Archive for June, 2010

African Summer Time

No time for an original photo this week I'm afraid.

Clea and I were missing the UK this weekend; I tend to keep up with the papers back home and noted that they were all crowing about the heat wave weekend with all the accompanying images of Brighton Beach or Hyde Park. Throw an England v Germany World Cup match, Glastonbury weekend and Wimbeldon into the mix and it should be enough to trigger the emergency repatriation clause in any good Englishman’s travel insurance.

It’s strange that a heat wave should have any attraction to a couple who live in a state of perpetual summer. The weather on any given day in Kampala is sunny and pleasant enough that it would prompt nationwide news coverage if it were replicated in Bournemouth on a weekend in June, but in Kampala, with the weather being as predictable as night follows day, pleasant weather is no cause for celebration. In this regard living in Kampala is a bit like ground hog day, if ground hog day were to fall on a nice sunny day with perhaps the chance of a thunder storm in the evening. Imagine waking up every morning to a perfect summer’s day, it won’t be long before the novelty of cooking outdoors wears off and all the grass under the paddling pool dies.

As it is currently mid summer in Europe it is almost the closest thing we get to winter here. The sun is as far from the equator as it is going to get until, in six months time, it is mid summer in the southern hemisphere. I say almost as the southern hemisphere ‘winter’ is the nearest the sun ever gets to abandoning us as we are about 20 miles north of the equator. For Kampala of course this is all rather academic, you really can’t tell whether the sun is any closer or further away than any other day or month and the change in day length is imperceptible. The only seasons there are in Kampala are wet and dry. We have experienced what is known as a wet season, it does rain a bit more, but the sun is still very much present. A more accurate description would be wetter and dryer season. Not a patch on February in Swansea when the entire city is permanently wrapped with drizzling cloud and you’re lucky to even see the sun before April.

I was wondering about how this lack of seasons effects you when I came across a lecture by Standford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo in which he says:

“The closer you are to the equator the more present orientated you are. The more you are in an environment where climate doesn’t change. It gives you a set of matching sameness rather than change.”

Professor Zimbardo’s theory is that the lack of seasons makes people present orientated. He categorises present orientated people as either fatalistic or hedonistic, living for the present rather than the future or the past. Categorising whole countries, races and cultures based on their latitude is, I admit, a sweeping generalisation, but for me it has at least the ring of truth. The lack of seasons does seem to have an impact on your concept of time.

Back home I used the seasons as markers, before the summer I’ll do this, we want to have moved house by Spring, or more often than not just, I can’t wait for summer. None of this applies here; though Clea has recently started telling me that we need to use all of our life savings to buy a car before the impending ‘wet’ season. I’m taking a more economically minded view of the future and considering an umbrella.

In my last job the seasons marked the year out quite literally because the financial quarter days were a significant part of what I did, paying rents on the buildings that our client’s occupied. It’s no coincidence that the financial quarter days fall almost exactly on the summer and winter solstice and the spring and autumn equinox, spring, summer, autumn, winter. Time is money, in this case in the form of rent. I was explaining to my friend Mike recently why I couldn’t be bothered wasting time haggling in markets because invariably the amounts we end up haggling over were small. Below a certain threshold it’s not worth my time arguing over it, time is money. He laughed and said this is not a concept that exists in Africa. Tell an African that time is money and they will just look at you confused – ‘but there’s plenty of time and hardly any money’.

There is a phrase here ‘African Time’ which is used fairly frequently to explain why everything is late, or more accurately not running to a schedule at all. Writers talk about the African’s unbreakable willingness to wait. You can see an example of this on the buses that run around Kampala. They are privately owned minibuses known as Matatus, they’re cheap, they go most places and are an OK way to get around if you don’t mind waiting in traffic inhaling stale body odour, but they don’t run to a schedule. Generally they’re frequent so it’s not a problem, but if you’re unlucky enough to be on an empty one, don’t be surprised if you just have to just sit and wait until it fills up with passengers. The time for the bus to leave is when the bus is full of passengers. This is a concept that can be a little annoying for a European but is quite natural for an African.

The Polish author Ryszard Kapuscinski who spent most of his life living in and writing about Africa and who considered the African the Olympic Champions of waiting wrote the following about Africa’s relationship to time while waiting for four hours for a bus in a similar scenario:

“Africans apprehend time differently. For them, it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, course, and rhythm (man acting, of course, with the consent of gods and ancestors). Time is even something that man can create outright, for time is made manifest through events, and whether an event takes place or not depends, after all, on man alone. If two armies do not engage in a battle, then that battle will not occur (in other words, time will not have revealed its presence, will not have come into being).”

I’ve embedded the Philip Zimbardo’s ten minute lecture on how we perceive time here: It’s animated!

