Uganda in my local Starbucks

Confession: when I am not drinking the “Arabian spiced” 1000 Cups coffee carried from Kampala (or the Stanford polisci brew – thanks Judy!), I sometimes stop by my neighborhood Starbucks on the way to the office. Today I found Uganda in my local Starbucks – not in the beans, but on the wall. And in the paper.

First, there is a huge map of East Africa on the wall, with “Kenya”, “Uganda”, “Rwanda”, and “Tanzania” labeled (I should have taken a photo…will do that next time). I have only ever seen Kenyan and Rwandan coffee marketed in Starbucks, although I suppose Ugandan beans make it into the (STARBUCKS)RED East Africa blend. Some proceeds, of course, go “back to our communities”. That is, to the Global Fund.

Second, I found the image below splashed on the front page of the New York Times, prominently displayed in line.

Original caption: "Ugandans cleaned spare parts in Kiseka, a market that reflects a protest movement's anger over the economy and graft."

Source here. Photos by Michele Sibiloni.

The full photo series can be found here. It took me a minute to get my head around the angle of the photo, since at first it seemed as if the man pictured were falling in a ditch (which could obviously not be the case – who would work that way?). In print it looks even greyer and gloomier than online, a sort of Mordor-like underworld. It is an image that stays with you, for better or for worse.

And so today, as usual when Uganda turns up in the NYT, I find myself struggling between fighting the doom and gloom stereotypical portrayal of Uganda (leaving aside for a moment the fair-trade feel-good world-peace one), and acknowledging the need for urban poverty to be brought to the forefront of public discussion. It is a critical issue, in Kampala and elsewhere, that deserves far more attention than it has received – at least domestically.

It is an important story – of the sputtering economy and its effect on ordinary people – and the photos share what text never could. And I am thrilled there is a “Kampala Journal” in the New York Times. But somehow photos like these still make me cringe a little. Maybe because they represent the only image that many people see (especially Starbucks going Americans), even on the brightest of days.

But I like to hope that is changing.

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