Wednesday, April 24, 2013

You Gotta See Uganda

It has been two weeks since I crossed into Uganda from Rwanda and while I can’t quite put my finger on it, there is something special about this country.  Yes, the people are friendly, the landscapes are beautiful and diverse, things are pretty inexpensive; and nearly everyone speaks English; all good things for a traveler like myself, but the feeling I get comes from more than just that.  Due to my limited time at this point I may never be able to put my finger on what it is about this country that attracts me, but had I the time I would have easily filled the 90 day visa with adventures across the country.  Because I lack the time to do that however, I will just have to encourage others to figure it out themselves, and share what I have been able to see and do.

I awoke from my tiny room at the Skylight Hotel, in Kabale, Uganda, and was surprised how cold it was, both outside and inside.  A new day, a new country, a new experience.  I needed to bathe and since very few places have hot water, especially places that cost less than $4 a night, it was going to be a rude wake-up.  The shared toilet and shower was a small room at the end of the hall and as the unheated water poured over me I could see my breath in the air as I shivered.  After a while I got used to it, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve been that cold out here in Africa!  After getting dressed I stood on the deck to get a look at the town in the daylight for the first time and well, it looked like any other African town, not really unique in any way. 

Downstairs I met up with Nickson, the owner of the hotel, and as we chatted I read the newspaper, with its stories about cattle rustling, witchcraft and government corruption.  Like the town, the newspaper the same story I’d heard over and over again, but it is a uniquely African story you won’t get in any other part of the world.  I ate eggs and banana, drank tea and continued to talk with Nickson.

As we got deeper into conversation, he told me how pleased he was I was joining him in conversation, because so few travelers ever do.  Maybe I should have simply felt special about myself, but instead I just felt ashamed others weren't friendly enough to sit down for a chat with a guy like him, I mean, it isn't hard!  He wanted to do something special for me, and rented a car to show me around town and bring me to Lake Bunyonyi.

The drive to the lake took us out of town, uphill, pas the water treatment buildings and to a shore filled with wooden boats, signs for hotels and touts trying to push boat trips through the many islands of the lake.  I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I was surprised by the number of tourist hotels in the area and according to the guide books, this lake is replacing the Sese Islands of Lake Victoria as the country’s best backpacker lake destination. 

There wasn’t a lot going on at our first stop and Nickson had the car for a limited time, so we drove on to Bunyonyi Overland Resort, which is probably the largest and most popular spot on the shore for travellers.  The place was nice and there was the ability to arrange a large amount of activities through the lodge, but my goal on the lake was to stay with a local CouchSurf host in a village (which in the end didn’t work out), so I looked around and said thanks but no thanks.  From there we drove farther uphill to Arcadia Cottages, a more upmarket place with an amazing view to have a drink and get a better idea of the lake.  Personally, I was pretty blown away with its unique beauty.  I’ve never seen another lake like it, so high up in the hills, Africa’s second deepest lake, surrounded by steep sides, filled with a maze of fairy-tale style islands, and villages and terraced hillsides in every direction.  Yes, it is a must see in Uganda.  More than any place in the past few weeks I was wishing I had more time, time to get a boat and spend a week paddling the lake, camp on the islands and really appreciate the place, but not only did we have to return to town and hand back the car, I had get to Kampala to deal with a package from home and visit the Ethiopian embassy about a visa.  We finished our drinks and before I could even watch the sun go down over the beautiful lake we turned back and drove into town. 

Nickson wanted to show me his other business, a bar near Kabale University, so we hopped on bodas (motorcycle taxies) and set off.  A note on bodas, they use very different bikes in Uganda than Rwanda, still 125cc but much larger, more comfortable, and able to fit two passengers, which you can’t get away with doing in Rwanda because they actually enforce laws such as wearing helmets and not having three or more on a moto.  Anyways, we passed the university and had two beers as the sun went down.  I seem to have become a bit of a freelance business consultant in my time in Africa, and I began discussing my ideas of how to improve business at his bar, things like having guest DJs from the university and a ladies night, because if he wants to become the popular student bar the answer is simple, better music and more girls.  We walked back to town in the dark except for a short stretch where he told me ‘there are bad people’, he treated me dinner as well and after enjoying the beef and fries, headed to my room for the night.

