Understanding Africa: Uganda

Uganda is not the cleanest, nor the best maintained country in East Africa, but it has its own particular style. Continuing on my journey through East Africa, I caught the overnight bus from Kigali to Kampala, and what a striking difference.


When I get off the overnight bus to Kampala, it is still dark and I am disorientated from lack of sleep. After swatting away a few mosquitos and taxi drivers, I spot just outside the bus station, a stylish, handsome Ugandan on a 60’s red racing motorcycle. He has a leather jacket with a feathered rim and looks like an ex-movie star from the 40’s. He should be smoking a cigarette and complaining about all the gin joints in all the world, but instead he is wearing a beanie hat. He nods and I jump on the back.

I notice he has a helmet on the front of his bike, but he doesn’t offer it to me or put it on himself. These Boda Bodas are a different ballgame to the Motos of Rwanda. I have to hold onto the back and don’t quite get the right spoonage. He stops to fuel up and I get off perplexedly. I might have thought it rude if it weren’t so early and he so damn handsome. He tops up 0.84l of fuel for the equivalent of about 50p. There must be some serious maths involved in fuel economy on these things.

After an epic nap in my run down hotel, I have the second best coffee I have ever seen in the Nakumatt mall. It is a mocha served in a tall glass cup with froth and chocolate powder on top, and most touchingly, the words: “One love Boss!” written on top in fantastic calligraphy with a chocolate syrup gun. I look over to the counter and expect to see a black James Dean barista smoking another cigarette and winking at me, but he is just a regular guy. I take a picture.


I’ve been walking around for half an hour trying to find this park I saw from the first floor of the mall and as soon as I sit down to eat my border cakes I am assaulted by a group of cheerful, raggedy dressed Ugandan children. They want my cake. They can’t have it: false economy.

Don’t judge me, but my decision was based on pigeon politics. Once you feed one you get swarmed. I feel bad, they are lovely and they make me smile, rolling around on the floor with their beaming smiles and hardly any teeth. The owner of the cardboard sheet I have been sitting nearby settles in as the sun is getting low and so I take my leave.

Kampala is “same same but different” as the East African saying goes: they drive on the left and have British style plug sockets; have something silly like 82 languages but the official language is English; their food and customs are similar; looks and smells and tastes; but are all part of the same tribes that occupy the region. It seems in the 1800’s German’s colonized East Africa and drew lines on maps that had little to do with cultural and tribal identities. Hutu, Tutsi, Twa, Massai and Swahili all lived in relative harmony until they were fenced in and told to share the same space. Playground politics ensue. And I’m not even going to go into the whole evil history of it all.

Later, in my hotel, I order some local vegetarian cuisine, but it backfires. What I received was a nothing tasting green slosh with the definition of stodge: maze starch lumps, to dip into it. Malakwang and Uglai sounded so tempting in Swahili. My stomach burns.

Camp Muzungu

When my alarm goes off at 6am I am delirious. Breakfast is a rushed blur and I am soon on the bus to Jinja to do white water rafting on the Nile. Some observations:

Ironic sign in chipped paint: “Our paints last a very, very, very long time.”

Unnoticed copy write infringement: “Yellow Bull phone accessories.”

A Ugandan on a Harley Davidson motorcycle with a handlebar moustache.

Razor wire everywhere.

Exclusively white mannequins and pictures of white babies on “New-born” congratulations cards. Really? There can’t be more than a handful of white babies born in Uganda a year. Where is their target market?

It is plethora of randomness that can only be observed through the windows of a small minibus, on the way past tiny villages and places likely not even on the map. It makes me smile to experience. There’s no other way to travel.

As I’m drowning I try and remember the advice of my cheeky Scottish instructor. “The river has a mind of its own, if it wants to pull you in, spin you around, suck you down, let it, there’s nothing you can do about it. Just relax and hold your breath. Try to go feet first down a rapid, you’ve got a lot of meet on your butt, but not much on your shins you know.”


He is a huge man, bare chested and tanned with tattoos and a pink baseball cap style helmet. As he speaks to us you can tell that he has told these jokes a hundred times before and that he is investing no more of his personality than is necessary to give you a good day and then forget you after lunch. He does this every day.

I say hi to him at the bar that afternoon and he barely acknowledged me with a shrug. He has been rafting on the Nile in Uganda for 10 years now. I ask him if he will ever go back to Scotland. He says no, but doesn’t think he’ll stay here either. It is the classic Ex-Pat mentality. Not entirely an immigrant, but also not a patriot.

A week earlier Mike, Melba, Ben and I were having a rather controversial conversation about this, whilst driving down the Nile Congo trail that ruined our car.

