The Rumpus Interview with Douglas Cruickshank

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When I was starting out as a writer, in the early days of Salon, one of my first editors was Douglas Cruickshank. I still remember his first day at the office. I’d never met anyone so sardonic and funny and dark. He had an elaborate past. He’d known Kesey, helped set up the stage at Altamont, knew obscure things about Wilde. He was this great, hilarious, unsentimental, offbeat writer.

We became close friends over the years—he eventually became ordained to marry my wife and me—and I figured it’d go on in the same manner forever: late drunken nights with other writer friends and, well, mostly that. Then, abruptly, Doug gave it all up. Sold his house, quit the journalism stuff, joined the Peace Corps, and moved to a tiny village in Uganda. He spent two and a half years working with a women-run coffee collective seven hours outside Kampala.

Doug finally came back not that long ago, and recently published this big, remarkable book called Somehow: Living on Uganda Time. It’s a collection of essays and photos from his time in Uganda, and it’s the opposite of so many Africa books I’ve seen, wry and weird and moving and startling, in ways I’d never associated with that kind of book before—and it was recently picked by the Peace Corps Writers group as Best Book of Photography by a returning volunteer.

I see Doug all the time now, and in many ways things have gone back to how they were: tasteless emails, speculation about Kanye’s marriage. But it’s also plain he’s a deeply changed person. Recently I decided to ask him, more formally, about the experiences in Uganda that gave rise to his latest book.

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The Rumpus: You had it going on—house, career, friends, Internet passwords all figured out. Please explain why you left all that to live in a remote Ugandan village. I mean, I’ve heard of saintly types doing that kind of thing, but I associate you more with sin.

Douglas Cruickshank: You’re right—I was not saintly then, am certainly not saintly now—but I’m an American and had that most American of desires: I wanted more. I felt that there was something missing in my life, something big. I maybe didn’t know a lot, but I knew that what I was looking for probably could not be bought. And I got to Africa and my desires were fulfilled, more and better than I ever could have imagined.

Rumpus: What was your average day like in Uganda?

Cruickshank: I had a two-burner gas stove with a propane tank, which made me the Warren Buffet of Kyarumba, the village where I lived. Everyone else cooked over charcoal or wood fires. I started the day with a cold shower—tepid, to be truthful. There’s no such thing as cold in that part of Africa unless you scramble up to the glaciers. I’d then make some coffee, have cereal or eggs.

I’d walk to work through the village, taking shortcuts through people’s yards. I’d greet the various people I knew: the farmers, shop keepers, teachers. Greeting is very important there and can be elaborate. You never just say, “Hi.” You always ask how the person is, how their family is, if they slept well, and so on.

I had a small office at work, and I’d spend much of the day writing grant applications or maybe attending farmer meetings. At night I’d walk home, maybe take another shower, make a simple dinner, such as pasta, read, get under the mosquito net, blow out the kerosene lamp, listen to the rain on the steel roof.

Rumpus: What was a great day in Uganda? What’s a shitty day?

Cruickshank: There were many great days. We were accomplishing a lot—getting two small factories built, developing a successful export program for the coffee, receiving some substantial grants that helped the co-op dramatically improve its infrastructure. All these things had a direct and positive impact on the farmers, and increased the price for which they could sell the coffee, thereby increasing farmer incomes. Whatever success we had was due to having a very simple goal. Before embarking on a major project or initiative we always asked ourselves, “How will this make more money for the farmers?” That guided us. We didn’t always succeed, but we succeeded more than we failed.

A shitty day was when someone’s baby died, or their father or mother or wife or husband or friend. That was a really shitty day, and it was made worse by the fact that many of those deaths could have been prevented with fairly minor medical intervention or an inexpensive drug. But even those things are out of reach to many people in that area, and of course throughout the developing world. People die because they need three or four dollars worth of medicine, or a minor operation. They die because there is no transport to get them to the hospital. People die for really dumb reasons. Women die in child birth all the time because of simple complications; Uganda has one of the highest maternal death rates in the world. It’s a scandal. That country should have a much better medical infrastructure than it does, but great heaps of the money intended to build that infrastructure are siphoned off by corrupt government officials to buy mansions and SUVs and big screen TVs. Don’t get me started!