In the morning I had a dish called katogo, which is cooked bananas (matoke), potato, veggies and various unidentifiable pieces of intestines in a sauce.  The taste was good, but I have to admit the texture of the “unidentifiable pieces of intestines” was a bit strange.

I decided I’d be heading into Kampala the next day because my CS host on the lake didn’t work out, and went to the internet café to do some last short notice host searching.  I ended up messaging a few people, and as I was still sitting at the café my phone rang with a host willing to take me the next day, sweet!

The rest of the day was spent with my usual wanderings.  I took backstreets, walked to the top of one of the hills to get a view over town, explored an NGO founded library and computer center and wound up at Kabale Backpackers just to check out what that was like and maybe meet someone to hang out with.  I asked a few questions at the bar in the lobby and next thing I knew I was talking with Robert, a local guy with a tourism company called Engagi Safaris.  We ended up sitting and talking for a while and he mentioned he was looking for volunteers to help out with some of the community programs they run.  Playing consultant again, I told him about a few resources such as Help Exchange, Work Away and CouchSurfing, as well as a few other business ideas and to show his gratitude, he bought me a beer.  I did end up meeting a few travelers and volunteers who were staying there, but the conversation was uninspiring so I went on my way.

Dinner was a goat brochette for 1000 shillings and fries for 1500, a decent meal for under $1.

The bus to Kampala was going to be a long drive, so I woke up early to buy my ticket and ensure I had a window seat to enjoy the scenery.  I don’t mind loud, crowded and dirty buses, but if I can’t look out the window, then I’m pissed.  I had no trouble filling that requirement, and at about 9am the bus set off from Kabale to Kampala. 

The scenery out the window was nice and from hour to hour changed a considerable amount, though the most drastic was the first few hours getting out of the hilly south into the flatter center of the country.  The road was not bad, and many sections were being rebuilt and improved, slowing travel but improving it in the long run.  A few hours in, as we were in a larger town we passed this truck filled with  Ankole-Watusi cattle, and it was the first time I’d seen one up close.  Man, these things look like something out of a cartoon.  It seems like a normal cow in all other ways, but the horns are so large it just seems unnatural, like something that could only be drawn, not something that could really exist. 

As the bus headed farther north the steep and tightly packed hills characteristic of Burundi, Rwanda and southern Uganda melted into rolling bumps and long stretches of road, punctuated by the usual small and uninteresting towns along the way.

8 hours later the bus finally reached Kampala, a city I didn’t have any real interest in but a necessary stop on my journey.

As the bus penetrated deep into the chaos of Kampala, the streets filled with shared taxis and bodas, and I could see exactly how 8 people a day are killed riding bodas in this city.  There seem to be no traffic lights, no signs and no rules.  I did see a traffic cop standing in the middle of the crush of cars and motos, but I could only laugh at her feeble attempts to control what was going on all around her.  Like the rest of Africa, the taxis are decorated with slogans, and when I saw one that said in large letters “God Help Us” all I could think was that it should continue to say “get through this traffic.” 

After an exciting boda ride to Ntinda, what I guess you could call a suburb of Kampala, I met with Eskedar who would be my CouchSurfing host in the city.  Eskedar is from Ethiopia and works for a development agency connected with the UN.  She was keen on having me try some traditional Ethiopian food, injera and sauce, and while I had already eaten dinner I could hardly say no and dug in enthusiastically. 

The next day was devoted exclusively to dealing with the Ethiopian embassy and along with picking up a package that was waiting for me, the primary reason to go to Kampala at all.  After getting some US Dollars at the Forex bereau (including a $2 bill, weird) I took a shared taxi to the Ethiopian embassy to try my luck.

So my goal for this trip has of course been to travel from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt all by land (or water).  It is the sort of classic Africa journey, but like any journey there are an infinite number of paths to take on that route and an infinite number of adventures to be had on the way.  I’ve yet to come across anyone with a route like mine, haha.  One current hurdle for this journey is Ethiopia, as I’ve heard they do not give out visas to enter the country by land.  Then again, I’ve heard of a few people doing it so I wasn’t sure what to believe and the only way was to find out from the embassy itself. 

