Published: September 18th 2008September 18th 2008
Peeking out from over the yellow grassy bank, seven little sets of brown eyes widened, eyebrows and mouth corners arching upwards in unison as the rest of their bodies whipped into motion, waving, pushing, laughing, and running down to the road. “Mzungu!!!!! Mzungu!!!” Having rallied dozens of their fellow red and blue uniformed classmates with the call, a fusillade of high-pitched “OW are YOU?”s rained down on us. When a camera surfaced, their unbridled vivacity displayed itself in alternating games of one-upping each others’ ridiculous poses and silly attempts at hiding. As our share-taxi rounded the bend and their baby-toothed grins were slowly veiled behind the curtain of dust kicked up from our wheels, my heart thawed.
On our way back around the Rwenzori Mountains from the Congolese border we finally broke free of the hostility we’d chained ourselves to in Uganda thus far Robbed in the Safest City in Africa!
. In one of those ‘you get what you deserve’ kind of moments, we were befriended and personally accompanied across town from one matatu station to the other by a kind-hearted university student in Fort Portal. Faced with a patience-building exercise while the half-empty vehicle slowly collected passengers, I ducked into the neighboring market for
a bagful of produce to supplement what was described to us as meager pickings in our next destination.
What the Chimpanzee Guesthouse lacked in reasonable culinary offerings, though, it made up for in vistas and serenity. Unzipping the tent door each morning revealed the Crater Lakes below, fringed by soft moss-like leaves on the giant tree under which we took refuge in the middle of the terraced gardens. Wicker chairs on the porch of the main house allowed us excellent breakfast time views over the mist-cloaked tea plantations, while we heartily welcomed the warmth of a sweet milky cup of African tea at this elevation.
Two boys from Rweetera village, apparently sensing nothing better to do that day, took up a bicycle and ball and tagged along on our day trek, making us detour once to view their sunflower crops in full bloom. Our recently planted optimism continued to bloom as we wandered leisurely over gentle hills, overtaken by old men and women on bicycles laden with their harvests, greeted with a welcoming “Jambo” at each encounter.
After a late lunch and break at Lake Nkuruba we realized we’d have a hard time making it back to
camp under our own steam before dark (due mostly to my frequent need to stop; our little one was surely making his demands for energy known upon my stamina!) In Rwaihamba we hired a couple motorbike taxis to tour the western cluster of lakes, passing a pickup taxi of jovial passengers and families on foot as we all made our respective journeys home for the evening.
After a few days of R & R we hitched a pickup ride through Kibale National Park, then another matatu and share-taxi to finally reach Mbarara, where we were able to get some errands out of the way before another full-day journey to Kabale. With such a short time at our disposal we had been almost constantly on the move, and the past few lovely days had already softened my tolerance for these travel days.
It could have been just that same old pessimism creeping in again, or the news report a few days prior of a matatu crash in Tanzania in which all the passengers were killed, or perhaps it was just this new maternal fear that I’d never before experienced while traveling, but when I counted 27 passengers in the
matatu (‘Max. Capacity 14 Passengers’ on the side of the van) I was overcome with panic and visions of the axles breaking under all that weight.
When the van pulled over yet again to pick up two women on the side of the road I was ready to jump ship. They looked inside the van and refused to get in; the touts tried to wrestle their suitcases away and force them to do business. Putting everyone’s lives in jeopardy, including their own, and risking destroying the vessel that is their lifeblood are trivial concerns if they cede an extra schilling or two. When the women stood their ground, the one tout’s brow furrowed and the other scowled contemptuously; their righteous anger at having been cheated by these two permeated the three centimeters of space between my nose and my fellow passenger’s back. A sense of relief and some sort of sick satisfaction washed over me when our matatu finally did break down and they lost all their passengers; even though it meant that by the time we made it to Kabale in another inevitably overcrowded matatu, it was too late to head out to the lake that day.
Lake Bunyoni seemed to be hyped by everyone we met, most of whom had visited while waiting for their appointed permit day to go track the gorillas. Everywhere we went, taxi drivers, matatu owners, tourist guides all inquired into when we were going to see the gorillas. While they may not have been able to tell us where to get our broken daypack sewn up or how to reach our next destination, they all were well aware that the price to see the gorillas had recently risen from $375 to $500. This sum being nearly twice the 2004 Ugandan GDP per capita of $300, we forgave their resentment and their penchant to overcharge at every turn (I assume the fleecing of tourists by the European hospitality industry would be understandable as well if busloads of African tourists came through daily paying $50,000 each to view the Eiffel Tower). Even if we had been ready to part with such a hefty sum, the permit places were snatched up through mid-July, and we’d have to rearrange all our plans based on slots opening up due to cancellations. We decided not to do the “must do” of Uganda, keeping our travel budget and
itinerary intact as we descended on Bunyoni. Envisioning hordes of tourists and a souvenir version of traditional lakefront life, we were pleasantly surprised with what we found. Though there was an overland camp right across the bay, the atmosphere was as calm as the barely rippled waters.
