Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Marabou Stork Nightmares

The only thing anyone seems to know about Uganda is Idi Amin, and that's not a good thing to know about so I went around the country paraphrasing Fawlty Towers in my head - "Don't mention Idi Amin, Don't mention Idi Amin".

As it was I never did, and nor did anyone else, it seems they have a lot more going on in Uganda than that after all! As we arrived from Kenya we were stunned by the friendly welcome we received, and a warm, sincere friendly welcome as well. In Kenya and Tanzania we were always treated in a friendly manner too but the sincerity was sadly lacking. Guidebooks always stress the importance of greetings but in my experience many locals forget their own greetings when faced with a white tourist. For example in Mali the greetings between two Malians can go on for several minutes but many greeted us with "Toubab, cadeau!" and an outstretched palm, which basically means "white man, give me something!" Not here however, everyone greets each other with "Hello, how are you?" and if you forget and launch straight into a question you are gently reminded with a "I'm fine, and you?"

It took us three crammed minibus rides from the Kenya-Uganda border to get to the town of Mbale, trying not to stand on the goats under the seats along the way. This was an introduction to Ugandan public transport. Whilst in Kenya and Tanzania they only sell each seat once in buses, shared taxis etc, here they sell each one at least twice. We normally squeezed at least 10 people into a normal saloon car, with the boot wide open and crammed full of luggage as well. The wheel arches would be scraping on the tires and before every police checkpoint the driver would order some people out and pay a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) to take them across the checkpoint. Minibuses normally seat about 28, plus the driver and conductor but they are happy to forego the bribe they will have to pay the police, a sign of how lucrative those extra few seats are! And how far can you ride on a boda-boda, especially with 20kg strapped on your back? We tried to avoid them but sometimes they were the only option, sometimes up to 20km, and believe me each kilometre feels like four times the distance!

With Mt Elgon looming over Mbale we introduced ourselves to Ugandan beer, which thankfully they serve chilled, unlike in Kenya and Tanzania! Nile Special immediately became my favourite beer so far in Africa. We also introduced ourselves to the fine Indian cuisine available in Uganda. All in all a very pleasant introduction.

The next day we continued up to Sipi Falls, close to the base of Mt Elgon. There are some small campsites on the opposite side of the valley from the falls, offering stunning views. It was a refreshingly low-key place to stay after the big places we had visited in Tanzania and Kenya! There are many trails around the area that offer views of the falls from different angles and it was great to just relax there. If it was at the end of our visit to Uganda we would probably have stayed much longer but as we were just beginning we were eager to keep on moving.

We passed through Jinja on the way to Kampala. Jinja is the adventure capital of East Africa and also the source of the White Nile river. After follwing the Nile south from Cairo to Khartoum and seeing the confluence of the White Nile and Blue Nile then visiting the Blue Nile source in Ethiopia this was our final farewell to this mighty river. Interestingly some of Gandhi's ashes were spread here when he died so we made a pilgrimage to the Gandhi memorial. I found this more appealing than the range of white-water rafting trips and other daredevil sports on offer. Jinja itself is quite a pleasant town, spread out and very green, with some retro-chic art deco buildings in the centre, strange but beautiful.

And on to Kampala. This is a city that defies description. Its built on seven hills but it is nothing like Rome and it can be very windy but that's where the comparisons with Chicago end. It is dusty, crowded and prone to poorly planned development but it is not quite like other African cities, it is far more livable in. We attended the 'Jam Session' outside the National Theatre, held every Monday. A Kampala institution, the budding musicians of the city get together and take turns to play, whilst enterprising hawkers sell cold beer to the bystanders. A fun evening, and only possible because Kampala is one African city where its not exactly suicide to go out after dark! The legions of marabou storks perched on roofs and trees across the city give a sinister air (and they are ugly creatures!) but actually Kampala felt very safe, by African standards!

Kampala also has a vague Asian feel, not surprising given the strong Asian influence over the years and we were even able to find a cafe offering Masala Dosai, possibly South India's greatest creation!

You may be surprised to hear that such good Indian food is available in Uganda after Idi Amin expelled all the Asians back in the early-70's, giving them 90 days to leave with nothing. Well, the problem was, as soon as they left the whole economy collapsed, they had such a stronghold on trade, import/export and industry and the Africans were not able to manage it themselves. So the current incumbent, President Musaveni invited them back, even offering them, or their descendants, the land that was taken from them. of course many were hesitant at first but the economy received the kickstart it needed and more and more are returning.

It must sound as though the only good food in Uganda is Indian food, but this is not the case. They also have some tasty local dishes. Beans are very common, cooked in tangy sauces and eaten with staples such as matoke - a stodgy but delicious mash of plantains, "Irish" potatoes, rice, chapatis, cassava or yams. They also have the same addiction chips as Kenya and Tanzania and of course chicken and goat are available for the rich people. Another favourite of mine is 'egg chop' - a hard boiled egg covered in mashed potato and lightly fried. However, the tea is not so good, brewed from bags rather than loose and they seem to use each bag at least three times! Its a good job that beer is good and available everywhere!

