A few final thoughts from home…

We’ve been home for a couple of days now and are finally getting over the effects of jet lag… although Marie still has a wicked head cold and we’ve both been feeling like we got run over by a very large truck… but given the number of people hacking and coughing on our flights home, it’s no surprise one of us got sick… in fact I’m actually a little shocked we didn’t bring home the plague or something. Marie was actually the energizer bunny on Saturday, doing most of our laundry, getting groceries and taking Bear for a walk while I basically slept the whole day (definitely the worst I’ve ever felt after a trip). But the tables have turned now and she’s dragging her feet around a little while I’m bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and raring to go… at 3AM…

We’re also a little surprised we made it home at all considering the Air Canada flight attendant on our flight home had a) no idea what city we were taking off from, b) no idea what city we were flying to, c) what aircraft we were flying in or d) how long our flight time would be… If preflight announcements are supposed to reassure passengers, hers was a complete disaster. And to continue the bash Air Canada theme, why did it not come as any surprise that we could fly more than 20,000km on multiple flights with Ethiopian Airlines with no difficulties at all and that Ethiopian Airlines was capable of shepherding our bags through the chaos of Addis Ababa airport but Air Canada couldn’t make sure that all our bags made it from Toronto to Vancouver… I know that bashing Air Canada is almost a national pastime in Canada but it’s hard not to bash them when you see what other airlines – including those in Air Canada’s service levels – are offering. Ethiopian Airlines provided hot meals, blankets, headphones and pillows on every flight and even managed to keep our luggage on the same flights as us… The same cannot be said of Air Canada…

Okay… enough complaining… let’s talk about some positives…

First, a huge shoutout to our friends Karen and Michael who met us at the ferry and gave us a ride home at the end of our trip… and thoughtfully brought homemade soup and a bag of groceries to tide us over in case we weren’t feeling up to cooking (we definitely weren’t). And to our neighbours Philip and Marya who provided a warm welcome home and a delicious blueberry-apple pie! And to our dog/house sitter Ricardo who kept Bear well-exercised and who seems to have thoroughly detailed Marie’s car while we were away… her tires have never been so shiny! and who kept the house absolutely  immaculate. Often times, the best part of traveling is being reminded of what you have back home and this trip was no exception. Marie and I are truly blessed to have the life we have…

Next, Insight Global Education and Craig in particular deserve all kinds of praise and gratitude for making this trip happen and making it happen as seamlessly as it did. Our accommodation choices were excellent (sure some didn’t have hot water at times and the power went out at some but that’s Africa and certainly wasn’t Insight’s responsibility… and to be honest it added to the overall feel of the trip). No one got sick from what we ate or drank. We ended up in the places we were supposed to be when we were supposed to be there. We saw lions! And we were provided with valuable insight and knowledge about the places and things we were seeing… In short, Craig was a fantastic tour guide and handled the logistics with aplomb… I have never had less to do on a trip and Patrick was a fount of knowledge about Uganda and Rwanda and was just plain awesome. Insight runs a great student travel program and I’m already starting to think about the next trip we’ll run with them! Fuji? Ecuador? Costa Rica? Maybe their new Balkans or Southeast Asia destinations?

Finally, East Africa… or at least Uganda and Rwanda. One of the purposes of Insight’s programming is to change people’s (especially students’) perceptions of East Africa. In particular to shift people away from the constant negative images of Africa as violent, poverty-ridden, starving and to be able to see Africa in a different light…  Well that certainly happened for us.

There are aspects of Uganda and Rwanda that are not wholly positive. There is poverty. There is a heavy security presence and there are a lot of machine guns in the hands of police, soldiers and security guards all over the place. There is corruption. The traffic is stifling in places and you need to keep your wits about you in markets and in crowded areas. Driving is downright dangerous in and out of the cities. Rwanda and Uganda do not have democratically elected governments nor do their citizens enjoy universal human rights that we in the West take for granted. You don’t want to drink the water. Or swim in most of the lakes. Sometimes the power goes out. And there’s not always hot water. And you are well-advised to make sure your vaccinations are up-to-date and that you take your anti-malarials.

But there is corruption in many countries that are popular tourist destinations. Heavy security is the new reality for most cities throughout Europe. Traffic and driving are a nightmare in many countries (been to Vancouver lately…). Keeping your wits about you in markets and crowded spaces is a necessity everywhere you travel to unless you like losing your stuff or getting scammed. And poverty is not confined to Africa (again, been to Vancouver lately…).

