Uganda: eighteen days in Africa
I and a friend of mine from Iran decided to go to Uganda to explore the country, culturally and ecologically. This is our first trip to Africa so we learned a lot and had a lot of new experiences! Our idea was to volunteer to have free accommodation and food as much as possible and also to be able to experience the local culture of people more closely. We wanted to talk their language, dance their dance, follow their customs and also see the beautiful land and animals.
A day in Kampala
We arrive and into the airport and from there we take a Matatu (public taxi) towards Kompalla and it’s a packed car and every five minutes the driver is banging on the horn away asking people on the street if they want to join the car and there is a conductor who is a person constantly hanging by the side of the car and jumping down to ask people if they want to join.
Once we get to Kampala then the main mode of transport in the city is Boda Boda which is basically motorcycles, and there is absolutely no rules of the road and they seem more like suggestions so you may see your Boda boda going on the opposite lane even when there is a dividing line or concrete between the two lines they just go to the other side if their own side is blocked by traffic. In a way boda boda is very efficient timewise and also cost wise, but it is not for the faint-hearted. It’s very easy to find boda boda as they are everywhere and as soon as you just walk to the side of the road, motorcyclist will start asking if you need a boda somewhere.
We find our way to a hostel in Kampala called Bushpig (a good backpacker’s hostel) and from there we take a walk to exchange some money for Ugandan shillings but on the way we get stopped by police who is sitting beside a kiosk and they start shouting at us why are you smoking in the public since my friend was smoking turns out smoking in public is illegal in Uganda and you can be charged for now in this case as I had anticipated they actually wanted a bribe and didn’t really want to take us to be charged legally. In this case we end up paying $100 which is a lot of money specially in Uganda to get away from the situation boards afterwards after talking to an expat from Canada who was living in Uganda for nine years he said that you could have got away with 40,000 shillings which is about $10-$15 in this case we were afraid that they might actually take us to be charged and we didn’t want that to happen. The advice from the expat was that once you give them a little bit of money then you can just leave because if they try to stop you and actually take you to court or something then you can counter them by saying that they took a bribe and in reality they really just want to a bribe, they do not really want to act on the law.
We were going to have transport from Kabale to a lodge in a village close to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Rubuguri village. When we asked our contact he said $150 per person, however after haggling and clarifying that we want to do a budget trip, we ended up with the price of $35 per person! This price was not exactly the same service of a full private-car hire from Kampala to Rubuguri, instead we would take the private car to Kabale town, a town close to Rubuguri, and from there we would take a boda boda (Mororcycle taxi) to Rubuguri. This boda boda leg of the trip was not easy, but we were happy to do it even if hard.
The lesson is, make sure you clarify you are not going to pay for “luxuries” if that’s what you want, and haggle until you get a sensible price.
We went to the art craft market in Kampala, which was amazing, and bought some Ugandan crafts and some Congolese masks. If we had more space we would buy even more of the masks, they are amazing!
Road to Rubuguri
We had already seen Ugandan driving in Kampala, which in a way is similar to Iranian driving but I would say a bit worse and challenging, but we saw more of it on the way with trucks coming towards us on the our lane and motorcyclists going in all directions.
On the road to Rubuguri our car had a small failure and we stopped in a roadside town to get it sorted by a mechanic. While we were stopped for that, two young boys who also worked with the mechanic came to me and told me I look like Mohammad Salah the football player because I have a beard. 😂
We saw the equator line on the way which was interesting! You can pass through the equator. They told us compasses have some weird behaviour on either side of this line but we didn’t see it ourselves.
On the way, specially close to Kampala there were tons of shops and houses just beside the road with some space between them, and if you stop in those places chances are you will be brought some fruit or food or something to be sold to your car window.
We arrived at night at our lodge and went to sleep, the place to sleep was nice. We met the other volunteers on the next day as well as the lovely staff that worked there, Kajura and Tabitha. They were both very good to us.
Dance with Batwa
I expressed a lot of interest in learning the local dances and dancing with the people, and so our host arranged for some of the Batwa people (a community of people who used to live in the Bwindi forest but since the conservation programs were started, they were evicted and marginalised) to come and dance for (and with) us. This dance was easily one of the most amazing nights of our lives, such a lovely group of people with such a good energy, and we got that energy as well and joined them and had a great time!
