By Swathi Sridharan
Big city life
I step off the plane in Entebbe and feel my lips stretch into a wide smile. Years of flying have taught me to always choose an aisle seat. While I may miss the view as we land, I have instead enjoyed the freedom that comes with having my own armrest. But now, for the first time, I come near to regretting not choosing a window seat.
The view in front of me is a gentle sunset over Lake Victoria. The colours are muted, the clouds just mere streaks of grey over the slice of moon that is a placid lake. It is as though I have stepped into a beautiful black and white photograph. The air is warm and humid, a thick protective layer that I luxuriate in after the weeks of winter from where I have travelled. I walk down the steps eagerly, thinking that of all the different entrances to a country, this tiny strip of tar next to the world’s largest tropical lake must be among the most dramatic. And if this is what greets visitors when they arrive then how much more must be tucked away inside!
A short, painless process later I enter Uganda officially and hop into a mini-bus that will take me to my hotel in Kampala. It is dark now and the streets are full of lights.
The driver eases us gently into the flow of traffic. It isn’t long before we are stuck. From Entebbe, where the airport is located, to Kampala, the capital city, is a mere 40km.
But that can take anywhere from one hour to four, depending on the time of day, the traffic, and, I suppose, your luck as an individual.
The driver groans at the delay, but I don’t mind. It gives me a chance to look outside my window and soak it all in. We inch past tiny restaurants with plastic garden chairs and plastic tablecloths covering plastic tables.
It’s dinnertime and some of the tables are already occupied. The “bodabodas”, motorbike taxis, weave through the cars and mini-buses, giving the impression of speed, but I’m not convinced they will get to their destination any quicker than we will. The pedestrians make their way through the tumult, almost keeping pace with the traffic.
The sidewalks are full, with portable stalls selling food, newspaper vendors and young men selling airtime. We pause for a long moment next to a small bar with a pool table occupying the sidewalk. A low-strung light bulb illuminates a man hunched over about to take a shot. We wait long enough to see that he misses before driving past.
Uganda’s population is somewhere close to 35 million. And of that, more than three million live in Kampala. It feels as if every one of those three million people are out and about tonight. Once the road between Entebbe and Kampala must have been stretched empty, but now the cities have grown towards each other, making it difficult for a newcomer like me to tell where the one ends and the other begins.
Besides the traffic, the fact that Kampala is built on hills makes driving an interesting and exciting challenge.
A siren wails behind us and we inch to the side to make way for what I thought would be an ambulance, but which turns out to be a government vehicle with black tinted windows. Behind the first car is an open jeep with an impressive number of men dressed in riot gear, heads masked in helmets, all alert holding guns at the same angle.
Two more cars pass by and then our driver suddenly pulls out and we join the convoy in a mad race up the road, lights flashing, our mini-bus swerving and squeezing through a newly-created third lane in the middle of two-lane traffic. Soon other cars join in behind us and now we can’t stop even if we want to. We race on for almost 20 minutes, our journey made significantly shorter thanks to our driver’s quick thinking. It is the perfect entrance to this wonderful, chaotic, charming country.
The tourist track – Jinja the
Source of the Nile We drive out from Kampala in the rain.
The city is slowly waking up, the streets are busy but not yet full. It isn’t cold but I still huddle into a thick jacket. We drive east out of the city and soon we are out in the green countryside. It’s stopped raining now and the banana trees, freshly washed, glisten in the sun. We drive past fields, the land a series of undulating hills. Everything is lush and fertile, the soils a deep, rich red. My newly-found traveling companion tells me that you can just drop a seed on the soil and it will grow. I look outside and believe him.
We stop for breakfast at a well-groomed little restaurant at the side of the road. I sit on the verandah and scan through the newspaper. The waitress brings me a freshlymade, melt-in-your-mouth chapatti and a frothy cappuccino…and I am in heaven.
One of our destinations for the day is the Source of the Nile in Jinja, a town little more than 80km from Kampala. I’m excited to see the source of the Nile. Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I went on a cruise with my family down the Nile in Egypt, and I still remember being in awe of how wide the river was. So it’s a great opportunity to see the beginning of this river that has shaped civilizations, a river that flows north for more than 6 000km.
Truth be told, it is a little bit of a letdown. But it is a gentle disappointment, the sort that doesn’t leave me with any regrets.
The steps leading down to the water from the car park are flanked on either side by shops selling some sad crafts – small, hand-painted key chains, posters, a few dusty batiks, earrings hanging from squares of cardboard. I think it is these shops that cause the sense of disappointment, for they display nothing really interesting and they all carry the same air of gentle decay. I can’t imagine earning a living from one of these little places, and yet the owners themselves are sweet, smiling and interested in us as we walk down, no antagonism that we don’t stop to look or buy.
