I grew up in a place called Go Down in Mutungo, one of Kampala’s suburbs, Uganda. At the time, it was a small neighborhood; with very few people and even fewer television sets. My parents, like many people, were not lucky to own one. In an act of ‘good parenting,’ my parents forbade me from going to the neighbors’ homes to watch TV. I always prayed that one day we would get lucky and that Daddy would buy us a television set.
One evening, I was out in the play field playing soccer with the neighborhood children when I saw Daddy return home from work carrying box with a picture of a TV at the front. I capered towards him. I had never been so happy to see my Daddy! It was a TV set! It was a black and red set, when Daddy tested it, it showed black and white pictures.
I didn’t even wait to be told to go take a bath because as was the ritual back then, all children had to first take a shower before they would sit down to watch TV. From then on, I did all the house chores on time so I could be free to watch the telly when it came on.
I wish I could say I had unlimited time to watch TV, but, typical of many countries where media renaissance had not started, we had only one government owned, and controlled TV channel-Uganda Television (UTV), that could only broadcast between 6pm and midnight. So between UTV’s programming and my bedtime, I was only able to get just a couple of hours, marveling at lands that seemed so far away.
My only way to explore such places was through class field trips organized in primary school. Unfortunately, my parents couldn’t afford to pay for such trips, so I would stay at home on those days sulking hoping that those that went didn’t enjoy the trip but they would always come back with incredible stories of what they saw and my heart sunk. The days following the missed class trips would be filled with envy and sadness as the trip was all my classmates talked about!
I could not wait to grow up, get a job and afford to explore the pearl that got everyone excited. I eventually managed to go to my first trip in high school for a geography class to see the Source of River Nile in Jinja, Uganda. We had studied that John Speke, a British explorer “discovered” the source of the longest river in the world in 1858. I was anxious to see this river and its source. Luckily for me, that year’s school trip fees were part of the tuition, so we didn’t have to pay extra.
The night before the trip, insomnia kicked in, I was too excited! Needless to say, I was one of the first students to queue up for the bus so I could get a window seat. I remember the irritation I felt at everyone’s lack of urgency in the matter but at long last, we were off to Jinja to see the Source of the Nile. While everyone else was singing songs synonymous to school trips, my face was pressed against the window pane, watching my breath fog the glass, reading signposts, branded vehicles; afraid to blink lest I miss something.
We made a stop at a trading center called Namawojolo famous for its roadside roasted chicken and plantain. You cannot go to Jinja and not stop by for these roadside bites, unless you’re allergic of course. Sometimes the pieces of chicken are bigger than those for an average chicken, leaving you wondering what exactly you just ate but boy, is it delicious!
When we eventually arrived at our destination, I could understand why so many people travel thousands of miles to marvel at the Nile’s splendor! The white water falls, the waves, the cool temperatures were all to die for! We visited on a day that a number of people were rafting – the joy on their faces was memorable! While we went on with the class trip activities and posing for photographs, I couldn’t take their happy faces out of my mind. I want to feel that kind of happiness one day, I thought to myself.
As I got older, I realized that it was only people with a substantial disposable income that were enjoying traveling and even then, opting to go abroad, the few people that decided to see Uganda were staying at the most exquisite and luxurious lodges in the country making enjoying Ugandan travel seem like a very expensive hobby. It wasn’t until my birthday weekend the other year that I realized that even us the ‘regular’ folks could explore the Pearl of Africa albeit at basic but inexpensive accommodation and still enjoy what the beautiful motherland has to offer.
From the questions I was asked, I learned that it’s not often that Ugandans get to see their own tourist attractions. I remember the shuttle driver’s surprise when I joined two Swedish young ladies visiting Uganda for the very first time for a drive to the lodge. During the journey, the driver couldn’t hide his incredulity at my desire to see the country. But then, even the Swedish girls confessed that they hadn’t seen much of their country, Sweden beautiful as it is.
Uganda’s true beauty is hundreds of kilometers out of Kampala. It’s always insightful listening to the tour guides tell tales about a place, a historical feature and the natives of a place. I always appreciate these seeing as I didn’t pay much attention to them while in history class. Most lodging facilities have a lounge or common room where you can enjoy a cup of tea or coffee or beer while you enjoy stories from other travelers from around the world. While some leave you rich with information about the far lands, others leave you gawking. One time, a traveler nonchalantly shared a story of how his friend was killed by a crocodile while kayaking in the Democratic Republic of Congo! “And that’s why I am sticking to the River Nile, it doesn’t have crocodiles.”
Uganda doesn’t just boast of the Nile and the river activities such as white water rafting, kayaking, boat cruises and quad biking, it has glorious mountains such as the Rwenzori which I cannot wait to take on, chimpanzees to track, an assortment of wildlife and birds making safari drives and bird watching must-dos to mention but a few. You don’t even need to break a bank, just do your research, plan, go discover Uganda.
p.s. I originally shared this on The Africa Channel
PHOTO: Jorn Eriksson (Rwenzori Mountains)