After surviving my first public transportation ordeal with Robert to get to Fort Portal, I signed on to a couple of private full-day tours of the area. Very reasonably priced for a guide all to myself.
While hiking through the hills and banana fields in the “crater lakes” area near Fort Portal, my guide, Cletus, explained to me about the banana fields, which feel more like banana forests. In this area the locals grow very miniature bananas, different than the kind one eats. They use them to make a liquor with. After picking them while still green, the locals ripen them by steaming them over a smoldering fire covered in banana leaves. Then they mash them and add sorghum to ferment into the final product. I believe I tasted this or something very similar at the SAB brewery in South Africa, where they let us experience the traditional liquor; it smelled quite wretched but was surprisingly palatable … if one were terribly desperate. So my guide took me inside the house of someone who happened to be in his yard and was brewing this liquor. There were several drums of this stuff fermenting inside a mud hut, and it smelled exactly like the stuff in SAB. It was a purple chunky brew, bubbling away in some scavenged metal drums, which were uncovered -- to let the swarming flies add a little protein, I guess. The smell was very strong. My guide said that when a man comes to bring the bride price for a bride in this region, he must include along with livestock and other gifts, several large jerricans full of this liquor. It’s consumed in many traditional celebrations. Another day when I had a different guide, I asked him if he ever drank that liquor. He said yes, but it’s very strong, so he doesn’t drink much. “Do you like the flavor?” I asked. He shook his head and laughed. “No!”
Robert told me about some of the customs of his tribe, and a baby naming ceremony involves the simple act of dropping 3 drops of this liquor into the baby’s mouth then proclaim the name. Then all the villagers gathered around to drink themselves a party. A right of passage into manhood is also quite simple: a boy must carry a huge clay pot of the liquor to his father, who is seated some distance away from the “starting point,” and give him a drink, then carry the pot back. If you drop it then you are basically ridiculed, perhaps you will have another opportunity in the future.
A couple other random cultural components of his tribe: If a women gets pregnant out of wedlock, their custom is that this child is given to the grandparents to raise. My friend was raised according to this prescribed custom by an assortment of family members. His parents, who were married after he was conceived, were allowed to bring him up in infancy until the age of 5, but then he was given to his grandparents to raise, then circumstances gave him to an aunt and uncle for a few years, then he came back to his grandparents. A bit of a jumbled childhood. The prescription for two people being caught in the act of incest is for the villagers to lock them inside a thatched hut, pile grass all around it, light it on fire, then stand outside with canes to give the a beating when they finally run outside to escape the flames -- out of the fire and into the frying pan.
But anyway ... these banana forests lie in a region called the Crater Lakes, outside of Fort Portal. A series of lakes have filled in volcanic craters (hence the reasonable name of the region). The first photo below is the lake depicted on the 20 schilling note in Uganda. You can recognize the tall tree on the lower right on the bill. It's a very scenic area.
While Cletus and I were walking through the fields in a valley, where they were growing Irish potatoes and peanuts and onions, we came across a small flock of gray crowned cranes! I couldn't believe it, this amazing bird just hangs out in the village fields. I had presumed they existed only in national parks now. But here they were free as a ... well, a bird.
Look closely at the boat above, if you didn't notice what an ingenious little bodge-job it is. A wooden box on the metal canisters to make a pontoon boat. People around here are perpetually inventive with their limited resources.
My day with Cletus through the crater lakes and banana fields also included a hike to a nice waterfall. It was a lovely day, all in all, though (a) I was a bit ill to my stomach, and (b) while Cletus was a nice guy, he asked me every few minutes if I was OK ... "how are you?" "are you good?" "are you OK?" ... and by the end of the day I just couldn't answer him anymore. He wasn't asking this on account of my illness because I didn't tell him I was sick; he was just asking to ask. Amusing, but eventually tiresome. But a minor point in an otherwise awesome day.
Uganda Wildlife Education Center - Entebbe, Uganda.
So what all goes on at the UWEC? Here's a little tour around some of the activities.
