Monthly Archives: July 2012

Malaria in Mbale

My Uganda trip started off on the wrong foot. Before leaving Jinja I felt pretty bad and had a really rough headache, but I thought that may have just been a hangover from my going away shindig and ignored it. When I got to Mbale I was still feeling down and then assumed it was dehydration so I drank enough water to drown Holland.

In Mbale I stayed at this church run guesthouse/community center since it was the cheapest place in town. The room wasn’t bad which was a good thing since I spent almost all of my time in there. In the four days I spent in Mbale, I only got out once to go visit Sipi Falls. The rest of the time I was laid up in bed reading or sleeping. It was pretty awful. I might have eaten a total of two proper meals that whole time. I just had zero appetite. When I would stand up I got hit by waves of dizziness like when you stand too quickly, but these waves lasted for a full minute or so. I was in rough shape.

After a point I decided that the pain was far too much and broke down. I went to the local pharmacy and complained to them about having a headache that was lasting for days now. The plan was just to get some painkillers. However, the lady behind the counter was having none of that. She would only sell me some malaria medication and aspirin because she knew what was wrong with me. Since the malaria drugs were about five dollars for the whole treatment, I bought them just to shut her up so I could go back and crawl into bed. The pharmacy was a bit dark and when I stepped into the equatorial sun, my eyes went haywire. For a solid ten minutes my vision would go in and out. I would be able to see and then it was like someone was shining a big LED flashlight right at me. It probably was a psychological response. I had a feeling I might have malaria after I didn’t get better for so long, but having someone tell me just sent it to eleven. Standing around was not an option, I didn’t want a hundred well meaning strangers asking what was wrong so I braved crossing the street (a perilous proposition at any time) to get back.

It took a bit longer than it should have, but since my room was only a few hundred yards from the pharmacy I made it and immediately fell into bed. I didn’t have the strength to do much of anything else. It was afternoon so I couldn’t start the cycle of malaria medication until the next morning so I took a couple of aspirin and did nothing until falling asleep.

Waking up in the morning was a treat. For the first time in a week I didn’t feel like death. Cautiously I got out of bed and the dizziness wasn’t gone, but much reduced. I was pretty convinced I had beaten the malaria and I was over the hump. But I did pay for the medication and I don’t like wasting money. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to take it if I had beaten it, and maybe the pain was just trying to trick me by playing possum. I didn’t want to be down for another week so I started the medication according to the instructions and kept at it for the next couple of days. Whatever worked, whether it was my immune system or the drugs, I felt so much better and was able to enjoy the rest of my trip.

At least it wasn’t ebola.

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Never too Cool for School

A young man about seventeen or eighteen years old related his life story at an NGO collaboration meeting. At points it’s sad, and at others it shows how quality programming can truly help a young person’s life.

Our young person was born in a small village but his family moved to Kampala. There he stayed until he was five and his father sent the boy and mother back to the village while he stayed in Kampala to work. He stayed with his uncle while his father sent money although never visited. His mother became a housekeeper for a local church which provided them a house to live. In a nation where parent’s often do not take their children seriously enough, our boy’s father was able to send enough money back home to allow him to finish primary school, but not attend secondary because of the price increases between the levels.

Since he was unable to go to school and too young for a job, he started to come to the street with other boys his age. It was hard for him to get access to food or clothing and his parents were unable to help much. His father was laid off from his job and spent more time looking for piecemeal work than actually working and his mother was supporting his younger sister. So he stayed on the street for a few months until another street youth invited him to visit CRO where they can are provided some food and places for washing themselves and their clothes. He spent nine months in the program, coming every day and helping with the chores during the day, and returning to the street at night. One day the CRO headmistress offered the boy a place at the small halfway house they run. He spent three months there then headed home to see his mom and sister.

Due to his good behavior and responsible nature, CRO offered to pay his school fees and he was able to start secondary school. Another organization, Uganda Children Center offered to also help with the fees. Things were going well for two terms. He was in a boarding school. He had a place to stay, was fed regularly, and was doing well in his studies. And then his mother fell sick.

