We really enjoyed Uganda. I’m not sure why it surprised me, but it did. After nearly constant stress, frustration, and disappointment in Kenya, Uganda was a welcoming and gentle place. Leaving Kenya we were harassed by two of the most obnoxious fixers to date. Despite politely declining their services with increasing firmness, they men harangued us until I finally told one guy what an ass he was. He responded with both racist and misogynistic antagonisms quite literally until we drove away. It was infuriating and made us bitter about all of Kenya.
As we passed through no-man’s land, we all girded ourselves for the same experience entering Uganda. We were more than a little surprised by the lack of fixers when we parked outside of the immigration hall. It was the first time that we have not been swarmed by money changers and fixers as soon as we pulled up, in fact there was not one to be seen – definitely a welcome change. In contrast to the grumpy affect we experienced from start to finish in Kenya, the Ugandan officials were smiling kindly and eager to help us get through the required paperwork and directing us to where we needed to go next. It was organized and everything you need (foreign exchange, ATM, bank, etc.) is in one building. No wonder there were no fixers – there was no need!
Traveling a few hours in to Uganda, the differences were recognizable immediately. The people were more relaxed, the roads have signs and are in decent repair, and there was a sense of pride in everything we could see. Yes, there is still the poverty and disarray, but there is also hope. The people are welcoming, the homes are in the best state possible, and there is order. The angst of Kenya was replaced with a welcoming warmth in Uganda.
We chose to spend a few days just outside of Jinja, the town on Lake Victoria which forms the source of the Nile River. Although dusty and gritty like many other African towns, Jinja’s disorganization was somehow exciting and hip rather than overwhelming. The town has become something of an adrenaline center with bungee jumping, quad biking, and whitewater rafting on offer nearly everywhere we went. This means that there are a lot of mizungu (white foreigners) in town too – a novelty for us. It also means that the tourist infrastructure is well-developed. After two weeks of a communal squat long drop toilet infested with spiders, eating ugali (a flavorless steamed corn/sorghum porridge which is the staple of most east and southern Africans) almost every day, and simply waiting for the time to pass, we were excited to have flavorful food, a sit-down flush toilet and hot showers. We camped along the Nile River, not far below its source in Lake Victoria. The owner was able to hook us up with his Toyota mechanic who performed a brake job and routine maintenance in our campsite for less than USD 40. Mac wanted to go on a quad biking trip, so we did a long ride through the local villages. It was lovely, almost like a vacation.
The kids are too young to go gorilla tracking but old enough for chimpanzee tracking so we headed to Fort Portal to be in the cool of the Rwenzori Mountains and see if we could find some chimps. Like many wildlife viewing opportunities, there is never a guarantee that you will actually see chimps, but these have been habituated to humans and the rangers do their best to make it happen. Early in the morning trackers go out to find where the chimps spent the night then radio the location to the guides so that they can bring the tourists straight to the chimps. The number of tourists is limited so not to impact the chimps too much. We didn’t know exactly when we would be in the area so were too late to book for the first trip in the morning. Settling on being in the second group to go out, the guide said that the chimps had started moving as she finished up the first viewing. The tracker was not able to keep up with the chimps so we spent the next two hours off-piste, bashing through the forest. Scraped, dirty and battered, we were nearly ready to give up and turn back for the office when there was a sudden cacophony of chimp screams, yap, yowls maybe 100 meters off to our right. As our guide smiled and headed off in their direction, we saw a small black Pan troglodyte just ahead which had been hidden just moments before. Lucia turned back and said, “Look Mom, it’s a chimp!” We followed the little guy for a few meters and were soon surrounded by maybe 25 chimps, some coming down from the trees, some climbing higher, others just observing us from afar. Despite knowing that they share 98% of human DNA, it is still striking to see the ‘humanness’ of their expressions and behaviors. After spending the better part of an hour with the troop, it was time for us to move on, each of us with a smile on our face as it was an amazing experience.
From Fort Portal we headed to Queen Elizabeth Park to do some lion tracking. There are several VHF collared lions which researchers follow to observe their behaviors and document their movements. For a little extra money (really a lot extra!), you can go out with the researchers in the morning for a half day of viewing the lions. Unlike when you are a regular tourist in the park and must hope that the lions choose to be somewhere near the roads, when you are with the researchers, you can go where the lions are, even if it is off road. We were very excited to participate in the process and learn more about lions. The researcher had not seen them in several weeks so was excited to see them too. Lions are impressive under any circumstances but especially seeing them content and regal in the early morning light. It was amazing. We spent a half hour or so with the trio until they wanted to settle down for their morning rest. We thought that we would then head off to see other lions but this is when we found out that the scheme is not really a research program at all but rather is a money making endeavor for tourist’s benefit. The ‘researcher’ was really just an assistant who became very angry when we asked if we were going to go find the female lions. He snapped, “Well you saw the lions, so we are done and now you owe me more money if you want to see more lions.” It was bittersweet, we loved the lions but not his attitude, but was a singular anomaly of our time in Uganda.
