my uganda driving permit: or how i made the ura my bitch

well. sorta.

the epic-drama of procuring my ugandan driving permit follows.
get ready to stand in line, be frustrated, take motorcycle taxis like its your job, and take one for the team care of the ugandan revenue authority and all its bureaucratic nonsense… its quite the ride/saga.


i thought i had been so clever. i had procured the paperwork that i thought i and even filling it out before going to where i thought i was supposed to go.

one mildly harrowing boda trip all the way out to nakawa to face technologies down, i was truly feeling smug when i saw how short the line was for the main window.

just to be on the safe side, i went to the information desk to make sure i was standing in the right line. i showed the nice lady my paper (singular) that i had filled out, saying that i already had the form and just wanted to stand in the proper line for a foreign exchange of licenses.

the woman behind the desk glanced at my paper (singular) and told me that i was i the wrong place.


she instructed me that i didn’t want to be at face technologies (yet) but at the ura (uganda revenue authority) which is somehow close by. grumble.

so i walked back outside to hire another boda–when i asked him if he knew where the ura was, he said yes. so i asked him again, to be sure.

“i need to go to the ura, you know it?”

“yes madam.”

“you know where ura is?”


“okay, we go.”

we got back out to the main road (oh, i don’t know, 100 meters away from were we just started) and he stops and asks some other boda drivers where the ura is. they point back toward kampala so he turns that way–only to stop at every.single.boda.stage. for the next few kilometers. asking if he is going the right way.

we finally make it to the ura complex, where he is not allowed to take his motorcycle beyond the gate, so i pay him and walk into the madness that is the ura compound.

i have no idea where i am, or what i’m doing.
and what should one do in this situation?
stop another woman and ask her for help.

only, i didn’t see any women.
so i asked some random well-dressed-dude to help me out.

he pointed me in the right direction–but at this point i felt like the lost boda driver because i would go about 15 feet and ask someone else for directions because there are several different departments in this one massive building that used to be a train depot of some sort.

i finally found the proper room with all the lines in it that i would need to stand in, and stood in the one i thought looked like the one i should be in. (the fellow in front of me had the same paper (singular, still) in his hand so i figured i was on the right track. thank the lord for the powers of observation!)

i stood in this line for maybe forty minutes.
and i should mention that standing in line in uganda is not like standing in line in the united states.

in the states people like their personal space–leaving plenty of room behind and in front–and god forbid if you should ever get close enough to touch!

but not here. we were packed up against each other, so as to discourage cutting. i guess. or just lack of desire for personal space. (nature or nurture? a different thought for a different day, perhaps.)

so i’m standing there smashed between two blokes and reading the most recent copy of “the nation” that had just come from the states and practicing my patience.

no one is actually behind the counter we are waiting in line for, but this doesn’t seem to bother anyone, so i don’t let it bother me either. i trust that someone has to know what they are doing, and it sure as heck isn’t me–so i’ll just follow the mass mob.

this was a good idea.

suddenly, with no discernible warning, the line crushed forward (i was not prepared for this, i was deep into an article on green-socialism and what obama can do about it. fascinating stuff.) and took me with it.

a woman had appeared behind the counter and was taking papers as people shoved them toward her. the line had pretty much deteriorated at this point.

so, in the spirit of “when in rome-do as the romans do” i disregarded the line and pressed forward toward the counter with my paper in front of me and clutching my purse to my body.

i triumphantly handed the woman my paper (single, remember) and stood there looking at her, waiting for instruction.

she handed it back and pointed to the long counter to my left.

i was defeated. “what.”
she pointed and said “fill the other form first.”
and i was then pushed aside by the rest of the line behind me.
at least it was in the direction of the counter i needed…

at this counter there were four lines.
i took a moment to collect my thoughts and create a plan of attack for finding this mystery form that i needed.

i was ready to take the plunge when i felt someone tap on my arm. i turned to my left to see who it was–and it was a security guard on duty. he handed me a piece of paper and said “i think you need this.”

and he was correct. he had observed the whole scene and decided to help me out. while standing there he also told me to attach a picture with the “staple machine” to the form he had just given me.
thankfully i had brought a passport picture with me (thanks gann!) so was able to do that before getting back in line.
i filled the form out while waiting in line again, much to the amusement to those around me.

i was told more than once to go outside to the table to fill the form and then come back and get in line.
i think my actual response to some well meaning individual was “like hell!”

