Published: June 20th 2009May 14th 2009
Kung fu boys
As per standard operating procedure for bus companies in Kenya, I'm told to report to the office half an hour before departure. I'm staggered to arrive at this time and find that I am the last passenger to check in and, once my backpack is stowed and I'm on board, we depart 20 minutes early. Is this Africa?
The bus or the driver or the road or possibly some combination of all three are not that great, and every bump sees me having to hang on to the armrest to avoid heading skyward. However the bus is also not even half full so I have a double seat to myself as well as sole control of the window for ventilation purposes. More unbelievably, we stop only at the border so there are none of the constant meal breaks that blight journeys in, say, Ethiopia. I could grow to like this.
Once we cross the border, the journey has nothing of enormous interest value, though it does show that the Ugandan countryside is extremely lush. First impressions are that the poverty is greater than in Kenya and we pass numerous brightly painted houses in the colours of the various mobile
phone companies that are swallowing up Africa. The name of the town of Bugiri provides some momentary amusement, though I'm more entertained by the Manlady Beauty Centre, which is sadly not for cross-dressers. I don't dare look in the window of the Glans Centre. Further smiles are brought to my face by the Swallows Pub, though I don't have time to investigate if it has a leather pony. After encountering Toss washing powder in Kenya, it seems as though its counterpart in Uganda is Bull. I also notice Bismillah on a number of vans and stores, its Bohemian Rhapsody connection of less importance than that it means "In the name of Allah".
At Jinja, we cross the Nile, whose source is close by. Three months of travel have been linked by the same river, so I'm prepared to accept that it is indeed the longest in the world. Jinja is a popular stop for adrenaline activities but I'm not tempted.
We hit Kampala about two hours earlier than the estimate I'd been given by the ticket office, a situation I'm not at all unhappy with. I've read that "taxi" here means a matatu
, or shared minibus, so there
Heroes and villains
Remaining toilet from Kiro Kabowa school with maize factory in the background, Kabowa district
is some initial confusion while I try to find a vehicle that obeys my definition of taxi. And the guy wants three times the fare I was expecting to take me to my chosen accommodation. I blow him off, walk a couple of hundred metres from the bus stop, and am offered a fare actually less than what I was expecting.
The hostel is dark, which turns out to be because of a power cut rather than that it's closed (my first fear). I've read that the hostel bar is kickin' on a Friday or Saturday night but there are just three other people there, sitting quietly in the half-light. I order sausage and chips and a beer, pleased that I am out of Kenya but feeling a little unprepared for Uganda. The reception/bar is staffed by a bevy of local girls, one of whom is a beautician by training. She tells me that 94% of Ugandan women have hair extensions. I haven't been in a Ugandan supermarket yet but I do remember my eye being caught by a large selection of hair extensions in the Nakumatt in Nairobi.
My first task in this new country is to
get some money, which turns out to be significantly harder than I had imagined. Conflicting stories on the Internet had suggested that Mastercard acceptance by ATMs wasn't widespread but did exist, however my initial empirical evidence is that Mastercard is carta non grata
here. A long and sweaty slog through the thronged streets of Kampala sees me visiting what feels like every damned ATM in the city limits. There are queues at all of them and it is touching, if annoying, to see the security guards pressed into service to show many of the queuers how to operate the ATM. I eventually admit defeat and change all my remaining sterling and Kenyan shillings. It seems I will have to throw myself on the tender mercies of either Western Union or DHL.
The centre of Kampala itself is a mess of traffic, crowds, market stalls, and - in the wake of flooding yesterday - mud. It doesn't seem particularly attractive however I am heartened by the friendliness of the local people and their willingness to not only give me directions but ask further afield for help if they don't know the place I'm seeking. I see a hip hop lingerie
store which claims it is "4 All Yo Panties".
I return to the hostel and find that I am sodden with sweat. It's clearly a lot hotter here than Nairobi. A shower and change of clothes makes me presentable again and I repair to the hostel cafe to catch up on some Internet.
It is here that I meet Nikki. An Englishwoman with a background as a bank manager and latterly a chiropractor (for both humans and animals), she is also running a charity providing care for kids in Kampala
- which includes chiropractic treatment, provision of mosquito nets, as well as helping with the running of two schools in slum areas of the city. Her partner runs a fuel transportation business and both of them will be relocating to Kampala from their respective home countries later in the year. Sadly, I meet her during a crisis - while she was out of Uganda, a maize factory had bullied the schools' owner into accepting a lowball offer for the land on which one of the schools was built, and education inspectors have said the second school must close on account of it being in contravention of various education
Kung fu boy
and construction laws. It seems as though the loss of one school building is inevitable, though a court case should result in the owner receiving a more appropriate amount of money for the land - whatever, this means 150 kids are going to lose their school. Regarding the ruling by the education inspectors, Nikki has fought a tremendous rearguard action, eventually getting them onside and allowing her to keep the school open. Her concession has had to be to accept the demolition of the second school and the rebuilding of a new, albeit temporary, timber one. The plus point of this is that they can rebuild it with enough space for the kids kicked out of the other school.