Rumpus: I heard somewhere that there’s more to Africa than war and famine. Sounded implausible, but I thought I’d check with you.

Cruickshank: There is so much that is good and positive happening in Africa everyday, but you’d never know it from reading the Western mainstream media’s tragedy porn. There are tragedies there, it’s true. And reporting them is the right thing to do. But the bad news is reported and broadcast all out of of proportion to the good news. And there is a lot of good news.

Uganda has plenty of problems, but it also has a growing middle class, has had a fair degree of political stability over the last quarter century, and has some very dedicated teachers trying to educate the children. Then you’ve got the agricultural co-ops—farmers banding together to get higher prices for their produce, produce better quality. The co-op I worked for was eighty-five percent women farmers. They founded the co-op themselves. They are dynamos, great entrepreneurs, too.

Rumpus: What are some of the traps you see writers fall into when writing about Africa?

Cruickshank: There was a good, very trenchant, withering piece published in Granta back in 2005 called “How to Write About Africa,” by the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina. He catalogs virtually every Africa cliche western writers are likely to employ. I’m probably guilty of using some of them. Hope not, but I’m too scared to go back and check. Here’s an excerpt:

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African’s cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Rumpus: Do you recommend this, picking up and moving to Uganda or a Uganda-like place? Isn’t it scary? Won’t I miss my friends and reliable electricity and Quiznos and stuff?

Cruickshank: Upsetting the apple cart of one’s life can be invigorating and restorative. I hoped it would be a good experience, hoped I could be useful and do something that would have an impact over the long term. Things worked out shockingly well.

It was definitely not scary, quite the contrary. The people there are extremely warm and friendly and always helpful. Moving into a community like the one I lived in is like getting immersed in warm tropical water. It was certainly not a sacrifice on my part. It was a lot of fun and also very satisfying.

That said, it wasn’t all fun and laughs. It is a tough life for people there, and it is hard to see the people you become close to having such a difficult time. I think about them every day and I know that life continues for them. I had money and my health and, being an older white guy, I was immediately in the power elite and privileged. I felt it was important to never forget those things. For example, people started referring to me as “my boss.” “Yes, my boss,” they’d say. So I did the same—to diffuse that honorific and take away its power. I called everyone “my boss.” It became a big joke. People thought it was very funny, but it also worked and took the power out of that obsequious phrase.

Rumpus: What was the thing you liked best about Uganda?

Cruickshank: The people. They were far and away the best thing about Uganda and always will be. They like to talk and laugh and they’re expert at both. I found them to also have a high degree of emotional intelligence—they seem very balanced, almost preternaturally good-humored, slow to anger, deeply reasonable and comfortable in their own skins. The women I knew were authentically sweet but also authentically tough. A very nice combination. The men were direct and pleasant to hang out with.

Rumpus: What was the thing you liked least?

Cruickshank: The corruption. Its ripple effect had an impact on everything and drains the country of goodness, of its life force, its optimism and energy. It is Uganda’s worst problem—because all other problems are either caused by it or exacerbated by it. Or both.

Rumpus: What does the average African know about the US?

Cruickshank: As much or less than Americans know about Africa, which is to say not much. Most Africans I know, mainly Ugandans, know what they’ve seen in movies and on TV. The assumption is that we are all rich and that is largely correct. Compared to the average Ugandan, even a middle class working Ugandan, we are wealthy. And they see the US as a violent country. I talked to many who expressed concern about coming here because of all the violent crime, all the shootings. People coming into churches and schools and opening fire was very alarming to the Africans I know.

Rumpus: Ultimately you found Africa to be entirely different than how you’d thought it would be. How so?

