On October 14, 2005, I left my home outside Washington D.C. for a two week mission trip to Uganda. I did not want to go to Uganda. When I thought of Uganda, I thought of Idi Amin. I was sure I would die in Uganda. Despite my fears, however, that I had an amazing time there. I did not die, but my life will never be the same.
My host in Kampala was Medad Birungi, currently the assistant chaplain at Kyambogo University, and his wife, Connie. Medad, Connie, Medad’s nephew known as Cowboy, and their driver, Naboth, met me at the Entebbe airport very early Monday morning (October 17). I had corresponded by email with Medad, but had never met him before. I had been introduced to him online by Anne Mikkola, a Finnish economist and advocate for the equality of women in the church. She has been to Uganda three times, going there initially, like me, without having met Medad. Another person Anne introduced me to is Patti Ricotta, a divinity student and mother of three from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, who had been to Uganda twice previously with Anne. Patti is the only one of the three I had met in the flesh, but only because she had happened to be taking her son for a tour of Virginia colleges a couple of weeks prior to my departure.
MONDAY OCTOBER 17
After a stop or two for photos (Lake Victoria) and bananas (roadside market), Medad, Connie, Cowboy and Naboth took me to the Namirembe Guest House. We had tea and a little chat, then they left me to rest. Cowboy stayed behind, trying to unlock Patti’s tri-band phone, which she had lent me for the trip. He spent the whole afternoon trying to find someone who could unlock it. We finally gave up and decided that he would buy me a used phone in the morning.
I came to Kampala at this particular date because Medad wanted me to speak at the mission week at Kyambogo University. Kyambogo is a relatively small university of about 12,000 students. Its sister school in town is Macacarere University, with an enrollment of more like 40,000. The mission week did not start until the next Sunday, however. Medad was very busy planning for it, and did not really have any thing for me to do. Fortunately, Connie had the week off from her job as a geography teacher, as the students had exams that week. So she took me around Kampala on Tuesday, where we visited the Garden City Mall, a very modern, upscale shopping center, ate lunch at a kind of small food court run by a South African company, and bought African dresses for ourselves and a shirt for my son, Andrew.
WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 19
We went to the source of the Nile on Wednesday, accompanied by Naboth, Cowboy, and another young man whose name I don’t remember – was it Roger? It was really beautiful there, although we had only slightly less trouble than Livingston finding the source of the Nile. We then drove to Jinja, where we had lunch in a small café. The waitress just came over and took the baby away – something that happened repeatedly. Then we headed from Bujagali Falls. We missed the turn off and traveled quite a ways down a road paralleling the river. There were people living along most of it. Some of the houses were brick – many were made out of saplings shaped into walls and covered with mud. People were walking everywhere. We saw a lot of bicycles, but the person with it (always men) were more likely to being pushing it loaded with bananas or charcoal than to be riding it.
At Bujagali Falls, Cowboy informed me that they had activities there: For 5,000 shillings (about $2.60) one of the local “swimmers” would ride down the rapids on a jerry can (a large – but not that large – plastic container used to carry water.) Connie’s and my immediate response was “no way” were we going to pay someone to get killed. Fortunately for the men in our group, another tourist group (mostly men) came along just then and paid for the entertainment. It looked like fun, actually – cool, anyway. The temperature in Uganda is not too hot, maybe in the mid-80s, and the Ugandans appeared to be quite comfortable (the men even wore suit jackets). For me, however, it was just a little too warm, and I’d start to melt by midday. It was not until late the next day that I learned that the 4 wheel drive vehicle we were using had air conditioning. I was eager to have it on, but I think it was too cold for our driver.
There was a brief downpour while we were traveling to the falls. On the road back, I saw little children gathering mud-red water out of the potholes in the road.
