Friday, 19 March 2010


The lesson learnt last week was avoid budget safaris. 10 people in a rickety old saloon car may break world records but isn't very conducive to viewing the 13 types of primate that supposedly swing through the branches of Kibale Forest Reserve. However, while contorted into the back seat amongst four generations of one family, I did get a good look at the gums of the smiling and oblivious grandma.

This was not enough to deter us from hiring Safari John, along with his clapped out taxi to take us through the savannah plains of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Within the first five minutes of our 'game drive' it became apparent Safari John knew nothing about safari. Within 15 minutes we were informed there were neither zebra or giraffe and interest shifted to picking my nails.

Safari John, however was determined to show us a good time and cranked up the radio. As Ugandan pop music blared out the car, the entire wildlife population of QENP migrated to Tanzania. On the odd occassion we saw some non-descript deer like creature run in the opposite direction, Safari John would slam on the brakes and reverse, warning beeper on just in case any animal was thinking of crossing our path.

An afternoon boat trip turned out to be more lucrative. The guide shouted out as we passed elephants, buffalo, hippo, hyena, lion and more birds than you could shake a pair of binoculars at. These calls would be accompanied by a chorus of excited shouts as the fellow spectators - consisting of 50% OAP birdwatchers, 40% bum bag wearing Americans and 5% German pornstars - would wield their long zoom cameras and elbows as they made for the side of said animal. The boat would tip us dangerously towards the water and my thoughts turned to my weighing up the chances of making it to shore. What if I did and then got finished off by warthogs? There isn't half as much glory as wrestling with a crocodile and no-one would be able to keep a straight face at the funeral.

I never thought I'd be so relieved seeing Safari John back at the dock. After a swift embrace he revved the engine, put the volume on max and we sped out the park, sending warthogs flying in our wake.

A gorge in QENP

A non-descript deer like creature

Saturday, 6 March 2010




The rain has continued relentlessly over the last couple of weeks. Despite the daily deluges, the buildings cling onto their foundations and by afternoon with the sun baking the ground again, it’s easy to forget a few hours before the streets were rivers of mud.

The communities of Mount Elgon’s foothills (a few hours east of here) have been less lucky and this week saw horrendous landslides, which wiped out three villages, with an estimated death toll of 350. Uganda's Minister of Disaster predicts more to come, after the uncharacteristic early arrival of the rainy season.

We managed to escape Jinja last weekend and headed north to Gulu via Kampala. The very centre of Kampala is just about manageable without feeling you’re going to be swallowed up and spat out. Head a little south towards the taxi (bus) parks and you enter a heaving world of chaos where the mud never dries, the traffic doesn’t stop and it’s all too easy to get sucked into the thronging crowds. We may have been heading to a post-conflict zone but the weekend’s biggest challenge was finding a bus to get us to the hostel in Kampala.

Fast forward twenty-four hours and we were enjoying a meal in Gulu’s finest Ethiopian restaurant. My second challenge of the weekend would be working my way through a blanket of sponge, decorated with a variety of brown specimens. As usual, Janet found the meal delicious and thankfully managed to polish up my uneaten remains.

Gulu was the centre of the recent civil war and is currently the staging post to a number of large NGOs aiding the region’s recovery. For twenty years a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army caused indiscriminate havoc in the region, kidnapping thousands of children who were either raped or recruited as soldiers. In 1996 the Ugandan government responded by giving residents 48 hours to move out of their villages and into camps. Those that didn’t comply suffered the consequences through bombings, murder and torture by government forces (also know as the Uganda People’s Defence Force – I think the irony is unintended).

A peace deal was established in 2006, which has essentially meant the LRA have just retreated into the Congo and Sudan where they now continue their mission. Meanwhile Gulu has - with the help of huge amounts of aid - been getting back on its feet. If it wasn’t for the presence of countless signs and trucks flagging up the presence of the UN, World Food Program and various other NGOs you could remain fairly oblivious to what the place had gone through. I counted at least five large hotels being built; though despite rooting around on the internet I’m not entirely sure who the intended market is for these or whether the government has a plan for Gulu beyond its immediate recovery.

