Robin’s return to Rwanda in early August brought a sad end to my teaching duties. In addition, I had cataloged every paper-clip and pipe-cleaner donated to the Rwanda School Project and the absence of library books left me restless and itching for adventure. So Maria and I decided to take a trip to Rwanda’s northern neighbor to check on an ailing friend, visit Maria’s sister, Jenny, and travel to the source of the mighty Nile River.
On Friday, August 3rd, we packed our bags and caught a bus to Kigali. After purchasing tickets for the 7:30 am bus to Kampala, we took motorcycle taxis to the home of our host for the evening—a cousin of Pastor John’s. Her four children had all been raised in Canada, but had returned to Rwanda last year to spend time in their native country. Although they knew and loved Maria, the children grew shy at the arrival of a stranger in their home. Determined to break the ice, I pulled out my camcorder which was wrapped in a kitenge and announced a game of 20 Questions to see what was inside. They began timidly, but soon shed their inhibitions.
Is it blue? “NO!” Is it hard? “YES!” Can you eat it? “NO!”
It took about 30 questions, but no one was counting. At the winning guess, I revealed the camera and began taking footage of the giddy little actors cart-wheeling and somersaulting all over the house, pausing to play back the clips to the tangle of eager bodies. It’s a fail-safe tactic and by the time we settled down to watch a sing-along movie for the three youngest, I had children crawling all over me.
At dinner, I was introduced to another Rwandan staple food which I soon came to love—ugali. It’s a sticky mound made from slowly stirring cassava flour into boiling water. You pull pieces off with your hands, roll it in flavorful sauce, and pop it into your mouth. After dinner, Maria and I headed to bed because we had to be up early for the bus. As I settled down to read my book, I permitted one of the small boys to play with my hair because he assured me that he was an experienced braider. After fifteen minutes of strange tugging, I put my hand up to feel his handiwork and discovered that he had tied most of my hair into tight knots. I winced in pain as Maria ripped them out with a comb, but I had to laugh at my gullibility that a boy of six years could braid hair. We shared a bedroom with the three eldest children, and soon discovered their secret habit of staying up all night. Maria and I spent a sleepless night grunting and turning from their attempts to wake us by shining flashlights in our eyes. In the morning, we groggily caught a taxi to the bus station and climbed aboard for the 12-hour ride to Kampala.
I’d been warned that these long-haul bus rides were dangerous, but I felt conditioned after five weeks of crazy mini-bus drivers. The trip was decent enough to the Rwandan border, but once across, the driver took off like a bat out of hell. Maria and I gripped the seat backs as we steamed through towns and skidded around bends. The driver laid on the horn incessantly and children and goats scattered before us. A woman seated in front of me opened her window and vomited outside. She hadn’t bothered to check if our window was also open (thank goodness it wasn’t) and as the throw-up streaked horizontally across the glass, I concluded that she had never been instructed of the laws of physics—another reason why a good education is critical for everyone. We slowed only once…to observe the chaos surrounding an overturned cattle truck. Farmers were slaughtering the cows too injured to walk, and I turned away as they began to slit their bellowing throats.
From the fast-forwarded screen of my window, Rwanda’s rolling hills gave way to gentle ripples of land. The Ugandan county side displayed a brilliant spectrum of green flora—from the dark patches of bean plants to the light neon of tea plantations. Mud and stick houses dotted the land and an abundance of small children teetered around, always barefoot and sometimes naked. At fuel stops, Uganda’s teaming entrepreneurial spirit showed itself as young boys and girls rushed to the bus windows holding up goat meat kabobs—skewered on strong reeds, baskets of roasted bananas and corn, and folded hot chapatti (like fluffy flour crepes). I abandoned my traveler’s instinct and bought us two cobs of maize and two steaming bananas for the equivalent of five cents.
