The Road Home

We are leaving Uganda in a few hours. Between facilitating the JAMS workshop at Makerere University and various emotional good-byes, it’s been a busy final week. We’re going to be off the grid for 10 days in Tanzania, and then we board a plane bound for Seattle. For those who enjoy details, here’s the breakdown:

  • Today: fly to Kilimanjaro
  • Sunday-Tuesday: Hike Mt. Meru
  • Wed-Mon: Safari in Tarangire, Ngorongoro Crater, central and northern Serengeti
  • Tues-Wed: JRO->DAR->DBX->SFO->SEA (i.e. long slog from Africa to Seattle, but at least we’re flying Emirates)

It’s been a great three months in Uganda; an inspiring conclusion to an unforgettable year. We’re leaving with countless memories and have many stories to write up when we get home. Seattle crowd, see you soon!

View from our apartment
The view from our apartment this morning

The large birds that protect our apartment
The large birds that protect our apartment building

Cafe Kampala

Our project is based in the MTN facilities in Kololo, where lunchtime involves a daily choice:

  1. Take a long lunch out and walk to one of the two nearby restaurants (or get a ride to a restaurant further afield). Average cost: ~$9/person.
  2. Have a more expedient meal at the building cafeteria. Cost: $0.25/person.
  3. Bring in food from home.

For a hot meal, the cafeteria is by far the quickest and cheapest option. However, there are a few catches. The first is that the cafeteria is located in the parking garage under the building. The setting can at best be described as institutional, and at worst depressing. It’s dark, the air is stale, and the smell is a mix of kerosene and long-sitting stew. The second catch is the food, first described to us as “sometimes not terrible” by one of our colleagues. It’s a fairly typical Ugandan buffet, anchored by a daily offering of a banana, matooke and posho. These are supplemented by additional starches, including but not limited to rice, noodles, and sweet potatoes. There will also be a salad of spinach and tomatoes, fish or beef stew and, if you’re lucky, beans and pumpkin. All told, we’ve mostly been brown-bagging it from home.

All of this changed this Wednesday. After hearing rumors of a “new cafeteria” for months, this week we dined in a clean, well-lit, brand-new building. The food was really good, with fresher dishes and more vegetables. We’ve happily eaten at the new cafeteria every day since its opening, and even Whitney (of the aforementioned “sometimes not terrible” quote) has joined the bandwagon. It’s a shame that we’re leaving in a week!

Original cafe location
The original home of MTN’s Cafe

Service with a smile
Opening day of the new café: bright, airy, and loads of helpful service

Ready to eat lunch
Digging into sweet potatoes, chapattis, carrots, and groundnut sauce

Chicken, vegetable curry, rice, posho, and sweet bananas

Whitney at the new cafeteria

Nanjing Restaurant


There aren’t many dining options near our office. On the days that we don’t bring our own lunch we have our choice of the cafeteria (located in the atmospheric parking garage), overpriced delivery, or two restaurants within walking distance.  Nanjing is one of those two restaurants, a Chinese place located inside of a motel about 2 blocks away.

Our first meal at Nanjing was quite memorable. We ordered ma po tofu, and “chicken with red and green chilies.” The waitress warned us that the chicken was “very spicy”, but we insisted that we like spicy food. She gave us a skeptical look and went ahead with the order. We relaxed on our balcony table, and enjoyed complimentary salted peanuts with our tea.

When the main course arrived, the ma po tofu was somewhat spicy, with a sauce that resembled a thick hot and sour soup. The chicken with chilies looked like a plate of stir fried green chilies. There were no red chilies to be found, and only a handful of green onions and chicken among the mass of spiciness. We were indeed warned, but nothing could quite prepare me for the experience of uninhibited chili-ness. We made a small dent in the chilies over lunch, and proceeded to make spicy omelets and stir-fries with the leftovers for the rest of the week.

Our second trip to Nanjing was a bit of a letdown. We had a forgettable chicken and peppers dish that was chewy and way too salty, and a hot and sour fish that was only ok (and also fairly salty). The staff were still nice, but the combination of high prices and mediocre food put a damper on the experience. Lauren and I decided that if we were to return, we would stick to our original lucky choices, and make sure to bring the camera for the chilies (which we unfortunately forgot during our first trip).

We didn’t actually manage such a return trip until yesterday’s team lunch. we re-ordered the dishes that had made an impression on us during our original visit, and our co-workers added an assortment of favorites from chicken with black bean sauce, to kung pao chicken. This time the chicken with chilies indeed had both red and green chilies (and a higher chicken-to-chili ratio), making it slightly less spicy but also more photogenic. A few of our co-workers enjoyed the ma po tofu, but only one was brave enough to try the chicken and chilies. His assessment: “I’ll let you know when my tongue stops burning”…and that was after a conscious decision to have a chicken-only bite!

