Borders make a difference. Biking from Kenya into Uganda is like biking into a different world, though only subtly so, like in the beginning of a Twilight Zone episode when the main character doesn’t quite realize something is horribly wrong – the people look largely the same, the infrastructure is all but identical, even the advertisements on the billboards seemed part of the same campaign – but still… it’s different somehow…
It was only as we left Busia and pedaled off into a stretch of forest that I figured out just why: Uganda is green.
And then the stretch of forest continued on and I figured out the other difference: it’s empty.
Which is not to say Kenya is some kind of overpopulated wasteland, it’s not, it’s really a beautiful country, a country we came to appreciate more in fact the more time we spent in Uganda. But then there we were, just inside the Ugandan border pedaling under an arcade of trees, baboons running away from our approach, small unmanned market stalls with jackfruit the size of my torso for sale every few kilometers…
We spent a rest day in Jinja, lazing in anonymity and wondering why we hadn’t come to Uganda sooner. Then there was another stretch of forest between Jinja and Kampala and then Kampala itself, a modern city with Mzungu everywhere you looked. We spent a week in Kampala recovering from a stomach bug and over-eating with some recovering Congolese aid workers we met. But then the road was calling again – all that green! all that empty space! – and we headed north towards Masindi, the town at the entrance to Murchison Falls National Park.
There was a bit of a change in our biking routine at this point. Rather than picking a set number of kilometers and killing ourselves to make sure we got there no matter what the terrain held in store, we started biking 5 hours a day instead. Whether that is 100 kilometers or 5 kilometers, it is about as long as we can be in our saddles in comfort and still arrive at our destination with some energy left over to actually see the place. It also means we can bike more days consecutively without a rest day, and so in the long run we think it lets us move faster.
The genius of the new technique was proven just north of Kampala, when we stopped our first day after 5 hours and 15 minutes of biking before the modest little compound of John and his family. This was our first time asking for hospitality in Africa, and it went easily enough – no sooner had we stopped our bikes and decided to go ask if we could plant our tent somewhere than John was out on the road shouting “Welcome! Welcome! You are welcome! Please stay!” and hurrying us and our bikes into his front yard as if he had been expecting us.
Since we had only done 80 kilometers that day, we had enough energy left to follow as John gave us the tour of his home and small plot of land and took us over to the stagnant pond an NGO had constructed as their local water source. While we washed, he sent his children out to tell the neighbors of our arrival (as if they didn’t know) and then while we ate dinner we greeted the entire village, from children to grandparents, who had come over to see the Mzungu on bikes. In the morning, they all came back once more to watch us head out, and we biked away with a few stalks of sugarcane tucked in our bag as parting gifts.
And so we were glad for the new system, particularly as heading north the roads deteriorated (including at one point a five minute canoe ride across a crocodile-infested river (it sounds more dramatic than it was, trust me)) and the hills got worse. Uganda, we realized then, is also hilly.
Masindi is the entry point to Murchison falls National Park. We didn’t go to the park though, feeling that there would be no problem seeing nature for free in Uganda. Instead, we headed on to Hoima with the intention of biking along a road that looked on the map as if it stretched along the top of the escarpment looking out on Lake Albert. In the event it may have been on the top of the escarpment or not, we couldn’t really tell since we couldn’t see the lake or, more importantly to us, the Blue Mountains of Congo on its far border. Eventually we gave up on both and taking the straight shot that our map assured us would take us back to the main road, we slid our way down a steep hill (the escarpment, we later learned) only to reach a fork…
By then, our five hours were just about up, and so when a passing driver assured us we were lost, but that the lake was just ten kilometers farther, we decided to take the fork, and we wound up in a small campsite just outside the fishing village of Sebagoro (not on the map). The manager of the campsite, Godwyn, took us for a walk through the village after we set up our tent. The people were mostly Congolese, he told us, they had come over from the other side of the lake during the war and had been given some land by the Ugandan government – a little compensation from Museveni for having invaded and plundered their country – never let it be said the man doesn’t have a heart…
The village was a small circle of thatched huts, and the children chasing us shouted “Mundu,” which Godwyn told us was the Lingala equivalent of “Mzungu.” Good to know. Along the water, old men were patching nets by hand and fishermen were poling their boats to shore, getting ready to float out during the night with their lanterns. Times were difficult though, Godwyn told us. The fish had moved over to the Congolese side of the lake recently, scared off by explosions from the oil exploration going on on the Ugandan side.
