Uganda – The Story So Far

We were due to leave the small East Kenyan tea growing town of Kericho at midnight. We’d managed to book two seats on a bus that would take us all the way to Kampala, just 10 hours away. The bus arrived at a sleepy two o’clock and we were sent down to the back of the bus to squeeze into the only two empty seats.

Earlier in the day, we’d seen the rolling hills of manicured tea stretching away into the distance. Tea pickers filled wicker baskets as they walked through the perfectly manicured waist high bushes. They live in compact white timber houses that make smart estates within the plantations. Some are treated well by their employers, with access to decent schools and healthcare within their compounds.

It was the small hours of the morning and tea couldn’t have been further from our minds. We were doing our best to sleep as the crazy bus was trying its best to keep us jumping high out of our seats. After one particularly ferocious bump, we came to a stop – at the Ugandan border. It was still dark and the police at each side processed our visa stamps very quickly. There were young money changers in long purple coats on both sides referring to us father, mother, brother and sister, and doing their best to talk us into exchanging money with them. We nicknamed them artful dodgers because of their long coats like in ‘Oliver Twist’ and tried to explain that they were not our siblings, children or parents. They were having none of it.

After dawn, we saw the variety of beautiful trees that make Uganda so green. At one stop, men held barbecued chicken on sticks, like succulent lollipops, up to windows of the bus. They knew that once the tantalizing aroma wafted into the passengers, they had a sale. We arrived into Kampala by mid morning and after spending hours waiting for Uganda customs to clear the bus, we were finally taken to the central bus station and set free.

Kampala is about the same size as Dublin. We are staying in a decent hotel in the heart of it. Once again, there are a handful of stunning glass towers in the centre and there are shopping malls that even Cork would be envious of. However, these expensive places are exclusively for the rich. Two tickets to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory set us back more than the price of our hotel room and the few seats that sold were mostly filled by young white people like us.

We prefer to be on the streets where the action is, where the Africa that we came to see is thriving and confident. At rush hour the streets are choked with matatus and private cars so we whiz around on boda bodas. These motorbike taxis weave through the standstill traffic and sometimes even mount the footpath on their tireless mission to bring their fare as quickly as possible to their destination. Every time we take one, I pray quite actively that we won’t lose a knee or get a knock to our unprotected heads. No bruises yet, just a dozen near misses and several small heart attacks.

We had to find clothes for rafting and gorilla tracking expeditions so we visited the enormous Owino Market. It’s amazing. We immediately got distracted by huge sacks of tea. Seven or eight bags that I could hide in were open and overflowing with tea from around Uganda. Each one was a noticeably different shade of speckled brown and black. “This one is best” the tea merchant assured us, pointing to a large brown sack. They know tea like we know potatoes. We continued through the labyrinthine market. Beans and peas were being sold whole and also ground into a tremendously nutritious and delicious gooey paste. As always, butcher shops are huddled together to sell unidentified cuts of animal, some we recognize as intestines and hoofs. There is a strong foul smell wafting from the grey water drain below our feet. We walk carefully over broken and missing tiles in terror of stepping into the putrid soup.

After we passed a hundred second hand bicycles, all looking old and sturdy, we saw our goal, heaps and heaps of second hand clothes from the West. Each seller had a square of ground covered in clothes of similar description. A woman had a huge pile of neatly stacked baby’s socks. We found men selling trousers and shorts. It was fabulous. They were polite and helpful as they helped us pick through brand names like gap and next, all at a fraction of what we would pay at home. We were thrilled to find the items we required, even if they’re second hand, and I’m sure many people here are too.

We also love to eat on the streets. Just outside our hotel, there is a corner with very little traffic and a wide pavement. A Muslim makes the most succulent goat I’ve ever tasted. He sits with his head peering into a white oven that could be gas or electricity, but is actually charcoal. Beside him there is a happy looking young man who comes with eight fish every evening and always sells out early. There are men who also barbecue chicken and meat kebabs, but we prefer the goat and fish, which are served with a few slices of cold kasava (like potato) and tomato.

If we’re still hungry, there are chapatti and omelette rolls which we love. Young men fry the flat dough chapattis all evening and cook eggs to order. They work on a very hot dipped pan which rests on a glowing charcoal box. We try to arrive while it’s still light but by the time we’ve eaten, night has fallen. After our cooks have collected our plates and poured hand washing water for us, we often have a large cup of black tea with ginger, mint and embarrassing amounts of sugar.

Men, women and children pass by all evening carrying food on their heads. And they can all do it without holding their cargo. A boy carries a stack of hard boiled eggs. He has salt and ketchup. A man walks with a large bucket of samosas, fried parcels of meat or vegetables. A lady has a wide steel dish of corn on the cob, still in their leaves. We always ask her for a warm one and, even without butter, they’re magic. Delicious popcorn is sold by the square of newspaper, piled as high as possible without spilling. We had got used to eating the same meal every day for weeks on end but in Uganda we are being spoiled for choice. We even tasted the fried grasshoppers scooped from large sacks at the entrance to Nakasuru Market. “They taste like chips” we were assured, and so they did.

– Written by Malachy Harty and published in The Imokilly People

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