In mid-November of 2014, Chris approached me and asked whether or not I would be interested in traveling to Uganda and taking some photos for the humanitarian church group he had been going with for the better part of a year. I knew about his previous trips but I have never been anywhere near anything that could remotely be considered a developing country, so this was undoubtedly new territory for me. I considered it for a few months and as the dates to book tickets approached, I decided that the experience was one I didn’t want to miss. Uganda is a difficult thing to put into words, but I will try my best here over the next few posts.
I grew up in an upper middle-class suburb of Orange County, California and went to an expensive private college. I was always aware of my affluence and the excessive nature of the culture I grew up in, and I had always thought that “poverty” was driving through the dingy part of Santa Ana on the way to the mall, where all the houses had peeling paint, sunburnt lawns on small plots, and enormous antenna arrays affixed to the tops of the houses just to receive basic cable. Going to school at Chapman University in Orange, I became aware of how nice my childhood neighborhood was; I never even considered the possibility of danger while walking around in the small hours of the night growing up in Yorba Linda, but at my junior through senior year apartment I tended not to venture too far into the small odds and ends of the neighborhoods past the train tracks while in college, as that was the unofficial “line of demarcation” for where college towns ended and “gang territory”, began, as the university public safety officers called it.
When I disembarked from the plane in Uganda, the first thing that hit me was the humidity and the heat, even at 10:30 at night. In between walking down the gangplank at the airport to boarding the bus in the carpark, I had sweated through my shirt and pants. I bought my plane ticket and packed my bags well aware of the fact that I was entering a third-world country, but no amount of research or googling can really prepare a well-to-do Westerner, who never went a night without a meal and a comfortable bed, for the sensory overload of driving through Kampala at night. Entering the outskirts of the city you begin to pass small, mud huts with tin roofs and structures that barely qualify to fit the definition of “structure”; as you get into the inner city, the structures don’t increase in quality but rather in density. People drive on the wrong side of the road on motorcycles and pass with inches to spare on either side (you think I’m exaggerating right now and you’re wrong. Seriously, inches. At 30mph+). Uganda is plagued with serious overpopulation, and as such there are hundreds upon hundreds of people who appear to just be aimlessly wandering the streets.
The plane from Amsterdam, our first layover, that takes us into Africa (first Rwanda and then to Entebbe in Uganda).
Arriving in Entebbe and being greeted by the first Ugandans. My jet lag at this point probably put me in a bit of a frosty mood, but I warmed up after getting some sleep.
Waiting for layovers in Amsterdam.
Arriving at our hotel for the night, Chris informs me that this is what would be considered “five-star accomodations” in Kampala, and is basically like a mansion to the villagers that we were going to be staying with for the next two and a half weeks.
Still, there’s a learning curve, even in this the most rapturous of accomodations Uganda has to offer. The taps work and you can take a shower, but you have to avoid splashing the water in your eyes and mouth. You have to rinse your toothbrush with the hotel-provided bottle of water; the tap water isn’t potable, and probably contains coliform, typhoid, and E. Coli. The shower itself is a small tiled-off area in the bathroom to catch the water, leaks about fifty percent of the water out of the faucet knobs, and has no curtain or door. The fluorescent blue lights have no lamp shades or coverings of any kind (and why would they…?). The toilet paper is basically cardboard, but it’s miles ahead of the latrines we’ll be using for the next three weeks. My bed has a huge mosquito net draped over it and Chris strongly advises me to use it. The only furniture is a small IKEA-esque desk/table that has a tiny tube TV with two antennae jutting out from the top (it doesn’t work), a Bible, and a note warning of the presence of guard dogs on the premises from midnight to 6am. There is no Wi-Fi, no air conditioning. Not that these things should be expected; affluence and luxury is, to put it bluntly, not a luxury that can be afforded yet in Uganda. It’s just not feasible given the widespread poverty the country experiences. We pamper ourselves in the US with creature comforts and things we really don’t need at all but have the disposable income to pay for. For the most part, it seems that Uganda is primarily concerned with surviving.
And really, all things considered it’s actually quite a nice room. Mattresses are absurdly firm which suits my preference anyways.
The bathroom and shower, from which you are advised not to drink any water due to contaminants and bacteria.
I take a quick shower, set the mosquito net over the four corners of the bed, and crawl onto it, not bothering to get under the covers because of the heat that persists even past midnight. The plan in the morning is to get breakfast, shower and dress, and make a few quick stops before heading into the village (about 5 hours of driving to get there).
Still travel-weary and jet-lagged the next morning, I forget about the rules of the tap water here while rinsing my toothbrush and end up have to soak the bristles in hand sanitizer. Our group converges in the hallways after showering and dressing and we head down to breakfast, which is instant coffee or tea, a hard boiled egg, two pieces of bread, and a banana. Bottled water costs 2000 Ugandan shillings (about 68 cents).
It’s a roughly five-hour drive from Kampala to Kyakitanga (pronounced “Chiachitanga”) on roads that gradually change from tolerable to questionable, and eventually to routes that challenge the definition of the word “road” for anything that doesn’t have four-wheel drive. Maybe I’m being overly dramatic about that part since nobody else seemed to be too worried, but I was definitely mentally checking where my shoes were in my checked bag so I could get ready to get out and push. We stopped by a small roadside market to get fruit and vegetables for the first week of meals (where it started absolutely torrentially pouring rain) and made it into the village just as the sun was setting.
The “coaster” as it was called with all of our stuff in it on the way to Kyakitanga.
One of the better roads on the way into the village.
Driving through Kampala. This was one of the more civilized parts of it; driving through the inner city itself is basically like driving in a pinball machine.
I want to mention here that it sounds like I’m trying to paint Uganda as a hellacious pit in the heart of Africa; It’s not. Its indescribably beautiful and equatorial landscape is probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen, the people are kind and unbelievably giving despite the fact that they have less to give than more miserly people in the US, and with one or two exceptions (which I’ll detail later), I never felt unsafe or threatened despite the fact that I was completely out of my element. I’m approaching this entire thing as, like I said, a well-to-do Westerner who’s never experienced a developing country before, and trying to give my thoughts on the stark differences between a first world country and a third world country that is primarily focused on survival instead of comfort. I hope this whole article is taken with that grain of salt.