Saturday, July 24, 2010

Uganda: Pearl of Africa

Uganda-Pearl of Africa; Part 1 Uganda
Oh, where to start? What a wonderful trip. So much so that I’ll split it up into 3 parts-the country, the people, the gorillas.

Impressions of Uganda: green lush hills, mountains, volcanoes, bananas, speed bumps, ground nuts, gorillas, women in bright colored multi patterned dresses skirts headscarves, friendly, drums, amazingly temperate and no humidity, English speaking, tropical, lakes, birds and butterflies, brick ovens, dusty, matoke laden trucks and bikes, all things transported on top of the head, Christianity, rough roads.

We arrived the day after the bombings of 2 popular sites full of people watching the final match of the World Cup. Over 75 dead. All innocent victims of 2 suicide bombers. Al Shabaab claims responsibility for the attacks with promise of more if Uganda continues to send peacekeeping troops into Somalia. Presidential elections are coming next year in Uganda and the opposition leader is calling for withdrawl of the Ugandan troops from Somalia. Newspaper commentary on need for pan-Africanism-which has helped rid South Africa of apartheid, Uganda of Idi Amin. Uganda does not act alone nor should other African nations-they need to work together. People of Uganda are surprised we came despite the bombings, ask us if we feel safe, and thank us for being there.

After 2 days in Kampala with Trish and Tim and their kids, we head west across Uganda to the gorilla trekking. It is a 12 hour drive, 1/3 of which is unpaved. Eight of us in their 4WD vehicle, and we need the 4WD at times. Not many places to stop along the way. First stop our first morning was for breakfast at a café/shop at the Equator.

I’m amazed at the lushness of Uganda, along w/very mild temperatures and low humidity. I always associated tropical foliage w/heat and humidity. Who knew they didn’t have to go hand in hand. It was Winston Churchill who dubbed Uganda the “Pearl of Africa”. Nevertheless, the mosquitoes are out each night and we sleep under mosquito netting, even in their home in Kampala.

The roads are treacherous, even in the city-potholes galore. Traffic is crazy, and boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) zip in and around the cars, even w/a family of 4 aboard. Once we’re on the road to the west, it’s a mix of paved and unpaved roads, with weird stretches of newly paved highway that last less than a mile. We decide that maybe some towns didn’t pay their taxes, so they have to wait for paving or improvements-why else such seemingly random work?

The impact of colonialism and missionary work is evident to this day. The Brits colonized Uganda. English is the most common language (with regional/tribal dialects second). Driving is on the left side of the road, all cars have steering wheels on the right. Shops carry products from England.

The presence of Christianity is pervasive. Churches everywhere, multiple denominations. Signs on businesses, automobiles, everywhere, praising God. Coming from a Muslim country in North Africa, this is almost startlingly. I at first wonder if it’s just me, not having been around churches for a couple of years, until the others tell me that they are very aware of it in Uganda as well.

The food of Uganda-all things banana. Although there it is primarily of the matoke variety-more starchy than sweet. Our first dinner in Uganda at Trish and Tim’s is cooked by their housekeeper Eunice, and it is a traditional meal. We have posho (like cornmeal), matoke (which she has cooked down over coals in banana leaves) and millet-the 3 staple foods of Uganda. They are accompanied by what are referred to as “sauces”- sautéed greens, beef stewed, beans and a ground nut sauce. Not the most flavorful meal I’ve ever had-feels heavy-starchy, but delighted to have the chance to eat a traditional meal.

Quite the contrast is our 2nd day in Kampala, where we had “meat on a stick” for lunch. Ugandan fast food. You pull over to the side of the road where they’re grilling meat on bamboo skewers and cooking matoke bananas on a grill. As soon as you pull over, you’re surrounded by people trying to push their skewers into your window for you to buy them. Two skewers, no fat, and one banana per person and we’re on our way chowing down in mere minutes.

Uganda-Pearl of Africa; Part 2 The Manarins
I’ve got to pay homage to the Manarin family who opened their home and their hearts to us for our week in Uganda. A bit about this inspiring family….

Trish and Tim are both ordained Baptist ministers. Tim is currently working for the US Embassy in Uganda. They met when they both were doing missionary work in Africa-Tim in Uganda and Trish in Zambia. They are living a relatively “good life” as Embassy folks, which comes with things like a housekeeper/cook/babysitter, gardener, guards, etc. Trish is almost apologetic and advises us to just relax and enjoy it while we have it-don’t even bother to make our beds as Eunice will re-do them anyway.

They have 3 wonderful kids-Peter, Nathaniel and darling Maggie (who let me “bunk” with her in her room-thanks Maggie!). These kids are going to have such rich lives-incredible experiences. One thing that really strikes me is their creativity. Case in point-they had to entertain themselves and one another for the 12 hour ride to and from the west of Uganda. That’s right. No video. No electronic games. Their own imaginations.

