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The Long Road for Ugandans to Explore Their Own Pearl

May 15, 2015

I grew up in a place called Go Down in Mutungo, one of the suburbs of Kampala, Uganda. At the time, it was a small neighborhood with very few people and fewer television sets. My parents, like many people, were not lucky enough to own one. In an act of ‘good parenting,’ my parents forbade me from going to the neighbors’ homes to watch TV. I always prayed that Daddy would buy us a television set so I could see all these places on TV.

One evening, I was out in the play field playing soccer with the neighborhood children when I saw Daddy return home from work carrying a box with a picture of a TV on the front. I immediately left the field and ran toward him. I had never been so happy to see my Daddy! It was a TV set! It was a black and red set; when Daddy tested it, it showed black-and-white pictures.

I didn’t even wait to be told to go take a bath — the ritual back then was that all children had to first take a shower before they could sit down to watch TV. From then on, I did all the house chores on time so I could be free to watch the telly when it came on.

I wish I could say I had unlimited time to watch TV, but, typical of many countries where the media renaissance had not yet started, we had only one government-owned and -controlled TV channel – Uganda Television (UTV) – that could only broadcast between 6 p.m. and midnight. So between UTV’s programming and my bedtime, I was able to watch only a couple of hours, marveling at lands that seemed so far away.
My only way to get to such places was through class field trips organized in primary school.

Unfortunately, my parents couldn’t afford to pay for such trips, so I would stay at home on those days, sulking, hoping that those who went didn’t enjoy the trip. But they would always come back with incredible stories of what they saw, and my heart would sink. The days following the missed class trips would be filled with envy and sadness, as the trip was all my classmates talked about!

I could not wait to grow up, get a job, and afford to go on these trips that got everyone so excited. I eventually managed to take my first high school trip with my geography class to see the Source of River Nile in Jinja, Uganda. We had studied that John Speke, a British explorer, “discovered” the source of the longest river in the world in 1858. I was anxious to see this river and its source. Luckily for me, that year’s school trip fees were part of the tuition, so we didn’t have to pay extra.

The night before the trip, insomnia kicked in. I was too excited! Needless to say, I was one of the first students to queue up for the bus so I could get a window seat. I remember the irritation I felt at everyone’s lack of urgency in the matter, but at long last we were off to Jinja to see the Source of the Nile. While everyone else was singing songs synonymous with school trips, my face was pressed against the window pane, watching the world go by, reading signposts, branded vehicles; afraid to blink lest I miss something.

We made a stop at a trading center called Namawojolo, famous for its roadside roasted chicken and plantain. You cannot go to Jinja and not stop by for these roadside bites, unless you’re allergic of course. Sometimes the pieces of chicken are bigger than those of an average chicken, leaving you wondering what exactly you just ate, but boy, is it delicious!

When we eventually arrived at our destination, I could understand why so many people travel thousands of miles to marvel at the Nile’s splendor! The white water falls, the waves and the cool temperatures were all to die for! We visited on a day that a number of people were rafting – the joy on their faces was memorable! While we went on with the class trip activities and posing for photographs, I couldn’t take their happy faces out of my mind. I want to feel that kind of happiness one day, I thought to myself.

As I got older, I realized that it was only people with a substantial disposable income who were enjoying traveling and, even then, opting to go abroad. The few people that decided to see Uganda were staying at the most exquisite and luxurious lodges in the country, making Ugandan travel seem like a very expensive hobby. It wasn’t until my birthday weekend last year that I realized that even us ‘regular’ folks could see the Pearl of Africa, albeit at basic but inexpensive accommodation, and still enjoy what the beautiful motherland has to offer.

From the questions I was asked, I learned that it’s not often that Ugandans get to see their own tourist attractions. I remember the shuttle driver’s surprise when I joined two Swedish young ladies visiting Uganda for the very first time for a drive to the lodge. During the journey, the driver couldn’t hide his incredulity at my desire to see the country. But then, even the Swedish girls confessed that they hadn’t seen much of their home country either, beautiful as it is.

Uganda’s true beauty is hundreds of kilometers out of Kampala. It’s always insightful listening to the tour guides tell tales about a place, its historical features and its native people. I always appreciate these, seeing as I didn’t pay much attention to them while in history class. Most lodging facilities have a lounge or common room where you can enjoy a cup of tea or coffee or beer while you enjoy stories from other travelers from around the world. While some leave you rich with information about the far lands, others leave you gawking. One time, a traveler nonchalantly shared a story of how his friend was killed by a crocodile while kayaking in the Democratic Republic of Congo! “And that’s why I am sticking to the River Nile; it doesn’t have crocodiles.”

Uganda doesn’t just boast of the Nile and river activities such as white water rafting, kayaking, boat cruises and quad biking; it has glorious mountains such as the Rwenzori (which I cannot wait to take on), chimpanzees to track, an assortment of wildlife and birds making safari drives, and bird watching must-dos, to mention but a few. You don’t even need to break a bank; just do your research, plan, and go discover Uganda.

Photo: Rod Waddington/FlickrCC

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