When we returned from Jinga, we stopped at Connie and Medad’s house. They live on campus at Kyambogo University, very close (one might argue, for reasons that will be explained later, too close) to the chapel where Medad is assistant chaplain (and is now chaplain). When we had stopped there in the morning to pick up Connie, a man had been sitting in a chair next to the door. When we returned hours later, he was in the same spot. He was introduced to me as “reveler”, I thought, but as he didn’t speak much English, we didn’t try to talk. It turns out he was the “reverend” of the village where I was to speak on the way back from Queen Elizabeth National Park. He had been staying at Connie’s house for a while, as did a large group of young men, including Cowboy, Naboth, Livingston, and several others. Cowboy said there were ten of them, but I don’t know if that counted the Birungi’s five children or not. I learned that Medad has always taken in orphans, relatives, friends, passers-by, anyone who needed a meal or a place to stay. This was true even before he was married, and it seems to be an African pattern, although perhaps everyone is not as generous as Medad and Connie. One of my economist friends who has done work in Africa tells me that this pattern is a real disincentive to getting ahead financially, as it may result in a large number of people expecting you to take care of them and/or moving in with you.
The house was a simple three bedroom bungalow, with a dining area, a small extra room and one bathroom. The sitting room was lined with sofas and chairs, again typical of the homes I visited, with a low table in the middle with little individual tables under it. Most of the houses of what we would consider a modest but normal size also had a “boy’s house” in back. This is where the servants lived. In this case, this is where all of the young men lived. I don’t know where Betty, Connie’s housemaid, slept.
When you visit people in the late afternoon, you are likely to be served tea. The water is not drinkable, so people tend to make a big batch of tea in the morning and put it in a large thermos jug for use throughout the day. Uganda grows a lot of coffee, but it is usually too expensive for Ugandans to drink it themselves.
Medad wanted to take me back to my guest house himself, but Medad was very much in demand. A large group of students appeared in their yard to confer about the mission week about to start. Medad ran an electrical light out into the yard. I don’t know where the chairs came from, perhaps the chapel, which is (too) nearby. He finally got away, and he and another man (who was it?) took me to the food court downtown. We ordered pizza, which was really good. It was late for me to be eating, but this is an African pattern, and as late as we were eating, I don’t think Connie and the children had eaten yet.
THURSDAY OCTOBER 20
The next day, Connie and Naboth came to take me on a two day trip to Queen Elizabeth National Park. Also coming along was Jabez Omega, Connie and Medad’s seven month old son, who certainly must be the world’s most perfect baby. It is allegedly only two hundred miles from Kampala to the Park. Medad said it was a 4 hour trip, but to allow 6 hours so we could stop and take pictures. We set out well before noon, but the traffic (which is unbelievable) made leaving Kampala pretty slow. The highway wasn’t bad, but the entire route is spotted with villages and markets, all of which had speed bumps (“humps” to Ugandans) that required near stops to crawl over them. Plus, Naboth’s home village was about an hour’s drive outside of the park. As we got closer, we made frequent stops to greet Naboth’s friends or family members. But the scenery was distracting as well – groves of bananas, tea plantations, forests – all green, green, green and beautiful.
Uganda is on the equator, so the sun rises at 6:00 and sets at 6:00, every day. No daylight’s savings time. Since it was so warm, it seemed like summer to me, so I was surprised every day when it got dark so early. Patti had warned me that we must be at the park before dark or they wouldn’t let us in. But by sunset, we were not yet in the Park. My companions appeared unconcerned and fortunately for my nerves, it was not yet really dark. Naboth’s driving, skilled but aggressive, began to take on a more insistent pace, however. By the time we entered the outskirts of the Park, it was dark. Moreover, as we past the last town before the park entrance, the road was blocked by a sign that said, “No admittance.” This did not bother Naboth at all. He just drove around the blockage. It quickly became apparent that this was a road under construction – a high gravel roadbed – and that the “real road” ran right next to it. We saw a delivery vehicle ahead of us down on that road. Naboth backed down the gravel bank onto the real road, but we soon found that it was pretty much under water. We caught up to the delivery vehicle, but its presence was no comfort – it was trying to back up. Several times Naboth drove back up onto the gravel road bed to avoid the larger pools of water. I was sure on a couple of occasions that we were going to tip over. Perhaps Naboth thought so, too, because he stayed on the old road and just plowed through the water, once hitting a big hole and spraying mud all over the vehicle. Every time we hit a hole, Connie exclaimed, “Jesus.” She was not swearing – she was praying.