We met a guy from mid-west America who I like to believe is called Chester. Chester told us to go to Pabbo. 20km north of Gulu, 40km south of the Sudanese border, Pabbo was home to one of the largest displaced people's camp during the war (pop. of 65,000). Many of these people have now moved back to villages but the complicated remnants of this war have left the town with a swollen population. Unlike Gulu you couldn’t help but notice this small town had had no ordinary history. It was hard to imagine what the people here had been through - one study found 60% of female inhabitants had been victims of violent or sexual assaults within the camp - and unsurprisingly the locals seemed wary and dispirited. The blank, empty or demolished buildings gave Pabbo the feeling of an abandoned town in the Wild West. But the camp itself had gone and there were small signs (such as the busy market and a hut screening premiership football) that suggested the town was moving on.

One of the very visible charities in the region, especially in the rebuilding of schools, is the American charity Invisible Children. They've got a good website which is worth a look if you want to find out more.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Rainy Season

Saturday 5am: A man hollers down a loudspeaker from the local mosque. The Islamic religion represents about 10% of the population in Uganda but this morning you’d think this guy was praying for the whole of Jinja. It’s not long before the roosters join in, luckily at a distance. By the time I was looking for long term accommodation I knew what to look out for and a pastoral scene on the front lawn was to be avoided at all costs.

6am: Morning has broken but it’s not getting any lighter. Instead the house starts to rattle and shake - the rains have arrived, with gusto.

8am: The proposed hour of departure for our trip out west to Sipi Falls, the picturesque waterfalls at the foot of Mount Elgon.

9am: Decision made, we're not going anywhere. When it rains here the roads melt away leaving muddy potholes and everyone knows better than to travel long distances.

10am: I venture out to the market to get in supplies. The streets are all but deserted, most people seem to know better than to travel short distances too. Flip-flops and a jumper don’t come close to being sensible attire, I have no grip underfoot and do the half-way splits. After regaining my composure I put my hood up. A local looks at me with bemusement and asks if I’m lost. I make it to the market – not quite Borough, more your small town affair but in shanty form. Today is avocado day, mangos or avocados - but never both - there is no logic to this, it is just the general rule. However the requests have been for mangos and adventures look like they are going to be in limited supply today. I watch the butcher spoon out blood from his basket onto the ground and wade on through. You wouldn’t be able to tell anyway, the puddles are bright orangey red from the clay.

11am: I fail to find mangos, so instead have the innovative idea of making ‘rainy day comfort food’ in the form of caramelised pineapple. I blame the butter/hydrogenated plastic but this was possibly the most disgusting thing I have eaten out here. Worst than the endless plate of macaroni ghee cassava, worst than the fish in a stodgy peanut sauce and maybe even worst than the savoury bananas sitting in a soup of goat’s intestine.

3pm: The sun makes an appearance. The water on the roads is suddenly mopped up like a sponge. Our plans for Sipi may have had to be abandoned but there are some other ‘falls’ not far up the road and this one has a bar!

4pm: Legs in the sun and a cold drink in hand. Sipi can wait, I've found my spot 'til sunset.

Friday, 19 February 2010


The Kampala trip was a raging success and I returned to Jinja in one piece. Laura, one of my travelling companions was less fortunate. After falling in a ditch during a powercut and then accepting an ill-advised offering of painkillers (or possibly horse tranquilizers) from a doctor who'd just returned from Haiti, we ended up making a midnight trip to hospital. Despite being treated by another dubiously qualified doctor, all turned out well and Laura is now hobbling her way to recovery.

Whilst in the big smoke I visited a couple of projects (photos below). Firstly Skateboard Union (, a skatepark ran by Jackson, a Ugandan guy who doesn't get paid a penny for giving 50+ kids the opportunity to come and skate free of charge.

The second was a secondary school an hour north of Kampala. The headmaster set it up to provide cheap education, predominantly for kids who were affected by the civil war in the north of Uganda. It's proved incredibly popular and classes can top nearly a hundred students. A UK charity ServeUganda ( got involved a couple of years ago, improving facilities, and now building a new school to accomodate its ever growing population.

