Open Door Project Uganda came into being following an amazing family trip to Uganda in 2007, for the wedding of our friends, Christian and Marie. Lately I have been reminiscing about our trip, and thought I’d share how we spent our Fourth of July…
On July 4, 2007, our second day in Uganda, Christian, Marie and Christian’s family took a large group of wedding guests on a day trip to Christian’s mother’s ancestral home in a village near Jinja, Uganda. Christian’s family had arranged for two small buses to carry some 50 guests on what was expected to be the one-hour drive to the farm. We were asked to meet in front of our hotel early to board the buses for the journey. Women were asked to wear long skirts in respect of local custom.
When we gathered at the buses that morning, a fine drizzle was falling, which would soon become a steady rain. After passing through Kampala’s outskirts, we were soon in the countryside. Large fields of tea and sugar cane stretched over the rolling green hills; sometimes we passed through small towns.
Christian’s sister Charlotte acted as tour guide on our bus, and told us about a recent controversy about the sugar plantations. We would soon pass through the Mabira forest, and rumor had it that Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, had given part of the forest to the owner of a large sugar plantation, a man who happened to be a Ugandan of East Indian descent. Environmentalists and other Ugandans objected to the loss of the forest, and a protest demonstration three months earlier had inflamed century-old ethnic tensions, leading to rioting in which three people were killed.
Indians first came to Uganda as laborers on the railroads in the mid- to late-1800s. Many Indians settled in Uganda and raised their families there, often becoming successful business owners. But some Ugandans believed the Indians were unfairly profiting off of them. In 1973, Uganda’s president Idi Amin ordered all “Asians” out of the country. Unfortunately for thousands of Indian-Ugandan and other Asian-Ugandan families who had lived in Uganda for generations, they were forced to leave their country. Only 15 years later, after Amin was deposed, were Asians once again allowed to live in Uganda. Many had found new lives elsewhere (mostly Great Britain), but some did return, and have been rebuilding their lives in their home country. Still, at times ethnic tensions become apparent, as they did over the struggle for the Mabira forest. Ultimately, Museveni backed out of the land deal, and an alternate plot of land for the sugar plantation was being sought.
Charlotte told us that soon we would stop for breakfast. It was nearing mid-day when the buses pulled off the road at a crossroads, and were immediately surrounded by vendors selling food to the passing motorists. Choices included roasted sweet bananas, chicken or liver on a stick, and Coca Cola. Despite the many warnings about eating “street food,” we were hungry, this was breakfast, it smelled great, and Charlotte was suggesting it (though she advised against the liver)! Most of us ordered chicken, bananas and Coke in glass bottles. We had to memorize the vendor number of the Coke salesman so that when we passed by this town on our way back that afternoon, we could return the bottle to the right person!
By this time we had been on the road for awhile, and Ashley (who was a friend of Christian and Marie from St. John’s College in Santa Fe) and I desperately needed a bathroom. We asked Charlotte what we should do, and she spoke in Luganda to one of the vendors, then told us to follow him. It had been raining for some time, and the red clay soil had become a deep, slick mud. Ashley and I struggled to follow the man up a slope between the vendor stalls, slipping and sliding – with all the onlookers howling with laughter at the sight. I was sure that one of us would end up sprawled in the mud, really giving them something to laugh about, but somehow we stayed on our feet, giggling like crazy along with our audience. In the photo you can see the path we took up the hill between the building and the tin-roofed sheds. Way up the hill in the back, next to a garbage heap with grazing goats and chickens, we were led to a pit latrine, which served our purpose! Our guide brought a Jerry can of water to pour over our hands when we were done, and we slid our way back down to the bus in the mud – still laughing! We really provided some entertainment for all the vendors that day.
By the way, in the foreground of the photo you can see matooke – the green savory bananas that are the main staple of the Ugandan diet. Behind them are the huge jackfruit. You can also see tomatoes and cucumbers, and a table full of pineapple (the best we’ve ever tasted!) on the right.
Soon we came to huge mud puddles in the road. Cars were having trouble navigating the deep water and mud, but eventually we made it through.
We continued on to the town of Jinja, where we crossed the Nile River, very close to its source at Lake Victoria. The buses turned off the main road there, onto some small mud roads leading to Bujagali Falls. Soon we discovered that the mud on those roads was very deep and slippery! Twice our bus slid off the road, and we all had to get out and push to help get it back onto the road.
Slipping and sliding ourselves, we all ended up covered in mud. Many of the long-skirted women had worn nice sandals or dress shoes – which had to either be removed or be sacrificed to the mud! But finally we made it to Bujagali Falls – or at least close enough that we could all walk the last ¼ mile or so.
The power of the falls and the Nile were impressive. We were stunned to see young men holding empty jerry cans as life preservers as they entered the river above the falls and rode the falls all the way through the turbulent stretch of river. It seems they would then ask onlookers for money for their daring (but we were not approached). This year ground was broken on a controversial new dam project which is expected to bring electricity to millions of Ugandans – and death to Bujagali Falls.
Then it was back to the buses, and on to Christian’s family farm. Once again the buses were parked, and we all walked for about twenty minutes on a path through a strung-out village.
We began to draw a lot of attention, especially from the local kids. “Bazungu! Bazungu!” (“white people!”) they would scream with delight. The young babies, however, were not pleased to see us. I was afraid we traumatized one small child who, held by a sibling, screamed in terror the entire time we were in sight.
We were honored to be able to spend some time on the family farm, see photos of Christian’s deceased mother, Monica, and other late relatives, and pay our respects at the family graveyard by placing stones on the graves.
There was a long slope through farm fields, down to the water pump at the bottom. Young girls carried jerry cans to the pump and filled them, then boosted them to their heads for the trip back up the long hill to their homes. Several made multiple trips during the time we spent in the village, passing us easily while carrying water cans that were probably ¼ their own body weight!
Some of our group helped pump water. Rose had chosen flip-flops that day, which simply didn’t work in the slick mud. She, along with several others, had to go barefoot for the day, despite the risk of parasites from the mud.
I had brought a Polaroid camera, and gave some of the children photos of themselves and their friends. This was a huge hit, as it would prove to be all through our trip, with children and adults alike.
This woman posed proudly for this photo, and then I took one of her with the Polaroid. She was clearly skeptical at first, when a plain white paper came out of the camera. But she was astounded and thrilled when her picture began to appear on the paper, and she began shrieking and giggling with delight. When she understood that I was giving her the photo to keep, she was visibly moved, and began excitedly showing it to everyone nearby.
As we walked back through the village, we noticed that our son Tristan had found some new friends. Later, Tristan’s favorite hat found a new owner…Tristan would return to Seattle two weeks later with a nearly empty suitcase, having given away almost all of his clothing.
Eventually we made our way back to the bus, where we had to say goodbye to a few dozen new friends. We drove to the RainForest Lodge in the Mabira National Forest Reserve for a very late lunch, which was served in a lovely outdoor dining area, as monkeys did acrobatics in the trees around us.
By the time we returned to Kampala it was dark, and because there is so little electricity in the outlying areas, the scene of so many people gathered around thousands of small paraffin lamps was surreal.
It was an amazing day — our first real glimpse of the beauty and poverty of rural Uganda, and the warmth of its inhabitants. It was on this day that I took some of the photos which have ended up being the symbols of Open Door Project Uganda (please see our web site at www.odpu.org). So much of that day has stayed with us — including the red Uganda mud which remains on our shoes even today!