Yes, oil has been found here, directly under Lake Albert in fact. The town of Sebagoro included a newly built school – a gift from Tullow Oil, the company, along with Heritage Oil, doing the exploration. Oil, to the tune of over 400 million barrels, has been found in Murchison Falls and Kabwoya National Parks as well. They haven’t quite begun pumping yet – the oil in the parks in particular is somewhat problematic. According to a Ugandan newspaper, The Independent, the government is legally prohibited from drilling within the parks, and even from exploring for oil; though apparently this hasn’t stopped them – the Ugandan Wildlife Authority has said it supports the drilling. Meanwhile, in Kabwoya, oil workers have been accused of responsibility for the the upswing in poaching recently, including the killing of the only male reedbuck antelope in the whole park, recently imported from another park in order to make the herd self-sustaining. Its head was found in the possession of a Tullow Oil contractor. So much for that effort.
Maybe, we began to wonder, Uganda really isn’t as green as it seems…
From Sebagoro we went on to Kyenjojo and the tarmac road, passing through an unexpected stand of tropical forest – a reserve, and a welcome change from the desiccated range land all around the lake shore. On the far side, stopping in a small village for a soda we were asked: “Are you here to exploit the oil?” Clearly we were not the first Mzungu to pass through town.
In Fort Portal we couch surfed and then took a break for a week to visit a permaculture site in Southern Uganda and to renew our visas in Kampala. Talking with our hosts in Fort Portal, Tom and Kathleen, a Belgian couple living in Uganda for two years while Kathleen works for an NGO promoting organic farming techniques and Tom volunteers at the local botanical gardens, our vision of Green Uganda took another blow. They both seemed frustrated and disenchanted with Uganda and the development sector. Too many organizations working to achieve the same goals, all developed in Europe or the US, with little idea of what would make sense or be effective on the ground. And meanwhile, a sentiment echoed by every NGO worker we have met over the last six weeks, whether from Uganda or Congo or elsewhere, most of the local Ugandans are more interested in extorting money from the funding organizations than in actually changing their country according to the organizations’ goals.
Organic farming, permaculture, those are priorities brought in from Europe and the US and if that is what it takes to get the funding flowing then that is what it takes. An organization formed to promote the use of dioxin in baby formula and to encourage female genital mutilation would probably have just as easy a time staffing itself and getting running on the ground though. Fortunately, it would probably be just as ineffective.
The permaculture site we visited was a similar story. We reached it by bus from Kampala, bumping along the road all the way and wondering how people ever manage to travel by public transport – we’ll take a good Brooks leather saddle over a plastic-covered bus seat any day.
The project we visited was at the Sabina School, and it has been put in place at the initiative of the American NGO Children of Uganda to generate both food and money for the school while involving the children in more environmental education. The design for the site was done by Australians Dan Palmer and Amanda Cuyler, and when we arrived a permaculture design course had just finished and there was even talk of trying to develop a permanent permaculture center on the land.
Certainly the work there was impressive – more on that is forthcoming in the permaculture section – and we weren’t there for long enough to to get a sense of how it all effects the lives of the children living at the school, but when an American teaching at the school told us that the vegetables in the garden generally rot during the school year without being harvested since they are just not the kind of vegetables Ugandans eat, and when we saw the banana trees growing in an area that had been otherwise designated during the design, we were left again with that feeling that something was off…
An upside of the visit down there though was meeting Eric, a French participant in the design course who we had seen speak at the French permaculture festival this past summer. He is a wizard when it comes to botany and ecology and a lot of his ideas actually had a pretty strong impact on us. It all makes us eager to have our own land one day – but in the meantime we are satisfying ourselves with some guerrilla gardening, planting all the seeds from the fruit we eat in places they’re likely to survive.
