Hive Colab is the name of the office I worked at during the whole two months in Kampala. It’s a tech collaboration hub founded by one of my fellowship advisors, TMS or Teddy Ruge. As seen in the photo, it’s set up as a large open space with islets of desks spread throughout. It’s such a great space to work in because you never know who is going to drop in from which country, who you’re going to work with, and what projects you might discover. My colleagues range from coding nerds to serial entrepreneurs to mobile app gurus. A few weeks in, I found out that one of the creators of Winsenga, an award winning ultrasound app, was sitting at the desk just across me. The team, originally from Makerere University, had created this app to help reduce maternal mortality rates and most recently was awarded $50,000 by Microsoft. In the corner desks by the window sits my friend Anne Giuthu. She started a business in her early 20s, had it acquired by another company, is CEO of her second marketing company now, is deputy director of the marketing department at a university, and is a mother of one. Oh and she’s also only 25 years old.
Being at this space is how I easily got connected to my research partner, Joseph Wanda, pictured below. He doesn’t like having his photo taken so this is all you’re going to get.
He is serial researcher, having conducted all kinds of research for companies and universities, including Hive Colab. Once he came on board my research became a lot more concrete. I could finally determine what specific areas to sample around Uganda since Joseph knew the geography a lot better than me. Over the course of one week, we established a tentative schedule for 3 weeks of field research ranging geographically from central Uganda (Kampala) to eastern Uganda (Jinja and Mbale*). Kampala was a good starting point because we were already there and familiar with the place. We also knew of which slums to visit and could navigate ourselves around them because Joseph had done prior research in them. Jinja and Mbale were more foreign places to both of us but we knew we had to get out of central Uganda. One of the big reasons was to see if areas that were less industrialized with less access to media would have different perceptions of how they were represented in western media, if at all. Jinja and Mbale were less industrialized cities, both with large slums and many local NGOs present.
The blue poster seen above, and pictured below as well, illustrates the brainstorming process of my field research objectives. They were:
- To understand if the poverty-porn-is-bad argument is valid.
- To better understand how ‘victims’ of poverty porn want to be represented.
- To understand the effects of poverty porn on people’s dignity/self-esteem
- To understand African misconceptions of the west.
The planning process was more about framing the issue of poverty porn rather than about the logistics of travel and appointments, although that was quite a challenge as well. Thanks to the generous wall space in my room and the pack of Super Sticky Post-its I brought from home, I was able to do some visual mapping of the underlying aspects of the issue. Many questions came up during this process. Is “poverty porn” even the right term? Who are the main constituents of NGOs? Is donor dependency okay? Do the ends justify the means? How does a stereotype come to be?
Current Status of Project
I am currently back in New York, still scrambling to write catch-up posts on this blog and keep you guys up to date. It’s been difficult coming back to this bustling city and trying to process the past two months of adventures. Bear with me as I try to present the meat of my project in the next few weeks before school starts.
The next few posts will tell the stories from each of our sites: Kampala, Jinja, and Mbale.
Stay tuned and cheers,
*Mbale is pronounced em-balleh just fyi.
There’s a nice cafe called Endiro Coffee, just a 10 minute walk from my office. I call it “one of those muzungu cafes,” in a slightly derogatory way, even though I contribute to the name. It’s canopied by a large awning and the outdoor seating area is surrounded by nice tropical foliage – banana leaves, even some bamboo, etc. You can’t tell that it’s in the midst of a dusty construction site and a parking lot, where street vendors weave around the cars selling bags of vegetables and the occasional beggar sits by. Endiro Coffee is a whole other world, a sort of enclosed haven where people – mostly foreigners – basically move in with their computers (aka me), hold meetings, order burgers and salads, and be even as bold to leave their laptops as they excuse themselves to the restroom.
And here I am, sitting on my mzungu* ass drinking a banana vanilla espresso milkshake, thinking of how expensive this beverage just became to me after today. It’s 10,000 Ugandan Shillings (UGX), which is less than $4. It’s cheap by New York standards, but here, all I can think about is how it’s about double the price of what a local Ugandan lunch would cost.
While budgeting for my field research, my research partner helped me estimate some costs. For lunch, for example, we put aside 5000 UGX per person. That’s about $2. I was surprised, since I had been spending on average about 20,000 UGX per meal, which is under $8. Compared to New York, it was cheap, but having spent that much on a meal while discovering that my research partner would usually spend 5000UGX on a meal, I felt like an asshole.
I had an interesting conversation with a former Silicon Valley guy who visited the office. He now works in South Africa with a company called Mxit, which is apparently bigger than Facebook over there (I checked online to verify it). He told me about how awesome South Africa was, and how much he wants to buy a house there. According to him, a 3-4 bedroom house with a balcony and backyard is only about $400,000. The nightlife is “off the hook,” the food is amazing, the scenery is amazing, and everything is just cheaper. He encouraged me to take a trip to South Africa before leaving Uganda, and began listing all these places to go, ensuring me that I would have such a great time for little money.
It sounded great, but I also felt a little strange about it. Sure, living comfortably half the price is awesome, but I felt like that was cheating – like I would be taking advantage of another nation’s lesser economic power and international standing to satisfy my expensive palate. Sipping on that delicious milkshake at Endiro Coffee made me feel that way too. Perhaps I am being too dramatic, and perhaps I am undermining the very point of tourism and global commerce. But that’s what has been running through my mind these days.
Cheers, as I order a burger.
*mzungu /moo-zoon-gu/ a term in Swahili meaning “white person,” though it is often applied to foreigners in general