I arrived early in the morning and made my inquiry, only to be quickly told it was impossible.  They only issue overland visas to residents of a few east African nations, so as an American tourist they simply said no, the only way for me to get into the country was to fly into the airport (I have the feeling this is a policy in part to force people onto Ethiopia Airways… more tourist dollars for the country, or at least for those at the top of it…) and get the visa on arrival.  Oh, and while it is $20 for every country, if you happen to be American it is $70.  This governments policies are already leaving a bad taste in my mouth… Eskedar said she had a friend in the embassy that had helped her with visas in the past so I decided to try and work that connection, but was told he was out of the office.  I went to a local restaurant, got lunch, and waited.  After calling again and being told he still wasn’t around I waited longer then returned to ask again in person.  I ended up speaking to the security guard outside for about an hour, who told me the man still hadn’t returned and then told me about how he is visiting America soon and his pastor that heals people and preforms other miracles.  Eventually the Ethiopian military attaché to Uganda arrived to return to the office and when the guard told him about my desire for an overland visa, I was again told in no uncertain terms it was IMPOSSIBLE, that was the policy, and that I should give up trying and just fly.  Fine, I give up, but I’m not taking your damn airline to get there… (yes, I’m bitter, haha)

I wasn’t really trying to tourist around Kampala the next day, but I set off walking, got a ‘rolex’ (an omelette wrapped in chapatti) and some bananas for breakfast at a local market that I’m sure seldom sees foreigners, and walked for an hour through an industrial district. 

Luckily next day I had something to cheer me up, I was meeting with Lydia, Michael and their two sons to pick up my package and have dinner.  Let me give the background here: Back in Zambia some people went into my room and stole a number of things from me that I wanted to replace, then in Kigoma, Tanzania quite some time later I met Lukas, who happened to mention he had a sister working in Kampala.  I asked if I might be able to ship a package her and pick it up on my way north, she said yes, and here we were meeting for the first time.  They took me to an expat-filled Italian restaurant where we ate delicious pizza and traded stories of travel in Africa and what it is like to work in Africa while raising a family.  The gist of that was that it challenging but rewarding, however they will be returning to Austria for their sons to have a European teenage experience as well, a decision I agree with. 

After spending the bulk of the next morning going through my new package from home and sorting through every one of my belongings yet again to see what I could rid myself of, Eskedar and I set off to one of Kampala’s fancier restaurants to meet some friends for lunch.  As we sat there, I pointed out none of us were actually from Uganda, at our table we were from the United States, South Africa, Sudan and Ethiopia!  I splurged on a large bacon cheese burger, something I hadn’t seen or eaten in quite some time.

After visiting some expat crafts/used goods flee market type event that was pretty uninspiring, we hopped on bodas and set off to where Faris (sitting in middle in the previous photo) and some of the other guys lived.  It was a newer apartment complex with a pretty nice view over Kampala’s suburbs. 

We spent the evening watching soccer, cricket and movies while drinking beers and eating Indian food delivery, just acting like any other 20-something guys anywhere in the world.  And to complement our multi-national cast from earlier in the day, we added two guys from India and one from Madagascar!

For breakfast we ended up at the same restaurant as the day before, then I spent the rest of the day relaxing and visiting the internet café, pretty low key.  That evening, Eskedar made another delicious meal of Ethiopian food.

The next morning I parted ways with what was yet again another wonderful CouchSurfing host and after running around town to do a few things boarded a bus headed for the town of Jinja.  The bus took a little more than two hours and on the way we crossed the Nile River and one of the hydroelectric dams that holds back Lake Victoria. 

Most tourists come to Jinja to see the ‘source of the Nile’ (this is disputed) and go river rafting on the Nile.  I mostly just wanted to see the Lake, as I’d been on pretty much all the other major African lakes to this point and didn’t want to miss something like Lake Victoria.  Other than that however, I decided to skip the tourist scene pretty much and found a CouchSurfing host, Jarome, a Ugandan man who founded and runs Child Hope Ministries, an orphanage just outside of Jinja. 

The orphanage itself is in a small compound consisting of the main house, to the right a new school room they are currently building and the current school room and dorms behind the main house.  Jarome himself lives in the main house as well. 

My room at the orphanage.  Big bed, electricity and a mosquito net, luxury! 

