Tag Archives: Uganda


I don’t know what I expected. Something different. Something less ordinary.

Two of us sat, on a Wednesday night, and watched people cautiously, nervously moving up and down the road in the flickering light of a garbage fire. An hour earlier we had been sitting on the flat rooftop of a run-down hotel, watching the world fade to night as the bats flew over, waves and waves of dark outlines against the sunset sky.

But nothing is as one-dimensional as it sounds. We watched that fire from just outside the Chinese-owned supermarket that sold cold sodas and packets of biscuits and chewing gum and sweets. A few doors up the road was Coffee Hut, where foreigners gathered for chocolate milkshakes, proper coffee and wireless internet. Not too far away was the bus park and the Tropikana Inn, where we stayed.

The Tropikana Inn. Our rooms, our suite really, was on the second floor. Four en-suite single rooms off a large, tiled lounge area. From the lounge, a door led out onto the balcony that ran the length of our apartment and looked out across the road over a row of shops and a pool-bar and on the other side to an open courtyard where they fetched water and did the laundry. There was no running but otherwise it was clean and comfortable. With doilies. So many crocheted doilies. In the evenings, we watched as people sat outside the bar across the road at little tables drinking beer and played pool at the outside pool-table. The beer adverts on the pool table weren’t the same as at home but they were very similar. There was a table on that balcony, where we sat most evenings, writing, journaling.

Gulu never turned into a place of deep conversations long into the night. I guess partly because we were tired. It was hot. And muddy. I still have orange dusk on some of my clothes – I think it’ll never come out. During the day, we visited various groups and places and people. We watched a group of local dancers. They were good but they expected to be paid for the privilege of watching them, which left a bitter taste in my mouth. I enjoy traditional dancing (in small doses) and I’ve seen a lot over the years, but I object to being expected to give people money, being expected to pay not because they assume I think they are amazing but because they assume that I am from another country and therefore should feel sorry for them.

Another day we visited farmers. Jimmy. A young farmers who cares for his cow with his wife and their three children. He was busy putting in a biogas unit when we visited. The biogas unit will produce electricity from the cow manure so that they don’t have to use wood to heat and light the house, which will be particularly good for his daughter who suffers from asthma. Their little homestead is surrounded by shoulder-high millet and other green, growing things. They grow to eat, though, and buy in to feed the cow.

Later that day we visit a diary. And then walk to the bank. Another day we visit a clinic that also runs a women’s microfinance project. One afternoon we were at a home for disabled children, chatting to the guy running the place, when a crazy man whisked us off in his white landcruiser to visit a farm he was running to supply the home with food. It was one of the craziest, and one of the most interesting, bits of visiting Gulu. This man has been there for years and years and knows the history from the inside. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t think like a settler, but he is a less distracted by the recent past than some. He tells us how his rice crops were ruined by the elephants. How, when the war came people stopped paying attention to the game reserves so the population of wildlife grew too fast and now elephants rampage through farmland destroying crops all over the place. He fed us freshly picked groundnuts, straight from the ground. He showed us their beehives and brick-making and how cassava grows. He drove like a maniac. Sitting in the back of the landcruiser, bumping and bouncing along awful farm-roads while someone explained the name of a river in the local language.

The next day we travel out to meet with someone who works with the diocese here. The church is different to an aid agency because it stays. He talks intelligently, coherently, about what has happened here over the last decade, about the war and the refugee camps and the reconstruction. He is concerned about the impact it will have on the local economy when the NGOs pull out. One morning we went past a place where the Japanese foreign aid agency is helping people grow rice. They’re all here. We play a game of NGO-spotting, trying to write down all the names of the many, many NGOs that work here. We spot the Invisible Children sign, months before the disastrous #Kony2012 debacle. Some of the signs are old, in disrepair, as NGOs begin to pack up and leave. It is 5 years since the war ended. Near the market at the bottom of town is bright new shiny Uchumi supermarket.

In between all this is orange dust and hot summer sun, chapati for breakfast and innumerable bottles of water. We eat plantain and millet and I have stew while the others eat beans. I try to find food that is a little more familiar or a little bit tasty. The whole town seems to have run out of Stoney. We find a Lebanese Restaurant called Cedars and that awful Will Young song follows us around. In the evenings we drink beer – Nile and Club – and hope for rain to wash out the music from the bar across the road that gets louder and louder through the evening.

We left on the early post-bus. We had been looking into the option of travelling straight from Gulu to the DRC border but eventually decided was that meeting up in Kampala would reduce the chances of missing each other and/or the bus at a strange random crossroads in the north. So we woke at 5 and by 5:30 set off down the sleepy morning roads of Gulu.

Falling for Fort Portal

I lost my heart in Western Uganda to a small town set amidst emerald tea fields in the blue shadow of the mountains of the moon.

We travelled up from Kampala by bus on a hot, sticky summer’s day. The road wound up and up, past pampas fields and random felt until, slowly, we found ourselves in the rural areas. Proper rural areas, far from the chaos and the crowds, far from the luxury of depending on the city. Tiny farms clinging to steep hillsides on the fringes of natural forests and thriving with crops and vegetables. Goats were tethered nearby, tethered presumably because a goat wandering into that dense forest would never be seen again. Cows, whole herds of cows grazing in fields so green they could be paddocks beside a sparkling streams. Across the valley, in a tall, dead tree, a black and white colubus monkey and a black and white crow shared a bare branch.

And then the forests and farms gave way to rolling hills of emerald-green as far as they eye could see. It was magnificent. Occasionally there were sets of little cottages by the road surrounded by banana palms. Workers picked tea in some of the fields – colourful dots in a sea of green. We passed what must have been a tea processing plant. There were power-lines along these roads.

