Friday, November 29, 2013

The End of the Semester

Today marks the end of yet another semester.  Every semester I learn something.  Some semesters are more educational that others.  This semester, due primarily to the change in location, students and colleagues I learned a lot.

Today I gave my students their final exam.  I know I’ve mentioned before how much I’ve enjoyed teaching my Intro to Tourism class.  But there are a few distinct differences about my students here at the University of Botswana compared to my students back in Texas which are a little challenging to get used to.
I will start off with what I like better here.  Here in Botswana there is no attempt to negotiate grades.  American students, regardless of the university in which they are enrolled, are often unwilling to accept the grades they earn.  Every semester without fail I have easily half a dozen students or more argue, beg and/or complain about their grades.  I stand my ground every time, but that doesn’t halt the process.  I am very explicit in my syllabus, I make announcements and I reiterate time and again that students earn their grades, I do NOT accept late work, and no I will NOT round up so you can get the next higher letter grade.  Inevitably I have a senior who is supposed to graduate come to me and tell me that if he fails my class he won’t graduate.  “You chose this fate when you missed 8 classes, knowing that attendance counts towards your final grade; when you missed your group presentation and plagiarized half of your semester report.”

Here in Botswana students do not question the grades they are assigned.  Three of my students failed to come to class the day they had a group presentation.  They asked if they could have partial credit since they contributed information.  I told them “No.  You were told at the start of the semester if you do not participate in the group presentation you will receive a zero.” I reported these conversations to my department chair expecting she would receive a visit from the students; she never heard from any of them.
So, I wish my American students would take note of what my Batswana students already know: Earn your grade.  Don’t come to me in the 11th hour asking for me to make an exception to the rule and do you a favor.  It’s not going to happen.

However, my Batswana students are not angels.  The thing I do NOT like about the Batswana students is there is a widely accepted tendency towards cheating.  Yes, American students cheat, but I don’t think it is as prevalent as it is here.  And I know in my classes back in Texas cheating during an exam in my class is a highly dangerous sport as suffering my wrath is way worse than failing a class due to cheating.  I think my Texas students would rather explain to their parents they were foolish enough not to study and therefore earned a poor grade than risk cheating and having to deal with the ‘Phelan Eyes of Shame.’
But here in Botswana cheating is rampant.  And everyone knows about it.  The faculty try to discourage it as much as possible, but the students are so accustomed to it they don’t understand how to deal with it.  During an exam I gave earlier in the semester I threw three students out of my classroom and automatically gave them zeros for cheating off a classmate’s test.

But to go back to my previous point, Batswana students don’t question authority.  When I threw the students out for cheating they didn’t attempt to defend themselves, explain their actions or beg for forgiveness.  They accepted their fate without argument.  Of course, they also knew that they earned their punishment, just like they understand they earn their grades, whether they are good or bad.
Here are my students working hard this morning during their final:
Now all I have to do is grade 126 exams and in six week the cycle starts all over again.  I can’t wait.

My 100th Blog Post from Africa: Happy Thanksgiving!

For those of you out there diligently reading my blog posts every weekday, thank you for being a loyal follower.  Today is Thanksgiving in America and this is the 100th blog post since I moved to Africa four months ago.  In honor of this occasion, and more importantly, because I took some really cool videos while I was in Uganda, I put together a brief compilation of some of my experiences there.

Not everything I did in Uganda is in the video as I couldn’t record certain things, but I would like to acknowledge the following organizations which made my trip very memorable:
Encounter Africa Safaris which organized my trip, accommodation and travel partner to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see the gorillas.

Uganda Wildlife Authority which provided the guide, porters and escorts during our gorilla trek.
The Department of Tourism at Makerere University where I guest lectured for two days.

Uganda Bicycle which gave me a great workout mountain biking through the muddy streets of Kampala.
Ricky’s Boda Boda Tours which gave me an excellent tour of Kampala on the back of a very safe boda boda (motorbike).

Ndere Cultural Center where I had dinner on my last night in Kampala and watched an impressive dance troupe representing different ethnic groups from all around Uganda.
Holland Park in Jinja, the beautiful B&B where I stayed in Jinja, the source of the Nile.

***Disclaimer: Please be aware I was in no way compensated by these organizations for mentioning them on my blog.  Also, I found all of them through my own devices and did not receive any discounts or free services.  There is absolutely no ulterior motive in my naming these companies.  They all just made my trip a great experience, and in the event anyone reading this decides to visit Uganda I highly encourage you to consider using any of these businesses.  If I am fortunate to visit Uganda again in the future I expect I will be contacting most, if not all, of these companies again.

And now… for my video.  Enjoy:

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Kampala by Boda Boda

Back in Texas there is an instructor in my department, John, who is by far my favorite person on faculty.  I don’t spend very much time with him because we have different jobs which keep both of us very busy, but I always enjoy and look forward to our occasional conversations.  He is probably the most proper person I’ve ever met, and after six years I don’t believe he has ever called me by my first name; he always addresses me as Dr. Phelan.  Given his dedication to good manners and etiquette, I was surprised to find out he and his wife are avid bikers, as in motorcycles.  This revelation proved to me that Hollywood’s portrayal of certain social groups really does promote inaccurate stereotypes.

