This is my first visit to Uganda. Since my arrival I have witnessed many similarities between Uganda and its neighbours Tanzania and Kenya. That said, I have also noticed subtle differences.
For example, upon arriving at Entebbe Airport, I noticed the friendly, laid-back attitude of the general population even extended to immigration personnel and airport security, which it certainly doesn’t in its neighbouring countries. I retrieved my bag from the luggage belt to realise that my razor was going off inside, so I opened up my bag, rummaged through to find my razor and switched it off. The security guard nearby worked out what had happened and started laughing. From experience at Nairobi airport, had the same thing happened there, they certainly wouldn’t have seen the funny side… They would probably have even tried to charge me import tax on it!
Having arrived in Uganda from Tanzania, customer service also seems to be a step up from what I had grown accustomed to experiencing over the past few weeks. Since my arrival, I have had a waiter “praying for forgiveness” (direct quote!) as they didn’t have my order. When I went to buy a sim card, I was also given the rather odd choice of which phone number I wanted. The sales assistant spread out around 40 different sim cards on the desk, apparently expecting me to wade through and choose my favourite 11-digit number. She seemed a bit put out when I picked a random card up and handed it to her.
As mentioned earlier though, these subtle differences are not quite as abundant as the similarities between Uganda and other East African countries. The day after arriving into Uganda, I was due to travel to Kasese, a small town in the west. I had arranged to meet someone at my hostel at 8am, before we travelled together to Kasese. However, I received a text at around 6.30am to inform me that there were problems with the bus and so he would be late… Which sounded very similar to my experiences in Tanzania and Kenya!
The similarities continued when I arrived in Kasese, a quiet little town enveloped by the Rwenzori Mountains, and met members of the community who continued to be unbelievably self-motivated and proactive despite terrible hardships that have been suffered by the area over the years. Clearly this is a characteristic which crosses over borders in East Africa.
The Rwenzori Mountains are famed for being home to gorillas and chimpanzees, but during conflict in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, they also became the home to hopeless rebels who had been exiled. These rebels, desperately used to charge into areas on the Ugandan side of the border, pillage the local area and kidnap people to fight on their behalf.
I have been shown around Kasese by Buluku, who is just over a year older than me. Buluku had to flee for his life at nine years old as rebels broke through an army barracks and charged into his school. Many of his schoolmates were kidnapped and faced the unenviable choice of fighting on behalf of the rebels or being killed.
Remarkably, this story only came out when I was being shown evidence of a more recent hardship to hit the local area. Towards the end of last year, floods tore through the area and swept away schools, houses and part of a hospital. 20 people lost their lives and from looking at the trail of destruction, it wasn’t difficult to see how… The volume of water must have been utterly immense to carry bolders, trees and entire buildings.
When we reached the beginning of the trail of destruction, we hit upon Buluku’s former school and I was told the story. One may expect such an ordeal at such a young age to put unbearable pressure on a young boy, but Buluku has achieved regardless of this terrible atrocity. He is currently playing a prominent role in NYAKU, the organisation I was in Kasese to visit.
NYAKU have founded a primary school in a village close to Kasese. Surrounded by coffee trees and a banana plantation, the school currently accommodates three nursery classes and the first year of primary school, having been founded four years ago. The school is supported by several income-generation strategies; Nursery bed, poultry, pigs and most innovatively, charcoal briquettes.
I had the process of manufacturing charcoal briquettes demonstrated to me. Paper is mixed with water to create a pulp. This pulp is mixed with either sawdust or charcoal until it binds together and is then put into a mold and pressed, to create a doughnut shape.
The briquettes have many benefits, for example, they are cheaper than using charcoal or firewood and the charcoal briquettes don’t produce any smoke. The most profound benefit comes when you consider the floods that the area faced last year. The briquettes eliminate the need for the community to cut down trees, which on a large scale can lead to floods, landslides and general erosion of the local area… The floods weren’t down to this problem, but the community recognised that deforestation didn’t help and could lead to similar issues in the future and have acted to do something about it.
As with many other communities in East Africa, I have heard stories in Kasese, which made me question how people continued to have the motivation to get out of bed in the morning. However, much the same as with the other communities I have heard such stories in, the communities have shown resolve and have coordinated to tackle the issues that they face. If ever a community deserves a helping hand, it is this community and I hope that COCO is able to give it to them, as they have demonstrated in abundance that they are capable of achieving amazing things.