Finally we reached a sign directing us to a gravel road on the left, which would take us to the park entrance. By now there was no one else on the road, and it was quite dark. There were a few lights in the distance, but they never seemed to get any closer. Despite the fact that we were following a sign, I couldn’t image that the entrance to the Park would be down a road like the one we had just navigated. Hadn’t it been blocked? Surely they would not block the road if it were really the entrance to the park. My companions’ calm (and occasional heated discussions in one of the local African languages) did nothing to reassure me. When I repeated Patti’s warning that they wouldn’t let us in after dark, Connie replied that they would let us in. I was sure neither had any judgment at all. I thought I was going to die out there on this disserted road, and without even having done any of the work I came there to do.
Eventually we reached another sign marked “Park Entrance” and another left turn down a dirt road. This one was short: We soon reached the entrance booth – which was closed, dark, and disserted. We stopped in front of the metal arm blocking the way and stared at it in disbelief. There was no sign of life, no lights, nothing. Naboth honked the horn, which I thought was a particularly futile gesture out there in the dark.
After a couple of minutes, I pulled out the reservation slip I had for the Lodge and we started trying to call them. Unfortunately, the phone numbers listed were for the reservation service, not the Lodge. I started to open my door, thinking to go up to the booth to look for a phone number, but Naboth stopped me with a question, “Are you getting out?” “Shouldn’t I?” I asked. “Animals,” Naboth and Connie replied together. I stayed in the car.
“What are we going to do?” I asked. “Where will we sleep?” Naboth said we would have to go back to the last town. I couldn’t imagine going down that road again. Plus, we had passed many guesthouses and inns on the way to the park, and as far as I could tell, none of them had any doors.
At this point, an angel appeared to rescue us. An angel with a very large rifle – a young woman who is one of the park guards. She informed us that the gates were closed at 7:00. Naboth explained that we had reservations but were late. She borrowed my phone to call the lodge, then let us in on the condition that (1) we seek out the accounting office first thing in the morning to pay the Park admission fee, and (2) we give her a ride back to her camp, as there were many lions out. Her camp turned out to be about 20 feet away. Perhaps she came in response to Naboth’s honk. There were a few men there, and we wondered that it was the woman who came out to rescue us.
The seven kilometer dirt road to the Lodge was in no better condition that the road outside the gate, but being inside the gate made a world of difference to me. I told Connie about Patti’s stories about how the guards had not wanted to let her group in, and some other’s of Patti’s traumatic experiences in Uganda, and said I did not want any drama. Connie had a good laugh over that when we finally got to our room. Our only adventure at this point was the hippo that ran across the road in front of us. We arrived at the Lodge area. I had not been able to reserve a room in the Lodge for that night, only the one after. We had a room in the hostel instead. But the guard suggested we check in the hotel, and they were able to accommodate us after all. Naboth dropped off our bags and went off to the drivers’ quarters, which he assured us later were fine (the Western-style Lodge charged $90/day per person – that included all meals and snacks in a wonderful restaurant – while the drivers’ quarters cost 15,000 shillings a night, about $8.)
I tipped the bellman 4,000 shillings (a bit over $2), which made him very happy. The Lodge had a big board out in front with the numbers of various animals spotted. I told him about the hippo we saw and asked him if they wanted to add that to the count. He said they didn’t even count hippos, you were guaranteed to see hippos, and sometimes they came and cut the grass at the Lodge. I thought he was joking.
When we checked into the room, a bat flew in and was circling the bathroom ceiling. The bellman brought our bags in and got everything settled, then started to leave. I pointed out the bat. He assured me that it was a good kind of bat, and that he had seen it fly out. I observed that perhaps there had been two bats, as there was certainly one still in the bathroom. He suggested that if I left the door open, the bat would leave. I suggested that if I left the door open, another bat would come in. Eventually he either admitted my point or realized that he was not leaving without that bat. So he flapped the bath mat at it until it left. Fussy of me, I know, considering that only a short while earlier I had been preparing myself to sleep in the car with a lion pawing at the windshield, or in a possibly doorless and no doubt bathroomless local hotel. Connie rolled on her bed and laughed at my desire to avoid drama, but she was quite relieved, too. We went and had a very good dinner at the restaurant, then watched a troop of traditional dancers. We went to bed early as we had to meet our wildlife tour guide at 6:15.
FRIDAY OCTOBER 21
We started off Friday with a cup of tea in the lobby at 6:15 while waiting for our tour guide, Jack. He rode in the car with us as Naboth drove. Our first sighting was of an elephant, standing nonchalantly at the side of the road. We saw only one lion, to Jack’s disappointment, and one hyena, which I was not fast enough to photograph. Lots and lots of waterbucks.