Collecting grass from around the UWEC grounds to feed to some of the hoofed animals in various enclosures. Cutting up tons of fruits and veges for the critters and then delivering. Food and grass are put in the back of the tractor to make the rounds to the giraffes and ostriches who also share their space with eland and cow. First the giraffes emerge from the forest to follow the tractor. Then the ostriches come running in. The cow tries to nibble off the back of the tractor as we drive in. The giraffe is so gentle I can put beans in my mouth and he'll just pull them right out with his. Closest thing to kissing a giraffe.
This is me showing my impressive strength (ha) in hoisting up a bundle of grass with a pulley. Other critters to visit in the morning include the water buck. A young one currently in residence. Also the rhino. (this photos shows him just after we've let him back into his night enclosure as dusk).
If we've run out of fish to feed birds, we can throw a net into the moat around the chimp island and catch some. Once we caught a fish and when he looked in its mouth, the mouth was completely full of teensy-weensy baby fish. I'd never seen anything like that. We threw the mom back in the water. A variety of life lives in those waters, including the monitor lizard.
After the animals are fed, it's time to feed me. There is where I sit at the shore of Lake Victoria, my view as I eat, and the kitty who sits in my lap while I wait for food and then of course begs for food while I eat. He is being adopted by the other American volunteer; she completed shots and paperwork to take him home with her when she returns. After eating, I am all big and strong and read to slice and dice yet more food. ha ha. And also strong enough to shoo away the vervets that constantly try to steal my breakfast off my plate.
On the late shift, at about 6pm, the chimps are brought inside and fed some more porridge. As well, the big cats get a serving of raw meet and are put in their night enclosures.
Above, that's me laughing at the willpower I'm exerting not to step back and be intimidated by the lion, feeding her an appetizer as a distraction while the others are being let into their nighttime enclosures where they will eat their dinners. Each sleeps in a separate cage.
Shara eats dinner and goes to bed. Right now she has run out of time on the internet and must leave. So I end my day here.
Budongo National Forest, Uganda.
As with all animals one typically only spies at a zoo, it’s a different and more rewarding experience to find them in the wild in their natural habitat, the only real human impact on their behavior being their acquired indifference to us (such as one finds at any Big 5 game park in Africa). So despite working with chimpanzees everyday at the UWEC, it was a rewarding experience to track them in the Budongo reserve. Simply walking through the forest in Budongo is pleasant enough with its lush rainforest ecosystem, in which, it seems to me, thrive perhaps the most layers of various forms of life on the planet. That is to say, given say a square meter of forest floor, extended up to include the space above the floor, is the highest number of different species of plant and animal compared to the same space in another ecosystem. There is something quite marvelous about rain forests.
It didn’t take long for our guide to spot our first chimp high up in the trees. He pointed it out and it was easy enough to spot the dark mass. He told us it was a female with a small baby. I was slightly astounded at his perception, as I truly could discern only the dark lump. But after staring through the camera zoom lens for a few moments, sure enough, out popped a tiny head over the mom’s shoulder. Too tiny to capture in a photo, yet I was quite happy to have simply perceived it. I took a few photos of the dark lump in the trees, not knowing whether or not it would be the best view I would have of the chimps. For all I knew, this was going to be the look of my photo shoot with wild chimpanzees:
After standing quietly for a short while, I watched the tiny head disappear. Again, I wondered if that would be my moment of glory, that tiny head in a sky full of leaves. But soon enough, a little body leaped from the mother and wobbled down a tree branch. Soon, a precious little face peered down at us through the forest canopy.
Now my brief moment of glory was infinitely sweeter. Soon, our guide was spotting chimpanzee after chimpanzee, and we moved around a small area on the forest floor to spy above us what eventually counted as, I believe, 4 adult females and 7 infants and toddlers. My neck’s ability to remain tilted backward was severely tested as was the strength of my arm perpetually holding up my camera to look through the lens, finger on the button, ready to snap a shot anytime a face or body came into reasonable view. I know, I have a very small camera and lens; still, after an hour of this, it does become a bit of a trial.