Cruickshank: What we hear and see and read about Africa in the West is all the tragedy and then the exotic animals, and Idi Amin. But if you are there, what you encounter on a daily basis is people going to work, dropping their kids at school, tending their garden, washing clothes, repairing a motor bike, feeding pigs and goats, stopping off at the corner for a beer with friends, cooking dinner, watching TV or listening to the radio in the evening. That’s what’s going on most of the time in most places in Africa. In most places in the world, for that matter.

As for Uganda specifically, it is a very young country. Half, or maybe a bit more than half, of the population is fifteen or younger. That means the majority of the population was not even alive when Amin was in power; he’s been gone for more than thirty years. Also, sadly, though you do encounter animals when you move around upcountry—it’s common to see elephants crossing the roads, and baboons and other primates are seen frequently—Ugandans don’t frequent their own parks. Most don’t yet have the money for nonessential travel. Few Ugandans have been to see the gorillas, for example.

But to return to the heart of the question, I think the thing I found that was was unexpected was the communal nature of the culture. Very different than how people live and interact in the US. I really liked it and I miss it. It was utterly new to me. I’d heard it was like that, but until you are in it every day you really don’t know.

Rumpus: What else surprised you about Africa?

Cruickshank: There are a lot more middle class Africans than the media would have you believe—people working in banks, running hotels, owning car washes, doctors, lawyers, university professors. Consequently, there are shopping malls, cineplexes, high-end clothing stores, computer shops, fancy restaurants, clubs and bars, and all the sorts of establishments that middle class people frequent. Everyone—and I do mean everyone—has cellphones, many have laptops. Facebook, Twitter and other social media are widely used, as is Skype. Google is very active in Africa. There are also marathons and pop music concerts, and plenty of places to get lattes and croissants. There are botanical gardens and art galleries and comedy shows and cultural centers featuring wonderful indigenous dance performances. People are very proud of their culture and the clans they come from—there are over fifty tribes in Uganda alone—and intent on preserving those cultures, the tribal languages and customs.

Rumpus: What else?

Cruickshank: Well, as bad as many of the roads are, a lot of money and effort is being put into improving the infrastructure in Uganda. It has some first-class highways, which improves everything from commerce and health care to agriculture. Electricity is getting more dependable because more dams are going online, there is fiber optic cable strung through much of the country (though it isn’t necessarily connected to anything yet). Politically, there is hope and some progress. But it is a very different culture than ours—big man syndrome in leadership is still widely embraced. Yet there are more and more women in positions of real power.

African societies are conservative in matters of sex, religion, male/female relationships. That said, the Africans I know are very tolerant people, certainly not unkind, and have a live-and-let-live view of life. Because of the anti-gay law that was recently passed in Uganda, I’m often asked about treatment of gays in the country, and what the typical person’s attitude is about homosexuality. As I said, Ugandans are neither unkind nor intolerant. I think gay culture as we know it in the US is odd to them and of course they are not familiar with it. Any type of sex is generally not discussed openly and public displays of affection are discouraged. My girlfriend and I didn’t even hold hands when we were out walking; we never kissed in public.

Westerners tend to get very self-righteous about our embrace of freedom, but we conveniently forget just how recently we had plenty of medieval, Draconian laws of our own on the books. It was not long ago that both heterosexuals and homosexuals could be arrested and prosecuted for acts between consenting adults that are now discussed openly on TV and in popular magazines. African societies are going through extreme growing pains as they transform from oppressed colonies of western nations to independent states. Many have embraced democracy, which is great, but perfecting its practice is a process, not a steady state. So we need to be patient and give Africa and Africans as much of a break as we’ve given ourselves.

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Featured image by Chris Colin.

Other images courtesy of Douglas Cruickshank.


Chris Colin is the author most recently of What to Talk About (Chronicle Books, 2014). He’s written about chimp filmmakers, ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe and more for the NewYorker.com, the New York Times Magazine, Pop-Up Magazine, Mother Jones, and Afar, where he's a contributing writer. More from this author →