We are woken at 5:30am with the call to prayer amplified throughout the steamy capital of Uganda and shortly after, we meet O., our driver for the next few days. O. navigates and weaves around the huge dusty potholes heading west out of Kampala towards Murchison National Park. We are on our way to the “mzungu” safari experience. It is a long journey, a few of the hours traveled on the best road in Uganda constructed by a company that hopes to cash in on recently discovered oil on the border with the Congo. Despite being tired and tempted to nap in our 4×4, it is impossible to go to sleep – there is too much to see and way too much to possibly take in.
Once past the roadside markets and shops of Kampala overflowing their wares onto the red clay, the road becomes a bit less potholed and the views more expansive. There is much greenery along these dusty roads – banana trees, matooke trees, fields of maize and cassava, sculptural acacia trees – and the boreholes that dot the landscape where the majority of people in this country walk to get their water.
Boreholes are busy places. There is always somebody pushing up and down on the lever that pumps the water. Sometimes we see children “riding” the lever like a seesaw. Often there are long lines of yellow jerry cans waiting to be filled. Women and children stand, talking and waiting their turn to pump their day’s supply and leave with their 5-gallon jug balanced on their head, or maybe one in each hand or possibly many cans tied to their bicycle. It’s social, it’s daily and it is hard work needed for drinking, cooking and bathing – very different than the social scene at the office water cooler in the USA
We are hours into the drive towards Murchison and still engrossed by what we see. We pass through occasional towns consisting of a couple of blocks of concrete buildings. Most of these buildings are brightly painted with ads from companies advertising things like Nile Beer, Coke, Celltel cell phones, Nido powdered milk, and Lifeguard and Trust condoms. The buildings’ huge metal doors are open, spilling their wares onto the dirt – wooden furniture, cages of chickens, a seamstress sewing, piles of sweet potatoes, jack fruit, mangoes, bricks, charcoal and shoes, hanging sides of beef, white mannequin women clothed in dresses with expanded hips, bicycles and parts strewn about and cell phone card booths for top up.
In all our travels we are amazed by the creative transport. Our eyes can’t believe the loads of unimaginable material being moved in countless ways. Bicycles are laden down with multiple bunches of banana-like matooke, pineapples, papyrus, sugar cane and other produce. We see a double bed frame, a wooden coffin and bundles of wire rods and pieces of wood being pedaled that are twice as long as the bicycle carrying them. Women and mimicking young girls balance familiar jugs of water or very long sticks on top of their heads while walking gracefully erect along the side of the road in their brightly colored African print dresses. Open trucks carry dozens of people perched next to Ankole cows with their huge curved horns poking out the sides, as well as hundreds of pounds of matooke heaped in the mix. We smile in disbelief as we see three people and a goat balancing behind a motorcycle boda boda driver. One amazing transport sight after the next – simply astounding to see all the work done by heads, hands and bicycles in this country! It’s no wonder when petrol is $6.50 a gallon and the average wage for a day’s work in the field is $1.25! Even if you could scrape enough together to buy a used Toyota (the most popular make), how do you possibly afford to run it?
Six hours later we leave the typical roadside sights and enter into Murchison National Park where we are greeted by baboons, large and small, playing in the road, as well as warthogs meandering about in the brush – WOW! Noticing our excitement, O. gives a broad smile and says wait until tomorrow. And it was an exciting and glorious tomorrow in this protected corner of Uganda where all sorts of animals roam freely in their natural habitats. We “pinched ourselves” in between taking photos of giraffes, water buffaloes, hippos, deer-like Ugandan kobs, crested cranes and elephants. We were even close enough to stare down a pair of lions! It was truly awesome to be in the midst of these beautiful animals and landscape and sad to realize that few Ugandans can afford to see this part of their own country.
After chimp trekking the next morning, we said good by to Murchison and headed back to the busy, chaotic city of Kampala. Thinking of the long and tedious drive ahead, coupled with the many miles O. had already clocked these past days, I commented that he must have been looking forward to taking a break from driving the challenging (putting it mildly!) roads. He shook his head and said on the contrary, he hoped there would be another job lined up for him when we returned to Kampala. The more I drive, he said, the more money I make. He then told me he had a few kids of his own but he was also raising his brother’s children. He had lost his brother and sister in law to AIDS and inherited four more mouths to feed. Silence … I was taken aback, not sure exactly what to say. I remember having an American reflex thought that we must give O. a generous tip. Tragically, O’s situation is all too typical in Uganda. There probably isn’t a family that hasn’t been touched by this awful disease.
We were leaving Murchison and it’s natural beauty, a world we had only heard about and imagined seeing someday – a kind of Disney experience in a way. Now we were on the road again entering reality where most Ugandans cultivate their own food, carry their own water, and largely power their own transport. One powerful scene after the next, accompanied by enthusiastic waves and “Mzungu!” calls from roadside children …… yes, can’t possibly sleep …… way too much for this mzungu to get her head around.