We were able to watch the toddlers romp around through the tree branches, high above our heads, already exhibiting complete competency in balance and swinging skills as they chased one another down one tree limb, flew across open space to a neighboring tree’s limb, and continued pursuit across its woody arms.
Hard to describe the full impact on my emotions, on my personal view of where I came from in this ancient world, so I will leave the experience simply at this: Lovely.
Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda.
So this discussion has pretty much no relation to the animals we encountered on our game drive in Murchison Falls NP. But it’s what we talked about and I thought you might find it interesting, as I did. As far as the animals we encountered, most at very close range, the thrill hasn’t remotely left me after my experiences in South Africa. And a great triumph occurred, which is that I saw two leopards in a tree together. This was the one iconic animal I had very much wished to see in South Africa and did not. I felt very happy over this. They were quite far away and usually visible only in patches owing to the leaves of the tree branches on which they were residing. So my photos are hardly worth publishing here. Still, I was overjoyed to have seen them. Here is a brief recounting of some of the scenery and animals we met on our drive.
Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda.
Some scenes from the road to Murchison Falls. Taken out the window of a moving vehicle, so you know, nothing spectacular. But they give you an idea of the scenery outside the city. I love the bandas (the thatched mud huts) and the cows with the spectacular horns, women in vibrant colors walking the roadsides with loads balanced on their heads (you know how jealous I am ...), children running. I just fall into a trance when traveling through this type of country.
We had to drive through Kampala to begin the journey, which was, as had been advertised to me, something else. I had been told that traffic at rush hour could delay you by up to 2 hours. Driving out of Entebbe toward Kampala I was finding this hard to believe, as there just were not that many cars on the road. However, it's indeed the case and here's why: the major arteries of the city are mostly just 2 lane road. Well, one lane each way for cars, and one for the motorcycles, whose lane-splitting it even more hair-raising than in Athens, not because of the speed but because of the crammed conditions and vehicles doing all kinds of unpredictable and nonsensical things.
As it happened, Isaac, who drove us on our safari, used to be a cab driver in Kampala, so we took the excessively scenic route through the city. (I mean that as a euphemism for circuitous.) But this was very interesting, of course. Most of this area we covered was basically the land of lost dreams. People come to the city, sometimes selling their land or possessions to get to Kampala, expecting posh office jobs, or at least a paying job. But the unemployment rate is sky high and most of them end up jobless and destitute. I asked several of my friends here, including Isaac, why don't those people just move back to country when they can't make it in Kampala. I got the same answer from everyone: the people who come and fail in their dreams cannot face going back home, can't bury pride, as their village will laugh at them and ridicule them for their failure. They would rather stay in the city in hunger and squalor than go back home.
Anyway ... while I am always fascinated with depressing scenes and scenarios (lovely trait, I know), I certainly prefer the countryside where even if people are poor, the conditions are not the squalor of the side streets of Kampala. There seems to me a quiet dignity to rural life, even if impoverished, that cannot be replicated in a crowded city such as Kampala. So here are some random shots I snapped through the window.
While Isaac drove us around on our weekend safari to Murchison Falls National Park, along the way, I learned some things about Uganda and about his life, reflecting on the general situation of many lives.
A couple factoids. Population of Uganda is 34 million; population of Kampala city is 4 million. Literacy rate for current young people is roughly 40/45 percent, lop-sided toward boys having higher rate than girls. Primary school is free for grades K-7. After that, schools are fewer and farther between, and most kids must board which costs money. So it’s largely kids from wealthy families who get an education and poor kids drop out after grade 7 (or earlier), thus perpetuating a stratification of wealthy educated and poor uneducated. There are few student loans or assistance unless you get good grades … government assistance isn’t related to your financial need, only to the caliber of your performance.
Isaac, a very highly educated person in Uganda, succeeded academically while also working for the entirety of his life. I suppose perhaps his ethic of hard work could be indicative of his academic success. “Do you know what my first job was?” he asked (after having described jobs in his adult life). At the age of seven, he began working with his mom running a liquor still and making gin and selling it (mostly to entities like restaurants, etc.). It was perfectly legal for a child to be running a gin operation, yet I still find this an amusing job for a kid. Then when he was in the oldest grades in his secondary class, he began teaching the younger classes and continued (still continues upon request) teaching on and off to make extra money, including while he was attending university for his own studies.
