Uganda: Paradise and Peril in the ‘Pearl of Africa’

Uganda is a small landlocked country of 43 million people sandwiched between the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda, and Lake Victoria. With over half its population under the age of fifteen, Uganda is the youngest country on earth. It is also among the poorest.

Uganda is difficult for me to write about because I prefer to write about experiences that subvert stereotypes and clash with expectations, whereas Uganda often resembles the cynical basket-case images of Africa broadcasted abroad. Nevertheless, I think I learned a lot from Uganda, and that, through the good and the bad, Uganda is worth visiting.

Like most outsiders, my idea of Uganda was shaped by the brutal reign of Idi Amin, the bloody insurgencies of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the draconian “Kill-the-Gays” Bill. Uganda still has its share of problems, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Uganda is quite safe and even delightful if you do it right.

The Garden of Eden

Uganda smacked us in the face as soon as we crossed the border because we were entering from Rwanda, Uganda’s smaller but daringly progressive and high-functioning neighbor. All countries should be considered on their own merits, so I won’t dwell on this comparison, but suffice it to say the Uganda side of the border gave us a heavy dose of hustling, scams, corruption, and chaos, all of which was miraculously absent in Rwanda.

I soon forgot about our trials at the border as we drove through some of the most lush and verdant landscapes I had ever seen. With heavy rainfall, countless lakes, and fertile volcanic soil, little Uganda is home to more than half of East Africa’s arable land. The cultivation of coffee, tea, sugar cane, and cocoa beans forms the backbone of Uganda’s economy.

These bucolic greenscapes are the main reason I would still return to Uganda.

The mother of my travel buddy, John, put us in contact with a Korean missionary community in Uganda linked to her church. Father Won (above), the head priest, welcomed us with open arms and showed us around.

The mission was set up at the invitation of the dioceses of Uganda, which requested help from the dioceses of South Korea and provided the necessary land. Most of the land still sits unbuilt and uncultivated (as pictured above) for lack of resources.

The mission houses over a hundred orphans, refugees, disabled folks, and victims of violence and sexual assault. The residents are housed and fed and trained in commercial skills by the grace of the fathers and their network.

Each day the fathers invited us to join them for home-cooked Korean meals.

We worked very hard digging holes and planting grass for the fathers alongside a dozen local Ugandan workers. It was exhausting, mind-numbing work. The laborers worked twelve hours a day and earned just $0.16 an hour. What a lottery this life is!

Father Won insisted he bring us on a short safari at a nearby park before we head off to the capital. Uganda is not exactly a premiere safari destination, but we enjoyed the excursion. We saw many zebras and springboks and a few crowned cranes here and there.

Kampala, the capital

The Ugandan capital Kampala is a crowded and chaotic city. We were in a rush to get to our host, Kato, because my phone was about to die. We each took a motor taxi. We lost each other, and our taxis lost themselves.

Kato sent a woman named Katherine to meet us outside a hotel and lead us to his home in Makere Slum. Turkeys and goats and barefoot children roamed about the muddy foot paths and open sewage criss-crossing the neighborhood. We found ourselves deep inside that gritty salt-of-the-earth image of Africa that we had so far written off as exaggerated and outdated.

Katherine unlocked the door to the humble cement room where Kato lives. I tried to plug in my phone, which was about to die, but there was no electricity. Katherine asked us to fill empty gasoline jugs with the water leaking from a broken sewage pipe. The broken pipe was the community’s main source of water.

We told Katherine we wanted to get food at a cafe where we could charge our phones and asked where she would recommend. She brought us up a steep hill a couple streets down where there was a small produce market.

Katherine had assumed we wanted to buy raw vegetables because, for her, that’s what “getting food” meant. This was another reminder for us to check our privilege; before asking her to bring us somewhere to eat out, we should have remembered that many locals, Katherine included, have no experience eating out because they can’t afford to.

We went back down the street checking out the few restaurants we could find. Most either had no food or only had one or two items out of the dozens on their menu. None had electricity for charging.