Over the last couple of years John has delicately, but consistently, encouraged me to purchase a bike.  I had never been on a motorcycle before, so he offered to take me out for a ride along with his wife one afternoon.  Though I was initially nervous and holding on for dear life, after a short time I became comfortable and really enjoyed the experience.
Last weekend while I was in Kampala I wanted play tourist.  The problem with many African cities (Gaborone would be an exception to the rule) is that they are highly populated, there aren’t enough roads to accommodate the vehicles and there are few, if any, working traffic lights or rules of the road.  This means that it could easily take two hours to travel 5 miles due to congestion.  I didn’t want to waste my one and only free day in Kampala stuck in traffic, particularly since it was a Saturday and the sights I was interested in seeing where on opposing ends of the city.

I had been observing the boda bodas, which are the motorcycle taxis, with hesitation all week.  I had read that five people die each day in boda boda accidents in Kampala, and seeing them weaving in and out of traffic made me a bit nervous.  I didn’t want to be the muzungu (white person) killed in a boda boda accident.
Fortunately I was able to marry my desire to play tourist and take a boda boda ride.  Enter Ricky’s Boda Boda Tours.  Ricky probably has the most brilliant business plan I’ve seen yet in Africa.  All the foreigners who come visit want to do tours, but don’t want to get stuck in traffic.  They also want to try out the boda bodas, but because of all the bad press, they tend to shy away from them.  Ricky has a team of boda boda drivers who double as tour guides.  They drive slightly larger and safer motorcycles, provide their customers with helmets (and the drivers wear helmets too which you never see with normal boda bodas), they can safely zip through traffic quickly, and they know everything there is to know about the city.  I was lucky enough to ride with Ricky himself on a private tour and loved it!

This picture doesn’t really portray the amount of traffic in Kampala, but at least here you can see what the boda bodas look like, and there are thousands of them all over the city:
On my tour I was taken to the Palace of the King of the Buganda, the Baha’i temple, one of the markets, and the National Mosque (on Gaddafi Road) which was donated by… you guessed it, Gaddafi.  The Gaddafi National Mosque was huge as you can see here:
And here I am wearing the required attire.  Everyone who knows me is aware I am perpetually freezing; I did NOT have that problem with this outfit.  I was sweating like crazy:
The reason Ricky took me to the mosque was because it has the best view of Kampala.  There are seven hills surrounding Kampala and you could see all of them and the various neighborhoods from the mosque.  Here is one shot of Kampala and the traffic below:

In the 1960s Queen Elizabeth gave the King 10 luxury cars, including a Bentley and a Rolls Royce.  The cars are all rusted out, but they are still on the front lawn of the palace as a reminder of the good old days.  However, the palace grounds also play host to some less than favorable memories.  Idi Amin had his torture chambers underground and we saw those as well.  Here is the Palace of the King of Buganda (Buganda is a large territory within the country; about half the landmass of Uganda belongs to the Buganda kingdom.):

I really enjoyed my boda boda tour.  Ricky really knew his stuff, which I appreciated, so I definitely learned a lot.  And of course, I got to ride a boda boda without being scared to death.  I’m not sure whether I will be ready to purchase my own ride when I return to Texas, but it’s not totally out of the question.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Guest Lecturing in the Tourism Department at Makerere University

As you know, I’ve already arrived back in Botswana from my trip to Uganda, but I realized I never actually talked about one of the main motivations for my visit: seeing Makerere University.  Makerere University is considered “The Harvard of Africa,” or at least that’s what I was told by a few locals.  Or maybe they said “Harvard is the Makerere of America.”  I can’t be sure.  But, you get the picture.

In all honesty, I don’t know much about Makerere, but it is the largest public university in the country, and first opened there in 1936.  And I knew they had a tourism program, which was what prompted my visit.  The professor with whom I co-teach here gave me the name of a professor at Makerere who I emailed and asked about visiting campus.  The Makerere professor asked me to guest lecture for two days about career opportunities in the tourism industry, the American perspective of tourism in Africa and Uganda, and how to appropriately market to western tourists.
I really enjoyed my time at Makerere.  I was so impressed with the faculty and the students.  Everyone was very engaged and asked lots of questions, which was great.  One of my occasional frustrations with University of Botswana is that sometimes there is a bit too much arrogance and unwillingness to consider suggestions/ advice/ criticism.  At times it feels that UB has a “We already know everything” attitude, so they rebuff new ideas.  Refreshingly, Makerere was the exact opposite.  When I mentioned that a lot could be done to improve the way Uganda markets to westerners, the crowd was all ears.  They originally asked me to speak on the topic for three hours.  I told them that was too long and suggested an hour.  After two hours the audience was still going strong and we probably could have gone on discussing the entire afternoon, but I had to end it there in order to get to my next appointment.  But I really enjoyed the conversation and their willingness to consider new ideas.