On the plus side, we found the people in Uganda and Rwanda to be genuinely friendly and welcoming. The prices are pretty awesome for food and shopping and accommodation. Beer costs about a dollar. Sodas cost less than that. Bottled water is readily available everywhere you go. Getting a SIM card for your phone will take you less than 20 minutes and data plans are cheap, cheap, cheap. WiFi is spotty but you’ll find decent cell coverage almost everywhere. We were not swarmed by mosquitoes (I did not get bit once and did not use bug repellent for the last 5 days of the trip but some of the kids definitely got a few bites despite using high concentration DEET bug repellents). Most rooms will have fans. Those that don’t will be hot but that just means your freshly washed clothes will dry faster. Marie thought the mattresses were a bit hard but she’s a bit of a wimp when it comes to that… The food isn’t super amazing (matoke is a bit of an acquired taste and the meat tends to be a bit tough) but it’s cheap and plentiful and you can get every type of cuisine imaginable… Service tends to be a bit slow and sometimes you don’t always get what you ordered but that’s part of the charm. And when you get out of the cities and into the countryside, the scenery is pretty spectacular. And they have lions. And zebras. And elephants…

Basically, traveling to Uganda and Rwanda was not all that different than traveling to Thailand or Cambodia or Turkey or Morocco… Lots of positives and a few things you need to watch out for. And that was the point of the trip to a large extent. To show the students – and Marie and I – that Africa is not really all that different than many of the places people travel to. Yes, you’ll want to hire a car and driver. Yes, it will be hot and dusty and noisy and chaotic in places… and serene and beautiful in others…

I guess the most telling fact of all is that we’re already thinking of going back to East Africa… Caitlin says Zanzibar is absolutely beautiful and her pictures certainly confirm that. Doing a gorilla trek has been on Marie’s bucket list for as long as I’ve known her and apparently the Serengeti safari experience is out of this world…

Addis Ababa to Toronto to Vancouver to Victoria

We had plenty of time in Addis to catch our breath after barely making our flight from Kigali… or so we thought. Just as we were heading for the security line, a huge line of people materialized which wouldn’t have been a big deal if a) two of our travellers weren’t pulled for “random” pull your entire bag apart security searches and b) the airline didn’t change the gate assignment mid-process stranding half of our travellers on one side of a now closed door and the other at the security screening table. It all worked out fine and the Ethiopian Airlines staff were as accommodating and helpful as they could be under the circumstances but it did make for a much hairier boarding experience than we’d been expecting. And the plane was almost an hour late taking off as a result of the ensuing chaos (we thought we were going to be near the last to board but that did not turn out to be the case at all as many more people got caught up in even more chaos than us…). Leaving an hour late was cause for some concern as we only have 90 minutes to catch our connecting flight in Toronto and we need to clear customs and security because of the way Pearson handles connecting flights… but we’d worry about that 15 hours later… for now, we just needed to get through another insanely long plane ride. It actually turned out to be not that bad. Ethiopian’s food is never going to win any awards but they sure kept it coming and they were around frequently to water us… Their cabin attendants were friendly and helpful and all in all, the flight passed as pleasantly as one could hope for. Except for the turbulence for the first hour and half which had Marie checking for barf bags big time. Thankfully she was able to get some sleep and let the gravol kick in and when she woke, felt much better for the remainder of the ride. Unlike our flight from Toronto to Addis which was a straight 13 hour shot, this flight was broken up by a one hour stop in Dublin after 7.5 hours of flight time so they could change the crew and refuel. Then we were back in the air for another 6.5 hours to Toronto… Both of the flight times ended up being shorter than anticipated which meant we landed in Toronto with the full 90 minutes to get our connecting flight despite leaving Addis an hour later than planned… we were split on this format versus the longer straight shot – some of us preferred the longer single flight while others preferred the two shorter flights even if we weren’t able to get off the plane in Dublin…

We landed in Toronto and arrived at the terminal at exactly 8:25 as scheduled (pretty impressive when you consider we’d flown for almost 15 hours) and were able to get off the plane fairly quickly… only to be held up briefly by the new document check Border Services seems to be doing quite often right in the gangway… when you have a 787 Dreamliner (one of the larger planes out there) unloading a full complement of passengers and have 2 agents checking passports you’re going to create a bottleneck… thankfully it didn’t hold us up for long and we were soon making our way to customs. We caught a huge break here as there was absolutely no lineup… something we’ve never seen before at Pearson and we all breezed through despite most of us declaring plant products (coffee), wood products (masks, drums and other souvenirs) and whatnot… they didn’t seem too concerned. After customs we made our way to baggage claim to pick up our checked bags (something we have only ever had to do at Pearson). We were delayed a bit here as Marie and Noah’s bags must have been first to be loaded on the plane in Addis because they were pretty close to the last ones off in Toronto… from there we made our way back through customs (where none of us were selected for further inspection) and then we said goodbye to Noah who lives in Toronto and was able to head home to his bed while the rest of prepared for another 5 hour flight. After Customs 2.0 you go to Customs 3.0 where you are either sent for more screening and inspection (none of us were selected thankfully) or you’re sent to a conveyor belt to load your checked bags back into the system… I’m sure there’s a good reason for it all and that it keeps us safe or something, but it’s never really made much sense every time we’ve had to do it…