Overall Nanjing has decent Chinese food with a few stand-outs, friendly wait-staff, and occasional misfires. While I wouldn’t recommend traveling across Kampala for Nanjing, it’s a relaxing place for a leisurely meal if you are in the neighborhood.

Ma po tofu
Ma po tofu

Chicken with vegetables
Stir-fired chicken with vegetables

Chicken with red and green chilies
Major spiciness: chicken with red and green chilies

Nanjing Restaurant
Plot 15, Impala Avenue
Kololo, Kampala, Uganda
+256 (0)414 340 928


Before we left the office on Friday afternoon, our AppLab co-worker and friend, Jill, informed us about the Maisha African Film Festival, which was on all weekend at the National Theatre, just a 20-minute walk from our apartment. The opening night feature film was entitled iMANi, and set here in Kampala. It had won several awards and looked like it would be worth seeing.

Kenny and I have certainly been a bit reclusive on the weekends we actually stay in Kampala, so we decided the film was a good excuse to get out and about on a Friday evening, and to hang out with Jill, of course. Unfortunately we realized that we had the wrong phone number for her, but we left the apartment at 6:45 for the 7:30 showing, and figured we’d grab a quick bite across the street at Masala Chaat House and hopefully bump into Jill in the theatre. Dinner was quick, fortunately, and we made it over to the theatre with a few minutes to spare… except when we arrived we learned that the theatre was full. Oops. Apparently the tickets were free and the line started forming two hours in advance.

So it turned into yet another anti-social night for us in Kampala. We stopped at the Nakumatt for a few groceries, and then returned home and fired off a quick apologetic email to Jill.

This morning, Kenny received an SMS from Jill asking whether we’d like to join her for the film showing at 10:30. Which film showing, we asked? Apparently the projector had malfunctioned after 30 minutes of the iMANi screening on Friday evening, and it had been rescheduled for Sunday morning. Sweet. It turned out that our poor timing on Friday evening hadn’t been so unfortunate after all.

The film shows a day in the life of three characters, with their stories interleaved: a housekeeper from Entebbe who works in the home of a well-to-do Kampala family; a rehabilitated child soldier in Gulu; and a member of Break Dance Project Uganda who works with street kids. Each character faces a difficult situation with which he/she must cope before the day is over. The dialogue is an amalgam of Luganda, Kiswahili, and English, with English subtitles throughout, and the soundtrack is fantastic. Some of the script seemed a bit cheesy, but it’s highly possible that the dialogue suffered in the translation to English. And while the plot itself wasn’t entirely unpredictable, it was genuine, and for the most part, uplifting.

After the showing, Philip Buyi, who plays Armstrong, the break dancer, answered a few questions from the audience. One audience member started a very unexpected line of questioning, asking Philip why his character wasn’t tougher, more aggressive. And then he seemed to follow up with a criticism of Philip’s own personality, asking why he spoke so softly on stage and did not project a more “manly” presence. It was uncomfortable for many of us in the audience, who are perhaps more familiar with the film festival scene and more conventional audience questions. But Philip handled the heckler well, and did not seem to take offense. It was a reminder that the arts scene here in Kampala is quite nascent, and perhaps its connoisseurs are still a bit uninitiated. On the other hand, I hope that even as the arts scene grows more sophisticated, the honesty and lack of pretension can remain.

Interestingly, Charles Mudede of The Stranger reviewed the film in June (perhaps it was at SIFF?), and the review is currently featured on the front page of the iMANi website. Ah, Seattle. We’ll be there in five weeks.

Tasty Pancakes

Last week we synthesized a number of pancake recipes on the web to a simple formula using even proportions (1 to 1 to 1 to 1) of:

  • cup whole wheat flour
  • tsp baking powder
  • egg
  • cup milk
  • Tbsp butter/oil

Add more baking powder for fluffier pancakes (today we used close to a tablespoon). You can also use alternative flours (e.g. millet, atta, all-purpose) for some/all of the wheat flour, or mix in some wheat germ or oatmeal to satisfy the health nuts.

Mix dry ingredients and wet ingredients, then combine and stir. Ladle onto a hot griddle. Flip. Done. Delicious, especially when topped with African bananas, pineapple, or mangoes, and a bit of shredded coconut. Or even better when Lauren mixed some of the bananas and coconut into the batter for the last few pancakes this morning.