While at Makerere I was also very happy to meet the professor who owned the tour guide company I used for my trip to Bwindi to see the gorillas.  In fact, I used his company as an example, and afterward told him I thought the tour guide I had, Tolbert, was a rock star.
In addition to visiting classes at Makerere, I also stayed at the guest house on campus.  It was convenient because it made getting back and forth to lectures easy, but the campus was huge and very hilly, so I could do my morning and evening “hikes” around the buildings.  Below are a few pictures I took from one of my morning strolls.

Welcome to Makerere University, “The Harvard of Africa”:
And the Guest House, complete with contact information if you would like to make a reservation:

Makerere had these giant birds all over campus.  I’m not sure what they are called, but when I say giant, I really mean that.  If I stood next to one it would probably come up to about hip height:
The School of Forestry, Environmental and Geographical Sciences, where the Tourism Department is located.  There were over 1,000 undergrad students enrolled in the Tourism Program:
And some of the students who attended the lecture I gave about career development in the tourism industry.  This was a shot of only half the room; the room was wide, and packed pretty tight, but at least the students look as if they were having fun:

Another building on campus:
There were also at least two churches and a mosque on campus.  The only negative to having a mosque on campus, for me at least, was that it was only about 300 meters from the guest house where I was staying.  And if you haven’t spent much time around mosques, they all have loud speakers attached to the buildings which broadcast a call to prayer five times a day.  The first prayer time is at dawn, so every morning at about 5am I was woken up.  By the end of my stay the sound became incorporated into my dreams.  Here is one of the churches where a wedding was being held:

Overall I had an excellent visit to Makerere and I’m hoping I get the opportunity to go back.  In fact, since my trip to Rwanda was cancelled, I think when I reschedule the trip to Rwanda sometime in the next few months I will add a few days in Uganda so I can spend some more time there and at Makerere.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

My 24 Hour Unintentional Visit to Ethiopia

After my visit to Uganda I was supposed to go to Rwanda for a few days to teach at the Rwanda University Tourism College.  Despite all the best laid plans, This Is Africa, and my plans quickly went to hell in a hand basket.  The Kampala to Kigali flight was only 40 minutes, so even though it was a night flight I figured I would arrive in enough time to actually get some sleep in my hotel.  Far from it.

The flight departed promptly at 12:30am Sunday morning.  At about 1am the pilot announced we would be landing very soon, “There is a little mist over the Kigali airport, but it shouldn’t affect our landing.”  Not five minutes later the pilot informed us the mist had become too thick and we would have to circle the airport for a bit.  After an hour of circling the pilot informed us we were running low in fuel and had to return to Kampala.
We arrived back in Kampala right around 3am to find the Kigali airport was “closed” until dawn.  (Important background information: After dropping half the passengers in Kigali the plane was supposed to continue on to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.) After sitting on the tarmac in Kampala for two hours, the pilot made the call that he would take everyone to Addis and then those of us who were supposed to go to Kigali could catch a direct flight later that day.

At 7:45am we arrived in Addis where NO ONE gave us any information or made any effort to help us.  We weren’t supposed to be in Ethiopia, so we couldn’t go through Immigration.  So we were stuck in limbo, like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.  The 40 or so of us Kigali passengers stuck together, but no one would give us any definitive answers.  Apparently the answer to everything is, “You have to speak to a supervisor.”  Funny, we NEVER found a supervisor.
Around 8:30am after being left alone at the departure gate, despite none of us having boarding passes, one lone gate clerk appeared and told us he only had about 25 seats on the flight.  That caused the expected outburst of anger from the crowd.  At this point I realized I probably would not be going to Rwanda.  And at this point I really didn’t want to; I just wanted to go home.  I have to say Ethiopia has the worst hospitality of any country I’ve visited. After more than 40 countries, that is a pretty harsh criticism coming from me, particularly because I tend to be a pretty level headed and understanding traveler; it takes a lot to get me bent out of shape.

After watching the chaos of one gate clerk trying to issue 25 tickets to 40 angry people I decided to leave and figure out another alternative.  At this point I learned Addis does not have iron-clad security which most airports attempt to claim.  I walked out through the security gates, without getting a visa or entry stamp.  Then walked through an “Employees only” door because I thought it might lead me back onto the tarmac, which, thankfully, it did.  I thought at this point I should be getting myself arrested (which I figured would be helpful because then someone would HAVE to help me) since I was a civilian walking across the tarmac underneath the parked airplanes and around all the fuel trucks.  Somehow NO ONE saw this as a red flag!
I went to the Ethiopian Airlines Arrivals and Transfers Desk where I was ignored until the one desk clerk finally told me she’s not helping people; I needed to get in the next line. “This line?  The line where everyone is standing, yet there is no one at this desk to help anyone? Oh, great, thanks for letting me know I should be in THIS line.”

