Driving north from Kampala

January 21, 2014
9:45 p.m.
Harvesters Reaching the Nations compound
Yei, South Sudan

I’m terribly behind with my account of my African adventure. Anyone who knows my work habits is not surprised by this. Today Kitty and I flew from Uganda to South Sudan, landing at a dirt airstrip at the town of Yei. I’m writing this from a little room, part of a three-room “guest suite” on the Harvesters compound, and my chamber has a single bed with mosquito netting, a toilet and shower behind a curtain, and one chair. There is also a shower with hot water two hours per day. Kitty is in the big house with her co-worker, Katherine.

But I want to go back to Thursday, January 16. Kitty and I had arrived at the hostel operated by the Red Chilli safari company at 3 a.m., and our alarms went off at 6 a.m. so that we could get ready for the safari. It was an early morning! Rooms at the hostel don’t have private baths, so I walked down to the men’s shower and toilet room and took a cold shower. I had no towel, so I drip-dried before dressing. Perhaps not an auspicious start.

Kitty and I had decided to leave our big suitcases at the hostel and take only our day packs on the safari, although we’d be away two nights. So I packed clean underwear, socks, shirts, and shorts, along with my camera and my little Chromebook, and we put everything else into our suitcases and stowed them at the hostel’s front desk.

There was an opportunity to buy breakfast from the kitchen, but their system was highly inefficient. First you had to place your order with the cook. Then you took the order slip to the bar to pay. Then you had to return with the order slip to the kitchen, and then they would start making the breakfast. The line was long — there were at least a dozen young people with matching black polo shirts, plus random other people. The line didn’t seem to be moving at all, and we needed to be on our van, departing, in 15 minutes.

I joined the line and started talking to one of the kids in the black polo shirts. He and his companions were all vocational college students from Sweden, staying in Uganda for a month and working. They were staying at the Red Chilli hostel, but not going on a safari. This one particular kid was working at DHL, the delivery company. I thought it was rather cool that they could get some work experience in a developing company. The kid told me that language was a problem. English is the second language for the Swedes, and English is also a second, or third, language for the Ugandans. Cue the miscommunication.

Because he was Swedish, and so friendly, I had to take the opportunity to tell this kid that my grandmother was born near Malmo. He seemed mildly interested. And then I had to tell him about lutefisk — how we ate it every Christmas because it was a family tradition and a way to remember our heritage. He smiled and said yes, it was a traditional food. He was very indulgent.

However, the line was not moving — the cook was moving at a snail’s place — and Kitty and I abandoned the line and found our van. The safari was about to start.

Our entire group consisted of three vans — two of them were filled with nursing students from the University of Vermont who had been working in Uganda for the last month, earning credit to learn about public health in an African context. Among the nursing students, two were boys and about a dozen were girls — almost all of them skinny, cute, and completely inappropriately dressed. Throughout the entire trip, they wore tiny running shorts and tank tops, as if they were about to compete in a track meet.

By contrast, you hardly ever seen African women even in trousers, much less in shorts. Almost all African women wear skirts or dresses, often down to the ankle. The men tend to wear dress shirts and pressed trousers. I can’t remember seeing a single African man or woman in short pants on this entire trip.

Funny aside: While we were in Lalibella, we had seen an African woman in jeans standing by the side of the road in town. Something about her looked just a little bit suggestive. I asked our guide, “Is that a decent woman?” He raised his eyebrows just slightly. “I do not judge,” he replied, primly.

All the nursing students were in two vans, and Kitty and I were in a third van with the old folks. Our companions included our driver, whose name was either Isaac or Isaiah, who was a young Ugandan of about 30 who was tall and skinny and wore a T-shirt that read “Mzungu” on it. That means “white person.” As his shirt indicated, he had a good sense of humor.

Also in our van was a young German from Bonn named Francesca, whose English was passable, although she was much more comfortable in French and (of course) German. I couldn’t tell exactly why she was on this trip, except that she seemed to have a week to kill in Uganda and had decided at the last minute to book the safari.

Finally, the last two people in our van were a Swiss woman, Eliane, and her husband, a Belgian, Thierry. Eliane was a nurse who was probably in her late 50s; Thierry seemed to be retired and was in his 60s. And they were the most adventurous people I’ve ever met. About five years ago, they rode their bicycles from Europe all the way across Russia to China. Then they rode across China to Southeast Asia. Somehow they got their bikes to the north coast of Australia, so they rode all the way across the Australian desert to the south coast of that country.

Eliane and Thierry were just chock-full of interesting stories about their adventures, including how they basically taught themselves Russian and got invited into people’s homes while cycling across Siberia, which took them a whole year because they had to stop for several months. I loved talking to them, which was good, because we were in the van a lot together.

We left the Red Chilli hostel at about 7:15 a.m. and drove into the horrible Kampala traffic. Since the van needed petrol, we stopped at a service station and I learned my first lesson about what separates Uganda from Ethiopia: In Uganda, they have minimarts attached to their gas stations — just like at home. I bought myself Coke Zero, some muffins, a strange drink that combines milk and apple juice, and then, for good measure, some mango juice, cashews, and cookies. This had to cover Kitty and me for breakfast and lunch, since we had neglected to pre-order a lunch.

The real location of the safari was Murchison Falls National Park, which begins about four or five hours north of Kampala. So we had a lot of driving to do. We headed due north, eventually getting out of the choked metropolitan traffic, and finally making it into open countryside.

And the rural parts of Uganda are beautiful — rolling hills covered with scrub, coconut palms, and even some pine trees. We were in the middle of the dry season, but it felt like Southern California dry, not Arizona dry. There were jacarandas.

Driving along, we passed many small towns that consisted of a row of storefronts on either side of the road — humble, cinderblock structures, set well back from the road as if governed by setback ordinances. Most of these storefronts were painted with advertisements in English from cell phone companies. Sometimes, in front of the stores, there would be people with fruit stands or other kinds of informal businesses.

At one point, Kitty asked the driver to stop so that she could order a couple of “rolexes” from a vendor. A rolex, I learned, is a mix of scrambled egg, tomato, and onion, all put into a round, flat piece of bread that looks exactly like a flour tortilla. The whole thing is made right in front of you, and it’s absolutely delicious. I have no idea what my travel nurse would say — a rolex is not exactly prepared in the most hygienic of conditions. But, on the other hand, it’s cooked and served hot. I certainly didn’t get sick.

Also, as we traveled north, we saw more and more tukels, those little round houses with thatched roofs. Mostly the tukels were clustered into villages of five to ten, but sometimes there were even more. Many of them were made of cinder block or adobe brick, then stuccoed over. All of them had grass roofs. They’re actually very attractive, and those we saw were built solidly.

We also drove by many, many churches and schools. Uganda is a highly Christian country, with almost 90 percent of the population claiming Christianity as their faith. Of these, the largest group is Roman Catholic and the second largest is Church of Uganda, which is the national branch of the Anglican communion. But along the road north, we saw loads of churches — not just Catholic and Anglican, but also Mormon, Seventh-day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witness, and independent churches with creative names.

Furthermore, many businesses have faith-based names, like “Blessing Taxi” or “Hosana Market,” and many signs have Bible verses painted on them.

The schools we passed on our drive north were almost universally neat — well set back from the road, behind fences, with mown lawns and carefully painted buildings. Some of these schools were district (or public) schools, while others were church-affiliated, but all of them looked well cared for. How surprised I was, then, to find out later how poorly teachers are paid, with some earning as little as US$100 per month or even less.


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