He was a cab driver in Kampala, I think I mentioned, and still sometimes can come in on a weekend or some day when he doesn’t have anything else to do and make a little extra money since he has the cab license. Then he was offered a job at Ngamba Island, the dedicated chimp sanctuary first launched by the UWEC which was overloaded with rescued chimps, starting in a very low position of manual work despite his university education, and working up, promotion by promotion, until eventually he was offered a desk job at UWEC. Now he is one of the directors at UWEC. Yet, despite his posh office job (and side job of guiding safaris for foreigners), when he sees something needing to be done around the UWEC and nobody is doing it, he has no qualms about doing it himself. If a guest banda hasn’t been cleaned, he may pick up a wash rag and scrub the floor (I would like to say, the floors of my flat have been kept flawlessly clean), or somebody else in lower position has failed or lagged in their duty, he may perform it temporarily if he has the time to make sure it gets done. Do you know any company director in America, dressed in his fine business clothes, who would grab a broom and rag and clean the floors and showers? “I think it’s because of my upbringing, starting poor and considering any work/job worthy of performing, that I’ve been successful,” he says.
I asked a question of Robert once that was poorly received and I felt bad for asking it. He made mention of the maids cleaning my flat maybe reading things they saw in it. I asked, “Do you think the maids are literate?” I asked knowing the low literacy rate, especially for women, and making the egregiously ignorant theory that the maid position was perhaps for the less educated. He told me, that probably anybody working inside the UWEC had some education. Because there are so few jobs available in Entebbe, and in the whole of Uganda, even the most menial job is likely to be filled by someone with an education rather than someone without. Many employees are just like Isaac, starting at the lowest position, grateful for a money-generating job, with the intent and ability to work their way up.
I learned more about the education/job system from several people working at UWEC. If you score well in secondary school, you will be offered a position at university but you don’t get to choose the field you will study for. You put down your top 5 requested fields, all fields being assigned a minimum grade score, and if you don’t score high enough for your first request, your second is considered; if your score still does not match for the second, your third is considered, etc., down the line. Two of the zookeepers I work with at UWEC had wanted to go into medicine but didn’t have high enough scores, and were offered an education in a field lower on their list, being wildlife management. Having completed this degree, if they want, they could now pay to go back to college and get the education they first desired, but both of them have decided they enjoy working at UWEC, and if they pursue further education, will continue in the wildlife field. Robert is the person I work with the most, and he obviously is smitten with the chimps and has a genuine interest in and affection for them. The other day, he was working in the mammal section of the zoo and missed the introduction of a new enrichment item to the chimps. I showed him some photos from the event, and he said, “I should have been there for this big event in their lives,” as if he’d missed his child’s first steps.
Isaac owns a mixed-breed cow at home that produces good quality and copious milk for his three daughters. It cost about 1.5 million shillings. A motorcycle for a boda driver (motorcycle taxi) also costs about 1.5 million. A regular cow costs more like 6 or 700,000. But I think it’s interesting a high grade cow costs the same as a motorcycle. (exchange rate, if you wonder, is about 2500 schillings to 1 USD)
We talked more with Isaac about bride prices, as I’m so fascinated with this subject. Apparently divorce rate is quite high despite this convention. Technically, if a couple gets divorced, the bride’s family should refund the bride price. If not, you can go to court or make whatever other arrangements family-to-family. If there are kids involved of course it’s more complicated. Bride price varies wildly depending on the tribe, family, etc. The bride and mother (primarily mom) set the price, but it’s negotiable. I asked Angela, another zookeeper at the chimp house, about bride prices. She is the only woman I’ve spoken with on the subject (they are few and far between as zookeepers at the UWEC). Angela phrases the bride price as “an appreciation of the bride’s parents for raising their daughter.” Sounds much nicer that way.
So that all doesn't have much to do with roadside scenes, but it's what we talked about while driving and I found it interesting, and I thought you might, too.