of mozzarella and matooke

what is african pizza?

it seems pizza has entered the Ugandan culinary imagination, if not yet its repertoire. on handpainted signs in front of restaurants, listed after 'african and fast foods' you can sometimes now find pizza, though you're unlikely to find it within. it's more common on the laserjet banners of upscale restaurants, whose menus may not boast the actual item, but whose color advertisements feature a slice being pulled by cheesy strands from a full pie, collaged with photos of ribs, curries, hamburgers, generally international things the restaurant may not actually serve. at other times, you find pizza listed on the menu (assuming you've found a menu at all), but will be repeatedly told it is not available.

there are a few reasons for this:
the first is that menus often seem to be more like five-year plans than statements of current availability: foods the restaurant wants to work up to, whether it's having rice, or dried fish, or luwombo [1], or the mysterious but desired entity Pizza.

another reason african pizza seems not yet to exist might be the difficulty of sourcing pizza's ingredients, especially cheese-- tomato sauce, while not common, could be made, and wheat flour, if not yeast, is readily available. but cheese--that ubiquitous, slightly salty or sweet rubbery meltable dairy substance beloved of the European-influenced, cheese is rare in Uganda, despite a thriving dairy industry (now and then advertised as diary products).

being rare, it is also expensive: while you can get a liter of milk for twenty cents, a big bag of sweetened yogurt for forty, rounds of cheese, typically only found in upscale grocery stores, go for at least five or six dollars, meaning having ingredients on hand to even conceivably make pizza involves a big expense, and risk if customers might not actually know or like pizza.

being both rare and expensive, it is not often eaten, and this is probably the biggest obstacle to pizza becoming an actuality in Ugandan mainstream food: the fact that many Ugandans don't actually like cheese when they try it--regular white cheese is received here something like bleu cheese is in america: by a select few.

on top of this is the challenge of baking. not the actual process, which is easily enough mastered, but the paucity of ovens in kitchens set up for steaming, boiling and frying. add these factors together, and you've got some real obstacles to overcome in bringing those pizzas from imagination to savory mouthfuls.

and yet it remains popular on menus, signs and advertisements around, Pizza, and is increasingly being actually served in very upscale restaurants in bigger Ugandan cities. how to account for this apparent mismatch between local palate, ingredients and methods, and a growing national imagination?

perhaps it is commercials for pizza hut and dominoes, seen between segments of bootlegged american TV shows, watched over and over in homes lucky enough to have TVs and DVD players. perhaps it is a legacy of Italian missionaries, like those who built the extremely-well-attended Catholic church in Gulu, having proseletyzed more than spiritual bread to the local masses. or perhaps it's a growing foreigner presence here, on whose longings a few entrepreneurs have capitalized, and on whose capitalization other entrepreneurs longing for at least the image of success have also capitalized: an image of culinary sophistication, of international mystique, of modernity. i think perhaps the real reason for pizza's appearance in Uganda is all, or none, of the above: it is our infectious old friend Capitalism.

is it working? is a regular Ugandan more likely to buy their plate of matooke, cassava and posho from a restaurant, or roadside stand even, advertising pizza? are the folks waiting for their bus to leave one of Kampala's taxi parks more likely to buy loaves of fried bread from wandering vendors if they are called pizza, despite little similarity to italian food? will pizza in time develop a Ugandan form, as the indian bread chapati has, being now a common sight in every village, toasted over a charcoal fire to be taken with morning tea, or combined with eggs as a 'rolex,' or chopped into beans as a 'kikomando'? will wealthier Ugandans wanting international flavor in their own lives, and able to afford it, begin cultivating a taste for pizza, sure that in time they will learn to love it as they do muchomo[2] and chips?

time and the fickle forces of culture, society and capitalism will tell. for the present, a foreigner in Uganda longing for a taste of home is more often than not in for disappointment, finding instead of sauce, cheese and crust the familiarly unsatisfying taste of capitalism in his mouth, in a restaurant (or nation) claiming to offer more.