After we had been out for an hour or so, we came across a van parked in the middle of the road and a couple at the side of the road pulling branches off the bushes. What are they doing? we wondered, and then realized what they were doing – they were stuck in the mud. The branches were for traction. I held the baby while Connie, Naboth, and Jack helped push, but despite their efforts, the couple remained stuck. The driver of the other vehicle produced a rope so Naboth could pull him out, but it was not much of a rope – not even 6 feet long, frayed, and more a thick piece of twine than a rope. It snapped promptly when put to use. I asked Jack if the lodge wouldn’t send a rescue vehicle or at least a proper rope, but Jack said all of the Land Rovers were out. Finally Jack cut off a seat belt in the other van and used that to tie the two vehicles together. With a little more pulling and pushing, the van rolled out of the mud. The couple, Martine and Jean-Pierre, had been on their way to Mweya. I visited with them a few times that evening. Jean-Pierre told me that after we left them, they went about 30 meters and got stuck again.
Before we parted from Jack, we arranged for an evening wildlife tour after our boat tour at 3:00. Naboth insisted he would not care to look at hippos in a boat. We went to a late breakfast, and discovered that the bellman had not been joking about hippos eating the grass after all. There wasn’t a hippo, but several warthogs, including three piglets. When we first drove in, I thought that the resort had been built on a peninsula so they could gate out the animals. But of course, if the animals can swim, there is no gating them out of anything. Later, Robert Erone told me of staying at Mweya and hearing what sounded like someone washing outside his door. He was about to open the door to see, then thought better of it and peaked through the transom instead. There was a hippo.
Naboth went to take care of the car, Connie and Jabez went to rest, and I decided to go for a swim. The swimming pool was beautiful, on a large deck overlooking Lake Edward. Two animals that had been on the far side of the lake all morning came up onto land and proved to be elephants. I got in the water, which was wonderful after my usual mid-day melt, but quickly realized that I had not given the sun any thought. At the equator, the sun is straight overhead, and so bright it is almost blue. I swam for a while, then got out, sat under an umbrella, and worked on a sermon. Connie and Jabez joined me, as did three young women from California. One of them operated a development agency in Rwanda, and her two friends, who lived in London, had come to tour with her. The woman from Rwanda fell in love with Jabez and took him in the pool, which he enjoyed very much.
As it was getting toward 2:00, I went in to shower and change. When I got out of the shower, I couldn’t find my glasses! I was in a panic. I finally ran back to the pool to ask Connie to come, came across the bellman from the night before on the way and dragged him back to the room to help look for them. I ended up finding them myself in time to go buy the tickets, but Naboth did not appear to drive us down to the wharf. The Californians offered us a ride, which we took.
The boat tour was wonderful. My pictures do not do it justice. I saw what the bellman meant about being guaranteed to see the hippos – there were hundreds of them along the edges of the lake. A dozen in a spot would be packed together. Natasha (Long?) from the group of Californians and I went up on top of the boat. It turns out her parents are from Whittier (my home town), and her grandparents used to have a cabin on the Russian River (where we had one too). It’s a small world.
Naboth and Jack were supposed to meet us after the boat tour to take us on an evening wildlife tour, but when Naboth appears, he said the car had gotten “knocked.” I did not understand, but that means he had been in an accident. There was a small dent on the front passenger door. It did not affect anything functional, but he and Connie went off to argue with the other driver about whose fault it was. They couldn’t agree, but did not call the police as the police are apt to impound both cars in such cases. So I cancelled the evening tour. We had missed both lunch and snack and so had some tea and cake to hold us over until dinner. The lodge and its restaurant were very very nice. I felt guilty to be enjoying it so much, after some of the poverty we had passed on the way there.
Friday night I bought some air time and made a quick call to Larry in the U.S. He called me back and we had a nice chat. It is very expensive to call on the Triband phones, but there was no charge to receive a call. Larry and Patti Ricotta called me several times using Skype (a computer-based phone system.)
SATURDAY OCTOBER 22
We checked out the next morning and left as soon as they opened the gate (6:30 AM). Our friends from California passed us on the way out, accompanied by Jack, as I had persuaded them that they needed an early morning guided tour if they wanted to see the animals. The way out was a much better road than the road in, and as soon as we got on the main road, we came across this pack of baboons. Naboth drove right up to them, assuring me that they “can’t run away” because they were used to being fed.