After dropping our bags off, we headed for security (because Pearson puts the exit from the airport in too close proximity to the passageway to the connecting customs bag drop) where my camera caused them a bit of grief because it was kind of big – their words – and where I was told that I should take it out of my bag next time… despite the fact that my camera has been through over 50 security screenings in the exact same bag in at least 20 different airports and not once has anyone ever said it needs to be taken out of the bag. Marie’s pack also caused them some grief because she had forgotten to take the small can of ginger ale the airline gave her when she wasn’t feeling too hot out of her bag… Thankfully the extra scrutiny and swabbing and whatnot didn’t hold us up too long and we were soon making our way to the gate (which was, of course, different than the one printed on 5 of our 6 boarding passes…). Once at the gate, we had maybe 6 minutes to buy some snacks for the flight (because Air Canada doesn’t provide meals on domestic flights unless you’re willing to part with an arm or leg… which seems doubly chintzy when you consider that Ethiopian provides a full hot meal even on 2 hour flights) and to fill out water bottles with blessedly cold tap water and send a couple of short “we’re alive and made our flight” messages to various people and then it was final boarding call time so we hustled our butts onto the plane.

We’re now just over 2 hours into our flight which means we’ve got another 3 hours of flying, a bus ride to the ferry, a 1.5 hour ferry ride and a half hour drive into Victoria before we’ll be stepping through our door. That’s a full 36 hours since we left our guesthouse in Kigali on Thursday… if you’ve never done one of these epic flying adventures where you have no idea what day or time it is and your body doesn’t know whether it should be eating breakfast or dinner have you really travelled. I can’t help imagining what it must have been like before Airlines starting flying to Africa regularly and before the advent of passenger jets that can cruise at 40,000 feet doing almost 900 km per hour. As hard as this trip is on the mind and body, there was a time not so long ago when flying to and from Africa was a literal test of one’s spirit so we won’t complain too much…

 

 

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Today is safari day so we’re all up at the ungodly hour of 5:15am to be ready for breakfast at 6am. There are not many smiles at this hour of the day especially as it was very hot in the rooms last night. But we’re optimistic we’ll see animals. Our driver – Patrick – was feeling very poorly when we arrived yesterday so he arranged for a new driver for today’s drive. After a somewhat less than amazing breakfast (nothing wrong with it, just smallish portions and not amazing food) we piled back into the van for a full day of safari adventure. Our van has been transformed for safari with a pop up roof to allow passengers to stand and view the wildlife. It also makes for a nice natural air conditioning system!

We had a couple of quick stops to make before the game drive began in earnest. We’re not sure what they were for… some arcane bureaucratic exercise no doubt. From there we headed out onto the savanna in search of lions and elephants and hippos… it turns out safari game drives are sort of like trolling for salmon… you drive around a 2000 square kilometre park hoping to see creatures that are designed to be hard to see… we saw an elephant off in the distance but were assured we’d see lots so didn’t go closer (we should have) and we saw many types of deer and buffalo and birds… we saw a few of the deer like animals locking horns and learned that the losers have to leave the herd. We also learned that when buffalo get old, they leave the herd and form “loser” herds – sort of like retirement herds… Marie felt sorry for them for the rest of the trip… after a couple of hours of bouncing and bumping around, we saw a cluster of vans and Land Cruisers off in the distance and made our way over… Lions had been spotted… but no one really knew where… we all just kind of stared around in all directions looking for lions until a large female stood up about 30 feet in front of all the vehicles and started to amble away… the crowd erupted in a frenzy of camera clicks and excited whispers… and then a large male stood up and started to follow the female… the lions clearly couldn’t have cared less about the crowd of humans and vehicles metres away from them as they just did their lion thing and completely ignored us… I offered to sacrifice one of the students for a better show but apparently there are rules against feeding the lions…

After the lions we drove around a bit more but it was kind of anticlimactic after seeing lions… eventually we made our way to a salt lake and a series of small craft stalls… we spent some money buying souvenirs and then piled back into the van to make our way to our lunch destination – a fancy resort… a very, very fancy resort… we had planned to swim before or after lunch but what we’d heard would be 10,000 shillings (about 3 dollars) turned out to be 20USD (76,000 shillings) so none of us took advantage of their glistening, inviting pool… but lunch was delicious! And we were definitely impressed with the property and its commanding view of QENP.