He was forced to leave school to take care of his mother. Eventually she ended up in a hospital for a week but unfortunately passed away. The church found a new housekeeper which forced the boy and his sister out into the streets. Him and his sister went back to the NGO that was taking care of him, but due to the finicky nature of NGO funding, his spot was given another youth and he had no relatives to help him, so he went back to CRO.

He was able to convince CRO to take his sister into an orphanage in a nearby village instead of himself and find funds for her schooling instead of his. This happened approximately six months go. He still goes to CRO every day because he likes the people and the program, and just recently CRO was able to find a sponsor in America to send him back to secondary school. This sponsor also wants to help him go through vocational school. Our boy wants to be a caterer, cooking and serving food at all sorts of fancy parties and get togethers. In a nation with a hundred thousand college graduates trying to fill ten thousand spots a year, learning a trade often has a more immediate payoff. And with a younger sister to care for, an immediate payoff is what he needs.

The Biz

While talking to a couple of Ugandan police officers the topic of forced prostitution came up. They were happy to explain some of the finer details of the sex trade and the problems that they have to combat it.

What normally happens is that a couple of girls, normally late teens, early twenties who are already established in the business will identify a young girl in one of the villages. They look for girls with bad home lives and doing poorly in school. Girls like Jennifer. They promise the girls that they have jobs for them in hotels and restaurants where they can make their own money and be independent. If the younger girls accept the offer, they are taken to the islands on Lake Victoria. To the older girls’ credit, the new young girls do get jobs as housekeepers and cooks. But only by day. By night they’re forced into prostitution. One of the small blessings according to the police is that the percentage of clients who are foreign tourists is microscopic. Or maybe that’s not a blessing, but in the rare case they’re able to make an arrest, the police find it easier to prosecute locals compared to foreigners.

After about a month of service, the girls are normally cast out. This is one of the most difficult issues to handle. The vast majority of the girls are ashamed of what they did and afraid to go home. And since these girls come from poor homes and have little schooling, they normally have few options available to them.  How should they be resettled?  If they’re sent straight back to their village there’s a small chance they may be cast out.  But if they are not put someone with a proper support network what’s to stop them from falling into the same trap?  It is not an easy situation.

The Ugandan police force is often maligned. They can be corrupt, inefficient, and overly violent handling suspects. But in this case, with the ones working on an open sex trafficking case, they are committed to doing what they can to fight this business. Maybe it’s because it’s a small outpost and they don’t get big cases like this often. Maybe it’s because it’s a small outpost in a small village and they are proud and feel responsible for the safety of their friends and neighbors. Or maybe it’s because they truly believe that underage prostitution is a serious issue in Uganda. Whatever the reason is, they’re doing their all on this particular case. Unfortunately a refrain you’ll hear from any police office here is ‘There is simply a lack of resources.’ It’s of course possible that they’ll tell the mzungu (foreigner) this because they want a pay off, but in a case as complex as this one there’s a good chance they’re telling the truth. Boat fuel to get to the islands where some girls are thought to be held is not free. A couple of bills can make witnesses less reluctant to talk. And the sad truth is that these trafficking gangs will bribe cops to leave them alone. And some cops will take bribes to leave the trafficking gangs along. But luckily for Uganda there are still plenty of officers out there who are not in this for the money. A good cop is something to be grateful for and respected, so if you’re in Uganda don’t assume all of the police are crooks. The bad ones get the press, the good ones just do their jobs.

The Kindness of Strangers

It often seems like the world is a cold and heartless place. Unfortunately this can be true in far too many cases. Occasionally you’ll come across a story that proves there are still good people left if you just search hard enough.

The story starts with a young girl growing up in an orphanage. Her parents were both deceased and it was her and her little sister. Our girl grew up and went to school and did well enough to get into university. The orphanage paid for her school fees, but not for university. She worked as a waitress to pay for her schooling, but eventually got tired of having money to go for a term then not, then go again. So she dropped out to focus on work full time.

During this time, she grew up a bit more and is now in her early twenties. She’s been working at the same restaurant for half a decade and is being paid decent enough money to send her littler sister to university. Her little sister is on track to graduate within two years. If the story ended her it would be good enough, but it doesn’t.