The only guests at our resort, we spent the first few days darting back and forth between rain showers hanging out and recollecting our lake-washed laundry from the landscaped hedges and engaging in a few extremely frustrating internet and phone sessions to find out what was going on with our Korean visas. One morning we rose at dawn to witness the fog lifting off the terraced hillsides and numerous dots of color steadily growing larger on the horizon, as a flotilla of dugout canoes laden with cabbages, eucalyptus, eggplants, and other crops glided effortlessly towards Rutinda for the market.
Chancing our luck with the gathering clouds later that afternoon, we realized what a feat their smooth rowing was, as our own canoe took a rather zigzagged (and sometimes backwards) approach between the various lake islands. Our indirect route allowed for sighting lots of birds we didn’t know the names of and
for more viewing attempts of the elusive lake otter. At long last we reached Itambira island and lunched at the Byoona Amagara resort. Immediately enchanted with the relaxed vibe and the sunset views, we arranged for a more expert oarsman to collect us and our packs from Rutinda the next day.
So many times on our trip I’d shook my head in disbelief at the lack of business sense we’d witnessed, but here was a gem of a backpacker hideaway that was well-planned, well-marketed, and well-executed to entice travelers to stay longer than they intended! The food was sublime - cheesy pizzas, fish curries, chocolate dessert contraptions - everything that our palates were missing, and a prime veranda location allowed one to take in the views between cups of tea without breaking concentration from whatever book you’d settled into from the in-house library.
Mid-afternoon the songs of schoolchildren from the neighboring island floated over and invited the guests to get out and hike around the island or take a dip before the chilly evening temperatures set in again. Books, beers, and banter rounded out the evenings with an occasional movie or documentary viewing from the solar-powered DVD player,
and we soon felt we couldn’t be bothered to battle the transport connections for our intended stay at Mgahinga National Park. With limited foreign exchange options around the lake, we downgraded from our warm cabin to the tent to stretch our kitty of Ugandan money for a few more days of relaxation.
Having accustomed ourselves to our usual slower pace of travel we decided to axe our hyperactive plans for the rest of Uganda and spend the remainder of our time in Lake Victoria’s Ssese Islands. The western approach via Masaka and the Bukakata ferry requires an unhurried attitude and a face mask. Eager to ditch the sardine-can quarters of the matatu, we piled out to stretch our legs until the as yet undeclared departure time, only to shuffle back to our confines fifteen minutes later. Despite what proved to be an hours-long wait, the vehicles onboard apparently had no concern for rising oil costs and kept their diesel engines running, perhaps fearing they wouldn’t start up again once shut off. As it started to drizzle, women and children crowded under an awning, their mouths and noses now inches away from exhaust pipes. Their lungs must be well-conditioned to
the harsh fumes, as most of them - even mothers with small babies - seemed to be completely unperturbed by these arrangements.
These memories quickly evaporated, however, as we set off on the lush drive across Buggala Island itself. Once a Ugandan backpacker hotspot, the islands suffered a large decrease in tourism due to ferry service suspension in the late 90s. There has been a resurgence of travelers since an efficient new ferry started operations between Entebbe and Lutoboka Bay in 2006; though one would be excused for failing to note an improvement in affairs by the dusty state of the cabins at the campsite. The beachfront safari tents were considerably more hospitable with views of the rosy sunsets dipping into the lake.
The first morning we were peacefully stirred from our slumber by the songs of resident weaver colonies and the call of nature. On the way to the outhouses, that call nearly broke into an accident as the thunderous beating of some swooping creature’s wings drew closer and closer, and I momentarily envisaged myself in the midst of Jurassic Park. I crouched in defense and dared to peer up at my attacker, by which time the
harmless hornbill had already gathered enough momentum from the plunge to reverse his heavy namesake’s effect on his ascent.
Previously averse to ornithology (I can’t even differentiate between a robin and a sparrow), the combination of our Bradt guidebook author’s bird fanaticism and the sighting of these giant beasts, with wing spans over a meter wide, catapulted us into a world of giant cormorants, pygmy kingfishers, and African fish eagles. We spent the afternoons silently creeping through bushes near the waterfront on walks around the lake, hunting out new species to add to our bird nerd anecdotes.
This was, however, the more adventurous part of our days, as we sought to maximize our final weeks of relaxation with twelve-hour nights, midday naps, and the conclusion of all those ratty books we’d been toting around. Dinners at the Hornbill Campsite were served family style by the Ugandan owner and her opinionated Dutch husband, who’d love to talk well into the night with the ever-changing faces at the table about all things Ugandan.
So it was that we heard about large numbers of people being displaced between Entebbe and Kampala as the government cleared land to create flowered plots
in preparation for the Queen of England’s upcoming visit. The politics and past and present violence were naturally also topics of interest to visitors, though our Ugandan owner’s own personal tragedies and physical scars made purely philosophical or rhetorical debate about such events seem immature and trite.
