(Not so) Tough Mudder

En route to Uganda we transited through Johannesburg for a third time and, in contrast to the previous times, had a relaxing few hours there. Immigration and Customs at Entebbe Airport was hassle-free and we were well looked after by our local hosts at the African Roots Guesthouse, who we were gratified to learn co-own the guesthouse. It was strange that Uganda actually felt cool to us – we were able to sleep under a sheet – and I didn’t feel guilty running water for a bath (although apparently Entebbe is relatively dry at present.)

After our overnight in Entebbe, we flew in a small plane to Kihihi, enjoying the spectacular views over Lake Victoria. We were met by a driver and after an hour and a half drive through lushness that seemed impossible after the starkness of Zimbabwe, we arrived at Bahoma.

There are many more tribes in Uganda compared to Zimbabwe. The official languages are English, Luganda, and Swahili but the local language is Rukiga. Uganda has twice as many people as Zimbabwe (Kampala is one of the fastest growing cities on the continent) and colonialism took a different track, with little appropriation of land from the natives. Nonetheless the transition to independence was not smooth. The years of Idi Amin’s rule decimated the country but things seem to be turning around.

Our accommodation – the Gorilla House – is right on the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and it does almost feel as though we are living in a fairy tale with a massive rose bush climbing up and over the entry way; a deck overlooking the forest; and the air positively thrumming with bird, insect, and flowing water noise as well as drumming from the Batwa Development Project Centre at 4:30 pm most days. Because it is near the equator, the sun rises at about 6:30 am and sets at 6:30 pm, with more twilight than Zimbabwe but much less dramatic sunrises and sunsets. It rains daily, impressively torrential at times, with accompanying thunder and lightning. The absolute contrast with the drought in Zimbabwe is distressing. The humidity affects everything, e.g. toilet paper doesn’t tear properly, a piece of paper can’t be torn along a crease, and our pack of Wizard cards feels disturbingly clammy. Laundry takes days not minutes to dry.

Our excellent meals are provided at the Monkey House, 2.4 km down the road and adjacent to the hospital. Red-tailed monkeys scamper across the roof of the dining room and peer in through the window bars at us while we eat breakfast. The local children are more habituated to tourists than where we were in Zimbabwe so they will often come and take our hands while we are walking (and ask us for money). What continues to strike me is the paucity of toys for children. While I think sometimes a bit of boredom can stimulate creativity and too many distractions and toys aren’t beneficial for kids, I suspect a complete lack of any toys hampers the imagination.

It feels like a victory each time we manage to avoid getting hit by the various motorbikes and safari trucks on our regular walking commutes. Rachelle is starting to recognize each different driver based upon his riding attire and their bike adornments, but also on how much room they do and don’t give us pedestrians as they go tearing past. So we know which ones not to consider getting a ride from. It is fairly dark when we are walking home in the evenings and the sound of the Muslim prayer call competes with frogs as loud as motorbikes and various insect noises.

On Monday we had a thorough orientation to the hospital. The hospital was initiated by Dr Scott and Carol Kellerman, from California, and it is amazing what has developed in 15 years. Their initial motivation was to help the pygmy Batwa people who were relocated from the forest by the government to try to protect the mountain gorillas. The hospital has over 100 beds and includes several wards. There are well-coordinated outreach clinics and a nursing school. Uganda has been more successful than some other countries at limiting new HIV infections. TB rates are therefore also a bit lower than Zimbabwe but malaria still claims many lives. The pediatric ward was especially poignant as there are several children being treated for severe burns and some for malnutrition – we were surprised to learn that although the region seems very lush to us, some of the soil is actually quite poor.

Similar to Karanda, the mornings begin with singing and devotions. Paul has been spending some time in the OR and has been compiling an equipment inventory – fixing what he can, downloading manuals when necessary, and even putting English tags over German labels. 

One afternoon we toured a school next to the hospital. The conditions are desperate and we were heavily pressured to sponsor a child or make a general donation. We did have pens to donate (thanks Bruce and Shannon Ross) and are considering a donation through a third-party organization. (http://www.omushana.org/) The students danced and sang for us but we felt somewhat awkward as it felt so scripted. Not quite as blatant as the time-share talk we got signed up for in Kauai but uncomfortable nonetheless.

We have been spending some time with Wendee Nicole. She is a US journalist who started the Redemption Song Foundation to assist the local Batwa population through selling their baskets, running a soup kitchen, and teaching hygiene to children. We encourage you to check out the web site: http://www.redemptionsongfoundation.org.

With funding from the North Peace Division of Family Practice, on Friday we helped mud a hut with the Batwa Development Project. It was great to have two Americans along with us as it meant we got over half the hut mudded in the allotted time. It was a challenge for me. My running partners know I don’t even like to run through mud let alone get my hands and clothing smeared with it. The local population worked hard alongside and provided us with a meal of goat, millet bread, and tomato sauce. 

One of the many positive aspects of our travels I hadn’t anticipated was the interesting conversations we would have with people we came in brief contact with – the businessman from Cape Town on the same light plane flight as us, the two professors from Stanford University at our guesthouse in Entebbe who run a graduate course for people wanting to do projects in developing countries, the American in the Customs queue who has worked in wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe for 30 years, the psychiatrist and public health physician from England who have overseen programs in many countries. I think I’m channeling my mother’s penchant for talking to strangers! These conversations have provided us with insights we would otherwise not have had. 

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