An hour from Kampala, Maria and I stepped off the bus in a town called Nsangi. It didn’t look like much, but this was where Jenny (Maria’s sister) attended boarding school, and we trudged down the dirt road with our packs to the school gate. In addition to seeing Jenny, our plan was to save money by convincing the head master to let us spend the night. While Maria lobbied the administration on our behalf, Jenny offered me a tour of the school grounds. After observing and working in some decrepit public schools in Africa, this private school was a breath of fresh air. The grounds were clean and pleasantly landscaped, the classrooms roomy and decently-equipped, and there was even an outdoor swimming pool and a soccer pitch with grass! Maria returned with our permission to stay, and we washed up and headed over to the cafeteria for dinner. A rumor had spread that there was a new muzungo student, and all 500 sets of eyes were on me as we passed through the serving line of rice, ugali, and beans. As curious boys and girls came up to greet us, we played along with the rumor for a while before confessing that we were just weekend visitors.
After dinner, a projector was brought out for a movie and we pulled our plastic chairs up to watch. The chosen film was a horror flick about an American college spring break gone wrong. Seated in the center of a cluster of girls—I sucked on a Blow Pop someone had handed me and mused over my situation. I once watched Schindler’s List with two German friends. I knew that they probably had no more sympathy for the Nazi regime than I did myself, but still it was an agonizing experience for me. What were they thinking? What were they thinking I was thinking? The incident helped me realize that nothing can be fully understood in isolation—just as a word, a symbol, or even a blog can take on different meanings for different people. Enjoying an American horror flick isn’t exactly like rocking a confederate flag or a swastika, but I found that something that I could view with careless abandon in the States with my friends suddenly demanded a heightened awareness. What were they wearing? What cars were they driving? Why the over-exuberance for the “f” word? How did the African students watching this feel? Minus the gore and killing, I felt I was watching a version of my own social life in America through the eyes of an African teenager, and the new perspective distressed me a little.
Following the movie, we headed off to the dormitory. Jenny’s dorm was a giant concrete room with 38 sets of bunk beds and consequently, zero privacy. Maria and I shared Jenny’s twin-sized top bunk, and some of the girls were afraid of the dark, so the electric light directly above us remained lit all night. I had my fifth consecutive asthma attack and needless to say, Maria and I didn’t get much sleep.
The next morning, we hugged Jenny and other new friends goodbye and caught a crowded taxi to Kampala. The city both excited and disgusted me. It was enormous with a zillion smells, sounds, shops, and people milling about, but the streets were filthy. Heaps of trash, veritable streams of sewage, and clouds of exhaust fumes made navigating the city on foot a complicated dance of leaps, side-steps, and nose-plugged rushes. We decided to continue east to the town of Jinja at the source of the Nile, so we fought through a sea of honking taxis and insistent drivers at the park till we found one headed in our direction.
In Jinja, we found a guest house based on messy notes I had jotted down from the travel guide of a Korean tourist I had schmoozed on the bus from Kigali. Maria and I had made no reservations or even concrete plans for our travels in Uganda, and were pretty much making decisions by whim. [This, by the way, is not the best idea in Africa, but we are young, penniless, and easily amused.] After heaving our packs onto the bed and checking under it and in the closets for hiding mass murderers, we set out to explore Jinja on foot. It was a spirit-soaring day with just enough breeze to temper the heat of the African sun and an exciting tease of grey clouds on the horizon like the rains might come right when you were least prepared. From our hill-top hotel, the Nile glittered like a melting icicle in the green valley beyond the city limits. It was impossible to tell how far away it really was, but I suggested we walk to the banks and touch its hallowed waters. Dear Maria was game, as always.