We would go for walks on the next days and people had different reactions, some kids would just greet us with a “Hellooooo” and a hand wave 👋🏼 which was nice, but sometimes they would outright come and ask for money or “sweetie”s. We were advised by our host not to give them money or anything to avoid encouraging this behaviour.
Sometimes people would smile at us, at other times they would stare at us with a hard-to-read expression, but in most cases if you smiled at them, their stare would turn into a smile.
While at the lodge we started slowly by slowly asking about the local language, Rukiga, and I ended up compiling some words and phrases and put them in a blog post: Rukiga: An African Language
The lodge we stayed in is originally a lodge that does tourism, specially around Bwindi Imepenetrable national park with the main activity of gorilla trekking, where you get to walk with mountain gorillas in a distance as close as 10 meters (officially), although practically you are sometimes 3 metres away from them! The trek is relatively expensive since there is a permit required for this trek which costs about $700 for a one-day activity (compare with a 3-day Safari that can be done for $570), however it was a unique experience to see the gorillas so close and watch them, specially the children, play and eat and move around!
One thing that made me think was the children gorillas, two boys, fighting! The guides told us the baby boys start fighting each other early to start learning how to fight for when they grow up and need to compete and challenge other gorillas, and be able to protect their families. It makes me think because of how relevant it seems to how boys are brought up in our societies, sent to military service and expected to protect society during war.
We went to a Batwa village nearby where they were building houses for them, and we stayed there for 2 nights and helped the construction of the houses for the three days we were there. We learned from the engineer and workers there about their methods of building their houses with local material.
On the first night we went to a nearby tiny town where we were looking for food, and we found a tiny restaurant which had only one food they could serve us, we didn’t even ask what it was and after sitting in the dark, smoke-filled corner of the room, with a drunk man talking to us in a language we did not understand, we got goat intestines and matooke (green bananas). Can’t say the intestines tasted good but the experience was pretty cool and interesting.
The first called morning we were given the local porridge called Buhunga, which is made it maize flour, mixed with hot water and some sugar. In Iran we have a similar food called Fereni which is made of rice starch, hot water or milk and sugar, so the food tasted familiar and satisfying.
The main problem for us was that we were sleeping on the ground with no net, and so we got bitten mercilessly by mosquitos and bed bugs and everything in between!
An interesting experiment of this section was my friend building a water collection point using a simple plastic bag and water bottle to collect rainwater, and it worked very well!
Some weird events
Once we went back to the lodge, one of girl the volunteers staying at the lodge who had been at the lodge longer than anyone else (about one and a half months) told us that she was not being treated well and that the host was growing mean, and at times threatening to her, specially after she had mentioned she wants to leave and do her internship/volunteering elsewhere. We had plans to leave the next day but she wanted to leave on that day, the trouble was she had bought a motorcycle in Uganda in the hopes of using it but given the state of the roads she ended up not using it at all, and now she wanted to sell it!
So we arranged for a car to take us and our luggage, and a motorcycle driver so that we can take all we had to a nearby town, Kabale. Once there, we asked the driver to stay the night with us and help us sell the motorcycle in this town. The same evening and the next day we were trying to sell the motorcycle by riding it to places, asking people and haggling our way, but in the end we ended up selling it for half its price. Unfortunately she had bought a new motorcycle, from a brand that was not the people’s favourite, and most people were not interested in it. It also seemed like they had sold it to her at a much higher price than it really was worth! So she ended up losing about $700 because of that… The lesson was, buy second-hand, buy cheap and buy the favourite!
I and my friend wanted to go to Lake Bunyonyi from Kabale but our new friend wanted to go back to Kampala, so we asked the driver about it and he said it would be $300 to go to Kampala from Kabale! This was a crazy price given that I and my friend had got transport from Kampala to Kabale for much less! She ended up staying at the hostel and finding a cheaper deal at $200, but the prices are just crazy. They keep saying it’s because of fuel costs but in reality it doesn’t cost more than $80, and that’s pessimistic! For us, we used public taxis (matatu) and boda bodas to get around so we ended up spending a lot less money, but it’s understand that one may not feel safe as a solo female traveller to take such means over long distances, not to mention she had a lot more luggage than us.
Bunyonyi, the boat hire and work
With the troubles behind us, we left to go to lake bunyonyi and stay there for a week with our host, Tutamuzongoza. We had to take a boat for about 20 minutes to cross the lake and land on the southern part of the lake at Kashenyi village.