[1] indvidual servings of meat, sometimes in peanut sauce, wrapped and steamed in banana leaves, typically served at celebrations

[2] grilled kabobs of meat common across East Africa. FOR A GOOD OVERVIEW OF THIS, see The East African, July 30th 2011.


the road to Juba

was a minefield.

i mean, once, yes, it was mined, by the LRA. now it just rides like all the mines were set off. i'd gotten on Kampala Coach an hour before dawn, body wanting that last hour and a half of sleep, but between explosive lumps and holes in the road, the alcohol-sweat-and-smoke stink of the conductor asleep behind me, and the way our bus teetered on the edge of tipping sideways passing semi trucks on the narrow dirt road to Juba, sleep was the last thing on my mind.

i was rewarded with a sunrise to remember: the perfect red orb of the sun, filtered through low-hanging clouds, rising in the east next to an unnamed mountain and casting its first rays on the grass-thatched huts of another unknown village in the increasingly wilder north parts of Uganda.

i was on my way to South Sudan, a country not yet a month from independence, with not much purpose in my head but to see it, to try and litmus the spirit of weeks-old citizens, see what nations are like in the birthing.

my first taste of that was peculiarly disorganized: after the usual lazy chaos of ugandan emigration, and five kilometers of wilderness in which i imagined myself crossing a line on a map, we were made to file out of the bus, slide down a little path on the steep dirt side of the road to an unmarked house that was apparently immigration. people formed in three lines, apparently knowing what they were doing, and then we were made to wait in the sun, about 45 minutes, me wondering how long the bus was going to stay.

during this time, a South Sudanese soldier who was at least 6'7" (200cm?) had selected out the waiters who didn't actually have the 140 pounds (40USD) needed to enter the country, and herded them over to the veranda of a grass house with other glum-looking veranda-sitters, berating them in an English the rest of us wanted to find extremely amusing, and struggled not to, given his gun, our vulnerability, and his sheer size.

so the second taste of new nationhood was lingering militarism: after i'd made it inside the jammed immigration house, and to the front, a soldier was told to escort me to 'room 6,' without further explanation on my part. and i found, to my horror, that room 6 was outside, one half of a certain previously-mentioned grass house on whose veranda a few of my fellow bus riders now sat. on entering, little explanation was given for why i was there (though it seemed obvious i was there because i was white and my passport said United States of America), and i was told to go to a certain tin shack behind a goat tied to a tree and get my passport photocopied.

which i did, with 5 of the last 15 pounds i had changed, after paying the 140 at the earlier desk (without receipt). photocopy duly put in a large pile with other photocopies, i returned to the desk, where my details were copied from a form i'd filled into a less-detailed form, and my photos requested.

photos? back to the tin shed. ten pounds this time: i was dry. hopefully that's all that was needed.

it was--after a couple more desks in a couple more rooms, a few more forms, some fingerprints and a lot of nervous smiling on my part, i was done. the unhelpful part of being done was that i'd seen my bus pull out of the parking lot awhile back, and head down the road. i was stranded.

at least, it seemed that way, but other people told me it'd be there waiting, so i walked hurriedly down the road, chased by motorcycle taxis wanting my fare, and found it sitting a ways up, passengers leaning against the bus' shade. safe.

my third impression of South Sudan was it being more like i imagined Africa than i'd ever seen Uganda: from the border town on to Juba, in six hours of driving, there were very few towns, a scattering of grass-hut villages, and the rest was open African savannah, mountains at times rising lumpen in the distance, as though dropped from a heavenly scoop, silver thread of the nile twinkling in the distance. it was gorgeous.

the road was not always as gorgeous: though it was mainly better than roads are in Uganda, it at times broke into muddy rutted shifty dirt roads, bridges that looked unlikely to support our weight (and protested loudly at our passing), and leaning detours that again threatened to flop our bus on its side. i began calculating how many pounds of passenger i would have to breathe under, being in the window seat, if it did flop over; how long before i'd get to climb out the top. it didn't look pretty.

we were stopped two more times by immigration before reaching Juba, once for a perfunctory document check, and later for a more perfunctory recopying of the passport, which was again duly laid in a pile without an indication to the officials who'd sent us to the copy shack that we'd actually done it. disorganization.

waiting to cross the long bridge over the Nile to Juba town, to the left i saw a goat that'd climbed on the hood of a newish car, and appeared to be licking the bugs from the windsheild. this understandably being a funny sight, a lot of us looked over. on the other side of the bridge, our bus was stopped and a soldier boarded, demanding who had taken pictures. i was instantly afraid they'd take me, since i was white and actually had been taking a number of pictures, but they took someone else instead, who apparently had photographed the bridge. i was thenceforth too afraid of becoming a desaparecido to take any photos, til i literally saw my French friend Thierre photo a couple of soldiers on the roadside without repercussion, but i remain a touch afraid of the lingering militarism, which i take as the remnants of a nation that fought for years to get its independence.