Nikki needs to visit the site to make sure that the rebuilding is on course - there is only a small window during the kids' holidays for this to happen. She asks if I would like to come along. It's so hard as a traveller to see beneath the surface of a place unless an opportunity like this arises, so I jump at it.
We go into the slum via boda boda
, i.e. on the back of a motorbike.
Kung fu boy
are the cheapest and quickest way to get around the city, and they probably contribute more patients to Kampala's A&E departments than any other individual source due to their erratic and dangerous driving. Fortunately Nikki knows a "safe" driver, who brings a friend on another bike to transport us both.
The buildings in the slum are decrepit, the ground uneven and slippery - I have seen worse but it's still a depressing environment. As we dismount, we are surrounded by a group of smiling children, who all clearly know Nikki and are intrigued by this other mzungu
that she has brought with her. A couple of them grab her hands and won't let go. I introduce myself, smile until my jaw hurts, and try to pose less of a threat than my 6'3" unshaven appearance might indicate. Eventually I am rewarded with my own handholders, and several others who stroke my arms, apparently marvelling at the whiteness of my flesh. In fact later there is a minor scuffle as to who gets to hang on to my left hand.
Building has barely commenced on the new school, with just a few foundation holes and main posts
in place. One of the buildings has been given over to storage of materials from the other demolished school, as not only is reuse more cost-effective but without storage the timber, bricks, etc will be stolen. The cheekiest child asks me for my watch, which Nikki reprimands him for. Later, he asks me where I got it and, when I say Japan, he asks me if I know Jackie Chan.
Nikki shows me the playground behind the school. Originally this was going to be the site of some temporary classrooms, but the owner of the land wanted a ludicrous amount of rent so it had to be downgraded to a playground. Nearby is a stretch of wasteland that Nikki hopes to at least rent, at best buy, to construct a permanent concrete building in 2010.
We retire to the bursar's "office", a small room barely big enough for the three chairs and small desk it contains. Nikki shows me the blueprints for the timber school. I learn that the two-storey structure is intended to last them until the end of the year and will cost all of USh6,000,000 (=~$3,000) to build. The founder of the two schools is
Kiro Kabowa school, Kabowa district
from the slums herself and this is her way of giving back to the community. The remaining school has the lowest fees of any in the area and is running at a loss of USh5,000,000 (=~$2,500) per year, which the founder is funding through loans. Nikki is hoping to establish a teacher sponsorship scheme to at least cover the teachers' salaries, which account for nearly three quarters of the school's total outlay.
We next visit a nearby music store, where I am shown a video of a performance by the school choir at a political rally. It's cheesy but the music, composed by the school's music teacher, is catchy and there is an infectious enthusiasm to the kids' singing. Nikki's mother has stipulated that her contributions must go to a "fun fund" rather than the more serious work, and her latest donation has covered the cost of some drums plus outfits for the choir's thirty members. Nikki points out that it's easy to assume, as adults, that kids need nutrition, school books, sanitation, etc. but in the mind of a child, fun is perhaps the top priority. She says this was brought home to her when she spoke to
Kiro Kabowa school, Kabowa district
the kids about what they wanted most, and the consensus was a netball court.
We return our handholders to their part of the slum, then wander along to the school whose land has been sold to the maize company. Our route is along what appears to be a disused railway line that passes through patches of mud and at intervals is almost covered in undergrowth. In fact this is one of the main cargo transport arteries through the country. Yards away from the tracks are shacks containing homes and shops. We pass large groups of men playing dice, who eye us curiously. Kids shout and wave. Some come up to Nikki and bend down in deference.
The remains of the school are part of a large construction site extending from the back of the maize factory. Flooding from yesterday's rains has not yet drained away, and the smell indicates that the contents of a few latrines have been liberally strewn around by the waters. Nikki has negotiated a two week grace period for the school to be dismantled and its reusable parts transported to the other school site, so there are still a handful of buildings standing -
Kiro Kabowa school, Kabowa district
one contains a dorm in which the school's cook is currently living. We peer in to say hello, Nikki providing a few words of encouragement that it won't be long before he is back in a more permanent home on the other site. He doesn't seem perturbed by his circumstances, a wide smile carving a toothy path from his face to my eyes. The other buildings are a toilet and the kitchen. Nothing beside remains other than a few discarded schoolbooks flapping open on the ground, tombstones for the death of learning in this place.
