The Daily Ugandan Grind, by Fennie Wang

It’s pitch black but I know it’s 5am. I can hear the crackling of the megaphone. In a moment, a boy of twelve starts the call to prayer. His song at times breaks into shouts, his voice cracking, sending the megaphone awry. He finishes and it’s quiet for about 30 minutes before someone else starts the call to prayer again. This time it’s longer. The man calls and then pauses. A chorus of young children answers his call.

I live next to a mosque and Muslim school in a house on Villa Road, in a semi-rural area outside a small shantytown called Nyendo, just a few kilometers from a bigger small town called Masaka, in the south of Uganda.


There are five calls to prayer everyday, with the most infamous one at 5am. The call is louder than any alarm clock. It occupies the entire house, shaking its walls. There is no room for anything else but the sound of prayer.

So I wait in the dark. I close my eyes and my mind drifts off. By the time the alarm goes off at 7:30am, I am already awake. I can hear the sound of the radio in the living room and my host mom bustling about, preparing breakfast and the day’s work.

Sometimes I hear the rain. When it rains in Africa, it pours, filling every space, making the red earth wet and soft, so soft one’s footsteps sink gently. The sound of rain is clear and crisp, falling down tin roofs and windowpanes in a steady, strong stream. The birds are chirping and the duck in our backyard is calling. I hear the children laughing and a baby crying. A single mother and her three young sons live in a room in our backyard compound. They are up and about getting ready for a new day.

It is rainy season now in Uganda, which spans from April through June. It usually rains in the morning, making the mornings cool before it heats up again in the afternoon.

It is now about 7:35am. I finally get up. The jerry can containing my bathing water is waiting for me in the kitchen. I am lucky enough to live in a house with an indoor toilet rather than an outhouse. There is still no indoor plumbing so I flush the toilet with a bucket of water. I brush my teeth and then I start my bucket bath ritual.


I have a process. I pour the water in the jerry can into a bucket and add cold water. I have a cup as my “showerhead.” I pour a cup of water on my head, wetting my hair. Then I add shampoo and conditioner. I’ve learned to use modest amounts of soap and shampoo so that I have enough water to rinse everything out.

I take my cup and pour it over my back. Warm water feels good, as good as any shower back home. I add soap, I scrub and then I start rinsing, keeping my eye on how much water is left in my bucket. It takes about five cups of water to rinse my hair clean. Each morning, I still secretly fear running out of water and standing naked full of soapsuds. Each morning, I feel a sense of accomplishment after I’ve completely rinsed and used up all the water.

Then it’s time for breakfast, my best meal of the day. Every morning, my host mom prepares for me a freshly made omelet accompanied by fresh avocados or cassava. I have tea and millet porridge with hot milk. Then it’s time to go to work. Just like back in New York, I’m too lazy or running too late to walk so I take hired transport. In New York, I would hail a yellow cab. Here, I hail a boda, which is a motorbike driver. The name derived from the moniker “border-to-border” as these motorbike drivers would drive people anywhere, from border to border.

On the way to work, I always get calls of “Muzungu!” or sometimes “China” or “Japan.” Muzungu is a term originally meaning a white person, specifically a Brit, as Uganda used to be a British colony. But now Muzungu is used as a generic term for a foreigner.


I arrive at about 9am in front of Masaka Microfinance, a two-story pink building next to the gas station, Caltex. My project here is to help implement a youth savings program at two local schools. I’m also studying agricultural loans, possibly proposals for water tank loans. There isn’t always work to do and as in any internship, you have to seek work. At 2pm, I go downstairs to have lunch with the other employees. We eat our plate of beans and matooke and rice. Sometimes in the afternoon after lunch I get to go on field visits. Recently, I visited some small family farms and saw cows, pigs and chickens. Esperanza, one of the clients, owns 3 cows, 42 pigs and 500 chickens. She invited me to come back and sleep over in her house. She lives by herself and would love company. I told her I would try to stop by sometime.

I leave work at 5pm and I take a taxi to Masaka town. The taxis here are squeezed to the maximum, often four people in the back and two people in the shotgun seat.


I head straight to the Internet cafe in town to meet my fellow FSD intern, Jay Park. Sometimes we go to Love in Action, which has wireless connection, and then afterwards we head to Banannah Chick to get a snack and hang out with the other “Muzungus” in town. Other times we go to Cafe Frickadellen, a Danish NGO-run hangout hotspot for all the foreigners where we get really good but expensive western food and free wireless Internet.

Then it’s about 8pm or 8:30pm and it’s time to go home for dinner. The night in Africa is black-black with no streetlights and only the moon and the constellations. Coming back down from Café Frickedellen is a particular challenge. The café is set on a hill carved with a few broken dirt roads. At night, one is completely in the dark save from the light from my cellphone, as all cellphones sold in Uganda have a small flashlight feature.

When I finally get to the road, I take a boda or taxi back to Nyendo. At home, we eat our dinner, the same matooke, rice and beans with avocado, sometimes cassava, sometimes cabbage, sometimes chicken. I always get fresh orange or passion fruit juice and pineapples. We watch TV during dinner, sometimes the news, sometimes soccer games, sometimes Nigerian soap operas. All foreign shows and movies have a voiceover commentator in local Lugandan language. It’s not “dubbed.” A commentator explains the scene and adds his own thoughts and interpretations, occasionally allowing snippets of the original English.


Around 10:30pm I start getting ready for bed. I have a little bit of hot water in the kettle to wash my face and brush my teeth. I change into pajamas and crawl into bed and tuck in my mosquito net. I set the alarm, just like I would back at home. I close my eyes and then I wait for the next morning’s prayers.