After about twenty minutes I arrived at the front of the line because the deaf Chinese family of 7 in front of me decided they had wasted enough time and gave up.  Shortly after, another desk clerk appeared to assist customers!  YAY!  I explained the fact I couldn’t get on the Kigali flight because they didn’t have enough seats for all of us.  I asked her to just send me home to Gaborone.  Thirty minutes later I finally got a new ticket, leaving this morning to Johannesburg and continuing on to Gaborone in the afternoon.  This meant I had to spend last night in Addis.
I spent the next hour getting through Immigration, followed by harassing the baggage claim attendants.  Apparently, they scan the barcodes on the bags as they put them on the planes.  But, they do NOT scan those barcodes as they are off loaded.  So, they couldn’t tell me whether my luggage had been removed from the plane or where it was, in this or ANY country.  I’m thinking I will never see that bag again, which is particularly disappointing because the hiking boots for my Kilimanjaro climb in less than a month are in there.  If I don’t get the bag soon I need to buy some new boots immediately so I can start breaking them in.

My lack of confidence that my luggage will ever surface emanates from my time spent in the baggage area yesterday. Imagine a baggage claim area with 8 conveyor belts.  All conveyor belts are continuously moving with luggage, but every square inch of flooring between the belts; you know, where people normally stand and watch the belts in hopes of finding their luggage?; every square inch of floor space is filled with unclaimed luggage.  So passengers are literately climbing over mountains of luggage looking for their bags, while also hoping it might fall off a conveyor belt.  I watched this scene for about an hour while Blen, the baggage claim lady, who I told I would tip $100 if she found my luggage, manually searched for my bag.  In the end she couldn’t find it.
I couldn’t take it anymore. After three hours in the Kampala airport, 8 hours on the plane going from Kampala to Kigali to Kampala to Addis, and then another 5 hours in the Addis airport trying to get things sorted out, I left for my hotel.  I was too exhausted from the travel and lack of sleep, and my nerves were completely shot from the stress that I didn’t even play tourist.  Normally when I get “stuck” in a new city I will at least make an effort to see something, anything.  Not this time.  I checked into my hotel, took a nap, watched some tv and then went back to bed until my flight this morning.  And my two flights today were wonderful.  I’m always happy to get back to the Gaborone airport.  I’m happy it’s my home airport because it’s probably the easiest airport I’ve ever been through.  And I’ve never been so happy to be back as I was this afternoon.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why don’t Africans ride bikes?

In Botswana I am the only person I know who rides a bike.  I don’t believe I’ve seen a single other person riding a bike since I moved there.  Of course, riding a bike in Gaborone is really taking your life in your hands because the drivers act as if they are racing in Formula One, while simultaneously competing in the slalom event at the Olympics as they duck in and out of tiny spaces between cars, and growling the entire way.  Batswana are very friendly people, and never really in a rush.  But put them behind the wheel of a car and suddenly it’s the running of the bulls- they are angry and moving like there is no tomorrow.

Here in Uganda I haven’t seen anyone riding a bike either.  However, it is important to note the emphasis in that last sentence was on the word riding.  I haven’t seen anyone riding a bike here.  Of course, I’ve seen tons of bikes.  Being pushed.  No, people don’t ride bikes here, they push them.  But, let’s be clear, they don’t push them for fun, they actually have a reason to push them.  Typically the bikes are heavily laden with giant loads of stuff.  That stuff ranges from multiple banana plants, plastic crates filled with glass soda bottles or even building materials.  Hauling is what bikes are used for in this region, not recreation.  Of course, when I see this I tend to wonder why a wheelbarrow or dolly or even a stroller might not be more efficient, but I haven’t taken these musings any further.

Today I found out why people push bicycles instead of riding them.  Because riding them is grueling.  You know in the movies about Africa when you see those dirt roads with rolling hills and banana trees growing along the side?  Those romantic dirt hills might as well be mountains.  Since they aren’t tarred there are a lot of loose rocks you battle, along with the mud from the rainy season which we are currently in the midst of.  All the while children are emerging from their houses to wave, shouting, “Hello muzungu (white person)” as you are huffing and puffing, praying you will make it up the hill without passing out or falling over.  The good news is, apparently my Mt. Kilimanjaro training has paid off.  My tour guide told me he almost never makes it the whole way through a tour without someone having to dismount and walk their bike up a hill.

After four hours navigating through Kampala, I finished my ride covered head to foot in dirt and exhausted, but very happy.  The ride itself was great and it was fun to see the city from another angle.  As part of the tour we visited a primary school.  It was probably the smallest school I had ever seen and was responsible for educating nearly 800 students.  The thing I liked the most about the school was the fact there was a poster of African leaders in one of the classrooms.  Take a look at the picture and then tell me which one doesn’t belong:

If it didn’t strike you right a way here’s a hint: Look in the top left hand corner. Was anyone else out there surprised to find out Barack Obama, President of the United States, is considered an Africa leader?  I know, shocked me as well.