You can read the introduction to Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book of collected writings on Africa, The Shadow of the Sun, here:

You can also buy it, which I’d recommend because it is excellent.


Phil Does Development Studies

For the last four months I have been waking up everyday in a developing country. As someone born and raised in the West who has previously had little experience of countries like Uganda this has been a bit of an eye opener. Before I arrived I’d seen all sorts of horrific things about Africa on TV shows usually presented by celebrities holding back the tears telling us that ‘through all the misery the thing that shines through is the incredible strength human spirit in the face of adversity’ etc etc. So I was prepared for hunger and poverty, but so far it has not been the poverty that has struck me, or the strength of human spirit for that matter. What has struck me is the bits of society that are missing in Kampala that I had previously taken for granted at home.

For example in the UK we have electricity that stays on all the time; that an electrical grid is permanently maintained over such a vast area now seems remarkable, were as before it was just normal. You can accuse me of ignorance but have you ever stopped and thought what the world would be like without MOTs? I hadn’t until I started getting enveloped in thick black exhaust smoke with death-defying regularity.

I now appreciate better the meaning of developing country. Developing because the institutions that provide much of what is taken for granted in the developed world have yet to develop. There is an entire academic discipline, Development Studies, that attempts to describe how to create an environment that will cultivate these institutions. I’ve only been here four months. I have no idea how to put the development puzzle together, but living in Uganda you can’t help but learn what some of the pieces of the development puzzle are. I wrote the following slightly embellished description of getting up and walking to work to try and illustrate a few of them:

I am woken by the sound of stray dogs barking due to the total absence of any organisation private, public or charity willing to tackle the problem of packs of stray dogs roaming the streets. I go back to sleep, it’s only 12.30. I am once again awoken, this time by the sound of the neighbour’s cockerel, admittedly quaint, but also very annoying especially on Saturdays. I now understand those by-laws against keeping farm yard animals in urban settings. Another day dawns; due to this country’s 13% p.a. rate of inflation [1] every 10,000 Ugandan Shillings I own is only worth 9,996 schillings in yesterday’s money. I get up and flick the light switch, but there is no light, power cuts are common; maybe one of the unplanned unregulated construction projects that are noisily going on in the neighbourhood has hit a cable. I hope not too many of the casual labourers were badly hurt due to the absence of anything like health and safety legislation. I use my asthma inhaler for the first time that day (thank you NHS). They were burning rubbish again in the night, three quarters of the city’s waste goes uncollected [2]. (Most of what is collected is burned in poorly managed incinerators anyway). I take a piss in the dark then flush. 90% of Kampala’s sewage goes straight into Lake Victoria, untreated [3] (Lake Victoria is freshwater so the bugs will get on just fine in there). I jump in the shower, the water is from Lake Victoria and I’m told it has some treatment. I do my best not to swallow any. I eat my delicious breakfast of locally grown fresh fruit, no complaints there. I put on my walking boots. The roads are poorly designed and badly constructed, they are not maintained by any agency whatsoever except the occasional public spirited fly tipper who takes the opportunity to dump debris into the gigantic holes between the patches of tarmac. It rained overnight; the roads have turned into treacherous rivers of mud. I set off. Before I leave I hand the key to my apartment to the 26 year old man that cleans it. He tells us that one day he hopes to be able to afford to finish school. There is no state funded education beyond primary level. He’s grateful for the job (there are no up to date unemployment statistics because there is no unemployment benefit, but the 2002 census had unemployment in Kampala at 49%). On my walk to work I’m overtaken by worn minibuses and motorbike riders without helmets carrying multiple passengers (public transport). All the vehicles trail clouds of acrid black smoke. It appears there is no such thing as a certificate of road worthiness; also there is no effective control over fuel quality. I’m told many of the petrol stations mix their fuel with cheaper Kerosene; another pump on the asthma inhaler. I pass numerous houses guarded by armed men. For better or worse the government has liberal attitudes towards gun control. The wealthy live in guarded compounds surrounded by walls topped by broken glass and razor wire, a product of ineffective policing, judiciary or  inequality? I take a short cut through the slum making sure to hold my breath as I pass the pit latrine and avert my eyes  from the lady showering outside behind a low wall under a bucket. I arrive at work and settle down to deal with my post. It doesn’t take long; there is no functional postal system.

I’d hate for anyone to interpret the above as whinging. I am very fortunate to have running water, a flushing toilet, security, someone that cleans my house, an asthma inhaler, breakfast and a job to walk to. A great many people do not have such luxuries. This is just an attempt to illustrate the remarkable number of civil functions that I no longer take for granted.

1. Ugandan Inflation Rate CIA World Fact Book

2. The New Vision, Kampala: A Mountain of Garbage

3. The New Vision: Multi-billion project to clean up polluted Nakivubo channel underway