Jinja was a bustling little town where just about everyone seemed to have something to sell. Some of the buildings looked recent, but most were shells from the colonial days—crumbling yet picturesque. It reminded me a bit of the Portuguese influence I observed in Mozambique, although Uganda was formerly a British colony. There was an obvious Indian presence in the town reflected in the wafting curry smells and the ethnicity of many of the merchants. Maria and I walked down the streets, shaking our heads at the hissing motorcycle drivers (hissing isn’t rude here but is a means of getting one’s attention) and the begging children who had spotted a possible benefactor in the paleness of my arm. Gradually, quant shops fell away to hollow factories and we found ourselves in the industrial outskirts of the town. We were walking through what seemed to be a junkyard of cars, still following the straight road that promised to take us to the banks of the Nile. All around us were men—elbow-deep in greasy engines like male mid-wives delivering baby machinery. One by one, they picked their heads up and stared at us—cat-calling and making kissing sounds as we passed. Like peacocks unwillingly on display, our bright clothing accentuated us against the black and brown and gray of the stock yard, and a quick visual assessment revealed that what I thought was a vast field of green grass on the banks of the Nile was actually a green swamp we would have to wade through to get to the river. Maria and I held a conference through clenched teeth, and then turned confidently into a side street like we’d seen what we came to see and quickened our pace until we could no longer feel the stares boring into our skin.
We found a motorcycle driver who agreed to take us to the source of the Nile for 2,000 shillings, or roughly a dollar, and we both climbed on the back his bike for the six kilometer ride. The source was breath-taking. In the distance, the waters of Lake Victoria glimmered calmly before surging into the mouth of the Nile to begin the 4,000 mile ascent to the Mediterranean Sea—a journey that takes three months to complete. We hired a motor boat to take us out to the seam where the still lake waters swirl into motion like a great tub being drained. Of the seven passengers on the boat, Maria and I were the only ones given life jackets, and as I later observed—the only ones charged money. I passed around a bag of potato chips and gave an impromptu lecture on the importance of love to a young Ugandan who asked me to help him get a muzungo wife. Some traditional dancers were performing on the bank when we docked, and Maria and I left the Nile to the pounding of cow-skin drums.
It was a pleasant evening, so we walked back to Jinja instead of hailing a motorcycle. Along the way, we heard extremely loud music so we followed the sound until we came across the album release concert of a popular Ugandan singer. There were hundreds of people lining up to buy tickets and at my beseeching , Maria agreed to join the queue with me. I was the only muzungo there among a crowd of a couple thousand and we rocked out for a couple of songs before leaving to beat the setting sun. We ate a dinner of vegetable curry and naan at a posh-looking Indian restaurant in town and then fell asleep at the guest house watching a Nigerian detective movie.
The next day’s journey took us to the roaring Nile waterfalls. Instead of deserting Maria and spending ninety dollars to go rafting down the chute, I opted to sip a Nile Special on the banks of the beer’s name-sake and watch the locals tempt death by body surfing down the class-six rapids on empty, yellow jerricans—their bodies like black polka-dots in the frothy white swells. The raft of muzungos I surely would have been on passed in a blur of yellow rubber and I silently thanked my stars for my dwindling money supply and Maria’s unshakable common sense. The next day, we were shocked to read in the Kampala paper that an 11-year-old girl from Ethiopia had been killed rafting that same stretch of river.
After leaving the falls, we caught various modes of transportation to reach the secondary school of a friend about an hour away. She had been suffering from a double bout of malaria and typhoid and our main purpose of the trip to Uganda was to check on her and take her back home to Rwanda with us, if need be. Maria and I sat in the stuffy waiting room of the principal’s office for about an hour before being admitted to speak with him. It took less than ten seconds to peg him as a scummy guy, and we listened in disbelief as he asked us for $150 in “extra school fees” but failed to come up with sensible reasons for the additional expenses. It was the middle of the exam week, but we managed to get permission for our friend to leave three days later. On the taxi bus back to Kampala that evening, we met two Ugandan journalists who struck up a lively conversation about democratic presidential candidates in the U.S. and our mutual admiration of the actor, Denzel Washington. They explained why they thought the recent Last King of Scotland movie did an unfair portrayal of Idi Amin and what exactly was going on with the sporadic fighting over Sudanese oil in the north of Uganda.
The next day we explored Uganda on foot—purposefully avoiding the richer, cleaner part of downtown in favor of the crowded mayhem of the city center. I bought a couple bootlegged CDs of popular African songs, savored my first ice cream in weeks, and visited the home of a former school-mate of Maria’s. The next day, we boarded the crowded bus back to Rwanda feeling a little wiser and quite weary.