We also went to the fish market where I got to see them auctioning off live fish:

As well as cleaning and preparing fish:

I also got to try jackfruit. Jackfruit is found in some parts of Southeast Asia, but it is also in Uganda, Tanzania, Cameroon and Mauritius.  It takes similar to a pineapple, but not as sweet.  I love pineapple, but I think if given a choice I would opt for the jackfruit:

Since Kampala is huge I couldn’t see the entire thing by bike.  At the market I got to see lots of women cleaning grasshoppers before frying them.  Here are some “cleaned,” pre-fried grasshoppers:

Then we ended the tour by taking a boat across Lake Victoria:

Overall it was a great tour and I’m glad I did it. Of course, next time I might take the time to think about the logistical feasibility before I commit to something like this.  Ok, who am I kidding?  No, I probably won’t.  I’ll just go and have fun away.  Speaking of which, tomorrow I’m doing a boda boda tour.  Fingers crossed that goes off without a hitch.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Relaxing Day on the Nile… and Quad Biking

Yesterday I talked about going to Jinja, Uganda to visit the source of the Nile.  Jinja was a nice break between gorilla tracking and teaching in Kampala.  The cottage and property where we stayed reminded me of the movie Out of Africa.  Here are a couple of views of the property:

And the cottage where we stayed:

Jinja is located on both sides of the Nile.  We were staying at a B&B on the west bank, but most of the activities were on the east bank.  Rather than driving 45 minutes through town to cross the dam, the B&B owner called us a boat which picked us up at the property’s dock and took us across the river:

During one of these river crossings we talked to our captain about the dams on the Nile.  He told us the dams had basically ruined the town.  I think he actually used the word ruined.  He said before the dam there was a giant island in the middle of the river which locals would farm to raise produce either for subsistence reasons or to sell.  After the dam was built the island flooded and disappeared, so their livelihood was destroyed.

He also mentioned that tourism was negatively affected by the building of the second dam because it made the river too calm, thus people who came for whitewater rafting and kayaking were turned away due to unfavorable conditions.  They are now looking at damming the Isimba Falls, about 15 miles from the existing Bujagali Hydroelectric Plant, which is predicted to put the nail in the coffin of adventure tourism in Uganda.  Since adventure tourism accounts for about 25% of visits to Uganda, that could mean a serious decline in tourism figures as a whole.

One thing our boat captain mentioned was that electricity does very little good for the people of Jinja.  He said most people couldn’t afford it; so to lose their livelihood (farming or tourism) and still not reap the benefits of what is replacing it (power) is like pouring salt in their wounds.

I did not participate in any of the white water rafting or kayaking while I was in Jinja as I developed a cold a few days ago and didn’t want to risk making it any worse.  But I did do my part to support the adventure tourism industry there.  I went quad biking (or ATVing or four-wheeling, whatever your pleasure may be in terminology).  I never quad biked before and was a little nervous about it at first, mostly because a friend of mine flipped over the front of her quad bike a few years ago and fractured several ribs.  Fortunately my experience was very smooth and I was able to see a village and the scenery around Jinja from a unique perspective.  I’m not sure if there is a Formula One equivalent for quad bikes, but I may have to investigate that.  Even if my skills aren’t there yet, at least I look the part:

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Rediscovering the Source of the Nile

As many people reading this blog are aware, I choose the title, Dr. Phelan, I Presume? in honor of Dr. David Livingstone, the explorer who spent the better part of two decades discovering Africa and searching for the source of the Nile River.  Despite his efforts, he died in 1873 before completing his mission. But it turns out that Dr. Livingstone, and several other explorers before him (John Hanning Speke and Sir Richard Burton were his main competitors) were correct.  All of them suspected Lake Victoria to be the source of the Nile, but none of them conclusively proved it.

Seeing as that I am in Uganda, home to Lake Victoria, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the Source of the Nile.  Lake Victoria is considered one of the African Great Lakes and was named after Queen Victoria by John Hanning Speke.  It is located mostly in Uganda, but Lake Victoria also extends across the borders into Kenya and Tanzania.  At the northernmost tip of Lake Victoria is the town of Jinja, which is where the While Nile begins to flow north into Egypt.
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but the town of Jinja and the Nile were rather anticlimactic.  The Nile was a very calm and quiet river, but considering that there are two hydroelectric dams situated within a few miles of one another I suppose that may be partially to blame.  The official Source of the Nile tourist attraction was even less exciting; it was mostly small stalls selling souvenirs (most of which were probably Made in China) and offering boat cruises.

We decided to skip the boat cruise, and just take a look at the water.
Here is the official Source of the Nile marker:

Here is a small restaurant/bar where you can eat and prepare or recover from your boat cruise:
And of course there is no such thing as a visit to a tourist attraction without buying some stuff you don’t need.  As you can see, here you can buy your “My name is not muzungu” (white person) t-shirt, beaded necklaces and bracelets, and if you are concerned you’ve gained weight on your vacation, there are three different stalls which will let you step on a scale and weigh yourself for 500 shillings (about 20 cents).  Of course, the scales aren’t on level ground, so I wouldn’t put a lot of stock into the reading if I were you:
Perhaps one of the more surprising things about the Source of the Nile is that there is a statue dedicated to Gandhi there.  Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa, which apparently had a significant impact on his political views.  I couldn’t find any record of Gandhi spending time in Uganda, but he requested some of his ashes be spread in the Nile, hence the statue.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Gorilla Tracking (Part 2)

I realize yesterday I talked a lot about the experience of tracking gorillas without actually showing a whole lot, so today I would like to remedy that oversight.  After reviewing the more than 600 photos I took during the one hour visit with the gorillas I selected a few of my favorites.  I hope you enjoy:

