-Where were you born?
Bologna, Italy. My Israeli father and American mother were living there for school, so no, I’m not actually Italian. I grew up in the States with frequent trips to Israel.
-In which country and city are you living now?
-Are you living alone or with your family?
I live with my boyfriend and some roommates.
-How long have you been living in Uganda?
I’ve been in Uganda since fall of 2006, with a brief stint in Kigali before that.
-What is your age?
27 in about two weeks!
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Uganda?
I finished my masters in journalism and really didn't know what to do with myself. At the time, my brother was working in Rwanda so I went there with the plans of just visiting. A friend from my journalism program knew an editor of a local paper in Kigali, so I tried my hand at journalism there. I loved it, even though I had hated journalism school. That paper didn't really have the resources to pay me, so after I'd gotten a few clips and a feel for working in the media in Africa the editor made a few calls from me to some people in Uganda and then I had a job. I moved to Kampala shortly thereafter.
In a United Nations 4 x 4, I got the rare privilege of the front seat (usually journos are delegated to an overcrowded bench in the back).
-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
The initial visa is simple – you can buy one at the airport. But it's single entry, for a maximum of three months. I had actually tried to send my passport to the Ugandan Embassy in Washington DC, which can grant you a year long multi entry visa. But they lost my passport. When I asked the woman at the embassy what I should do, she said, "I don't know dear, just follow your heart." So I got a new passport and just entered Uganda on a tourist visa. Once you're in Uganda, you can get something called a "special pass", or a student visa, or a work visa. None of them are that difficult to get, but they are expensive and require lots of queuing at the Immigration Office. If you are polite to the point of obsequious, it helps to get your paper work processed faster.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
As a journalist, I doubt I'll have full medical coverage anytime soon. Doctor's visits for small things aren't too expensive – about Ush 30,000 at the expat clinic ($17) and then I have Medjet – an emergency evacuation insurance plan. When I go to "hardship spots" a lot of times my agency will temporarily insure me.
-How do you make your living in Uganda? Do you have any type of income generated?
I got my initial job in Kampala through my contact in Kigali. Then I've just slowly moved up the press ladder – starting with local media and freelancing, and then doing occasional photography work for the Associated Press, and then doing more work for them. I now also work for the UN news agency IRIN. In terms of getting a job, the most important thing for me was to show up on time and do good work and then get more work from the previous work I'd done.
I can't really speak for fields other than journalism, but I would suggest to aspiring foreign correspondents that they do start at a local paper. You learn a lot about the media landscape, make friends, and figure out the ins and outs of the finer points of internal and regional politics. Once you've been there for a while, if you do good, consistent work, eventually, you will be somewhere that news is breaking while no one else is there. That's the real key to getting a break in the foreign press: a lot of established foreign correspondents may not chase a smaller story, but if you do, you'll be the only one there to cover it. And that will then lead to bigger stories.
I also have a blog and a website for the purpose of promoting my work. I've gotten cold calls offering assignments from both sites so I can't emphasize enough the value of promoting your own work. No one else is going to do it for you. I would guess this applies to people in other fields as well – you never know when someone will need a development consultant or whatnot, and the first thing an employer might do to find someone on the ground is a basic google.
-Do you speak the local language and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
English is the official language in Uganda, which means anyone who went to school speaks some English. But there are local languages as well. Kampala is in the Central region of Uganda where they speak Luganda. Every region has a handful of dialects. I know enough Luganda to not get ripped off at the market and to be able to greet someone politely. In every place I go to report, one of the first things I do is make sure I know how to greet people in their local language, ask if I can take a picture, and thank them profusely. This makes a huge difference in my work. It's a sign of respect for the locals if you take the time to do that. Any time you invest in learning local the language will benefit you excessively.
In terms of local customs, I would say the most important thing is greeting. This may be only a superficiality, but it really does help in showing people that you respect them and are invested in what they have to say.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Of course I miss home and family! I just got Internet at home and that really facilitates me being more in touch with them so I'm happy about that. I've gone home every year at the year's end, and I've also gone to meet my family in Israel a few times. My mom is planning to come out to Uganda for the first time this upcoming summer and I'm looking forward to that.
While I do of course miss them, I've made a lot of friends in Kampala and that feels like its own version of home. I also think that it would be much, much harder if my boyfriend weren't with me. But social life in Kampala is great – there's a really big expat community and a busy nightlife. There's also a lot of sports for people who like that, though I would still say the primary sport is drinking. It's easy to go away for the weekend to a few places close by, but the really nice destinations in Uganda are a multiple hour drive away.
I took this picture while working in Kisoro, on the Uganda-Congo border, covering the Congolese refugee crisis. This was my first picture syndicated by the Associated Press.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
I really don't know. It depends on the ebb and flow of my work, of course. And as soon as I do figure it out, I'll let people know. My boyfriend and my family are eagerly waiting for the day when I am ready to make some plans.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
I rent a beautiful and spacious flat with three bedrooms for about $200 per bedroom. I don't live in the nicest neighborhood in Kampala, but it is still very very nice. The biggest expat contingent of embassy people and aid workers lives in a neighborhood called Kololo, but rent there is practically what you'd pay in the States. I'd say paying about $200 a month is pretty average, and it can of course be less and of course be more. But for that much money, you'll have a nice place to live in a safe neighborhood, though you probably would have to pay two or three times as much to live in Kololo.
