I left Stourbridge Junction station on Monday morning, it was still dark but I was full of bright expectations. Not to say a tad apprehensive; this was a four month trip to rural Uganda organised between myself and KIHEFO, the organisation with which I am volunteering. So there was a lot that could go wrong.
And sure enough, things did start to go wrong. After waiting on the aeroplane at Heathrow for seven hours, the flight was cancelled. I spent that night in a hotel near Heathrow. As anyone who has had a flight cancelled at that stage will know, exiting the airport is a thoroughly bizarre experience. You have already checked in your luggage and passed through passport control, so you need to do all of that in return as though you were returning to the UK. You have your passport checked and collect your luggage from the carousel. You come out at the arrivals section, which is full of people holding up cards with names of the people they are meeting.
We were taken to a nearby hotel where I made straight for the bar. By now a cheery camaraderie had emerged between the passengers so we shared stories about where we were going and for how long. One man was returning home to Dubai after spending Christmas in the US; another couple were going on their annual holiday to Malaysia; others were visiting London for business. Rather than putting us in a bad mood, our collective irritation gave us something in common through which we could bond.
I probably ended up spending too much time in the bar that night and I was in a daze when the coach picked us up at 5am the next morning. I finally left Heathrow at 8pm on a flight bound to Doha, Qatar from where I would fly to Entebbe in Uganda.
I spent two hours milling in Doha and it was unremarkable, apart from watching the sun rise over the Arab desert behind rows of aeroplane tails. I’m sure it was a fantastic sight, but I didn’t have the energy to appreciate it. I might have made greater effort if it were featured in a brochure. My main memory of Doha is that in preparation for the 2016 World Cup, the Qatari government is building an entirely new airport next to the current one. It rather puts our decade-long debate over a third runway at Heathrow into perspective.
From Qatar, I fly to Uganda. My expectations of Entebbe were low, but they were far surpassed. The aeroplane flies into Entebbe over Lake Victoria, with small villages dotted along its banks. As the aeroplane descends you can see almost into the fishermen’s eyes.
So what was my first impression of Uganda? It wasn’t the hot African sun or the self-important guard on the border control. All of the officials were helpful, and it was frankly fairly overcast. Neither was it the whipping dust blowing in my face. My first impression was relief. Standing in the middle of a crowd of people at the arrivals barrier was Martin from KIHEFO, carrying a little card with my name on it. We smiled broadly at each other, shook hands and I remember the phrase “I’m very glad to meet you,” jumping unconsciously from my mouth.
After joking about the delay, we were in his car heading towards Uganda’s capital: Kampala. Like most visitors to Uganda, I travelled through Entebbe without stopping to look around. Although chiefly used for its airport, Entebbe is a fairly attractive town. It was the administrative centre during colonial times and it retains that style of architecture. It is also home to a few government buildings, most significantly the President’s official residence.
But in reality, the difference between Entebbe and Kampala is slight. Kampala’s centre is about an hour away but its suburbs have gradually merged with Entebbe. The road between the two is an unbroken string of shops and stalls selling everything from fresh meat to gravestones. As with much of sub-Saharan Africa, every spare space is used for advertising. Martin’s car jostles for space with taxis, vans, mopeds and the occasional UN vehicle. To the side of us, a pair of fishermen nip past on mopeds, their bikes are stacked high with fish freshly caught from Lake Victoria, though the tail of one is dragging along the pavement.
Kampala is chaos. It is the evening rush hour and the roads are clogged to a virtual standstill. Bikes and pedestrians weave between the traffic and on the road side; a conspicuous white man was mobbed by traders clutching bundles of cheap trinkets. “Ugandans are the most entrepreneurial people in Africa,” Martin said to me with a broad smile.
I spent the night in Kampala in a basic, though passable, hotel. I asked for lemonade and received a bottle of water with a plate of limes. I avoided the fish and stuck with the local stew. I always prefer to eat local food in new countries, not out of cultural curiosity so much as a survival technique. It’s their food, so they know how to cook it and it’s probably cheaper if nothing has been imported. Besides, there’s nothing more tragic than the look on a Western tourist’s face when he realises that, after an hour of toiling, an African chef’s interpretation of pizza is radically different from his own.
I was so tired that night that neither the African heat nor Kampala’s all night discos were able to keep me awake. It was a good job; I was up at 5am to catch the post bus to Kabale. The post bus carries mail from Kampala to Uganda’s various districts and for a mere 25,000 Ugandan shillings (around US$10) you can ride along. Before leaving, the passengers and driver pray for a safe journey, I found this novel though not very reassuring. But I suppose you can pray and drive safely, they’re not mutually exclusive.
I am accompanied by Ronald, with whom I will be working closely over the next few months. He talks enthusiastically about using social media and YouTube videos raise KIHEFO’s profile. He is also building up a Youth Media Centre to help give young Ugandans valuable skills, such as using word processing software.
It takes the post bus eight hours to travel the 400 km from Kampala to Kabale. The scenery quickly becomes more rural as the city gives way to the countryside, for hundreds of miles the view alternated between town, plantation and swamp. These in turn give way to vast, green domed mountains, many with distinctive terraces cut into their slopes for farming. My mind briefly wandered to the hard life of those who must till this land.
I wish I could summarise this long journey well. I was dozing in and out of sleep, and every time I woke up I was startled by the beauty of the views. Endless green land is framed by tall mountains, which fall into deep valleys. We saw zebras grazing on the roadside, brightly coloured, crested storks and countless Ugandans going about their business.
We arrived in Kabale at 4pm in the afternoon and I was introduced to the key people. Dr Geoffrey leads the organisation and has big ideas for the future. I also meet Craig, a volunteer from the US who is sharing my apartment.
I’m going straight in at the deep end. Tomorrow morning we are going to a nearby village for my first camp. These are temporary health camps set up by KIHEFO to treat people from rural communities, who might otherwise never see a doctor. We are expecting thousands of people to come and, amongst other things, my job will be to collect as many people’s accounts and testimonies as possible. I have packed my video camera and I expect it will be well used.