i finally reached the front of this line again and was waiting to hand the lovely lady my papers (PLURAL) again. she had taken several from the people in front of me and was entering their data into the computer.

she handed a stack of papers from the previous group to someone waiting in line who turned around and began reading names–then people would take their paperwork.

the lady soon printed out more forms for all of the people she’d entered data for–which she practically crumpled in a ball and handed through her little window to whomever grabbed the string of papers first.

i then handed her my paper and watched the fellow who’d taken the papers from her struggle to tear them apart along the shoddy perforation without ripping the papers and also read the names on them. however, once he found his own, he handed the stack to the next nearest person and disappeared somewhere.

my forms were in with the next set–the gentleman who was reading this groups of papers totally butchered my name and looked embarrassed about it. i consoled him by saying there is no way i’d be able to stand there and read all of their names. so he shouldn’t worry.

we were then given our string of papers to separate and pass out as well–someone with a sense of humor handed me the long line of papers so i looked through them, found mine, separated it out from the rest (of course it was right in the middle of about fifty!) and handed each side of the remaining papers to two people standing near me.

i gave the chuckling group of men a smile and trotted away.


after this incident i got outside and asked my friend the security guard what i was supposed to do next. he told me to go down the hill to the bank to pay a fee, then to come back up here.


so i walked down to the bank to stand in line with the same fifty people i’d been standing in line with all morning.
however, standing in line at the bank seems to be more civilized. people actually regarded the lines and conversations were subdued and quiet. it was also air conditioned in the bank–

all of this was a welcome change from the warehouse feel of the previous building where people were shouting at one another and carrying on conversations from one side of the room to the other.

i paid my fee, plus the bank charge (bleh) and then trudged back up the hill to the same room as before. mercy.

i had the pleasure standing with the same people in line yet again (i’d finished the socialism article by this point and had moved on to beginning my egypt travel guide) in the line just next to the one we’d been in not so long ago.

in line two (where we were now) we handed our papers to the fellow behind the desk who looked them over, asked for the receipt from the bank, stamped everything and pointed us to the next line (that would be line three) just next to this one.

so i stood in that line as well.
i hand my papers to this fellow behind the counter who asked for my receipt, stamped everything again and then sent me to the long counter on the left side of the room. again.

only this time i knew where to stand (someone else in line three let me know. thanks.)

i pressed my way to the counter, disregarding this line (no one else seemed to be paying it any heed) and handed my very-stamped paperwork and receipt to the man behind the counter.

he took all of my things and asked me for my american permit.
so i dug around in  my purse and handed it to him.

he took everything and disappeared around the corner somewhere–much to the chagrin of the other members of my line… he was gone for about five minutes but did eventually come back.

he handed everything back to me and asked for my work permit.

crap. crap. crap.

i’d given my only photocopy to the bank manager in kotido so he wouldn’t shut my account, and therefore didn’t have a copy of it on me. i didn’t even have my passport on me so he could make a copy.

crap. crap. crap.

so he tells me that he can do nothing for me until i bring the work permit.

luckily, god loves me, and i was meeting gann for lunch pretty soon–so i called her and asked for a copy of my work permit.

i hoped another boda back to lugogo for our delightful lunch–stowed my work permit copy safely in  my planner–and then caught yet another boda toward nakawa for my new home, the ura.

(at this point i’d started calling the ura bureaucratic hell and even asked my boda driver to take me to bureaucratic hell know that he would probably just think he didn’t understand my english. “wangee?” (what?) he asked… so i asked for the ura, and we were off.

i bee-lined for the line i’d left about an hour before, determined to get as much done as possible on this permit. (it also looked like rain, and riding a boda in the rain was just not on my list of things to do that day.)

the dude saw me coming and took my things over the heads of those in front of me (sorry. but not really.) he stapled it all together, stamped every piece of paper and said “three days.”

this took a total of about thirty seconds.

i stood there in shock. did that really just take half a minute?
what does “three days” mean?
so i asked about the three days part.

perhaps the fellow thought i was an idiot, or that my english was bad (scoff) so he said really slowly as if talking to a small child, “THREEEEEE. DAAAAAYS.”

so i thanked him in luganda, still not knowing what in the world three days means, and then asked, in the same tone he’d just spoken to me in, “WHAAAATTTT ABOUTTT THREEEE DAYS?”

this drove the point home and he spoke to me like a human being, and told me that in three days time (thursday) i could go to face technologies for my “snap” to be taken and to do my other paper work.