After lunch we piled back into the van (a little reluctantly if I’m being honest as the resort was pretty darn comfortable) for the short trip down to the channel for the boat portion of our safari. We piled aboard and promptly took up most of the best seats and waited for the trip to start. We were all pretty excited because we could see a couple of elephants just across the channel and knew we’d be getting a close up view of them… As has been the case for most of Uganda, we did not leave on time (due mostly to a dead battery for the outboards). But eventually we were pulling away from the jetty and heading across the channel. Kazinga Channel is a 40 kilometre stretch of water that connects Edward and George Lakes and is home to hundreds of hippos, thousands of birds and provides an up close look at some of the larger mammals that head for the water each day… Over the course of our 2.5 hour “cruise” we saw African elephants, hippos, buffalo, Nile crocodiles, deer type things (I forget their proper names), fishermen and a bazillion birds… so, so many birds… In all, it was a relaxing and pleasant way to see the animals… and so much cooler (as in temperature) than sweating and bouncing around in the van trying to find a few hundred animals in thousands of square kilometres of bush.

After the boat cruise we headed back to Simba to wash off the road dust, clean up and grab dinner. There may have been a few naps as well. And the drinks were cold this time! Part way through dinner, the power shut off again so we were able to enjoy dinner by candlelight. In all, a long but thoroughly enjoyable day.

Masaka to Queen Elizabeth National Park

We drove… A long way… It was very hot… We saw some stuff… The drinks were not cold when we arrived at Queen… we were not amused…

It was a long drive. Nothing much stands out about the drive until we stopped for lunch at a rest stop just before Mbarara. It was pretty posh (gift shop, small museum, landscaped grounds). The food was decent but took a long time (not unusual for Uganda we’re finding) and was on the pricier side. After lunch we headed for a sandal shop in Mbarara where Marie, Craig and I each purchased a pair of very good quality leather sandals for $7CDN. Apparently sandals are not cool with the young’uns any more…

After Mbarara we made a pitstop along the way to see zebras (which you can’t see in Queen Elizabeth National Park). We saw cows too… with huge horns… which led the kids to christen every single one of them – in fact every single cow-like animal with horns we have seen on this trip – Ferdinand after the animated movie that was showing on the plane trip from Toronto to Addis. It has become less cute as time goes on…

After zebras we drove. And drove. And drove. There were baboons at some point I think… we had to make sure the windows were closed because they are bad baboons and might try to come into the van and take our stuff… but at least they do not call cows Ferdinand….

We made a quick stop at a little viewpoint overlooking the Great Rift Valley (where QENP) is located. It was quite spectacular. From there we entered the park proper and had to make a couple of stops to register for our game drive the next day and take care of various administrative tasks before bumping and bouncing our way to our home for the next two nights – Simba Safari Lodge. It was quite rustic. We had to order our dinner as soon as we arrived – our choices were a bit limited but a rubber tire would have appealed at this point… after ordering and signing for our rooms, we dumped out stuff… into the 9th level of Hades… apparently it has not rained in a QENP for a couple of weeks… I’m not sure they would have noticed because it would have immediately turned to steam in the heat… hot as it was outside, it was substantially hotter inside our room… the wall mounted fan tried valiantly to cool the room but it was fighting a losing battle.

As Marie and I were dropping our bags in our room, we heard a commotion coming from the girls’ room next door… geckos… on the walls… they were not amused. At all. Especially when the porters basically laughed and left them to deal with them… I was pressed into service but there is little you can do about geckos beside scare them into a crevice… which I did with a duo tang… I expect the geckos came back…

Eventually we got everything squared away and headed down for dinner. It was not any cooler in the dining area and as I mentioned, the drinks were not very cold. There may have been tears… from me… but I guess we had to forgive them as they had not had power for most of the day… During dinner we were momentarily distracted by a spider the size of a small kitten (okay it was actually not that big but given the reaction it elicited, I figured it must have been a kitten-sized spider). Noah solved the problem by kicking it out into the night like a soccer ball… After dinner we all headed for our saunas… I mean our rooms… and called it a night. It had been a long day of driving and we had to get up very early the next morning.

Masaka

I’ve fallen a bit behind on posts due to spotty internet connections and long days so I’m going to roll the two days we spent in Masaka into a single post.

Our first day in Masaka started with a nice buffet style breakfast with cereals, scrambled eggs, sausages and pancakes with tea and coffee (very good coffee!). After breakfast we headed to AfriPads – a local social enterprise making reusable sanitary pads. Many girls in Africa are not able to go to school for 3-4 days each month because they lack access to feminine hygiene products and for other families, the cost of pads takes quite a bite out of family incomes each month. AfriPads was started by a Canadian couple in 2010 and has grown to become the largest commercial supplier of reusable sanitary pads in Africa. Their current operation includes a large factory where women stitch together the pads, sew on the labels and package them for sale. The women (and any men who work for the company) are paid substantially more than the average daily wage and enjoy generous benefits and good working conditions (including 4 weeks holidays, maternity leave and pension). The factory was well lit and very clean and employee safety seemed to be a focus for them with a full slate of first aid attendants and safety messages. A couple of blocks away they have another smaller facility where men were cutting the fabric templates. The whole operation is highly professional and they produce a very high quality product that has enabled tens of thousands of girls to attend school regularly while employing more than 120 people in Masaka. The success of AfriPads as a business speaks to the success of social enterprises where organizations sell viable products and services instead of relying on donations to provide assistance.