Nikki's original plan had been to provide solely chiropractic help in the area, however she soon realised that any benefit that the kids derived from this would be totally negated by the non-negligible risk of them catching - and dying from - malaria. Thus she became involved with another English charity, Against Malaria
, which already had a fully-sponsored distribution channel for mosquito nets. This charity can provide nets at half the price of those from larger, more famous, organisations, and 100% of donations go towards providing nets - there is no admin overhead, due to the sponsorship. What surprised her was that the benefits
of the nets were more than the obvious. Not only did the incidence of malaria among the schoolkids drop dramatically, but ALL the children became more productive in class because their nights weren't constantly interrupted by mosquito nibbling. Further, this freed up more money for their parents, that would otherwise have gone on malaria treatment. So the simple provision of mosquito nets, at £2.50 a pop, had a set of side-effects that dramatically increased their efficacy.
Anyone interested in donating to Nikki's website
can also find a link that is specifically for mossie nets
Speaking of mossies, Kampala has a larger population than any I've experienced so far in Africa. Worryingly, my DEET repellent isn't as effective as I would have hoped, and I'm sufficiently alarmed by the increasingly blotchy appearance of my legs that I invest in some doxycycline. Kampala proves to be a good place to do this, as the price here is less than half what it was in Nairobi.
My cash situation is resolved two days after I arrive, when Stanbic's ATMs magically start pumping out money in response to my Mastercard. I load up and convert a few hundred thousand Ugandan shillings
to $ so as to stave off a similar situation in the next few countries.
Though the overland truck crowds tend to descend on the other main hostel in Kampala (Red Chilli), there's still an excess of English teenagers staying in "my" hostel. Their braying voices all grate on my ears as they discuss their latest hangovers. Some are travellers and some on Project Trust programs - God knows what knowledge they have of anything at that age, as at least a few of the guys haven't yet figured out how to piss in a toilet without spattering the seat. I'm half-tempted to also put a small instructional sign next to the flush handle, indicating what it's for. I'm reminded a little of Australia by this proliferation of youngsters, an impression reinforced by the effing and blinding of the hostel's crusty Australian owner. Much as I detest these kinds of hostel-mates, I'm no doubt known as the miserable guy with the sunburned bald patch who doesn't interact with anyone under 30. That's when he's not sitting in the corner glued to his laptop. Once again, I feel that travelling is making me less tolerant, as I realise that, anywhere
in the world, there are no extenuating cultural circumstances to excuse idiotic behaviour.
The heat of Kampala wears on me, an unfortunate situation given how low on enthusiasm I am at the moment anyway. I had intended visiting Murchison Falls National Park independently, but the lure of an all-inclusive safari booked through the hostel proves too tempting. It's expensive, maybe five times as much as if I organised everything myself, but it's easy. All I need to do is hand over the money then everything else will be done for me. Just one third of the way into my Africa trip, I'm highly concerned at how apathetic I'm becoming. I don't know if it's Africa or me or a bit of both but I hope it wears off soon.
Back in Kampala after my trip to Murchison (blogged separately), I realise I've picked up a cold, possibly from the chimps. This keeps me in the hostel for a few more days, during which I meet the original owners of the hostel's cat. They're an Aussie couple who lived here for 3.5 years before heading home, leaving the cat with the hostel's owner, who is a friend of theirs.
Probably the only gorilla I'll see in Uganda
The wife worked as a doctor during their time in Kampala, and says that local doctors are paid $1 per hour in most hospitals in the city. However she says that almost every day she encountered a condition in the flesh that previously she'd only read about in textbooks, so it was a great learning experience.
Unfortunately I discover that there has been another setback for Nikki's school. Annoyed by Nikki not caving to his original rent demands, the owner of the land adjoining the school has decided to pull some strings with friends of his in the local council's building department, and they have stated that the new building is structurally unsafe so only the lower of the two floors can be used. He has done this purely out of spite. Nikki seems close to tears. Not only is this new battle going to take up a great deal of time, but it seems as though there are more people in government here trying to stifle her efforts than encourage them, a bewildering situation in a country that desperately needs help - and even more mind-boggling given that Nikki's help is coming with no strings attached, with expertise,
and with genuine passion.