so i left. knowing that i’d accomplished all i could do until THURSDAY.

i boaded back to the house and took what i found to be a well deserved nap!

fast forward to thursday mid-morning:

i had been in katikamu for a few days and took a taxi back to kampala and went directly to the office so as to not have to traipse all around tarnation (kampala) with my luggage. next stop–face technologies.

i haggled with the boda driver for an extended 10 minute period and finally reached a price i felt okay with (still more than i should have paid. ugh.) and arrived at face technologies after a close call involving a mini-bus full of white people and a matatu (local taxi).

i went directly to information again since this served me well on my last visit.

i was instructed to the longish line outside, so i went and stood in it.

all of my paper work was taken and i was told to have a seat along the benches and wait for my name to be called.

i had only figured out one clue on my nation crossword puzzle by the time my “name” was called. (he skipped everything and just called me “freeman” but who can blame him?)

he handed me my papers and told me to stand outside room ‘J’.
so i did.
once inside room ‘J’ i sat down across from a fellow who took a long time to look at my papers and then took a long time to look at my face.
he asked me a lot of questions that had nothing to do with my driving permit and nothing to do with anything pertinent to receiving this permit.
in short, he was chatting me up.

my responses were mostly all lies or half-truths. like- i’m an artist living in karamoja to make sand sculptures and learn beading. or-i’m actually engaged to a massive man named mac from new zeland who can bench press a full grown cow. right.

he took my picture about fourteen times, none of which turned out well… he asked me which one i wanted to use for my permit so i chose the one that i thought was the least awful. he did some fiddling on the computer, asked me if he could come visit me in karamoja, and finally printed my paperwork, handed it to me and instructed me to stand in line at counters 1-4.

while standing in line at counters 1-4 i noticed that he did not use the picture i chose. punk.

finally reaching the counter i handed my paperwork to a lady who looked it all over, asked me a few questions–tapped around on the computer, stamped every document and scrap of paper i had, printed another copy (that looked exactly the same as the one i had just received) of my forms, stamped them–and sent me to stand in line for counters 5-9. so i did.

at this counter the lady took both sets of papers, scribbled on them, tapped about on the computer, stamped every single page and told me to go stand in line for counters 10-12. so i did.

this was the best counter.
i walked right up to it and was just asked for money.
which i gave the lady.
who gave me a receipt and said that my permit would be ready in one weeks time.

having had been given a heads up on this situation i had a letter okaying someone else to pick up my permit–so we had a short conversation about how to handle that, she complimented my earrings, and i was on my way.

a week later i received a text that my permit had been picked up successfully and it was traveling back to kotido with someone else coming this way.

so i have a uganda permit in my hot little hands.
i will never complain about the dmv in the states again.
at least for a while.
after all of that, i wonder if it will even ever come in handy. i know that “following the rules” is a good idea–and if anyone ever demands to see it i won’t be sent to jail for not having one. but one does have to wonder…

here for your enjoyment, a dr-ed version of my permit–i had way too much fun doing this on this site.

i wish it actually looked like this...


when it rains at dusk (reflections on ‘home’ 1.2)

july 6, 2009 — around 6:30 p.m. — kotido, uganda (karamoja)

todays dusk is cloudy.
the mountain toror is only half visible,  half being covered in a blue-gray cloud.
i hope it is gifting rain on the villages at the base of the mountain.
we all need it.

it is at a cloudy-cool-dusk that is threatening rain that karamoja seems to become something different.
it is during these rare cloudy-cool-dusks when i am out walking that perhaps i realize more fully where i am.

more so than when the sun beats down on my foreign skin.
perhaps it is too hot to consider myself foreign when it is too hot.
too sunny.
and when it is dark–the darkness covers all differences.
it is easy to forget where i am when it is dark.
easy to forget the different contours of the land. easy to forget the poverty and hunger around me. easy to forget my foreignness.

but these dusks.
it is as if the low blue-gray clouds hold my differences closer to my face.
it keeps them from vanishing into the perfectly cloudless blue sky–from flying over the mountain toror to the west with the stones the elders throw casting all bad things away from karamoja…

i look up into the clouds, half asking them to let me alone–i just need to go to the market–half asking them if they know what i’m doing here, i seem to forget easily.
they make no response. neither movement nor drop of rain. just silent blue-gray clouds, hang low and not raining–holding my difference too close to my eyes for comfort.

but i love these dusks.
as i walk home from the market i come close to the mosque–and hear prayers going on within.
it is then i feel the first raindrops.
“allah akbar”

i stop to listen to the call to remind the faithful to pray.

children stare.

an old woman laughs and asks if i am lost.
“auntie, lost?”

