and the weekend bring, how the family is, what’s for dinner, politics, sports, music. Nothing is different except the specifics.>>

<<Oh my God what am I doing, this is some kind of dream, I’m going to wake up, it’ll be August and the early morning sun will be there and it will be warm, too warm, but the type of warm that’s full of possibility… It’s not August, it’s January, basically February, a year from it, and it’s real. Those are real people, this is a real car filled with real people and real bags, and it’s been a real long trip. The world is about to explode with newness.>>

<<Man the roads are slow, it seems so close on the map but we’ve been in the car for a lifetime… Everything is so green, too green almost, the trees are eating the road and they’re coming for us next and we need to drive faster, need to be there soon, we’ve been in the car for hours… There are no tall buildings.>>

<<Anyone who thinks that the forseeable future is either is out of their mind, delusional. Predicting what’s next, what’s tomorrow, is farce, a way to make sense of chaos we can accept when it’s theoretical but rarely when it’s standing right there, begging to be respected, jilted by the faith we put in our brains and our Gods, desiring of our assurance and our hubris.>>


We hit a bump – really, a gigantic pothole, the likes of which will seem tame in a day or two – I’m lurched back to reality from the hazy half-sleep of jet-lag, and the road comes into focus.

We’re in Mbale.

A week is really only enough time to get an initial impression of a place – more picture than video. But just like a picture, certain things stand out – vivid colors, unexpected shapes, and images that seem out of place. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, but I figured adding some myself couldn’t hurt; here a few things that have stuck out during my first week here:

The Place

East Uganda is all green flora, red clay, and blue sky (at least during the dry season). The mountains fill every view, and the sunsets are a gorgeous mixture of pink and orange. It’s a strikingly beautiful place, moreso than I expected; pictures don’t really do it justice, but here’s a view from Zion Community Clinic in Bududa District:


Zion Community Clinic

Something I’ve learned is that I take good, functioning roads for granted in America. Getting from Mbale to a village is an hours-long undertaking in itself, and that’s for those of us fortunate enough to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle; local health workers without transportation sometimes walk 2.5 hours each way, every day, to get to work – through blistering heat or pouring rain.

The People

Everyone I’ve met – I’m not exaggerating; literally everyone – has been unfailingly kind and welcoming; those that have opened up their homes, hearts, and hearths to us are an unbelievable blessing. We’ve been fed like kings at the homes of multiple families, and have been fortunate to hear about their families, professions, and lives. Personally, for a nerd like me, it was wildly interesting and gratifying to spend hours talking about international development and economics with our homestay host, David.

Locals don’t really see the point of running, and it seems that only outsiders* do it; this leads to a lot of pointing and giggling by little kids, pantomiming by armed guards, and looks that say “what a strange human being” by everyone else. I wish I could fully capture some of the looks I get.

Other Miscellany

The official capacity of a matatu** (a large van that acts as a mini-bus) is 14, but that’s really more of a guideline than a rule; our record thus far is 26 people, two chickens, and a large stereo speaker.

It’s customary to negotiate a fare or purchase price, which is, to be honest, a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I find myself falling into the trap of negotiating over 500 or 1,000 Ugandan Shillings, which is something like 20 to 40 cents.

And that’s just in the first week; I’m positive that I’ll have much more to describe in the coming weeks and months.


*The word for an outsider is “muzungu” in Uganda and other East African countries, e.g., “Muzungu muzungu, how are you?” That’s the colloquial use; the literal translation of the word is “aimless wanderer,” which I highly prefer

**Transportation that is slightly safer than a boda boda, a motorbike that is simply too convenient and accessible to pass up. Years ago, they were used to transport people across the border (as a way to bypass cumbersome paperwork involved with crossing the border in a car), which is where the name comes from

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