Kampala's (and Uganda's) one and only skatepark
An average class at the school.
Rainwater collection constructed by ServeUganda to minmise trips to the local borehole.

Half Way In

I am a magnet for gap year wallies. I only have to put one foot in an internet cafĂ©, before one of them sits beside me and starts shouting into Skype about how they’ve just scored on the foothills of Kilimanjaro. Maybe Raleigh International are running a marketing ploy, giving volunteers a 10% discount if they go around sounding off about their sexual exploits. It can’t be enough just to build a school and follow in the footsteps of Ronan Keating, there also has to be a guarantee of copping off with someone who you were probably at the same school with anyway.

I am less a magnet for the Missionary types, who can probably see I’m already a lost cause. The Christian faith is impossible to ignore in Uganda. There is a shop called ‘Jesus is Lord’ on every street and someone preaching the bible on every corner - usually right opposite one of the many security guards casually slumped on a chair with a massive rifle across his knees. I suppose the more time you spend in a place the more you get used to all these things. This morning I passed a woman who was carrying something not dissimilar to a haystack on her head. There is nothing strange about that at all, except for in five weeks I’ll be back in a nation full of people with weak necks, who carry their daily load in the boot of a car.

Friday, 5 February 2010

From Town to The Village

The Village

The roadside butcher in Bugembe

Deep breath: this weekend I'm off to Kampala, Uganda's capital. Jinja has offered a fairly gentle introduction to Uganda. You only have have to wonder ten minutes down the road and you find yourself by the Nile. It takes less than a minute to cross a road and more than likely if you hop on a boda (scooter taxi) you'll get off the other end in one piece.

It's not all palm trees and bananas though, Jinja has some grotty parts and I am starting to learn that a certain level of chaos underpins most life in Uganda. For the past couple of weeks I've been going back and forth to Bugembe, a large village that is part of Jinja's urban sprawl. Village may be misleading, there isn't really an ounce of rural life here. The cows graze on the rubbish dump and an average night apparently consists of gunshots and your dog being locked in the latrine by thieves.

On Sunday a few of us travelled out to Harriet's (Harriet had been working on the Ugandan side of the charity but has just left for Finland to live with her husband) village, two hours east of here. Mud huts, no electricity, woman carrying water on their head - on the surface this was such cliche of what you expect from an African village it felt like it had been set up for tourists. The reality was white visitors were so rare the children hadn't even learnt to shout 'muzungu bye bye' (exceptionally rare in Uganda), instead they just followed you around wherever you went like a scene from the Pied Piper.

Harriet was able to provide the insider's tour and within a few hours we'd been introduced to half the population. The immediate impression of rural idyll was deceptive and on meeting various groups it became apparent a certain amount of boredom prevailed: Men sat around drinking; children were lucky if they'd got through the first few years of primary school; girls married extremely young (age ten was the earliest noted); and the woman seemed desperate to have outsiders come in and - amongst other things - teach farming techniques to improve on their subsistence lifestyle. You hear alot of people talking about how educating women in Africa could be the key to development and here, this seemed more evident than anywhere.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Still Sweating

One of the many signs round a government funded school encouraging children to practice abstinence. I think it would be more effective if they actually defined 'bad touches'.

Uganda is one of the most colourful countries I have ever been to. Companies will pay shop owners along the roadside to have their buildings branded - cooking oil and mobile phone companies dominate.

It's been easier than I thought it would be to slip into life here and get on with things. Having spent the last four months with only fields and pheasants for company, I thought I'd feel more homesick for my comfy bed and a decent shower. However I am now sweating comfortably through my third week in Uganda.

The first two weeks have very much been to do with the charity I've been working for. Meetings, visits to the home where the it's based, activities with the kids and school registration being the general day fillers. Half the plans I had went out the window and the Irish dancing lesson was put on hold as slightly more complicated charity business took hold.

We did, however manage to fit in a trip to the world's worst theme park. Despite the majority of rides not working and a monorail with a 20 metre route that circumnavigated the toilets, and only the toilets, the children appeared to have the time of their lives. As I stood on the forecourt of a petrol station on the drive home - mopping sick off one of our younger girl's shorts - I concluded that whatever the circumstances children are generally the same the world over.