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

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

Whitney at the new cafeteria
Whitney-approved!

What Does it Mean to be a CKW?

Kenny and I had the privilege of spending some time out in the field last week – we attended a "refresher" training for CKWs in Kapchorwa, a rural district near the Kenyan border where Grameen has chosen to launch this program with 100 CKWs.  It was inspiring to meet this set of community leaders in person, all of whom have taken time away from their day to day jobs as smallholder farmers in order to help other farmers in their villages. We participated in icebreakers and other activities with the CKWs, witnessed the amazing Grameen training team in action, and took pages and pages of notes to capture all of the helpful feedback the CKWs have on our technology so far.

Sean, Grameen’s new country director for Uganda, had the idea to interview a few of the CKWs to get their take on what the program means to them. My two favorites are below. First, Badru:

And Tabitha:

I am inspired and impressed by the amazing work that Grameen and the CKWs are doing here in Uganda, and so glad I had this chance to make it out to the field and witness it in person. Training photos coming soon in a follow-up post.

Nanjing Restaurant

Rating:

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

A Close Encounter

One of the surprising aspects of our gorilla tracking adventure was that the gorillas were quite mobile. Our guide explained that the dry season makes for sparser vegetation, and leads the gorillas to cover more ground in search of food. So about midway through our hour with the gorillas, they started making their way down a hillside, and our merry band of gorilla trekkers followed.

Kenny and I were near the front of the pack, with our guide. The lack of a trail as we made our way down the side of the valley meant that we needed to hold onto roots and branches to avoid slipping and tumbling down to flat ground below. Once Kenny reached a flat spot, he turned to watch me make my descent. Suddenly I saw his eyes open wide, and heard our guide exclaim, “don’t look behind you!” Of course I did, and to my amazement, there was a large gorilla just a few feet away and gaining on me!

Kenny seized the opportunity, of course, to capture the moment on film (rather than rescuing his imperiled wife). Fortunately for me, this particular gorilla, named Posho, was the first one born after habituation and is one of the friendliest of the bunch. Apparently she just wanted to give me a cuddly gorilla hug.

Pasho surprise number 1
Blissfully unaware

Pasho surprise number 2
A bit confused

Pasho surprise number 3
Taken by surprise

Pasho surprise number 4
Relieved

Gorilla Tracking

If there’s anything that will motivate you to wake up at 5:30AM the day after a killer hike, it’s the prospect of gorilla tracking. For many tourists, this is the reason to enter Uganda, and needs to be arranged well in advance as there are only 40 permits available per day (8 permits each for the five gorilla families in Bwindi National Park). The gorilla families have all been habituated, which involves a six-year process of slowly exposing them to humans in a non-threatening way. The tracking process can range anywhere from one to six hours until you reach the gorillas, depending on the family you’re tracking and the time of year. While the guides do not guarantee that you will find the gorillas, they have only failed once in the six years since habituation.

It took us two hours to reach Bwindi National Park from Kisoro, along a very bumpy road. After a brief orientation on what to expect, and outfitting us with walking sticks and porters, it was time to find gorillas! The trailhead for the Nkuringo family is at the top of a ridge overlooking rolling farmland, and we descended rapidly towards the forest. We followed a short trail to its end, and then the guides made their own path through the bush, hacking away with their machetes.

Happy gorilla trackers
In the forest, looking for gorillas

Trail made to order
Helping realize our trail potential

The UWA does their best to involve the local community in the wildlife preservation efforts. As part of this, they use local high school students as porters-for-hire. They follow an equitable rotation process and the porters use the money to fund their education. By helping the local economy, the UWA has found that the community is motivated to actively protect the gorillas and their habitat.

Our porter, Hillary, was a really nice kid who was on his first gorilla tracking expedition. Other than the excited gleam in his eyes, you would never have guessed that this was his first time as a porter. He was helping blaze the trail by breaking off thorny branches and clearing other obstacles, and there were multiple times when his steady hand helped Lauren and me up and down the hillsides.

We descended into a valley, crossed over a small stream, and after about 90 minutes we arrived at the area where the gorilla family was enjoying a late breakfast. The guides asked us to break for a few minutes, grab a quick snack and then hand over our bags and walking sticks to avoid threatening the gorillas. We then turned a corner and had our first gorilla sighting – a toddler munching on the moss of a tree directly in front of us:

First sighting

It was awesome to hang out with the gorillas. They are very chill (not like the crazy chimps), and I could have spent the entire day watching them munch on vegetation and play with each other. We did snap some photos and videos, but we spent most of our time in the moment, somewhat awestruck by these creatures that share 97% of our DNA. One of the silverbacks was chilling in the sun (he looked like he had eaten well), a momma gorilla was cruising around with her child on her back, and  others were swinging among the trees.


Little ones at play

Bringing silver back
Bringing silver back

After about 30 minutes, the family migrated to another part of the forest and we followed, creating more fresh trails on our way. Our guides told us that since they haven’t had a lot of rain lately the gorillas need to visit a few locations to fully sate their appetites. Along the way, we had a few very close encounters, with the gorillas almost within arms reach. We settled into a small clearing, and two of the blackbacks (younger males – they become silverbacks around age 14) walked right through our group to what I suppose was a particularly tasty bush.

All too soon, our guide informed us that our hour with the gorillas was up. Right at that moment, a silverback barreled through the trees into the edge of the clearing! He paused there as if on cue, and then 20 seconds later gave a little shrug and left us. It was a fond farewell and a very memorable ending to an amazing hour with our cousins.

