Africa is hard. I never thought the politics of water could be so corrupt and dangerous. After being mislead and manipulated by every person on every step of my time in Uganda, I jumped off the slippery slope of expat craziness back onto firmer ground. I was given a crew full of criminals, third-hand equipment, and a flimsy “support” system that consisted of a number of shady characters. I enjoy a good challenge and adventure, but getting thrown into all of this was too much. Water wars may not exist yet on a large scale, but I got caught up in the crossfire of a small one, and am glad to be home alive.
Corruption is a vicious cycle and reality of doing business in many parts of the world. So is poverty, and the two are closely linked and amplify each other. If you had to fight each day just to get water and stay alive, what would you do to survive? Many of the people I worked with grew up with the terror that they would be kidnapped from school and forced to fight for the Lord’s Resistance Army. If they were not fighting in the war, they were hiding from it by eeking out a miserable existence in the bush. The civil war ended in 2004, but the mentality of “I will lie, steal, cheap and solicit bribes to ensure the survival of my family” lives on.
This opportunistic mentality is extremely prevalent in the developing world, and is manifested overtly and also very subtly. I saw it in a priest who conned and stole donations from American churches, my employees that siphoned fuel out of our vehicles, and government officials that concocted an elaborate four-month plan to rip the company off. November and December quickly became the two worst months of my life because I blew open a ring of stealing and lying that involved my own employees and clients. As a result, a water well was sabotaged, my crew and I were (unsuccessfully) cursed with AIDs by tribal elders, and I was shot at. After this I had the pleasure of going to an even more unstable part of the world.
South Sudan is a baby of a country, only three years old and racked by growing pains. When I drove into the country from Uganda, the feeling of volatility and danger was overpowering. I had never seen so many firearms, and even spotted a shirtless and shoeless child, grinning, with an AK47 strapped to his chest. The danger of the situation was punctuated by some humor. Uganda and South Sudan drive on opposite sides of the road, and there is no marked point where drivers are to switch driving orientation. A spectacle of chaos and comedy takes place as the border crossing narrows down to a bridge, and drivers from all over East Africa vie for position. The site of a South Sudanese soldier wearing a hello kitty t-shirt while chain smoking and apathetically directing traffic is a site I will never forget. I really wanted to take a video, but stifled my laughter and pretended to look angry like everyone else. My stay in South Sudan was short and well timed, considering it has tragically fallen into civil war in the last month.
If all of this sounds pretty negative, that’s because it was difficult. On top of this mess, my passport got held hostage by a greedy Ugandan immigration official fishing for a bribe. I did not get it back until four days before my flight, which was pretty nerve racking. Somehow, government officials from the stealing ring I discovered found out when my flight was leaving, and I got incessant phone calls telling me I was going to be detained at the airport. It was all a bluff, but frightening nonetheless. When the plane crossed into Ethiopian airspace, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and put my head down on my tray table. 24 hours later I got off the plane in Dulles and ate a huge bagel with cream cheese, and it was definitely the right choice for a welcome home snack.
I want to go back to Africa someday. There are 55 countries in the continent, and it is a fascinating place. Although I had a mostly horrible experience, there were some good parts, and I learned more about what matters to me personally and professionally. I’ll never forget the wildlife and the larger than life sunsets over the savanna. The kids were great too, and I (mostly) loved attracting a huge crowd of them, and giving them all a handshake. For now, I need to focus on reestablishing myself back home. Two years in Peru turned into more than six years out of the country. I’ve had other wake up calls abroad that I chose to hit the snooze button for, but I listened this time. It was time to come home, and I’m glad to be here. I’m not sure what comes next, but I now want to see what I can do, in and for my own country.