After our tour of AfriPads, we piled into the van and headed to Kitengeesa to see where AfriPads was started back in 2010. We never made it to that spot but we did get a personal tour of the brand new factory AfriPads is building to put all of their manufacturing processes under one roof. The whole facility will cost about $1,000,000 and will provide room to grow as the company continues to expand. They’re also building a daycare and breastfeeding area into the construction and using natural light and ventilation to make working conditions as agreeable as possible.

After our tour of the new factory site, we headed over to the Kitengeesa Community Library – started by Dan Ahisimbwe (who also plays a huge role in Tekera Resource Centre which we are also visiting while we are in Masaka) and Kate Perry (not that Kate Perry) to support literacy and education in Kitengeesa. From there we made our way back to Masaka to have lunch then back to the hotel to swim and get refreshed before heading to a small expo (basically a traveling fair/market) in Masaka. It was not that spectacular… although the kids did get up on stage to dance and enjoyed meeting some of the local school kids who were quite fascinated by the muzungus. And there was a camel… a sad pathetic looking camel… but a camel… then it was off for dinner and back to the hotel for an early night…

Our next day in Masaka started with a 45 minute drive to Tekera – site of a village and a resource centre where we spent the day. The road was being graded and was in better shape than we’d been led to expect but was still bumpy and very dusty… On arrival at Tekera we were introduced to Maureen who manages the centre and who introduced us to the centre and explained the work they were doing with the piggery (we weren’t able to go in for fear of transmitting swine flu to their pigs) that is their ticket to future sustainability. They currently have 67 pigs and are hoping to expand to more than 400 in the near future. They can sell a mature pig for about 150CDN and being able to sell decent numbers of pigs each year will help to cover the costs of the entire centre… after the piggery we were shown the vocational classroom and one of the dorms and learned about the school routine (8am to 4pm usually but 5am to 10pm when they are preparing for national exams) our students had trouble wrapping their head around the idea that anyone would go to school at 5am!!! After that we were treated to tea and snacks in the outdoor staff room (Lambrick Park teachers take note!). The boiled bananas were not a particular favourite… they had the texture and consistency of a boiled potato and a mildly gag-inducing overripe banana flavour that sort of grew on you but not really enough to enjoy it… but the tea was delicious (local Ugandan black tea) and the sweet potatoes were filling.

After a snack we trekked into the backforty of the property to spread some mulch around banana trees and then headed back to the garden plot to transplant tomato seedlings (hundreds of them) then headed back to the staff room for lunch with the staff. Lunch was a carb lovers dream – a delicious offering of fresh pineapple (grown on site), beans, rice, sweet potatoes and gnut sauce – all cooked over an open wood stove in the facility’s rustic kitchen. We all needed a nap afterwards… but instead we were hustled off to the classrooms to observe a lesson. I ended up visiting a P7 class (basically Grade 7) and because the students were independently working on assignments and projects, I had a great chat with Steven and Isaac, the teachers. The students ended up visiting a variety of primary classrooms and watched teachers doing their thing in a variety of lessons…. No one will ever complain about their classrooms again… but the teachers and the students clearly loved what they were doing and I was blown away by the work ethic of the students I observed. I was a bit nonplussed by the clapping, hugging, head bowing, kiss blowing welcome the class gave me though… but chatting with Steven I was struck by how much teachers the world over have in common… we worry about how our classes seem to other teachers, we’re insanely proud of their accomplishments and genuinely want the best for their futures… Steven and Isaac were in their early twenties – Steven having become a teacher when he was 18… they were stunned that I had been teaching for almost 30 years…

After our lesson time was up, we observed a variety of song and dance routines that the students were practicing for an upcoming performance… the circumcision dance was a crowd favourite… then it was sports time… up first was a tug-of-war between us and the staff of Tekera. We smoked them! Then it was our girls against the female staffers. We dominated them again. But the Tekera students erupted in celebration when their male teachers beat our guys (they may have stacked their side with a few more than the 5 we had after it appeared they were in trouble)… After tug-of-war, it was volleyball time and while we weren’t really all that good, Bethany’s excellent serving and some lucky bounces saw us prevail 17-15 in extra time. Up next was football… we didn’t have enough players to field a team so they provided some ringers for us… thankfully… or we would have been completely and utterly destroyed. Our team consisted of some of our students who could actually play football, some of their students and staff who can really play football, and those like Marie and I who last played football when they used round rocks as soccer balls and dinosaurs roamed the earth… as it was, some superb goal-tending from yours truly (okay, if we’re being honest, pure dumb luck) kept us in it after a late push by Tekera and the game finished 2-2… so onto penalty shots… one of our ringers thankfully took over goalkeeping from me and promptly let in all 5 shots he faced… our team was unfortunately not able to score in penalties and the school erupted as the locals defeated the muzungus… a great time was had by all…