“mam. alosio lo ere.”
“no, i am going home.”
i nod toward the compound where my home is.”

she turns around and looks that direction, looks back at me  laughs again, and says with humor and question in her voice:
“auntieeee! ere?!”
“auntie! home?!”

“ee, ere.”
“yes, home.”

so i walk, home, when it rains at dusk in karamoja.
home. despite my forigenness.
home. despite my lack of understanding.
home. because love is here.

sisters at sliding rock

sisters at sliding rock

“some things you need to know”

this past wednesday evening i was sitting on the ‘duke house’ veranda at katikamu (where i was in 2007) waiting for the primary and secondary schools to let out for the day.

while waiting, i was doing some writing about doing laundry at katikamu with josephine and a mama washing the priest’s vestments. but i will have to report those deep thoughts some other time.

the primary school lets out for the day before the secondary school does–so i was also glancing up every once in a while to see primary students peeking at me over the hedges. some waved, some just giggled and ran away.

much to my surprise there were three boys who saw me, got excited, and ran toward the veranda. as soon as they got within a reasonable distance they started to say, “madam thera! you are back! you are back!!”

[even though jen and i came back to uganda to visit last may, it was while school was still out for holiday so we did not get to see many of our primary students–so essentially i havene’t seen these boys in two years!]

they reported that they are now in p7, while shaking my hand with gusto–becoming “big men” in their own eyes as the move up towards secondary school.

we were joined by three girls from different primary grades who had come to see what the hullabulu was all about.

i told the gathered crowd that i was writing a blog post–and explained what a blog post is. essentially i said its like a letter that you write and put on the internet and that i do this so you all ‘at home’ can know what is going on my in life.

their interest was piqued.

so i asked if they would like to help me write a blog post.
we agreed that they could pick the content and that i would do the typing.
after typing the introduction i was also instructed to say what i was typing as i typed it. because this madam “types just too fast.”

first i was told that to be proper i should say that i am doing well.
and ask how you are.
so, how are you? are you fine?
as for me, i am fine.

what follows are some things that you need to know, according to six st. joseph’s primary school students. we hope you enjoy.


day students from st. joseph’s primary school at katikamu parish, uganda would like to share the following with you:

the cutest journalists ever

the cutest journalists ever

their favorite subjects include: english, religious education, ALL of p7 (wow), math, social studies and science.

their favorite sports- football, volleyball, netball, tennis, basketball, rugby

“madam thera, you tell them to come and visit, and if you were to come to uganda we would be so happy to see you.”

grace nakalema (p3)

grace nakalema

grace nakalema

grace nakalema is in primary four. her favorite color is green and if she were a fruit she would be a mango. just because.

nava goleti

nava goleti

nava goleti

nava’s favorite color is red (whoo!) and she is in primary 5.

serugo ronald

serugo ronald

serugo ronald’s favorite color is purple, he is in primary 7 and if he were a fruit he would be a passion fruit “because it is too sweet!”

matthias byekwaso

matthias byekwaso

matthias byekwaso

matthias byekwaso, primary 7, prefers the color white and if he were a fruit he would be a ripened mango, because it is also “too sweet!”

sekate aaron

sekate aaron, superstar

sekate aaron, superstar

sekate aaron’s favorite color is white, he is in primary 7 and were he to be a fruit he thinks he would be a jackfruit, because he likes it most.

nanfuka stellah

nanfuka stellah

nanfuka stellah

nanfuka stellah is in primary 5, her favorite color is yellow and if she were a fruit she says she would be an apple, “because it is rich in proteins.”

these lovely students at st. joseph’s primary school have one more thing that they would like for you to know, and i’ll let them say it in their own words,

“you tell them that we are happy.”

while i was taking their “one-by-one” pictures i caught a sweet moment between two friends– nava’s rosary wouldn’t lay straight for her picture, and this seemed to distress her. so grace (who is considerably younger) came over to first try to help nava straighten her rosary–but when it wouldn’t lay flat, traded with her. a little of that moment is pictured below. (“read” these pictures right to left. i put them  in the wrong order. oops.)

nava and gloria

nava and gloria