my fourth impression, formed on the basis of billboards, banners and signposts festooning the streets, is of pride: everyone from Vivacell to the Islamic Council to Tusker Beer is congratulating South Sudan via signpost for its independence, thanking the martyrs (soldiers) because their 'blood has cemented our national foundation,' commemorating fallen leaders and generally being excited about July 9, 2011, the birthday of brand new South Sudan.

my fifth impression was of a rat warren, of everyone and their goats wanting to take advantage of me, and filth everywhere. but that was the taxi park, and another story.

trust, paper/violence and shady bus conductors

when can you trust strangers?

Marlo Morgan, in her first book about the impromptu walkabout she took with aborigines of Australia, talks about life as a series of tests, which you are given over and over til you pass. this has seemed true to me, or at least a good metaphor for our, and particularly my, inexplicable experience. speaking in her terms, one of the tests i seem to be taking on this trip is how and when to trust people i don't know.

travel is a natural time for this to come up: you aren't familiar with the people or places around you, and often not even the language or culture that informs them: you are a stranger, or put the other way, all things are strange to you. this is part of the pleasure of travel-- the joy of discovering, coming to understand and even embrace different ways of living those universal aspects of human life we often assume can only be done and understood the ways people at home do.

we are also vulnerable in that discovery: to simple error, and to conscious manipulation by others who are reading to take advantage of our error. but mistrust and overprotectivity keep us from experiencing the very wonderful things we have come to experience--instead of following the little clues and hints that get dropped, you stick to what you know, spend too much, find yourself alone in your hotel room dreaming of home. so what to do--get taken advantage, or not take advantage of you get when traveling? let me tell you the particulars of my exams:

ever since i was abandoned by a bus i'd booked in Kigali last year, and saved miraculously by the folks at Kampala Coach, only to find their bus safer and nicer, i've held them in high regard--i trusted them. so there was no doubt in my mind who to take from Gulu (Uganda) to Juba (newly independent South Sudan): Kampala Coach. yet when i showed up at 6 am to board the bus for Juba, the attendant told me it was 50,000 instead of the 40 i'd been quoted the day before. he said this was for a nicer bus, etc., which i only half-bought. i talked him down to 45, then found when i was on the bus that my ticket only said 40: he'd pocketed the five, knowing and exploiting my innocence of the actual price. call it traveler's tax.

a ways past the border, in the rather unpopulated and wild interior of South Sudan, we came across a bus broken down in the middle of nowhere, and took on as many passengers as we had empty seats. these people were very grateful for the lift, and had promised to pay on arrival in Juba--only to find the conductor demanding money of them right there, or that they get off, this time without their bus or other people, in the middle of nowhere.

a long argument ensued, the mechanic getting involved on the side of reason and compassion, the new passengers feeling quite precarious, the conductor demanding unreasonable prices in other currencies they might have, people muddling through each others' half-known languages to defend their interests... and though i wasn't part of it, either as passenger or conductor (i was in the seat next to one of these people), i felt palpably how vulnerable these people were to the whim of the conductor (who smelled of alcohol and cigarettes, had been sleeping most of the trip, and wore his uniform shirt dirty and half-buttoned). how their trust had been in vain, how close he was to abandoning them in a unsafe situation over money, tens of dollars actually. and in feeling for then i wondered about myself, about any of the ticket-carrying passengers, how real our claim to passage to Juba was. whether the next time he came around to check tickets he wouldn't just rip mine up and demand money anew, knowing i more than anyone else here, by virtue of my skin color, would be good for it. i've been told that Uganda's long-time president once said, 'How can i who came by the gun be removed by paper?' how can i, who came by paper, stay except through more? fundamentally, paper (law, rules, order, respect, that is) is always only as good as the people who understand it, whereas violence is universal (and often the real underwrit of paper).

once in Juba, i found the taxi park to be (as usual) a den of thieves--all wanting my money in one way or another, many claiming to be advising me against other thieves in the process. all of this is familiar and unfazing in Uganda--but here, on top of the chaos of vans, buses, motorcycles, goat herds and humanity jostling each other on their way somewhere, the situation, the currency, many of the languages, and fundamentally the people were unknown to me. i at first felt everyone was telling me inflated prices for lodging (12 dollars instead of the 3 i'd been paying in Uganda, 100 dollars in a place that looked worth 25), til i realized everything in Juba is actually about three times the price of Uganda. so i spent about an hour refusing actually legitimate prices, honest vendors, feeling cheated, targeted for my apparent ethnicity--not trusting anyone.

