Despite the sleep deprivation of the journey, I woke well before dawn. Our room overlooked one of Kampala’s busiest thoroughfares. Already the matatu minivans were hooting non-stop to attract passengers and their conductors were yelling out the destinations till they made themselves hoarse. To stop the driver when there is someone to be picked up, the conductor merely leans out of the van window and bangs on the roof. Similarly passengers bang on the bodywork to stop the driver when people have travelled for long enough to need a “short call” in some field or other.
The street and small square opposite look surprisingly clean. It seems most of the street vendors who used to sell trinkets and odds and ends while sitting on the sidewalks have been shoed away. Only newspapers can now be bought on the sidewalk. This first happened for the Commonwealth meeting and was supposed to be temporary. Not so, it seems. A huge hideous marabou stork was plodding across the tiny patch of lawn in the square, occasionally picking at the rubble. By 7 a.m. the sun was already brightly shining.
Up the hill were the posh hotels. In colonial times, the hilltops were “white”. My father lived on Kololo Hill for two and a half years in the 1960s. Now it is those who can afford over $200 for a night in a luxury hotel who live there. A change of elites only. Like the change to a new elite on the death of the Soviet Union. Only this one is more visible because colour is involved.
The breakfast room looks the other way, downhill to the chaos, jumble and colour of the market. The hotel sits on the dividing line between one world and another one. The Jinja Road on which it sits marks the division. Beyond the market, the new and old taxi and bus parks are a sea of red mud and litter. It seems there has been a lot of rain. Maybe that’s why the power is good – Owen Falls, built in colonial times near the source of the Nile – still supplies most of the electricity here.
Breakfast was the milk tea I had been longing for. Plus the usual white bread and Blue Bonnet (margarine). Funny British product brands are still prominent here – my favourite is Ribena, a welcome break after water and tea as the sole drinks. The fresh fruit on the breakfast table was welcome, the eggs so-so. After all I knew I would be eating the same omelette every day for at least two weeks.
Mary and I sallied forth to change money. There are now 2500 Uganda shillings to the US dollar. The shilling has depreciated quite a bit since my last visit but has recovered somewhat recently. After all Uganda now has oil near Lake Albert. Already the first reports of oil-related corruption can be found in The Monitor, the main non-pro-government newspaper. Inflation now stands at 30%. I imagine a lot of that can be accounted for by food and petrol prices.
Mary and I took turns lugging my 25-kg suitcase over the potholed sidewalk and four blocks uphill past a fundamentalist church blaring out exhortations even mid-morning to the office of the Elgon flyer. I just got on the bus before it left. In front was another mzungu (white person), a middle-aged man in an African style shirt. He asked what I was doing. “Oh community work,” he summed it up. He in turn was “spreading the Bible.” He did not address me again; maybe he caught my reaction from the expression on my face. However, he did engage in many an earnest conversation with neighbouring passengers. I cringed.
My first re-encounter with Ugandan currency was an embarrassment. The bank notes have new colours. After adamantly insisting I had given the office 50,000 shillings, I had to retract on being told by the conductor that I had given them 5,000. How I wish they’d just cut out three zeroes!
During the bus journey I recognized all the familiar landmarks. Everything was so green. The East Indian-owned sugar plantations coated the hills for miles around. The tea clad hills were even greener. Right after the sugar plantations comes a short stretch of tropical forest. I remember picnicking there as a teenager and running away, terrified, from a baboon.
The hydro dam at Owen Falls that I remembered from my teenage visit was swarming with birds as always. The reeds were white with egrets.
Once we passed Jinja, we were entertained by a travelling salesman, who stood in the aisle of the bus as we travelled, extolling the virtues of a series of remedies. First we had prayers and then he produced packets of large tablets of Paracetamol which, he assured us, were a proven cure for stress, tiredness and the like. He demonstrated by dropping a tablet into a passenger’s water bottle, producing a fizzy drink. The demonstration convinced a number of people, and coins and crumpled dirty 1,000 shilling bills were handed down the line of riders in exchange for packets of tablets. The lady beside me was one such customer. We got into conversation and she explained that she went to Kampala every month for cancer treatment at Mulago Hospital, the major hospital in the country. Mbale, our destination, is the third largest town in Uganda and yet they have to refer breast cancer patients to Mulago?! The Monitor reports an appalling shortage of doctors in Adjamani in the north. A hernia victim in pain was told to wait about six months.
Nobody was there to meet me at the bus park although Mary had phoned Sabia, the Bududa Peace Corps worker, in advance to let her know that I was on the 10 a.m. bus. After waiting half an hour, for three hundred shillings I got a SIM card seller to call Sabia for me. Volunteer Julie was apparently on her way. When I saw a mzungu stalk into the far end of the bus park, I mistook her for Barbara: same pale skin, same wide-brimmed sun hat. Julie is a hybrid British/Canadian/American woman with a landscape gardening business, who has been asked to produce a strategic plan to make the Bududa Learning Center sustainable.
We travelled back by matatu minivan to the Bududa trading centre, after which Julie and I squeezed onto a motorbike taxi (helmets have not got this far!) and the suitcase was strapped onto another one. Each ride cost 2000 shillings and the matatu cost us 4000 each. That’s a steep increase over the 2000 to 3000 I paid in February to travel from Bududa to Mabale by matatu.
A delicious smell of cooking welcomed us to the BLCguesthouse and Sabia flew out to meet me. We bonded instantly in February. I think Sabia must bond with everyone. She is a delightful Ethiopian-born, US-adopted 24-year-old Peace Corps worker, who ended up in Bududa after being evacuated from Niger following the murder of two Frenchmen. She both is and looks gorgeous, especially wrapped in her layers of Muslim finery.