Archive for October, 2010

I love the 100% accurate description of the Kampala minbus station in the Bradt Travel Guide for Uganda (minibuses are called taxis in Uganda – normal car type taxis are called “special” taxis). “Kampala’s minibus station was once the most chaotic in East Africa: several hundred minibuses, identical in appearance bar the odd bit of panel beating and no indication as to their destination, all sardine packed into a couple of acres of seething madness. To counter this, the city council built a second taxi station about 100m from the first – which means that Kampala now boasts the two most chaotic taxi parks in east Africa. “ Although I have caught mini taxis at the minibus station,  discovering how the guide negotiated the mayhem to identify the correct minbus remained a mystery.

Kampala minbus station

We (Freda, myself and guide Richard) went to the markets on Saturday ending week 1- it was much like any other market, only bigger. We were rather rushed through so I missed out on two choice photo opportunities – one of the stack of old-fashioned irons for sale (the ones that you put heated coals in) and one of a guy lounging on top of a large truckload of smelly rubbish. Then it was on to Mekele University, apparently once an African showpiece but now in desperate need of basic maintenance. There are a couple of churches in the university grounds and we came across three small groups of singers in and around the catholic church enthusiastically rehearsing portions of  the Hallejuhah chorus of Handel’s Messiah. What they lacked in quantity they made up for with quality – a pleasant diversion.

On Sunday we went on a three hour bus trip to the town of guide Richard’s former school at Masaka. Apparently he had been invited there to give a speech to students who would be attending university next year. (Actually part of the reason for the trip was because Richard wanted to go but couldn’t afford the $10 to get there and back, so we agreed to pay his fare for him.) We made the obligatory stop at the monument on the equator en route – not much else there except for a few small tourist shops. There wasn’t much at Masaka either, other than a not-so-grand king’s palace of one of the nineteen kings in Uganda. It was a nice enough house, though certainly not palatial. We were able to look inside (the king was currently living elsewhere) after Richard arranged to pay the guard $5.00  – or at least as far as the main lounge room, complete with a pedestal fan, a 26 inch old style TV, and a vase of artificial red roses.

Palatial furnishings

The second volunteer week  at the Kampala school passed uneventfully bringing my volunteer stint to an end. I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I only signed on for two weeks (my English companion Freda signed up for 12 weeks!) I’ve eaten so much mashed boiled green banana (called matoke here) that I doubt I’ll ever feel the same way about bananas again (I used to love bananas).

White Water Rafting – Jinja

Nile River water starting a 6600km 4month journey from Lake Victoria to the Mediterrean.

I decided to make the most of my last two free days in Uganda  at the nearby town of Jinja, a popular tourist spot where the Nile River starts its 6600 km  journey from Lake Victoria to Egypt.  The opportunity to go white water rafting there was too good to let pass by.  After signing the mandatory waver form absolving the company from all liability in the event of injury, loss of life, etc., (using an Ipad on the minibus en route to the Adrift Rafting centre) I suspect a few of us had a twinge of concern about what we were letting ourselves in for.  About fifty of us assembled beside the river for an entertaining brief by a beefy Canadian called Josh, and then divided into whole/half day and extreme/moderate groups. Josh looked a little surprised when I opted for the extreme group, which didn’t do a lot for my confidence, and I wondered later whether that helped our raft get him as the most experienced guide – something along the lines of better to have someone very competent on the raft with the most lame ducks on board (ie those two slightly built girls from Slovakia who were also in our group).

Reception/bar area for Adrift White Water Rafting: deck overhangs the water

Once on the water apprehension were quickly laid to rest. Strongest paddlers went to the front, and we practiced paddling, responses to “Hold on!” (to paddles as well as the raft), “Get down!” (on the floor of the raft to lower the centre of gravity), as well as being tossed in the water by deliberately overturning the raft, and getting back on board again. (In my case, that meant being hauled aboard by the others hanging onto the shoulder straps of my life jacket.) Then it was off to the first rapid.

There was no shortage of large inflatable rescue boats and rescue kayaks hovering around at each rapid. Josh would warn us what to expect “OK here we go – this one has 3 big waves” or “This one has a 15 foot drop” with the same nonchalance as if he was asking someone if they would like a cup of tea. Even the odd rhetorical query – “Are you sure you really want to do this – of course you do” didn’t  worry us after a while. We saw other rafts tip over but we never did, and only one person fell out of the raft near the end of the day – one of the strong paddlers at the front.

The raft crew (hint- I'm at the right end)

Uh..oh...not quite straight

Keep paddling everyone .... this isn't quite right



It was a glorious day 0f paddling/drifting/swimming down the Nile (the water temperature was perfect) interspersed with white knuckled rides over rapids. The quiet parts of the ride were almost as much fun as we quietly slipped past comorants diving for fish, birds skimming across the water, orange tailed monkeys clamboring through the trees, and groups of Africans washing their clothes on the side of the river. There was even a colony of small bats which flew 20 ft above our heads when disturbed for our benefit.

Lunch was also included – a western style salad buffet at an island stop in the middle of the day – lettuce, salami, potato salad, decent bread, cheese, carrot, cucumber, pineapple and no banana. Ambrosia compared to rice, beans and matoke.