After sports it was time to say our goodbyes and head back to Masaka to clean up for dinner. Instead of dinner at a restaurant tonight, we were invited to a community dinner at Dan’s house to say goodbye to a group of interns from Douglas College in Vancouver. It was sort of like a high school dance with cliques sitting on different sides of the gym… only with ear-splitting music blaring from speakers set up on the lawn. For some reason, Ugandans love their music speaker-crushingly loud… the food was pretty good though and it was interesting to get a look at a different side of the NGO/volunteer world… and it was really cute to watch Dan’s young son Jude playing video games on the kids’ phones… but after a long day in the heat at Tekera, our group was fading fast by 9pm so we headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep because the next day we were driving 6-7 hours to Queen Elizabeth National Park…

Our time in Masaka has been very enjoyable. The experience at Tekera- especially the classroom portion – really resonated with our travellers who saw first hand how much education is valued and how much need can exist in a small community such as Tekera which depends on the resource centre for medical services, education and other services. Similarly, the visits to AfriPads showed how the social enterprise model of aid can provide good paying jobs while meeting community needs… in all it’s been an informative couple of days and ones that will leave a lasting impression on all of us…

Traffic in Kampala

How to describe traffic in Kampala… it’s not the craziest we’ve ever seen (that would probably be Bangkok or Phnom Penh) and it’s probably not the most aggressive we’ve ever seen (that would be Turkey) but there’s something special about it… it might be the matatus – the white vans (much like ours) packed with passengers that stop pretty much anywhere they darn well please and just zip back out into traffic whenever they feel like… they’re basically the public transit system of Kampala. There’s a driver and a conductor. The driver drives and the conductor entices/encourages passengers to get on and collects the money. They don’t follow a schedule or any particular route… basically you pays your money and you go where it takes you… you and a dozen or more passengers… they’re a big part of the reason nothing ever starts on time in Kampala and while they’re a necessary service, they clog up the traffic pretty bad…

And then there’s the bodas… dear lord the bodas… they’re everywhere… they’re not quite scooters… not quite full blown motorbikes… they’re some sort of time-bending, warp drive enabled, space folding vehicle of the future… they squeeze between vans, zip in front of trucks, dodge buses… if we had a dollar for every time we thought someone was going to be squashed and somehow emerged unscathed, we’d all be very rich… and they’re not just hauling people… we’ve seen them piled with mattresses, pineapples, construction equipment, recycling, and an endless variety of families, babies, tourists and whatnot. Sometimes they where helmets. Most don’t… probably so they can see and hear everything around them so they don’t get smacked… there are some companies (Safe Boda being one of them) that have standards, follow the rules, wear helmets and make their passengers wear helmets but they’re definitely in the minority. Most seem to just say “screw it” and let ‘er rip…

Now add in full size buses, four wheel drive safari vehicles, construction equipment, potholes capable of swallowing tanks, police trucks loaded with heavily armed officers, Royal convoys, guys selling vegetables and fruits, people zipping to and fro, dogs, goats, cows and the odd mzungu looking forlorn and lost and it’s a wonder Patrick’s hair isn’t snow white and falling out… there are few (we’ve seen maybe 3) stop lights, virtually no stop signs, no street signs to speak of, the traffic police wouldn’t dare stand in the actual intersection so they mostly just whistle and wave in random patterns (I swear one guy was just swatting flies) or write tickets… and then a military or police vehicle comes roaring through the seemingly impenetrable wall of vehicles and everyone gets the heck out of the way… there are no sidewalks… few zebra crossings (crosswalks) and it’s every person for themself…

Probably the only saving grace is that the drivers are all pretty chill about it all… they’re aggressive sure but only because if they weren’t, we’d still be at the airport waiting for a break in the traffic… maybe it’s more accurate to say they’re assertive because we haven’t seen much actual aggression… mostly they cut you off, lock up the brakes and then everyone smiles and laughs… and lays on the horn of course… once in a while they might make a gesture or make a comment (their window is only inches from yours at times) to show that you went too far or someone might do something particularly stupid and others will let them know, but for the most part it all actually works… insofar as we haven’t seen any accidents or road rage… which is good, because it would probably take a tank to get to the scene of the accident because there’s no room for the drivers to move over and let emergency vehicles by…

When you leave the city and start driving, say to Masaka, the potholes get bigger. The trucks get bigger and slower… the bodas are joined by tuktuks and assorted other vehicles (most of which are built like tanks). The dust is everywhere… and police checks… in the 4 hours we were on the road, we passed through at least 15 of them and were pulled over (for absolutely no reason we or Patrick could discern… except perhaps to be lectured by the traffic cop on what his hand signals mean)… these stops include full-on spike barriers and lots of machine guns…

And on top of all this, they drive on the wrong side of the fecking road!!! All in all, you would be quite literally out of your mind to try and drive in this country. Save your sanity. Save your hair. Your marriage. Your hopes and dreams for the future and hire a local driver… and update your will…

Kampala to Masaka

This morning we were able to sleep in a little as it’s something of a travel day as we will be making the 3-4 hour drive south to Masaka where we’ll be connecting with a number of social enterprises and NGOs.