“So you think any non-British person in the UK is an immigrant, but every Brit abroad is an Ex-Pat?” Melba asks Ben in a not un-annoyed tone.

“No…” Ben replies, but he has dug himself a hole. “Well…What’s the difference then?”

“The difference is” continues Melba in a definitive, empowered, but also non-aggressive manner, “That an immigrant is anyone seeking permanent residence in a foreign country, while an Ex-Pat is just someone living abroad temporarily. Most British Ex-Pats come home eventually for the good health and social system in England, because they can. Immigrants who – for whatever reason – have chosen to live in another country, won’t go back because they’re country is less fortunate, or is dangerous and they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives, or their children’s lives there. It’s not so much a choice as a necessity.”

I have stayed tactfully on the outskirts of this conversation, but I have my ice breaker: “I think we should round up all the British Ex-Pats and put them on an island and let them fend for themselves.”

“Like Australia?” says Mike. “Trololololol!”

We all laugh, Melba swerves the car around a ditch and we continue.

Back in Uganda, I have made a little group by merging 3 smaller groups together, in an attempt to rekindle my sociable nature. There is a Belgian couple whom I rafted with, two Austrian girls who I made friends with earlier over photography and Sophia, a Ugandan woman who works at the other camp, who told me that she liked my walk earlier when she mistook me for a tour guide.

“It isn’t like a proper Muzungu walk, it’s got style.” She is the life of the party and the first bubbly, energetic and modern Ugandan woman I have met.

We are laughing about African clubs and how it is so easy to dance and copy what the locals are doing. “Shake what your mother gave you!” she laughs after an hour long spiel about how Africans have big asses for a reason. “Or if you don’t have it, shake your back!” she gestures to the two Austrians. “But it is not like in your country where if you dance with a guy you are telling him you are going home with him tonight. No. I will dance with a guy, shake what my mother gave me and if I don’t like him, afterwards I say, ok thank you, goodnight. There are some local guy of course who will be like that, there is always somebody, but you just have to look out for yourself.”

Everyone is in stitches. “One guy, he came up to me and put his hand like this, straight down my pants. I punched him in the face, but I did not make a scene. I told him. “Mister! If you want to touch my pussy you have to ask for my permission. You are lucky it was me, because if it was anyone else and they screamed, everyone would come and beat you.” They will club you with this.” She holds up an empty beer bottle. “I have seen it before, it is their weapon.”

“But the dancing is just having a good time. It is like holding hands. Men will hold hands, it is not like in your country where it is gay. If a man is caught in bed with another man he will be beaten, but if they are holding hands, this is nothing, it is just what we do. We have no association with this in Uganda, it is nothing.” Sophia explains it all.

She also hooked the girls up with a place to stay in Sippy Falls with her ex-boyfriend. She even got him to come and pick them up from town and drive them up there. “He is the only one of his family who is here.” She told them, “He is the only one who got deported from England. Silly boy, did he not know that you could not carry a pistol? But don’t tell him we met yesterday! Or he will be like “Whaaaaaat? You are ruining my business!” He is filthy rich though.”

Later that night, the stars are out in full bloom, so bright that they even reflect off the Nile and the Milky Way is splattered across the sky. One of the Aussie girls and I have snuck onto the house boat docked at the bottom of the steep, secluded bay. Now it is just the two of us.


“Look a shooting star!” she exclaims in an excited whisper, “I haven’t seen one of those the whole time I’ve been here.”

“What did you wish for?” I ask.

“I can’t tell you that.” she giggles, “I could stare at this all night.”

The next morning, the Austrian girls walked right past me while I was having breakfast. It was 11am and they were just coming back from a rather expensive hour and a half of horse ridging. All the organised activities here are overpriced, specifically targeted for foreign travellers, for whom the perceived value of the thing is proportionate to the payment. There is a sign that warns about unlicensed tours and activities, but these are likely far more reasonably priced and conducted by local Ugandans, earning an honest living and offering their culture and proficiency to share with travellers.

Yesterday I was slack lining with some Ex-Pats who were staying with a host family in the nearby village. They loved the whole experience and she cooked them spectacular meals every night, offering her home and love at a very fair price. I can’t help but think that these foreign owned touristy establishments set up a syndicate in poor areas and create a bubble, sucking in all the money and spitting out photocopied experiences. It is comfortable though.


As the girls walk back past me I say hi and break the embargo on awkwardness. I know that Theresa has told Greta all about last night, but everyone is casual. They come and join me and show me pictures of what they had been doing in Uganda. They both study occupational therapy and have been doing a placement at a local hospital, in a small town between Kampala and Entebe that treats children with crippling disabilities. They are teaching parents and doctors how to treat these children and offer them a better life.