Part of the something that was off in Ssanje might have been Anna though, who was diagnosed with malaria. A further consultation in Kampala revealed that she didn’t have malaria in fact, and that, in the words of the doctor in Kampala, who launched a thirty minute rant the moment Anna announced that she had tested positive to malaria in Ssanje, “The average Ugandan doctor can’t tell a parasite from a platelet.” The problem, he told us, is the education system. They are pushed to memorize and memorize, never to think…
Anyway, we had a lot in our heads at this point, which is generally a sign we need to get our butts back in the saddle – nothing like some rolling Ugandan hills to keep you from thinking too much. Once Anna was feeling better, we set out.
From Fort Portal, the rolling hills and dirt roads continued. We crossed Kibale Forest again, hoping to see chimps – no luck.
We then followed the eastern shore of Lake George along some seriously terrible roads, and headed the length of Queen Elizabeth National Park, hoping to see elephants and lions. Just as we were leaving, after seventy kilometers of basically no animals (we saw one buffalo – who sees one buffalo?), we saw two elephants playing in a river. As for lions – no luck.
In Ishasha, we took a rest day and talked for a long time with Michael, manager of the campsite where we were staying. Michael is a teacher by training but he now works at the campsite since it was impossible to earn a living in the classroom. He echoed many of our Kampala doctor’s sentiments about Ugandan education actually, and we realized that this maybe went a long way to explaining how distant we felt from most Ugandans. In Kenya, in almost every town it seemed we would meet someone who spoke flawless English and who had enough education to be able to talk about the world with even a critical spirit – both towards Africa and towards Europe and the US. In Uganda though, Michael was really the first person we met who could explain to us what was going on, the first Ugandan from whom we really learned a lot about Uganda. Suffice it to say, he’s the best campsite manager we’ve ever met.
Not least of all since that night he invited us to the wedding of one of his workers. With his assurances that dirty clothes were totally appropriate wedding attire (white people, we came to realize, could come naked and still be treated as the most important guests), we left the campsite that evening along the rainy road to where a tent had been built of surplus UNHCR tarps in the front yard of the groom’s home.
The wedding itself had actually already happened, what we were there for was the arrival of the bride at her new home – the party, essentially.
The bride was supposed to arrive at 19:00, and we were seated in the position of honor along one of the benches under the tent, next to Michael and the groom’s father, by just after 19:00.
But the bride didn’t come…
The groom’s father gave us sodas and then eventually we were told the bride was waiting for everyone to have eaten before she would come. So we all were served rice and goat stew and when we had eaten our full, the plates were cleared and…
The bride didn’t come…
Michael went for more information – even for ‘Africa Time’ things were getting a bit late by now. Apparently there had been a motorcycle accident on the road, but everyone was okay, the bride had just scraped her arm some. It was the rain and the mud – she was riding on the back of a motorcycle in her wedding dress. She would be there soon, we were told.
Though by 23:00… the bride still hadn’t come.
Michael went again to ask for information, and it turned out the bride actually had come, that she was there outside the tent in fact, but that her parents were trying to renegotiate the dowry, and that unless the groom could cough up the equivalent of 15 US dollars, he wouldn’t be able to marry the woman he loved – the wedding would be called off.
Michael, the only Ugandan there who could have afforded such an exorbitant sum, offered to pay them if they came by the campsite the next day, and the wedding was suddenly back on, with the bride ushered into the room, stern-faced from all the negotiations and the near cancellation of the event.