On my last night, I meet a guy who has been working in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the last few years. The country's name hides a decidedly undemocratic region that has been riven by civil war for much of the last decade - and this on the heels of a history, both pre- and post-independence, that has been characterised by brutal colonialism and despotic dictators. I've read in "Blood River" that the ongoing slaughter in this essentially lawless country has been despatching about 2,000 people per day since 2003. This is largely unreported in the West, despite DRC having the largest UN "peacekeeping" force in the world. There is no one factor responsible for what is happening there, but it certainly doesn't help that both Rwanda and Uganda have designs on the enormous mineral deposits in the east of DRC and have been arming whichever group is willing to protect their interests. One "side" in this many-sided conflict is the various mai mai
bands, mai mai
being a term used to describe militias originally formed years ago to protect individual villages. Members of the mai mai
are convinced that they have superhuman
powers such as an imperviousness to bullets (despite the empirical evidence being quite to the contrary), and behave in unpredictable ways.
The guy shows me a photo slideshow from his time in DRC. First in the series are some shots of the roads that exist in the eastern part of the country. They are truly appalling, making the Moyale->Isiolo stretch in Kenya look like the M1. Bribery for passage along the road network is routine, with the general appearance of many of these roadblocks being sufficiently ramshackle as to suggest the locals manning them had simply woken up that morning and decided that this would be the best way of raising some cash with little effort.
Without warning, his slideshow then segues into something rather more sinister - the aftermath of a massacre in DRC in 2005. I see dead bodies abuzz with flies, which would be grim enough if it wasn't patently obvious just how these people had been killed. One corpse is cleaved almost in two at the waist, others have had limbs or parts of limbs hacked off. Breasts and genital regions have been excised, skin flayed. Machetes were the weapons, and all this happened
while the victims were still alive.
It's horrific but, sadly, in the world we live in today it's just one more atrocity to add to the list, and the fact that it's part of a slow-burning conflict is no doubt why the Western media gives it little coverage in favour of more bite-sized news.
My cold gone, and the images of maimed bodies now replaced in my brain by those of a distraught Jordan in the wake of her split from Peter Andre, I then head west. Dull but possibly useful info
i. The Kampala Coach bus from Eldoret to Kampala left at 12:40PM - I'd been told it left at 1PM and that I should check in at 12:30PM, but when I arrived at 12:30PM I was the last person to board so I suspect there was a misunderstanding. It took about 6.5 hours, and cost KSh1500. They also have departures at 8PM and 1AM - there are other companies that do this route too. There were no stops (in the sense of loo or eating breaks) at all, other than at the border.
ii. On the Kenyan side of immigration, you have to fill in
Not quite the same ring as FIFA
a yellow departure form then you get your passport stamped and that's it. You then have to walk (at least the bus didn't seem to be interested in giving a lift to anyone ...) to the Ugandan side - it's not far, but you will be offered rides on the back of various chaps' bikes. On the Ugandan side you have to fill in a similar form (in fact mine said it was a departure form rather than an arrival one) - I had to pay $50 for a 2 month visa, with the guy claiming they didn't do 1 month ones. I later found that you normally get 3 months for your $50. Not that that mattered, as I only intended staying for maybe 3 weeks, but if you want to stay somewhere closer to 3 months then you should probably mention this.
iii. I changed some KSh at the border just so I'd have some once I got to Kampala, and got a rate of 26. The real rate is just under 28 and the FX places in Kampala offer at least 27.3 so only change whatever money you might need to be able to take a taxi
or whatever once you reach the capital.
iv. The loo at the border costs Ush200 (though the guy will try to charge you at least USh500).
v. The Kampala Coach bus drops off at 3 different places in Kampala - one east of the city on Jinja Road (which would probably be the most convenient if you intended staying at Red Chilli's), one opposite Antonio's cafe in the centre, and one a little further west.
vi. At the bus drop-off, private hire taxi guys were asking for USh30,000 for a ride to Backpacker's Hostel. Once I'd walked a couple of hundred yards away, it was down to USh8,000 (actually less than what I was expecting).
vii. I stayed at Backpackers Hostel in Kampala, paying USh3,200 for a room with double bed and shared bathroom (they were out of singles). It had no powerpoint so any charging had to take place in the bar (either under your supervision (free) or under the bar staff's (USh500)). As this was my first accommodation in Uganda, I'm not really sure whether I'm correct in saying that it was overpriced. Plus points were there were some interesting people there (in amongst the usual backpacker dross
like myself) and the food was good. Downers were that, despite the many signs around the place saying that they were paying $350 per month for their Internet connection, the wifi was generally bollocks. There was a sliding scale for charges, with the best value being USh10,000 for 4 hours. Given the humidity and heat, it's also too far from the city to be able to walk in and out without getting drenched, so you need to factor in some boda-boda/taxi(matatu) usage into your budgeting.
viii. Mastercard ATM cards are acceptable at Stanbic branches, though not all the time. I received errors when I tried at the weekend but during the week they were fine. However in general the city (and perhaps by extension the country) seems to be a Visa zone.
ix. A boda-boda ride between Backpackers' Hostel and the city centre should cost between USh1,500 and USh2,000.