It was so much fun I decided to blow the budget and try kayaking the next day. Big mistake.  Kayaks don’t have any sort of keel and are really difficult to control – part of the steering is done by using tummy muscles to lean into the turn motorbike style.  My visions of slipping gently down the river with the odd exciting paddle were replaced by the reality of painfully positioned legs and weary muscles – not so much from paddling but from trying to master the kayak Eskimo roll, a skill that is virtually impossible for anyone to master on the first day. I suspect the instructor had difficulty differentiating between good instruction and sadism (“Do it again. Keep practicing until I tell you to stop”). We (instructor, myself and an American guy in his twenties) did eventually drift down river for a couple of hours in the afternoon and paddle over some baby rapids (including the one shown in the Nile river photo above). I even got through all but one without tipping over, but by the time I reached the sandy beach shore at the end of it all I didn’t have enough strength left to lift myself up out of the kayak. I had deliberately roll the kayak onto its side on the sand so I could slither out. I took some consolation in noticing the young American, my fellow kayaking student, also struggled to extract himself from the kayak when he reached the shore.

Then it was a “special” taxi ride to Entebbe for the plane. The guide book recommended the botanical gardens there as being worth a visit and mentioned the unsubstantiated but apparently plausible story that some of the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movie scenes were shot there. I asked the taxi driver if he could stop there en route to the airport, and we had a quick look around. Parts of it are certainly very lush, it was an interesting quick stop. The taxi driver had never heard of Tarzan.

Taxi driver in part of Entebbe Botanical Gardens

Then to the airport where my flight was delayed for two hours. As it turned out it resulted in the total flight time back to Kuala Lumpur being two hours shorter than originally scheduled ( around 12 hours instead of 14 hours), so I was still able to meet Mike after he collected his luggage at KL.

The school is about 15-20 minutes by car from where I am living. Accommodation is quite comfortable – spacious rooms, shared TV that has been been showing a soapie (called “Hidden Passions”) that possibly originally from South America and is dubbed into English – the script and acting are so bad it’s almost good. Like most houses around here, the house is surrounded by a thick cement wall 2 meters high, entrance into the yard is via solid metal gate. The local village is maybe 500m (if that) away along a dirt track. I haven’t had a chance to investigate any of it other than than the “supermarket” for bottled water. I bought three 1.5 bottles and 2 erasers for school – the total bill was 4,000 ugandan shillings (roughly $2.00). The girl at the cash register didn’t have change for 10,000 shillings ($5.00) -I had to find a 5000 shilling note to make the transaction possible.

The school is very small – I don’t know the exact details but 4 classes of around 10 – 15 students would be near enough. I’ve been sort of let loose with a bunch of 7-8yo’s. It’s a challenge – not all the students understand english.

They can respond appropriately to “put your hand up”, but a request such as “Put your hand up if you understand me” gets nil response every time. I’ve been telling them the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, with lots of appropriate actions and voice changes, which they seem to enjoy. I doubt they know what a bear isbut they could answer questions about the story.

The school is also very basic. Electricity is not connected yet because setting up the connection is too expensive. There is a water tank connected to the mains supply, but at present the mains supply in that area is not working, which explains why washing up after meals is done in 2 inches (5cm) or less of cold water with generous slurp of detergent. I’m told the toilets are pit toilets – I haven’t checked – and the entire school library would be maybe 30 books presumably donated by various volunteers. The classroom shown below is part of a small block of three rooms (the one below is the largest) built from hand made bricks two years ago.

Students use cheap lead pencils that break frequently, and a considerable amount of school time is spent resharpening pencils with razor blades. There are a number of packets of felt pens, but using them is a special treat because paper is considered to be very expensive. Freda, the volunteer from the UK who is also here, starts at an orphanage next week that apparently makes conditions at the school look luxurious. So many students are crowded into small classrooms that the classroom becomes hot and smelly. Current government regulations require that all students take an end of year exam. For year 3 the  time allowed for the paper is 2 hours and 40 minutes. The format is a relic that hasn’t changed from the days when the British were still in power in Uganda. I’m told it doesn’t take the students that long too do – not suprising as the questions are ridiculous for the age group – “Why is it important to rotate crops?”  “Name the home of a rabbit”  “Why do people need to save?” “What is the best time for transplanting seedlings?” “Write any four causes of road accidents?” “Give any one danger of too much sunshine to people”  (The correct answer is too much sun means not enough rain to grow crops).


On Wednesday night we went to watch a local show demonstrating local dances and top value for 10,000 shillings. ($5.00)  at a very nice venue. Although there were only about 50 of us in the audience as the mid week performance is poorly attended, it was an excellent show. A lot of the success of the show can be attributed to the guy who apparently created the show. He intersperses the dancing with some excellent stand-up comedy, including jokes about Idi Amin. In one part of the show he wandered amongst the tiny audience finding out where people were from, and claimed that I was the first Australian he had met and shook my hand. It turns out that I have now shaken hands with “The First King of Scotland”, as I later learned he is the man who played the role of Idi Amin in the “First King of Scotland” movie.

Which reminds me – in a blackboard quiz given to “my” class recently by another teacher, one of the questions was “Name a national holiday”. Correct answers were also supplied, and the children write down the questions and answers in their books. A suggested correct answer was “Indipendence Day”, which a couple of children shortened to “Idi Day”. Students can read surprisingly well considering it is their second language, and make a pretty good stab at correctly pronouncing unfamiliar words.

I’ve already briefly seen some markets en route to the dancing show – a maze of people sitting on a blanket where their goods and wares are displayed, chatting on their mobile phones. Plans for the coming weekend include a trip to what is described as a very hectic market and a trip to the countryside. Stay tuned.