Touching fewer nerves was the bevy of church extortion charges making headlines. Every day more “gospel of prosperity” scams surfaced in the news, with Pentecostal and born-again pastors countrywide manipulating their congregation’s fear of judgment or parishioners’ personal problems to grow rich. According to the seed-faith doctrine they preach, if believers wish to have their prayers answered by God, they must first “sow” their own personal wealth - be it monetary donations, cars, mobile phones, even loans from the bank. The bigger the request or the faster the result needed, the larger the sum required.
Preying on their congregation’s naïveté, some clerics have taken on the role of clairvoyants, predicting that family members of the parishioners would contract HIV if appropriate tithes weren’t paid, or that using money for children’s school fees instead of for the offering plate would result in their children dropping out of school or failing to get jobs.
Likewise, if the greedy miscreants could smell the green, their conviction that a parishioner’s AIDS could be cured within three months was unwavering. The gospel they preached generally went along the lines of, “Come to me all ye who are diseased, depressed, broken-hearted, poor, starving, unhappy, and I will give thee rest and peace of mind….just as soon as that check clears into my personal bank account!”
The populace is scratching its collective head asking how these things can be happening. Some fingers point the blame at the government, whose loose classification of NGOs allows almost anyone to start up a church, while bona fide pastors point to the ignorance and materialism of the parishioners who view Jesus Christ ‘as a mercantile commodity that holds the key to worldly riches and power.’ An examination of official explanations by one of the churches in question that they “pray for people so that they can get rich” reveals that many who flock to these churches don’t do so for any type of earnest spiritual reasons.
As the dinnertime topics started to repeat themselves with the daily new arrivals, we started to gear up to leave. But then our laziness, which
had begun to make one day indistinguishable from the next, was whipped into oblivion by the unceasing beats of bongo drums. Perhaps indicative of our length of stay, we were filled with that kind of village über-curiosity at the latest gossip, and we scampered away in the rhythm’s direction. Dozens of people were clapping and chanting in the field near the ferry port, providing accompaniment to women wearing skirts with a sort of fur trim accenting the derriere. They stomped their feet and worked their hips ever more robustly, until the rear view of the dancing closely resembled the blur of a cat fight.
When fatigue brought them to their knees, sweaty and out of breath, we made our inquiry into the root of the festivities. “The kabaka is coming to visit!” we were told. In one of our dinnertime sessions on Ugandan spiritual matters, we learned about the spirits that were rumored to inhabit many of the forests on the island, and the historical tradition of Ssese Island lake deities as the founders of the Bugandan nation. As such, the kabakas, or kings, of Buganda would traditionally make visits to the islands to pay their respects. The recent
history of Uganda, however, made this visit the first for many on Buggala Island, and we couldn’t help but share in the excitement.
Under British colonial rule the Baganda strengthened their power and received privileged status. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the first president of independent Uganda was Buganda’s Kabaka Mutesa II. His reign over a federal Uganda that respected the rights of the kingdoms (Buganda, Ankole, Toro, and Bunyoro) was short-lived, though; in 1966, Obote’s suspension of the constitution led to the storming of the Baganda palace, and the kabaka fled the country. Dying in exile in London not long thereafter, his son Ronald Mutebi II was only crowned kabaka in 1993, when Museveni allowed the kabaka to reassert his authority for ceremonial purposes only.
We joined the kabaka-mania the following day, making repeated trips down to the ferry port since the African arrival time of “very soon” was impossible to pin down. This inefficiency only served to heighten the anticipation, though, since each successive journey saw the crowds swell a bit more. Eventually the elders in their long skirts and western style button downs and suit jackets shook their gnarled wooden sticks at the
ranks and told them to line up on both sides of the road. Welcome committees waving fronds took off in dugout canoes to escort the ferry on its way in, and children dressed in bright pink chanted while performing a sort of calypso dance. With each successive minute, the volume level and energy in the air multiplied exponentially. The drums beat louder, the hips shook faster, an old man fell on his knees like a penitent filled with the Holy Spirit. Mob mentality reigned supreme: I felt like a teenie bopper awaiting the arrival of my favorite boy band.
The crowd’s hysteria was deafening when the ferry finally anchored. After a dozen bewildered North American high school students and a few random tourists met the reception of their lives, the kabaka’s skinny bodyguards, dressed in long robes and furs, puffed up their chests and spun their wooden batons in a predatory stance. After all our postulating on what he would be wearing, the appearance of Kabaka Mutebi II in his western-style pinstriped suit made him look every bit the part of his Cambridge-educated background…and not at all the exotic figure envisioned as the King of Buganda. His swift disappearance
Taking a break
Hauling through the Crater Lake region
upon being presented with flowers by a little girl dressed in her lacy white Sunday best was somewhat anticlimactic after all the preparation.
Befitting our own stereotypes or not, coming face to face with the eminent leader of an African kingdom was more than these Mzungus could have hoped for. The villagers continued to sing and dance into the evening and gave us a wonderful vibe on which to make our own departure from the islands and from Uganda.
There are more photos below