As we wait for our gate to open a crowd gathers around the television where Mo Farah is in the last leg of the 5000m; holiday makers, staff and shop keepers gather as he overtakes, storming to the front of the group, the Kenyans close on his tail. Chants of “Mo, Mo, Mo” rise among the masses as some get to their feet straining to see what’s going on. The atmosphere is a euphoric cocktail of holiday excitement and Olympic fever. Cheers explode simultaneously and course through the airport as he crosses the line, and our flight is called.
August 2012 Eighteen months of team building, preparation and planning had gone into the coming three weeks in Uganda and excitement was at fever pitch. Together with a group of 26 other Explorer Scouts, I was on my way to complete a number of charity projects with Ugandan Scout groups, which to name just a few included, protected springs, school refurbishment and tree planting.
As the plane descended across Lake Victoria, Entebbe came into view and the distinctive red sands and sugar plantations of Uganda crept into sight. That is my first memory of Uganda, even before you meet the amazing people, there's always something you want to see, a reason why you are constantly looking from one thing to another, struggling to absorb all the sights, sounds and smells. The streets are bustling with cyclists, trucks and motor bikes, driving relentlessly down the dusty roads, seemingly determined to run you over. The sandy red dust from the roads swirls around as your bus drives through it, and if you leave the windows open you’ll be covered in a light dusting of sandy snow. Sugar cane plantations hug the main roads, long green strands of leaf stretching high towards the deep blue sky and the intensely hot sun like long arms waving as you pass. The entire atmosphere is overwhelming. In the market place you buy live chickens just beside where you get your rice and potatoes, the chickens’ desperate shrieks disappearing into the general melees of the market place. Constant calls of “white man! Muzungu!” follow you as you walk along the edge of the road, negotiating the stagnant, almost curdling, drainage channels. A small child looks up at you. His is face gaunt, with deep set eyes and swollen feet from wondering the streets with no shoes, his belly rounded like a glass orb. His clothes hang off him in rags, a quickly fading Fireman Sam cartoon just visible on his baggy t shirt. But you know you can give him nothing because hundreds of children like him will swarm around you the second you do. Street sellers set up shop at the side of the road, the smells of food and the colours of the products they are selling along with the music from loud speakers creating a sensory cocktail of sounds and smells like nothing you could find anywhere else in the world. It’s unique. It’s special. Despite the poverty, despite the humidity, despite everything that is reality for the people there, I met the happiest people I think I will ever meet in my life. I have never seen so many smiles and waving hands, people who are so grateful for life. They take nothing for granted;that is what makes it really special. They welcome you with open arms as if you are a long lost friend. They sing and dance when we would cry and want to be alone. Where else could you meet people like that? Where else in the world could you open your tent door and see a meerkat scurrying across the bush? Where else in the world could the oranges, pinks and violets of the sunset be so vivid as you watch it set in just ten minutes?
Uganda has an incredible quality to it which is very hard to describe. It's people are the happiest I've ever met, and I genuinely believe that I've never been so happy anywhere else in the world. The heat and humidity can be slightly overwhelming to begin with, especially when you're in full sun trying to mix concrete with a slightly temperamental shovel (but you get used to it and get a decent suntan!) The principle language spoken in the area I was in, around Lake Victoria in Mayuge, Iganga and Jinja is Lugandan, but in most circumstances this is no barrier as most people speak good English and you soon become familiar with some words; none more than 'mzungu' also known as 'crazy white man' The food is also no issue, as you can eat a traditional diet of chapati, beans, matoki and cabbage as we did and then in the towns western foods like chicken and chips or omelette are readily available. Quite unexpectedly many of the Ugandan friends I made were vegetarian, so contrary to my worry before the trip I had no problems.
What was great?
The greatest part of the trip for me was installing the protected springs. You've seen the comic relief videos with children drinking water the colour of cloudy apple juice right? Well its' no exaggeration, and it's a powerful image that will stay with me for life, overshadowed only by the delighted faces of the villagers who turned out to help with the work. The work was labour intensive and involved digging deep runoff trenches which in the UK would require a digger, and a whole load of health and safety legislation! These projects provided an opportunity to work with the Ugandan scouts, make lasting friendships, and some immense mud fights -whilst engaging in a sustainable and valuable community project. If you're thinking of going, plan projects, or find one to get involved with as it's a truly rewarding experience. "
What was a letdown?
Perhaps the only let down was that I didn't get to stay longer! Over the course of three weeks, I visited a hospital and orphanage, walked around a church with a basket of peanuts perched precariously on my head in an attempt to sell them for the churches' community work, installed a protected spring, stayed with a Ugandan family on home hospitality, drove for 26 hours for what should have been a six hour journey to Kenya and worked out just how many people you can actually fit into a minibus! And the list goes on...that's just a small snippet of my trip. Since I got back from Uganda there hasn't been a day where something hasn't made me think of it or the people I met. Uganda has entirely changed my perspective on my nice comfortable UK life, and if it can do that it's got to be well worth a visit!
What does it cost to do it bare bones/live comfortably/live like a king?
Flights are never going to be cheap, let's be honest, but on the plus side living costs are fairly low in Uganda, so more money can be funneled into projects! Personally, I had my trusty tent strapped to my rucksack, and spent every third night in a guesthouse so as to wash clothes and have a shower, albeit a cold one! But honestly, after three days of that omnipresent red dust, you value is as much as your nice warm one at home. There are 'nicer' 3 and 4 star hotels obviously designed for the tourist market, but they are much more expensive and this does not always match the quality! Also, they provide a very sheltered experience, but it depends why you're going to Uganda! It's much cheaper just to go for a swim there and then retreat to your nice cosy tent or guesthouse! Overall, I'd say for three weeks staying in a tent and guesthouses, plus some excursions like a boat cruise on the Nile, my trip coast approximately £1500 (flights included) Fairly reasonable I think!
- Tips on being prepared
Five pieces of advice I'd give would be:
- Take at least 50% deet spray to ward off the mosquitoes. I still have bite scars from last August!
- Keep your plastic water bottles whilst you're there and give them to children on the street. When your bus stops at the side of the road they'll come in curiosity to see the rich mzungus. Give them your water bottles, you'll probably have quite a lot! It's better than giving money, as otherwise you'll be swamped by an endless line of children and the guilt that you simply can't afford to give money to all of them. They can sell water bottles and often the older ones will share them between the younger ones.
- Regardless of where you plan to stay or camp take some sort of mosquito net just in case! All the guest houses I stayed in had them, but I still had one which packed down to the size of a tennis ball which I used in my tent. Better to be safe than sorry!
- The currency is Ugandan shillings with approximately 3960 shillings to a pound, and every thing is a lot cheaper. I took £50 in shillings and came back with about £25 unspent having bought a vast range of products from local craft markets. However, also be careful that you're not being cheated. A price may seem very cheap, but local people would get it for half or a third of the amount the seller just charged you!
- Finally make sure you get all visas, vaccinations and antimalarial drugs sorted well in advance! If you're stressing out about trivial things like that you won't have time to look forward to and embrace the rich, dynamic culture that Uganda offers.
Uganda has changed my life, it could change yours too! Happy Travelling!