Leaving the open plains of Queen Elizabeth Park behind, we headed to the cool mountains of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for some volunteering for the local nursing school that I learned about many years ago and work with the Batwa Development Program. Colburn and the kids had decided to raise money to build a permanent home for a Batwa family who has been living in temporary structures. The “Build a Batwa Home” is a partnership between the local community and the Kellermann Foundation.
Once a home has been funded, members of the community decide which family is most in need, clear the land, dig the latrine pit, and gather the main poles and thatching. Once these activities are completed, the organization comes in with the items that needed to be purchased outside of the area (tin sheets for the roof, concrete for the foundation, etc.) and help finish off the process. We had hoped to be involved in the whole process – helping the family do everything – but the combination of moving our timeframe up by a couple weeks, a delay in the transfer of funds from Paypal, and a bit of organizational apathy lead to that not being possible. We are assured that the home has been built, but much to our disappointment, it was not completed before we left the area.
We were, however, able to meet the chosen family and see firsthand what a difference having a permanent structure makes to their long-term stability. It was remarkable. Families who had received a permanent structure were able to spend more time and effort on their farming instead of maintaining their leaky shelter. This allowed them to sell excess produce for income which then provides them with the funds to purchase baked mud bricks to further strengthen their home to a true permanent home. It just takes a little investment to allow them to become self-sufficient.
We also met with several younger members of the community who are supported by the Foundation to go to a boarding schools in a town a little more than an hour away. Meeting with them brought home the simplicity of the challenges in their situation: when they are back in their home communities for school breaks, their family expects them to help with the subsistence farming but their school expects them to be keeping up on their studies. The teens do not complain about helping their families or having to do two sets of work, but find it difficult to study once the sun goes down. When we asked what they need most, they responded, “lights so we can do our studies after sundown”. The solution is a simple solar light or lantern which costs maybe $15US, but even that is outside of their reach. Without being able to continue their studies, they fall behind their peers a little more each break.
Although one project fell through, I was able to do some true volunteering with the Uganda Nursing School in Bwindi. I had heard about the program years ago when they were first established. Dr. Scott Kellermann had come to the nursing school where I was teaching to recruit faculty to help found the school. Our kids were young then and Colburn was knee-deep in school administration at the time so it wasn’t possible for us at that point, but the idea always stayed in the back of my mind. When we planned our year in Africa, we knew this was something we wanted to do.
When we arrived, the Principal mentioned that she and the faculty were very eager to learn about how to use more engaging methods of teaching so I did a series of workshops for the faculty. Fortuitously, they were also working on the design of a new skills lab so I was able sit in on those discussions as well. The experience was exactly what I had been hoping for all along – I was able to volunteer my professional experience to help a nursing school. The relationship is one which could become a long-term engagement as the process of changing instruction takes time and intermittent periodic reinforcement. We all loved Bwindi and the community there so hope to come back soon.
One of our favorite aspects of our time in Bwindi was our little home, situated a 30-minute walk north of the hospital and nursing school but just on the border of the national park famous for its gorillas. It was wonderful to be a cool, rainy, comfortable environment where we could settle in for a few weeks. It was also great that the house is so close to wild animals! As with the chimps, the gorillas are wild and free-roaming so trackers go out early to find where they are located before the tourists arrive. Each group also has an armed guard team is posted to the family for the day to protect them and assure that they do not go outside of the park. We would see these crews out in the tea field below our home early on many mornings. If the gorillas were actually on the border of the park, we would see the guards all day as they tried to shoo them back in to the park.
One time we were walking the path down in to town for lunch. Inadvertently we had strayed from the path we were supposed to be on to one that is technically inside the park. As we rounded the corner, the kids came upon two gorillas on the path. Just a few meters beyond them were the guards telling us to go away or we would be fined for viewing the animals without paying the permit fee. When we explained that we were trying to get to town, they escorted us to the correct path just a few meters down the hill and sent us on our way. Colburn is passionate about wildlife photography so did pay to go in and do the proper tracking experience, but we all were able to at least briefly see a group of wild gorillas!
In the end, Uganda was a wonderful place. Known as the Pearl of Africa, it is a lovely country filled with kind and welcoming people, great wildlife, and amazing landscapes. We felt very much at home there and hope to be back again soon. If you are thinking of going to Uganda, we can recommend it whole-heartedly.