Tuesday, 26 July 2011

A Break from Work: Uganda

Tim, my niece Angela and I took a bus from Kivumu to Nyabugogo, the main bus station in Kigali. From there we caught the bus to Mbarara, Uganda. After getting dropped off we walked a couple hundred meters to a restaurant that had been recommended to us and after refreshing ourselves with some Kenyan Tusker beer we called our friend Mary Morin who runs the St. Francis Helper Centre. Mary started her career in Africa as a nun at some distant time in the past. Nobody will even admit to being born when she first came. Eventually Mary became a psychologist and later established the centre.
A couple hours later Father Ivica and the three Croatian seminary students (Ivica, Branko, and Gabrielle) who were there for the summer arrived. We had split up as the mission’s little Toyota only sat five and one of the Croatians still had not received his passport or Rwandan visa back from the immigration office. An half an hour or so later Mother Superior arrived.
Tim, Angela, and I were to stay the night with the Sisters of Poor Clare. The Poor Clares also known as the Order of Saint Clare or the Clarisse comprise several orders of nuns in the Catholic Church. The order was established by Saints Clare of Assisi and Francis of in the year 1212.
Ivica, the other Ivica, Gabrielle, and Branko were to stay with the White Fathers as Mary’s place was full, and there were only two spare rooms where we were staying. Ivica drove Mary’s Land Rover back to the side of town where they all were staying and I drove the Toyota to just outside of town the other direction.
Driving in Africa is confusing enough as most rules of the road don’t exist. It is doubly confusing in Ivica’s car. It is a right hand drive car in left hand drive Rwanda. That isn’t too hard to overcome, a bit awkward the first hour or so but that’s all. Uganda is a hand drive country and with Ivica’s right hand drive car that too was OK. Or at least it is OK when you are on a highway with other cars to remind you of which side is the “right” side of the road. In the dark and in a strange country however where it is challenge enough just to ascertain that you are indeed on the road and not instead driving through someone’s freshly plowed field. Add this to the fact that the nights here are very dark and pedestrians here blend in remarkably well with the dark surroundings. Some of the Rwandese instructors told me they imagined similar problems for them in they had to drive in Canada during a snowstorm. There are a lot of things going through your mind and the added stress of trying to remember which side of the road to swerve towards if you met some equally confused driver is a bit much.
We had a very early breakfast and a quick visit with the nuns before Ivica, the other Ivica, Branko and Gabrielle came in the Land Rover to pick us up. We headed to Mary’s place to pick up Chin, a volunteer computer teacher from Japan and at the last minute Helen from Heidelberg, Germany. Helen has been an AIDS and HIV awareness worker in Africa for the last 16 years couple decades and had just finished some workshops for Mary. As the Land Rover seats 5 and there were 9 of us, four had to sit in the back.

Queen Elizabeth national Park is in the southwest of Uganda and borders Rwanda and the Congo. It is about 2,000 square kilometres in size. The grasslands of the park is home to wildlife such as Cape buffalo, waterbucks, warthogs, lions, leopards, hyenas, bush pigs and elephants. The park also has something like 620 species of birds.
The park is named after Queen Elizabeth II (surprise!) and was established in 1954. Although many animals were killed around the time of Idi Amin and again later in the early 1980s during Uganda-Tanzania War, the animals have made a full recovery. 
The park is also known for its volcanic features of cones and deep craters, many with crater lakes such as Lake Katwe, from which salt is extracted. The area around Ishaha is famous for its tree-climbing lions although we were not able to find even one lion. Two years ago it took us 15 minutes to find the first lion and we saw about 10 more within an hour or two.
Conveniently, the equator runs through the park. I am not sure if it is a formal requirement of the Ugandan tourist visa to stop and take pictures of each other standing on the equator but just in case not one driver of any vehicle carrying tourists dared drive by. We were no exception.
Once again we took the boat trip along the Kazinga channel which extends from Lake George in the northeast to Lake Edward in the southwest. Along the 16 kilometer channel reside something like six thousand hippopotamuses and many more thousands of water buffalo, elephants, huge crocodiles and monitor lizards, and untold numbers of birds. The animals pay little attention to the boat which is just as well since hippos kill more people each year in Africa than any other animal.
We rented a couple of houses at a hostel in the park to accommodate our party. Someone, very kindly and prudently, put up signs informing us of “How to use water hitter”. You were advised to first turn on the water to the shower then plug in the “hitter”. After bathing you were to unplug the “hitter” and then turn off the water. Needless to say, “The above instructions mentioned should be followed with concern”. I for one am always a bit concerned when standing in a puddle of water with a running shower pouring down upon me and plugging and unplugging an electrical appliance whose receptacle located directly six inches above the showerhead. And this is especially so when the power supply is 220 volts at 20 amps.
For some unknown reason we did not have any power at all. We did have kerosene lanterns and kerosene. We did not have matches. We used battery powered flashlights, had cold showers but we stayed safe.
The following morning we left early to see lions. A flat tire and too short jack slowed us down a bit but eventually we made it to the part of the park bordering the Congo. This was a virtually sure bet as far as seeing lions go. Again I was reminded as to why I don’t bother with horse races as the sure bet never paid off and the lions stealthily avoid us. We did have a magnificent drive through some isolated jungle valleys and saw many baboons and other monkeys.
That night we headed back to the Poor Clares for the night. In the morning we went to Mary’s for a bit of a visit. Mary was quite keen on having Tim make a video for her project so I agreed to loan Tim to Mary for a couple days. Ivica also was happy to have Tim guide the three Croatian seminary students back to Rwanda by public transport. So leaving Tim behind Angela, Ivica, and I headed off to the volcanoes along the Congo-Uganda-Rwanda border.

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