The Pearl of Africa:
TWO WEEKS, ONE TAPE RECORDER, AND NO CLUE WHERE TO BEGIN
It is pitch black at 5 a.m. when the coach bus crosses the border from Kenya to Uganda. The immigration checkpoint is located in Busia County, roughly eight hours northwest of Nairobi. Red-eyed and bleary, we line up to have our passports stamped, and in my case as a muzungu, to purchase a visa for the Pearl of Africa.
One hour later, documents in hand, I reach for the railing to re-board the bus. I am hastily pulled off however, by a Ugandan border control officer who asks to see my newly-inked papers. “What are you doing in Uganda?” he demands, surveying my passport with the light of his cell phone. I tell him I am a tourist, visiting friends in the capital. My answer seems sufficient until he flips the pages and declares my Kenyan visa ‘illegitimate,’ so I quickly show him my residency card. This prompts questions about my business back in Nairobi, but after a brief inquiry about my “ethnic background,” I am waved back onto the bus to Uganda.
By the time I arrive, the sun is bright in the sky over Kampala, a city of 1.7 million people located northeast of Lake Victoria. It’s the weekend and I decide to hang my journalist hat until Monday. After dropping my bags off in Kabalagala, I hop on the back of a boda boda for an afternoon tour of the beautiful capital.
(Travel Tip – if you’re looking for a quick way to hit all the top tourist attractions, Walter’s Boda Boda City Tours can take you around Kampala for less than USh80,000)
Cruising on the back of a puttering motorbike, I immediately take note of the similarities between Kampala and Nairobi. The former feels like a condensed version of the latter, but with slightly cleaner air and a more relaxed atmosphere. Like the Kenyan capital, Kampala’s streets are lined with hawkers, beggars and crazy conductors who contribute to the city’s impermeable traffic. Here however, fewer people seem bothered by it and I have found Kampala to be a relatively easy-going place. But I still feel like a stranger here; I can’t speak a word of Luganda and I have no idea where anything is. Luckily, Apollo, my driver and fixer for the week, is happy to translate and show me around:
It is said Kampala was built on seven hills, making it one of several cities around the world to make this romantic, historical claim. Yet from the top of the Gaddafi Mosque minaret, seven hills are clearly visible: Kasubi, Mengo, Kibuli, Namirembe, Lubaga, Nsambya and Kampala.
Views of Kampala from left to right:
1 – The “organized chaos” taxi stage in downtown Kampala
2 – An urban slum in Kabalagala
3 – A bird’s eye view from the top of the Gaddafi Mosque minaret
4 – Brutal Saturday morning traffic – can you imagine Kampala on a work day?
Sites of Kampala from left to right:
1 – Sampling traditional Ugandan footwear at the national museum near Mengo Palace
2 – Mengo Palace, also known as Lubiri, the royal compound of the Kabaka (King of Buganda)
3 – Entering the torture chambers of Idi Amin, hidden beneath the Kabaka’s compound
4 – Red dirt hand prints of Idi Amin’s victims, desperately trying to escape their underground prison
The Uganda National Mosque (or Gaddafi Mosque):
This skyscraper mosque lies at the peak of Kampala Hill in the old part of the city. Completed in 2006, it has space for nearly 20,000 worshipers across its floor, gallery and terrace, which are beautifully-decorated with Arabic, Ugandan and European themes. The mosque was a gift to Uganda from former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi and was officially opened in June 2007. It costs USh 10,000 for entry, a guided tour and a mandatory headscarf – a small price to pay for the spectacular view at the top of its minaret.
After a day well-spent touring the capital, I pack my bags for my next adventure, a day of whitewater rafting on the Nile River. I catch the pink sunrise at 5 a.m. on the way to Jinja where I am welcomed to a breakfast of tea and Rolex (fried egg rolled up in chapati). Eager to step foot in one of the world’s most famous bodies of water, I quickly suit up in a helmet and life jacket, pumped for 26 kilometres of Grade 5 rapids. A group of eight, we paddle together for more than five hours, the fast-moving water showing little mercy. Every now and then, the waves flip the raft over, sending each of us swirling through underwater currents (I’ve always wanted to drink from the Nile!). We are joined on the river by a variety of wildlife; egrets, herons and African snake birds, who chew on reeds and fish as we pass by, occasionally swooping over our heads. When the water is finally calm, I jump out of the raft to swim and soak in the ambiance of my exotic surroundings.
(Travel Tip – Nalubale is a fabulous company that offers daily rafting trips for all skill levels at a starting price of USD 125).
This is undoubtedly one of the most memorable experiences I will ever have travelling, I think to myself. Wading through the Nile’s mysterious waters, I am swimming through history yet simultaneously soaking in the present. What did all of this look like 2,000 years ago? The children who bathe naked by the shoreline and wave to us – are they as mystified by the Nile as I am? Have they been conditioned to understand its prominence? I suspect for them, it is just a big river, a source of livelihood, as all rivers are. Perhaps my fascination with this water is silly… At the end of the day, what do I really know about it or its significance in Uganda rather than Egypt?