About 45 minutes out of the park, we turned south and went a long way up red mud roads to Naboth’s village. The country side is breathtakingly beautiful – lush and green, lots of banana trees. Naboth had sent word that we would be coming, but the message hadn’t gotten through. His wife was surprised to see him. I wanted to take a picture of his family (6 children, with a seventh born two weeks later) so they hurried to put on their best clothes. The two oldest children were away on a school trip. Naboth had been working as a driver in Kampala, far away from his family, to earn enough money to pay their school fees. Only a few years of schooling is free in Uganda. After that, school costs what to us would be a trivial amount, but what is a great deal to Ugandans. Naboth’s house had stucco or concrete walls, a metal roof and mud floors. The furniture was simple wooden chairs and a coffee table. The table was covered with an embroidered cloth that was snowy white. I don’t know how the women kept things so clean, as they did their wash in plastic basins. The children are much older than they look. The smallest, who I thought must be two, was five years old.
Naboth had a plot of land – I don’t know how much was his, maybe an acre or less—around his house. They grew bananas, and also planted whatever would grow under the bananas. I think they also grew coffee. He showed me tomatoes and beans. The women do almost all the farming, with help from the children. They do not use a plow and I saw no farm equipment other than a hoe. Tea is farmed on large plantations, but everything else is grown on these small plots. All along the road we saw goats that had been tied out to feed. We saw some cows, too, although they were not usually left unattended. One of the breeds of cows has huge horns, but Cowboy and Naboth had assured me that they aren’t dangerous. Produce is sold from stands along the road, and on our way back, we stopped several times and filled up the back of the SUV with eggplants, yams, potatoes, pineapples, and bananas. Connie told me that whatever surplus the women have, they sell in order to buy soap and salt.
When I first met Naboth, he gave me his “testimony.” All the Christians will tell you their testimony. He went into the army in 1986, where he drove. In 1991, he was diagnosed with AIDS and was very ill. He became a Christian, however, and began to get better. In 2001 he had an AIDS test, and it was negative.
Also when I first met Naboth, he also asked me if I liked duck. I said yes, and he said he would give it to me. I thought he meant we would have duck for lunch. As we were leaving his house to go to his father’s house, Naboth handed me a live duck. I was flabbergasted, and tried to explain that I couldn’t possibly take a live duck. He said it was okay to give it to Connie. He tied the duck’s feet with a fiber from the banana trees and put it in a plastic bag in the back of the SUV.
When we left Naboth’s house, we went a short distance up the road to his father’s. His father was away, but his mother, sister-in-law and two other ladies (sorry, I don’t remember who they were. I think one was his sister) greeted us with a hymn. Their singing was wonderful, with some singing the melody and some (or maybe just one) singing a kind of descant. With them were five little children. They were the children of Naboth’s brother, who, along with his wife, had died from AIDS. The children, not wanting to leave their home, had lived alone for a while, but now Naboth’s sister had taken them in. I suspected they, too, were much older than you would guess from their size. The smallest one had thin red hair, a sign of malnutrition. Naboth went to get some sodas – like giving me the duck, a thoughtful act of hospitality. While he was gone, I gave Naboth’s mother 20,000 shillings to help with the children. Not much money to us, but when Naboth came back, he tried to give his mother money, and she said no, she had some.
We were supposed to be in a village outside of Rwamabara, where I was to speak, at 11:00. This was why we left Mweya as early as they would let us. I had given up on asking where we were or how much longer. I figured we would get then when we got there, and the congregation would be there or not. I knew they were having a week-end long conference, anyway. Medad was supposed to meet us there at 11:00, but we couldn’t reach him on his phone. We left the main road about 12:30 and picked up a little boy, seeming at random, to show us the way to the village. We went a little ways in town and picked up another little boy. After about 15 minutes, I asked how they were going to get back to town and learned that they were the sons of the reverend who was holding the conference (the very sweet man who appeared to have been in Connie’s sitting room all the time we were in Jinja.). I do not know how Naboth and Connie found them amidst all those people. I don’t think they knew the boys were going to be waiting for us.