In the middle of all this green, not far short of the border with the DRC, sits Fort Portal, a medium-sized agricultural centre. The town is at a fairly high elevation and not far from the mountains of the moon, the Rwenzori. We climbed off the bus and trudged past the petrol station and up the hill in search of somewhere to stay. The conductor on the bus had recommended Rwenzori Traveller’s Inn. I wish I could find him and thank him for sharing this delight.

At the Rwenzori Traveller’s Inn, for around USh26000 pps, you will find a clean, comfortable room, hot and cold running water, fruit, eggs and coffee for breakfast (included) and the quirky, characterful joy that makes this place utterly unique. Wooden steps twirl up to the third floor, where two parrots chatter and call from their perch next to the coke fridge in an bar area all made of wood.  Bird carvings float in the open central area of the top floor. Chinese lions guard the entrance. From the back of the building at sunset, you can look out over the valley towards the mysterious Rwenzori. The beer is cold, the rain a glorious relief and that most appropriate of British colonial gifts, Gin&Tonic most welcome. There is also a functioning internet cafe next door.

Across the road from the Inn is the most awful statue of Major Sir George Portal, after whom the town is named. It really is a truly terrible statue – even his gun barrel isn’t straight! George Portal, rumour has it, never even made it to Uganda, succumbing to Malaria somewhere in Kenya. No-one seems to know what “noble” thing he did to win the honour of imposing his name on the town.

We take a walk at dusk, just as the sun is sinking. We find ourselves in a little market. Nothing like the crowded, muddy, cluttered markets so common elsewhere. This is a cluster of sturdy wooden structures sporting displays of every kind of fruit and vegetable arranged in beautiful splashes of colour, a little like the gorgeously colourful markets in Mozambique. Goats graze in the field beyond. Richard tries to take pictures of some giant birds, while two small children try to get him to take pictures of them. Evan buys fruit. On the way back, we pass a dozen men with huge bunches of green bananas hanging from the handle-bars of their bikes. Up the hill, bakkies and landcruisers are gathered outside a bar. It’s Sunday afternoon and people are relaxed. We have dinner at the “World 1 Restaurant” down the road from the Inn. Even the Ugandan food, of which I was rapidly becoming heartily sick, tastes better in Fort Portal. That evening we sit at the Inn and drink beer and chat. Relaxed and peaceful; a last repose before descending into the stressful unknown of the DRC.

On the way back, we stayed in Fort Portal again. When things got rough in the DRC, through the awful hotel of Bunia, the craziness travel and the terror of public transport/boda-boda mafia, this was place I held onto for return, respite. The afternoon we arrived back, after the hot ferry ride and the overloaded taxi trip, was precious. I insisted on eating at the Inn. I said the others didn’t have to stay with me if they didn’t want to but for the most part they did. It wasn’t amazing food and the service took some encouragement but it was exactly what I needed – familiar food in a lovely setting. We played cards and celebrated our return to the English-speaking world with G&Ts, while the rain poured down outside. That evening we sat on the second floor, on the open balcony area and talked. It was one of the few evenings on that trip that drifted into the kind of long, winding philosophical conversation I love so much.

Sometimes on days that are particularly stressful or busy or when I’m getting ready to travel, I find my mind drifting back to the Fort Portals of my life – the small towns, with agricultural flair, friendly people and a vibe, an atmosphere, an unpindownable something that makes them feel like home. Inhambane in Mozambique, Cheongsando in Korea, Fort Portal in Uganda, so many in South Africa. I love the excitement of chaotic cities from Kampala to Seoul and the decaying glory of Maputo and Cozumel and the majestic natural beautiful of the Drakensberg and the Boland and Vilanculos in Mozambique. They’re amazing places to visit and see and take pictures, but the places I long to return to, the places I could live, are the small-town centres. Fort Portal may not be the most obvious tourist-choice in the country but if I ever go back to Uganda, this is where I’ll be.

The girl in the red dress

The girl in the red dress is beautiful. She’s has engaging, dark, laughing eyes. She is shy. Her smile sneaks up and rushes across her face and makes everyone around her smile, too. She brightens a room without trying.

The girl in the red dress hasn’t had it easy. She’s been through some of the worst the world could throw at her, in some of the world’s worst places. She still faces challenges every day. She still fears. She shares a room with five, ten people and a chicken. She has no assets and no money for college. Her family is mostly gone, except for an aunt on the other side of the world and her brother. He smiles, too, and supports Man United.

We want to tell her story. We think we can make her better. If we share her story, others might come. They might listen. They might help her. She is a victim.

She is uncomfortable. She doesn’t like the camera. She leans out of the picture. She doesn’t want to talk. She keeps looking towards her phone, which she left with her friend.

The girl in the red dress, the second-hand red dress that looks so good on her dark skin, the girl with the smiling eyes and the captivating laugh. The girl in the red dress is just another teenager. What if that’s true? What if our care, our sympathy is not the answer? An ordinary teenager who lives her life and giggles and laughs, like any other person. What if she’s just ordinary; not a victim, not a survivor? What if she’s just a girl, in a red dress, in a city, in a country? Not a sufferer, not a statistic, not a reason to build a story. Not a life we lived, not a wealthy life, but a life like thousands of others.

What if our help, our pity, serve no purpose other than to turn her ordinary, everyday experiences into something sad and heart-breaking and to be pitied? What if our well-intentioned interventions rob her of something – the ordinary, everyday of being a teenager? Vilifying what is normal and happy and ordinary for her. What if all she wants to be, just like anyone else – nothing special, nothing different – is a pretty young girl in a bright red dress?