That evening Jarome fed me dinner and we sat up for two hours talking.  He grew up an orphan himself and knows what it is like, so he decided it was his mission to do something to help young orphans today.  I’ve met a lot of aid and development in Africa (admittedly mostly foreign) but talking to Jarome was refreshing.  If you have been reading my blog for a while now you know I’m a bit skeptical about the whole process and many of those involved, but Jarome really did strike me as the most honest and genuine person I’ve met in a long time.  We discussed the usual issues of foreign aid, the struggle for funding places like this and what the future holds, but to hear it from a Ugandan rather than a foreigner just made it mean more.

Love the old buses around here.

On the bus into town the previous day I started a conversation with another Ugandan guy, Napa, and met up with him to go for a walk around town.  He actually works at a swim coach down in Kigali, Rwanda but is from Uganda and was visiting his family on break.  I met at his sister’s house and he began showing me around town.

This is exactly why I wanted to travel Africa right now.  In a matter of a few years, towns are transforming from having markets built of scrap wood, tarps and sheet metal to modern concrete and glass buildings such as this one currently under construction.  Also interesting to note is that this project is actually funded by African sources instead of the west.  I guess the fact I have to point that out though says a lot…

Napa and I stopped into a used cloths shop in town to visit one of his family members and I decided to look through the t-shirt rack to see if there was anything from Seattle, because all kinds of strange things manage to make their way out here.  After flipping through a few I hit pay dirt, the most hilarious Seattle clothing I’ve found in all of Africa; a shirt from The Cuff Complex, a gay leather bar, and featuring a drawing of a muscle-bound shirtless man wearing leather bondage gear and handcuffs!  Uganda has some pretty horrible laws against homosexuality, so to find this shirt here was especially amusing.

It was lunch time, and Napa took me to a tiny local place hidden down a maze of narrow ally’s and without a sign.  For 3000 shillings, about $1.15, we got meat in broth, and 8 other dishes (rice, posho, motoke, greens, cassava, squash, etc).  Most meals are meatless and come with posho and one or at most two dishes to flavor it, so I was impressed.

We decided to check out the (disputed) source of the Nile River, which flows out of Lake Victoria all the way north to Egypt and out into the sea.  The actual area on the town side is a park run by the Jinja Municipal Council and has a 10,000 shilling entrance fee for non-Ugandans.  After passing a few signs and walking down a set of stairs surrounded in people selling generic African tourist junk, you reach where the river flows out of the lake for its 6,000km journey north.  There are a few private bars/restaurants down there which I thought was strange for a park with an entrance fee and other than a memorial to Ghandi, there was nothing special or even especially scenic about the place.  It just looks like any other river flowing out of any other lake.  Then our guide (who luckily was included in the entrance fee) began pushing really hard to get us to pay him 100,000 shillings for a boat trip to see ‘the real source of the Nile’ which is basically the imaginary line between where the lake ends and the river begins a few hundred meters away.  I told him I wasn’t interested, because I’d already seen another tour from another operator in town for half the price that was probably better.  He acted really offended and became such an asshole I simply didn’t want to give him any business, period. 

Eventually Napa negotiated to get the trip for 30,000 for both of us and while I still wasn’t very happy about it, I agreed just to do it with Napa.  I was told it would be an hour long trip, that we would see birds, see the source of the Nile and go into Lake Victoria.  I was trusting Napa and his negotiating skills here as a local and thought we would get a decent little outing from it.  We climbed in the boat, passed a tiny island that was covered in birds which he pointed out and identified, and then to the next island where the official line was.

The island with the ‘source of the Nile’ sign post sits is maybe 5x30 meters in size, contains a shop selling the same tourist junk as on land and has some broken chairs and a broken cabana, nothing else.  We took a few pictures, and then got back on the boat.  He motored another 20 meters past the island and the sign post, declared “we are now in Lake Victoria” and turned back to land where we had come from.  That was it?  That was bullshit, that’s what it was.  It was less than 30 minutes, half the promised time, mostly spent on the island hoping we’d buy some tourist junk, a few meters past the sign counting as ‘going to Lake Victoria’ and the whole time we traveled maybe 500 meters at most from where we started. 