Local rents of course cost much less, but if you want a place with good security, running water and power, expect to pay about that much. I actually wouldn't recommend paying less than that because then you'll be living in a neighborhood without a lot of expats and you stick out like a sore thumb, becoming more of a target for robberies and mugging. In other words, if you value your laptop, or have any other expensive equipment, try and live close to the center of town in a neighborhood where you aren't the only person who has his or her own computer.
-What is the cost of living in Uganda?
The cost of living is higher than you might expect. It's of course less than in the States or the UK or Europe, but it's more than it would be in a less developed country than Uganda. You can do Uganda on the cheap – a beer costs about Ush 3,000 ($1.70) and a local meal about the same, but a meal at a restaurant that serves continental food will run about Ush 10,000 – 20,000 ($6 – 12), not including drink. There are a lot of places to eat out in Kampala and that's something that can really kill your budget.
The other thing that's pretty expensive is transportation. To get to the center of town, where there are businesses and shops and whatnot, but no one really lives, will cost about Ush 500 on a matatu (minibus like public transport; $0.40) but will take about an hour. On a motorcycle taxi, a boda boda, it will take about ten or fifteen minutes and cost Ush 2,000 – 4,000 ($1.50 to $2.50). I'm lazy, impatient, and always in a hurry so I spend a lot of money on bodas getting from one place to the next.
Other expenses people don't really think about before they come to Uganda are airtime (credit on your phone to make calls) and internet. My office pays part of my airtime, and my job requires me to make a lot of phone calls, so I end up spending as much as Ush 10,000 to 20,000 per day on airtime alone ($6 – 12). A lot of people spend much less on airtime than me, as little as Ush 5,000 per week ($2.50), but if you do any kind of work that requires a lot of phone calls, plan to spend a lot of money on airtime.
Internet is also expensive, unless you have an office connection to use (though these can be frustratingly slow). At an internet café, you’ll pay about Ush 3,000 per hour ($1.50) and this can add up really, really quickly. We just got internet at home. The initial set up was a lot of money – Ush 290,000 ($170 – which is about the same price as a month's rent, so in local terms, that's a lot of money) and then we pay according to how much we use it. At the end of the day, I’m saving money by having a home connection and not having to pay for transport to town, and it's much much more convenient, but if you're just in Uganda for a short contract, it doesn't make sense to pay that much money for the initial set up.
-What do you think about the Ugandans?
Ugandans are famous for their hospitality. They're always very nice. In terms of how someone will treat you, expect lots of chants of "Mzungu!" white person, every time you pass a kid on the side of the road. But this doesn't mean they aren't nice or hospitable or willing to speak with you. They are incredibly kind and welcoming to foreigners. As a journalist, this makes my work much easier than in a country where expats are the subject of scorn or distrust.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Uganda?
I love living in Uganda because I take a motorcycle to work, buy an avocado for 10 cents, and cover the biggest stories in the country and often the region. I work for major news agencies and publications just two years out of a masters program – something that might not be the case if I were trying to work in New York.
Initially I loved it because everything was new and different, and even after that has worn off, I can't pass up the kind of opportunity or lifestyle I have here.
Living here can, and does, grate on you. Things that should be simple errands can take hours or days. The power can go out when you need to charge your laptop. You might just want to walk down the street and be anonymous instead of hearing chants of "Mzungu!" You can get used to all those things, but that doesn't mean they're annoying from time to time.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Uganda?
One thing this questionnaire doesn't ask is a region specific question that I often get from friends and blog readers: malaria treatment. Malaria is quite prevalent in this region and you do need to have a plan for it, even if you aren't going to take prophylaxis. For people coming to Uganda short term, I recommend taking prophylaxis. Malaria is awful, especially the first time you get it, and can knock you on your back for weeks or even a month. If you're only here for three months, you don't want to spend a month being ill. If you're moving here more long term, I recommend you take prophylaxis for maybe the first few months. It's awful to be that sick while you're looking for a place to live or still getting adjusted to Uganda. After you've been here for awhile, I don't think you should continue taking them. They're expensive and bad for your liver. I stopped taking them awhile ago, but incidence rates of malaria in Kampala are low, so when I go upcountry for work, especially if I don't know that I'll be sleeping under a mosquito net, I do take them for a few days before, and then during and a few days after. Also, a lot of doctors who may give you a prescription in the States for a prophylaxis called Doxycycline do not always know/mention that it adversely affects birth control. Ladies, beware!
In general, I would say, you won't be able to prepare for everything so don’t try to. Just let yourself experience whatever comes your way. The more you know about regional history and politics the less likely you are to say something stupid. You will say and do things people here perceive as stupid, though, no matter how much you prepare. So plan on laughing along with people as they laugh at your inability to complete basic tasks.
Read local papers every day. Okay, I'm a journalist so I'm biased about this, but really, it's useful. You'll be able to follow conversations and know what's going on in the country, and even have something to speak about if you want to start a conversation with a stranger.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Uganda?
My blog is www.ugandascarlettlion.blogspot.com. There's a lot about regional news and politics, as well as life in Uganda.
Ugandan Insomniac – a lovely blog written by a Ugandan with insight into life and love and other randomness in Kampala.
Citizen Uganda - a great blog that features local news analysis and other Ugandan blogs
Daily Monitor – local daily paper, the one not owned by the government
New Vision – local daily paper, the one that is owned by the government