The groom’s family gave a series of speeches to prove the groom’s worth as a man, pointing to the mzungu who had come especially for his wedding because he was so important in the world. Michael spoke as well, and after referring once more to our presence, he managed to get us excused from the rest of the event – we felt lame for leaving, but it was almost midnight and with three cokes in our stomachs we both desperately needed a bathroom…
Fifteen dollars… The wedding had almost been called off for 15 dollars…
The number kept in our heads as we biked since the next leg of our trip took us through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, where every day 24 Mzungu pay 500 dollars each to spend an hour watching a gorilla (not counting the cost of guides, transport, lodging, food, tips, etc.).
We had talked about indulging in this too, I’ll admit it, but then the realization of just how extravagant a sum that is turned us off – that and the realization of just how expensive traveling in Kenya and Uganda can be…
Instead, we just wanted to bike through the park to see the forest. We have become somewhat addicted to tropical forests over the past few weeks – there is simply nothing like them back where we come from – so much life, so densely packed. Between the trees, the air, the humidity and the bird calls, they are really astounding places where – at least for two burgeoning anarchists such as ourselves – it’s hard not to be awed.
Moreover, no matter our initial image of Green Uganda, the forest reserves are actually the only real places of wilderness left here; right at their boundaries the endless chain of small farming plots begins again.
Almost every inch of land in Uganda that is not a reserve is under this kind of cultivation. We spent many days biking past forests being burned to be prepared for planting, past steep sloping fields which were left bare as if their owners were just trying to have it all eroded by the next heavy rainfall. And all of this in a country whose population is set to double in the next ten to twenty years. It’s hard to imagine that any of the forests we have biked through will still be around then. Of course, subsistence agriculture could take the place of the extensive tea plantations we biked through, or the endless fields of sugarcane or coffee trees, but those are export crops, those fields belong to Europeans and Americans, and so I think we all know that they won’t be the ones cut down to make room for food…
Though actually, maybe we just love forests so much because horrible as it sounds, when we bike in them we don’t have to see quite so many locals. Particularly around Bwindi, the harassment we got along the road (more on that below) was overwhelming, with hordes of children chasing us up hills shouting “Give me a money” and kicking our bags when we refused.
This kind of reception is annoying anywhere, but when it comes as you are dragging a loaded touring bike up a steep hill along a loose gravel road where you have to either ride in the narrow rut carved by the last rain storm or along the sandy edge where your tires get no purchase, it can be downright infuriating. Suffice it to say, Ugandan English has added some colorful new vocabulary over the past few weeks thanks to me.
Fortunately though we learned that if you slam on your breaks and turn quickly, the kids all run screaming. They’re scared of mzungu in fact – something it is nice to use to your advantage from time to time.
And we did use it from time to time, particularly as we biked up into Bwindi from Butagota. And then again as we biked back down to Butagota from Bwindi, when we realized that one of my large bags had fallen off somewhere along the way. Just our tent and all of my clothes, nothing important… Fortunately an old man had brought it back to the police station in town, and so aside from having to spend the night in Butagota, we were quite lucky.
Still, we had lost a day, and the next day we had to bike back up past the same children to Bwindi. It rained through the afternoon and we kicked ourselves for not having made it through the day before. We spent the night in Ruhija, the whole village shrouded in the clouds.
The next morning was clearer and we hoped to make an early start to get to Kabale, but then our breakfast was late and the woman at the campsite had to run around the village to find us change and everything was taking so long. Even the Brits traveling by car to see the gorillas got out of the campsite before us.
When we were finally on the road, the hills kept on, the road in its same deteriorated state. We passed the mzungu who were gathering to track the gorillas and rode on along the public road until soon there were no people around, just us and the forest. Anna was biking in front then and as I rounded a bend I saw her stopped on her bike and pointing to the side of the road, stuttering “Guh, Guh, Guh,” and I pedaled up to her, and there it was, a silver-back mountain gorilla sitting in the bush next to the road munching on some leaves. We parked our bikes and watched him for a time – there was another gorilla uphill from us, another down below that we couldn’t see, and they all grunted to each other softly as if to just make sure they were all still there.