I was pissed, but because I hadn’t been part of the discussion on what we were actually getting and didn’t want to make a scene with Napa there I made my displeasure known, grudgingly paid and vowed to tell everyone on my blog not to bother going to this sham of an attraction.  Instead, there is a tourist office next to the post office that offers a boat trip for $15.  It is more money no doubt, but as far as I can tell is a proper boat trip for western tourists who actually expect to get something for their money, it apparently spends an hour and a half on the water, looking at birds along the shore, visiting the source sign and returning.  Considering the entrance fee and the fact I ended up having to pay for part of Napa’s part in the boat ‘trip’ for him, for a small amount more I could have gone on the good boat trip instead.  The whole thing put me in a bad mood and as we walked back towards town I thought about what I wish I’d done differently.

I love this old style architecture.  Napa said this was originally a house owned by some Ugandan general, but it said ‘Nile View’ as if it were a hotel, though I don’t think it actually has a view of the Nile… maybe from the roof?  Like most things out here that were once nice, it is falling apart. 

I took the 500 shilling bus back to the orphanage where I met two of the three Dutch girls who were currently volunteering there and spent some time sitting and playing with the children. 

The volunteers were here through one of those agencies that place westerners with a host family and a place to volunteer for a few weeks or months.  I can’t comment specifically on these particular girls because I didn’t ask for all the details, so I’m not directing my criticism towards them specifically, but I’ve got a problem with the way many of these organizations work.  The way I see it after my experience in Africa spending so much time with the aid and development sectors out here is that most of these organizations are nothing more than ‘feel good tourism.’  I know everyone has different abilities, comfort levels, and goals when the head off to Africa and that by coming most will probably have a valuable experience they will learn something from; also that most come here with very good intentions.  That said, a large amount of it is just groups getting young white European girls to pay outrageous sums of money, which only a fraction probably gets to the actual organization, to pretend they are ‘saving Africa’ and take some photos with all the little black kids to show their friends back home. 

I know it sounds harsh.  I know people get jaded in Africa; but when you see behind the curtain, it’s hard not to.  For example Jarome was telling me about an ‘orphanage’ that has no children, but takes in international aid money.  When some of the donors wanted to come for a visit to see where the money is going, the guy tried to ask Jarome to borrow some of his kids for the day to make it look like a functioning orphanage and keep the aid money flowing into his pockets.  I’m just trying to tell the truth as I see it, but I say it all with good intentions.  I want to see things improve; I want to see kids getting enough to eat and an education, and even a visit to the doctor once in a while.  But a great deal of ‘aid’ in Africa is just garbage and I see it every day.  These programs I described above are simply counterproductive; they perpetuate the idea that foreigners are in Africa to fly in, pour money around and fly out.  It forms dependencies in the (few) locals who profit from it, it hampers real grassroots growth and development and it is also abusive to the ‘volunteers’ (aka customers) who are lead to believe they are doing the right thing because they don’t know any better.  Sorry to go on a little rant, sometimes it’s hard not to…

On the other hand, as I said above Jarome and his organization, Child Hope Ministries, is one I have a great deal more trust and faith in and I think he is doing a good job.  Not once did I feel he was hoping to get something out of me other than a little exposure for what he is doing (something I am happy to do) and he was generous in giving me a free place to stay, he fed me any time and said I could stay as long as I wanted.  Not only does he seem to embody the spirit of generosity and community CouchSurfing is about (something that can’t be said about far too many people running ‘charities’ and listed as CS hosts), but he seems to have what I believe to be the right attitude and ethics for running an orphanage here in Uganda.  Anyways, as the kids received their dinner, Jarome and I ate together at the table and talked for another hour or so about life in Uganda and about the orphanage.

Because the classroom in the back is far too small to accommodate the children, they are building a new classroom on the compound.  That morning they were finishing up the boards that would make up the walls.

I headed into town to take care of some things online, including posting my last blog update and filing my taxes.  Income for 2012: $0.00, the life of a full time traveler

That evening as I was getting a rolex (egg and chapatti) I overheard a someone speaking with a north American accent and decided to say hi.  This is how I met Maria (right), Greg (middle) and Mattie (left, and from Spokane, Wa).  They are all volunteers with a Catholic group living here in Jinja and working as teachers and so on.  We talked for a few minutes and I guess they were happy to have a guest so they invited me to dinner where we traded Africa stories into the evening.

The classroom the next morning, I think you can see why they are building a larger space eh?