Gorilla


Christmas (yes, he was born on Christmas) enjoying leaves for lunch

Silverback posing
Adios, said the silverback

Kenny vs. the Volcano

Today was possibly the most physically challenging day of my life. It was definitely the highest I’ve been outside of an airplane. Here’s how it went:

Act I: Get up and go

We arise at 5:30AM for a hearty breakfast and 6:30AM departure for Muhavura Volcano, the third highest peak in Uganda. It’s a 30 minute bumpy ride on a gravel road to the parking lot.

Parking Yard, Alt. 2314m

Our driver takes us on a moderately strenuous 20-minute hike to the trailhead. In the distance looms our destination.

Muhavura Volcano

Act II: Free Gorilla Tracking

At base camp, we register with the UWA, and are introduced to a park ranger named George, our guide for the day. George outfits us with bamboo walking sticks and we head out along an old farmer’s trail.

Base Camp, Alt. 2381m

A few hundred meters in, we are joined by Francis, a solidly built man with an easy smile and a rifle who settles into a permanent spot as rear guard. George tells us how there are many buffalo in this area, as well as antelope and even gorillas! However, the closest we come to the animals is their poop on the trail. The farmer’s trail winds steadily up towards the volcano, and we are fully warmed up as we approach the next trail marker.

Act III: The Virgin Forest

Transition Zone, Alt. 2408m

On the second stage of the hike we follow an amazingly well-groomed trail through leafy terrain. There are lots of switchbacks and stairs that have been carved into the trail by the UWA, which quicken our ascent. Overall it’s a relaxing hike that reminds me a bit of Washington State. I am feeling pretty good when we stop for a snack at the first “rest hut.”

Act IV: Adjusting to Altitude

Ericaceous Zone, Alt. 3116m

As we enter the ericaceous zone, the trail becomes more slippery and gravelly. As we clear the tree-line we are treated to fantastic views of the two nearby volcanoes – Gahinga and Sabinyo. George points out sections of Rwanda and the Congo, though the mist prevents any notable photography. The scenery is amazing, and the hike is exhilarating, but then…

About an hour into this section of the hike, I become a bit light headed. Breathing is harder and it takes all of my willpower to simply put one foot in front of the other. It feels like this part of the hike is never-ending. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, we arrive at the second rest hut.

Act V: The Final Push

Sub-Alpine Belt, Alt. 3855m

I take awhile to recover at the second rest hut. Inhaling my tuna sandwich, biscuits, and a liter of water certainly helps my disposition (and my pounding headache). George is a champ at motivation, and assures me that we have about an hour more to go, though we will take as much time as necessary.

The rest helps, and I’m able to enjoy the alpine foliage. Since this volcano is capped by a crater lake, the upper-most part of the mountain is unusually lush. About 30 minutes into this section I’m hit again by a massive headache, but a quick rest (and three Advil) knocks it into submission.

Views of Gahinga and Sabinyo volcanoes
One of many beautiful views of Gahinga and Sabinyo volcanoes from the sub-alpine belt, with the Congo in the distance

Act VI: Rwanda without a Visa

The summit! I did not think I would make it and I am ecstatic. George tells us that we are not allowed to rest until we visit Rwanda. Turns out that the Uganda-Rwanda border bisects the alpine lake here at the summit. We take a spin around Rwanda, enjoy the views, and bask in the sunshine. Hallelujah!

Total elevation gain: 1823m (~5981 ft). Total ascent time: 5 1/2 hours.

Recovering at the top
Basking in the mountain-top sun

In Rwanda without a visa
In Rwanda without a visa!

Us at the summit
We made it!

Epilogue

The difficulty level descending the mountain was commensurate with the ascent. By the time we arrived at base camp, I was immensely excited to see man-made structures on the horizon. We rested and added comments to the guest book, and then descended through farms to our car; a final kilometer that felt like three.

After today’s trials, I was a bit apprehensive about our Mount Meru climb in mid-September. However, we just re-read our itinerary, and there is never more than 1000m gain per day, the majority of which is one-way (outside of our summit day). It will be challenging, but after conquering Muhavura I am confident that we can handle it. Lauren and I are both exhausted, but also on a high from our achievement. And I expect we’ll sleep quite well, which is helpful as we leave for gorilla tracking at 6AM tomorrow!

More photos from our hike available here.

Going to the Gorillas

We are headed out on yet another weekend trip, this time all the way to the southwestern corner of Uganda, and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, best known for its population of 340 gorillas. We had debated amongst ourselves for a while about whether or not we would go gorilla tracking during our time in East Africa. On the one hand, it’s an extremely expensive activity, and the maximum time spent with the gorillas is only one hour. On the other, you get to see gorillas! We’ve heard several accounts from people who have been, and count it among the best experiences of their lives. I also hope that the large sum of money we’ve paid in advance to the UWA will help with gorilla preservation efforts.

This trip will also include a one-day volcano hiking excursion near Bwindi, which will hopefully be good training for our Mt. Meru climb next month.

When we return to Kampala, we’ll only have one evening here before our office is sending us out to the field for a CKW training in Kapchorwa, near the Kenyan border. I am extremely excited to get out and meet some of the CKWs we’ve been hearing about all summer. It should certainly make the project feel more personal.

I’m not necessarily looking forward to so much time in a car over the coming week, but Ira Glass’s storytelling should help make it bearable.

iMANi

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.