As I mentioned, we did our trek in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest:
Our lodge was within the Bwindi National Park itself, and as you can see it was very reminiscent of Gorillas in the Mist:

By the time we began our hike though it was bright, sunny and very hot out… and then we had to walk up all these hills.  In the middle (the darker trees vs the lighter hills) you see what is called the Heart of Uganda:

My very first glimpse of a gorilla:
Here is the youngest baby gorilla of the family we visited:
And one of the other babies:
When you complete your gorilla tracking experience successfully you “graduate” with a certificate of completion from the Uganda Wildlife Association (UWA).  I didn’t do this for the extra credential, but I’m definitely hanging this next to my Ducktorate from Disney University and my Bachelors from Hopkins.  However, I haven’t quite figured out what letters I should add to the end of my name.  EGT (Expert Gorilla Tracker) perhaps?:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Penetrating the Impenetrable Forest

Last Christmas when I was back in Baltimore visiting my parents and agonizing over whether or not I would be awarded the Fulbright Fellowship I spent one sleepless night looking at the top tourist destinations and experiences in Africa.  I figured I might as well hope for the best and daydream about some related trips in case I received the Fulbright.  Fortunately the Fulbright came through, and I am now crossing things off that list.

One of the most highly recommended “things to do” in Africa was to take a trip to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda to track mountain gorillas.  This is what I’ve been doing for the last few days. There are several reasons this is such a sought after trip.  First of all, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest survived the last Ice Age, when practically all of Africa’s other forests disappeared. It is also a rainforest, and because it survived so long the diversity of flora and fauna is greater here than elsewhere, even by normal rainforest standards.  But, while rainforest is great, the primary reason I came here was to track mountain gorillas.
There are fewer than 800 mountain gorillas alive.  Typically when you go to the zoo or see gorillas in captivity they are lowland gorillas.

The mountain gorillas live only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda; about half the population is in Uganda.  Due to the fact there are so few mountain gorillas there are a lot of measures in place to protect them.  For instance, you can’t just wander into the forest looking for them.  You must apply for a permit through the Ugandan government.  The permit is $500 and that’s just for permission to go into the forest.  It doesn’t include the money you pay for your travel to get there, your accommodations, trackers or guides.  Since the government doesn’t want too many people in the forest, only 24 permits are granted each day.  And there is a long waiting list to get your permit.  I put my name on the waiting list back in January and got the call in late September that there was a spot available.
I know I sometimes talk about seeing monkeys and other animals with such frequency that it seems as if they are just hanging around waiting for people to look at them.  And sometimes they are, especially in the case of the vervet monkeys who aren’t just “hanging around” my neighborhood, but also trying to become my new roommates.  But this is not the case with the mountain gorillas.  You have to work hard to see the gorillas.

On Saturday Catherine (a woman from the UK with whom I booked the trip through the safari company) and I were driven about 12 hours from Kampala (the capital of Uganda) to Bwindi, which is the southwestern most point in the country, right across the border from DRC.  The first 8 hours of the drive weren’t bad, but the last 4 hours was hellacious as it was over rocky, dirt roads, and it is rainy season, so there was lots of mud.

The next morning we assembled at the park headquarters for our briefing and assignment.  We were assigned to the Habinyanta gorilla family which consists of about 19 members, including about 3 babies.   The “trackers,” who work for the park service, had left an hour previously and were searching for the gorillas based upon where they had last been spotted the evening before.  Catherine and I were put into a group with 6 others, which is policy, as they do not allow groups of more than 8 to track for a given family.  We were then driven, along with the rest of the group, about an hour away (also through rocky, muddy, dirt roads) to the area from which we would start our hike.
As we began our hike we were advised to rent walking sticks and hire porters so they could “push you and pull you and carry you if you have a hard time.” I didn’t think I really had any need for a porter, but James was my savior. A lot of the terrain was steep and slippery, so it was good to have someone else to help with balance and climbing over fallen tree trunks, etc.  By the time we finished the two hour hike to the point where the trackers had found the gorillas we were dripping in sweat.

But it was totally worth it, because when we arrived this is what we saw:

The gorillas were relatively comfortable with humans, as you can see here; I was probably about 8-10 feet away:
Once I finish editing the 600+ pictures I took of the gorillas, I will post some more for you to see.  Sadly, the pictures don’t convey the experience at all, but they are a great memory of something very few people ever get to do.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

“Welcome to Uganda, everyone is very excited to have you here!”

I arrived in Uganda safe and sound this evening. My flight from Joburg to Entebbe International Airport, the only international airport in the country, was about an hour and a half late, but I made it nonetheless. I started to worry a bit while waiting for my luggage as my bag was the VERY LAST off the plane, but the good thing was by the time I exited the airport the crowd had dispersed.