I may be at the orphanage simply as a traveler and observer rather than a volunteer, but I’m always happy to play with the kids for a bit while I am around.  Might as well get another cliché ‘me and the little African kids’ photo I was ranting about earlier, haha.

I returned to Jinja town to meet with Napa again and after shipping a package home (I hope it makes it…) we went on a long walk around town together.  After walking through the old and crumbling homes of the wealthy colonialists who used to live in Jinja decades ago, we headed towards the local port and where the fishing boats were.

I’ve talked about the different local boats on the various African lakes and their differences and here was yet another style of construction.  The biggest difference was that they had a flat back instead of a more double ended design like I’d seen in most other places and like the boat I paddled Lake Tanganyika on, second they were built with much wider boards meaning fewer overall pieces and fewer places to leak and the seats/stays were narrower than others I’ve seen.  Also, because the water level on the lake was currently high, all the waterfront shacks were flooded with as much as 2 feet of water.  

Another old colonial home with some interesting architecture. 

Across from the large colonial homes in this part of town was the Jinja Golf Club, another colonial relic still limping along from its glory days of the past.  It contains a golf course that is maintained far better than I’d expected it to be, a greenish pool with a rusty metal platform for jumping into the water and a squash court with faded paint and scratched up floors. 

More amusing to me though was the giant storks in the area.  These birds are literally all over the town; sitting in treetops, standing in groups on grassy fiends and even congregating on peoples roofs.  They are some of the biggest and ugliest birds I’ve ever seen and they put a smile on my face every time I saw them.

Because Napa grew up in the area and used to swim and play golf there, we walked around the area freely, stopping to sit on the golf course for a while, watch the monkeys play in the trees and eventually walk to the end of the golf course where there is another view of ‘the source of the Nile.’  On the way we passed a few of these trees and because I used to work back in Seattle climbing and cutting trees, all I can say is man I’m glad we don’t have this kind of tree back home!

Before parting ways with Napa that afternoon I joined him at a family member’s house for food.  We had the usual, posho and beans, and I enjoyed every bite of it.  It was nice to meet Napa on the bus and spend some time with him seeing the tow.  As always, all it takes to have a good experience somewhere new is to say hi and start a conversation. 

I headed back towards the orphanage because I was going to have dinner with Maria, Mattie and Greg again, where we traded some movie files and ate stir-fry by candle light because their power had gone out.  I couldn’t stay too long because as I was leaving the next day I wanted to spend my last evening with Jarome, who had been an excellent host during my short stay in Jinia.  I didn’t expect to eat again, but of course he wanted to feed me and I was not able to refuse.  With that dinner (also posho and beans, but with matoke and a beer as well!)  Because I’d had breakfast at the orphanage as well, with that second dinner, I’d been treated to 4 different meals at 3 different houses in 1 day.  Travel man, travel with a smile on your face and a good attitude, and these kinds of things just happen.

Because I’d wanted to see the north of Uganda and I didn’t really care where, I sent CouchSurf requests to everyone listed in the north of the country, all seven of them, haha.  Eventually Marcy (and later two others) replied and happened to be a Peace Corps volunteer in the town of Arua, in the West Nile region, which is the far northwest of the country near the Congo border.  So with that I had a destination, the whole other side of the country! 

I woke at 4:45am to catch a bus from Jinja back to Kampala and arrived just in time to catch the bus to Aura.  I was surprised the ticket was so expensive; I think it was 35,000 shillings, but it was an 8 hour bus ride so I guess it wasn’t too unreasonable. 

The first few hours of the ride were pretty dull scenery wise (and too dark for me to get any photos anyways) but as the ride went on it got more interesting and less developed.  I’m told this part of the country is where Idi Amin, the dictator who used to run Uganda, recruited many of his soldiers, and do to bitterness about that fact the area had remained fairly neglected in terms of development by the government since them.  Today it is growing rapidly, but from the recently paved road you still passed by countless people who live in mud and grass huts, simply existing as substance farmers.  After crossing The Albert Nile and the Victoria Nile, the bus entered Arua and to took stock of where I had found myself.

Marcy works at the Aura School of Comprehensive Nursing, which lies behind the Aura Regular Referral Hospital.  Although like nearly every public health facility across Africa the place has a huge amount of need in terms of infrastructure, equipment, skills and funding, I was still impressed with its facilities in comparison to other places I’ve been.  I called Marcy to say I’d arrived and after putting my bags in her home where she lives with her husband Tom, also in Peace Corps and working in a center a few km down the road, Marcy showed me around the place a bit. 