and yet, in the end, you have to trust someone. you have to sleep somewhere at night. eat something. buy water, take a taxi, talk to someone, enjoy yourself in this place you've come so far to see. so, around the time i was feeling this, i let a Kenyan bus driver convince me to go for supper with him and his wife--and give me lots of that old advice on how to stay safe, who not to trust, what foods not to drink, etc. he seemed genuinely concerned for my welfare, and a nice guy, if not entirely logical in his thoughts/English abilities. we went to a dingy tin-walled place with decent-looking food, where he insisted i get an entire half a chicken for myself, with beans and bread, and i just followed along... only to find he wasn't eating, his wife only getting something small, and the other unexplained man with us not eating either. and that he wanted to hold my change for me til i was done eating.

only, when we were done eating, he wanted to take me somewhere else--we ended up in a bar, one of these classic taxi park bars that are playing Ugandan music too loud on old speakers, dark interiors with half-broken chairs facing a small tv set showing the accompanying music video, men nursing bottles of beer, not talking, likely having seen and heard those videos multiple times. they have always struck me as depressing and very uninteresting places, and in this instance i'd just lugged a 50-pound bag around looking for lodging after a hot and bumpy ten-hour bus ride, and was still wondering why he wasn't giving me my change back.

so i decided enough was enough, id given him the benefit of the doubt, and he remained doubtful. i demanded my change, and he led me back to the guesthouse first, where he was going to bring it, later, apparently (his English was not always intelligible). i demanded it then, there, and gradually the whole character of our relationship shed skins from him being an altruistic guide for me, the needy foreigner, to he just another person seeing in me money and wanting to use it, in this case to get money for drinking apparently. i had to lead him back to the bar, feeding his sense that i was still buying it just enough to get my change (i'd paid with a big bill; otherwise i would have just left him), then finally let him down/let him know we could only be friends, and that i could only trust him, if money wasn't involved. at which point he, like Justin, lost interest and left me.

to be honest, like Justin, i'd seen the signs. i actually don't really trust people who are very ready to give me advice on how to be safe, who to trust, etc.--because they are typically the ones ready to use me. but can i on that basis ignore everyone, assuming they just want to use me? there are always good people around, and they are usually the best part of travel, hearing from them about life. so despite my drinking partner Matthew back in Gulu saying 98% of people weren't going to get to heaven (which prompted me to mention Kenny going to heaven in the Southpark movie), maybe my skills at reading people just aren't good enough yet. it took most of an hour before i decided this Kenyan was using me, and even then it turned out he wasn't after my riches so much as someone to buy him beer. this, apparently, came from having had such a white friend earlier, whom he kept referring to as though i knew the man, though i kept reminding him i didn't.

so who can you trust, among strangers? no one? may be that is the safest answer. it is also the loneliest and least interesting: it would have left me in my room an hour after arriving, wondering if i'd been overcharged for lodging and the meager meal i was eating there alone. at other times, trusting people has led to great experiences and good friends--and part of both of those has been the leap of faith involved in saying 'i don't know you, but i will trust you.' on this trip, over and over, i have made that leap only to find i jumped into thin air, and had to catch myself in the way down. what lesson am i to learn from this? i don't think it is to trust no one. it also can't be to trust everyone, because then i would get taken for everything i own. so how do you know whom to trust? life is apparently asking me to answer, and will keep asking til i get it right, til i trust myself enough to choose the right person.

maybe it's life to choose for me, and me just to read the signs: wednesday night, trying to call a friend of a friend in Juba who wanted to host me, i had almost given up on asking people to use their phones (i offered to pay them in return), having met only with non-English speakers or those disinterested if i didn't want to change money. then without speaking a tall boy asked me the number, dialed it, and handed it to me. after talking, i tried to pay him, and he refused, his friend saying "He has given you his phone." i paid him instead in gratitude, a smile, and was on my way. am i innocent in feeling his one gift has counterbalanced all the attempted takings i've met with?


big f&%k off camera

[this post involves a bad word.]

i finally own, as my friend Stacey would put it, a big fuck-off camera. before embarking on the peaceboat ride we took in 2007, Stacey bought a large and expensive camera, a Nikon maybe, a fuck-off camera, so named not only for its imposing size and apparent technological superiority, but also flagrant display of wealth in places where few can afford to have a camera at all. on top of this, add the typically intrusive, insensitive tourist's use of this to document 'the locals,' and you have a big fuck-off camera. as in the camera itself says 'fuck you' to the locals, because you have the money, and the power, and with that camera, you're using them.