Up first, though, is the Gaddafi mosque at the top of Old Kampala Hill. Started by Idi Amin during his time in power (1971-1979) and finished with funds from Gaddafi in 2006, it can hold up to 35,000 worshipers and is the National mosque of Uganda. The interior blends African, European and Arabic elements and the minaret provides a spectacular 360 degree view of Kampala. We started by properly covering our female students (pants needed to be covered by a wrap and heads covered with a scarf… the girl helping our students robe up was quite taken with Marie’s head scarf (it was purchased in Morocco for our trip into the desert). After that we removed our shoes and headed inside for a brief tour of the interior of the mosque and a reading (singing) from the Quran by our tour guide – Fatima – who quite literally has the voice of an angel… Hearing the verses of the Quran sung rather than read was quite beautiful.

After that it was time to make the short (but steep) climb to the top of the minaret and a brief history lesson by Fatima. The name of the city is apparently derived from a British camp that used to be located at the top of the hill during colonial times and from the impalas that used to roam there but the C in camp is pronounced differently so it became Kamp + Impala = Kampala). She also pointed out interesting and historical features on the surrounding hills. In all, it was a well received tour and, for most of our students, their first time in a mosque.

After the mosque we made our way to Buganda road and a craft market. We all bought a few things… for most of the kids this was their first experience with bartering and some definitely got the hang of it pretty quickly from their reports. Marie and I have been to a lot of markets and the prices at this one were definitely reasonable and the sellers very friendly. After the market we crossed the street to 1000 Cups – a local coffee shop known for their variety of coffees from around the world and their own ethically sourced Ugandan coffees. We all stocked up on beans and enjoyed some of their concoctions – Marie’s was definitely the winner… whatever it was, it tasted just like an orange creamsicle… the coffee floats were a close runner up… after the market we headed for a restaurant for a quick lunch and then hit the road to Masaka.

The ride to Masaka was long. And bumpy. And hot. We stopped briefly at a spot along the way (I forget the name) that straddles the equator to snap a few photos. Then it was back in the van to finish our journey. We arrived in Masaka about an hour later than Patrick had predicted (6:30) and as soon as we arrived Marie and I sacked out in our room (quite luxurious with a king size bed and our own toilet and shower this time) while the kids (and Craig) jumped in the pool for a quick swim. After that it was off for dinner at Frickadillen (it’s owned by the same people who own the Banda Overland Lodge where we are staying.) We had all placed our orders while we were still in Kampala so dinner was more or less ready when arrived at 8 and we all chowed down on a variety of western and local dishes. After dinner it was time for a quick debrief and discussion of the day and then back to the lodge and off to bed…

Some random observations and bits of knowledge from the past couple of days:

  • The average life expectancy in Uganda is 58 and the average age is 19 with almost 50% of the population under 14…
  • A common car wash consists of driving cars/trucks part way into a creek and tossing buckets of water at them…
  • In more than a few parts of Kampala we’ve had to make sure our windows are up and the doors are locked to avoid people reaching in and grabbing phones or bags. Given how often traffic comes to a complete standstill and how close people are riding/walking by the van, this is a wise precaution.
  • There are about 40,000 boda drivers in Kampala… so many that the government is apparently reluctant to do much to regulate them for fear of them rising up
  • Many banks apparently charge interest rates that can add up to 80% – one of the reasons micro-lenders are so important to helping lift people out of poverty
  • We haven’t seen many people smoking but apparently everybody smokes…
  • The average wage in Uganda is 2USD per day. At Sawa, the employees are paid $150USD per month and the women at Afripads are paid about $6 per day
  • Hundreds of people each day go to hospital as a result of boda accidents
  • There is a type of stork called a Marabou Stork (also known as Undertaker Birds) that are basically the garbage collectors of Kampala… they are tremendously ugly and look like pterodactyls in flight…

Kampala – Day 2

We were all up pretty early this morning (everyone’s still feeling the jet lag) and ready to go by the appointed time… but our driver was later, caught in the snarl of Monday morning traffic as he drove across town (actually from Entebbe) to meet us. Breakfast this morning ran the gamut from the $2 lemon pancakes to yoghurt and granola ($3) and bacon and eggs… all were deemed excellent!