Trish and Tim also serve their mission within their Kampala/Ugandan community in several ways.

First off is our visit to the Kampiringisa National Rehabilitation Center. This is a center for youth who have committed crimes, have been abandoned by their families or collected off the streets of Kampala (this perhaps some clean up prior to the start of the African Union meeting starting that same week). The living conditions are spare to say the least. The wife of an Embassy worker somehow connected with the site and has blogged about it. Trish connected with her and got involved. A couple men from Atlanta also connected via her blog and have become involved. Improvements are already under way. Example-the porridge meals used to be dumped on the floor for the kids to eat w/their hands. The blogger has brought in plastic plates for them to eat off of. The Atlanta guys are photo documenting the conditions and kids stories (see to help raise funds back in the states to improve conditions. We visited with the kids, shared in worship with them, brought some treats and then had to take our leave. Two of the children who are orphans-no family but no bad behavior-who Trish has really taken under her wing-were moved to Mama Kathryn’s orphanage in Kampala while we were there-where they’ll both get needed medical care (pinworm, conjunctivitis) and decent nutrition. The Atlanta guys were also in town while we were there. They brought along a Pediatrician who was able to examine a bunch of the kids. The filmmaker spent the night to get better/more real footage to bring back to the US to share w/church groups. They’ve only been involved a few months and are already making a significant difference in these children’s lives. Inspiring.

Trish is also very involved with the American School where Peter and Nathaniel go. Our second day we headed over to the school for a craft fair that Trish helped organize. There were students from US-based Eastern University there to help artisans with their business skills. Great to see the different types of both traditional and contemporary handicrafts the artisans are making. Made a few purchases and took some photos to bring back to share with the Adwal women.

Everywhere we go I am impressed by the service orientation of staff. Morocco could take a few lessons from Uganda.

Uganda-Pearl of Africa; Part 3 Gorillas
Only 700 mountain gorillas in the world. Half of them are in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Permits to track the gorillas are hard to come by and will set you back $500 per person. Only 2 groups of up to 8 people per day are allowed to track. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is at about 6500 feet, near the Zambia/Congo/Rwanda/Uganda border and 550km (342 miles) from Kampala, thus the 12 hour drive to get there.

Trish and Tim worked their magic to get us the 3 permits we needed. They and the boys went on another community excursion while we (Lynn, Andrew and I) tracked the gorillas (children under age 15 are not allowed). Our first destination was a lake-side place called the Nkuringo Safari Lodge-a welcome stop off the rough dirt road after 12 hours. The boys went out on the lake in a pontoon boat while we had a chance to talk w/the Country Director of Peace Corps Uganda, who coincidentally was also staying there (in one of the 6 cabins!)-and knew it was him because Trish and Tim and he are friends.

Trish had the foresight to arrange for a driver for Lynn, Andrew and I the next morning so the rest of them could sleep in while we went on our gorilla trek. Good thing she did, as I’m not sure that their 4WD would have made it up the roads to where we started. The entire group of 16 gathered at 9am and we were off on one of the most strenuous hikes I’ve been on (maybe 2nd to Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan). We had to hike in about 2 hours to start off, with the lead guide on walkie-talkie with the trackers who go out early to try and spot the gorillas to tell the guides which way to hike in. That was the easy part-plenty of very steep incline and descents into the mountains, but usually on paths that had been used before. Once we met up w/the trackers, they pointed the guides in the right direction and the adventure really began. We hiked another 1/2 -1 hour until we came upon our first female gorilla, sitting and eating leaves. She didn’t sit long-and she took the rest of the group with her, moving constantly up the mountain. This is when the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest lived up to its name-we were trekking by machete-up, down, thru-wherever the gorillas went, we tried to follow or anticipate, while maintaining at least 70m distance (to prevent disease transmission)-and unfortunately they were going up! They finally mostly climbed into trees to eat and nap and we could stay still, try for photos and observe them, but only for another ½ hour, as each group is limited to 1 hour of observation/day. We never did get a good glimpse of the big silverback (most mature male of the group), as he was high in the trees the whole time. I have to say, it still amazes me when I look at my photos to think that these were actually gorillas in the wild.

After our all-too-brief hour was up, we still had 2 ½ hours of hiking out of the forest. Gotta say that we earned our keep that day-exhilarated but really exhausted. Our driver had gone on the hike with us-2 of the women in the group had an extra permit-seems some Americans they knew got spooked by the bombings and left the country early, giving them the permit to give away. He’d never trekked the gorillas, so was very appreciative. He got us over to our next lodge-the Wagtail-where we met up with the Menarins for dinner, a campfire, and some local storytelling/singing from a pygmy family (the pygmies of that region were pushed out of the Impenetrable Forest to protect the gorillas).

Up and out early the next morning for what turned out to be a “quick” 10 ½ hour return to Kampala. Unfortunately it was also our last day, as Lynn, Andrew and I flew out the following day (Monday) via Dubai to Casablanca.

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