Is this Real Life? – First Days in Uganda (Flashback)

The orange sun rose over the thick layer of clouds as we began our final descent.  I admired its beauty only for a moment as the plane made its way down to the clouds and through the wall of grey.  Suddenly, the Lake Victoria shoreline appeared below us, surrounded by lush vegetation.  The wheels soon touched down with screech as we came to a slow halt; welcome to Uganda…apparently this is actually happening.

Watching my first Africa sunrise, minutes before we descended into Entebbe.

Watching my first Africa sunrise, minutes before we descended into Entebbe.

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The flight from London to Entebbe, Uganda, was a short eight and a half hours long; I mean it when I say it felt short.  The group I had traveled to London with and I had all received free upgrades from British Airways.  Although the flight was at night and I was mentally and physically exhausted, it was hard to sleep at all on the plane.  My lack of sleep did not come from the distraction of British Airways massive movie and TV library either; rather, these 8 hours were the first I had to really sit and process/reflect since I left for New York a week earlier.  Many thoughts were running through my mind including the fact that I was actually about to be in Africa.  I still could not decide if I was more excited and nervous, or if I had any real feeling on it at all.  I think my lack of emotion leading up to Africa stemmed for various reasons including the fact that I was more than nervous and did not want to admit it to myself.  I had also never really had any time to sit down and process the news that I received in London about the death of my stepfather.  I am still not sure if I really have processed it at all or had a chance to grieve, but on the plane I probably spent a good two hours crying to myself.  Thank you to my friend, Sarah, for putting up sitting next to me and offering your support.

I also had extreme moments of inner guilt arise as I was thinking about my dad dying.  I really am sorry I was not home with my family when it happened, but I know my dad will be proud of the journey I have just begun in Uganda.

Once we landed in Entebbe at 7:20 AM local time, the adventure started.  We waited in the baggage terminal as most everyone’s bags slowly found their way to us.  Unfortunately, one member of the group was missing a bag.  After the baggage claim, our group of about a dozen Americans loaded onto a bus and rode an hour to the capital city of Kampala.  Our bus driver was a Ugandan man named James.  Driving through Kampala was both intriguing and alarming all at the same time.  Traffic was literally going in every single direction, mostly small motorcycles called, Boda Bodas, and I do not recall seeing a single traffic light in the city of nearly three million people.  We went to a tourist hostel called Backpackers where we would be staying for one night.  We walked into Backpackers and right off the bat, the power was not working.  I wonder if that was a symbolic omen for the rest of the trip.  This is Africa, T.I.A.

That evening we went to a shopping center to exchange money and buy cell phones.  I personally chose not to buy a phone simply because I think the idea of not having one is kind of liberating.  For some reason, the idea of being out of touch with American society for the summer felt liberating.  I exchanged $400 which gave me 980,000 UGX (shillings).  As I understand the exchange rate, you are supposed to drop a zero, divide by two, and place a decimal and then just subtract a little bit more.  For instance, 20,000 UGX would be a little less than $10.00.  Of course, this rate varies on a daily basis.

After we exchanged money I decided to walk around the shopping center for a bit.  As I ventured away from the rest of my group, I began to receive many awkward stares from the locals.  Apparently, in the Ugandan culture, smiling at strangers does not happen unless they are engaged in a conversation.  Nonetheless, walking from shop to shop without receiving any smiles was a bit intimidating.  I stopped in one store with soccer jerseys and saw a black Ugandan national team jersey, which I wanted.  The shop keeper was Indian and he told me I could have it for 60,000 UGX, or about $30.  I decided I would try my luck later on somewhere else.

After we shopped around for a bit, we went back to the hostel in order for people to take a nap before dinner.  I was not as jet lagged as most people as I had already spent a few days in London and Uganda is only two hours ahead of London.  I took a shower and tried to connect to the internet while everyone was sleeping, but I was only able to briefly log on to Facebook using my phone and it was so inconsistent that I just quit trying.  I have a feeling lack of internet and power is going to be a common theme throughout the trip, especially once we reach the northern part of the country!