I am still revelling in these memories by the end of the week when I make my way west to Mbarara. It’s a small town on the way to Queen Elizabeth National Park, where I plan to embark on two days of game drives. The route from the capital to this trade and transit hub is stunning, four hours spread over dozens of villages and informal settlements. On the way, I stop in Masaka for a cheesy, quintessential tourist photo of the Ugandan equator line, then carry on to lush green forests, grassy hillsides and sparkling crater lakes on the road to Mbarara. I pass dozens of tea and rice farms on the way while dodging boda bodas and passing livestock. In rural Uganda, ankole cattle and goat herds take ownership over the pot-holed roads, and I even catch a glimpse of them travelling – a live cow on a motorbike! It was an amusing drive to say the least.
After spending the night in Mbarara, I check into a beautiful campsite in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda’s most-visited natural reserve. My canvas tent is a first-class establishment, complete with a patio, table and reading lamp. After settling in and arranging dinner plans, I hang my clothes up to dry (peach juice, predictably, has exploded all over my backpack) and hop in the truck for my first game drive. After a bit of meatball surgery on the truck engine (involving tweezers and copper wire), I am 10 kilometres into the park, which spans four entire districts: Kasese, Kamwenge, Bushenyi and Rukungiri. Luck is with me this afternoon and before I know it, I am face to face the country’s famous tree lions, who have clearly just eaten and are ready to nap. How strange to see such majestic cats so bloated and lazy, barely able to raise their heads as a result of predatory gluttony. Moving on, waterbok, kob and impala dot the yellow plains as far as the eye can see and elephants roam freely by the roadside…
(Travel Tip – For affordable accomodations with varying degrees of available luxury, check out Bush Camp at Nature Lodges).
Animals from left to right:
1 – Mama baboon and her baby, munching on the side of the entrance to Queen Elizabeth National Park
2 – A waterbok checks out our truck from the grassy plains in the centre of the reserve
3 – A pair of red-necked francolins dig for grub near termite mounds
4 – A monitor lizard soaks in the sun on a pile of brush
Animals from left to right:
1 – A martial eagle surveys the savanna for prey in the early morning hours
2 – A bull elephant takes note of the truck, ready to chase us away from its young
3 – Tree lions lounge around Queen Elizabeth National Park
For two days I am privileged to these incredible sights; shimmering waters, glowing sunrises, elegant animals and more. Around 3 o’clock in the morning, my campsite is invaded by a herd of hippos who are so close, they ruffle the walls of my tent. These impressive mammals weigh between two and three tonnes each and are responsible for more human deaths per year than any other animal in Africa. Crouching quietly inside with my flashlight, I am immediately terrified and utterly fascinated. They take no notice of my presence however, and after watching from the window of my tent for a while, I decide to risk outdoor exposure. I sit on the patio to observe their grazing; they must be accustomed to humans, especially at the campsite, which I suspect is part of their regular eating grounds. I am still and silent, practically within arm’s reach of these creatures, who munch on the grass and grunt to each other. When they leave, I am left outside to absorb this experience while admiring the twinkling stars in the azure sky. I am completely invigorated… This is all real and this is my life.
I spent almost two weeks exploring Uganda, and most importantly, corresponding from Kampala as a reporter. My time spent working had its challenges: No language skills, little context, few resources and virtually no clue where to begin. I have never put myself under this kind of pressure before, and it tested my skills as a traveller and journalist. Through trial and error, I learned how to manage my time while working outside of a structured environment and how to research effectively in preparation for an article. My story hunt took me all over the city, from the bustling city centre to the slums of Namuwongo, Wakaliga and Kisenyi. I met fascinating people with fascinating stories and perfected the art of being approachable as a foreign national and journalist. Over the course of 10 days, some stories flopped and some stories flew – either way, I discovered the importance of following a focused idea. At the end of the day, you can’t write an article based on a theme, it has to be “people doing something for some reason.” It’s a lesson I learned way back in J-school, but perhaps had lost sight of as a result of being spoon-fed hard news stories for more than a year.
Photos from my three feature stories
I came out of this trip with three full features and a handful of Rogers and Hammerstein moments (see Week 10 of Sierra Leone) that will last me a lifetime. I left Uganda feeling refreshed as a reporter and full of zest for my new life abroad. Even the arrest and detention of my bus driver on the way back from Kampala couldn’t spoil my glittery experience; this adventure was a success both professionally and personally. Every tree bore unexpected fruit and I can’t imagine having done it differently. On the fridge of my friend’s home in Kabalagala, there is magnet enscribed with the inspiring phrase, “Life begins where your comfort zone ends.” They have a similar saying in Uganda, “Familiarity is like the sea that killed the fisherman.”
Altogether, the phrase means be bold, be alert, be adventurous, and above all else, never settle. The lesson was unintentional, but one of many I learned while reporting from the beautiful Pearl of Africa.
READ MY FEATURES:
- Everybody in Uganda is Kung Fu Fighting – Jan. 2015, Roads and Kingdoms
- In one Uganda slum, gambling is a prudent financial investment – Feb. 2015, VICE NEWS
- Why Somalis feel at home in Kisenyi – Nov. 2014, The East African