It is interesting to travel through Africa and see the different airports. Some are practically brand new with all the bells, whistles and technology you can imagine. Others are little more than wooden shacks where everything is done by hand. The Victoria Falls International Airport which hosts the #1 tourist attraction in Sub-Saharan Africa leaves a lot to be desired. There they don’t have carts or baggage carousels, so they use a lot of baggage handlers to move all the luggage manually from the planes to the teeny-tiny arrivals hall (about the size of my parents’ living room) where travelers wait to attack the second they see a bag they think is theirs. I would rate Uganda’s airport as one of the better ones in Africa.

The guide, Tobas (I think ?), who is taking me on my weekend getaway met me at the airport and delivered me to my hotel for the evening. Tomorrow he will be driving me and my new friend, Catherine, whom I have yet to meet face-to-face, 10 hours into the Bwindi Impenetrable Rain Forest to go trekking for gorillas.

On the ride from the airport to my hotel Tobas told me, “Welcome to Uganda, everyone is very excited to have you here!” Everyone? Really? I’m guessing “everyone” is excited to have me here because the small fortune I paid for this excursion is giving a nice boost to the local economy. But, it turns out, his greeting was genuine. He continued on to explain, “I understand when you get back from the gorilla trekking you will be teaching at Makerere University. They are very excited about that.”

Generally when I travel I try to visit other universities with hospitality and tourism programs. I figure it gives me the opportunity to see how other programs work, potentially form relationships for study abroad programs and recruit graduate students who might be looking to come to the U.S. And since I like to reciprocate when someone agrees to host me, I always offer to guest lecture if they are interested. When I was in Kenya in September I spent a day at the University of Nairobi and taught a class there.

But I was surprised Tobas knew about my guest lecturing at Makerere because I hadn’t told anyone at the safari company about it. I was put in touch with someone at Makerere by the professor with whom I co-teach at UB. We emailed back and forth several times and I agreed to do a one hour lecture on the American tourist market in Africa. Shortly after we set a day and time, he emailed me back and told me there was a lot of interest in my visit; he was hoping I could spend a second, full day, doing more lectures to larger groups. I was surprised there was “so much interest” but I enjoy visiting other schools, so I was happy to do it. Upon hearing that Tobas was aware of this arrangement I guess there must be “interest.”

So, how did Tobas learn about my upcoming visit to Makerere? It turns out the owner of the safari company is a tourism professor there. And due to the relationship between the professor, the safari company and the Ugandan Tour Operators Association, my visit it advertised as a public lecture. I certainly don’t mind, but I guess it does put a little pressure on me. Of course, I could look at it from the opposite perspective; I wanted to make sure I had some tourism experiences here in Uganda before I spoke. So if I was the professor/safari company owner I would definitely want to make sure the American visitor had a good experience.

Regardless, Tobas seems to be a good guy; I think I am in good hands. If nothing else “everyone is very excited” that I’m here, so it sounds like this will be a great trip.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Heading to the Pearl of Africa

Tomorrow morning I am going to Uganda.  Uganda is a landlocked country is in East Africa surrounded by South Sudan to the north, the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west, Rwanda and Tanzania to the south and Kenya to the east:
Uganda is a peaceful country, but few people tend to realize that.  I think that is one of the major problems for Africa; the media and the images people have from past struggles are hard to erase.  I remember when I first went to Sierra Leone.  Before I departed everyone asked if I was worried about going to a war-torn country.  Despite the civil war and blood diamond trade having ended more than a decade previously, people were still under the impression it was a dangerous place with no redeeming qualities.  Uganda has a similar reputation.  I told a friend I was going to Uganda to guest speak at a university about tourism.  He asked, “Why would anyone go there for tourism?  All I think of is Idi Amin and the Libyan army killing all those people.”  It’s been 35 years and obviously some people haven’t forgotten.  For anyone unfamiliar with Idi Amin, if you’ve seen the movie The Last King of Scotland you’ve seen Hollywood’s portrayal of his handiwork.

And to be fair, Amin is not the only black mark on Uganda’s historical register.  Uganda has experienced several civil wars, been accused of human rights violations, had problems with child labor and slavery.  Child soldiers were also regularly used as fighters within the Lord’s Resistance Army.

However, from a tourism perspective, Uganda does have a lot to offer.  Winston Churchill travelled there in 1907 when he was a junior member of Parliament, 33 years before becoming Prime Minister.  Reflecting on his visit, he said, “For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for the profusion of brilliant life- bird, insect, reptile, beast- for vast scale- Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa.” And so, for the last 100+ years Uganda has been referred to as the Pearl of Africa.

I’m looking forward to spending the next 10 days in Uganda.  I plan to go trekking for gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Jungle, journey across the equator, visit the Jane Goodall Institute and learn how to talk to the chimpanzees (I was born in the month of the monkey, so I’m hoping this gives me an edge), see Lake Victoria and the mouth of the Nile River, and I will be spending two days at Makerere University giving several guest lectures to their tourism classes and professors.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Necessity is the Mother of All Invention: The Neighborhood Kids Find Toys (Part 2)

About a week or so ago I wrote about the kids in my neighborhood with whom I was engaged in a slight power struggle. Since the last episode, the kids have managed to find other ways of entertaining themselves without placing my property (or my sanity) in harm’s way. But after confiscating their former play toy (a metal pole which they ripped off the side of my house) I thought I would be typecast into the role of evil villain and instill fear in their hearts every time I emerged from my secret lair. This reputation seemed to last… about five minutes. I guess that’s the thing about kids, they have short memories and don’t really hold grudges.

