Around the world cyclist Charlie Walker discovers that there's something about Uganda that makes people go a little crazy
Ugandans speak excellent English, almost without exception. So when the policemen at the station that I asked to camp next to welcomed me, he brought a bucket of water, insisted I “sluice away” my “heavy grime”, and warned me of the baboons.
The screaming of these pests woke me from the tree branches over my tent and I rode onward in the cool morning, reaching Jinja just as the afternoon heat was peaking. I pitched up at busy campsite with a lawn overlooking the adolescent stretch of the White Nile shortly after it spills out of Lake Victoria. The waters idling downstream here are the same ones that I drank copiously and straight from the murky, silty river in Sudan to quench my thirst in the desert heat months ago.
The hostel was largely full of 20-something American missionaries. Uganda attracts large numbers of short-term messengers of Christ during university holidays back in the States. It’s a pleasant country to visit on holiday and if the collection plate is able to part-fund a trip then it would be hard to refuse. Uganda is a stable, beautiful and (sometimes-shockingly) conservatively Christian country. Last year’s Anti Homosexuality Bill (also known as the “Kill the Gays Bill”) narrowly avoided instituting the death penalty for homosexual acts but did however prescribe life imprisonment and included a clause in which Ugandans in same-sex relationships overseas should be extradited home for punishment.
The crowd of 50 or so mostly-Texan missionaries were almost universally female, overweight, sporting recently-braided hair and suffering from sunburned seams of scalp between their braids. Loud and apparently unaware of others, they filled the bar and some even performed hilariously laboured aerobics on the lawn to 1990s hits by the Spice Girls and the Venga Boys. I heard one (indeed, her volume was impossible to ignore) yell across the bar to her friend engaged in conversation with a stranger: “Hey Michelle! Are you flirtin’ or convertin’ over there?”
Needless to say, I stayed only one night.
The following morning saw me across the river, over rolling hills neatly contoured by tea plantations, through the virgin greenness of the Mabera forest and towards Kampala. I bought avocados and short manzano bananas (known locally as “little fingers”) from roadside villagers and sat with the vendors while eating my fruit salad. A matatu(minibus) narrowly missed me when it veered off the road to avoid an oncoming truck overtaking on a blind corner.
In Kampala I met my friend Archie who has worked there for a coffee exporter for the last two years. We enjoyed an indulgent few days catching up after three years, playing squash, eating well and drinking the odd beer. Kampala is a sprawl of development creeping over seven hills and has now more than picked itself up after suffering as merciless Amin’s luckless plaything in the 1970s. The Asian traders have returned, westerners have poured in, business is booming and modernity has arrived in spades.
Swampy, humid air slowed my departure from the city. The grotesque maribu stork – an ugly bird over a meter tall – haunted the rubbish tips on the outskirts and wheeled casually overhead with its three meter wingspan. The well-surfaced road led through a corridor of almost continuous habitation and I followed it, ignoring the omnipresent shouts of “mzungu, MZUNGU!” (white man) from village children.
Another police station served as a campsite before the route became hillier and a little less thickly populated. The surly chief eyed me suspiciously as I pitched my tent, probably influenced by the headline screamed across the front page of the paper he was reading: “MZUNGU TYCOON GRABS MP’S WIFE!” The all-night bender that he and his colleagues partook in seemed to wipe his memory and he shook my hand gravely, bleary-eyed and reeking of liquor, when I left at dawn.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.