John peeled off to go drink when we passed a bar. I went straight home and found a gritty Japanese backpacker clawing at the window of Kato’s room. I asked who he is. He said he lives there and has been waiting hours for me arrive. I unlocked the door for him.

He asks whether I am a guest of Owen. But who is Owen? The guy explains that Owen also shares the room with he and Kato, though Kato has been gone for weeks. Quietly I wonder why Kato never bothered to mention that there would be 3-5 people sharing the bed or that he himself was not in the city.

Hours later one inebriated John stumbled home from the bar.
“This is fine! This is completely fine!” he slurred, after I explain the situation to him.
“Fuck you, John,” I said.

Kampala, Pt. II

The next morning I found my body riddled with insect bites, and John did, too. We knew we wouldn’t be staying another night, but if there was one place that I wanted to visit before leaving Kampala, it was the royal palace of the king of Buganda, so there we went.

The palace was being reconstructed because it burned to the ground a decade ago after an unknown arsonist set it ablaze at night. Technically the site was closed, but the guard encouraged us to offer a bribe to his boss to gain admission, which we did.

Our guide explained that the last king had 86 wives and arranged their huts in a circle around the royal palace as his first line of defense. If an enemy wanted to harm the king, he would have to get through his wives and children first, giving him enough time to flee unharmed. Who said chivalry is dead?

Near the palace lies the oldest mosque in Uganda, which was built when Islam first spread to the Kingdom of Buganda in the 18th century. The imam here asked us to contribute money to help support Islamic learning for the children, which we were very eager to do because we know how important it is to start children on religion early before they develop the capacity for critical thinking.

The next item on the agenda was to get the hell out of Kampala. The problem was that everyone had a different opinion on how to do that. Eventually we navigated toward a giant lot full of hundreds upon hundreds of vans – more than I could possibly fit into the frame of a camera.

There was no system of organization for these vans, and we had to walk around in circles for hours with all our luggage on our backs because nobody could agree on which van was located where, much less candidly admit that they did not know the answer.

South of Kampala

My nerves were already fried before we came to Uganda, and Kampala put me over the edge, so we decided to retreat to the south where we could catch a glimpse of Lake Victoria. We stayed in a town between Kampala and Entebbe called Lweza, where someone who seemed reliable had offered to host us.

Derek, a lab assistant at a local HIV research center, was our host in Lweza. Staying with him was a breathe of fresh air after our trials in Kampala. Warm showers, electricity, air conditioning, a washing machine! Did we die and go to heaven? Derek hopes to one day find asylum in the Netherlands, but first he needs to find a way into the EU.

“No, those aren’t mosquito bites! Those are bed bugs,” Derek said when he saw the incision marks dotting my back.

Of course this was a scary thing to realize, and at first I was in denial. Honestly Derek should have kicked us out right then, but he didn’t. We threw our clothes in the washing machine and watched the bugs drown.

The next day we made our way to Entebbe, the gateway town to Lake Victoria. Most of the lakeshore is private property, so, at Derek’s suggestion, we entered via the botanical gardens. The lake was an unremarkable site, but we were glad to have seen it.

Derek convinced us that there were redeeming qualities to Kampala and that we ought to give it a second chance, so we did. This time we stayed in an affluent middle-class suburb with hosts Trevor and Brandi. They took us to an R&B concert at the National Theatre and showed us a comfortable contemporary lifestyle that might otherwise have been lost in our narrative of Kampala.

In this, I find a broader lesson about narrating Africa: In our first episode in Kampala, the city was a chaotic, overcrowded collection of slums. Kampala was what we had been conditioned to expect from Africa. Why? Because we spent our time in the slums, and didn’t know what else was out there. In the second episode, Kampala could have been Denver or Dubai. Why? Because we spent our time in a nice well-to-do area that we previously hadn’t known existed.

What does one write about a place when he has just one of those experience and not the other?

An incomplete story I suppose.

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