One day after work she was on a boda (motorcycle taxis in Uganda) when it wrecked and she was sent to the hospital. Not having enough money for the hospital bills, an older friend of hers loaned her enough to cover the bills. This friend was a single father, the mother of his child unfortunately passed away during child birth. He had a son of seven years old, a real bright kid.

Months after our girl gets out of the hospital, her friend is arrested by the police. It turns out he didn’t actually have the money to loan her, he was involved in a shady deal or two to raise the funds for her medical bills. He refused to tell her because he wanted her to focus on getting better and back to work. In prison the worst happened. He was beaten to death by a gang over some small slight, leaving his son an orphan.

Not willing to let this man’s son become another forgotten youth, our girl took him into her life eight months ago. The man allowed her to receive the treatment she needed, in effect saving her life so she had to return the favor somehow. Spending months with a lawyer and filling out forms and stacks of paperwork, she finally officially adopted the son. She knows she can’t truly repay the man for the sacrifice he made for her, but she’s doing what she can.

Now she lives in a small rented room, her and the boy. She works close to ten hours a day, scrimping and saving her coins. She supports herself, the boy, and her sister at university. While other girls (for she is still only a young girl) her age are out buying nice clothes and make up to go out partying, she is managing the balancing act of being a young mother and all the learning that implies, being one of the most important fixtures at the restaurant she works at, keeping a tolerable social life, and planning for her future. Belonging to a local church full of ex-pat NGO and missionary workers has helped her immensely since they will often take the boy on trips she can’t afford or for weekends to give her time to act her age with her friends. It’s both sad and inspiring what she puts herself through without any personal gain or recognition.

Ssezibwa Falls

Surprise, surprise, another day trip out of Jinja. This will be the last one since I’m leaving Jinja in a few hours to head to Mbale. Since I’m leaving Jinja it also means I might have trouble accessing the internet.  I have a handful of posts queued up to be publish so you’ll get a chance to read something for a while.  Anyway on to the trip.

We decided to visit because it was fairly close, only about an hour and fifteen minutes away by taxi, but it is a little closer to Kampala than Jinja. You’ll find Ssezibwa falls in Kayanja right on the Kampala – Jinja highway. When we went up there, after about an hour and a half I got nervous and asked the driver where Kayanja was. The driver said that it was further along the road, but a passenger next to us said we passed it. Since I trust passengers more than matatu drivers or conductors, I demanded that they stop so we could head back. We caught another taxi going the other way and it stopped in Kayanja for us. The original matatu would have taken us all the way to Kampala even after we specifically said we were going to Kayanja. Moral of the story, get a window seat and look for signs because your driver might not stop for you.

When we arrived in Kayanja we asked a boda driver where the falls were and he pointed down the road although he tried hard to sell his services to us. There is a small dirt road heading down a hill that intersects perpendicular to the main road, but no sign pointing towards the falls. That’s the road you need to take. We headed down the road and caught up with some Slovak tourists who were working in Kenya and visiting Uganda. They didn’t have much good to say about Kenya so maybe I’ll end up skipping it. There are two signs on the road pointing the way to Ssezibwa Falls resort. Like we learned in Mabira Forest, always follow the signs for the resorts and hotels. The walk took about two hours and luckily for us the sun was not so merciless. All in all the walk wasn’t bad.

Eventually at the end of the road is a gate with a guard. There is a 5000 UGX entrance fee which was not unreasonable considering how nice the area is. The first thing you notice is the waterfall which is about fifteen meters high. It’s no Niagra or Victoria Falls, but still pretty amazing. The falls are part of Ssezibwa River that flows between Lake Victoria and Lake Kyoga. Around the falls are a couple of places to relax and some trails to follow. The trails are not that long and there unfortunately there is no swimming allowed in the pond at the base of the falls. It is a nice place and definitely worth visiting, but it is more of a place to relax than anything else. You can climb up the hill and over a bridge that looks over the falls from the top however. That is one of the highlights of the whole area. There are also a few small caves in the area to explore, but no hardcore spelunking. The Ssezibwa Falls Resort is said to have some activities such as guided tours and canoeing, but we didn’t take part in any of the that due to the cost.