A ranger came eventually and hurried us along (“There is no stopping on this road,” he told us, though everyone we have related this to who knows something about the area agrees that this means “No stopping around gorillas for mzungu who have not paid 500 dollars.”) but we didn’t mind so much anymore. Even the harassment which continued on the other side of the park and the standard shock when the forest was replaced by scattered stands of eucalyptus weren’t so bad. Every few minutes we would slide next to each other along the road and say “Imagine if we hadn’t lost the bag!” or “Imagine if the breakfast hadn’t been late!”
And so in the end we did see some Ugandan wilderness, some of the little bit that remains.
Sometimes, we find ourselves wishing we had done this trip thirty or forty years ago: imagine what the forests were like then – and we could have crossed Somalia when it was green, we could have crossed Afghanistan when it was peaceful, and Iran and Iraq, and…
But all of this is senseless – it’s just another expression of every traveler’s need to feel that they’re seeing something authentic, something real. What’s going on in Uganda is authentic though, it is real. In the end, we’re glad we came through here at such an interesting time; in twenty years, there’s no doubt other travelers will be thinking, “Man, I wish we’d come through here in 2010, back when there were still forests and still gorillas…”
We are writing all of this from the island of Byoona Amagara, in one of the side channels of Lake Bunyoni, tucked in the mountains west of Kabale not far from the Rwanda border. This is one of the most peaceful places either of us have ever been, and it is a good place to sit sorting through photos and writing up a little text and otherwise just reading and trying what little yoga we can remember from Cecile’s class. We will head to Rwanda in a few days and then on from there to Tanzania.
Really though we are here to recover. The last few weeks have been pretty hard traveling. Part of this is the endless chain of rolling hills – all of it accessed by sandy dirt roads where your tires spin out without gaining any purchase as you try to crawl your way up and the cars spray a cloud of dust that leaves you blind for a minute after they pass. “There are two seasons in Uganda,” a cab driver in Kampala had told us, “Rain and Dust.”
Part of this also has been the interactions with the Ugandan people. We have met many very nice, kind people here, and we have been welcomed into their homes and even invited to their weddings. Unfortunately though, we have far more often been laughed at, made fun of, and harassed for money. Climbing a 30 kilometer hill on a washed out rutted dirt track is all the more difficult when you’re doing it amidst a horde of children shouting “Give me a money!” and kicking and grabbing at your bags when you say no. And it is not just children – we have had well-dressed adults addressing us too with just a hand held out and a “Give me money” said in the same tone your father used to use to tell you to “Go to your room.”
This isn’t everyone’s experience of Uganda. Most travelers we talk to seem to rave about the welcome they have received here (“And the people are SO nice!”). Most travelers we talk to also seem to spend their time going from tourist site to tourist site, and to rarely interact with Ugandans who are not hotel workers or guides. When we meet other tourists who travel as we do or similarly, they seem to share our impression – many of them seem to be on the same island we are on now, recovering before heading to Rwanda.
It’s sad to leave a country with a bad taste in our mouths like that, and of course there are a host of reasons why people treat us so poorly, many of them perfectly legitimate; but all of that would be too long to articulate here. I should mention on the upside though that a large number of Ugandan children seem to think I look like Jesus (white guy, beard), which I take as a significant improvement on the Chuck Norris comparisons I got all the time in Kenya.
Part of the hardship of the past six weeks has also come from being far from home though. I became an uncle in January for one, which is wonderful news, and yet I still haven’t met my nephew. I hope only that Charlie understands and won’t hold it against me for too long.
For Anna’s part, her godfather died the same day she was (mis)diagnosed with malaria. Adrien was a big part of her life, and it is hard to imagine that he won’t be coming to visit us and that if we went back to Belgium now, he wouldn’t be there.
But there is nothing to be done really. We are here now and we have many kilometers ahead of us. Births, deaths, nothing for it but to just keep pedaling…