Our host welcomed us and we had a room there in their house, and we found ourselves helped a lot by our lovely host family. They provided us with their amazing local food (and in large quantity!) and a room to stay in.
On our first day, Tutamuzongoza and his brother Tumwijukye briefed us on their plans to build a library, a playground and guest houses for their community, and explained how we could help and of course we were excited about it! Tutamuzongoza also prepared a timetable for us which was great, gave us more clarity on what we would be doing.
That same night we had some children coming to our house and doing a dance to Christian songs and no doubt we joined them and had a great time.
Since we had arrived on Saturday, and on Sunday there was church service, we didn’t work on Sunday but instead I joined Tutamuzongoza to go to church to experience their religious experience. This Protestant church was much more interesting than I had anticipated, there was a lot of dancing and singing and laughter! The preacher would crack jokes in between his preach and people would chuckle, which I found to be nice. Tutamuzongoza taught me how to introduce myself with these phrases:
Eizina ryangye Mahdi: My name is Mahdi
Ndaruga Iran: I’m from Iran
Nashemererwa kubanimwe: I’m happy to be here
Webare munonga: Thank you very much
I got a round of claps (a very rhythmic one!) from the people once I introduced myself as was the custom for them to clap in this rhythm when people spoke and during transitions.
With the help of Tutamuzongoza and Tumwijukye, I was able to expand my Rukiga dictionary and finalise a first version of my blog post: Rukiga: An African Language.
Starting on Monday we helped on the site to prepare the land for construction by digging, slashing and uprooting, we had a great time and it was a good exercise.
We also hired a motor boat and went on exploring the lake, first together with our hosts and then just the two of us. We ended up diving and swimming and having dinner in one of the islands and just lying down at night under the moon.
On Tuesday evening, the children of the village invited me to play football with them so we joined and had an amazing time, playing football with the kids is always great. Once we were done I saw some of the kids doing some handstand practice and one of them suddenly did a back handspring!! At this, I knew I had to give them something from my parkour practice, so we ended up improvising and finding a bump and doing some parkour vaults and some basic flip practice, and it was great fun. The children were really talented all of them!
On the last day I asked our hosts if they knew of any books in their language about their culture, and they introduced us to one of their legendary writes, Festo Karwemera, so we set on a search to find his books when we were back in Kabale and we ended up in the writer’s house, and his wife came to us and allowed us to see the library and buy the books even though the librarian wasn’t there, it took some persistence! She was lovely and ended up giving us her signature on the books! I hope to expand my Rukiga understanding through the books and share them on my blog.
On a last note, I found Tutamuzongoza on BeWelcome, but it was a much better experience than our host that we found on Workaway.
After Bunyonyi and Kabale we went to Queen Elizabeth National park to do a safari and our first awe was the sunrise of the savannah.
We started driving through the park and saw a lot of buffalos and antelopes and birds at first, and at some point we saw some hippos in the river. We stopped at Kasenyi village, a community inside the park beside the lake and there we got to see a lot of hippos basking in the beach, and we got to get as close as 5-7m from there, they are pretty cool animals.
We then drove to the Kazinga channel to do a boat cruise and some some animals in the water, predominantly hippos, and a lot of them! We also got to see some elephants and a crocodile and some birds and lizards including a fish eagle.
After the boat cruise we went back to the park in search for lionesses, but instead we found a leopard resting on a tree, it was hard to see the leopard without a camera or binoculars but it was amazing nevertheless. We unfortunately didn’t get to find a lioness, apparently they were hard to spot during some periods.
The most fun part of this safari was being able to sit on top of the car, on a very uncomfortable top rack. Me and my friend usually find satisfaction and fun when things are a bit harder than the usual!
At night we went to another small resort to have our dinner, and as we were sitting beside the campfire, a hippo casually started walking towards us, hippos were like stray dogs in that park, they were everywhere!
On another note, Queen Elizabeth passed away on the day we were in Queen Elizabeth National park. Oops.
The next day we took a few matatus back to Kampala, and on the first matatu, at some stage there were 22 people inside a minivan with 13 seats, it was quite an authentic experience! Apparently if you take matatus from official taxi parks, they do not overfill their van and it’s more comfortable but the first one we got was just one going past us.
This first trip to Africa did not disappoint at all, we had a lot of fun and we were really happy to have experienced the country together with the local people, and we learned a lot from them and we got to see some animals for the first time. This trip only makes me want to visit Africa more, and I’m sure I will! You can find more pictures of my trip on my pictures page.