As I see the pictures of these poor children with MS, cerebral palsy, and the condition whose name I cannot remember that makes your head the shape of a giant melon, I cannot help but feel horrified. The atmosphere and the photos however, are overwhelmingly positive and the girls speak about the children with delight and good humour. I feel bad for my initial reaction. After all, the whole point of this project is to help communities be more positive about disabilities.

“Aww Timmy, I miss him.” They smile over a picture of a joyful looking boy with cerebral palsy. “He is always so happy and energetic. When he laughs his whole body tightens up and you have to hold onto him really tight.”

There is a little boy who looks less delighted in a small wheelchair. “That wheelchair is no good for him. He still cannot move himself because the streets are too bad.”

“Also it is very expensive.” Greta adds.

There is a picture of a poor girl with a giant swollen head. Every picture is of her either crying or looking very unhappy. “Poor Emma.” Greta says with a deep empathy. “She is always in pain. Before she was just left in the corner, they did not know what to do with her, but we teach the parents how to help their children. She has a special chair with a head cup, because she cannot support her own head.”

There are more photos of them with the kids, and then some of a rather nice looking apartment. “Woops! Our photos are all mixed up.” Says Theresa. “This is where we were staying. There is the hospital, and there’s our apartments attached to it.”

Having seen the state of the hospital and the children, this comes as a bit of a surprise. Their apartment is the nicest house I have seen in East Africa so far. Suspiciously so. It makes me think that although these projects that bring in foreign volunteers do help the community, they are housed and treated specially at the cost of these institutions. You would think that they would be proportionate to the needs of the clinic, but is seems a bit of a contradiction. On the other hand, it must make these placements seem more attractive to perspective volunteers. Otherwise they might get none at all.

The last image is of a sleepy looking little boy. “That’s Anthony.” Theresa says gravely. “He is so full of medication all the time. He is in a constant state of delirium.”

More pictures of the house and of them cooking pizza. I trade some photos of the scenery with Theresa via an SD card. All my photos are of me having a good time. I would feel guilty, but instead I have another opinion.

Africa has a bad stigma. The only time you hear about people going to Africa is to do volunteering in impoverished communities. They then come back with stories about all these poor children and their families and how much westerners can help. Volunteering is all very well and good, don’t get me wrong. As long as it’s sustainable, i.e. projects continue after you leave and build on the effort year after year, instead of just showing up, making a small impact at a relatively high cost and then disappearing, leaving the locals feeling disenfranchised. Sadly a lot of “Voluntourism” is the latter.

But who do you hear about travelling around Africa on a holiday? Only rich elderly colonial looking Europeans on safari. The rest of the world stay away, like it’s some wounded animal, or the homeless person you know is there, but never acknowledge as you walk past with your morning coffee. He is a real person. Africa is a real Continent.

Saying Goodbye

I say goodbye to Theresa and Greta, take a selfie, exchange email addresses and never see them again. We are a polaroid picture, quick to develop and disposable.

Jinja is apparently the second biggest city in Uganda by population, but it could not get more different to Kampala if it tried. It is very run down and dirty – not that Kampala wasn’t – and has the feeling more of a truck stop than a town. It does however have the bustle of being very over populated and polluted by old vehicles. The back streets between cramped houses are dark and vacant and full of rubbish and unwanted things. Heaps of trash burn on the sides of roads, simply left to evaporate into the air and become someone else’s problem.

The VIP seat on my Modern Coast coach is bliss. No loud music, better suspension and a larger, more comfortable seat. The Ugandan / Kenyan border is relative bliss. I am directed towards one, orderly line to passport control where I have a pen at the ready to fill out my exit form. I am not the only Muzungu and can share a pleasant conversation with a German Ex-Pat girl, who accompanies me across no man’s land as she has been here many times before. She has a minor hiccup however, when she doesn’t have her Yellow Fever vaccination card.

Charlotte pre-warned me that if you don’t have proof of the vaccination, they jab you at the border with the same needle as everyone else, so you won’t get Yellow Fever, but you might get AIDs. Fortunately for my friend, she is a permanent resident and so they let her off.

The thing I will miss most about Uganda: The Rolex (an omelette rolled up in a pancake).

The thing I will miss the least: burning trash on the side of the road.

To sum it up in a single word: well, I didn’t really see much of it, but I suppose “Mosquitos.”

So I hope you enjoyed my ramblings about Uganda, if you like my stories there’s plenty more coming in this series! 8 more countries to go and several featured posts on tribes, game park life, youth culture and more. Hit the follow button for updates on the series and check out my other blogs about China and mountain life.

Disclaimer: these are just my observations, feel free to discuss in the comments below. follow the story in pictures on my gallery page.

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