Monday, June 21, 2010

Although I went on safari primarily to see some cool animals, the best part in retrospect may have been getting a glimpse of life in rural Uganda. Outside of the slums and modern downtown of Kampala, Ugandans are a hardscrabble agrarian people, forging a still-primitive but prosperous-looking civilization in the beautiful green hills and jungles. I was amazed as I drove through the countryside just how well cultivated the land was, full of all sorts of crops, especially the ubiquitous green bananas meant for cooking, as well as corn, coffee, tea, watermelon, pineapple, potato, yams, and much more. Cattle, goats, chickens, pigs, and the occasional sheep roam about absolutely everywhere, including on the roads and airfields. Enjoying a year-long equatorial growing season, the Ugandan landscape is so green and the soil so fertile it looks like if you thrust a stick in the ground it would start growing. Indeed, that’s exactly what does happen, as most Ugandan farmers don’t even bother with seeds, but instead just break off branches from banana trees and other plants and graft them into the soil to start new plants. Tiny family farms were everywhere, along with large scale tea plantations manned by hundreds of harvesters; all work for every crop was done by hand, with almost no modern farm machines.

below, a tea plantation and a lake being "mined" for salt by villagers.

below, a cornfield by a makeshift hut for cooking lunch while out in the fields

Certain modern implements do abound even in the most remote areas, however. Absolutely everyone has a cell phone, and many if not most of the homes and shops in the small market towns that line the roads serve as giant billboards for competing mobile telecom companies—it seems that paint is prohibitively expensive outside the major cities, so companies strike deals offering to paint your house for free as long as they can include a garish advertisement for their products. Judging by the way everyone makes impromptu repairs on their beat-up bicycles, motorcycles, and much rarer automobiles, the average Ugandan male is a highly qualified mechanic, welder, and electrician.

This rural way of life is bucolic and romantic in one sense, but it is extremely hard for men, women, and children. The women I saw in their late teens and early twenties were stunningly beautiful and smiling, while those any older than that looked sort of gaunt and tired, with coarse hands and drawn, stoic faces. Girls begin training their neck muscles at an early age to balance objects on their heads while walking long distances, eventually gaining the ability to carry with ease all manner of improbably huge or oddly shaped items, up to as much as 150 pounds, including giant bunches of bananas, steamer trunks, and 6-foot long farm tools. Unlike in stylish Kampala, the women all had boyish looking trims instead of fancy hairstyles—I don’t think they have time with all the farmwork and housework for taking care of braids. Older children often do a lot of farm work; based on the youth of many of the people I saw in the farms I can’t imagine there is much schooling past the early teen years. Little children are everywhere (and no wonder, since the average Ugandan woman has almost 7 of them in her lifetime). Especially up in the hills, where there are few cars, the uniformed schoolchildren lining the roads on their way home from school acted like it was Christmas every time I appeared around a bend in my big safari van. As I drew nearer they would begin waving furiously and jubilantly shouting “Muzungu!” (“whitey!”) and “how-are-you?”—the one English phrase drilled into their heads and spoken in a melodic sing-song African accent. (English is the only official language of Uganda but only the well-educated and some of those in the tourism industry speak it beyond a couple key phrases. Often I would reply to a little kid with the proper response, “I-am-fine, how-are-you?” only to be met with a blank stare because the kid had no clue what to do next.) Every time I passed a throng of smiling, happy kids—pretty much every 5 or 10 minutes in some parts—I wished I had a huge sack of candy to throw out.

I’m out of time for now—I have a plane to catch to Nairobi. Next post from Kenya!

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