The Home Stretch through Uganda

My first Ugandan lunch for nearly a month

Miles beyond Busia, over the border from Kenya and back into Uganda, they still say “Jambo!” in greeting. They still say “Asante Sana” in thanks, and they still count currency in Kiswahili. This makes it tough to shift gears back into the Lugandan language after having been in Kiswahili mode for so long.

But most things are Ugandan again. Plantains are steamed and mashed into matoke, the belly-filling staple food available at any roadside restaurant. The plantations where those fruits come from line the gently rising and falling roadways, and the white minivans with a blue checkered stripe zoom past my rattling bicycle at great speed, taking commuters to the next towns.

What To Do in Iganga

I arrived in the city of Iganga, Uganda after a short ride of some thirty kilometers or so. After meeting my film maker friend at a telecom store, he and I set about looking for something fun to do in town. Not seeing anything eye-catching off the bat, I began to ask passers by for help.

“Hey, ssebo,” I would call, “Is there anything fun to do in this town?” The responses were slow, so I would suggest things like museums or parks or something to try and jog the memory of the person I was interrogating.

“Ehhh… no. There is nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Yah.”

“Oh.”

This poor response for our desire for amusement happened more than a few times. The only promising answer to our query was:

“Rocks! There are big rocks that way,” one man offered, directing us up a road with waving hands, “maybe a few kilometers…”

We continued walking aimlessly, passing through the market, the commercial district. Finally we noticed an airborne ruckus and a cloud of avian creatures a block or two away from the main street. Aha! Bats! Thousands of them, big ones, screeching and flapping about, making a fine attempt at blocking out the sun and weighing down tree branches where they rested. We wandered into a small patch of green to enjoy the din and spectacle the bats created, and realized we were somewhere we were not supposed to be.

“You cannot be here,” called a conviction-less voice from the shade, “This is a government facility.”

Though there was no sign, the 900 cubic meter water tower in the middle of the garden and a pickup truck tagged with an official-looking seal told us we were in a water treatment facility.

“Hey, can I fill my water bottle?” Pointing to the old plastic 1.5L container I’d been using since Tanzania, crunched into my bicycle’s water bottle cage.

“Yes.”

The man’s name was Magala, and he was similarly unable to suggest any interesting sights or activities to be found in this fairly lively city. A plumber by trade, he gave us all the information we cared to know about Iganga’s water supply before offering to help us find a decent place to stay in his corner of town.

After checking in and relaxing in our room in Toto Guest House (“Decent Accomodation, Affordable Price!”) Magala came back around to take us to his bar and meet his family. The bar was one of the more traditional types, being a stick-n-mud hut with thatched roof, though outfitted with such modern amenities as a TV playing local music videos. The drink was also traditional, being a type of millet beer served warm from a big pot sipped by a circle of several patrons from straws made from automotive brake line or coolant line.

The stuff was filling and non-refreshing, and since I had just eaten some samosas and fried pork, I made my leave fairly quickly after holding Magala’s infant child and meeting his extended family (his wife was brewmaster) to try and rest.

The following morning, I woke up hungry. Daniel and I quickly set about locating some cheap breakfast, a mission we failed at by taking overpriced rice and pasta with a very fatty beef stew. Yet, the gutbomb had no effect on my hunger. Reaching our hotel room again, I began to feel tired and weak. Daniel said he’d be going ahead to Jinja now, and that he’d meet me there.

“Sounds good, man,” I said from the bed, and he left.

Soon Magala showed up complaining of an upset stomach, and would miss work today. He had eaten the same samosas and pork I had the night before… it hit me: I was experiencing food poisoning again! Damnit! And hardly more than one hundred kilometers from my destination at Kampala. Feeling inertia setting in, I decided to pack my things and leave immediately before my sickness could develop into something which would keep me in this unexciting town for another day.

Jinja and a Samaritan

40 hard kilometers went by as the sun baked my back and a sporadic wind tested my balance regularly. I struggled up hills, passing vast sugar cane plantations neighboring tea plantations before eventually loping into Jinja proper, where I found a bench and a landmark by which I could direct Daniel once I called his phone. As soon as I sat,  a young man in a striped sweater turned to me and asked how I was.

“Sick.” I had no energy for pleasantries.

“Oh. You need rest. Let me take you to my place, just there.”

“No, I think I’ll meet my friend. He’s somewhere in town.” I called Daniel and arranged to meet somewhere strange to me.

I didn’t move though. I was weak, and wished only to lay in the dirt there across the street from the bank and the cell phone tower. I sat for probably ten minutes in silence, trying to calm my insides and summon some energy. Then I opened my mouth and in a series of contractions, my greasy breakfast was once again shown to me, served on a paving stone and dyed yellow by useless tablets meant to treat my upset stomach.

“You come and rest.” Said the man again after I spilled my insides on the street, taking me by the hand and leading me to his small concrete bed space behind the electronics shops along Jinja’s Main street. I pointed to my bicycle, and he reassured me that he’d take care of it.

Enoch was his name. We reached his room where I crumpled in agonizing slow-motion onto his mattress. I lay there until late in the evening developing a fever and finding comfort in a carton of mango juice.

Healthy again once more, I’ve spent three nights in Jinja, enjoying an auto race (where one of our digital cameras was lifted from my pocket), a festive swim in the pool at Jinja’s country club on the last day of Ramadan, and a host of new friends to run around and have meals with. Each day I walk by Enoch’s place, where he and his friends mind shops and try on sweater vests sold by walking clothes dealers. We talk about Uganda’s stubborn president and about girlfriends and religion.

Jinja is a lively, young town with lots of interesting activities within easy reach, even for the budget traveler like me. I have to be careful not to accidentally overstay and miss my arrival date to Kampala this Saturday, some 80km down the road.

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