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…

And now a few words from our travellers…

This trip has been great so far, visiting the empowering women and men at SawaWorld and AfriPads. To see people who do the things that they love and feel passionate about, but it has a great message and effect. A tip for someone wanted to travel to Africa is never underestimate the happiness of all of the people here, come with an open mind. A note, no matter how hard you try you will get dirty so bring extra shirts! There is definitely something about Africa that pulls me in. I don’t know if it’s the food, the people, the culture or the environment but I never want to leave. Everyday my fellow travellers and I play a game, see how many people will wave back at you. 9 times out of 10 you will get a wave, a smile and if your lucky maybe even I wink! The people here are so excepting of everyone , they will wave back to me with the biggest smile on their faces and it jus warms my heart. Our day at Tekera, a small village in Masaka that has it own sustainable and income and boarding school was one of my favourite days, the kids there were all so interested in us and got a little shy when we would say hello or give them a little wave. Yet as soon as the sports started our team vs a team from their school, they all gathered and laughed and cheered and it’s almost like we had been there for more then just the day. Now we did win the tug of war and the volleyball, but when it comes to soccer they definitely dominated us. We looked like fools out on the field, the only reason we didn’t loose so bad is because they were kind enough to lend us some players. Now, the sustainability of this place is powerful, they have pigs that they sell to make a profit, to feed the kids. They have a banana plantation and lots of vegetable plots full of vegetables that they not only eat but also sell. These are just some more of the reasons I love it here.

The thrill of the entire trip has been amazing. Seeing how Africa has empowered their women and young women has been so inspiring to see first hand. They are truly dedicated to showing and helping the people realize their self worth, and what they’re capable of doing. The music, the dancing, the culture in general is so vibrant and it’s incredible to see. The choreography of every dance is so unique, every movement has their own meaning. You drive by a group of school children, and they smile, wave, and yell “Mizungu” at you, meaning “white person” in their language. Their sly and timid smiles and giggles brightens your day a lot. You ask the kids how old they are, while holding up five fingers, and they just rest their palm against yours, grasping your hand with their tiny hands. They are all so innocent, so unaware of all the bad in the world. It’s beautiful. The elders stare at you with a blank expression, almost like they’re studying you, your skin colour, and your behaviour, the same way white people have been doing to them for many years. Africa holds it’s own kind of beauty, a beauty you won’t find anywhere else except for on this land.

First and foremost, I have not gotten burnt yet. So all in all, so far it has been a success. Although, of course there has been a lot of ups and downs (I hope the roads get fixed one of these days), I could not ask for a better group to explore this phenomenal country with. The sights are breathtaking, seeing the sun rise and set each day gives calms me, accompanied by all the odd noises whether it be chanting, the sounds of crickets, or the birds in the distance. Speaking of birds, the storks are unbelievably ugly. Apparently, they are vile creatures that even other scavengers will not eat, can you imagine being brought to your family by something so hard to look at?? They are also HUGE, why must they be so big? Anyway, this country has blown my mind. I can honestly say I would choose East Africa over going to Europe any day. I feel like I’m changing each day and it warms my heart to see myself growing, but obviously not in height. With all joking aside, after we visited Tekera and saw the children playing, in class, and looking at us with amazement and a touch of fear, I felt sorry. Sorry for how the media depicts these beautiful children in North America. They may not be what we consider to be “well off”, but they are happy and content. They appreciate their education and know it is a privilege that not many are fortunate to have. I have noticed that they have a passion for everything they do. I was fortunate to sit in on a P1 class (grade 1) where the kids were all relatively focused even though they are so young. They all participated with excitement I have never seen before, those memories are something I will cherish.

The reason I traveled to Africa was so that I could see it through my own eyes. I wanted to see how they really live and what they do to battle their everyday challenges and I feel like I’ve fallen in love. Apart from the awful road this country is stunningly beautiful. The people here are so nice and always want to know where you came from. People here take nothing for granted especially education. The roads are filled with bodas and people trying to sell you something. The food here is on another level. Except for the boiled banana I’ve loved everything else. The children here are always so happy and I’ve never seen 10 year olds so happy to go to school. Especially when you here at their schools start at 5:00 am and go to 10:00 pm. My favourite part about this trip is when we went to Tekera. I was in the p4 or grade four class and we were learning about mosquitoes. The children were smiling the whole time and they seemed to be extra amazed by me. After, the lesson about the mosquitoes we went outside to watch the Students and the teachers sing and dance which was heart warming. We then started the sports activities and tug of world was first. We did three rounds and the first one was us vs the teachers which we easily won. Next was the girls vs girl and we won that one too. Finally it was the boys only round and we were feeling confident that we could easily win but both teams were very even. We started to pull ahead but the other team added 3 extra people and we eventually had to let go. Our second sport activity was volleyball which wasn’t that close. We beat the teachers by 10 so we stopped it early and moved on to soccer. The school had its own soccer team so we refuted some of the locals. We started off bad the Tekera team scored right away so hopes were not high. We held them off till halftime and we felt like we could score a couple of goals. Halfway into the second half I won a penalty and Özil score for our team. After the kick off Özil got the ball and ran down the pitch through 4 defenders and scored. We were feeling good about our chances of wining but I gotta the last minute of play the Tekera team scored and we went to penalty’s. sadly we lost in penalty’s because the wind was very strong and I missed my penalty but it was and fun game. All and all I’m enjoying Uganda and I wish for that more people can experience this wonderful because I’m glade that I did.

This is my first time to the continent of Africa and so far it has exceeded my expectations. When we first landed in Entebbe, I was surprised to see that so many people live in the countryside. This was a pretty stark contrast to rural Ontario, where everything is very very far apart, which is what I am used to. Once we had arrived in Kampala, what I saw was not what I had expected. A city that extends seemingly endlessly, rising over hills and descending into valleys. It is quite a beautiful place. What also exceeded my expectations was the amount of individuals and companies that are very optimistic about the future of Africa, which is also a stark contrast of what Africa is depicted in Western media. Organizations such as Sawa World, AfriPads, and many other NGOs’ work tirelessly for the betterment of the people in need. We also visited two holy sites to the Bahia and Muslim faith, the Bahia temple and the Qaddafi mosque. From both sites we had very good views of the surrounding areas. From Kampala we travelled to a town called Masaka which is a 3 hour drive south from Kampala. In Masaka we visited AfriPads, an NGO which makes reusable and affordable feminine hygiene products and the Tekera boarding school. Both where a very interesting look into what the lives of workers and schoolchildren are like in rural Uganda. From Masaka we will head to Queen Elizabeth park, lake Bunyoni and Kigali in Rwanda. The trip so far has been very interesting and I hope each place we visited is the same if not more fun.

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…