The legend of Ssezibwa Falls goes back to a woman named Nakangu Tebatesa who was a wife to Nsubuga Ssebwato was expecting twins. Instead she gave birth to a branching and it is said that the spirits of the unborn children still inhabit the area. As such it is a spiritual place for many local Ugandans. I didn’t see anyone praying or making sacrifices to the river so I can’t vouch for what goes on, but maybe you’ll get lucky and see what I missed.

Since Ssezibwa Falls is so easily accessible from Kampala and Jinja, if you skip it when visiting Uganda you’re missing out. It may not be the greatest attraction in the country, it probably isn’t even the greatest waterfall (Murchison Falls should take that honor, when I make it up there we’ll see), but it is so cheap and easy to visit if you take public transportation that you need to go.

Mabira Forest Preserve

The first thing you notice when you pull into Najjembe is a swarm of blue vested men and women surrounding every matatu trying to sell drinks and snacks ranging from grilled bananas to the ubiquitous meat on a stick. As we twisted and contorted our way out of the minibus and onto the dusty road, we had bowls and sticks and bottles thrust into our face. I bought myself a large, grilled chicken breast and wing on a stick for about eighty cents because on one hand I felt a bit bad for these people who all sell the same things and whose job is to chase travelers when they stop for a few minutes and on the other I didn’t have breakfast and I needed a bit of fuel for the hike we had planned.

A break in the tree canopy.

This was our second attempt to reach Mabira. In our quest to avoid over done touristy resort spots we didn’t take the proper turn off the first trip and instead walked about five hours through the villages in the area after we realized our mistake and didn’t feel like doubling back. Now the plan was to follow the signs for ‘The Rainforest Lodge.’ There was one right in Najjembe where the matatus pick up and drop off passengers and another large one up the road pointing directly to the resort. Knowing this we intended to at least visit the lodge and ask them where to go.

Happily tramping up the hill munching on my delicious grilled chicken, we passed for the second time the school where dozens of students ignored their classes to stare at the mzungus through the windows. Up the hill in the blazing sun until we reached blessed shade where the forest proper began. Soon we hooked a left onto another with a large sign for the lodge urging us on. A bit more travel in some sort of fairy tale like setting; nice wide road, green trees and vegetation on all sides, butterflies flitting around left and right, and enough bird noises to make John Audobon proud then the immersion was temporarily spoiled by a gate with a guard who had a visitor book for us to sign in.

Up to the lodge we went. We stopped at the reception desk to ask for some information about the hiking we were looking for. The woman working the desk informed us that the trails were not marked and there were no guides available. We thanked her for her time, left to explore the rest of the resort compound, and immediately went to work on proving her wrong. We didn’t come a second time just to get shot down by some bogus reason as poor trails. We followed the paths down past the cabins where guests stay, and right past the sign pointing to the swimming pool and on our left was a little footpath leading away from the resort.

Figuring we’d either strike gold with a proper trail or have it peter off in a couple of meters leaving us no choice but to turn around (we’re persistent, not stupid) we ducked onto the path to see where it lead. Unsurprisingly it turned out to be a very nice trail. The trails in Mabira near the Rainforest Lodge are well defined and maintained and even though the receptionist claimed they weren’t marked, there were blue ribbons tied to many trees, especially where the trail changed directions to prevent tourists from wandering off into the sea of green never to be seen again. After a couple hours of hiking we came to the conclusion that all the trails lead somewhere, either back to a different part of the resort or to the road leading down to Najjembe. So getting lost was not a major concern allowing us to truly enjoy the jungle.

Make no mistake, Mabira is the jungle. We visited primarily to see some monkeys and were not dissapointed. For most of the time we were there we could hear evidence of them, rustling of trees and general hooting, but it was a couple of hours before we could properly spot a pair. They are quick dashing through the canopy overhead along the branches, blink and you miss them. Wildlife photographers just got a whole lot more respect in my mind. Not only is the window for viewing so short, there are trees and all sorts of others plants between you and the subject that just make it difficult to see anything. So more power to them for making it work.

