My flight from Frankfurt touched down at Uganda’s Entebbe airport at around 3 a.m. Even though it was the early days of May 2004, Uganda’s position on the equator ensured that within seconds I was engulfed by sticky and humid air. The night was outrageously humid, but I couldn’t decide if the air felt more like Maine in August or Hanoi in July. Lucky for me, I was able to contemplate the finer points of this comparison over the next eight hours. For what seemed like an eternity, I rode in a sweltering bus bound for a remote patch of jungle inhabited by the elusive Ugandan mountain gorillas.
Uganda was my first foray into Sub-Sarahan Africa. Although I had read all of the standard Africa travel literature (i.e., Paul Theroux’s excellent Dark Star Safari), I was amazed by the view out of the bus window as day broke. When I was in college, I traveled from Bogotá to Buenos Aires, mostly via bus, so I figured that I had a good handle on rural infrastructure in the developing world. Africa is an entirely different story. For example, take the primitive road that had been incredibly bumpy all night long. In the light of day, I was amazed to see that this was a major road that had actually been paved at some point over the last twenty or thirty years. Unfortunately, every ten or twenty feet, the “pavement” was scarred with giant holes stretching the width of the road.
What the journey lacked in speed was certainly compensated by astoundingly lush vistas. As the road wound for hours through banana and tea plantations, the fronds of the banana trees were dotted with the bright headscarves of women working the fields. As we lurched along, many of these headscarves, without fail, would soon be joined by a waving hand and a shout of “Jambo!,” the local greeting. Men in the villages would also greet us with a “Jambo!,” while hordes of smiling children would run behind the bus shouting – you guessed it – “Jambo!” The bus was pretty easy to pursue on foot given all of the potholes.
The friendliness of the Ugandan people was astounding. Granted, less than 10,000 foreigners travel to the rural parts of Uganda in a typical year, so my preppy, one might say WASPy, American look drew a bit of attention and lots of smiles. Still, I was deeply impressed with the warm welcome. While I consider myself to be a relatively friendly person, I never found myself running after a Peugot filled with French-Canadian tourists in Wells. Of course, the Ugandans never had to worry that I would be hitting their beaches in a speedo.
The main goal of my trip was to spend a few days at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a nature preserve on the Congo border that is home to the roughly 300 Bwindi gorillas, half the world’s population of the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas. The Ugandan government allows twenty people per day to hike into the mountains in search of one of several family groups of gorillas. Once discovered, the humans are allowed to stay with the gorillas for just twenty minutes and must remain still and quiet. The gorillas are actively monitored by the government in an attempt to reverse the damage that poachers and guerrilla warfare have caused on the population. The government is also keen to look after visitors since eight tourists were executed by insurgents in 1999.
My group was lucky because after a mere four hour trek through muddy and difficult terrain, we discovered a group of fifteen gorillas, including a silverback and a new born. As I moved quietly toward the gorilla family in my treasured Bean hiking boots, I took in the view, intent on making the most of my twenty minutes with the group. The serenity was shattered about thirty seconds later, however, when I was stung on the head by a massive wasp (he too, had noticed my WASPy looks it seems). I lost a full three minutes as I quietly spat out a range of decidedly non-WASPy curses, but the last fifteen and a half minutes with the gorillas were great.
Over the past year, Africa has been – for lack of a better word – trendy. Companies like Apple and Cingular have introduced red consumer electronics in a bid to raise awareness of AIDS in Africa. Oprah Winfrey endowed a school for girls. The movies Blood Diamond and The Last Kind of Scotland helped to introduce millions of people to the continent and its challenges. While I’m not sure that buying red consumer goods will bring many tangible benefits to the people of the continent, it’s refreshing to see Africa gain a place on the global radar screen.
Uganda, like many of its neighbors, faces the dual challenges of AIDS and poverty, and is still struggling to recover from the damage inflicted by the late dictator Idi Amin. Still, the country is now largely stable and is seen as one of the more promising stories emerging from the continent. Despite the message of widespread despair that is often perpetrated by the media, Africa is not a monolith. Instead, it is a place where despair mixes with hope, and in some places, children don’t hesitate to raise their eyes to a stranger, smile widely, and yell “Jambo!”