We went quite a ways up mud roads until we came to the village. There were a few hundred people waiting for us in a chapel, and they greeted us with singing. Again, they sang the melody with a strong chanted descant. They also had a drum and shake cans. A couple of the old ladies danced. It would be worth going back to Africa just for that experience. Connie gave her testimony (in the local language) and then translated my sermon. Medad had told me to tell people they had to stop drinking, beating their wives, and practicing witchcraft. I talked about the pressures that people feel when they are alienated from God. Alienated from God, we feel like we have to be the Big Men, important, in charge. But deep in our hearts, we are afraid that we are really just like the goat I saw on the way to the village, proudly standing on a rock, king of nothing. That fear leads to acting out, drinking, violence, sexual immorality, whatever releases the tension. But because these acts do not solve the basic problem, we have to do them again, and again. The only real solution is to be reconciled to God, and to give up our desire to be in control. I have no idea if they knew what I was talking about, but at least it wasn’t too long.
I gave the reverend a copy of my Bible study guide, which he said would help them a lot. Then another lady spoke in the local language (Connie translated for me), we had some more songs and dancing, and then broke for lunch. The people were really lovely, very shy, but happy when you greeted them and asked their name. It was impossible to communicate, as no one spoke English, but they were happy to have a white person come visit them (which the reverend said explicitly). One of the ladies told me in great detail (in African, translated by Connie) that she loved me and was my friend.
African lunches and dinners tend to consist of matoke (always), a mashed potatoes-like dish made from bananas; yams; Irish potatoes; rice; and some kind of stewed meat. Items you don’t always but often find include fried chicken and chips (fries), beans, French beans, poten (ground corn mush), fried bananas, slaw, tomatoes, cucumbers, millet bread (a very black grass seed which is ground into a dough and served in a basket) and groundnut (peanut) sauce. Christine Erone had some lovely spicy peas in a groundnut sauce. Breakfast will have bread, pineapple, melon, and boiled eggs. Luxurious breakfasts have sausages, scrambled eggs or omelets. The food in the village was very simple and tasty. They were happy to see that I liked their food. Africans are happy to eat with their hands, but someone found a fork for me. In the village and on other occasions when we were eating at an event, they had a bowl and ewer of water to wash hands before eating.
We wanted to get back to Kampala before dark, so after lunch we got into the car to leave. Connie had filled the back with groceries, and Naboth had moved my overly-large suitcase into the back seat with Connie and the baby. I was surprised when the suitcase was moved over into the middle to make room for this old lady and her suitcase. She did not speak English, and no one explained anything to me about who she was or where she was going. I thought perhaps we were dropping her back at town on the main road, but town came and went and still she was with us. Finally I asked Connie where the lady was going and Connie said to Kampala. Not just Kampala, it turns out, but to Connie’s house, where she still was when I left to go back home. In fact, she came on the ill-fated Trip To See An Airplane Take Off when I left. More on that below. I asked Connie why she had come, and Connie didn’t know, nor how long she intended to stay. I learned later that the lady had been a friend of Medad’s mother. She was very sweet and gave me a long blessing, complete with hand gestures to the sky, whenever she saw me. Someday, perhaps, I will learn her name.
It was dark when we returned, and we were all exhausted, but when we arrived at Connie’s, I learned that Medad was supposed to take us to a dinner at the home of Robert and Christine Erone. Robert used to be the director of forensic sciences for the government. He had recently retired and was the director of WorldShine Ministries. Medad never could get away so he sent us ahead, expecting to join us later. Christine had a really lovely meal for us and I got to meet the WSM board members, staff, and a few of the Erone children (who are all very accomplished and work for relief agencies.) Robert made a speech and gave me an African drum and a bark cloth wall-hanging. It was really nice.
We were waiting the Medad to come, but Medad was trying to get the new roof to the chapel welded (more on this later) and came pretty late. Connie and her daughter Esther, who came along with us, were falling asleep on the sofa. . Finally Medad came back with Cowboy in the car and took us all home.
My home base had changed, however. I returned to Kampala to the beautiful home of Jovah Kamateeka. Jovah is the under secretary for the Uganda Law Reform Commission and a dynamic and powerful Christian. I was made to feel at home and extremely comfortable in her home.
It was a wonderful but very long day.
This is the first half of my trip — more to come later.