Again, make no mistake, Mabira is the jungle. If we found out the fun way with the monkeys, we found out the hard way with ants that climbed into our shoes and up our pants and starting biting us. Those little buggers can sting. And they don’t stop either. They keep gnawing at the same spot until you tear them off physically. I had one of them going to town on my inner thigh. I couldn’t roll up my pants high enough to reach it and couldn’t grab it through the pant fabric. So I did what any rational human being would do, dropped trou in the middle of the Ugandan jungle to teach the bastard some manners. I decided I need to buy a pair of boots from one of the second hand shops here. I like my normal running shoes for every day use, but I plan on spending more time visiting jungle parks and preserves. With a pair of boots I’ll be able to blouse my pants
like a paratrooper from Easy Company to keep bugs from crawling up my legs. It’s that or use bug repellent, but that’s cheating in my opinion.

Mabira is easy to get to. Leaving from Jinja the matatu ride was less than two dollars and only took about thirty minutes if heading towards Kampala. Let the conductor know that
you want off at Najjembe and the driver will stop for you. Follow the signs up to the Rainforest Lodge and check out the trails. So easy to access that it makes a really convenient day hike out of Jinja, we left Jinja around 10:30 and returned in time for dinner. If you want to make a proper trip out of it, there are two lodging options, the Rainforest Lodge which is pricy to the tune of almost two hundred dollars a night and the Little Kingston Campsite is aimed at budget travellers.

Eating in Jinja

There are two ways to describe Jinja. The first is as the ‘spring break of Uganda.’ The other can be considered as a ‘tale of two cities.’ First and foremost, Jinja is the second largest city in Uganda after Kampala. A good amount of people live here. But Jinja is also a very touristy and NGO oriented town. Westerners come and stay in droves, especially during the summer. This has led to an interesting balance. One sector of town on Main Street is dedicated to foreigners. It’s full of art shops selling African souvenirs to bring home and tour companies. But for our purpose we’re going to focus on food. You can always tell where you are by the food you eat.

Bacon and egg sandwich from Flavours

First is a restaurant called Flavours. It is a nice cafe and bar catering to foreigners and rich Ugandans right off of Main Street. It does movie nights on Wednesday, has plenty of comfortable seating (even a couple of couches in the back to get close with a special someone), serves good western food, offers free wifi and even has a website. There’s a crowd there just about every evening having a couple of beers or even a cocktail and some dinner. The prices aren’t even that bad if you’re a tourist. The bacon and egg sandwich with proper bacon and wheat bread only clocks in about three dollars. But you’ll never see a Ugandan school teacher or market stall owner eating there.

Rice, fish and chapat from Auntie Night

Second is a place with no name. Literally it has no name. It’s a wooden and corrugated metal shack in the middle of a local market. The only way to find it is to visit the market and happen to come across this one fixture as opposed to all the other ones selling lunch at the same time. The woman working there, Auntie Night is wonderful. Since I was the first and maybe only foreigner to eat there, she calls me Mr. Patrick and remembers my order. Every time I order there it’s the same, a big plate of rice, hunk of fish in soup, and a chapat (flat-breadesque side). It’s so much food that I barely need to eat breakfast and never dinner when I wolf it all down. A quality, simple meal for a dollar and a quarter. Every day school children and various other Ugandans take their lunch break there.

There’s actually a third type of food that doesn’t fit into the tourist scene or the local scene in Jinja, Indian food. Uganda is home to many Indians who own businesses and shops here. The majority of the large companies are Indian owned, and Jinja has a large contingent from the subcontinent. By far the best is a place named Moti Mahal. I would say it’s the best food in Jinja. Expensive (again for Uganda, not western prices), but the best food in Jinja. The atmosphere is great, really quiet with candles on the tables, all that jazz. A proper meal, curry with unlimited rice and nan and a variety of side sauces and a drink will run about ten dollars. When you visit read the menu thoroughly because this deal with unlimited rice and nan is only found on the very last page and the first time I ate there with some friends we didn’t see it and our bill ended being twice what it would have been if we asked for the meal deal.