Atta pancake with mangoes and bananas

This recipe can also be used as a savory base, similar to the ragi waffles we made in Bangalore. On Saturday we mixed onions and coriander into a ragi-based batter that we consumed with marmalade and dahi.

Savory ragi pancakes
100% ragi (a.k.a. African millet) pancakes; ragi tends to cause rougher edges unless mixed with wheat flour

Bombs in Kampala

Kenny and I spent last night at an ecotourism site in the rainforest, in the southern part of Murchison Falls National Park, with no television, radio, or internet. We knew this meant we’d miss the World Cup final, but since our favorite teams had all been eliminated already we didn’t shed many tears. We didn’t learn until early this afternoon that we had also missed out on some very sad news out of Kampala – two near-simultaneous bombs at different football-viewing places during the World Cup final, killing 74 people and injuring at least 70 more. One of the sites was about 2 km away from our apartment.

Obviously, Kenny and I were completely safe as we were out in the rainforest with the chimpanzees. Fortunately, as we learned once we got home and synced up our email, all co-workers and their families have also been accounted for.

Here are a few news stories about the tragic event:

Flights of Fancy

While Lauren has spent countless hours this week researching hotels and safaris, I’ve had the job of airline travel agent. Today I managed to book all of our remaining segments, which included another set of unexpected adventures.

Act I: Kampala to Mombasa to Zanzibar

One of my co-workers tipped me off that Fly540, the JetBlue of Kenya, has an office in Kampala. Even better, it’s located down the street from our office. I called them this morning and had my most delightful booking experience of the year. The gregarious agent offered  well-timed (and well-priced) flights from Kampala to Mombasa and Mombasa to Zanzibar (no return flight was available on my desired date). I asked if she could email me the details and she responded by texting her email address. After confirming our flights over email, we were able to pay with a credit card at their office. In person the agents were even more friendly and endearing. I’ll let you know what our experience is in the air, but simply based on my pre-flight experiences I’d highly recommend Fly540.

Act II: Zanzibar to Kampala

While it is quite tempting to spend the rest of our East African stay on the beach in Zanzibar, we will have some commitments remaining on our volunteer assignment, and so my next task was to find us a flight back to Kampala from Zanzibar. Air Uganda has the one nonstop flight available, as well as the lowest prices (and so far, so good on the flight safety front). They have a pretty good website with the option of booking online, and I was able to follow the standard flow of search –> provide personal information –> book, except at the end I received a little surprise:
Yes, the internet revolution hasn’t fully arrived here. Maybe they prefer big trucks. Fortunately after a short phone call with the Entebbe office I had a reservation for two one-way flights from Zanzibar to Kampala on August 10th. When I asked about payment I was told “you just need to pay by August 9th.” Awesome.

Act III: Kampala to Arusha

Of course, we are flying home from Tanzania, not Kampala. Thus one more flight needed booking before my quest was complete. The one reasonable flight from Kampala to Arusha is on Precision Airlines, who required payment in cash or wire transfer when I contacted them directly. To workaround this hiccup, I had the brilliant idea of using a local travel agent to handle booking and payment. Of course nothing is that easy.

There is indeed a travel agent around the corner, and they were able to book us on the Precision Airlines flight. They even quoted me a better price than when I contacted the airline directly. However, while the travel agency accepts credit cards for other bookings, they do not for Precision Airlines. No problem I tell them, as I pull out a stack of Ugandan shillings. Silly Mzungu. My bravado was quickly dashed as the agent informed me that she could accept the local currency at a rate of 2400 to the dollar (about an 8% premium), as Precision Airlines only accepts U.S. Dollars. The olive branch she threw was that I could head downstairs to the forex booth, trade in my shillings there at a rate of 2280 to the dollar, and then bring back some Benjamins for payment. I took the olive branch, and completed our final ticket purchase.


East Africa Travel Planning

Many of our free hours lately have been spent planning a myriad of trips:

  • A 3-day Murchison Falls trip this coming weekend
  • A beach trip to Zanzibar and Mombasa at the beginning of August
  • Western Uganda gorilla tracking and volcano climbing in late August
  • Tanzania safari and possibly some Arusha-area hiking for the middle of September

We are flying back home to Seattle after the Tanzania trip, from Dar Es Salaam via Dubai and San Francisco (yay Emirates).

