Uganda, the New Kenya
Sunday, January 12, 2003
We waited for the downpour to let up before walking into the rain forest, but it was still coming down in torrents. Vincent, our guide for the chimp walk, stopped our group at the forest's edge. "Nature is just nature," he said opaquely. "Do you really want to do this?"
It was a reasonable question, one that my wife, Lisa, and I faced from the moment we began planning a trip to Uganda. When we mentioned the trip to people, they were dumbstruck. Was it safe? Were we taking travel tips from Bono and Paul O'Neill? Winston Churchill famously called Uganda the "pearl of Africa," but that was ages ago. In most Americans' minds, Uganda -- even its airport, Entebbe -- means power-mad Idi Amin, airplane hostages, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and Ebola. More recently, the whole of East Africa has been tarred by al Qaeda links.
We came to Uganda at the urging of a friend who works with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Kampala. Instead of a basket case, he promised a lush, engaging country. When I was in East Africa in the mid-1980s, Kenya was the garden spot, and Uganda was the war-torn country at its border. Now the roles are reversed. Even before the recent bombing in Mombasa, Kenya teetered on instability. Recent visitors to Nairobi report that it feels dangerous.
Uganda may have a slightly less spectacular wildlife display, but it offers a pleasant alternative. During our visit, we paddled a dugout canoe around Lake Bunyoni in the southwest, snapped photos of crocs and hippos in Queen Elizabeth National Park and gaped at the powerful whitewater of Bujagali Falls on the upper Nile in the east. The Uganda we visited felt safe and welcoming (granted, we didn't go to the guerrilla-wracked north), and the Ugandans we met were invariably hospitable. Their country is still poor, but judging by what they've overcome, Ugandans have a right to feel optimistic. And visitors can expect to feel joy in this unexpected African bright spot.
Kampala is a surprisingly livable city set on seven green hills with Lake Victoria spread in the distance. The downtown has been mostly rebuilt since the cruel Amin regime and its aftermath, and a lively range of restaurants and businesses has sprouted amid the chaos of matatus (minibuses) and private cars. Traffic is even somewhat less paralyzed than in many other capitals in developing countries. The government has courted investment with an economic policy aligned with the World Bank's. And President Yoweri Museveni has proven politically independent and committed to progress.
Nearby, at the Kasubi Royal Tombs, we found Ugandan culture that the Amin years didn't erase. Guide Arthur Mwebe, a student at Makerere University, led us through the stories of the kings (kabakas) of Buganda, the largest of four kingdoms that the British combined under the name Uganda. The last kabaka buried there was exiled by Amin's predecessor and died in London; his son Ronald Mutebi is the present king, whom Museveni welcomed back from exile. Widows of the late ruler maintain the tombs, which are in a huge, round thatched structure. Standing inside it is like being in a vast, overturned basket. The 52 concentric rings in the roof represent the 52 clans of the Buganda. "I belong to the grasshopper clan," Arthur told us. The king was seen as the lion of the people. A high, brown hemplike curtain shields the tombs; Arthur explained that it creates a symbolic forest. According to locals, kings never die but simply "disappear in the forest," a euphemism that dates back centuries. Even now dying rulers are said to disappear into the forest, searching for their ancestors.
From Kampala, we traveled by car out to the lush southwest of the country and along the seam between the great savannah and the Rwenzori Mountains, along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Uganda straddles the intersection where Central Africa's undulating lush rain forest meets East Africa's beige grassy plains. Most travelers to Uganda come to see mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, or the lions, leopards, elephants and other wildlife in Queen Elizabeth National Park. We spent a day there cruising the crocs and water buffalo by boat and by car.
A later side trip took us to Jinja, an hour east of Kampala on Lake Victoria. Jinja boasts elaborate old shop fronts left from the 1930s and '40s, and impressive Hindu and Buddhist temples. Its sizable South Asian community has returned with Uganda's prospects after more than two decades of exile. (Mira Nair's 1992 movie, "Mississippi Masala," told a story of one such family. Nair now keeps a home in Uganda.) Jinja's main tourist attraction is the source of the Nile. There you see the stony current where Lake Victoria spills north toward Cairo. There's a predictable entry fee and a gantlet of vendors, but the site is scenic, and there's a surprise, too: a larger-than-life bust of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi, in Uganda? Apparently the great man asked that some of his ashes be cast on the Nile. Unveiled a few years ago, the bust is perhaps a sign of a growing tolerance.
But our most spectacular views came in the less-traveled crater lakes. After leaving Q.E. Park on a highway that rolls past tea farms, we turned off the pavement onto a rugged dirt track. Driving in the countryside is an education, and not just because it feels as if half the countryside is running alongside your vehicle in pastel school uniforms. (Uganda's system of universal primary education may be exemplary; but kids always flee joyously when school lets out, scattering in flocks of pink and blue.) You also learn the cargo limits of bicycles. Billboard ads for the Roadmaster bike -- "Any load, any road" -- baffled me until I saw bikes pushed uphill under a half-dozen bunches of bananas or several huge barrels.
Before long, our driver was navigating an even slimmer two-rut track perched on the narrow spine of a long ridge. On either side we looked down on round, dark-water ponds rimmed with palm trees. The slopes were lush with small farms, or shambas, packed with banana fronds and corn stalks. In the distance loomed the blue-green Rwenzoris, which the ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy called Mountains of the Moon on his map of Africa.
At the end of the ridge we came to Ndali Lodge, a mix of rustic romanticism and post-colonial luxury. Indoor lighting was strictly the warm glow of a kerosene lamp, muted by gauzy mosquito nets. Guests take tea in the afternoon and evening drinks with other guests before English-style meals. Becky Holt, Ndali's manager, brings a breezy Yorkshire energy to the eight thatched, ocher-plastered bungalows. The lodge was built using local materials, with an emphasis on light, spaciousness and simplicity. The style feels almost Spanish mission, with the main building commanding breathtaking views of lakes on either side.
After a late lunch of chicken and chips, we stretched our legs with a walk to one of the nearby lakes, marked as Lake Rucwanzi on the hand-drawn map that Becky gave us. The slopes resembled central Kenya's -- the red clay beneath a plush green fur of grass, passion-fruit vines, bananas and maize. We took a one-lane dirt road through the tiny village of Kabata, where we met a teenager walking along with a machete in one hand and a school notebook in the other.