Before we get to the actual river, a huge painted sign explains what we are looking at – that on the one side is the Nile and on the other is Lake Victoria. A short boat ride takes us to a place where the water swirls up in a different direction – the sign of an underground spring we’re told –that is the actual source of the White Nile. It isn’t much to look at – water mixing with more water. But, for me, it is enough to sit here in the heart of Uganda and know that the water that flows past my fingers now will take three months before it makes its way through the rest of Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan and then, finally, into Egypt, where I first met this river all those years ago.
Off the beaten track
One of the first things I learnt after moving to Africa was the deep connection that still exists between the urban and the rural areas. People who live in big cities will often invest in their villages, regularly visit their relatives in the rural areas, and plan to retire outside the cities in which they spend their lives. Happily, I lead the sort of life that requires me to visit these tiny villages, some of them miles away from a tar road of any kind, but connected through an intricate web of dirt roads that crisscross the landscape. I’ve come to think that no trip to any country in Africa is really complete without a chance to visit some of these villages.
As we drive on some of these dirt roads I realise that much of what I see actually fits with my preconceived imaginings of how Africa should look. The tropical nature.
The fertile, red soils. The dust. The banana trees and the rice fields. These back roads depict scenes that I have wanted to see my whole life, scenes that are familiar to me without having seen them before. I see small children, mouths smeared with juice, fists clutching uneaten mangoes, some carrying big sticks with which to knock the fruit down from the laden trees. Women sit outside their homes, busy sorting through grain or peeling cassava. Others are bent double, weeding peanut fields. Young boys herd cattle. Men jump off their bicycles as we drive past, waiting patiently for the dust to settle before they start cycling again. And, without fail, everyone smiles and waves in acknowledgement.
We overtake a group of people in robes, singing and walking slowly, and I am told of the pilgrimage that these people are making. It will take some of them weeks but their goal is to reach Namugongo, 16km northeast of Kampala. Annually, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims walk hundreds of kilometres from their homes in the various corners of the country to Namugongo, stopping off along the way at various churches and homes to rest.
They make this pilgrimage in memory of the Uganda Martyrs – 32 men who were burned to death on June 3, 1886 by Kabaka Mwanga, the King of Buganda, because they refused to renounce Christianity. The story goes that even as the flames reached them, the men continued to pray, steadfast in their beliefs.
We drive back to Kampala in the evening, hitting the city after dark and also Uganda’s population is somewhere close to 35 million.
And of that, more than three million live in Kampala. after the traffic has dissipated. I sleep the minute my head hits the pillow and I get up early to catch the shuttle bus back to Entebbe and my subsequent flight. I don’t make the same mistake this time. I firmly say, “Window seat please,” when I am asked, and am rewarded with a view of Lake
Victoria as we take off. There is so much more to do and see here, I think. My trip was far too short and I promise myself to return for a proper holiday – one that will allow for a longer stay near the Lake and even a trek into the mountains to see gorilla. I strain my neck, looking out of the window at the Lake until I can no longer make out the difference between water and sky.
When to Visit Uganda
Uganda is located in a tropical climate zone which is hot and humid throughout the year. Avoid the rainy seasons of September to November and March to May.
Uganda is primarily an ecotourism destination which has made a great effort to preserve nature through its national park system. The endangered mountain gorilla, chimpanzees, golden monkeys and a variety of other animals are native to the area.
Fly to Uganda with South African Airways or Kenya Airways, and arrive at Entebbe International Airport. While visiting Uganda, you may rent a car, but traveling by there are also a number of organised safari and motor coach operations to choose from.
With over 30 indigenous languages spoken, Uganda has been a hotbed of cultural diversity since its creation. The people are generally warm and friendly, and take great pride in creating art, music and handcrafted items.
Eating out in Kampala
Kampala offers its visitors some great dining options that are relatively easy on the wallet.
Try these: Mediterraneo for Italian, Khana Kazana for Indian,
Clubs and Nightlife
Anywhere in Kabalagala is probably a good bet! The racial and cultural diversity means there’s a wide range of dining and dancing options.
Due to the higher altitudes in Kampala, the temperatures are not as hot as some other countries in the same latitude. Kampala’s hottest month is January and the rest of the year fluctuates somewhere between 17 and 30 degrees Celcius. There are two rainy seasons in the year – a short rainy season from February through June and a long season from August to December.