Planning travel in East Africa is certainly interesting; for one thing, it’s extremely expensive, and for another, it feels as though the tourism infrastructure is 20 years out of date. Just two fun examples, I’m sure we’ll have many more over the coming weeks:

  • The economy here is entirely cash-based. We booked our gorilla tracking excursion through a company whose office is located a bit south of Kampala, on the way to the airport. They wanted payment for our gorilla permits ($500 each!) in advance, but they would only accept a bank wire transfer or cash. Due to the Barclay’s ATM transaction limit, it took 5 ATM withdrawals to retrieve the required cash, and it came out all in 10,000 UGX notes (less than $5 per note). So Kenny had a stack of bills about 2 inches tall stuffed in his pockets for our drive down to Lubowa to deliver the cash. On the plus side, we got a very good exchange rate.
  • Kenny is trying to book us a flight to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania. He found the website of Precision Air and filled out their contact form, which sent an email to… someone. When he didn’t hear back, he searched and found a direct email address to send his inquiry. He received a response a few hours later, stating that his flight had been booked and that it will be cancelled if we don’t pay by August 11. Of course, we may only pay by cash or wire transfer, and their office is in Tanzania. Not sure how we’re going to manage that one, as we won’t actually be in Tanzania until after the flight.

I can’t wait to find out how our Tanzania safari operator wants to be paid.

Denial is a River in Uganda

Apparently whitewater rafting in Jinja, at the base of the Nile, has surpassed gorilla tracking as the most popular tourist activity in Uganda. No surprise there, as rafting is about one tenth the price and one fifth the drive. As such, when we arrived at the Nile River Explorers office on Saturday morning, there were 49 tourists lined up and ready to paddle the Class V stretch of the river. Unlike rafting in the US, the operators here will accept anyone on their Class V trips — no prior rafting experience, no swimming test required. And, incredibly, everyone rafts barefoot.

Our fellow paddlers consisted of three graduate students from Pittsburgh who are in East Africa for field work, and a twenty-two-ish girl from South Africa. All were first-time rafters, and all were terrified. From the very beginning, they pestered our guide with questions about annual drowning statistics, crocodiles, and whether or not they were likely to die on the next rapid. Our guide, who had surely heard all of these questions before, handled them quite well. Lots of people die, he assured them. Yes, there are crocodiles, but don’t worry, many of them are trained and will let you walk on their backs to safety should you fall in the water. You probably won’t die on the next rapid, but it depends on how well you paddle. If you keep asking me these types of questions, I am unlikely to marry you and have zebra babies with you.

What will always set this river trip apart from all of my other whitewater experiences is the sheer amount of carnage that took place. Every boat capsized at least once, and as we learned from the video later, most boats flipped on over half of the rapids. Our crew of melodramatic whining girls actually turned out to be darn good paddlers, and our boat only flipped one time — on a Class III rapid, ironically enough. We played rescue boat on a number of occasions, most notably rescuing the captain of the safety oar boat when his vessel capsized. I am not certain whether the carnage was a result of the relatively inexperienced rafters on the trip, some negligence on the part of the guides, or just the tremendous power of the massive river. Perhaps it was some combination of factors.

I will say that the stretch of river that we traveled was by far the most intense I have ever experienced. The second Class V rapid, known as Silverback, featured four massive waves in succession. Our guide explained our mission before we entered the rapid: just try not to flip the boat on the first wave, ’cause it’s a rough swim. Somehow, we avoided the swim altogether (the only boat that did), but the ride was still a raucous one. Later in the day, we hit another Class V rapid that features a 10 ft drop over a waterfall.

The river also had a few very long flat stretches, where it felt like we paddled forever. We stopped on one of the long flat stretches for a “lunch” of pineapples and glucose biscuits in the boat.

After our day of rafting, we boarded buses for NRE’s campsite, situated on the Nile just outside Jinja town. Most rafters choose to spend the night; in fact, dorm accommodation is included. We upgraded to a private tent for $11, which featured one of the most comfortable beds I have slept on in months. The campsite caters mostly to a young backpacker crowd, so the party noise kept us up a bit late, but the party crowd also slept in, which made for a very peaceful morning. NRE actually serves a very good breakfast in their open air restaurant overlooking the mighty river.

We spent Sunday just hanging out watching the Nile, and getting afternoon massages at the Nile Porch next door.

We didn’t take many photos (we were busy paddling and trying not to drown), but you can check out the ones we have here. A few moments:

Lunch break on the river
Lunch break on the river

View of the Nile from our campsite
View of the Nile from our campsite

Rafts on the Nile
Tiny little boats on a big, big river. This was the Sunday crew rafting with NRE; we waved to them from breakfast.

Go buy a beer
Good advice!

Lunch at the Black Lantern
Lunch at the Black Lantern, overlooking the Nile. The ambience was better than the food.