No matter where you end up going and on what budget, the service is always top-notch. At Moti Mahal they’ll make your food exactly how you order it. At the prices they charge they almost have to be willing to tweak the recipe to please your taste buds. At Flavours I was upset once because one of the servers asked me to leave after I had bummed off their wifi long enough only ordering the cheapest tea on the menu. I told a friend who told the manager who sat down with me to apologize and make things right. I wasn’t going to get the server in trouble so I didn’t give up any details, but the discussion was nice. And one time I took some friends to see Auntie Night for lunch. The fish was a little smaller than normal, but that’s to be expected when you eat fish caught literally three hours ago. She felt bad that the fish was small and gave us a discount on our meal for it. We would have paid full price no matter what but since I had been there enough she wanted to do right by us.

Eat around, sample all the food available. I try to save the tourist and nicer restaurants for special occasions or when I need an emotional recharge. Eating at them costs much more than the local food, but my main concern is doing it too often will make it lose its charm.

Kalagala Falls

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Man washing at the base of Kalagala Falls

With the construction of the Owens Fall Dam (also known as Nalubaale) in the mid 1950’s and the Bujugali Dam finished in late 2011, Rippon Falls, Owens Falls, and Bujugali Falls have all been submerged in order to provide steady hydroelectric power for Uganda. These were all world class rapids that are now completely underwater. Luckily there still is one place available for top notch white water viewing and rafting. Approximately forty minutes north of Jinja by matatu is Kangulumira, a mere three kilometers from Kalagala falls.

Kalagala is another one of the easy day trips to make out of Jinja. Simply visit the bus park, ask for the Kangulumira minibus, and hop off at the bus stage where the driver stops for you. There is a sign for a whitewater company pointing down the road through town. Hike down the road for about an hour or hire a boda and you’ll be right there. Alternatively you can take a fancy ride with one of the adventure companies in Jinja if you have more money than sense.

One of the best parts of Kalagala is the price. It’s free. Upon first arrival in the area there is a big rock you can climb on to view the falls. More of a big rapid than a proper waterfall, Kalagala Falls is probably only seven or so meters tall at the highest point. But it is still an intense place to see all the water rushing past. You can climb right down to the edge of the water and very close to the falls with the available paths, but be warned the hill can often be slippery and the rocks near the water are always slick. If you lose your balance and fall into the raging whitewater you’re in for a world of hurt.

Aside from the falls proper there are a couple of nice rapids to view but the hidden gem is a small swimming area quite off the beaten path. Kalagala doesn’t get many visitors anyway so you’re almost guaranteed some privacy. To find this area you follow the road you walked in on until you see a big gate for the whitewater company whose sign you saw in Kangulumira. Then promptly turn back around and less than twenty meters from the gate as you walk back there will be a small trail cut into the vegetation on your right. It is a little difficult to notice the first time but when you find it and walk down you’ll emerge with a view of some rocks and rapids directly in front of you and a placid looking Nile to the left. On the left you can climb into the water if you’re so inclined although be warned, the water current is much stronger than it looks. Stick close to the rocks and the shore line to avoid the strongest bits and have something to grab in case you lose it. If you try swimming against the current you’ll understand how powerful the river actually is. It looks like it’s doing nothing, but I tried to swim against the current and literally could not move forward. Swimming further out from the edges could be disastrous.

Kalagala is very much worth the day trip from Jinja. Pack a small lunch and water. Even though it is a bit of a new tourist spot with the whitewater companies running their launches from the area, there are no shops near the falls to get anything and it can be a long, hot, sunny walk from Kangulumira. You’ve been warned twice but a third time won’t hurt. The current is strong and the rapids are dangerous. Think of how comfortable you are in the water and then play around at half that level to stay safe. Since the Bujugali dam was built so recently, the tourism development around Kalagala is non-existent so don’t make any plans to stay overnight in the area. For less than five dollars round trip just take a minibus up in the morning and return in the afternoon. One last time, don’t do anything stupid in the water. You might see locals swimming through the rapids, that doesn’t mean you’re able to. They’ve been doing it their entire lives.