Why is it hard for me to write about Uganda? Well, for a start, I could fill entire volumes with experiences that range from the very unusual to the exceedingly mundane,experiences that meant a lot to me but will probably bore you, the reader, into a coma. So cutting down is the word here, and like anyone who has ever tried being on a diet will tell you, it’s HELL. Second, I would hate to turn into a sycophantic, over-excited travel brochure tout putting together a kumbaya-style U(ganda)topia or even worse, minting cash from the very real misery of some of Uganda’s downtrodden, you know, the usual disaster/famine porn that leads google image searches for Africa. A just middle is what I hope to achieve.
Bear in mind that this is one person’s limited perspective and one that is Kampala-centric for the most part, at the end of the day I can only talk about what I know best. If you have been to Uganda, you will recognize and I am sure disagree with some of the facts and if you have not visited, this will hopefully make you want to go.
I have chosen,as a start, ten things to do while in Uganda, in no particular order. So I would recommend:
White water rafting
On the Nile. Let me say that again, the NILE! Everyone has to. It can be done within a day and I personally guarantee a thrill of epic proportions. I have done it three times and I cannot get over it still. It takes a day and it’s close to Kampala itself. The scenery is beautiful, the rafting outfits are professional and you get to see your toughest friends shriek for Mum to come and get them. Did I mention there is cold complementary beer in the bus that drives you back? That won me over. I’m simple like that.
Visiting a national park
How predictable! But yes, you are in Uganda so you might as well. You are spoilt for choice hereas the country is peppered with parks and reserves that are as good as any that Tanzania and Kenya, the more famous neighbours have on offer. And they have glaciers too.
Party in Kampala
Where do I start? On offer, you will have options including little unpretentious friendly dives, huge bars that pack thousands, Über-posh lounges where everyone is terribly nice and loaded as well as night clubs by the dozen. But why party in Kampala? Because Kampalans have successfully made it into an art form. When they say, let’s party, they mean business; no dead-fish allowed, better-drink-a-redbull-before-during-and-after type of business. And they are respectful too, and friendly. The musical selection is varied allowing for transitions between local music, the latest Beyonce song and Coldplay to happen within an hour. I am yet to meet a person who did not enjoy the party scene in Kampala, but that’s probably because they were at home sleeping.
Oh and dress up, these people take fashion seriously.
Go off the beaten path
Get out of town and away from the tourist traps. If you can go and stay with people, explore small towns and villages or just relax at a friend’s place in the suburbs, do it. Crash a party or two, Ugandans don’t mind, just bring a drink. You will find it very rewarding and you stand a chance of learning something that no tourist hotel will tell you. Go to Owino market and buy some second hand jeans,visit Makerere University or go to Mabira forest for a picnic (with sandwiches from Quality hill delicatessen.:-)
Eat Nsenene and ribs
The food is amazing. Kampala, especially, is a cosmopolitan city and you will find all manner of restaurants there and very good ones at that. But you must try Nsenene, the surprisingly nice tasting fried grasshoppers, that still have accusing eyes oggling you as you eat them. You must have a Rolex (rolled eggs), fast-food the Ugandan way, consisting of a chapatti topped with an omelette and anything you fancy, from salad to minced meat, then rolled into a wrap. You have to have matoke( mashed green bananas),with beans and rice and most of all you must go to a pork joint. The pork joint is a Ugandan institution, with a proud history of making the world a better place, one platter of ribs at a time, every day from five pm. They are packed, efficient little places that will serve pork meat done beautifully. Taste it. They do God’s work. You will literally pig-out.
Get on a BodaBoda
Avoid the traffic, jump on a motorbike taxi, the bodaboda and get to anywhere you want. Not the privy of the poor, I once saw a very smart lady in a sleek power suit (complete with scarf and shades) step out of her parked Mercedes-Benz, flag down a passing boda-boda and sit on it side-saddle a la Queen Elizabeth II, all prim and proper and oh so very Kampalan.
Am I easily impressed or is that seriously cool?
Get out of town for the weekend and go to the gentler, fairer, cleaner, greener sister city to Kampala. Forty kilometers away, the beaches are packed on the weekend, with shows often being staged. You must call into the botanical gardens, a massive place that combines jungle and manicured lawns where you are guaranteed to see more birds and monkeys than you will people. True story!
Listen to the music
Ugandan people hail from different tribes and regions and cultures with very old and established musical traditions. A true kaleidoscope of influences and rythms that will not leave you disappointed. Go to Ndere center for the Sunday show, a true crashcourse in Ugandan traditional music, attend Jam session for a touch of Reggae at the Alliance Francaise of Kampala and download Mwooyo Kirya’s music for a taste of contemporary soul.
Plug into Kampala
There are discussion groups on the internet, run and attended by well-informed, learned, feisty people young and old alike. The pulse of the country can be felt through those groups, where politics, social issues, religion and the like are freely dissected, debated, fought over and agreed upon. There are poetry reading sessions, charity runs, goat races and more. The art scene is vibrant and diverse with internationally recognized personalities and all manner of upcoming artists…. If you are looking for the last airbender, you will probably find him in Kampala.
Get involved with a community group (for real.)
Share something. If you have sometime in Uganda, get involved with a project, learn a skill or teach one or both. Ugandans are fiercely proud people who react in two general ways to “charity”.
The first way is by taking offence and being too polite to say anything while dismissing you irrevocably as the arrogant fool you probably are. The second is by taking you for a ride; milking every single cent you are so willing to toss away and then some more. The Jesus-saviour complex is an easy trap to fall into and many have. If however you are humble enough to deal with people on an equal footing, giving as much as you are willing to receive, you’ll be part of a family, part of a concerted effort to move forward, in a way that no Aid Money can do.
The truth, however, is that during your stay, Uganda can and will occasionally drive you to unparalleled depths of despair. Corruption is rampant, politicians fit for hanging, obscure beliefs and practices seem to get in the way of progress, intolerance is tolerated and there is the wounded past (Thanks Amin and Kony). Poverty is no myth, social inequalities shocking and SO MUCH REMAINS TO BE DONE. That said, you only need watch the news to realise that the DR Congo next door REALLY knows what corruption is about, that politics in Russia and America and South Africa (anywhere in the World really) are nothing but a dirty, cold and repugnant affair and then I sigh with relief when I remember that PastorTerry Jones is not Ugandan (Praise the Lord!).
Looking back at my seven years, living, studying and working in Uganda, I realise this. Uganda is not perfect, never has been and probably never will be. That is not the point. As my French teacher, Madame Christine, used to drum into us “La perfection n’est pas de ce monde”-Perfection is not of this world. If anything.
Uganda has issues, just like everybody else. And the redeeming feature in all this is, the Ugandan people. Survivors-extraordinaire, who somehow make it happen, come what may, rain or shine. A people who are hardworking, entrepreneurial and optimistic and proud and fun. A people who know that they have to keep trying again and again and again, until it works, no matter what life or the politicians throw at them. Uganda is one of those places in the World where you open your eyes and realise today is better than yesterday and probably worse than tomorrow. It’s a place you can believe in.
And that’s why I love Uganda. And I hope you do too.