Winston Churchill made his first journey from Kenya to Uganda in 1907.
Upon arrival he observed and named the land.
“The kingdom of Uganda is a fairytale. You climb up, and at the end there is a wonderful new world. The scenery is different, the vegetation, the climate is different, and most of all the people are different, from anything else where to be seen in the whole of Africa.’ concentrate on Uganda: for magnificence, for variety of form and color, for the profusion of brilliant wild life, bird, insect, reptile, beast, for vast scale’ – Uganda is truly “the Pearl of Africa”
– Sir Winston Churchill. 1908 –
Engrained in the identity of this exotic east African country are these most celebrated words of praise. When you arrive at Entebbe airport the first thing you notice, apart from the vibrant red earth is a unanimous billboard reading: “Welcome to the Pearl of Africa”.
I always say that first encounters are important; my first encounter with this profound land was an awe-inspiring experience that left me yearning for much, much more.
Much to my amusement was the sight of the cow that strutted with great ease on the runway and as if by instinct casually diverted off the runway a few minutes before our planes landing. This was reassurance that everything, everything was going to be alright.
My mother and I first travelled to Uganda early November 2012. We took refuge in my grandmother’s compound in Cirombe, Nysambya, a small hilly village approximately 30 minutes out of Kampala. Instantaneously I fell in love with Uganda, a complementary matrimony despite the flies, despite the stench of burning rubbish dumps, despite the ruthless thieves who snatched everything from you, despite the menacing taxi drivers who increased the fair price simply because you’re ‘foreign’ and despite the challenges which have shackled the developing nation.
I returned to Uganda for my own ‘solo’ adventure late November 2014 as an 11 day stop over before going to South Sudan. It was then I that I observed how everything and everyone in Uganda moved at a pace that is accelerated in every way, so much so you would think that Uganda moves past the world. Soon I learned that Uganda is not even on the same axis with the world, it’s a world of its own.
Every sight presents a different personality; the scenery is at its best on the top of Cirombe, on top of the hills facing the interior of the village. Every night I would marvel at the extraordinary way the mist hovered blissfully on top of the red earth. The tropical oasis is blessed with an abundant flow of rainfall: the reason why every thing in Uganda tastes sweeter than ever. Nighttime in Cirombe is the best time; it is a time when the heavy, humid atmosphere transforms into a cool swift breeze. In the early hours of the night I would take a stroll to the local Internet café with my most loyal companion always by my side, my eight-year-old niece Navine. Clutching my hand tightly, Navine would pull me towards any direction she pleased. Mostly Navine pulled me towards the direction of Ali’s sweet shop, she pointed at anything she wanted taking great pride in the belief that I was rich hence I would get her anything she wanted.
Whenever I ventured out of the house (on my own), I always walked in a straight line by the side of the road in fear of getting lost, but I always got lost anyway. The only element, which guided me back to the gates of my grandmother’s compound, was the flickering charcoal flames of the street food vendor’s setup by the side of the gates. Every night at this sight corn curds crackle and snap on the open flames while deep fried fish sizzled and trembled with fat. My favorite was the freshly prepared rolex: a thick chapatti roll with egg and tomatoes, best served with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Another useful guide back home was the incandescent light bulbs slung from the rooftops of dingy restaurants, where the meal of the day, week and even month is Matoke: steamed green banana mash served with tadpole size dried fish in a salty, salty tomato stew.
The people of Uganda have a peculiar, yet strangely delicious way of talking. They are a gleeful, carefree people with speeches characterized of long delayed pronunciations and the occasional add on of ‘ey’ at the conclusion of every sentence. I spent 30 minutes each day trying to correct some of these sentences from Navine’s vocabulary; first I decided to conquer the word ‘fifteen-ey’.
With changes in Navine’s pronunciations, in less then a week everyone in the small village said that I had spoiled Navine, however I thought I didn’t spoil her enough.
When she began to rebel on her chores of picking cassava leaves, sweeping the yard and hand washing her school uniform every Saturday morning, grandmother gave her a ‘good’ thumping – I still spoiled her. Credit to Navine as majority of the time she often pulled me away from the direction of on coming Boda bodas, Uganda’s fastest (and in my critique) most dangerous form of transportation. The motorbikes darted, tumbled and virtually maneuvered their way onto any path, with traffic and in most cases against traffic. The drivers are so skilled at this art; they can do all that with up to four (even more) passengers on board.
My first time on a Boda boda was an experience that left me holding on for dear life. In Uganda, my brother Sammy yelled out ‘Boda,’ and more than 5 motorbikes presented in front of us. Sam casually swatted away four and gestured me towards what he thought was the ‘safe’ Boda. Not bothering to ask for a helmet I climbed on with my eyes clenched shut and clutched onto Sam’s shoulders while Sam clutched on to the boda man’s shoulders.
Bang! I opened my eyes to the burning pain snaking its way up my leg, involuntarily, hot tears streamed down my checks, Sam cursed the Boda man for recklessly slamming my foot into a metal pole, and asked him to pullover. While slumped helplessly by the side of the road, I sobbed hysterically when I learned that I had lost one of my sandals. After retrieving my sandal from the middle of the road Sam hailed another ‘safer’ Boda and after much bickering we continued our journey to town this time with me wedged between the driver and my brother.
After my little ‘solo’ adventure in Uganda I realized that the Uganda of today is far from what Churchill had encountered in 1907. Many practices such as illegal poaching, deforestation and other forms of environmental degradations have decimated vast scales of the country’s unique wildlife and the natural Flora and Fauna that Winston creatively captured in his description.
Notably today, poverty institutionalized corruption and ineffective forms of governance have formed the bulwark of challenges, which the country is faced with.
However, as close related as these issues are to the people, the general concept of development in Uganda is just another term, which is simply used to imply ‘business as usual’: Uganda does things in her own right and in her own time. This is the way you must understand Uganda; this is also the way you must love Uganda.