A guidebook to Uganda prepared me for roughly what to expect: friendly, welcoming people, beautiful scenery and lots of rice and beans. Three months later however, and the impression Uganda has left upon me runs much, much deeper.
I came as a volunteer for an NGO – Send a Cow Uganda and have been living with an inspiring Ugandan couple and their two adorable boys for the last three months. My weekdays follow much the same pattern as most other Kampala-dwellers. Come the weekends, however, and I go exploring!
Hopping from place to place during my free time has been much easier than expected. Whereas in the UK, tickets must be bought in advance for an allocated seat on an allocated bus, here, I jump on a boda to the taxi park whenever I feel like it, and grab a seat in a taxi to wherever I’m going! Admittedly, I’m pretty terrified for 95 per cent of the high-speed journey and so chatter incessantly to whichever unfortunate soul is sitting next to me, but upon reaching my destination, I’m always amazed at the value for money.
My first trip was to Jinja: that former industrial town with buckets of charm and breathtaking views. On a Saturday I visited the Bujagali Falls where I had been hoping to raft the Nile. It was not to be, however, as just five minutes into my visit and while sipping a soda overwhelmed by my stunning surroundings, some unkind insect bit me and alarmingly quickly I came out in a rather unpleasant allergic reaction.
Panicking slightly, I ran around frantically taking photos for half an hour before hotfooting it back to a pharmacy in Jinja. Despite this minor drama, however, the extraordinary natural beauty of the falls and the fierce power of the water will be forever imprinted in my memory. It truly is a sight to behold.
The next day I headed to the source of the Nile where I spent six wonderful hours just wandering around. I visited the stalls selling beads, watched the naughty monkeys steal bananas, took a boat ride to the point the lake becomes the river and saw monitor lizards, otters and kingfishers. I watched the fishermen catch my delicious lunch of tilapia, before taking a boat across to the park where I climbed to the brow of the hill. I was amazed that no one else had taken the effort to do the same because the view was fantastic. It is so unspoilt I almost felt I’d discovered it myself.
Given the success of this first jaunt, I was keen to plan my next trip and the Ssese Islands were my target. From ferry to ferry, it was brilliant and I implore anyone who hasn’t already been to make it their priority! The islands are picture-postcard-perfect: palm trees, white sands and hardly a person in sight. I spent the days wandering around, reading on the beach and meeting other travellers and even took a nature walk through the fishing village, into the very wild forest and then to the top of the island to take in the stunning view.
In the evening, my fellow visitors and I sat around a campfire having a supper of fresh tilapia, watching the sun go down over the lake. At around midnight, we decided it was high time we ticked the “swimming in Lake Victoria” box and so, under a star-filled sky and with lightening flashing on the horizon, in we splashed. I will never, ever forget that moment.
My work has allowed me to see another side of Uganda, however, when visiting impoverished rural communities in Gulu and Amuru. At times it was hard to believe the tragic stories behind the smiling, open faces, but the barren vegetable patches and swollen bellies of undernourished children told another story. Meeting those people and seeing the results development projects can have stiffened my resolve to dedicate my career to working in this sector: good people just don’t deserve to suffer like that.
So now, almost three months down the road and my time here in Uganda is drawing to a close, time for some parting thoughts. Living with a truly exceptional family enabled me to become immersed in Ugandan life and I feel I’ve come to know some of the wonderful quirks the guidebook omitted to mention, like the “square potholes”.
I was intrigued that three months ago, when I stepped into Uganda, I found Ssemawata Road being cut into squares of potholes and three months later, the squares are enlarging each day. I am also intrigued by the obsession with Spanish TV soaps and the “disorganisation” brought by rain!
Uganda, for me, is a place where friends are family, where no inconvenience is too great and where the pace of life drifts, rather than rushes along; where the opportunities are endless, the potential is tremendous and the future is full of dazzling sunshine.
I love this country, its people and its nature and I cannot thank you all enough for welcoming me to share in your Pearl of Africa. I hope I’ll be back before long.