A girl on the bus from Kampala to Fort Portal told us that south-western Ugandans are different from those in the east. That they are less friendly. I did not know whether to believe her as there are plenty of tribal divides in Uganda, amplified by the favouring of certain tribes by every post-colonial President. Certainly it did not seem to be the case at our first stop in the south-west, Lake Nkuruba Community campsite. These community projects are common across the country, the organisers giving up to 80% of their profits back to the community, which means they are received in a more friendly way, and their guests are too. This is a great place to stay, perched on a rim overlooking the lake and with plenty of walking trails in the surrounding area. There is also a twice-weekly vibrant market in a village just 2km away. They serve delicious food and are able to organise many trips and transport options. It was also great to be surrounded by such peace and quiet, a million miles away from the campsite in Kampala crowded with overland trucks and gap-year brats!

We met an American couple at Lake Nkuruba, Adam and Yarrow,and together we headed on to the next community campsite, Ruboni campsite, in the foothills of the Rwenzori mountains, Africas highest mountain range. To trek in the Rwenzori National Park costs $567 for a 7-day trek but at the campsite they offer a day climb just outside the park, with stunning views, for about $7.50. It was so good my legs ached for days. The mountains are almost always covered in thick cloud but each day they would peep out just for a short while. I could have sat for days on the restaurant balcony at the campsite, eating their amazing food and gazing at the fine surroundings. Monika and I have been looking forward to getting to Zanzibar for some quality R+R time but these two campsites worked just as well!

After Kenya and Tanzania we did not want to spend a lot of money visiting the big game parks in Uganda as well, such as Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth, preferring to travel in a more off-the-beaten-track manner. We were not interested in tracking mountain gorillas either. At about $800 per hour, along with climbing Kilimanjaro, tracking the gorillas is just about the most expensive activity in Africa but for once I agree with the high cost. They have to limit the numbers somehow and they might as well make money to help with the preservation of the last remaining gorillas at the same time. That is if the money really goes back into the project. I would have liked to see some chimpanzees however but when we spent considerable time, effort and, not to mention, money to get to Kalinzu Forest Reserve we found the whole place deserted. Someone had been there recently because I saw a list of 2009/10 Premier League fixtures on the wall and they were only recently published, but there was no signs of life.

Now we found out why the girl on the bus had warned us about south west Uganda. Throughout two days of travel from the Rwenzoris to the Ssese islands on Lake Victoria all we got were lies, damn lies and more lies from every bus or taxi driver, non-existent service from hotel and restaurant staff and looks of hatred and resentment from everyone else. The final straw was someone jumping in my seat as I waited to be served food in a bar! By the time we got to Hornbill camp on the Ssese islands we were mentally bruised and battered! We needed a few days to recover before making the horror journey by minibus and boat back to Masaka and on to Tanzania! On the radio during this time we heard reports of two men being expelled from a village in the region due to them practising witchcraft, the evidence of which was that another villagers had trouble sleeping and heard strange noises and that someone else was having trouble with three of his goats. There was also the story of the ten pregnant pupils in one school, all impregnated by the same teacher. Most worrying were the reports we heard that up until just 10 or 12 years ago cannibalism was still rife across the south west, especially when the main course was a 'mzungu' (white man). They used to lure them into traps - such as covered pits with spikes poking up from the floor - and then pour boiling water on them. To me it sounded like some old VC booby traps, not Delias latest recipe.

This word 'mzungu' though. It is used across East Africa but especially in Uganda, and especially in the south west where they seem unaware that it is quite offensive to refer to someone by the colour of their skin. Several times I told someone my name, only for them to continue referring to me as 'mzungu' (to rhyme with 'shit'). Many tourists refer to each other as 'mzungu' thinking it is a friendly gesture. This I find absurd, amusing but also worrying in equal measures. How can it be friendly?

The Ssese islands have always enjoyed a very seperate life and culture from that of the mainland and they were lucky enough to avoid most of the madness during the reigns of Amin and Obote. The community is very close-knit, a facet we witnessed in the search for a missing camera in the main town of Kalangala. No-one could get away with any crime there as everyone knows everyone, a fact that the thief, a local worker, somehow overlooked. During the search we had a brief but bizarre conversation with Major Kaka, a local businessman with a military past. He told us that western employers must treat their staff worse, they should beat them to work harder, that is why they start to become thieves and the like. He was already drunk when he arrived at our campsite and we heard that later he forced his way into various homes in search of the camera. Maybe someone should have forced themselves into his home and 'beat' him!

Sadly Lake Victoria is dying. There are barely any fish left due to the lack of regulative measures that should have been put in place twenty years ago. The source of the main problem is the dreaded Nile Perch, a fish that is tasty when cooked but a devil in the water as it kills all the other fish. Added to this is the problem of pollution and over-fishing, which would be destructive enough in their own right. The Nowadays the fishing industry is grinding to a halt and many of the fisherman are turning to drink in their frustration. And early in the morning we awoke from our slumber in our tent to the sound of desperation setting in - dynamite fishing.

No comments:

Post a Comment