As we walked we discussed the usual issues with a place like this and what she and some of the other NGOs in the area are doing to help.  When we entered the pediatric center she made a point of telling me it’s not representative of the rest of the place and that she had to work to even get the mosquito nets as well as how she combined with some German volunteers to repaint the place to make it more inviting.  Pediatrics is the passion of Marcy, so she has put a bit of extra energy into that area.  We toured around the hospital a bit and it was easy to see what was lacking, even in terms of the most basic supplies, but again it’s nothing unique.

Marcy and I finished out walk through the hospital and Tom joined us to go to the market and pick up a few things for dinner.  Being so close to the Congo border there is a great deal of trade between the two and at times it is very easy to tell some of the Congolese apart from the Ugandans with their different facial structures, clothing and twisted and knotted dreadlocks, a style I hadn’t seen before. 

Dinner with Marcy and Tom, the latest in my excellent series of CouchSurfing hosts across Africa.  Because I’ve visited so many Peace Corps volunteers across 4 African countries now, I have to comment on their homes.  The live in what is normally staff housing for hospital administrators and as such is pretty nice.  They have a modern style house, running water, western toilet, electricity (that has only been stable for the past six months, when the new hydro dam went online) and a propane stove.  The only thing missing to be a truly modern home is a fridge. 

Latoya, another Peace Corps volunteer as well as CouchSurf host who also offered to host me (though Marcy got to me first so I stayed with her) generously lent me the use of her bicycle for a few days so I could ride around town, and after a breakfast of oatmeal and tea I joined Tom on the 5 or so km ride out to his site.  Tom works with a group called NACWOLA, who works to fight the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS+ women, who are often kicked out of the family when their status is discovered; despite the fact it was probably given to them by their husbands sleeping around.  I was actually walking down the street with a local guy the other day and he told me the prostitutes (a few women had just said hi to me, they were prostitutes) won’t let their customers use a condom because they believe condoms make you sick or something… Anyways, NACWOLA is a place for women to get support from each other, learn skills to make a living without a husband and basically ‘come out’ as an HIV/AIDS+ person and slowly work to change attitudes towards them and other women. 

Tom showed me around a bit and introduced me to some of the women who were there on that day, and then I joined Marcy in weeding one of their demonstration vegetable gardens.  I grew up pulling weeds at my house and while I didn’t exactly enjoy it then, I actually kind of enjoy it now.  Plus, it was nice to just be outside and get my hands dirty, and Marcy and I chatted the whole time.

As the day went on it came up on tea time, so I washed the dirt of my hands and joined the women near the cooking fire where they were very interested in showing me their skills and how to be a proper Lugbara woman.

Here she is making ground nut paste, aka peanut butter.  This is done by simply putting the nuts on the stone and pushing the other stone across them to grind the nuts up.  After three passes you wind up with what is a smooth paste and what is probably the most natural and fresh peanut butter you could ever have.  The paste was then added to the boiled greens to add flavor and nutrients.  Very cool to see.

One of the skills the women learn is some craft work, and they make and sell all kinds of things from hats to baskets, earrings to drums.

Stirring the posho, this time with some sorghum flower in it which gives it the brown color instead of the white that comes from only using maize meal.  Once the meal was completed, they insisted on my trying it, which I was happy to do and found it to be pretty good.  It was a lot of fun seeing where Tom works and hearing about what he’s doing, spending the day in the garden with Marcy, meeting the women and having them show and tell me how to be a good Lugbara women. 

There are actually quite a few other Peace Corps volunteers in the town and surrounding towns, as well as a number of other western NGOs.  That evening was the birthday party for Mike, one of the other volunteers, and I joined in the festivities which included huge plates of pork and birthday cake. 

Of the many westerners in the Aura area, the most interesting I met have to be Christov and Heidi from Germany who I joined for breakfast with Tom and Marcy.  They have lived out here for something like 20 years and maintain the systems for a 500 watt Christian radio station called Voice of Life that broadcasts in the local language from their hilltop compound overlooking the town. 