Stacey went on to take gigabytes worth of pictures during the course of the trip, more than anyone had time to actually sort through (i've tried). on the voyage before that, the web writer also had a big fuck-off camera, a Canon i think, which she used judiciously for covering the activities of the boat. i had the opportunity to use it a couple of times, and was entranced: the flashing lights in the sight as the lens whirred into focus, the satisfying snap of each shot, the flash which snapped up cobra-like from the frame when needed, the bewildering array of buttons and dials on the back. more than anything, the shots she took were what got me: the pyramids of giza, sunset on the carribean, the jungles of sri lanka, all in vibrant, golden hues my few-hundred-dollar point-and-shoot couldn't come close to.

i've wanted one since. the point-and-shoot was finally stolen in Uganda, after two full trips around the earth and numerous private excursions to photogenic locations. in preparation for this trip to Africa, i decided enough was enough. i will not let the beautiful sights of my life go without at least attempted documentation. so i did it. i bought a big fuck-off camera.

and that is what it has felt like since: a large expensive middle finger to Uganda. so i am caught between wanting to document the things i see here, because i appreciate them, and not wanting to appear a totally unappreciative foreigner by pointing my big black camera at things (let alone people) and shooting them, for me and me alone to later relish, print out, show my friends, chuckle bourgeoisie chuckles about the backwardness of the dark continent. it is very much an unequal relationship, another sort of marx-inspired alienation.

to be clear, the inequality is not because of my camera. the inequality is because our global economic system is skewed towards countries like my own, at the expense of countries like Uganda. my camera is just a focal point for it, the shooting of pictures a moment when the economic disparities between me and my fellow human beings here becomes embarrassingly, or rudely, apparent--instead of the muted undertone it always is, that my ability to be here at all implies. owning it is also such a moment for me, because i am acutely aware how very much money this would be for a Ugandan, when sold, so though thieves are comparatively few in Uganda, i am paranoid about it being stolen, and consequently carry it at all times like a rich person clutching their wallet in the ghetto. it's embarrassing, but real.

what this has meant, beyond an extra-heavy bag (its not called a big fuck-off camera for nothing; it's big and heavy), is that i have a lot of photos of landscapes, of things, of plants, and few of people save in the background, where i'm hoping they'll be less likely to take offense. i am reluctant to raise the Canon's middle finger at the people i am trying to live and study with, and this reluctance has mostly won over my desire to remember the texture of a grandmother's face, the wonder of four adults and a baby on a single motorcycle, the beautiful people i meet everyday walking around Gulu town. the only exceptions to the rules are kids, for whom the world is not yet an economic reality, and a glance at the playback screen after the picture is taken is more than enough entertainment to justify the fact that i get to keep the image and they don't.

maybe a polaroid would be less of an inequality, if it could be made to take two photos at once, one for me and one for them. but it would also be grossly expensive and cumbersome to use. so i am photoing lizards, picturesque doorways, sunsets, blossoms, but not a lot of what actually drew me back to Uganda-- its brilliant, beautiful people. i guess the middle finger of my big fuck-off camera has proven true the expression that when you point one finger, four point back. the awkwardness of forced self-awareness, of facing my own privilege each time i want to capture something of the beauty i'm seeing, has been enough to keep me from pointing much. but it is still there, the unseen reality that actually makes all this so picturesque, because it's so different from the place where i come. we don't have handmade wood benches this polished from constant use. buildings that dilapidated from decades of use. technology that quaintly archaic still in parlance. and most of all, we don't have people like the people here, who have to do this kind of work this hard, who take the hand life has dealt them and manage to produce this much laughter and peace from it, whose faces tell stories faces at home never could. but i will not retell them, can't bring myself to distance and possibly offend the very people i am appreciating in the act of appreciating them. so i keep them like most Ugandans do, in memory, in a fondness that, lacking 10 megapixels of detail, makes up for it in detail a photo can never have: the story of how you got there, what you shared with this person, the sounds, smells, tastes you remember of that place, that day--all the (other) details that make up a life.

that's the best way to remember things anyway. no big fuck-off needed.