Yesterday on my way home from work as I was entering my housing complex a friend was on her way out. She and I stopped and chatted in the middle of the parking lot briefly. As we were talking we could hear the neighborhood kids shouting and running around. Then it became quiet, for a second, then there was a lot of commotion, followed by more shouting and repetitive banging. We turned around to find the kids had pulled the garbage cans out of the storage areas and into the parking lot. Apparently they had found sticks and were using them to play the drums on the sides of the cans. That certainly explains why our garbage cans are in such poor shape.

Brenda and I just shook our heads and continued our conversation. The next thing we knew the kids were beside us, pointing sticks in our faces with fish heads perched on top:

I have no idea what type of fish these were, but as you can see they have some giant teeth. And, the kids are pretty proud of their teeth too:

As the Greek Philosopher Plato said, “necessity is the mother of all invention.” I have always understood that statement, but I’ve never seen it quite so prevalent as it is here. The kids don’t have toys, so they play with the trash. We don’t have tape, so we use gum to hang things on the walls. The grocery store where I shop has four cash registers, but only one credit card machine. Each time a customer wants to use a credit card the cashiers and patrons work together to pass the machine from one check-out stand to the next. Apparently, the grocery store only has one pen as well, so the same ritual is used so that the receipt can be signed. My big house is currently in the midst of a clothesline construction project; he can’t hang his clothes outside to dry as the goats try to eat them. Third World problems, I know. But sometimes it makes me a little sad that a continent with so many natural resources has to exist in such a frugal state, particularly when I see kids playing with trash.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Quality Assurance

One of the best things about being a professor is encompassed in the phrase “academic freedom.” For anyone reading this who isn’t a professor or graduate student, academic freedom means that academics are permitted to research and teach without any significant limitations. As long as the professor teaches the objectives in the course he can use whatever methods (ethically and within reason of course) to do so. That’s why if four different professors teach the same course, they can get away with using completely different assignments, tests and grading methods.

Due to the academic freedom mantra, this means many professors often have little if any idea as to what their colleagues are teaching or how they are doing it. Since I am the Associate Department Chair I see the syllabi from my faculty and may sit in on classes from time to time, but if I wasn’t an administrator I wouldn’t be given that kind of access.

Here at the University of Botswana academic freedom exists and is readily championed, but there is a second belief system which is just as prevalent, if not more so: “quality assurance.” When I first learned about quality assurance back in July I was really excited by the prospect. I was told that all the faculty in the department would get together several times before and during the semester to give input on one another’s classes. Hearing this, I was jealous as I wish I had this kind of input back home. I’ve tried at other times in several institutions to encourage professors to include particular concepts in their classes to better prepare students for future coursework (i.e my classes). However, each time I’ve requested someone to include an extra topic I’ve been met with pushback: “I don’t have time.” “That’s not in my syllabus.” “I don’t know anything about that topic.” I’ve even offered to go into someone else’s class and teach a certain module and still haven’t received a welcoming response. So when I heard about quality assurance here I was gung-ho, until of course I entered my first quality assurance meeting.

My first quality assurance meeting was back in July. The six professors and lecturers in the Tourism & Hospitality Management department met to examine one another’s course syllabi. I quickly realized my idea of quality assurance was worlds apart from the accepted standard. Rather than providing suggestions for topics to include in the course or feedback on assessment rubrics, it was a communal proofreading session. The better part of an hour was spent on one particular syllabus debating whether the comma went before or after the word "and." I cannot tell you whether a consensus was ever reached as I eventually became so disenchanted with the whole situation I tuned out and when asked for an opinion I conceded, “Sounds good to me.” At that point I was so worn down they could have been asking me if I was in favor of drowning puppies for fun and I would have agreed.

Recently we had another quality assurance meeting. Apparently I did not learn my lesson the first time, and entered this meeting bright eyed and bushy tailed only to have the wind quickly sucked out of my sails yet again. The agenda called for everyone to have their final exams written so that they could be reviewed by the group. Expecting to receive recommendations about the rigor or wording of questions I immediately realized this was another exercise in editing. My graduate students readily brag/commiserate/dread my love of the English language and resulting tendency towards Nazi-esque editing. As such, the only issue with my final exam was the fact I wrote November 2013 Examination Period on the exam cover sheet instead of November/December 2013 Examination Period. Sadly, not everyone’s final was as straightforward. Ms. Comma from the July quality assurance meeting had several dozen grammatical errors which took a good chunk of time during the meeting. But the real impasse came when the group could not decide whether Ms. Comma’s exam should utilize bullet points or alphabetic sub-questions.

While I think quality assurance is a great idea and I wish universities would utilize this practice to actually improve their courses, I’m disappointed the concept isn’t better applied here. While I am here at UB I will gladly contribute what I can to assuring quality by providing my editorial expertise, but since I likely won’t be able to institute a quality assurance component back home I will be satisfied with my academic freedom.