For several reasons it was time to leave Uganda and head to Kenya. But before moving too far away from lovely Uganda, thrilling Kampala and inspiring Hospice Africa Uganda I would like to share some of the experiences there that did not involve volunteering.
After Art arrived, he, Seqyoyah and I spent some time being tourists. We went on a safari to Murchison Falls. Three days of driving around in an overland van was more fun than I expected. It was exciting to see all these amazing and beautiful wild creatures so close and in their natural habitat. As a bonus we had a hippo who wandered our camp at night. That made even going to the bathroom an adventure! My favorite animal is the giraffe. They are graceful, lovely and gentle and seem wise. We also saw lions, water buffalo, gazelle, zebra, wart hogs and tons of amazing birds (which really made Art happy).
Then we headed South to Kabale to go gorilla trekking. It was a 10 hour bus ride from Kampala to Kabale. There was literally only one quick stop by the side of the road for us to scurry into the bushes for a “short call.” I have found that a long skirt is the most practical travel outfit not only for coolness and comfort but lends itself to an illusion of modesty while peeing along the side of the road.
Welcoming us at our destination was rain like nothing I have seen before. We were instantly soaked, there were rivers running through the streets and it was everything we could do to keep laptop and guitar from being ruined. I had heard of people actually getting swept away and drowning in big downpours and for the first time I could really believe it. We jumped into the closest cab to drive the 2 blocks to our hostel. The weather had turned somewhat cool and the rain continued for several days so that everything remained damp and smelled musty. The mud was everywhere.
Luckily on the day we were to go gorilla trekking the weather improved and it didn’t rain while we were in the jungle. This was really good because as it was we slipped and slid down hills and through the thick jungle brush for about an hour before we came upon the family of gorillas who live in this part of the Bwindi National Forest. The hour or so we spent with them was amazing. They seemed to just take our presence in stride. One of the big Silverbacks (Gorilla become Silverbacks at 15 years old) walked within 6 feet of us which was a bit unnerving. There were 4 silver backs, several adult females, several younger adult males, a toddler, and a young baby. Baby clung to mom’s back as she walked through the jungle.
The mountain gorilla was endangered and its number dwindling due to poaching and local hunters. The Ugandan people finally realized the importance of protecting this amazing cousin of ours. Since they have started protecting them their numbers have gradually increased. The expensive fee to see the gorillas goes to continue their preservation.
Then to Lake Bunyoni. Art and I stayed on a small island in a cabin overlooking the lake. It was peaceful and quiet with lots of incredibly beautiful birds. There are many islands on this large lake and we took a boat tour of the lake and its islands. As we passed each island our guide told us the story that went along with it. Of the islands the most interesting were Upside down Island, Lepers Island and most fascinating and horrifying, Punishment Island.
I had already heard the basic story of Punishment Island the previous day. It was where at one time many years ago a girl who became pregnant out of wedlock, or was “shown” not to be a virgin on her marriage night was taken and left there to starve. The story horrified and fascinated me and I could not get it out of my mind. I had conjured up a fantasy about a group of girls surviving the island and over time forming their own society living and surviving together. They would raise their children together; live off the land, fish. There is certainly plenty of fresh water. And there are fruit trees everywhere here. It was possible…. But as we approached the island my heart sank and my illusion vanished. It was by far the tiniest island I have ever seen, with one scrubby tree in the center of it. My horror increased as our guide told us the rest of the story. There were other Islands that a strong swimmer would be able to reach. But only boys were allowed to learn to swim. Swimming was forbidden for girls in order to make sure they were duly terrified by the threat of starvation on Punishment Island for not being “chaste.”
I wondered how a mother would feel relinquishing her daughter to such a fate, I wondered how many lovers cried or attempted rescue, I wondered how many of the girls were there due to rape?
In an attempt to ease my horror and sadness my imagination took a new direction. I envisioned a dark night when everyone else was sleeping, a young girl walking quietly to the lakes edge and slipping soundlessly into the cool water unable to resist its silky feel, swimming out a little further each night, enjoying the increasing strength of her young limbs. Sensing that this was not just enjoyment or rebellion but with a knowing deep inside that she was somehow saving her life.
Rereading what I have written today made me realize how so many of the stories I have told about my time here in Uganda have been sad and intense. Someone might get the wrong impression that Africa is all dark tragic sadness. Really Africa is all things. And here I want to put a plug in for visiting Uganda the next time you are thinking of visiting a third world country. The Ugandan people are the friendliest group of people I have ever met anywhere. They have a great sense of humor and love to laugh, eat, dance, live. They do the best with what they have, which is very little. Their lack does not diminish their generosity. The capital city Kampala is a fast fun frenzy that if you let go of personal bias will provide no end of entertainment. Kampala is relatively safe (if you don’t count traffic accidents). You can walk down the street in Kabalagala (an area in Kampala) at night enjoying the music, food and general festive atmosphere. This is something that does not exist in Nairobi where walking down the street after dark is like asking to be robbed. Uganda has a lack of sophistication that is endearing. But fear has kept many tourists away. Fear of Ebola; fear the LRA, fear of terrorists’ attacks. There was an outbreak both Marburg (cousin disease to Ebola) and Ebola while we were there. Both were well monitored and there were few victims. As my son said, you have a much better chance of dying from Malaria than anything else here and that doesn’t stop most people from traveling. Despite that notorious video that came out the LRA has not been in Uganda for many years. And, well, terrorist attacks are a risk anywhere so why worry. Uganda has been called the Pearl of Africa due to its natural beauty. It has the largest number of bird species in Africa. Come and you will get frustrated, confused, impatient, excited, thrilled, exhausted, full of wonder and not for one second be bored! I will truly miss it!