After our morning briefing and a few extra minutes of R&R before Patrick arrived, we were piling into the van and heading for our destination for the day – Sawaworld – (http://sawaworld.org) an NGO founded by a Vancouver woman and focused on finding solutions from within to extreme poverty and other social ills.

Our day started with a quick introduction to Sheila – the country director in Uganda – followed by an energizer and then back to their classroom for a history of the organization and the work they do… it is truly inspiring. Basically, Sawa acts as a hub for people with skills/talents/ideas that can be taught to others and that can help lift people out of poverty or reduce the spread of HIV or in other ways improve the lives of people in difficult straights. Their offices radiate positivity and their staff are young, hip and with it (technologically, socially, etc). One of the really interesting projects we learned about was a sexual health and female empowerment and economic independence program where they select young women to receive training and vlog (video blog) their progress… it’s captivating to listen to these young women talk about how being able to make money of their own by selling cookies or candles or paper bags translates not into economic independence but empowers them to stand up to their male partners to require condoms and HIV testing. Sawa presents this really effective mix of new age business approaches and boots on the ground work in the trenches and it’s really effective… had they asked for donations, we’d have emptied our wallets in a heartbeat but that’s not what they’re about. Sawa seems to embody the idea of a “hand up not a handout” and while they depend on donations ( to some extent for their technology and whatnot, their model is predicated on social enterprise (business with a social conscience) as opposed to charity.

After our introduction to Sawa’s approach and philosophy, it was time to get our hands dirty – literally! Our job for the day was to help rebuild their tower garden that provides food for the staff and serves as a model for people wanting to grow produce in very limited space or with poor growing conditions (ie. the slums of Kampala). Basically, a tower garden is a series of pipes driven into the ground in a circle about 8′ in diameter and about 3′ high… the pipes serve as the support for chicken coop wire that is wrapped around and around the circle created by the pipes and then secured in place. In the centre is a tower (hence the name) of rocks and pipes for drainage and water distribution… even in Canadian dollars the whole thing could be built for less than $20 and provides a huge area for growing produce, etc.

Our job was to mix the soil, sand and compost under the exacting of the “grandmother” who runs the whole farming operation. We started out a bit tentative… oh yeah, I forgot to mention we were also given cameras and asked to record our work during the day to create a 3 minute vlog of our experiences at Sawa… at first we were more focused on the filming than the working but eventually we put our backs into it and started to work up a sweat… Except Marie who basically kidnaped Sheila and peppered her with questions while the rest of us worked… some things are the same the world over… the workers work while the managers stand around talking 🙂

Eventually we took a break for lunch at a nearby restaurant that Patrick recommended. We ordered enough food for a small army (even our teenage boys were defeated) and chowed down on matoke (mashed plantains and a staple of Ugandan food) along with rice, fried pumpkin, g-nut sauce (ground nuts or peanuts), beef stew, chicken stew and yams… it was all delicious… although the meat did fight back a little… in the end we had enough leftovers to fill a bunch of takeaway containers that we brought back to the staff at Sawa…

Back at Sawa it was time to fill the tower garden with the soil we had mixed. Energized after our huge meal, we put our backs into it and the tower filled in no time. Then it was time to plant the spring onion and spinach seedlings, water it all and snap a few photos of our day’s work. Then it was back to the classroom for a debrief and a check-in and then it was time for us to learn a skill… how to make paper bags… they’re a lot tougher than they look let me tell you!

After learning how to make paper bags and a final round of questions, it was time for us to bid adieu to Sawaworld and head back to the Red Chilli… a long and arduous trip through soul-crushing traffic… Patrick was a marvel as he kept us moving through seemingly endless walls of cars, bodas and people… it took us almost two hours to get back to the hostel where we had about 1/2 an hour to cleanup and change for dinner… a fancy dinner in town to celebrate yours truly’s birthday… the traffic on the way into town was definitely better and we made decent time to a restaurant near Acacia Mall (the really upscale one we’d been to on our first day in Kampala) called Cafe Javas. We all dined on fairly typical western fare (quesadillas, tacos, sandwiches, etc) and fancy juices… we were also treated to the bulk of the restaurant staff singing happy birthday to me (definitely more energetic and rhythmic than the usual Spaghetti Factory style we get back home) and a piece of very yummy Black Forest Cake. We also got to have dinner with our daughter Caitlin and her friend Claire who are here studying and interning at local NGOs and to meet the in-country Insight Staff… a good time was had by all but by the time we were done heads were definitely nodding after the long day. So we made our way back to the Red Chilli and called it a night. Definitely a rewarding and enjoyable day and very pleasant way to celebrate my birthday!

Tomorrow we will be doing some sightseeing in Kampala for the morning before making the 3-4 hour drive to Masaka for the next leg of our journey.