My first Nile Beer in Uganda

My first Nile Beer in Uganda with the gang. Becca, Jessica, Me and Big John.

We went to a local Indian restaurant in Kampala for dinner called “Sam’s” and ate our first dinner as a group.  I ordered a Chicken Tikki dish which was delicious and many of us shared our first Nile Special, a Ugandan lager, at dinner.  I was actually very impressed with the beer, which usually costs around 2,500-3,000 UGX, or $1.50.  The beer tastes better than the typical American domestic brew, was a lot cheaper, and about eight ounces more in size.  I could get used to that aspect of Uganda quickly!

A couple of initial thoughts from being in the city of Kampala for day 1:

-It is weird seeing heavily armed guards everywhere.  Outside of every bank I saw, there were at least two men carrying pump action shotguns and assault rifles.  I saw  quite a few AK-47s.

-Did I mention how crazy traffic in Kampala is above?  Let me reiterate, it is insane!!  There are cars, buses, boda bodas (basically a dirt bike/motorcycle taxi), and civilians jamming these roads going what seems like every direction.

-At the shopping center I felt slightly uncomfortable being starred at by all of the locals.  It was probably for the sole reason that I am a “mzungu”, which means white person/westerner in Swahili, but it still made me feel like I was doing something culturally unacceptable.

-With that said, the few conversations I have had one on one with a Ugandan one on one have all been extremely warm and welcoming.

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On the second day in Kampala we went to the US Embassy.  Like the banks, the Embassy was also very heavily guarded.  While in the Embassy, we had the opportunity to sit and talk with the current US Ambassador, Virginia Blazer, and got a better understanding the United States’ involvement in Uganda.  We also had conversations with the Education specialist, Jessica Ilomu, and a member of the USAID program, Barry Wajega.  I found all of these conversations very insightful.  As interesting as those conversations were however, it seemed like these people were slightly out of touch with the realities of what has been going on in the northern part of the country.

After we left the Embassy we went to a local youth movement group called Luga Flow Army.  This group is basically a group of Ugandans in their late teens or early twenties who use the arts as a way to convey messages.  Many of the members are rappers, artists or t-shirt designers.  Being around this group was both awesome and inspiring.  They played some of their music videos for us.  These rap songs were mostly in the language of Lugandan, but still very fun to listen to.  I ended up buying one of their rap CDs for 30,000 UGX (a little less than $15).  The artists also showed us a lot of their work.  Some of the paintings were absolutely breathtaking.  I know many Americans who would have paid a hundred or more dollars for a few of the paintings.  The other interesting part about visiting Luga Flow was that we went to their house which was in a very poverty stricken neighborhood.  This neighborhood was my first real experience with third world poverty.  Small children were roaming the streets.  There was trash all over.  Most of the homes were broken down.  The smell alone lingered annoyingly in my nostrils for several minutes after our departure.  After we left the Luga Flow kids’ house, we made our journey to the northern city of Gulu, where we would be spending most of our remaining time in Uganda.

Our group with Luga Flow Army

Kids hanging out by the street by themselves in Kampala.

The bus ride to Gulu was about 6 hours long but I was so distracted by the scenic views and villages along the way that it did not seem to take that long.  I am glad I was distracted because I would have probably had a heart attack if I was paying attention to how fast people were driving on this narrow, bumpy, dirt road which connects the north to the south.  The coolest part of the entire bus ride was when we crossed over the Nile River.  It was breathtaking.  A wide river with category six rapids pounding in to rocks every direction.  At the Nile crossing, there were baboons hanging out along the edge of the forest.  Unfortunately, we were not able to take pictures as this area is a UPDF (Uganda’s People Defense Force) military check point.  About an hour after the Nile crossing we entered the city of Gulu, which to the northerners (the Acholi Tribe) is known as Acholi Land.  This land would be my home for the next several weeks.

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