Christov lead me on a tour of the property, including the broadcast studio, the solar power aray, the rooms for the staff and volunteers, the workshop where they do all their own auto repairs, wood working, metal working and more.  Everything was clean, organized and well built, very German!

While the radio equipment was the most impressive setup on a very impressive compound, the most interesting thing was Christov’s brass instrument workshop.  The man he took over from used to repair brass instruments and give them to the people and taught Christov (who already played brass) how to repair them and has been able to continue the project.  I have to say, a shipping container full of beat up and discolored brass instruments, replacement parts and countless well organized tools to rebuild them has to be one of the more unique things I’ve seen in the middle of nowhere Africa!  In Christov’s words, “The Africans like brass because it doesn’t need electricity and it is loud.” 

It was Sunday and after breakfast and the fascinating tour of Heidi and Christov’s compound and their charity works, I was off to meet the other volunteers at a lodge with a pool to relax.  On the way I rode through a field where they were having some athletic competitions.  When I arrived, they were competing at high-jump, which as you can see here consisted of young barefoot students jumping over a crooked stick onto a pile of dead grass and foam mattresses.  I watched a few minutes of it and rode off on my borrowed bicycle. 

I met the other volunteers at the interestingly named resort, ‘The White Castle’ which had nice rooms, a fish pond and a swimming pool.  The clientele seemed to be the town’s wealthy locals, the Indian businessmen and the white NGO workers.  The pool cost 10,000 shillings to use so I skipped it, but spent the rest of the day sitting and chatting with the other volunteers until it was about dinner time and I rode back home to Marcy and Toms. 

The night before Marcy had asked me if I could talk with someone she knew about travel in Africa, as he had some time to travel after his volunteer service was over and that he could probably benefit from chatting with me.  Obviously I’m happy to share my experience and knowledge about Africa and travel on the continent, so that morning CT, a missionary, came over to discuss his options.  We talked for an hour or two, looked at maps, I showed some photos and gave him my advice on how to spend a the month he had to get from Cape Town to Kampala. 

At noon I met Nick, one of the guys I met the other night, at the town’s Ethiopian restaurant for lunch, which was tasty but not quite enough food for me.  After having that and some Ethiopian coffee, we headed off so he could show me the project he is working on.

Through Nick I heard about an incident at the school one of the other volunteers teaches at.  During the night, at about 4am, a thief snuck into the dorm room and tried to steal some cellphones.  Some students woke up and two tried to stop the thief.  In an attempt to get away, the thief stabbed the two students, and as more and more students were awoken by the disturbance, the thief was overpowered, and literally stoned to death right there at the dorm by the students.  One of the students who was stabbed died on the way to the hospital….

Nick helps run an organization called LifeStitches, which like Tom at NACWALA is working at giving HIV/AIDS+ women job skills so they can support themselves.  The women learn to sew and make a variety of products such as coasters, pot holders, rugs, table cloths, aprons and the most recent one, hammocks.  These are sold out of the workshop itself and they are working toward selling them in markets in Kampala and even in the United States.  The workshop was impressively clean and organized and while there is always some difficulty in finding markets for such products, teaching sewing skills or any other marketable skill for that matter is, I believe, the best kind of aid to give because it gives them a trade they can make a living from on their own, rather than simply receiving hand-outs. 

In Africa when you need something, it’s often a matter of knowing which street corner to head to.  Anyone need sandles?  This is also the area to buy khat, a leaf you chew for stimulant like effects. 

That evening Nick and I cooked dinner for Marcy and Tom, a curry dish over rice.  After staying with them for a few nights and because I was leaving the next morning I was happy to help out, as always.  They were excellent hosts to me and Marcy was defiantly very motherly, cooking meals, cleaning up and refusing my offers to help, haha.  Staying with a married couple is something I’ve done once before, way back in Botswana, but that was with people my age so this was defiantly a different experience but a good one, what CouchSurfing is all about!

Up next is heading to the whole other side of the country again.  Back in Jinja I met a US Soldier who was sitting on the side of the street and we got to chatting.  When he told me that he was part of a group doing humanitarian work in the town of Moroto, in the northeast of the country and near to the Kenya border, I knew I had to go check it out so that is my next step.  From there I will be staying with an Italian NGO manager in an even smaller town, then cross into Kenya to fly out of Nairobi.  Stay tuned, there is some stunning scenery ahead!